Posters from The Scottish Poetry Library quoting Julia Donaldon, C.S. Lewis and Andrew Lang on the joy of books and reading; (the middle one reminds me that Lewis aficionados may be interested to know that there is to be a Lewis Festival in Oxford in September - full details here).
Celebrating books and bringing to the fore some you may not have come across is Fiction Uncovered, an initiative which I've written about before (in 2011 and 2012). This year's list includes Nell Leyshon's The Colour of Milk which was one of my 'books of the year' last year - there's a short post on it here - and so I'm delighted to see it get the recognition it deserves. Well done to Dovegreyreader and her fellow panellists, and equally well done to whoever was enlightened enough to ask a respected book blogger to take part - it's a great mark of recognition for Lynne herself and for the work the blogging community does in promoting books and helping them reach their readership.
Time; a whole life ahead; expectations; milestones and achievements; a future. Those are some of the things we anticipate when we become parents - we look forward to seeing our child grow and develop, gain independence, follow their unique path. For Emily Rapp and her husband, time stopped when, at nine months old, their son Ronan was diagnosed with the rare and always fatal degenerative disorder Tay-Sachs disease. In her memoir The Still Point of the Turning World: A Mother's Story Emily recounts her response to the quirk of fate which robbed her of time and of a future with her son.
As you would expect, this is a highly individual and introspective book, and written as it is by someone with a background in theology, it looks at grief and loss from a philosophical perspective as Emily tries to make sense of her changed reality through examining belief systems and reading the work of writers such as C.S. Lewis and Thomas Mann, Hegel and Mary Shelley. But of course, she cannot ever make 'sense' of a situation which would see her child regress instead of progress as normal development stalls and decline begins, one which would mean that he was living increasingly in a closed inner world, and which would see him die before his third birthday.
"It is a unique and terrible privilege to witness the entire arc of a life, to see it through from inception to its end. But it is also an opportunity to love without a net, without the future, without the past, but right now."
Emily's book ends before Ronan's passing. Its focus is not just on learning how to live with death but also on learning how to live, how to be - in Eliot's phrase - at the still point of the turning world. It looks at healing and considers what it means to be 'healthy', to be 'well' (Emily herself was born with a congenital defect which resulted in the amputation of her leg when she was four); it examines grief, and here she looks to Lewis and his robust response to his own grief at the loss of his wife, one of faith and intelligence - "a pairing that feels wholly unexpected, a colourful weasel popping out of an ordinary cardboard box" - and which among other things maps the limits of empathy.
The writing here is raw and painful as also considered and reflective. Emily is fierce and brave, beaten and drained, indomitable and raging, accepting and unflinching. It is not a conventional picture of a response to illness and premature death, but one which looks beyond the personal to whatever bigger picture might provide an answer of sorts, a means of understanding the torment inherent in the questions 'why?' and 'how?' and 'what now?'.
Penguin are looking for a Wayfarer, a person who will travel around the UK in July and August, visiting some of the Old Ways paths but also following some of their own, travelling into landscapes by discovering their stories, and reporting on their travels by way of blog posts, videos, social media and so on. The position is a paid one, and sounds like a marvellous opportunity for anyone with free time over the summer and, crucially, the wandering gene!
'Yes, it came this morning, but I've been so busy, I had a thousand things to do before lunch and I was lunching out and I was at Molyneux's this afternoon. I don't know when I shall have a moment to get down to it.'
I thought with melancholy how an author spends months writing a book, and may be puts his heart's blood into it, and then it lies about unread til the reader has nothing else in the world to do."
That's W. Somerset Maugham in The Razor's Edge speaking as himself, and ruefully of course, for how else would an author feel when that which represents years of time, effort and expertise goes unremarked and unregarded?
As I'm here to spread the word so that the books I read or receive will in turn find their wider readership with a little help from these pages among others, I must press on with posting the recent arrivals, and today's book sounds as though it's one to look out for.
"In Florence, everyone has a passion. With sixty thousand souls crammed into a cobweb of clattering streets, countless alleys, cloisters and churches, they live their lives in the narrow world between walls. Nino Latini knows that if you want to survive without losing yourself completely, you've got to have a passion.
But Nino's greatest gift will be his greatest curse. Son of a butcher and nephew of great painter Fra Filippo Lippi, Nino can taste things that other people cannot. Every flavour, every ingredient comes alive for him as vividly as a painting and he puts his artistry to increasingly extravagant use.
