Month: September 2009

What do your bookshelves say about you?

I saw this fascinating article on the BBC website today about what our bookshelves say about us. It was inspired by the 30th anniversary of the good old Billy IKEA bookcase, of which I own one, that has been put together wrongly (the rough edges of the two sides face the front instead of the back, so mine has a rustic effect…completely unintentional and I was too exhausted from the effort of screwing with a COMPLETELY POINTLESS ALLEN KEY to rectify my mistake by the time I had noticed), and is now almost collapsing under the weight of my books in the corner of my bedroom. Billy holds a mixture of random unorganised books as well as a bottom shelf of ‘unread’ books that I must get around to one day. There are also piles of either recently read or recently purchased books shoved on the edge of shelves that don’t really fit anywhere else, and miscellaneous stuff that I can’t find anywhere else to put dotted on the shelves. It looks a complete mess, but as I have nowhere else to put any of the books, a complete mess it must stay. To the left of Billy is another pile of unread books and to the right is a lovely Persephone bookbag filled with unread copies of the TLS that I subscribed to and then never got around to reading. Some of those are nearly two years old and still in their cellophane. Oh well.

On the other side of my wardrobe (see photo on the left) sits my little bookcase that is made up entirely of unread purchases. It is my Bookcase of Shame and is the first thing I see when I wake up, as it is directly opposite my bed. The Bookcase of Shame’s purpose is to collect all of my unread books together in one place, making me realise just how many unread books I have managed to accumulate, and shame me into stopping my obsessive book buying habit. Needless to say the Bookcase of Shame has failed in its task and the collection of unread books has spilled out into another shelf on the aforementioned Billy and also a large teetering pile beside Billy as seen above. I have admitted defeat on this one and have settled on a philosophy of in for a penny, in for a pound. If I’m going to have a book addiction, I may as well do it properly. I suspect another teetering pile beside Billy will be growing soon.

My third and final bookcase sits in the living room of the flat I share. No one else is allowed to use this bookcase. It is filled with all of the books I have managed to read and is in no order whatsoever. One day when I have my own house and can line the walls with bookshelves and not worry about running out of space, I will alphabetise. Until that day, my books can be grateful that they even fit on a shelf, because some of their unlucky brothers and sisters don’t even have that luxury. They are stuck in boxes under my bed, gathering dust and generally feeling unloved. I know this is heartless but I have nowhere else to put them and they do have each other for company as they slowly lose a little more hope every day that they will have a shelf of their own. The shelf is coming my friends, I promise. One day.

This leads me on to the content of my bookshelves. They are filled with all sorts but most are Victorian to mid 20thc women’s fiction, classics, social histories or literary biographies. I collect Virago Modern Classics and Persephones, largely indiscriminately; I know I will like what they print so I am willing to take a chance on whichever ones I find, as long as they aren’t too expensive. Most of my books are bought from charity or second hand book shops, though some of the nicer hardbacks I have either got as presents or won as school prizes. The majority of my books have been read and loved, and I keep them because I enjoyed them and I want to have them around me in case I should ever want to read them again. Others have been bought because I fully intend on reading them, and though they might have to wait a while, I will get around to reading them eventually. Some of my books I will admit I have solely because they make me look intelligent and well read (I may or may not have read them..) and some I bought just because they have gorgeous bindings. However, I did weed most of these vain purchases out when I last moved so the majority of my beloved books are indeed beloved and will be appreciated when I get around to reading them. Some people (mainly my mother) are appalled that I continue to buy books at a rapid rate even though I have a bookcase and a bit of unread books already, but I like the fact that I can always be sure to have something new to read, and I have such fun browsing book shops for that special find that I can’t stop myself, no matter how hard I try. There are worse addictions to have!

So…what do my bookshelves say about me? I think they show that I:

1. Can’t stop buying books
2. Have fairly traditional tastes
3. Am a bit snobby
4. Am very interested in women’s fiction
5. Am very interested in Victorian fiction
6. Like literary biographies
7. Had a teenage obsession with the Russian Romanovs…hence my huge collection of books on Imperial Russia
8. Don’t do organisation

And if I could pick three books from my collection to sum me up?

1. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – I am traditional, feminine and am very much a homebody. I love to sew and bake and read and drink tea and be cosy and be surrounded by family and friends, much like the girls in Little Women. I was born 55 and I’ve only been getting older since, what can I say!

