Book reviews – Mummy’s Boy and Reading the Oxford English Dictionary

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June 2013 TBRSince I moved to reviewing two books per blog post in more detail, rather than three random ones, I’ve liked to match them in some way – whether it’s pairs of books about the same person, books rooted in place, books by contemporaries, books by favourite authors … I will admit to having taken books slightly out of the order in which I read them (but not mixing books from two months, oh no!) in order to achieve this, but the pairings do seem to fall quite naturally.

I was  a bit stumped as to what to pair with this Larry Lamb autobiography, however, until I realised that pairs can be made out of contrasts. So, here goes: one of these books is about a man who can never sit still, who flibbertygibbets between jobs (not even staying in a major soap opera long) and changes his partner with alarming regularity. The other is about a man who devotes a full year to doing only one thing, and that thing involves sitting in one of two chairs and reading the same book every day. Read on to find out more!

Larry Lamb – “Mummy’s Boy”

(22 November 2012)

Admittedly, I knew nothing of Lamb when I picked up this book, apart from his lovely character in the Gavin and Stacey series and the fact that he appeared in Eastenders as a villain. Unfortunately, he turns out not to be that attractive a character in real life, and not especially nice, especially to the (many) women in his life. He doesn’t seem to have got a huge amount of self-knowledge from the extensive therapy sessions he describes attending and although he does tell stories against himself, the book never really engages and doesn’t exactly light up the page. To be honest, he seems more fond of his house in France than most of his girlfriends, and the final chapters of the book, when he goes back to a couple of the locations of his youth, seem really muddled and an afterthought (there is a good bit about his appearance on Who Do You Think You Are, however). One that I’m glad I purchased cheaply from The Works, and will probably go on the BookCrossing pile.

This read did make me think: I’ve read quite a few “celebrity” autobiographies (and I have more on the TBR) – have many of them (any of them?) been actually any good as works of autobiography? What about you? Discuss!

Ammon Shea – “Reading the Oxford English Dictionary”

(25 December 2012, a present from my friend Jen, who knows my reading taste and my wish list well)

In this slim volume, Shea describes sitting in one of two chairs (one in his flat, one in the basement of his local library) reading the Oxford English Dictionary. The whole, multi-volume one with the very small print (he does end up with a prescription for glasses!) that comes in a series of boxes and has to supplant other dictionaries on his bookshelves. Because this isn’t one of those pranky, “apropos of nothing” quests: dictionaries were already his favourite reading matter – he even lives with a lexicographer and he’s startled to find himself considered an oddity at a lexicography convention – no one actually reads the things from cover to cover, do they?

So, we end up with twenty-six chapters, which have either something about the experience of the reading project – finding a place outside the apartment to read, the physical effects, or what it’s like when you start to come to the end of a project like this – or something dictionary-related – the history of the form, errors, etc. We are then given a choice selection of words and definitions – mainly written by Shea himself – that are amusing, strange, horrible or a mixture of the three. I imagine that he carefully chose these so that everyone knows at least a few of them; or is that just me?

A gentle and engaging read. We’re lost with the author when he gets to the end, and I love the descriptions of him littering the apartment with scraps of paper with hieroglyphical instructions to himself inscribed upon them. I was more pleased than perhaps I should have been when I discovered that, during one exercise bike section, I had read exactly half of this book …

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Currently reading: next up to review is Adam Nicholson’s “The Gentry” finished at last, but also sadly, and another book about the English language. One more book, perhaps, then it’s on to A Month of Re-Reading in July!

Book reviews – Two books on Iris Murdoch

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June 2013 TBRI had a bit of an Iris Murdoch phase back in September 2012, buying a couple of books from an IM society colleague and picking one up at the IM Conference.  I’m trying to space those out a little, as you can have too much of a good thing (plus I don’t have many books on IM and like to savour them), but then I was also offered a review copy of another one in e-book form, so I thought I might as well group two of them here. Reading these two books took me back to the wonders of the Iris Murdoch A Month Project (reading all of her novels in publication order over a number of years) and the flabby progress of my own research, but as long as I keep reading and thinking about her, I’m sure that will be fine in the end!

