"I remember that as a child I was so absorbed in my tellings to others that they could see what I saw. I could always get an audience. Not that I looked for one, the telling was all, or rather, the seeing. I don't think I write for children, any more than the great Miss Potter. For what? Whom? Well, myself, perhaps; I never think of an audience, that would kill everything. I think all children's books are grown-up books. When children's books are children's books they are not worth reading."
I'm very interested to read the previously unpublished novel The Theoretical Foot, a "long-lost gem" by the marvellous food writer M.F.K. Fisher, which will be out next month:
"Susan Harper and Joe Kelly, in love and hitchhiking through Europe, never want this perfect, passionate summer to end. It is the late 1930s and society frowns on the slack morals of couples living in sin. But these tiresome strictures are swept away when they arrive at La Prairie, the elegant haven on Lake Geneva where Joe's enigmatic friend Sara and her lover Tim preside - where judgement is suspended and time ebbs deliciously away.
Surrounded by orchards heavy with plums and meadows splashed with poppies, lunches are long, youth is languorous and wine flows. As morning gives way to afternoon and sunset brings the evening's festivities, the unseen tensions and desires of the group are revealed, the fleeting yearnings and the long-held resentments.
[...] the novel illuminates moral attitudes in the 1930s and shows glimpses of a refugee-flooded Europe blighted by the rise of Fascism and the menace of another war. Enchanting, light, yet suffused with the darkness of what is to come, The Theoretical Foot is a witty and bold portrait of a bohemian life under threat."
If you've never read Mrs. Fisher's food writing, you've missed a delight. The Art of Eating brings together her five most famous books, and is, in Julia Child's words, "the essence of M.F. K. Fisher"; it's to be read hungrily!
Frank McCourt said of her, "If I were teaching high school English, I'd use Fisher's books to show how to write simply, how to enjoy food and drink but, most of all, how to enjoy life." He's right.
... Trio, the new novel by the excellent Sue Gee (which will shortly be out).
"Northumberland: the winter of 1937. In a remote moorland cottage, Steven Coulter, a young history teacher, is filled with sadness and longing at the death of his wife. Through a charismatic colleague, Frank Embleton, and Frank's sister, Diana, he is drawn into the beguiling world of a group of musicians, and falls gradually under their spell. But as war approaches a decision is made which calls all their lives quite shockingly into question. Moving between the beauty and isolation of the moors, a hill-town school and a graceful old country house, Trio delicately explores conscience and idealism, romantic love and most painful desire. Throughout it all, the power of music to disturb, uplift and affirm is unforgettably evoked."
If you're not already acquainted with Sue Gee's work, here are posts on some of her other books:
Lots of us are admirers of the work of Sarah Moss, and as her 2014 novel Bodies of Light is one of today's Kindle bargains, I thought I'd repost my thoughts:
This is a very fine work indeed: tightly controlled and restrained, and all the more powerful for it; elegant, eloquent; founded on careful research, every fact used with skill and precision to make a point - and there are many to be made in this novel which is concise and self-contained but universal in its themes.
It is the story of Alethea Moberley, sister of May from the historical strand of Night Waking, but it is also an account of the position of women in society in the second half of the 19th. century, of their rights and educational opportunities (or lack of same), of their gradual incursion into the world of medicine*, and of family life and maternal feeling and failings.
I could go into greater detail regarding the measured plot, the characters who are all seen in relation to Alethea, the clever use of her father's paintings as allegory/commentary, the chilling epigraph which sets the tone ... but suffice to say there is a sequel in the offing, and that is good news on many counts, but chiefly - and simply - because this book is first class.
Good news for all of us who are fans of the late Mary Stewart: to mark the centenary of her birth this year Hodder are to be reissuing her entire backlist with new covers. I haven't seen any of the designs yet, but I hope that putting her work centre stage in this way will bring in new readers and perhaps remind old ones that her books are well worth revisiting. I've linked to this video interview with Mary Stewart many times, but if you haven't already seen it do take a look.
Unveiled today is this year's Books Are My Bag limited edition book bag designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith (who needs no introduction). The bags will be available at independent and chain bookshops around Super Thursday, which this year is October 6th..
Many of us will know Natalie Fergie as the talent behind The Yarn Yard, purveyors of hand-dyed yarn and embroidery thread*. Well now Natalie has turned her creative hand to writing and she's penned a novel called The Sewing Machine. You can read all about it - and hear from Natalie herself - over on the book's Unbound page, and if you like the sound of it (as I do) you might consider giving it your support. To find out more about Unbound and how it works, click here.
*Unsurprisingly, the shop's empty just now as Natalie has been giving her writing her full attention.
"the most important and most complete writer's library anywhere in the world".
Landseer's portrait of Scott's terrier Ginger,
and at the door, a likeness in stone of his beloved deerhound, Maida.
If you visit Abbotsford, be sure to take an audiotour; there is more than one to choose from, but I found the version narrated by 'Scott himself' very interesting. Also, go early if you can - I was there just after opening and had the house almost to myself, but the coach parties were thronging the adjacent visitor centre by the time I left mid-morning.
The shortlisted authors have been invited to take part in a panel discussion on historical fiction at The Borders Book Festival in Melrose on Saturday, 18th, June, and the winner will be announced that day.