2. The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi – Though I have grown up in the suburbs, I am desperate to get out and have had itchy feet for a long time. The protagonist of this book, Karim, is searching for something more than a life in a semi in a non descript London suburb and wants to make something of himself; this was my favourite book as a teenager and it inspired me so much that I gave copies to all my friends. This book shows the secret rebel in me and continues to inspire me to dare to believe in something more.

3. New York Mosaic by Isabel Bolton – New York is my favourite place and I dream of running away to the bright lights of Manhattan and charming the socks off everybody with my London accent and excellent tea making skills. The cover of this book is of the New York skyline and every time I catch a glimpse of it, it makes me smile and my thoughts drift to the city that never sleeps, and my dream of making it my home one day.

So, what’s on your bookshelves, and what do they say about you??

Seasonal Reading

Oh, isn’t it lovely outside with all the leaves turning various shades of burnt amber and the sky being a beautiful azure blue and the sun still shining even though it is very nearly October? How I love the changing seasons. England might be a rubbish place to live a lot of the time as it does rain considerably more than in other places (except for Scotland, and Seattle, apparently) but one thing it does do well is clearly delineating between seasons. In our green and pleasant land you know when it’s Autumn, and then when it’s Winter, and then when it’s Spring, and then when it’s Summer. I find this reassuring. I enjoy structure. This is why I work in an office.

I also like reading seasonally. There are certain books that evoke a particular season for me, perhaps because the first time I read them was during that time of year, perhaps because the action is set in that season, or perhaps just because they give me the feeling I associate with certain months. Some I have discovered fairly recently, and will be re-reading at the same time next year, others are old favourites that I always pull out for a comfort read, year after year.

There’s nothing like curling up with Jane Eyre beside my mum’s fire while the wind and rain lash against her lovely French windows and I am all safe inside, reading about Thornfield and the wild moors and Jane hearing Rochester’s cry on the wind… there is also nothing like sitting outside in the summer with the sun on my back and the delicious smell of roses in the air, reading about Emma matchmaking amongst the shrubbery. When I read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie I can smell pencil shavings and feel the excitement of a new school term, and imagine walking to school through the park, kicking up the golden leaves….it is pure autumn to me. And The Secret Garden is my ultimate spring book; the time of year when all is coming alive again, when hope springs eternal, when the sun is back and new plans are made, the story of Mary and Colin and their transformation from surly sickly things into healthy robust funloving children is wonderful and always gives me a real feeling of being revived after a long, cold and often dull winter.

Some of my favourite seasonal reads:

Autumn

Persuasion by Jane Austen

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Unless by Carol Shields

The Brimming Cup by Dorothy Canfield

Winter

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Possession by A S Byatt

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
Spring

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim

Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

Summer

Emma by Jane Austen

The Go Between by L P Hartley

Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald

Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian

Do you have any books that you associate with certain seasons? Comfort reads that you return to at the same time of the year, every year? Or is it just me? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

**Edited to add, for all interested parties: The Children’s Book is progressing well…nearly 200 pages in and I am enjoying it immensely! Just a shame there are another 400 pages to go!**

And so it begins…

I have started The Children’s Book. It is, so far, surpassing my expectations and I am not feeling swamped as I had worried. Though A S Byatt does need to be reminded on the odd occassion that she is in fact writing a novel and not a dissertation entitled ‘I know everything about the Victorians! Let me tell you every meticulously researched detail of their daily lives! ‘. It does remind me in both its style and content of the absolutely marvellous Possession, which is one of my all time favourite books, so this is a very good start.

Incidentally I have noticed that Possession has been rereleased with a cover to resemble that of The Children’s Book, and on the front it says ‘by the author of The Children’s Book‘. Has The Children’s Book already surpassed Possession‘s fame, I wonder?

As long as I manage to read it a bit faster than I currently am (it took me my whole half an hour train journey this morning to read just 30 pages which isn’t very good, is it?) I should be finished in a week or so. I hope. So bear with me, a review will be forthcoming at some point next week!

The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins

Well I’m a bit early for Cornflower’s book group, which is discussing this next week, but this is too interesting to wait to blog about until then.

