On this very rainy St. Swithin's Day, here's another extract from Weatherland by Alexandra Harris:
"[...] there is no evidence that the historical Swithin, Bishop of Winchester in the 850s, had any interest in the weather at all. William of Malmesbury recorded in the twelfth century a story which would be retold for centuries. According to this story, Swithin asked on his deathbed to be buried outside the walls of his cathedral, where his body 'would be exposed to the tramp of feet as people passed by and to the rain pouring down'. the legend goes that when, a century later, his bones were taken into the cathedral itself and honoured as the relics of a saint, Swithin objected by sending a downpour. Alas there is little in the way of fact to support this. Swithin was actually given a prominent burial in front of the west door, and if it rained at the time of his reinterment none of those who described the ceremony thought it worth mentioning.
What matters more is that centuries of people believed the story, and one can see why. There could be few more fitting last wishes for an English hero than this request to lie out in the rain. There is the humility of it, and the sense of being in the midst of things, for life and rain can be synonymous and 'the rain it raineth every day' [...]"
A couple of rain-related links: here (in case you missed it at the time) and here (sounds interesting).
"In the rain recently I've been trying to listen. There is not much richness in my hearing yet, but I hope it will grow. There are characters in Thomas Hardy's fiction so knowledgeable in rain that they can find their way across dark country (even when drunk) by comparing the sound of the water on different crops:
'Sometimes a soaking hiss proclaimed that they were passing by a pasture, then a patter would show that the rain fell upon some large-leafed root crop, then a paddling plash announced the naked arable, the low sound of the wind in their ears rising and falling with each pace they took.' " (Desperate Remedies)
"Dickens began Bleak House in the dark November of 1851 and finished it the following year during three months of near-continuous rain. The heavy drops fall ('drip, drip, drip upon the broad flagged pavement') when we first meet Lady Dedlock looking out blankly over a leaden landscape. 'The waters are out in Lincolnshire', and it rains for the first twelve chapters before pausing and raining again. Drops fall with the rhythm of footsteps as they might be heard on the haunted terrace, 'drip, drip, drip, by day and night', so that when Lady Dedlock has finally gone into the icy dark, and Sir Leicester lies distraught, and the house waits in grey anticipation, there is one inevitable sound: 'It is falling still; upon the roof, upon the skylight, even through the skylight, and drip, drip, drip, with the regularity of the Ghost's Walk, on the stone floor below.' "
"The best of Ted Hughes's laureate poems was Rain-Charm for the Duchy, a celebration of first rain after months of drought in 1984. Gift-wrapped as a baptismal offering for Prince Harry, it was really a bardic prayer for a whole stretch of Devon, particularly its rivers and their salmon. The rain brought out a civic streak in the poet of lonely Crow. Drops come 'sploshing' down (there's a wellington skip in the child-like word) and thunder strikes up its brass band."
Recently I posted Liz's comment on Sue Gee's new novel Trio, and having finished the book now I can echo Liz's words; I haven't read a work of fiction as good as this for quite some time.
Trio exhibits all Sue Gee's* hallmarks - an unhurried narrative, measured handling of material, particularly of the story's emotional substrate, a calmness and restraint in plotting, beautifully drawn characters, and a feel for place such that she could be called a landscape artist with words.
Trio is set in Northumberland in the late 1930s where Steven Coulter, a young history teacher, loses his wife to tuberculosis. Finding solace in his work, Steven is helped through his grief by his friendship with his colleague Frank whose cellist sister Diana is a member of a trio. As, for the first time, Steven experiences the expressive power of music, its ability to transport and to heal, so he becomes close to the musicians - Diana, Margot and George - and enters their world of country houses, shared history, and repressed emotion. When one of the friends breaks the charmed circle to follow a path they can, in conscience, no longer avoid, everything changes for all of them.
I'm always drawn to books which feature music**, as a knowledgeable and sensitive treatment of the subject provides a rich extra dimension, and this one incorporates it seamlessly and perfectly. Done with care, integrity and balance, the musical element both enhances the novel itself and leads the reader to find recordings and listen closely to the specific pieces described - a bonus, to my mind.
But as I've said above there's so much more than that to Trio, and I can't recommend it too highly. Sue Gee is a writer of clarity and quality, a Bawden or Ravilious, a Reynolds Stone or Clare Leighton of prose, and reading her work is pure pleasure.
* There are links to posts on some of her other novels here.
Saturday saw us at Magdalen College's newly opened Longwall Library - a most beautiful and impressive building comprising the sensitively and imaginatively reconfigured old library (top left in the picture above) with a new extension and adjacent garden area.
Full of natural light, quiet corners, and comfortable chairs, it felt to me to be the perfect place to study (and a browse in the stacks even turned up some Dorothy Whipple!).
