Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Persephone Books Reading Week

I am really enjoying Paperback Reader's posts that bring together all the activity taking place for the Persephone Books reading week. I don't have much time to read many this week but I am already picking up lots of ideas for future reading.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Bloomsbury letters to go on sale

Letters of the Bloomsbury Group. Photo: Gorringes Auctioneers

A collection of letters between members of the Bloomsbury Group and Helen Anrep are to be auctioned on 3rd September. Helen Anrep, Roger Fry's partner from the 1920s until Fry's death in 1934, became a close friend of the Bloomsbury Group members despite not being an artist or an intellectual herself. She was extemely interested in the arts and the letters contain a broad range of topics from gardening to family issues.

The letters are estimated to fetch between £50,000 - £80,000. I am off to buy a lottery ticket.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Cover covet - Penguin English Journeys

Penguin have recently published a range of books under the title English Journeys - a series of short books celebrating the English countryside. Authors range from Vita Sackville-West to Henry James, Dorothy Wordsworth and Simon Jenkins. Below are some of my favourite covers in the range.

Book Review - The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

There is nothing quite like the adrenaline rush that you can get from being thoroughly gripped by a good book and being physically incapable of getting off the sofa to do anything else until you have finished reading. This book will stop you from doing any cooking, cleaning, socialising or, in fact, living until you have read the novel from cover to cover.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is set in 1946 and follows the author Juliet Ashton who is searching around for an idea for her next book. Purely by chance Dawsey Adams from the recently liberated Guernsey contacts her as he has bought a second hand copy of Charles Lambs' essays which were previously owned by Juliet. He wants to know if she can help him find a biography of Charles Lamb as all the bookshops on Guernsey were shut down during the German Occupation. Dawsey mentions that he is a member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Juliet's intrigue is sparked. A regular correspondance develops between Juliet and Dawsey and later between Juliet and all the members of the society.

The novel is very funny and perfectly captures British eccentricity as well as examining the difficulties faced by the inhabitants of Guernsey during the occupation with touching honesty and insight into a community coming to terms with irrevocable change. The complexity of both the occupation and human nature is realised and dealt with through wit and sensitivity. From the horror of the war crimes committed on Guernsey to the wonderful tale of a literary society bringing people together and triumphing over adversity, this book will have you utterly gripped.

This is a tale that exalts the power of reading and the somewhat Arnoldian view that culture can be transformative - the L&PPPS not only transforms the lives of the Guernsey inhabitants during the occupation but it transforms Juliet Ashton's life; it gives her an idea for a book and also gives her a new life.

First page teaser - a letter from Juliet Ashton to her publisher Sidney Stark:
Now for my grim news. You asked me how work on my new book is progressing. Sidney, it isn't. English Foibles seemed so promising at first. After all, one should be able to write reams about the Society to Protest Against the Glorification of the English Bunny. I unearthed a photograph of the Vermin Exterminators' Trade Union marching down an Oxford street with placards screaming 'Down with Beatrix Potter!' But what is there to write about after a caption? Nothing, that's what.

Friday, 14 August 2009

An Arundel Tomb by Philip Larkin

Chichester Cathedral

One of my favourite buildings is Chichester Cathedral in West Sussex. The green, copper roof and elegant spire can be seen from the English Channel to the South Downs and are a beacon of home as Chichester is where I grew up.

Chichester Cathedral houses the tomb of Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel and his wife Eleanor of Lancaster. This tomb was made famous by Philip Larkin as it inspired him to write An Arundel Tomb which was published in his 1964 collection The Whitsun Weddings.

An Arundel Tomb describes the stone effigies of the married couple - who are tenderly holding hands. On first reading, the poem celebrates their 'faithfulness in effigy' and seems to be a proclamatory poem about the longevity of love. However, I always trip over the final stanza and wonder if, in fact, the reality is that they never intended to be bound together for eternity and that Richard Fitzalan and Eleanor of Lancaster may not have loved each other at all. The final line seems to trail off in tone; a weak statement of hope.

