Today's deals include former Costa award-winners, and along with the O'Farrell Matthew Hollis's biography of Edward Thomas, Now All Roads Lead to France, is among them. I've added it to my TBR mountain.
Speaking of things 'northern', how do you fancy a writers' retreat in Iceland? As you'll see there, among the writers leading workshops is Geraldine Brooks, someone who would be very much worth hearing, I should think.
In conversation with James Naughtie and the studio audience she discusses, among other things, the "northern light and northern gloom" which pervade the book, the influence of Greek drama on it, and her love of Dickens.
Artemis Cooper is to write an authorised biography of Elizabeth Jane Howard, who sadly died on 2nd. January aged 90. While we wait for that, may I recommend Elizabeth Jane Howard's memoir Slipstream (and Artemis Cooper's life of Elizabeth David, Writing at the Kitchen Table).
While we're on the subject, which writers' auto/biographies would you rate highly?
We've had the books of the year parts one and two, and now to conclude, here are the best of the best in fiction and non-fiction.
Hermione Lee proves the art of literary biography is alive and well in her superb life of Penelope Fitzgerald, and Kate Atkinson has given us a tour de force in her complex, highly original novel Life After Life.
When I was in Oxford last month I took a look at the Bodleian's Barbara Pym display, and I apologise for the quality of the photographs, but if you follow that link to the website you'll see the exhibits much more clearly. The Library holds her literary papers and put on show a selection of letters and notebooks, including a draft of Excellent Women (see below).
On this morning's post on Cornflower, Lucille mentioned she had a copy of Plat du Jours by Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd inscribed 'Barbara Pym' on the title page, so I hope that these examples of the Miss Pym's handwriting match the signature in that book!
On that post I was quoting from a letter from Philip Larkin to BP, and he was - famously - her fan and champion. Extracts from many of their letters appear in Hazel Holt's biography, including the following exchange which I found very interesting:
PL writes: "... my feeling is that Angela Thirkell, for instance, vitiated her later books by mentioning everyone in every one, and I think it's a device needing very sharp control if this danger is to be avoided. I realise of course you are using a different method - coincidence rather than Barchester - but it has its pitfalls, to my mind, all the same. ..."
BP: "It can be a tiresome affectation. With me it's sometimes laziness - if I need a casual clergyman or anthropologist I just take one from an earlier book. Perhaps one should take such a very minor character that only the author recognises it, like a kind of superstition or a charm."
Hazel Holt comments, "The fact was that she had created such a complete world that it was perfectly possible for a character from one book to move about easily in another. And, of course, many of her friends and readers simply wanted to know 'what happened next' to their favourite characters after the book had ended."
There's a lot of food for thought there.
As to that 'complete world', Antonia White observed (in a review) how it was created:
"... working in petit point, she makes each stitch with perfect precision. She keeps her design so perfectly to scale, and places one mild tint in such happy juxtaposition to another that this reader ... derived considerable pleasure from it."
To a couple more good books now, but from the biography/memoir shelf this time:
Ann Patchett's This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage is a collection of essays and articles representing all stages of her career so far. She explains in the foreword that before she became a novelist she learned her craft as a writer of non-fiction, meeting deadlines and word counts, shaping topics to fit column inches, and she is adept at writing clean, clear, succinct prose. She is also wise, funny, candid, observant, and clear-sighted in her treatment of many subjects ranging from the personal - her difficult first marriage and happy second one, her lately-acquired love of opera (see the wonderful Bel Canto) and long-time love of dogs, her recent experience of opening a bookshop in her home town - to the more universal.
I've already posted extracts from two of the books's essays - they are here and here - and they are good examples of Ann Patchett's style, good sense, and warmth. I never tire of her voice, whether she is talking about books in all their infinite variety, or people (ditto), writing or life, and if you're a fan of her fiction, I'm sure you'll find a great deal to enjoy here.
Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee needs no introduction and is an excellent biography. Highly readable, perceptive, comprehensive, setting all its subject's novels and biographies in context and tracing their themes throughout a long life, it benefits from its author's acquaintance with Penelope Fitgerald and many conversations with those who knew her well.