I've got my 'PLR social media advocate' hat on today, reminding authors to ensure that all their books are registered for PLR by tomorrow's (i.e. 30th. June) deadline. Illustrators, editors, translators, and audiobook narrators may also be eligible, so check the criteria here, and writers, ensure that any new editions of your books, e.g. paperback or audiobook, anything with a different ISBN, have been registered.
For the 75th. anniversary of the magazine Parade, Ann Patchett and her colleagues at Parnassus Books have put together a list of the 75 best books (fiction and non-fiction) of the last 75 years. You can find their choices here, and a supporting article here.
Any favourites on the list? I can claim to have read a measly 12 of the 75 - some gems among them - but as a whole the Parnassus selection is well worth keeping as a reminder of gaps in one's reading, and books to look out for.
"What did it feel like to be a woman living in Paris from 1939 to 1949? These were years of fear, power, aggression, courage, deprivation and secrets until - finally - with France's liberation came renewal and retribution. Yet, even at the darkest moments of Occupation, with the Swastika flying from the Eiffel Tower and pet dogs abandoned howling on the streets, glamour was ever present.
It was women, more than men, who came face to face with the German conquerors on a daily basis - perhaps selling them their clothes or travelling alongside them on the Métro, where a German soldier had priority over seats. How did these women react to their subjugators? What made them collaborate or resist? And did they have any choice? By looking at a wide range of individuals from collaborators to resisters, actresses and prostitutes to teachers and writers, Anne Sebba shows that women, whether they were Nazi wives, spies, mothers, mistresses, or fashion and jewellery designers, had to make life-and-death decisions every day, and often did whatever they needed to survive.
Some women, like the heiress Béatrice de Camondo or novelist Irène Némirovsky, converted to Catholicism; others like racing driver Violette Morris embraced the Nazi philosophy; Coco Chanel even retreated to the Ritz with a German lover. A young medical student, Anne Spoerry, gave lethal injections to camp inmates but was also known to have saved the lives of Jews.
But this is not just a book about wartime. Sebba also explores the aftershock of the Second World War and the choices demanded. How did the women who survived to see the liberation of Paris come to terms with their actions and those of others? Although politics lies at its heart, Les Parisiennes is above all an account of the lives of the people of the city and, most of all, its women and young girls."
If you were one of many who enjoyed Suzanne Joinson's debut novel A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar (there's a post on it here and my interview with Suzy here), then you'll no doubt be glad to know that Suzy's second novel is now out. The Photographer's Wife is "a beautiful and gripping story of love and betrayal, set in 1920s Jerusalem and 1930s Sussex:
Jerusalem, 1920 - in an already fractured city, eleven-year-old Prudence feels the tension rising as her architect father launches an ambitious - and wildly eccentric - plan to redesign the Holy City by importing English parks to the desert. Prue, known as the 'little witness', eavesdrops underneath the tables of tearooms and behind the curtains of the dance-halls of the city's elite, watching everything but rarely being watched herself. Around her, British colonials, exiled Armenians and German officials rub shoulders as they line up the pieces in a political game: a game destined to lead to disaster.
When Prue's father employs a British pilot, William Harrington, to take aerial photographs of the city, Prue is uncomfortably aware of the attraction that sparks between him and Eleanora, the English wife of a famous Jerusalem photographer. And, after Harrington learns that Eleanora's husband is a nationalist, intent on removing the British, those sparks are fanned dangerously into a flame.
Years later, in 1937, Prue is an artist living a reclusive life by the sea with her young son, when Harrington pays her a surprise visit. What he reveals unravels her world, and she must follow the threads that lead her back to secrets long-ago buried in Jerusalem. The Photographer's Wife is a powerful story of betrayal: between father and daughter, between husband and wife, and between nations and people, set in the complex period between the two world wars."
"Mrs. Laetitia Rodd is the impoverished widow of an archdeacon, living modestly in Hampstead with her landlady Mrs. Bentley. She is also a private detective of the utmost discretion. In winter 1850, her brother Frederick, a criminal barrister, introduces her to Sir James Calderstone, a wealthy and powerful industrialist who asks Mrs. Rodd to investigate the background of an 'unsuitable' woman his son intends to marry - a match he is determined to prevent.
In the guise of governess, she travels to the family seat, Wishtide, deep in the frozen Lincolnshire countryside, where she soon discovers that the Calderstones have more to hide than most. As their secrets unfold, the case takes an unpleasant turn when a man is found dead outside a tavern. Mrs. Rodd's keen eyes and astute wits are taxed as never before in her search for the truth - which carries her from elite drawing rooms to London's notorious inns and its steaming laundry houses.
Dickensian in its scope and characters, The Secrets of Wishtide brings nineteenth century society vividly to life and illuminates the effect of Victorian morality on women's lives. Introducing an irresistible new detective, the first book in the Laetitia Rodd Mystery series will enthral and delight."
