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."
Tove Jansson's The Summer Book is a bargain at 99p for Kindle today, and in case you haven't come across it (or its sibling The Winter Book), here's the gist:
Anyone familiar with Jansson's famous Moomins will recognise the humour in these stories which are a series of essay/sketches like a collection of watercolours, but with a sudden stab of the bold and brilliant. They are profound and funny, and following the adventures of the child Sophia and her elderly grandmother on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland, they cleverly capture the cantankerousness of both youth and old age: "Wise as she was, [grandmother] realised that people can postpone their rebellious phases until they're eighty five years old, and she decided to keep an eye on herself."
Sophia and grandmother discuss everything from whether God has secretaries, to the plight of halved worms and the frailty of moss (step on it three times and it dies), and all the while the island's vulnerability and isolation focus the stories inward. In her introduction, Esther Freud says the book's allure "is the allure of summer itself for [Scandinavians] who spend so much of the year in the dark." It is equally appealing to the rest of us.
The exhibition Fairy Tale Fashion is currently on at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City - I'd love to see it but doubt I shall. However, there's an accompanying book coming out soon which "[examines] the history, significance and imagery of classic fairy tales through the lens of high fashion and explores the pivotal role of dress in the exploration of power, transformation and identity in fairy tales".
Follow the link above to see some of the exhibits and hear the curator Colleen Hill talk about the show which in addition to clothes also exhibits artwork by Rackham, Dulac, etc. which helped establish "a fairy tale aesthetic". It sounds fascinating.
The picture here is The Storyteller from the stunning Wonderland by Kirsty Mitchell.
Her husband Hunter Davies is reported as saying that she was never interested in publicity or money: "She had an agreement with her publisher not to do literary lunches or do any broadcasting, and she actually didn't care whether the books were published or not. Her fun was in writing them and if the publisher didn't want to publish it, so what? She'd move on to the next one."
I'm always glad to have another chance to bring a good book back to centre stage, and the Kindle daily deals often give me that opportunity. Today you can bag a bargain in the shape of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows which was a huge hit when it came out around eight years ago.
At the time I called it "an utter joy of a book, beautifully judged, witty, lively, almost Mitfordesque in places, sparky, and extremely touching."
Here's the rest of my post:
In early 1946 the popular writer Juliet Ashton receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, a Guernsey farmer, who happens to have acquired a book she once owned. So begins an extraordinary correspondence between Juliet and the various members of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society to which the shy but dependable Dawsey belongs, and in which the details - both funny and tragic - of the German occupation of the island come to light. So enamoured is Juliet of her new pen-friends and the life that they describe that she determines to write her next book about the island in wartime and she takes up residence there to begin her research. She soon realises that the person who should be at the book's heart is the one islander she has yet to meet: the spirited, much-loved Elizabeth McKenna, transported to a concentration camp for her bravery and defiance in the face of the enemy, leaving behind her infant daughter Kit - to whom Juliet becomes close - and the secret of the child's paternity.
Written in epistolary form (and it does bear comparison with Helene Hanff's wonderful 84 Charing Cross Road), the book is both a love story and an unemotionally honest picture of its subject matter, but yet it has a light touch and is full of distinct and engaging characters such as Isola Pribby with her passion for the Brontes and her homemade potions, John Booker the wine-loving valet who's a fan of Seneca, Jonas Skeeter and his dim view of Marcus Aurelius : "...[he] was an old woman - always taking his mind's temperature...." and Clovis Fossey, who is much taken with poetry since joining the Society, and writes "Mrs. Maugery lent me a book last week. It's called The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892-1935. They let a man named Yeats make the choosings. They shouldn't have. Who is he - and what does he know about verse?"
Sadly, Mary Ann Shaffer died [in 2008]; her legacy is this simply lovely book which has been a great pleasure to read.
Just a quick link to point you in the direction of Eva's blog and podcastThe Charm of It, should you not already know them. Eva is one of those people who make mere mortals like me feel inadequate: she reads several hundred books a year, she knits nineteen to the dozen, and she designs her own complicated (knitted) garments, to boot. In documenting her progress she is always an informed and interesting observer and critic.
On her latest podcast episode she's talking about bookish knitting, specifically how she manages to combine knitting and reading, and the knitting references she's come across in her recent reading, and that segment begins around the 19.20 mark. Look out for Thistle and Moth, Eva's sweet dog and cat, too.
Lindsay's Hawdon's debut novel Jakob's Colours is a superb piece of work and a heart-rending one. It's out today in paperback and really does deserve a wide readership, for its quality and its subject matter. It deals with an overlooked aspect of twentieth century history, the persecution of Europe's Roma people which culminated in death camps and genocide, and it follows Jakob, a young half-blood gypsy boy, his Roma father and his English mother, and moves from Jakob's flight from the Nazi net in 1944 back to his parents' earlier lives in the '30s.
When I reviewed it last year I summed up thus:
"A novel of great beauty, compassion and sensitivity which yet portrays man’s inhumanity to man at its very worst, the book’s episodic structure - taking the reader back and forth in time and place - adds to its intensity, while Lindsay Hawdon’s gift for language makes for luminous, affecting writing."
It's the first children's book to win in more than a decade, but the judges said "we all loved this dark, sprawling, fiercely clever novel that blends history and fantasy in a way that will grip readers of all ages".
It sounds very interesting indeed - as you'll see if you pop over to the author's website, and watch a short interview with her here.
"The Lie Tree is a substantial text that is complex and intelligent: a lustrous, delicious romp about evolution and feminism, which contains a Hamlet-esque revenge plot. Crucially, [...] it comes from a place of wonder. Regardless of the age of the reader, our whole literary system is predicated on wonder, a fact that is often neglected [...]"
So far, so very good: I'm finding Claudia Renton's prize-winning biography of "three sisters at the heart of power", Those Wild Wyndhams, thoroughly engrossing. It's described as "a spellbinding chronicle of the last days of Edwardian England," and while I'm still in the Victorian period with the girls as youngsters, it's gathering pace and promising much interest.
"An alluring and atmospheric enquiry into the creative impulse -- as seen through the work and lives of Mariano Fortuny and William Morris -- by one of our greatest novelists. This ravishing little book, glowing with colour and generously illustrated throughout, opens a window on to the lives, passions and designs of two great artists a generation apart, William Morris and Mariano Fortuny. Inspired by a vision of the aquamarine light of Venice balancing Morris's green English countryside, A.S. Byatt delves into the world-transforming magic of their art, asking what fired them, how they lived and worked and how each man's art mirrors and confronts the other. A.S. Byatt combines her brilliant gift for character and place with a deep understanding of the craft, and the combination of profound ideas and sensual delight that make the art of Morris and Fortuny endure -- a ghostly presence outside time. "Peacock and Vine" is a work of art in itself -- the perfect present to give, to keep, to ponder over and to treasure."