This is, famously, the story of a late-starter, someone whose working life was spent mostly in teaching, who published first when she was 60, won the Booker Prize soon afterwards, but did not achieve real fame until she was 80. Often overlooked or underestimated in their own time, her novels are now seen as "strange and original masterpieces", and their author is, as Hermione Lee says in the opening sentence of her Preface, "a great English writer who would never have described herself in such a commanding way."
Penelope Fitzgerald came from a family whose motto was "do the difficult thing", and in both professional and domestic terms she lived up to that. Her personal life was often fraught, and when she finally came into her own career-wise, it was once there was space in her life for "her half-century of reading, thinking and learning to be shaped into the books she had always known she would write."
A fascinating biography which I recommend without reservation.
"I can trace my relationship with the short story back to my earliest days as a reader, but my true connection came when I was twelve years old, the year I read Eudora Welty's A Visit of Charity. There had been other stories before that ... but A Visit of Charity ... seemed infinitely more grown-up to me. It didn't reward the reader with a plot twist at the end or present a clear moral imperative. Even more startling was the fact that this author, whose photograph and biographical paragraph preceded the text, had only one date listed after her name: 1909, and then a dash, and then nothing. Again and again I returned to that paragraph to look at the long, gentle face of the author. She was both alive and in a textbook, a coupling I had never seen before. As sure as I was by the age of twelve that I wanted to be a writer, I was not at all certain that it was the sort of thing the living did. The short-fiction market was cornered by dead people, and this Eudora Welty was, as far as I could tell, the first one to have bucked the trend. I decided at the start of seventh grade to cast my lot with the living, and chose Eudora Welty as my favourite writer. Four years later, when I was sixteen, Miss Welty came to Vanderbilt to give a reading. I got there early and sat in the front row, holding my big, hardback Collected Short Stories of Eudora Welty, which my mother had bought me for my birthday that year. It was the first reading I had ever been to, and when it was over I had her sign my book. I held it open to the wrong page, and she looked at me, and said, 'No, no, dear. You always want to sign on the title page.' And she took the book from me and did it right. For the sheer force of its heart-stopping, life-changing wonder, I will put this experience up against anyone who ever saw the Beatles."
The next book in my reading queue is Hermione Lee's biography of Penelope Fitzgerald and I'm looking forward to starting it over the weekend, but Dame Hermione is in the bookish news today with word that her next biographical subject is to be Sir Tom Stoppard. There's no publication date in prospect yet, but I'm sure that that book, when eventually it comes, will make fascinating reading.
Blackwell's the booksellers have set up Giving Trees in their shops and online so that underprivileged children can receive a book this Christmas.
For a small sum, you can either choose a book in the store for a child whose request is on the special tags hanging on the Giving Trees, or place your 'order' through the website so that a suitable book is gift-wrapped and delivered to a child in time for Christmas.
I've bought a book by this means, and I hope that for the young person who receives it it will go some way to opening the door into the magical world of reading; there could hardly be a better gift.
In the post this morning - all beautifully wrapped and girded with an actual crimson ribbon - was The Crimson Ribbon by Katherine Clements who has been described as "the vibrant new voice of historical fiction". It won't be out until March, but it sounds like another to look forward to, "an extraordinary and mesmerising story of two women's obsession, superstition and hope".
It begins on May Day 1646: "The Civil War is raging and what should be a rare moment of blessing for the town of Ely takes a brutal turn. Ruth Flowers is left with little choice but to flee the household of Oliver Cromwell, the only home she has ever known. On the road to London, Ruth sparks an uneasy alliance with a soldier, the battle-scarred and troubled Joseph. But when she reaches the city, it's in the Poole household that she finds refuge.
Lizzie Poole, beautiful and charismatic, enthrals the vulnerable Ruth who binds herself inextricably to Lizzie's world. But in these troubled times, Ruth is haunted by fears of her past catching up with her. And as Lizzie's radical ideas escalate, Ruth finds herself carried to the heart of the country's conflict, to the trial of a king."