Many of us are fans of Sarah Moss's work and will be glad to know that she has a new novel - The Tidal Zone - out on 7th July. Here's the gist:
"Adam is a stay-at-home dad who is also working on a history of the bombing and rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral. He is a good man, and he is happy. But one day, he receives a call from his daughter's school to inform him that, for no apparent reason, fifteen-year-old Miriam has collapsed and stopped breathing. In that moment, he is plunged into a world of waiting, agonising, not knowing. The story of his life and the lives of his family are rewritten and re-told around this shocking central event, around a body that has inexplicably failed.
In this exceptionally courageous and unflinching novel of contemporary life Sarah Moss goes where most of us wouldn't dare to look, and the result is riveting - unbearably sad, but also miraculously funny and ultimately hopeful. The Tidal Zone explores parental love, overwhelming fear, illness and recovery. It is about clever teenagers and the challenges of marriage. It is about the NHS, academia, sex and gender in the twenty-first century, the work/life juggle, and the politics of packing lunches and loading dishwashers. It confirms Sarah Moss as a unique voice in modern fiction and a writer of luminous intelligence."
For anyone not acquainted with Sarah Moss's novels, there's a post on Night Wakinghere and one on Bodies of Light here. I've yet to read Signs for Lost Children, the third book in that excellent 'series'.
Tightrope follows Marian Sutro, who has survived Ravensbruck and is back in dreary London trying to pick up the pieces of her post-War life. It is Simon Mawer’s tenth novel; his seventh, The Glass Room (which many of us read in 2012), was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize in 2010.
The Judges said: ‘Tightrope is a spy story in the grand tradition, sweeping the reader irresistibly into the harrowing life of a secret agent in World War Two. Impeccably researched, it perfectly inhabits its time and place. It is a worthy winner of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.
Marian Sutro, who made her first appearance in The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, is a commanding character, enigmatic and fascinating. Damaged by her experiences, by the dangers she has faced, by those who have betrayed her and those she has been forced to betray, Sutro walks the tightrope between the people in her life who have sent her into danger, those whom she must fear, and those she seeks to protect.
Tightrope, however, is more than a very good spy thriller. We are used now, in a century already scarred by wars, to the concept of post traumatic stress disorder. There was no such diagnosis in the aftermath of the twentieth century's terrible wars, but it afflicted millions, nevertheless. Simon Mawer has given us, in the character of Marian Sutro, a study of how the terrifying events she endured in her youth shaped and transformed the rest of her life.'
"Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post which inspired me to read Trio. I have just finished it, after reading as slowly as I possibly could, to make it last longer, and have loved it SO much that I am convinced it will be one of, if not THE Book of the Year for me. The writing, the spirit of place, the characterisation, the whole historical atmosphere have combined to make it a magical read for me which I am sure will remain in my memory, and on my bookshelf, for many a year. Just magical! Now on a mission to track down the other Sue Gee books I have bought over the years so I can catch up on what I have been missing."
"Had the dogs not taken exception to the strange van parked in the royal grounds, the Queen might never have learnt of the Westminster travelling library's weekly visits to the Palace. But finding herself at its steps, she goes up to apologise for all the yapping and ends up taking out a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett, last borrowed in 1989. Duff read though it proves to be, upbringing demands she finish it and, so as not to appear rude, she withdraws another. This second, more fortunate choice of book awakens in Her Majesty a passion for reading so great that her public duties begin to suffer. And so, as she devours work by everyone from Hardy to Brookner to Proust to Samuel Beckett, her equerries conspire to bring the Queen's literary odyssey to a close."
That's Alan Bennett's delightful novella The Uncommon Reader, one of today's Kindle bargains; if you haven't already had the pleasure of reading it I suggest you take a look - it's a treat.
"Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you've never been. Once you've visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different. And while we're on the subject, I'd like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it's a bad thing. As if 'escapist' fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in. If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn't you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real. As J.R.R. Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers."
"In 1999 a programmer is trying to fix the Millennium Bug, but can't shake the sense he's been chosen for something.
In 1888, five women are brutally murdered in the East End by a troubled young man in thrall to a mysterious master.
In 1777 an apprentice engraver called William Blake has a defining spiritual experience; thirteen years later this vision returns.
In 1666, poet and revolutionary John Milton completes the epic for which he will be remembered centuries later.
But from where comes the feeling that the world is about to end?"
Toby Litt says this is "one of the most exciting novels I've read in recent years. Michael Hughes writes like a brilliant cross between David Mitchell and Hilary Mantel," while the acquiring editor at publisher John Murray says, "It’s very rare that a debut both has this much ambition and also delivers on that ambition; it’s dizzying, genre-blending, polyphonic and one hell of a ride."