Farzaneh Naseri-Sis – “The Dramatic in Iris Murdoch’s Fiction”

(24 September 2012)

The first thing I noticed about the book was that it was a thesis pretty well printed directly in book form. This has its place, of course, and allows researchers to send their research into the wide world, but this was obviously quite cheaply produced, being created straight from the file of the PhD, with the most noticeable effect being the very small print and double spacing. The small print strained my eyes, and the double spacing and Times font uncomfortably reminded me of my day-job proofreading PhDs, and I sometimes had to struggle to retain my reader’s, rather than editor’s, brain as I read it.

That said, it was an interesting read and a competent piece of research. It takes The Nice and the Good, The Black Prince and The Sea, The Sea, and looks at their use of the characters and situations of drama, and particularly their echo and parody of the forms, structures, language and characters of, respectively, As You Like It / Love’s Labours Lost, Hamlet and The Tempest. Each section on each book also contained a discussion of its demonstration of Murdoch’s philosophy of the dramatic, mainly encapsulated in the idea of the journey towards ‘unselfing’ which I have read about in other works. These last sections do seem a bit incongruous compared with the more whole studies of the books and, essentially, Shakespeare, and I wonder if this work was built up from a slightly less wide-ranging Master’s or MPhil originally.

The work is competent and well done, although I couldn’t help noticing a few typos and stylistic inconsistencies. It was particularly good on The Sea, The Sea, whether because the author had got into her stride by then or because The Nice and the Good addresses Shakespeare/his comedies in general rather than those particular plays. It would have been a better read if rejigged as a book rather than a thesis, although at least it didn’t have those sections on methodology and ontology that every student seems to be forced to write these days, so small mercies there. A decent addition to my Murdoch collection.

Jeffrey Meyer – “Remembering Iris Murdoch: Letters and Interviews”

(ebook June 2013 from the publisher)

Disclaimer: Although I am studying Iris Murdoch in my spare time and a member of the Iris Murdoch Society, and was presumably sent this book on one of those premises, I am by no means an expert or an IM “scholar” and my reaction to and review of this book represents my personal opinion as someone outside the IM and academic sector.

Palgrave, the publisher, kindly offered me an ebook of this new book by Jeffrey Meyer, who appears from his bibliography to be an indefatigable literary biographer and who has also interviewed Iris Murdoch and written articles about her. This book collects together an extended essay about IM and the author’s relationship with her; letters from IM to the author over the course of their friendship until her death; reprints of two interviews conducted by the author with IM and printed in the Paris Review and Denver Quarterly; and an essay on the books written about IM after her death by those close to her.

The memoir / essay that opens the book starts off surprisingly with the slightly snide insinuation that IM won the Booker Prize with “The Sea, The Sea” because she was friends with the chair of the committee. It then settles down to a personal and somewhat confiding exploration of her life – concentrating on the sexuality side of things, although the rest of the sections of the book leave this alone – and then of Meyer’s friendship with her, with very personal physical descriptions of IM, including her decline. This made the book seem to me to be more suited to the Murdoch adept or scholar rather than as an introductory text; it does give a different aspect to the views of IM and it’s always of interest to read about people who have met and been close to her.

The letters are all from IM to JM, and it would have been good to have the full correspondence. Her letters are sweet, kind, interested and slight gossipy on occasion and remind me that we really DO need a Collected Letters, although I imagine that this would be quite a large project. There is a lot about Meyers’ own novels; it’s good to see writers supporting other writers and a wider context would leaven the concentration on just one writer. We get insights into IM’s interest in other contemporary authors such as Timothy Mo, Anita Brookner and Vikram Seth (the last rather oddly footnoted as being the author of “Two Lives” rather than the better-known “A Suitable Boy”) and the insight that she does not like reading other people’s books about her. She also displays an antipathy to Women’s Studies which maybe explains the difficulty of applying a feminist literary theory to her novels, although she is glad that Somerville resists the introduction of men to the college and is pro women priests. Information on the staging of the play of “The Black Prince” is also useful; this crops up again in the interviews. It becomes heartbreaking towards the end of the letter sequence – it’s a personal book so I feel I’m permitted a personal reaction here – as IM begins to forget how to write a novel and starts to get tired and make mistakes. It was a moving surprise to find some letters from John Bayley rounding off the letter sequence.

