I've been in New York for a few days, staying - appropriately - here.
Mr. C. and I occupied the Biography room at the hotel; each floor is dedicated to one of the ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal System, and within that each room reflects a topic and is lavishly supplied with books accordingly, so we had much good reading from which to choose.
Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies is "the story of English culture over a thousand years told through the creative responses to the weather. Writers and artists across the centuries, from Chaucer to Ian McEwan, and from the creator of the Luttrell Psalter in the 14th. century to John Piper in the 20th., looking up at the same skies and walking in the same brisk air, have felt very different things and woven them into their novels, poems and paintings.
The weather is vast and yet we experience it intimately, which is why Alexandra Harris builds her remarkable story from small evocative details. There is the drawing of a 12th. century man in February, warming bare toes by the fire. There is the tiny glass left behind from the Frost Fair of 1864, and the 'Sunspan' house in Angmering that embodies the bright ambitions of the 1930s. Harris catches the distinct voices of compelling individuals. 'Bloody cold', says Jonathan Swift in the 'slobbery' January of 1713. Percy Shelley wants to become a cloud, and John Ruskin wants to bottle one.
Weatherland is both a sweeping panorama of cultural climates on the move and an intimate account rich with evocative details - for although weather, like culture, is vast, it is experienced physically, emotionally and spiritually; as Harris so cleverly reveals, it is at the very core of what it means to be English."
I am only a few pages from the end of Linda Lear's excellent Beatrix Potter: The extraordinary life of a Victorian genius, and I've been spinning it out, reluctant to leave not only a meticulously researched, beautifully written biography, but also the Lakeland world of the last century, and the book's very detailed picture of Beatrix and her abiding interests and passions. If you're at all interested in the subject, I recommend it most highly.
Book jacket design trend: the hole in the cover; (here, the watch face is actually on the endpaper, as you'll see from the picture below).
I like the sound of this book; The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley "blends historical events with dazzling flights of fancy to plunge readers into a strange and magical past, where time, destiny, genius - and a clockwork octopus[!] - collide."
"In 1883, Thaniel Steepleton returns to his tiny flat to find a gold pocketwatch on his pillow. But he has worse fears than generous burglars; he is a telegraphist at the Home Office, which has just received a threat for what could be the largest-scale Fenian bombing in history.
When the watch saves Thaniel's life from a blast that destroys Scotland Yard, he goes in search of its maker, Keita Mori - a kind, lonely immigrant who sweeps him into a new world of clockwork and music. Although Mori seems harmless at first, a chain of unexpected slips proves that he must be hiding something.
Meanwhile, Grace Carrow is sneaking into an Oxford library dressed as a man. A theoretical physicist, she is desperate to prove the existence of the luminiferous ether before her mother can force her to marry.
As the lives of these three characters become entwined, events spiral out of control until Thaniel is torn between loyalties, futures and opposing geniuses."
"Set in 14th-century China, during the final years of the Mongol-ruled Yuan Dynasty, it is the story of Wang Meng, one of the era’s four great masters of painting. It is John Spurling’s fourth novel [...], took him 15 years to write and was rejected 44 times before being published by Duckworth last year."
The judges said of the book, “The Ten Thousand Things is subtle and rewarding. Through John Spurling’s writing you feel as though you are reading Wang Meng’s paintings as he created them. It is a mesmerising, elegantly drawn picture of old imperial China, which feels remarkably modern."
"... beautiful, utterly escapist world", "a sheer delight", "a deliciously intriguing novel whose rich sense of time and place bear more than a few echoes of du Maurier's best".
The author says, "...I'm terribly nosy, especially when it comes to houses. I have always loved the 'At Home' features in newspapers and magazines: opportunities to poke around other people's homes and unearth juicy revelations beneath the chalky layers of Farrow and Ball. In general, the more cash-rich the owner, the less interesting the house - it is easy to spot the dead hand of an interior designer. The houses that have stuck in my mind are the chaotic ones in the country with their boot rooms [...] and secrets, impossible to maintain, sprawling spaces for families to go wrong, but also for magic to happen. Powderham Castle in Devon, Hilles in Gloucestershire, Pencarrow House and Port Eliot in Cornwall were in the back of my mind when I wrote this book."
Before we go, here's an addition to the as yet sparsely populated Writers' Dogs archive: Beatrix in 1913 with her favourite collie Kep, who of course appears in The Tale of Jemima Puddle Duck and does sterling work regarding the fox.