Elizabeth Poole was a real person who appeared before the Army Council in the days before the trial and execution of Charles I and spoke of visions she had received from God. Her testimony didn't influence the outcome of the trial but her words were heeded, and why this was so is at the basis of the novel as Katherine Clements has sought to explain it using research, conjecture and imagination. Katherine came across the character in Antonia Fraser's biography of Oliver Cromwell and was intrigued by this woman who was given an audience with some of the most important men of the day. Research revealed "a dark, seductive world of illegal printing presses, extreme spiritual obsession and a mysterious scandal," and so for Katherine, Elizabeth's story "proved impossible to resist".
I'm especially interested in the Novel and First Novel categories as I've read some of those books: in First Novel, I'm very pleased to see Kate Clanchy's Meeting the English, which I reviewed here, and I hope it gets the recognition it deserves. Meanwhile in Novel I have read three of the four books - Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, Maggie O'Farrell's Instructions for a Heatwave (post here), and the late Bernardine Bishop's Unexpected Lessons in Love (post here) - and can recommend them all.
If you have access to BBC iPlayer, do watch last night's edition of the arts programme Imagine which was a profile of the author and illustrator Judith Kerr. What a charming lady, and how incredibly sharp and sprightly for a person of 90 - I hope I'm able to run upstairs as fast as she does should I reach that age!
Two little details which made me smile: the monster from her husband Nigel Kneale's famous series Quatermass and the Pit had three legs in tribute to the symbol of its creator's homeland (being Manx-born myself, I rather like that), and Judith Kerr's son Matthew, when learning to read, was so bored by the 'Janet & John'-type reading schemes he was given that he said he would learn with the Cat in the Hat books, and so he did.
Dr. Seuss must have served him well for Matthew Kneale is now, of course, a famous novelist, and if you haven't already read his wonderful, wonderful English Passengers (which features a Manx smuggling vessel, and which in 2000 won the Whitbread Award, as the Costa Book Award was formerly known), then do.
I'm enjoying reading about everyone's favourite children's books in the comments on yesterday's post, so do please keep them coming and enter the draw for the Bodleian cards and bookmarks. I'm also delighted to see some unfamiliar names among the commenters, readers who haven't made themselves known before but have done so now - it's lovely to hear from you!
I was in the Bodleian Library shop on Saturday (incidentally, one of the warmest places in Oxford on what was a cold weekend) and I bought a few postcards and bookmarks to give away to two readers.
Since I was visiting Oxford for a C.S. Lewis event, I had to get the appropriate cards, so we'll call this first lot 'the Lewis set' as the cards are facsimiles of the famous Puffin Books covers of three of the Chronicles of Narnia; they date from the 1960s, and the illustrator was Pauline Baynes. I'll pause here to quote briefly from Alister McGrath's biography of Lewis: it was Tolkien who recommended Pauline Baynes to Lewis when his publishers insisted on illustrations for the books, "In the end, Baynes's relationship with Lewis turned out to be rather formal and distant. They appear to have met only twice. One of these two meetings was a highly perfunctory and brief discussion at London's Waterloo Station, during which Lewis frequently consulted his watch, anxious not to miss his train. (Her diary entry for that day was rumoured to read 'Met C.S. Lewis. Came home. Made rock cakes.') It was not an easy relationship, particularly when Baynes learned that Lewis, having been very positive about her illustrations to her face, was somewhat more critical of her artistic gifts behind her back - especially her ability to draw lions."
Along with the cards, I'll give you two bookmarks which picture beautiful books from the Bodleian collection; the first is The Christmas Bookshelf, which features unusual 19th. and 20th. century titles, and the second is Flowers, early 20th. century books from the classification 'Natural Sciences, Botany, General: Flowers & their culture'.
The next lot, 'the Oxford set' comprises the Hobbies bookshelf card and matching bookmark, a map of Lyra's Oxford taken from the book of that name by Philip Pullman, illustrated by John Lawrence, a card of the Bodleian oath, the declaration every reader is required to repeat aloud on seeking admission, and a bookmark showing a selection of Victorian children's books from the Opie collection.