The Paris Review and Denver Quarterly articles are fascinating (although part or all of these have been previous published in Gillian Dooley’s “From a Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction” published in 2003). There is a good deal of detail about how IM planned and wrote her novels, and about goodness, particularly the ‘good’ writer expunging themselves from their own novels as the good characters seek to become invisible and ‘unselfed’. There were also some nice passages about the ‘ideal reader’ which I’ve noted down for my own research. The deleted sections are interesting, although it might have been more useful to include these, marked in some way, in the text of the article itself, for continuity’s sake.

The extended essay about the books written after IM’s death by A.N. Wilson and John Bayley are basically long reviews of their books. Again, in an intensely personal book, they add the facet of information about someone who knew IM’s reaction to these books which is of interest.

In summary, as I said, an intensely personal book, written from an intimate viewpoint which will add a new dimension for the IM completist. And a call for a Collected Letters for us completists (and a Selected one for the rest of the world)!

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For more Iris Murdoch stuff on this blog, running a search for Iris Murdoch will give you all of my book reviews and updates on my research project.

Current reading: I am coming to the end of positively WALLOWING in Adam Nicolson’s “The Gentry” – more of that later!

Important information for Google Reader subscribers

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Hello there! This is aimed at people who subscribe to this blog and my other one via Google Reader.

Google Reader will be shutting down at the end of June 2013, so you will need to export your feeds to another reader, or you’ll lose them.

I have moved over to Feedly which allows you to import your Google Reader subscriptions and offers functionality for tagging and saving posts until later. I’ve found it’s good and reliable and easy to use, and it works on desktop computers and tablets, phones, etc. This is not an affiliate link or paid advertisement – I took some advice and looked at some alternatives and this looked best for me.

Of course, there are other RSS feed aggregators out there, and Library Guru Phil Bradley has kindly gone through and assessed them all for us in this blog post.

If you don’t want to use RSS feeds anymore, you can subscribe to this blog via email – just look at the top right hand side of the screen and you’ll see a link in the sidebar.

I hope you are able to continue to subscribe via Feedly or email or some other form and that I continue to see you over here. Any questions, please ask!

Book reviews – Bird Cloud and Books, Bicycles and Banana Trucks

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Today we have two books rooted in Place, two books set in very different locations, but hugely redolent and evocative of those places. One of them is by an author I really like but is a real departure for her in terms of moving from fiction to non-fiction / memoir. The other was put together by a friend of mine, and is a departure from her usual academic work and work as, like me, an “invisible” editor as, while she has put the book together, she is very much a visible and important part of it, too.

Annie Proulx – “Bird Cloud”

Proulx is the author of many fine novels, such as “The Shipping News” and stories including “Brokeback Mountain”, although some of hers, like “Accordion Crimes” are too violent for me to read! I spotted this memoir and story of a house and had to have it – I do like a story about a house and I knew she was a good and interesting writer.

So, this is a memoir briefly covering all of the houses Proulx has lived in (warning: some early pet death stuff which started to put me off but does not continue throughout), and then goes on to the planning, construction and all aspects of the house that she builds in Wyoming. It is so rooted in the place and her love for it, even though it’s a difficult place to live in fact, with snowdrifts until May and risk of getting cut off, and the howling winds that dictate the actual house design to a large extent. But it’s a place full of geography, geology, archaeology and natural history, and that’s why she loves it.

It’s honest but not whiny about the problems, though in a way it’s a little odd reading a respected and famous author reporting on how hard it is to get good workmen! On the nature side of things, she’s as amazing as you would hope, with beautiful descriptions of the landscape and the elks, mountain lions and particularly the birds, from eagles feasting on large prey to the sparrows around her bird feeder. A profound respect for nature is leavened by a deep joy in it. We are sad with Proulx when we all realise that this is not really a house you can spend all year in, even when you’ve recatalogued your library to match the space – although it’s frustratingly not clear on how she worked this situation out.