An Arundel Tomb by Philip Larkin

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd —
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

Taken from Philip Larkin Collected Poems Published by Faber & Faber

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Book Review - Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan

A Day in the Life - taken by Dom Cram

Yesterday I spent the day in Oxford. Perched on my rug next to the Thames I idly watched the rowing boats, motor boats, canal boats, punts and river birds parade past. I tried to catch up on some reading but the sound of the bells, river life and picnic chatter was far too distracting and my mind turned to, and agreed with, Hugh Lindsay's romantic desire to,
hear the bells, hear the footsteps, see the shadows move across the cobbles and the red leaves drift and the wind in the scholars' gowns. He wanted to know all day and all night that he was in Oxford.
Hugh Lindsay is married to Patricia Lindsay, a Baron's granddaughter who grew up riding ponies at her stately home of Hulver. She meets Hugh, a poor student and aspiring academic, on a train and they fall into a marriage together - but Patricia had not been trained to sew, cook, clean and manage a household, she knew how to break horses and hunt a provincial pack.

Over time she 'forgets' her old life and sinks into the domestic routine; three children arrive and she,

remained at home, mending, making, ordering her household; and sometimes she went to tea with other such dim disciplined creatures and talked about education and ailments.

Patricia found herself placing all her time and energy into the raising of her children. She made the correct self-sacrifices and nutured her children, providing everything they needed. One dark, cold evening as she was feeling 'older, uglier, feebler' she made her way home to find all three of them waiting for her 'August and Giles and Nicola, her princes in the land'. But as they grow up they surprise Patricia as they move away from her perception of them as children. August, she is sure will go into the army - he gets a girl pregnant, marries her and becomes a refrigerator salesman in suburbia. Giles becomes a member of The Oxford Group, an evangelical movement and he moves to America. Nicola, who 'loves riding' announces she has always hated riding and wants to be a mechanic. Patricia reflects on the people she has raised and sent out into the world, 'And they'd not gone as princes. The Kingdoms she had won for them, they had rejected.' She goes further,
these weren't the children for whom she'd given up fun and friendship,worked, suffered, worried, taken thought, taken care, done without, suppressed,surrendered and seen her young self die.
Princes in the Land, published by the wonderful Persephone Books, is a searing examination of family life, motherhood and coming to terms with children becoming adults. Joanna Cannan poignantly probes the place of an early twentieth century woman within both the home and society. The realisation that a woman's 'job is done' when her children leave the nest is dealt with and conquered as the protagonist goes full circle and rediscovers her youth's passion and adapts herself once more to meet the needs of her grown-up children.

I will be reading this again during the Persephone Books reading week, hopefully whilst perched on my rug, watching the shadows pass across the cobbles, listening to the bells and watching some river life in Oxford.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Book Review - The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

Many of us dream about setting up our own bookshop. Mine would be full of armchairs with blankets strewn over them for chilly days, it would have standard lamps and floor length vintage floral curtains. There has to be a tabby cat and endless cups of tea. I am not sure that I would make much money from this enterprise as customers would be encouraged to stay, read, talk and enjoy the books with a slice of cake.

Florence Green has a similar idea. She decides to open the only bookshop in the small Suffolk town of Hardborough, where books have not been sold since the last bookseller knocked down a customer, with a folio, after a row over Dombey and Son. Undeterred, Florence buys the Old House and quickly moves in, only to be confronted by the local 'patroness' Violet Gamart who had her sights on the Old House for a local arts centre.

Florence quickly finds that trying to establish the only bookshop in Hardborough is not simple. With the help of the ten year-old Christine Gipping, Florence establishes the Old House Bookshop lending library - but the wrath of Violet Gamart does not waver and is exacerbated when Christine raps her over the knuckles for jumping the queue. The final straw is when Florence and Christine create a window display entirely out of copies of Lolita. A battle of wills ensues and Florence fights the natural and supernatural forces that do not want a bookshop in Hardborough.

Penelope Fitzgerald's novel was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1978 and I can certainly see why. Her portrayal of small town politics, the nuance of local tradition and odd characters is stylish and uses a low-key tone that matches the steadfast yet mild protagonist. Florence Green suffers from forces beyond her control but as the reader is told 'she had a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation.'