In an age of gluttony and conspicuous consumption, his unique talent leads him into danger. His desire for the beautiful Tessina Delmazza and his longing to create the perfect feast could prove deadly. Nino must flee Florence to save his life and if he ever wants to see his beloved again, he must entrust himself to the tender mercies of fortune, and battle each of the deadly sins.
Appetite is a story of lethal longing, the sensuous life of art and food against a backdrop of deadly power-plays and a city that won its place in history with equal measures of lust, genius and treachery."
Among the writers giving readings and in conversation in London on Wednesday evening is the Catalan author Jordi Punti whose book Lost Luggage has been translated into 15 languages and won the Spanish National Critics' Prize in 2011. I have it on my TBR pile, and was drawn partly by the compliments it has received in reviews - "A conjuring trick. Incomparable literature", "an astonishing literary artefact. Marvellous...", and also by the blurb:
"Christof, Christophe, Christopher and Cristòfol are four brothers - sons of the same father and four very different mothers, yet none of them knows of the others' existence. They live in Frankfurt, Paris, London and Barcelona and they unwittingly share the fact their father, a truck driver, abandoned them when they were little and they never heard from him again.
Then one day, Cristòfol is contacted by the police: his father is officially a missing person. This fact leads him to discover that he has three half-brothers, and the four young men come together for the first time... Divided by geography yet united by blood, the "Cristobales' set out on a quest to find their father, one that is painful, hilarious and extraordinary. They discover a man who during thirty years of driving was able to escape the darkness of Franco's Spain and to explore a luminous Europe, a journey that, with the birth of his sons, both opened and broke his heart."
Now for some pure escapist reading. I picked up Mary Stewart's Thornyhold late last night and quickly became happily engrossed in it. Here's the gist:
"To Gilly, Thornyhold is an enchanted cottage, a bequest from her cousin whose magical visits had brightened a lonely childhood. And it comes just in time to save Gilly from a bleak future after the death of her parents. Thornyhold has a resident black cat - and a reputation for magic; as she learns more about her cousin's herbalist skills, her abilities to foresee events and to heal, Gilly realises that she has inherited more than just the house itself ..."
That suits my reading mood perfectly.
Thanks to everyone who entered the draw to win a copy of Emma Donoghue's Astray, and who named a favourite book about travelling or journeys in so doing. It is Nicky's name which has come out of the hat, so I'll get the book on its way very soon, and I hope we'll have another draw before long.
"It’s the kind of book I always mean to read, and when I did I felt my soul settle down."
That's Ann Patchett talking - here - about a collection of poetry, and I quote her because I love the way she has captured the experience of reading something which lets all the mental puzzle pieces fall into place, brings serenity, calms and centres.
That line prompted me to ask for suggestions of reading to settle the soul, so if you can think of a book which does that, please do say. Meanwhile I'll nominate Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift From The Sea which I wrote about some time ago.
(The picture is Bluebells in Delcombe Wood by Nicholas Hely Hutchinson, and it is used on the cover of Through the Woods by H.E. Bates, a book I haven't read but one which sounds as though it is soul-settling stuff.)
Much has been written about Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, and I found this complex and highly original book - which takes a life through a range of permutations of fate - absolutely stunning. It's clever, it's meticulous, it has foxed and flummoxed some reviewers, but this one loved it.
Elanor Dymott's Oxford crime novel Every Contact Leaves A Trace - which I spoke a bit about here - is ambitious and doesn't quite achieve what it sets out to do. I guessed the culprit correctly, but the case for why a murder was committed in the first place could have been better made, and certain characters and their actions were implausible. That said, I did find it thoroughly engrossing, but I think its reach exceeds its grasp, and a tighter edit would have served it better.
Dancing to the Flute
by Manisha Jolie Amin was the subject of a post the other day. This is a charming and uplifting novel about music, life and friendship - it's warm and touching, and was a very interesting and pleasurable read, the musical theme giving it an extra, fascinating cultural dimension.
If you're in the market for gritty, realistic crime novels then skip this post now. If, on the other hand, you relish unconventional sleuths, civilised, period settings, mysteries whose raison d'être is character rather than plot, then the books I'm talking about today should suit nicely.