Richard Bates and Linda Bates – “Books, Bicycles and Banana Trucks”

(Kindle book)

RBI have already reviewed this book on Amazon but of course you have to be careful these days as Amazon picks up on any hints that you might know the author and removes reviews accordingly (I reviewed it from the heart, not just as a puff piece for a friend). So this is my more personal review. Because it is personal – Linda is a good friend, I knew about the book project (originally a surprise for her brother’s birthday) when few others did, I helped her with her Front Matter (so to speak!) and I distinctly recall sending lots of pencils to Richard when he was in Eritrea, plus surely I contributed some BookCrossing books. It was also personally affecting to read about the close relationship of brother and sister, and to read Linda’s sections, knowing something of what she was going through at the time.

That sounds a bit miserable. Even though there’s a sober section on the history and current status of Eritrea and really serious issues are highlighted throughout the book (one school has no walls, let alone blackboards; another has a resource centre but no reliable drinking water), it’s also a very funny and positive read. For a start, just reading about someone taking out almost two years from their comfortable life in the UK, full of Scouts and teaching, family, Weetabix and orange squash, to travel to a distant and poor country, live in a basic house with electricity available for a few hours a day, shower using a washing up bowl and a bucket, live in 50 degree heat and try to teach teachers who are often on a form of National Service how to teach – well, that’s heart-warming and inspiring in itself. Then add in the book drive that sent 50-odd boxes of books and teaching materials from the UK to Eritrea (including BookCrossing books) and Richard’s epic attempts to take delivery of same …

But don’t think Richard’s a dull do-gooder. He gets frustrated with bureaucracy and even shouts occasionally. He falls off his bike a few times, fails to pick out a tune on a casio organ, and memorably attempts to return complicated greetings in a manner which does not exactly work. He has to reconstitute chocolate in his freezer and works out how to cook with only a few ingredients, and is touchingly thrilled when he gets hold of his favourite breakfast cereal. He gets cross when he thinks he’s not helping, and even more cross when he can’t get Wolves match info on the World Service, but it’s a momentary crossness that he acknowledges and tries to work against, and the atmosphere as a whole is one of good humour, dedication to helping people and a real, solid attempt to fit in with the culture and people, even when being a “celebrity” who all the kids know gets in the way of that more than a little.

The brother-sister relationship is woven beautifully throughout the book (which is expertly put together out of letters home, blog posts and personal experiences). Richard and Linda maintain a full, rich correspondence via dusty letters from Eritrea and notes from Cambridge and Birmingham. I shed a tear early on when they are separated by so many thousands of miles, knowing that they won’t be able to communicate in real time for months, and Linda gets home from the airport and wraps herself up in Richard’s duvet. Linda sends over just the right things at just the right times, using all her ingenuity to insert chocolate into every package. And she is movingly honest about her struggles when she visits Richard near the end of his stay, addressing the issues of handling visits to people’s houses that revolve around the offering of food when fighting an eating disorder and, indeed, issues around crowding onto buses or using strange sanitary arrangements that would affect any of us.

We probably know by now that I like a travel book. This is more than that, of course – it’s testament to a personal victory over wanting to stay close to the things that you’re used to, of really going out of all of the comfort zones that it’s possible to have. It’s inspiring and funny and it’s about family and the family of man as a whole. It’s on ebook only at the moment but hopefully there will be a print version soon (if you don’t have a Kindle, read my article about reading ebooks without an e-reader).

You can see the photos from the book and sign up to be alerted when the print version comes out here.

Note: even though Linda is my friend, I paid for this book on Amazon.

Hooray for Carluccio’s

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I’d been invited to go for a meal with one of Matthew’s colleagues and her brother, who was visiting from the US, and found out it was at Carluccio’s. Hm – Italian food: not always great for those who can’t eat saturated fat, but it is part of the “Mediterranean diet” region, so we’ll see. I had a look at the menu and identified one of two things I could eat, but I learned recently not to make assumptions, so I took the precaution of calling them.

Bonus point one: the chap who answered the phone was matter-of-fact and welcoming. He assured me that I would just need to ask for the allergy menu, and that they could tweak many of the dishes to suit me. He left me feeling that I was very welcome to visit the restaurant, not a weirdo or a pain.

