- Apart from the stock, Parnassus Books' shop dogs would be a major draw for me, if I lived in Nashville; booksellers of Britain, take note!
- From Tennessee to the neighbouring state of Alabama, and today is the 54th. anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. I've written before about the book's significance to me, but by any standards it is a very special novel, so I'm glad to hear that it has now been released as an e-book. If you have never read it you are in for a wonderful experience, and if you have, re-readings only enhance it.
- Lastly, posting has been sporadic of late as other things have claimed my time and attention. That's set to continue for a while, so apart from popping in to update my current reading and the like, I'm going to take a wee break.
I'm not going to beat about the bush here; I'll just say that Bodies of Light, the new novel by Sarah Moss, deserves to go straight to the top of your 'must read' lists.
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.
This happens to be Independent Booksellers' Week, but I don't need that or any other excuse to visit a bookshop, so when I was in Oxford I went, of course, to Blackwell's, and there I bought two books of local interest:
Penelope Lively's The House on Norham Gardens is set in North Oxford, and is described by Philip Pullman as "one of the best books by one of the best writers for children." It begins by describing the location:
"... As you go south [the houses] are growing. Getting higher and odder. By the time you get to Norham Gardens they have tottered over the edge into madness: these are not houses but flights of fancy. They are three stories high and disguise themselves as churches. They have ecclesiastical porches instead of front doors and round norman windows or pointed gothic ones, neatly grouped in threes with flaring brick to set them off. They reek of hymns and the Empire, Mafeking and the Khyber Pass, Mr. Gladstone and Our Dear Queen. They have nineteen rooms and half a dozen chimneys and iron fire escapes. A bomb couldn't blow them up, and the privet in their gardens has survived two World Wars.
People live in these houses. Clare Mayfield, aged fourteen, raised by aunts in North Oxford."
"In 1940 the Chinese writer Chiang Yee arrived in Oxford as a refugee from the London Blitz, his lodgings having been bombed. He came to Oxford, he writes, "in rather a turmoil". What was meant to be a brief escape turned into a five-year stay, an affectionate relationship with the city, and the fifth in the hugely successful "Silent Traveller" series. Looking at the city and its historic university with the curiosity and openness of a complete stranger, Chiang Yee paints a revealing picture of Oxford's particular atmosphere, its rituals and traditions. He mixes with undergraduates and dons, visits pubs and restaurants, witnesses Union debates and punting on the river, all with a gentle astonishment and perceptive eye for detail. Chiang Yee explores the colleges and other student haunts, but also the city and its surrounds, from Port Meadow to Headington and Hinksey. First published in 1944, The Silent Traveller in Oxford evokes a wartime city of shortages and blackouts. It also captures an earlier age of university life, when students drank sherry and scaled college walls to escape prowling Bulldogs. Throughout Chiang Yee draws parallels between Oxford and his native China, comparing the seasons, architecture, and the nature of learning itself. Illustrated with the author's own sketches, this book is both an atmospheric account of 1940s Oxford and a charming "Oriental" view of one of Britain's best loved cities."
"Ally likes Latin. It seems more like Maths than like French, a language with an integral logic. English words are slippery, leaning on each other and on unspoken presences, on ghosts, for their meanings. Latin is so tightly woven that it barely needs punctuation, the relationships between words so clear that the order in which they come doesn't matter. Life would be easier if we spoke Latin.
Aubrey says that social life in Ancient Rome was at least as complicated as in nineteenth-century Manchester. He says that no language is proof against what is not said, that people lie and, more interestingly, keep silent, in every tongue on earth, including Greek which is even more highly inflected than Latin. Anyway, the ghosts in English are what makes it interesting, those Viking and Norman presences floating about in our sentences and our poetry."
While the house has been turned upside down over the last couple of weeks I've found I cannot put my mind to a book, and all I've managed by way of reading has been a page or two at bedtime, precious little of which I've actually absorbed.
Meanwhile, I'm re-organising books and disposing of a lot (and bearing in mind the advice of Marie Kondo as I go) - it's all to the good!
While the purging has been going on, I have bought the odd thing, and the bookmark pictured here came with an order from The Book Depository; do click on the image to enlarge it as you should read the various 'passport stamps'. The design was one of the winners in a recent competition.