Speaking from Among the Bones is the fifth in Alan Bradley's very lively, highly original series set in an English village in the 1950s, centred around his eleven-year-old amateur chemist, expert in poisons and eagle-eyed investigator, Flavia de Luce. Living with her father and sisters in their crumbling ancestral home Buckshaw, the precocious Flavia - who has inherited her Great Uncle Tarquin's chemistry laboratory and has an extensive knowledge of most topics, whether scientific or otherwise - uses her powers of observation and ingenuity to get to the bottom of all sorts of goings-on in Bishop's Lacey. In this latest episode of her adventures, the church organist is found murdered at the same time as the tomb of St. Tancred is being excavated and the saint's remains exhumed, her family's financial worries deepen, and the drama of her home life continues to the very last page.
James Runcie's 'detective' Sidney Chambers is a man of the cloth, of a type with Kenneth More* in Genevieve, and the owner of a black Labrador called Dickens (so who could resist?), and he's back in the second in a planned series of six books which will take him from the 1950s to 1981. On the subject of chronology for a moment, I love the novelist's ability to either stop time - Flavia has been eleven since the books began and she has packed a great deal into that 'year' - or alter its speed for their convenience, e.g. Sidney's daily existence (which often engages him with real events) unfolds at one speed, while other aspects of his life, most notably his romantic liaisons, are conveniently stalled or drawn out over implausibly long periods! But to get back to the book itself, Sidney Chambers and The Perils of the Night is a series of six interlocking stories in which Sidney, as vicar of Grantchester and fellow of Corpus Christi College Cambridge, helps his great friend Inspector Geordie Keating solve various crimes concerning his parishioners and college associates. As ever, Sidney's conscience guides him, but as he strives to "put his acquired identity, as a man of faith, above his own essential nature," he is faced with difficult decisions. It is these moral dilemmas, Sidney's wisdom and humanity, and his *"mixture of decency and optimism" which are so appealing, and which make these novels a great pleasure to read.
Whether you are in the mood for a book with brio (Flavia) or something a little more reflective (Sidney), both series are charming and really rather fun.
Picador have kindly sent me a copy of the paperback edition of Astray by Emma Donoghue, which will be out later this month and which I read in hardback earlier in the year, and so I thought I'd put it up for grabs. It's a sequence of stories or 'fact-inspired fictions' on the themes of wanderings, deviations and going astray. The epigraph is from Virgil's Aeneid:
"Tell us underneath what skies, / Upon what coasts of earth we have been cast; / We wander, ignorant of men and places, / And driven by the wind and the vast waves";
its sections are entitled 'Departures', 'In Transit', and 'Arrivals and Aftermaths', and within them each piece is inspired by an actual historical account - but often no more than a brief mention in a letter or newspaper report - of a journey, or some form of displacement. From this seed or source material Emma Donoghue has created a series of perfect vignettes, capturing or imagining a unique and appropriate voice for each, 'assuming' a style to suit her subject matter*.
The book begins with the story of Jumbo the famous elephant at London Zoo who was sold to Barnum's Circus in 1882 (this despite huge public outcry), and moves on through other emigrants, runaways, settlers and travellers, taking in all types of people and the transgressive or transformative situations in which they find themselves. It's inventive and intuitive, vivid and sharp of focus, and I hope whoever wins it will enjoy it very much.
To enter the draw, then, please leave a comment on this post naming a favourite book - fiction or non-fiction - about travelling in one way or another, or which involves a journey of some kind; it can be anything at all as long as it appealed to you. The competition is open to everyone, so please put your name in the hat.
In the new book, we are in 1955 and Canon Sidney Chambers is called to investigate the fall of a don from King's College Chapel, a case of arson at a glamour photographer's studio, and the poisoning of Zafar Ali, Grantchester's finest spin bowler. The reluctant sleuth has personal problems, too, as he is drawn to both his socialite friend Amanda Kendall and to Hildegard Staunton, the beguiling German widow. Taking a trip abroad, he finds himself in a web of international espionage just as the Berlin Wall is going up. At least at home he has his lovely black Labrador Dickens for company ....
That's my weekend reading, and I'm greatly looking forward to it. Which book will you be picking up?
A few months ago I wrote a post about that excellent publication The Good Book Guide, and I'm glad to follow it up today with the news that a digital version of the Guide has now been launched - you'll find full subscription information here.