We got there a bit early, so I took advantage of being the first ones there to quiz the person who seated us about the menu. Now, bear in mind that this was 7pm on a Saturday evening in bustling BrindleyPlace, in a full restaurant. The person I was talking to turned out to be Nicole, the restaurant manager …

Bonus point two: Nicole went through EVERY ITEM on the entire menu, including the dessert menu, identifying the few things I couldn’t have and the many that they could tweak, swapping butter for olive oil, leaving things out … so I actually had a CHOICE. This almost never happens to me.

Nicole assured me that our waiter would understand, and she said to ask for her if there was any doubt. She left us with a gluten-free menu for another member of the party (they do a dairy-free menu as well. A whole menu. For each type of requirement. A whole page menu) and me with a smile on my face at the thought of A CHOICE.

When our waiter arrived, he understood what I needed, made no fuss, no mention of “Oh, just treat yourself” (that annoys me so much. To a stomach ache? Yum! If you don’t eat fat for a while, your system does not like it when you do), just matter-of-fact and friendly service. He assured me that my mushroom pasta would be made without butter, and so it was.

Come pudding time, and …

Bonus point three: I had a CHOICE OF PUDDINGS. One special, one on the menu. And although the one on the menu did offer that old favourite, lemon sorbet, there was mandarin and melon sorbet, too.

Bonus point four: We were confused as to why sorbet wasn’t on the gluten-free menu. Surely … The waiter agreed that it seemed odd: but he still took the time to pop to the kitchen and find out that, no, it wasn’t gluten free. How many other places would have assumed and not checked?

So, a good meal, no drama, nice food and I didn’t feel I was having a limited choice or stuck with something dull and dry. The price came to £47 for M and I but that was three nice courses, drinks and a tip: I don’t think that is that bad for a good meal, and the experience of having my dietary requirements accepted as normal and not made a fuss over was wonderful!

There are branches all over the UK which is great news – I am confident that the attitude will be similar in other branches, too.

Well done, Carluccio’s Birmingham – I will be back!

Carluccio’s website.

cholesterol coverThis is one of a series of posts about places to eat and food suppliers who are useful for my cholesterol beating diet (set out in my book). Read more by using the High Cholesterol category or sign up to receive email alerts on the blog (see the right-hand sidebar for links), and read more about my book.

Book reviews – Wessex Tales and Hands Up!

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June 2013 TBRTwo very different works of fiction in this pair of reviews – but they are linked (if tenuously) by being by two of my favourite authors.  I’ve loved Hardy since I was a teenager – even reading him for O and A level didn’t spoil him for me, and I’m mightily enjoying the revisiting / new reading of Ali’s Hardy Project. His books are set in the landscape from which my family originates, and I love the “pathetic fallacy”, the relationship between the topography and weather and the emotions and fates of his characters. His women are unforgettable (I have even named cats after them) and who can fail to be in love with the Reddleman from “The Return of the Native”?

I first encountered Paul Magrs’ novels, mainly set in the North-East, in the mid-199os at Lewisham library. After reading one of his books which featured BookCrossing, I found out his email address and wrote to him, and now we’re in regular contact, guesting on each other’s blogs, and I was able to circulate his Brenda and Effie series via BookCrossing thanks to copies sent by his publisher. I have to say that my favourites are his YA books and the older books set in the urban North-East with slight touches of magical realism, but his more fully magical books are proving more and more popular, and of course I’m glad about that (he’s also written Doctor Who books and plays and teaches fiction writing!).

Thomas Hardy – “Wessex Tales”

(Bought late 1980s / early 1990s)

I have a pretty Wessex Edition of these books – the edition I also have on Kindle, but here in a portable book where you can work out how far you are through the thing. It’s nice to read really old hardbacks with lovely creamy pages sometimes, isn’t it. This one was published in 1907, and I bought it in Hall’s Bookshop in Tunbridge Wells for £4.50, and my friend Sara probably put it through for me, as she worked there when we were at school. The Wessex Tales themselves are marvellous, of course.

These are a mix of long and shorter stories, all set in his familiar world and among his familiar characters. The longer stories could easily turn into novels, or at least parts of them, in their own right, and are deeply satisfying in a way that I find many short stories aren’t. We get turns of fate, lost loves, mysteries, marriages gone wrong, marriages gone right then ripped asunder, rival women, rival men, and country folk providing a rich but not irritating backdrop (although I love Hardy, I feel that sometimes he does go a bit OTT with his rural chorus chaps).