I was rather surprised by this book. I’ve read lots of very favourable reviews and I was expecting a wronged lady gets her own back and everything ending happily ever after with a nice helping of just desserts for the evil perpetrator story that was witty and well observed and entertaining. But this book is far more subtle and intricate and harder to define than that. It turned all of my expectations on their heads and left me shocked but also surprisingly satisfied considering the way things actually work out. In short, The Tortoise and the Hare is a superb read. I say superb rather than wonderful because it is not particularly uplifting or whimsical; instead it is finely crafted and the characters are brilliantly, acutely, perceptively drawn. I felt a part of their world, and I cared (or didn’t) deeply for the people within it. It has been a while since I have read something that both absorbed and unsettled me in a manner that was filled with a quiet suspense and foreboding, like a black cloud on the horizon of an otherwise perfect sky.

The basic plot is as follows: Imogen Gresham is a beautiful and elegant woman in early middle age; the mother of a young son, Gavin, and the wife of a highly successful, wealthy, distinguished and handsome fifty something barrister, Evelyn. They live very comfortably in a large house in the country, and the action is set after the war, in the late 40s. Imogen is placid and kind, brought up to please others and do not much else. She is endearingly hopeless with all household tasks and her son has no respect for her. Evelyn is the model of succesful and efficient masculinity and his exasperation with, yet indulgence of Imogen’s uselessness makes Imogen feel constantly unsure of herself. She means well in all situations, but she is also passive to a fault, and her failure to assert herself or to try to develop the skills she lacks means she is destined to remain ineffectual and a ball of nerves around her son and husband.

Despite all of this, life runs along nicely for the Greshams; Imogen and Evelyn are affectionate to each other, and Imogen adores Evelyn. However, the storm starts to brew when their neighbour, a stout, wealthy spinster of middle age named Blanche Silcox, begins to take an unhealthy interest in Evelyn. Imogen initially thinks nothing of this; she sees nothing in Blanche that could attract a man. However, when Evelyn begins to spend more and more time at Blanche’s house, and even begins doing things for Gavin, the penny drops and Imogen is left floundering, her self confidence shattered, and completely at a loss of what to do. Incapable of forcing a climax, she struggles on, trying to hold things together and reclaim Evelyn’s affection, but the storm must break and when it does, the after effects are far more surprising than the reader could have imagined.

There are plenty of wonderfully drawn supporting characters too; there is the delightful, neglected son of a neighbouring family, Tim, who is Gavin’s playmate, but whose real reason for coming to the Gresham’s is to see Imogen, who he adores. There are also Imogen’s great friends, Paul and Cecil, who are well rounded, touchingly portrayed and thoroughly wonderful.

I greatly enjoyed this book, but I also found it frustrating and rather complex. At times I didn’t know who to sympathise with. Imogen was the wronged woman, and so naturally I felt my sympathies should have been with her, but her passivity and inability to fight back did irritate me to the point where I understood why Evelyn might have wanted to seek the company of a more competent and independent woman. Even Blanche at times was sympathetic; her loneliness and need for affection, as well as her genuine attempts to make people feel comfortable, made me feel sorry for her, and her love of Evelyn and desire to make him happy made me understand why she didn’t think it was wrong to take Imogen’s husband from her. It is a book that plays with your emotions, that questions your prejudices and your sense of what is right and wrong, and shows the blurred lines of morals that govern so many of our lifestyle choices. It was subtle and unnerving and touching and involving and I encourage you all to read it and judge it from your own points of view; as Carmen Callil says in her afterword, the great charm of this book is that each reader can take something different from it. It is certainly far more than a formulaic man has affair – woman finds out – crisis – all ends happily and neatly novel. Conversely, it is very daring in its answers to the issues it raises, exceptionally so considering the time at which it was written, and I think it has become my absolute favourite Virago.

In other news, it is officially Autumn as of today. Seasons of mist and mellow fruitfulness and all of that Keatsian evocativeness. I am looking forward to cold, crisp days and crunching through piles of golden leaves that have fallen onto the pavements, to the smell of wood smoke in the air, to wearing scarves and gloves and having rosy cheeks, to eating fruit crumbles with vanilla custard and drinking lots of spiced chai tea. Delightful.

Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski

Well what can be said? What can be said about a book that makes you want to reach in and scoop up the characters and cuddle them and tell them everything is going to be alright in a few pages, they just need to hold on a little bit longer? What can be said about a book that has you longing for a conclusion that you are afraid is never going to come? What can be said about a book that makes you emotional and maternal and weepy and a little bit shaky? What can be said?!