"I pulled from under my pillow [...] a small square book covered in thick shiny cellophane. Across the cover pranced an empty-headed-looking rabbit. Inside, there he was again. He and other rabbits of his acquaintance seemed to be living full and interesting lives. I can remember exactly where we sat in my bedroom, my mother and I, reading the Beatrix Potter books, how I smugly explained to her the famous word 'soporific', dazzling the world with my brilliant instant reading. All over the country, hundreds of children were doing the same. A couple of times after having Beatrix Potter read to us, we were off. The few words on each page were beautifully printed and yet not in the least childish - like a missal. Those who call Beatrix Potter sickly don't know what they are talking about. They are books written by a woman who had never messed about with 'children's books'. They are full of harnessed passion, the powers of darkness, malice and terror - all the things children love - as well as the sweet comforts of ordered lives, the miraculous English landscape and the enigma of the human and animal condition. They are also very funny and this makes up for the stories being rather feeble."
"[Andrew Lang's Fairy Books] were the first books I read which others had not either read or recommended to me, and they left me with a permanent fondness for fairy stories and with something else, something that has been of practical use to me as well as perennial fascination. Andrew Lang began the process of teaching me how to frighten my readers."
"Once you have taken possession of a book, you can inspect a writer's mind, in all its shades and dimensions. You can establish a relationship, which would be intolerable to a living individual: you can wake the writer at three in the morning, switch her off in mid-sentence, insist she continues for six hours unbroken, skip, go back, repeat the same paragraph again and again, impertinently second-guessing her vocabulary, and metaphors, scrutinizing her structure and tricks.
But a book is not a genie bottle, and the writer is not a slave-mind under your command. The writer remains always autonomous, never quite obedient to your expectation or understanding. At first, you might flatter yourself that you have developed an indecorous intimacy. I have even fancied I had caught a reference which no one else had caught - as though George Eliot had shared a private joke, with me and only me, over a distance of a century. But when I tried to keep up with her, follow her into her most inaccessible passages, press my mind into hers, burrow into the ions and synapses of her sub-cervical cortex, I could never quite possess her."
Here's something I'd love to go to if I could, a printing masterclass offered by Faber & Faber:
"This Masterclass is perfect for people with no prior experience to learn how to prepare work, and print on a press from start to finish. You will learn hand typesetting in both lead and wooden type, how to lock up your work into a forme, selecting paper stock, choosing and mixing inks and how to set up the presses. At the end of the day, you’ll take home your own unique poetry print."
One of today's bargains for Kindle is The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. It's a book which was a top favourite of mine in 2011, when it came out, and it went on to win the (then) Orange Prize for Fiction the following year. Below is my original piece on the novel, and here you'll find a post about my get-together with Madeline herself.
If every first novel I read were as accomplished as this one is, it would say much for the future of publishing. The Song of Achilles is by Madeline Miller, a classicist who is also trained in drama, particularly in the adaptation of classical tales for a modern audience, and her background shows in her writing. Here is someone with a complete grasp of her material, but crucially that's teamed with the ability to present it in such a way that the reader is held in awe and admiration. It's a book of clean lines, spaciousness, an airy quality which forms a compelling contrast to the strong characters and dramatic events it portrays. This deft pairing of subject and craftsmanship is enormously impressive, and makes the book stand out as something original and fresh and beautiful (you won't be surprised to hear it's on my 'best of the year' list). It's the story of Patroclus, exiled to Phthia and the court of King Peleus and his son Achilles. This awkward boy is befriended by Achilles and they become steadfast, constant companions, sent to the mountain home of the centaur Chiron to be tutored in the arts of war and medicine. When Helen of Sparta is abducted by Paris, son of Priam of Troy, the warriors of Greece are called upon to lay siege to Troy, and the two young men leave their peaceful life to take up arms. While Achilles has been trained for the battlefield, it's as a healer that Patroclus comes into his own, the long years of war set to test them both and reveal their fates.
A tender love story, a book not without humour, a moving re-telling of an archetypal tale, there is a scene in which Achilles' mother, the cruel, possessive sea goddess Thetis, appears to Patroclus in the early morning on the mountain Pelion: "The strangeness began as a prickling of my skin. First the quail went silent, then the dove. The leaves stilled, and the breeze died, and no animals moved in the brush. There was a quality to the silence like a held breath. Like the rabbit beneath the hawk's shadow ..."; the book itself has that feeling of stillness, imminence, foreboding. If this were a painting it would be an expanse of calm white grounding areas of intense, vivid colour, its simplicity drawing the eye, the skill of its making a magnetic charge; as a book, it's one that cannot be put down, its imaginative power lingering long.