To enter the draw - which is open to all, no matter where in the world you are - please leave a comment on this post naming a favourite children's book of yours, and please state whether you would prefer the Lewis set or the Oxford set or are happy with either. Incidentally, if you have any trouble leaving a comment (I've had reports of intermittent difficulties), please email me using the link in the right-hand sidebar, let me know what error message, if any, you got, and give me the name of your favourite book and your preferred prize and I'll make sure you are entered in the draw.
I've been in Oxford for the weekend, attending a special event to celebrate the life and legacy of C.S. Lewis.
For almost thirty years from 1925, Lewis was a Fellow of Magdalen College, and his shadow still looms large there. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of his death, the College invited members and guests to an afternoon of lectures on his life and works followed by a commemorative dinner; among those who attended were former students of Lewis's, others who knew him, and many like me who had come to pay tribute to the man who had opened a magical world to them, or had touched them in other ways through his writings.
The book in the picture is my childhood copy of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I took it with me and read it again over the weekend, and found on the back page the application form for membership of the the Puffin Club which as a ten-year-old I had neatly filled in but for some reason had not sent; seeing that and reading the book again was like re-encountering my younger self, and I think Lewis would have understood that feeling.
The afternoon began with a talk by the Revd. Professor Alister McGrath, whose biography of Lewis I have just read and can warmly recommend, and who was speaking on the symbiotic relationship between Lewis and Magdalen. He traced Lewis's path to the college - it was not a straightforward one - but once there he was found to be a natural teacher who talked to people, not at them, and who, with his "port wine and plum pudding voice" packed the lecture room and opened up works of literature with an unusual lucidity.
Professor McGrath talked of the Thursday evening Inklings meetings in Lewis's rooms in New Buildings (above) when works-in-progress were read and ideas were sparked, but in referring to the all-male environment of which Lewis was a product, and defending his subject against allegations of giving his female characters subordinate roles, he was quick to make the point that Lewis was "discerning of talent and blind to gender" when it came to the teaching and discussion of English Literature.
The second speaker of the day was Mr. Walter Hooper, a charming American gentleman whom I can best describe as 'couthy'. I wish I could recount at length his many anecdotes and his recollections of his correspondence, friendship and working relationship with Lewis - he was his secretary during the final months of Lewis's life, his biographer and the editor of his collected letters. Invited to attend Inklings meetings, Mr. Hooper said he had never experienced anything like them: "you were your best in his company," he said. The warmth and affection with which he spoke was as great as his admiration for the man whose work he had first come across as a young soldier in 1953 when he kept a copy of Miracles hidden under his shirt and read a page or two at every opportunity while on exercise, and whom he remembers with the utmost fondness all these years later.
The Revd. Dr. Michael Piret, Magdalen's Dean of Divinity, then talked about Lewis's time as Vice-President of the College, and read many excerpts from a drama which exists in College archives, Lewis the Bald, a tragi-comedy penned by Lewis in which the author reveals both a high degree of self-awareness, and a sharp, clever wit and clear-sightedness when it came to his colleagues.
The final speaker of the afternoon was Lord Williams of Oystermouth, better known to most of us as Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury; his book The Lion's World - A journey into the heart of Narnia was published last year. He spoke on fantasy fiction and fairytale and of Lewis's view that being supremely about something that isn't us, it is of moral importance to the young: "in a world of agency, magic, supportive animal friends, the ego is not at the heart of it," and destructive self-interest is put aside. His thesis was closely argued and more complex than my summary might suggest, but his analysis of Lewis's fiction was a fascinating one, and when asked to whom Lewis's mantle has been passed, he spoke with the authority of a deep knowledge of the field of Philip Pullman (ironically, as Alister McGrath describes him, "Lewis's most strident critic"), Alan Garner - particularly for books such as Thursbitch and Boneland which Lord Williams commended as "utterly haunting and remarkable", and of course, the Harry Potter series, "a most interesting fusion of the school story and fairytale, and a work about atonement and redemption".
The day concluded with dinner in Hall at which a toast to C.S. Lewis was drunk, the petits fours appropriately included Turkish Delight, and at which Lewis's Godson Mr. Laurence Harwood spoke and read extracts of three of Lewis's letters, including one full of wisdom, consolation and encouragement which he had received from his Godfather at a difficult time in his youth. It was a fitting end to a day which remembered a man whose brilliance as a scholar and teacher shaped the lives of many young people, whose clarity and fluency as a speaker and communicator opened many minds to faith, and whose writing continues to inspire and delight.