Despite the politics, poltergeists and put-downs experienced by Florence, The Bookshop has not muddied my dream of the Bloomsbury Bell Bookshop. And in fact, it might be one of the first books that I will stock.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Fairytales in the 21st century

The Cottingley Fairies Hoax, 1917

What is the place for fairytales in 21st century society? I ask this because they have been on my mind recently. The current, free, exhibition at the V&A is Telling Tales: Fantasy and Fear in Contemporary Design which explores story-telling through decorative devices. The exhibition is divided into three sections, The Forest Glade, The Enchanted Castle and Heaven and Hell. All three section titles are strong themes within fairytales.

I got home from the exhibition and pulled my dog-eared copy of Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales from the shelf. Doomed love, failed quests and death are all presented as inevitable yet the reader is held to account and asked to look at their own moral code to see how we ourselves can ease the burden of the human condition. Through good deeds The Little Mermaid can gain an immortal soul, which will take 300 years. But children can help shorten this sentence by being good to their parents - for every good child found The Little Mermaid's sentence is reduced by a year.

The new production of All's Well That Ends Well at the National Theatre references fairytales through the set and costume design. The marrying of the fairytale theme with this Shakespeare play works incredibly well. The production team have thrown this play into the 21st century and have placed the audience into the shoes of the small child reading Hans Christian Andersen. In this morality tale, Helena is the protagonist who goes on a quest to win her love, the Count Bertram. She is set a succession of seemingly impossible tasks but it is through the 'trial' of Bertram that she really wins. She is Cinderella, she is Red Riding Hood but ultimately, she is a modern heroine as no-one can beguile her with pumpkins and big eyes.

I also have to mention, as a shoe-lover, that Helena wears the most amazing pair of sparkly shoes I have ever set eyes upon. Oh, to have a key to the National Theatre's Wardrobe Department!

Fairytales have got lighter over the last century, perhaps attributable to Walt Disney. The Little Mermaid that I grew up with was actually the 1989 animated Disney film. She does not die in the end. The lesson learnt was that we would grow up to have whatever we wanted, in this case Prince Eric. When I read the original at university I was shocked to say the least - things are not always going to turn out how we want?! A year later in 1990 Pretty Woman hit the cinema. The modern, self-conscious Cinderella story. Another reminder that dreams will come true. But are we turning back to a darker interpretation of fairytales?

Does the 21st century audience now crave the gritty reality that Hans Christian Andersen so expertly delivered? Are we like the children of the 19th century, in need of moral instruction? Telling Tales at the V&A highlights a reversion to the exploration of mortality through modern design and All's Well That Ends Well does not end on a particularly light note, Helena got her man - but does he really deserve her? I am not sure where 'happily ever after' originated and I don't know how appropriate this line is to the fairytales I have encountered this week.

The Perfect Library

The library in the Beast's Castle - Beauty and the Beast

I am waiting for the remaining books on the Booker long list to come in to my local library which has led me to think about what makes the 'perfect library'. Should it be dark and musty or bright and clean? Millions of books stacked higgledy-piggledy or all in neat, orderly rows? Let me know about your favourite library.

In Disney's wonderfully saccharine animated film, Beauty and the Beast, the Beast gives Belle this huge library - the ultimate gift. With more books than she can ever read in her lifetime (or if she can, I am really inadequate). Belle was without a doubt my favourite Disney character as she had brown hair, brown eyes and was obsessed with books.

Moving away from the realms of fantasy, my favourite library has to be the University of London Library at Senate House (pictured below). Senate House was built between 1932-37 and was the inspiration for the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. As an English Literature student I would spend many autumnal days searching through the dusty shelves for books on anything from Woolf to early printing presses. The interior of the library is strikingly early twentieth century with parquet floors and original 1930s light fittings. It is a haven for those in love with modernist literature as the surroundings evoke the contents of the books perfectly. One of my best times at university was spent in the Special Collections room studying the original 1628 copy of The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake. A real opportunity for a 19 year old student.

The library does offer membership to non-students, so you can go and explore the literary idyll yourself.

Senate House Library, Malet Street, London