'From the beginning, Davies saw writing as a matter of recording communications from the unconscious. In a light-hearted 1948 talk, he described the process, basing his account on "a certain amount of practice and a few vague intuitions." When an idea occurred to him that seemed "to demand embalming" he would immediately jot it down, lest it vanish, in a notebook he always carried for the purpose. Then the idea would seem "to acquire a life of its own," presenting itself in dramatic form, growing and sometimes transforming itself utterly, until it settled into a final shape. Only then, when it had become "an aching tooth which has to be pulled," would he commit the play to paper. He has described the process of writing his plays and novels in similar terms ever since. When an interviewer asked, soon after the publication of Fifth Business*, how he went about developing a character, he replied: "You don't. The character arises in your imagination and then you go ahead. I know this sounds terribly pompous and grandiose, but you don't really do it; it's something that happens and you write it down. You can't sit down and say, 'Now, I think I'll think up a funny Jesuit,' and do it, because you'll get a mass of eccentricities; you won't get a live person. But if one arises in your mind, and he's got all his oddities and you see him hopping around and doing things, then you just write down about it. This is what imagination is. It's not invention, you're more passive than that. You listen to your ideas; you don't tell them what to do." And in 1989, after describing the writing of Fifth Business, he concluded: "It is this sort of explanation, I know, which persuades some critics that an author is an idiot savant, who does not know what he is doing. But that is a misunderstanding of the creative process. The author may not know consciously every detail of his story when he begins it, but his Unconscious knows, and it is from the Unconscious that he works." '
Over thirty years ago, I had what was one of the greatest experiences of my university life, when I attended a series of lectures* by Professor Richard Cobb on life in France under German occupation. During those years millions of men and women had to make horrible choices about how to live their lives, do their jobs, feed themselves and their families; Cobb's message was that those of us who had never had to confront those choices needed to be very wary before handing out either praise or blame.
This deeply humane and civilised attitude is evident on every page of Allan Massie's excellent quartet of crime novels** set in Bordeaux during the occupation. His hero, Inspector Lannes, meets political and personal depravity from both collaborationists and their enemies in the Resistance; his family is split, with one son supporting Vichy and the other escaping to London to join the Free French, and both are young men of integrity; his daughter falls in love with a quixotic patriot who goes off to fight for Hitler on the Eastern Front; and his wife turns away from him both physically and emotionally. He always tries to do what he thinks is right, but so often the choice is between the bad and the worse. The ethical complexity of such a world is a gift to the crime novelist, and Massie takes full advantage of the setting. The novels are also a loving Francophile's evocation of the France of grumpy concierges and long lunches, of Charles Trenet songs and barges on the foggy Gironde, of scruffy bistros and grand hotels. I read them avidly, all four in less than a week, and warmly recommend them.
You can read the full story here, but wasn't there a similar thing a few years ago called the McLuhan test which involved page 69, suggesting there's nothing new under the sun ...
For fun I picked up a favourite novel of mine, One Fine Day by Mollie Panter Downes (there's a very early Cornflower post on it here, should you not already know it) and looked at p.112 - it's as perfect as any other page in that book.
The Robertson Davies biography I'm currently reading has on p. 112 a good example of Davies' early experiences providing material for his later novels. The same goes for p. 125 from which I'll quote because it's more of a curiosity:
At boarding school in Toronto, Davies had a Scottish music master called Richard Tattersall -
"In World of Wonders he made use of one of Tattersall's tales to establish the way the immensely rich and powerful Jeremias Naegeli lived in his Swiss castle, Sorgenfrei. Years before, Tattersall had responded to a Glasgow newspaper advertisement - 'Organist wanted for employment in a private house. Must be a gentleman' - and found that his employer was to be the millionaire industrialist Andrew Carnegie. The organist's duties at Skibo Castle, Carnegie's great country house, were specific but not onerous. He was to play Bach chorales while Carnegie ate his breakfast, and after a free day, he and Carnegie's many male secretaries would be responsible for taking any unaccompanied ladies in to dinner (the reason a gentleman was wanted). After dinner he was to hold himself ready as soloist or accompanist, whichever was required."
If you're interested in reading about a timeless - and highly demanding - way of life; living with a deep-rooted connection to a place, and all that that means; a necessary, keen awareness of the natural year; farming sustainably in respect of the landscape; people who are "tuned to a different channel"; shepherding, and the ways of sheep, then I strongly recommend you get hold of a copy of The Shepherd's Life.
It's a very down-to-earth, clear-eyed account of the author's own family history and how it has formed him, and of the rhythms, customs and practices which make up a Herdwick sheep farmer's life in the valleys and on the fells of the Lake District. It's illuminating, engrossing, and excellent.
A quick word on this year's judges. As you'll see from the above they include Rick Stein, who is not only a very well known chef and food writer but is shortly to open his own bookshop in Padstow, and Lawrence Norfolk, author of (among others) this wonderful, wonderful book.
Catalogues from Profile Books and Serpent's Tail for the second half of the year have just arrived and two titles particularly caught my eye.
From Susan Hill, who needs no introduction but is here described as "grande dame of English supernatural fiction", comes The Travelling Bag, "a chilling collection of new ghost stories. In the title story, in the warmly lit surrounds of a club off St. James's, a bishop listens closely as a supernatural detective recounts his most memorable case, one whose horrifying denouement took place in that very building.
"This is Susan Hill at her best, with a characteristically flesh-creeping and startling collection of new tales of thwarted ambition, terrifying revenge and supernatural stirrings that will leave readers wide-awake long into the night."
Look for that one in September.
Out in June comes The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, "a sumptuously imagined novel of passion, ideas and friendship.
"Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890s, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other - but not in the usual way. Cora Seaborne is a well-to-do London widow and amateur naturalist who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, where William Ransome is the local vicar. They meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned. As the seasons turn around them in this quiet corner of England, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart.
"Dazzlingly written and woven through with rich historical detail, this novel is most profoundly a celebration of love and the many different guises it can take."
"In the course of our studies, we often had to go to museums to gather ideas for our work [...] Looking for old stories demands great effort, but it is well worth it, for it puts one's imagination to work and brings contemporary people in contact with the mystical-ritualistic world of [the past]. It is a kind of dialogue with what has been, from which new stories emerge."