"I have written in this book things that I have seen and thought, in the long idle hours spent at home, without ever dreaming that others would see it. Fearing that some of my foolish remarks could well strike others as excessive and objectionable, I did my best to keep it secret, but despite all my intentions I'm afraid it has come to light."
Genuine? Disingenuous? Calculating? We shall never know, but whatever the purpose of these writings or the intentions behind them, they have endured and been read for 1,000 years.
Part diary (and The Diary of a Provincial Lady came to mind on occasion), part series of still lifes, a commonplace book, a social history, its anecdotes akin to episodes of a soap opera, its gossipy comments not far from tweets at times, its lists much like those often seen on blogs; elsewhere the author's keen observation and appreciation of a scene make for entrancing reading, and as the translator Meredith McKinney says in her introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, from "deep inside the moment of experience", she teaches us to see.
Caustic, snobbish, prone to extreme and sometimes crass juxtapositions, condemnatory, dogmatic, Sei Shōnagon lived in a rarefied world where appearance was everything, but if as she says above she set down her thoughts for herself alone, then she had no need to temper her words and moderate her feelings in consideration of others' sensibilities. Allowing her the scope that that intended privacy permits, what she gives us across the centuries in her "handbook of poetic references" is largely a thing of beauty. She finds rain "so unpoetic", so I part company with her there, but I smiled at her dislike of sloppy diction and language unbecoming to the speaker, and I admire her eye - and memory - for detail, and love her evident genuine delight in so many things, and that she finds it "fascinating that things like [the effect of dew on foliage] can utterly fail to delight others"! She is unique in her mindful attention to the slightest thing, and so while in some lights the book is, as the translator says, "a crazy quilt", it also has its own sense of order and identity.
Which parts - if any - caught your interest? Did you love her lists, enjoy her minute observations, become involved in her narratives? Did you warm to her enthusiasm and appreciation of beauty, or did you find her uncompromising attitudes uncongenial? Would this book prompt you to read more Japanese literature or discover more about Japanese culture, either in the present day or in the past? Are you tempted to begin a Pillow Book of your own - a diary or scrapbook of things which catch your attention and engage the senses?
- This review of Elizabeth Jane Howard's All Change (the fifth in the Cazalets series) says it's "as impressive as anything she has written". (If you don't already know EJH's memoir Slipstream, I do recommend it.)
"In 2008 the London publishers Harper Collins invited Diane Simpson, a professional graphologist, to examine some specimens of the handwriting of C.S. Lewis. Simpson had no idea whom she was investigating. She found the 'small, neat script' suggestive of someone who was 'guarded and careful' with sharp critical faculties. Simpson also noticed something else. 'I wonder whether he has a garden shed of sorts (or some other sort of world) in which to disappear when he chooses.' Simpson was absolutely right. Lewis did indeed have 'some other sort of world' into which he would disappear - an imagined world we now know as Narnia."
Friday the 22nd. of November 2013 is the 50th. anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis; on Saturday the 23rd. I shall be attending a very special commemorative event which I hope to write about here. Meanwhile, though, I'll give you a little more food for thought in the shape of the succeeding passage from Alister McGrath's biography, for while there was of course a great deal more to Lewis than 'just' his authorship of The Chronicles of Narnia, I find the following very interesting:
"Let us pause at this point. Narnia is an imaginative, not an imaginary, world. Lewis was quite clear that a distinction had to be drawn between these ideas. The 'imaginary' is something that has been falsely imagined, having no counterpart in reality. Lewis regards such an invented reality as opening the way to delusion. The 'imaginative' is something produced by the human mind as it tries to respond to something greater than itself, struggling to find images adequate to the reality. The more imaginative a mythology, the greater its ability to 'communicate more Reality to us'. For Lewis, the imaginative is to be seen as a legitimate and positive use of the human imagination, challenging the limits of reason and opening the door to a deeper apprehension of reality."