I trust you're faring better with your reading than I am (and I must say that my lack of concentration is no fault of the book's); I hope to be back to normal soon!
Fans of Sarah Moss's writing - and I am most certainly one - will be very glad to know that she has a new novel out:
"Bodies of Light tells of the coming together and falling apart of a family of idealists in Victorian Manchester. Ally's father paints beautiful women while her evangelical mother visits the slums and campaigns against child prostitution, teaching Ally and her sister May [Moberley] to live for others. While May likes to pose for the artists in her father's circle, Ally devotes herself to her mother's ambitions, working hard to join the first generation of female doctors. But bitterness and tragedy divide the family, and Ally leaves home to escape the subtle terrors of her childhood and begin a new life in London.
Bodies of Light is a profound and provocative book about family and a radically modern novel with a 19th. century setting. It is a gripping story told with rare precision and tenderness."
Readers of Sarah's last novel, the splendid Night Waking, will recall the character of May Moberley from that book; Sarah's fourth novel, which is in progress, continues the story.
Following on from Friday's post, I can report that I've now moved 300 books, sorted them, and got rid of around 100 so far - there will be more as I'm fairly getting into my stride and being quite ruthless/sensible, depending on your point of view, regarding what stays and what goes. Apart from the need to clear the study for the workmen who are coming this week, and the fact that, this lovely thought notwithstanding, I have far too many books to comfortably house, one motivating factor here was the realisation that, as it stands, my tbr 'pile' represents six to seven years' worth of reading, and given the current acquisition rate, things are out of hand.
While I was doing the sorting and looking forward to the help of a strong man to load the boxes into the car, etc., Mr. C. went to play cricket, threw himself after a ball (preventing the other team scoring four runs), landed heavily and tore a muscle in his side*. A visit to the minor injuries clinic at the hospital ensued, and he's been confined to light duties for the next little while, but the painkillers and rest are doing the trick and he's feeling a lot brighter this evening, despite the relative lack of sympathy from his otherwise loving family.
*That'll larn him.
The painting is Emmeline 'Nina' Mary Elizabeth Welby-Gregory (1867–1955), Mrs Henry John Cockayne-Cust, in the Library at Chancellor's House, Hyde Park Gate, London by Florence Seth.
I shall be spending the weekend moving hundreds of books in advance of some work being done to the house - after which all will be order and calm as above*, I hope! I doubt I'll get much reading time, but such as I have will be given over to Joanna Rakoff's memoir (see Wednesday's post) which I am enjoying enormously. I'm so pleased to see Litlove's comment there that it's a contender for her books of the year list; that's praise indeed.
I hope you have something very good to read over the next few days, or something equally diverting to do - please tell us if so, because I shall be popping back here for some light relief in the midst of all the fetching, carrying and sorting (or I could rope in the chaps from Foyles and put my feet up ...).
*In the Library, St. James' Square, c. 1805-06, attributed to Thomas Pole.
"An utterly beguiling memoir"; "The Devil Wears Prada meets Mad Men and Girls"; "an impossibly excellent read"; "the story of a reader becoming a writer, of a young woman deciding who she will be, of the power of books [...] a memoir that manages to be dreamlike but sharp, poignant but unsentimental."
Having read those comments about Joanna Rakoff's My Salinger Year I couldn't not read the book, an account of her time as an assistant at a prestigious New York literary agency where one of her responsibilities is answering J.D. Salinger's fan mail. "But as she reads the candid, heart-wrenching letters from his readers around the world, she finds herself unable to type out the agency's decades-old form response. Instead, drawn inexorably into the emotional world of Salinger's devotees, she abandons the template and begins writing back ..."
The book is published in the UK tomorrow (5th. June); I'm reading it now and although not far in, I'm very taken with it indeed.
I have a lot of books that I should be talking about but somehow today I'm 'fusionless', uninspired and disinclined to make the effort, so as we haven't had a 'good words' post for some time, this will suffice. If you click on the link above and then on the wee recording you'll hear how the word is said when it has an 'h' in the middle; my Highland grandmother used to say it, but with a longer 'u', no 'h', and a harder 's', and indeed the Scots dictionary gives many spellings and examples of usage - I can't link directly but if you're so minded you can put the word in the search box here and you should find them.
