Book reviews – Letters of an Indian Judge and The Glitter and the Gold

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Apr 2013 TBRI didn’t really plan for my new, longer, reviews to pair up non-fiction books, novels and now memoirs (or should I say, “memoirs”), but it’s quite nice and tidy that it’s happened that way, isn’t it? And with just a little preparation, I’ve managed to sustain writing these longer reviews (and fitting them into my notebook, too) – do you like them? Are you finding more to read and enjoy, with a bit more about the content of the books as well as my feelings about them? I hope so, but do tell me!

Anyway, here are my last two reads of April. Watch out for my May State of the TBR (not too bad, actually, thank you) and Upcoming Reads post which will be coming soon – I’ve got a lot of reading projects to get through next month so hopefully won’t acquire toooo many more …

“Letters of an Indian Judge to an English Gentlewoman”

(09 September 2012 – from Bridget)

The last of my books from Bridget, and this was rather an intriguing one. It’s a set of charming letters – one half of a correspondence – purporting to have been written over the lifetime of an Indian civil servant as he rises through the ranks to become a judge, taking in the sweep of Indian and Burmese history, first published in 1934 so presumably the sweep of history is up until the early 1930s. We get history and social change but seen through the lens of this one side of a rather touching set of letters between this judge and a lady who was once kind to him at a party, including the growing connection between their families. There’s an odd little note in the front of the second edition, the one I have, saying that this is non-fiction and published as such, but that there has been a furore over the book with it being attributed to an author called Dorothy Black. Now, I haven’t had time to look into this, but it does seem a little staged – there are so many coincidences, the writer’s son being employed by one of his own early employers, the connection between the oldest sons of the two families … It doesn’t spoil what is a very nice – if oddly symmetrical – book, which is rather moving in parts around the situation of women and the high infant mortality (although here there seems an odd mix between Hindu and Muslim practices which surely wouldn’t have happened). So, a good read, and a conundrum.

Maybe one of my readers has read this and knows more – do share in the comments if you do!

Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan – “The Glitter and the Gold”

(13 September 2012 – The Works)

Real memoirs this time from the pen of the erstwhile Duchess of Marlborough, shipped over to England from America and married off to a Duke, bravely dissolving their unsuitable marriage and going through rather a lot to end up marrying the love of her life. But it’s more than an emotional journey: it’s a portrait of the British aristocracy in a time of immense change between the First and Second World Wars, with Consuelo trying to conform to the stuffy rules, not knowing anything else but blind obedience, then breaking out of her shell as societal changes allow her to, taking up really useful (rather than dabbly and silly) charity work to help the wives of prisoners and unmarried mothers, agitating for women’s rights and giving over her London property to meetings and social organisation. She writes well and clearly, and is affecting rather than affected. You get a good sense of what it was like to be thrown into this rather alien world, and her allies such as her cousin, Winston Churchill as well as royal and aristocratic figures of the day.

The book has a nice introduction by her granddaughter, explaining how distant the life of someone born in 1877 is from her own, and lots of good pictures, but it breaks off rather suddenly in 1940, which is a real shame. There’s a palpable love for France that shines through, and a complicated life and background is made clear and enjoyable to read about – interesting and informative indeed.

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That’s April done – not too shoddy at all on the reading volume front, and I’m part way through two very interesting (and different) books that I’ll tell you about soon. What was your favourite April read? What’s coming up for you?

A lovely day, some haberdashery, and some more books …

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GBSB 1

Lauren and Tilly working hard

I had a lovely day today – reorganising Libro a little bit has led to me being able to take full days off with impunity; hopefully long gone are the days of working all day, every day.  One of the things I’ve been meaning to do more of now I have more free time is my crafting / sewing. I’m more of a cross-stitcher really (certainly not a knitter) but I have made four sets of curtains for our house, not to mention that 150 metres of bunting last year … Anyway, I’ve been enjoying watching the Great British Sewing Bee on the TV, and was excited to see that Lauren Guthrie from the show was opening a haberdashery shop, Guthrie & Ghani in Moseley today.