I am tearing up a little bit just remembering the conclusion of this marvellous, unputdownable read. I was sitting on the train and staring out of the window, blinking back my over emotional delicate lady tears and thinking why did it take me so long to discover this remarkable book? I’ve known about it for ages and ages and I have heard great things about it from many people whose opinions I trust. What prevented me from reading it was that I had read a bit of The Victorian Chaise Longue, thought it was alright but it didn’t grip me, and then decided that all her books were going to be like that so I wouldn’t bother with her others unless someone bought me a copy. What a bad judgement I made! I have learned my lesson well and truly, because Marghanita Laski just rocketed up my favourite authors list and The Village is going to be my next read after a couple of others that I am supposed to be reading first (yes, yes, one of them is The Children’s Book, I said I’d read it and I will…next week…).

So I have Jane over at FleurFisher Reads to thank for picking me as the winner of her Persephone Week Prize Draw and sending me Little Boy Lost as my prize (picture shows the lovely card she sent too), because if she hadn’t have done so, I probably wouldn’t have read it for years and what a world of emotional torment I would have been missing out on if I had have waited that long! I gasp at the thought!

I’m sure you all know the basic plot of this but I’ll rehash it anyway just in case. Hilary is an English intellectual, battered emotionally by the fallout of World War II; his beautiful and much beloved Polish wife, Lisa, was killed by the Gestapo in Paris and his son, whom he only saw briefly just after he was born, is missing, lost somewhere in France. Hilary is afraid of emotion and of love; he doesn’t want to give anything of himself to anyone, or dwell on the past, because he doesn’t want to risk being hurt again. This makes him come across as cold and unfeeling, but he’s not, not at all; he has just built barriers around his heart to protect himself from feeling the pain of losing someone he loves all over again. This would be enough to make most women’s hands go to their hearts and sigh but…there is yet more to come. On Christmas Day after the war has ended, a mysterious Frenchman by the name of Pierre comes to Hilary’s door and asks to speak to him privately. He has news of where his son might be, and is willing to help him find the little boy he only saw once, at a few days old, and who will now be five.

Hilary’s last letter from Lisa contained a promise from her that she would make sure their little boy John was safe; for her sake, she says, Hilary must do everything he can to find their son again and bring him home. As much as Hilary is afraid of loving, and of any intrusion into his now safely ordered life, he agrees to go with Pierre to track down the boy that could be his son, out of love for his wife.

The essential dilemma for Hilary is that he has no idea whether this boy is his son or not. He doesn’t have a photograph of him, only saw him when he was a newborn, red, crying little thing and has no idea of how his wife spoke to him or played with him. There are no points of reference he can use to identify the child unless he sees a clear resemblance either to himself or Lisa, and it is this anguish of not knowing, and not wanting to take the wrong child, but at the same time feeling himself falling in love with this gorgeous little imp of a boy who tugs at his coat and wants to see the trains (oh, I am getting teary again just thinking of the little thing!) and who shows him his broken and battered toys as if they were the finest jewels in the world, that makes this novel so heartrending.

Hilary stays in the little town where the boy lives in an orphanage for a week, and he visits him every day with a view to making a decision about whether he thinks he is his son or not by the end of that week. Hilary wavers, he struggles, he fights against the new feelings of love he desperately doesn’t want to feel again, or allow to influence his decision. He is frightened of having his life turned upside down, frightened of making the wrong decision, frightened of abandoning this little boy, but also frightened of abandoning his real son if he takes this child without being certain and stops the search for his own boy, who might still be out there somewhere. Hilary’s determination to be quite clinical and factual and make the ‘right’ decision without getting emotionally involved becomes more and more difficult as he finds the little Jean working his way into his heart. As his mind becomes more and more confused he allows himself to be infatuated by a local woman, but as his lustful desire for her that has nothing to do with love becomes more and more pronounced, Hilary starts to realise that, after all, his life is empty, and love might be just the thing he needs.

A vulnerable man, afraid of his emotions! A lonely and abandoned little boy, desperate to be loved! How much more can Marghanita Laski tug on a woman’s heartstrings?! I felt like I had well and truly been through the wringer after reading Little Boy Lost, but every tear was worth it; this is a stunningly beautiful portrait of post war Europe, of the damage loss can do to a heart, and of the redeeming power of love that we all have within us. The final sentence is one of, if not the most, powerful and beautiful and wonderful I have ever read, and if you haven’t read Little Boy Lost, you need to get hold of it NOW and read it instantly. It is perfect.