Smeddum is another very good word meaning "spirit, energy, drive, vigorous resourcefulness” (there's more on it here), and of course it was the title of a short story by Lewis Grassic Gibbon; let's hope I have some of that tomorrow.
I can't close today, though, without reference to at least one book. My wish list has grown a little longer thanks to all the collections of letters you kindly recommended in response to Sunday's post, and it was further augmented this morning by a book I hadn't come across before I saw it mentioned on Twitter, and that is Reflections: On the Magic of Writing by Diana Wynne-Jones, a collection of 25 of her articles on topics including "literary criticism (such as a study of narrative structure in The Lord of the Rings and a ringing endorsement of the value of learning Anglo Saxon), autobiographical anecdotes about reading tours (including an account of her famous travel jinx), revelations about the origins of her books, and thoughts in general about the life of an author and the value of writing". It sounds fascinating.
In the excerpt of an interview she gave to Andrew Marr shown here (scroll down), Lady Soames talks among other things of her father's 'Black Dog' and comments that she felt it was "kennelled" by her parents' happy marriage - of which the book is a portrait - and his interest in painting.
Following on from last month's Elizabeth Goudge post, her children's novel The Runaways, also known as Linnets & Valerians, is one of today's Kindle deals, priced at £0.99.
"[...] this is a splendid tale about four children who run away from a dreary relation and find their formidable great-uncle, a passionate educator of the young, living on the edge of Dartmoor. His household is as eccentric as that in The Little White Horse, and features protective bees as well as Greek lessons, delicious meals and lashings of common-sense.[...] Good battles evil in a most thrilling adventure, and Goudge's joy in country life and children's imagination makes this one to add to the shelves of any child of 8-12*," says Amanda Craig.
Geranium Cat, meanwhile, calls it "an enchanting book", and it was on the strength of her review that I have bought it.
"I have always preferred writing short stories to writing novels. Not that there is much similarity and not that a writer can usually get away with writing only one or the other (Katherine Mansfield almost did). Stories of all lengths and depths come from mysterious parts of the cave. The difference in writing them is that, for a novel, you must lay in mental, physical and spiritual provision as for a siege or for a time of hectic explosions, while a short story is, or can be, a steady, timed flame like the lighting of a blow lamp on a building site full of dry tinder."
Jane Gardam, from her introduction to her collection The Stories.
I spent about two hours this afternoon writing a longish post on the books I'll be reading over the next couple of weeks, only to press 'save' and find that Typepad was down again, and my carefully crafted piece had vanished.
So, to begin again, but more briefly this time, here's my 'soon to be read' pile:
Going Back by journalist and broadcaster Rachael English is a debut novel which sees Elizabeth Kelly leave Ireland to return to Boston where she spent the summer of 1988. "Can she reconcile the dreams of her twenty-year-old self with the woman she has become?"
Writing the Garden by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers is subtitled 'A literary conversation across two centuries', and is a collection of writings on the art of gardening by the likes of Vita Sackville-West, Elizabeth von Arnim, Edith Wharton, Beverley Nichols, Penelope Hobhouse and Margery Fish. Perfect for this time of year.
The Steady Running of the Hour by Justin Go is another debut, this one a time-slip tale of an unclaimed inheritance, "part historical tour de force, part heart-rending love story," a breathless race from London archives to the battlefield of the Somme and the fjords of Iceland to piece together the events of a long-ago love affair and uncover vital proof of lineage. The author talks about it here.
The White Russian by Vanora Bennett is "a sweeping, heartbreaking novel of illicit passion and family secrets set amongst the Russian émigré community in Paris in 1937". Evie comes from New York in search of art and adventure, but her grandmother's sudden death leads her on a quest to discover a mysterious man from her family's past. "With the world on the brink of war, she becomes embroiled in murder plots, conspiracies and more as White faces Red Russian and nothing is as it seems."
Last but by no means least, The Stories, a collection of Jane Gardam's short fiction. Some of these I've read before, some are new to me, all come from the pen of a literary star whose work I love and admire. As the blurb says, "Jane Gardam shakes out life and finds diamonds in its folds." I can't wait.
With the ongoing Typepad problems I hardly dare ask you to tell us what you're reading this weekend, but if you find you can leave a comment - and especially if you have something good on the go - please do let us know.