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Liz meets Stuart

So off we trotted and met Jen there, too, and to cut a long story involving a dash back to Kings Heath to buy the last copy of the book in Smiths, I bought the book, had it signed by Lauren, Tilly and Stuart, all contestants on the programme, and had a lovely chat with Stuart who, it turns out, was a contemporary of mine at University! Anyway, the shop is lovely, I bought buttons, ribbon and a pincushion, and will be back – and I’ll be talking a bit more on here about any crafty creations I manage to finish and anything else lovely I buy from the shop.

GBSB 3But of course, this has led to yet another book confession, as a shiny copy of the GBSB book had to be purchased in order to be signed. It does look great, though, doesn’t it! And has loads of hints and tips, and I haven’t bought a sewing book for *ages* (well, not a modern one; I can’t resist those old Golden Hands books when I find them second hand, even though it’s often a seventies fest inside).

20130427 1This confession reminded me that a Virago book landed on the doorstep in the week, kindly sent to me by Dee from the LibrayThing Virago group. I very much enjoyed the last Mary Webb I read, and this is her last short novel plus some short stories, so a real treat, and a lovely original Virago Green, too.

20130427 3After my second (ahem) visit to Guthrie & Ghani, I went to the regular BookCrossing meetup. To my shame, I didn’t take any books along (again), but I did only pick up one, a travel book about completing the Silk Road in China, etc., on horseback, so right up my street. Um, road.

20130427 4And then I got home and found that my next read-with-Matthew read (we so enjoyed reading Capital together, we thought we’d do it again with another book – all are welcome to join in) had arrived – Ruth Ozeki’s “A Tale for the Time Being” which centres around the Japanese tsunami. We’ve both enjoyed Ozeki’s other novels, so this should be a good read – and it has 430-odd pages of fairly small print, so should last us a while.

So, a variety of books on a variety of subjects, and a lovely day, too, involving the purchase of buttons, ribbon, a pincushion and then some falafel at the Farmers’ Market! What could be better?

Business book review – Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers

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Product DetailsLouise Harnby’s book, “Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers” is a must-read for anyone considering going into this line of business. In fact, there is a great deal of useful general information in the book that would be useful for anyone looking to start their own business.

The book is packed with useful advice on working out what you want to do, formulating a business plan, building a customer base, networking, using social media, etc. It’s peppered throughout with real-life examples from a handful of other editors, who are working in fields as diverse as genre fiction editing, STM publishing and academic articles, as well as Louise’s own experiences and some longer case studies at the end. There’s a great resource guide with loads of links to useful blogs, pages and reference materials (I was chuffed to see a link to my blog in the resource guide, which I hadn’t expected!).

Although I’m obviously an experienced editor (etc.) who has been running a business for some time, I found it useful for two reasons. One, it’s always gratifying to know you did the right thing when you started out, and indeed I have done much of what is recommended here. Two, I learned a few things, which is always nice, specifically about some editing software that makes the job easier (which I will hopefully be getting hold of and reviewing on here at some stage), and about how to embed downloadable pdfs into your website. It’s never too late to learn something new!

There was lots more to recognise, too, such as the emphasis on other editors being colleagues, not competitors, and the advice to use what you’ve learned in your previous jobs and life experience to deepen and broaden your offering as a freelance editor. I also realised how lucky I was to come into the work having learnt my trade in various jobs in the past, and how lucky I was to build the business pretty much by word of mouth and advertising on one or two sites, plus using social media. Things can be a lot more daunting than that, and I appreciate how lucky I’ve been that everything came together at the right time.