Next week, in London, Faber & Faber host another Faber Social gathering, this one all about crime. It is to be "an evening of music and literature from some of the best crime writers around" - details here.
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.
The line, "the blue is all in a rush with richness" reminds me of another Hopkins poem The May Magnificat - which would also be appropriate today - and its couplet "And azuring-over greybell makes
/ Wood banks and brakes wash wet like
lakes", and elsewhere he wrote of "the blue-buzzed haze" and its effect on him. If, as Katherine Swift suggests, "blue is the colour of possibility", for Hopkins it had a deep spiritual significance.
You may have seen this post earlier in the month, the one in which we were talking about the places and discoveries to which books had led us. It so happens that today I began reading Dancing to the Flute by Manisha Jolie Amin, a novel about a young Indian boy, Kalu, who is learning to play the flute under the tutelage of a famous musician. The story so far is charming, but what is particularly interesting is the book's musical content, for instance, some of the technical aspects of flute playing*, the component parts of Indian classical music - shrutis or microtones - and raags or ragas (melodic modes) themselves.
I knew a little about raags from reading Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, (and if you haven't already read his An Equal Music
I do recommend it also) but this novel gives more:
"There is a saying in Sanskrit: Ranjayati iti Raaga," said Guruji. "It means, 'that which colours the mind is a raag'. Each and every raag is structured differently and represents specific human emotions and characteristics. However, for a raag to truly colour the mind of the listener, the effect cannot be created from just technical virtuosity. The musician needs to take his audience on a journey to the very root of all things, to reach for the nectar of creation. Only a master musician trained in the oral tradition can take you there."
On her website, Manisha Jolie Amin helpfully provides links to songs and raags mentioned in the book, and so of course I clicked through to listen to some, e.g. this one with flautist Rakesh Chaurasia, this from sitar player Anoushka Shankar which led me to this where she is playing with Joshua Bell - mesmerising!
So there we are, not just a story but a whole musical tradition being opened up to this reader.
*Dark Puss, you may like to know that Guruji has Kalu practising yoga as a necessary part of mastering the instrument, and he prefers the Indian side flute to the European metal one with levers and keys because while the latter "can play more notes ... they are one step away from the hole, and therefore the sound. The closer you are to the sound, the more chance it has of coming from the soul."
Many thanks to everyone who entered the draw for a copy of Tracy Chevalier's Girl With a Pearl Earring;
the winner is Michi, and the book will be on its way to her shortly.
Incidentally, for anyone who'd like to know more about Tracy's research
for the book and about Vermeer's work and modus operandi, do listen to this conversation between Tracy and Melissa Buron, assistant curator of European art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco where the painting itself is currently on show.
Now to a girl of a rather different stripe: Flavia de Luce is back!
It's a highlight of the reading year when Alan Bradley brings out a new book in his series about the eleven-year-old sleuth, and the latest one, Speaking from Among the Bones, is great fun. I'm nearing the climax as the tomb of St. Tancred, patron saint of Bishop's Lacey is about to be opened and the remains exhumed. Meanwhile, the church organist has been murdered, and Flavia's family is in danger of losing Buckshaw, their ancestral home. Must read on!
"It was, that year, a particularly wonderful spring, and of all the months at San Salvatore April, if the weather was fine, was best. May scorched and withered; March was restless, and could be hard and cold in its brightness; but April came along softly like a blessing, and if it were a fine April it was so beautiful that it was impossible not to feel different, not to feel stirred and touched."
Happily for the four ladies at the heart of Elizabeth von Arnim's novel, April at San Salvatore that year was not just fine but enchanted, and the magic of the book with its theme of transformation and regeneration continues to touch and delight, reading after reading.
For anyone who hasn't read The Enchanted April, four ladies, previously unknown to one another, take a castle in Italy for a month's holiday. One, the lofty Mrs. Fisher, is a widow who lives mostly in the past, preferring to sit in solitude and remember "better times and better men"; Lotty and Rose are escaping their mundane, dutiful lives, and their husbands - one a pompous bore, the other a biographer of scandalous women; and the fourth member of the party is Lady Caroline Dester, society beauty and fair game, it seems, for every man she meets. The driving force behind the holiday is Lotty: "she who in England had been such a thing of gusts" now finds balance and indeed bliss at San Salvatore, so much so that she longs to share the experience with the husband she has left behind. Rose, with "the face of a patient and disappointed Madonna", also finds spaciousness in life at the castle, so that she too craves the presence of her husband from whom she has become distanced. And while Lady Caroline lies in the sun and smoothes her ruffled feathers, Mrs. Fisher grows restless and somehow her spirit burgeons as it has never done before.