" 'If it were not impertinent to lecture one's publisher,' [Beatrix Potter told Harold Warne], thoroughly exasperated with his literary timidity, 'you are a great deal too much afraid of the public for whom I have never cared one tuppenny-button. I am sure that it is that attitude of mind which has enabled me to keep up the series. Most people, after one success, are so cringingly afraid of doing less well that they rub all the edge off their subsequent work.' "
Beatrix was writing to her publisher about The Tale of Mr. Tod, a departure from her previous books in that the principal characters were villains. Her original opening lines ran, 'I am quite tired of making goody goody books about nice people. I will make a story about two disagreeable people, called Tommy Brock and Mr. Tod.'
In the end a compromise was reached, 'Beatrix agreed to drop "goody goody books" and substituted "well-behaved" for "nice" ', but it's her self-assurance in the face of her publisher's conservatism which I find so interesting.
I was thrilled to open a publisher's package this morning and find inside Sarah Moss's new novel Signs for Lost Children, "the triumphant continuation of [her] ongoing examination of women's lives, and a radical inquiry into the workings of the human heart".
If you've read her excellent Night Waking (there is a post on it here) and her more recent, superb Bodies of Light (post here), then you'll be familiar with the Moberley family, specifically sisters Ally and May; the new book takes up Ally's story.
Set in 19th. century England and Japan, it begins with a six month period of separation for the newly married Tom Cavendish and Dr. Ally Moberley-Cavendish. Tom goes to Japan to build lighthouses, while Ally stays in England and works at the Truro asylum. "As Ally plunges into the politics of madness, Tom navigates the social nuances of Japan - both to the detriment of their love for each other.
With emotional insight and an eye for historical detail, Sarah Moss builds a novel in two parts from Falmouth to Tokyo - two maps of absence, two distinct but conjoined portraits of loneliness and determination. What can befall the human spirit when separation disturbs the fragile calm of a relationship, when the ghosts of an unhappy childhood resurface?"
The book isn't out until early July, but on the basis of Sarah Moss's earlier work this is one to look forward to - and meanwhile, if you haven't read her others, do so now!
"Beatrix wrote to Norman Warne just after Christmas with obvious pleasure, 'Did you ever happen to see a review of the Tailor in The Tailor and Cutter, the paper which the mouse on the bobbin is reading?' She had given a copy to her old Chelsea tailor, who in turn, had shown it to a traveller from the trade journal telling him how Beatrix had sketched his shop. The 'beautiful review', as Beatrix called it, appeared appropriately on Christmas Eve. It read:
... we think it is by far the prettiest story connected with tailoring we have ever read, and as it is full of that spirit of Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men, we are not ashamed to confess that it brought the moisture to our eyes, as well as the smile to our face. It is got up in choicest style and illustrated by twenty-seven of the prettiest pictures it is possible to imagine."
If you are a subscriber to the HNR you can read Lady of the House, my interview with Erika Robuck on her new novel The House of Hawthorne. The book tells the story of Nathaniel Hawthorne and his family from the 1830s to the 1860s but in the words of his wife Sophia. Erika drew heavily on Sophia's journals and letters to create this portrait and in doing so she became "enamored by her enthusiasm, her stubborn optimism, and her almost childlike view of the world. It was a challenge to write in her voice, and I hope I rose to the occasion.” I think Erika did.
Antonia Hodgson got rave reviews - and won the CWA Historical Dagger Award - for her first novel The Devil in the Marshalsea, "a riveting, fast-paced story" set in London in 1727. I have yet to read it ('twas ever thus ...), and now her second book is about to come out, and this one picks up where the first one left off.
The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins is both a sequel and "a standalone historical mystery" beginning with the eponymous Thomas en route to the Tyburn gallows where he's to be hanged for a murder he did not commit. As he rides beside his own coffin towards the noose, he hopes for a last minute pardon from the Queen, but why should she become involved?
"Antonia Hodgson has created a totally immersive world set in Georgian London: the smells and rickety buildings; the seedy, garbage-packed back streets; the wretched existence of so many, set against the grandeur of the court; the arrogance of the aristocracy and the scheming, bullying violence from both rich and poor."
"Tom Jones noir," said Andrew Taylor of Antonia's first book, "wonderfully entertaining, twisty and claustrophobic as an underground maze," said Maria McCann; the new one sounds just as good.
I'm still on the early chapters covering her youth, and always interested in the genesis of creativity, I noted the passage on her childhood reading (which included " 'Miss Edgeworth and Scott's novels' ") which culminates, " ... this rich diet of art and literature contributed to a lifelong delight in rhythm, cadence, wordplay, humour, dialect and dialogue: all nourishment for her imagination and the creation of her own literary style."