As regular readers will know, I’ve written a book about starting your own business myself recently. I think this book and mine complement each other very well – this is about hard facts, research and the resources you need to get there, whereas mine is more a collection of experiences and lessons learned along the way, along with coverage of other areas such as what to do when you’re ill and what to wear in the home office. There’s also a great deal of information about training courses in editing and proofreading and the professional organisations, as befits a book published in association with the Publishing Training Centre. So I’m not shooting myself in the foot by shouting loud about how very good and useful this book of Louise’s is: it’s excellent and I wish it had been around 4 years ago when I was setting up Libro. I will certainly recommend it to new editorial colleagues and more experienced colleagues who might want to pick up additional information on training, networking or social media, for example.

More information about the book on Louise’s website, which includes links to the various places where you can buy the book.

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Note: the author kindly sent me an e-copy of this book to review.

Book reviews – Get Ready for Battle and Sapphira and the Slave Girl

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Apr 2013 TBRApril’s reading moves on apace with two more good works of fiction. In the photo of my TBR, I’m now on the last two books before the big blue one, although to be fair, more books have come on board since the picture was taken. I am winning the battle, though, as the front shelf is still not as full as it was at the beginning of this month. It’s a pleasant battle to be winning, too, with some real corkers read so far this month.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala – “Get Ready for Battle”

(09 September 2012 – from Bridget)

A novella focused on an extended family in India and the conflicts within the immediate family, the extended family and the society beyond the family – all of which are scenes for the battle mentioned in the title. Gulzari Lal is in effect a capitalist patriarch, bringing his slightly ineffectual son, Vishnu, who craves both glamour and simplicity (and, when it comes to it, a quiet life) into his business. Sarla Devi is Vishnu’s mother, and still Gulzari Lal’s wife, but she lives in poverty at her brother’s house, trying to do simple good in society. This in turn is contrasted with the “social work” of the society wives and the selfish hedonism of the young business wives, and further contrasts are provided between the almost-socially acceptable mistress and the almost-prostitute dancing girl who are connected to the brothers-in-law.

Not much actually happens – the plot is loosely draped around the idea of a slum clearance that affects all of the groups of characters – but we are treated to a psychological examination of all strata of Indian society and all types of family member, and their interactions and interfaces, both good and bad. The mother’s actions in originally separating herself from the family are not, perhaps, explained enough, but the portrayal of the daughter-in-law and her lower-class friend and the complicated nature of their friendship and respective relationships with Vishnu are masterfully done, as we would expect of this author.

Willa Cather – “Sapphira and the Slave Girl” (Virago)

(09 September 2012 from Bridget)

This is the penultimate of the books passed to me by Bridget, and what a batch of treats they have provided. This one too, a nice original Virago green cover and an interesting and absorbing read. It’s a powerful novel set in 1850s Virginia, centring on a family that still owns slaves in an area where this is not illegal, but is frowned upon. The mistress, disabled by dropsy and trying to maintain the status quo amidst the potential collapse of the system, takes against her maid, Nancy, and sets out to destroy her. Sapphira’s daughter, Rachel, does her best to help all of the people in the neighbourhood, a bit like Sarla Devi in my previous read, putting society in general above her family in particular and motivated by a powerful need to redress the wrongs done by her mother, even if this has a shattering effect on her family.

It’s still shocking to read of people owning people, and the words used to describe those people made me uncomfortable, as did a strong underlying principle that emancipation can lead to excess and ruin, and that a society formed with strict places for all members should retain that system or risk complete anarchy – true small-c conservatism. But the powerful descriptions of the slave trade work against this slightly uneasy nostalgic attitude towards the old ways which is made explicit in the inconsistent treatment meted out to Sapphira’s slaves (we are also reminded in the introduction that this, Cather’s last novel, was a move to a discussion of her own family background, which sits these ideas more firmly in the authorial intent than in a fictional unreliable narrator).

All in all, though, it’s an absorbing story full of rounded human characters, if some flatter ones. The satisfying epilogue reveals the autobiographical nature of this novel, bringing the story up to date and providing a satisfactory resolution. Very evocative of period and place, and a good if sometimes uncomfortable read.

(Heaven-Ali has now read this one too and her review is here.)