Going back to my first Cornflower Blues list (2006), I included Gwen Raverat's memoir Period Piece and described it as "a joyous piece of writing". It's about to be re-issued by Slightly Foxed, and you can read all about it - and place your order for the new edition - here. The video shows how these handsome books are made:
"... in a world in many ways unimaginably different from ours, a lady at the imperial court of Japan settled herself in front of a precious bundle of paper and began to write the extraordinary work later called Makura no sōshi, known to English readers as The Pillow Book. In it she wrote about her world, in a voice so vividly alive that we find ourselves in the presence of a woman we recognize as we would a friend.
The world Sei Shōnagon lived in and wrote for us was the intimate world of the court ... As we read her apparently crazy quilt of vignettes and opinions and anecdotes, we find ourselves deep inside this world, and feel her responses along our own nerves.
... Sei Shōnagon's writing revels in the nuances of sound and scent - the soft tap of a lid placed on a kettle, the faint sussuration of fire tongs gently stirring ash in a brazier, or the lingering scent from someone's incense-impregnated clothes resonate with peculiar intensity. Visual awareness is also acute; the glint of firelight on a metal clasp or the glow of a glossed-silk robe receives loving attention.
This is perhaps to be expected, in a dark interior lit largely by an occasional oil lamp or brazier fire, or pale daylight filtered through fine blinds. What is unexpected and astonishing, however, is the vivid and detailed visual awareness of clothes. A figure some distance away, in a poorly illuminated room, will be recalled years later with an enthralled description of the details of clothing, colour and fabric. It is undoubtedly the case that Sei Shōnagon was particularly finely attuned to and observant of such matters ..."
That's from Meredith McKinney's introduction to The Pillow Book, and this is just a gentle reminder that it's our book group book for this month, and we'll be talking about it here from Saturday, 23rd. November - everyone is welcome to join in.
"This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage is a wide-ranging and deeply personal combination of essay and memoir. Here, Ann Patchett shares entertaining and moving stories about her tumultuous childhood, her painful early divorce, the excitement of selling her first book, driving a Winnebago from Montana to Yellowstone National Park, her joyous discovery of opera, scaling a six-foot wall in order to join the Los Angeles Police Department, the gradual loss of her beloved grandmother, starting her own bookshop in Nashville, her love for her very special dog and, of course, her eventual happy marriage.
The book overflows with close observation and emotional wisdom and [its stories] are told with wit, honesty and irresistible warmth."
The Blenheim Palace Literary Festival opens tomorrow, and while I'd love to attend many of the events taking place there over the next few days, I shall have to content myself with adding to my wish list on the basis of their programme, and here are a few things which caught my eye:
Also on Thursday, Ruth Rendell will be in Woodstock to discuss the latest in her Inspector Wexford series, No Man's Nightingale. In this the 24th. book, Reg comes out of retirement to help his former colleague Mike Burden investigate the murder of an unpopular vicar.
One of my best books of the year so far is William Nicholson's Motherland, and one of the ones I'm most looking forward to reading is D.J. Taylor's The Windsor Faction, so Friday's event which sees those two authors in conversation on the art of writing fiction based around the events of World War II sounds like a real treat, and a must for me had I been able to go.
I've long been meaning to read something by Rachel Hore (D.J. Taylor's wife) and still haven't done so, but her latest book The Silent Tide, set in the world of publishing in both the present day and the late 1940s/early '50s looks good. Rachel's Sunday morning event is billed as "an intimate chat about books and writing over coffee" and sounds fun.
I've been away this week (of which more soon), hence the lack of posts and general radio silence, but I'm back home now and went this afternoon to Blackwell's (Edinburgh South Bridge branch) for a bit of book shopping as today sees the launch of Books are my bag, a campaign to promote bookshops.
I'd been expecting to find signs of what the website describes as 'The Big Bookshop Party' - balloons, bunting, or banners, say - but unless I missed it somehow there was nothing out of the ordinary going on, and little evidence of the campaign. Nevertheless, I had a pleasant browse and bought Laura Thompson's biography of Agatha Christie (and got the 'Books are my bag' bag, as you can see).
Anyone else been doing any book buying (or bookshop visiting) lately?