" ... there was something peculiar in the atmosphere at San Salvatore. It promoted expansion. It brought out dormant qualities..."
and as not only Messrs. Wilkins and Arbuthnot arrive to join their respective wives, but the castle's owner Mr. Briggs drops in, too, the place casts its spell and love and light-heartedness blossom.
The book is charming, (the film*, I think, almost more so), a happy, uplifting read, and one to return to. "The novel is the lightest of omelettes," says Terence de Vere White in the introduction to my edition, "in the making of which the least possible number of eggs get broken. Only an incorrigible pedant would try to judge it at a deeper level."
Were you enchanted by it? I hope you were, and if this was your first Elizabeth von Arnim, are you now inclined to read more? Either way, perhaps you'll join us for next month's CBG book, for which you'll find details here.
*The film's location is the Portofino castle, Castello Brown, in which Elizabeth von Arnim herself stayed in April 1921 and in which she set the book. There seems to be no website as such, but this one gives some idea of the place.
Edited to add: the Books and Cakes post for The Enchanted April is now up - click here.
There is so much to enjoy and admire in Ann Weisgarber's novel The Promise (which I introduced here) that I'm just going to urge you to read it, and say little more than that.
It is an exercise in economy and restraint: there is not a superfluous word in it, nor a misplaced one. It takes loyalty, love and longing and makes of those a very moving story of subtly shifting relationships among its three main characters, and it sets this in a real place during real events - the hurricane which hit Galveston Island off Texas in 1900 and caused huge loss of life and destruction.
If you read that earlier post you'll see that it's about a woman fleeing the shame of a scandal who marries a widower she knew in her youth. Life in Oscar's rural home on the island is a far cry from Catherine's middle class Ohio upbringing, and her cultivated tastes and fine manners are out of place with the more rough and ready way of life on the dairy farm and in the simple wooden house. And then there's Nan, Oscar's blunt and practical housekeeper to contend with - Nan who made a promise to Oscar's late wife that she would take care of the couple's little boy, who feels she is a curse on any man she's ever cared for, and for whom Oscar is more than just an employer...
In a dual-voiced narrative, the reader hears two sides of the story, and Ann Weisgarber lets our sympathies lie with both. "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant" is the line of Emily Dickinson's which forms an epigraph, and in a beautifully balanced process or progress of give and take, accommodation and understanding, generosity, withdrawal and personal sacrifice, her characters' relationships are shaped and re-shaped over secrets kept or discovered, truths told or withheld; and then nature takes her devastating course.
This is a fine book, understated and sure in dialogue and idiom, spare but telling in its details, powerful in its emotional acuity. For more on the background to it, take a look at Ann's website which includes photographs of Galveston before and after the hurricane, music which features in the novel, and stories which inspired it, but then do read the book itself.
Tonight is World Book Night, and 20,000 volunteers will be giving away special WBN editions of 20 books "to people who don't regularly read or don't have access to books".
Among the writers taking part in WBN events this evening is Alexander McCall Smith (he'll be at Edinburgh Cental Library at 7pm), and he had this to say about the mass giveaway:
"In a world that sometimes seems over-burdened with conflict, World Book Night stands out as a precious beacon. It has two messages: one is that reading is sheer joy and the other is that the act of giving is intrinsically good..."
I am pleased to see that the majority of the books given away tonight will go to prisons, shelters for the homeless, hospitals, community centres and so on - if those books open eyes, light up minds and brighten lives in some way, that will be a great thing.
I can't let the evening pass without having my own giveaway, so I have bought two copies of Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, one for myself (because despite having seen the film twice I have never read the book!) and the other to send to a Cornflower Books reader. Please do throw your name into the hat for this, even if you've already read the novel or have a copy on the shelf because in that case, and in the spirit of World Book Night, you could pass it on to someone else. Everyone is free to enter, no matter where in the world you are, and to do so just leave a comment on this post naming a book which is of particular importance to you - it doesn't have to have changed your life, although perhaps it did in some way, it just has to be special to you for one reason or another (and you don't have to give the reason if you'd rather not). The draw will be open for a few days, so please do have a go.