I’ve just finished one of the memoirs I was reading and have another on the go, so the next review post will be a pair of memoirs, after a pair of non-fiction books and a pair of novels. It’s worked out naturally this way, but I quite like it, as I like writing these slightly longer reviews (are you enjoying reading them? More than the shorter ones?). Then it’s more non-fiction with a big, fat biography of the Queen and her times by Andrew Marr and a book on running …

Book reviews – Mass Observation: First Year’s Work and Trailblazers

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Apr 2013 TBRI’m barrelling through the TBR at the moment now that I’ve managed to arrange my work schedules a bit better so I have time to read. I also read a whole book the other day while recovering from a dentist appointment. Hooray for long swathes of reading – it was almost like being on holiday (apart from the wonky mouth …). Here are reviews of two excellent non-fiction reads. Expect more of these as I am entering a wodge of non-fiction on the TBR now (you can see them all after the Virago on the front of the TBR shelf in the picture).

Charles Madge & Tom Harrisson (eds.) – “Mass Observation: First Year’s Work”

(26 June 2012)

This is one of those charming Faber reprints with the squiggly pattern on the front and the interesting contents. I found out from who knows where that they were republishing some of the early MO books, and as a Mass Observer myself (we’re allowed to tell these days as it’s all about observing ourselves – and I’m proud to be Editor, 41) I have a particular interest in these, so I picked up this first one. They’re quite expensive for what they are, but I have never found any of them in a bookshop, so it’s worth the treat.

This is a reprint of a book originally published in 1938, with some charmingly slightly po-faced reports from early MO studies on smoking, pub-going and the pools. There is a long and interesting essay on MO by the sociologist, Malinowski, at the end, which bulks it out a bit and makes for a good read. The reports are full of statistics that go into such detail – at that stage they had full-time Observers who were able to collect huge welters of data which was turned into tables that reminded me of my exam-proven previous ability to create a table with borders and aligned figures, using a typewriter!

Anyway, I found it fascinating that the early emphasis was on observation rather than self-reporting, and this is why it is perhaps unsurprising that their careful review of newspaper coverage of MO finds criticism around spying! There are some event and monthly day diaries, one of which records the impressions of a variety of people involved in the Coronation, but we find neither the questionnaires or guided essays of the present day or the longer journals of the WW2 era.

It was also fascinating to read about the early impetus for MO and particularly the quotations from early Mass Observers on their reasons for joining the movement, which seem very fresh and reminiscent of today’s members and their own reasons for taking part. This will hopefully inspire me to complete my own reports in better time, especially since they don’t involve going to my local pub and counting the punters and how much they drink every night for a week!

Wyatt Thompson & Petronella McGovern – “Trailblazers”

(9 September 2012 from my friend Bridget)

The penultimate in a marvellous collection of books passed along to me by Bridget – thanks again! This is the fascinating story of the Australian 1956 Olympic equestrian team, the first such team to compete for Australia, and oddly competing at the Melbourne Olympics, six months before the Games and in Stockholm, owing to issues with quarantine in Australia at the time. So committed were the team to their cause that they came over to the UK 15 months before the competition as they were inexperienced in classical riding, especially dressage, and needed to gain experience they just couldn’t get at home.

There’s plenty of information on how and what they learned and their experiences in three-day eventing over here, good and bad. The story of the selection and the Olympics themselves is told in detail, and then the book fills in the story of equestrianism in Australia up until the early 21st century, with the characters we’ve met taking a strong leading role and giving real meaning to the term “legacy”. It’s also nice to come across iconic British riders like Pat Smythe in the story, and the horses are as important as the riders, with real sympathy for injuries and losses for other teams, and detail about the different mounts of the Australian team and their rivals.

A lovely bit of social and sporting history, well and competently put together for the novice or expert reader (I mean novice or expert in things equestrian, of course), with plenty of primary materials and photos and some lovely reproductions of paintings. I’ll admit that this is not for everyone, and I wonder how many people I lost at the second sentence, but this was a real treat for me!

Currently reading – well, I have a couple of novels to share with you next time, and I’m currently reading two very interesting memoirs, one set in India in the last days of the Raj and one set in the glittering aristocracy of the early 20th century.

And of course, I’d love to know … what are you reading at the moment?

The hardest run

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DSC_8400Running’s an odd thing. It’s at once intensely personal (even the most hardened club runner loves those solitary long runs) and intensely communal (the only sport in which complete beginners can run in the same race as elites – I’ve run in the footsteps of Haile Gebreselassie). Unless you’re at the top of your game, you compete against yourself – you celebrate a Personal Best not how many people you beat.

Running is also a community. I have gained great support from other runners, when learning to run, training, injured, running in races … When tragedy and horror struck the Boston Marathon yesterday, yes, I couldn’t help but be more shaken, overwhelmed and upset than I am by other acts of atrocity, other senseless violence across the globe. Because this was runners; worse, for me, this was runners at the back of the pack, my runners. So, sorry – I hate all acts of violence. I condemn all bombs and other devices. I would be horrified, personally, whatever country this was in.

I sought out other runners in the online community. Walkjogrun, an organisation I’ve known, followed and used to track my runs for years said on their Facebook and Twitter feeds “Today our love, our passion, our therapy was brutally attacked. Tomorrow, every runner should unite and run to show them they didn’t win”. Many people said they’d do it. Some people said there was a movement to run in a race shirt – any race shirt, if you had one. I thought this was a wonderful idea, and I did it. Even though I’m not doing a lot of running these days, even though I’m slow, even though some people would call it jogging, I identify as a runner, and I think I always will.

Today was the hardest run of my life. Harder than my five half-marathons. Harder than that day when I tore my calf muscle and nearly fainted on the pavement. It turns out to be difficult to run when you’re blinded by tears and choked by sobs. Yes, clichés: turns out they’re true.

I wore my hitherto unworn, unlaundered, keeping-it-as-a-mint-souvenir T-shirt from the first Birmingham Half Marathon. It has snot and tears on it now. I ran a beautiful route through my two favourite running parks and round my neighbourhood. I spoke to one other runner. A postman in a van and two cyclists gave me thumbs up.  A couple of cars bibbed their horns. Some walkers looked me in the eye and smiled. Two dog walkers stood aside respectfully as I wept in Highbury Park. I didn’t do it for that, obviously. I was pleased to be alone in the beautiful spring parks. I did it to honour the fallen, to honour those who might never run again, to honour the families and friends who support the community of runners. I did it to stand side by side with runners around the world. I feel I did something by doing that, something for myself, something for other runners, something to show those who visit atrocities upon the innocent that the running community will keep running, will keep strong.

There’s been so much opprobrium and criticism when I and others have expressed opinions in public recently, so I’m going to say this at the risk of looking defensive: I don’t want to make this political. It doesn’t much matter to me who did this. Yes, I care about other atrocities around the world, as I mention above. I also wrote this as a private meditation. It’s on my blog because I wanted to put it on record. This one’s not about the reader statistics.

Book reviews – The Golden Arrow and Illyrian Spring

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Apr 2013 TBRI seem to be having a bit of a novel spree at the moment, although Mt TBR has a nice big wodge of non-fiction coming up. If I’d thought about it, I could have alternated a bit. But I like reading my books in acquisition order, so I’ll leave that be. Two excellent novels in this update – not similar in subject or location, but both very much products of the locations in which they’re set.

Mary Webb – “The Golden Arrow”

(16 June 2012, Oxfam Bookshop, Oxford)

Mary Webb is the great novelist of Shropshire country life. Her books can seem a bit overwrought, with the small figures of the local folk struggling against blind fate and cruel destiny, the Bible and the seasons woven into their desperate lives. They’re quite easy to parody, forming, of course, the main source for Stella Gibbons’ “Cold Comfort Farm”. But I find Webb to be firmly on the Hardy end of the Hardy-Lawrence continuum of my liking. Certainly, there are heaving passions and dreadful encounters with grim Bible bashing elders, but her books have a psychological detail and impact that is impressive, and this, her first novel, has that in spades.

We meet Lily and Deborah, contemporaries but contrasted in every way possible – fair and dark, sex and love, surface and depth, respectively. For all their differences, they end up entering into parallel relationships, Lily with Deborah’s somewhat stolid brother, Joe, and Deborah with the exciting blond newcomer, Stephen. Ah, yes, the incomer in fiction – where would so many stories be without them. And here he is, breezing in, asking questions of Deb that he really ought not to ask, and showing his unsuitability from the very start by his nervousness and discomfort around nature (shades of Hardy and the attitudes to Egdon Heath in “The Return of the Native” here). Hearts are ready to break, and all this is played out against the slow turning of the seasons and the pull between the landscape symbols of the white cross-like signpost and the huge brooding outcrop that forms The Devil’s Chair, and against the love of families, and the traditions of countryside myth, magic and community.

Such an engaging book. It was a page-turner right to the end, setting up the rivalry between the two girls expertly and twisting the reader into a dread of something terrible and doomy which always seems to hover just around the corner. It’s  a masterful portrayal of depression, too, although it’s never given this name, and of the love between parents and children. An absorbing, uncompromising read.

Ann Bridge – “Illyrian Spring”

(22 June 2012)

Lots of people I know had been raving about this one, and when I found out that it was set in Dalmatia, a part of what is now Croatia which I have visited and loved, I splashed out on the pretty newly reissued version (it’s done by Daunt Books but could quite easily be a Persephone or Virago). I was expecting it to be pretty darn near perfect, and really I can’t think of any criticism I could make of it. It’s charming and absorbing, with lovely characters but a moral and truth-seeking core that supports it well. We meet Grace, aged 42 and mother of three, fleeing in the 1930s from the family that has started to scare her and make her nervous. She feels that things might have gone irreparably wrong between her and both her husband and daughter (and in the former regard, a tiny chime of anti-Semitism made me wince early on and worry for my liking of the book, although it was brushed away by the author), and basically goes into hiding in Europe, moving from Venice to Split and then to Dubrovnik. Complicating matters somewhat, she falls in with a mysterious young man; while they are both painters, which is fine, a crisis soon arises which is only really resolved by a series of comical and charming coincidences which you can deliciously see coming from a fair way off. And the ending is nicely done, with some changes to the wife who Walter has grown comfortable with, some possible new blossomings of careers and romances, and some reassessments all round.

The modes of discourse are interestingly done, with Grace’s sections simply told, contrasted with her daughter’s slangy, bright letters to a friend and some curious interludes of Socratic discussion with a middle-aged German bachelor which are curiously reminiscent to me of some articles in a 1940s encyclopedia I have, in which a young brother and sister are instructed about the workings of electricity, the sewerage system, etc. (this is not to the novel’s detriment: it gave me a cosy feeling).

The sense of place is palpable. I didn’t much go for Dubrovnik when I visited – too touristy and it reminded me of nothing so much as Canterbury – but the descriptions of the city, the nearby villages, Split and Venice are beautifully done and hugely evocative. I was only slightly disappointed that they didn’t visit the coast and islands in between Split and Dubrovnik (the bits I know), but that is a very minor quibble.

A lovely, satisfying book, well worth the wait between purchase and reading, and well worth re-reading in the future. Thank you to all who recommended it to me!

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Coming up I have the aforementioned non-fiction delights, including a reprint of the first year’s report of Mass Observation and one on Australian Olympic equestrianism. And have you noticed that these reviews were a bit more full than the ones I usually jot down? I’m going to try to be a little more expansive from now on (when I have the time) – do let me know if you like the new style. And a tiny plug: I have published my new book, Going It Alone at 40, all about my first year of self-employment. It’s available from all varieties of Amazon. I’ll be doing a big fancy launch once I have the cover image sorted out and a few reviews …

And of course, I’d love to know … what are you reading at the moment?

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