“The Withered Arm” is an almost horror story that could easily form the basis for a novel. The hideousness of it all builds, as a woman’s life is soured through little fault of her own, and another’s is deeply affected, too. “Fellow-Townsmen” is a completely Hardy standard tale of two men in a town, rivalry and reversals of fate, fortune and marriage. “The Three Strangers” is an excellent example of a self-contained short story which could hold its own against the masters of the genre, and “An Imaginative Woman” is what can only be described as a story about a stalker, with an agonising twist at the end. “The Distracted Preacher” is a very funny account of the tribulations of a preacher in love with a lady who engages in suspicious behaviour and may be more involved than he thinks, with lots of little clues and guesses along the way. All in all an excellent and extremely readable collection.

Paul Magrs – “Hands Up!”

(22 November 2012)

As I said above, I love Paul’s YA fiction, and this is an excellent romp of a read, published 10 years ago but still fresh and funny. Jason’s 13 and lives in a horrible household with his mean dad, once a star ventriloquist, now an angry old man, and his glam mum, who watches TV when dad’s out. Jason doesn’t want to take up the family business, especially as his creepy older half-brother is carving out a career for himself, but suddenly there’s a spate of puppet killings, an old man on the rampage … and whisperings from the attic. Then there’s GIRLS to contend with, too. The pace gets faster and faster, and we end up with seahorses, TV studios and a certain gentleman himself getting mixed up with things. Some puppet murder throughout but it didn’t upset me.

I love the way that the ends are not tied up tidily and everything isn’t spelled out for the reader. Jason’s mum is a hoot, and the epilogue is charming and amusing. A good read!

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Current reading: I’ve got some books on Iris Murdoch to review, had a disappointing go with a celebrity biography and am positively WALLOWING in Adam Nicolson’s “The Gentry” – more of those later!

Book reviews – Frances Partridge and Three Letters from the Andes

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May 2013 tbrIn one of those happy coincidences which still happen when you read your books in (vague) order of acquisition, I read two books by people with long, roughly contemporary lives (Patrick Leigh Fermor was 15 years younger than Frances Partridge and died seven years after she did). He appears in the index of her biography, and they did meet and have overlapping circles of friends, and I like that kind of link. Two excellent books, too.

Anne Chisholm – “Frances Partridge”

(25 September 2012)

I was fortunate enough to meet Anne Chisholm at the Iris Murdoch Society conference last September. I was unfortunately unable to hear her talk or purchase the book at that stage, although we did have a chat at the evening reception, I fear about bifocal glasses rather than literary fiction, philosophy or Bloomsbury. But I did learn enough at that event to know that this was a must-buy, and so it proved to be. In fact, I wish I’d bought it in hardback, which doesn’t happen very often!

It’s a masterful biography of that tricky thing, a long life with a huge cast of characters, many of them hopelessly entangled with one another, and in my opinion it’s just as good as Michael Holroyd’s seminal “Lytton Strachey”, the writing, editing and publishing of which is in fact treated in this book in detail. It’s a very warm, human and humane read, made so particularly by the author being able to spend a good amount of time interviewing her subject and gathering her opinion on past events and their portrayal.

With so many spoons in the Bloomsbury pot, a lot of the narrative turns out to be about retellings of events and personalities, with Gerald Brenan in particular indulging in myth-making about himself and his friends. Of necessity a story about friendship as much as it is about love, with Frances Partridge stoically enduring half an adult life of widowhood, it treats female friendship particularly well, which is refreshing.

Although invariably tragic events occur, and there is the inevitable stream of losses in old age, it maintains momentum and gives as clear a picture of its subject in extreme old age as it does of her youth, without pity or a display of self-pity. The very personal involvement of the author in the end days of her subject’s life, continuing to visit her even when the storytelling is over, and attending her in hospital, is recounted movingly and fits well in this remarkable and excellent book, which did change my view of Frances’ husband, Ralph, who is seemingly portrayed as Frances wished him to be, for once.

Patrick Leigh Fermor – “Three Letters from the Andes”

(October 2013)

Pounced on with glee in a charity shop, as his oeuvre was not large and yet he is one of the most perfect travel writers of all time (in the opinion of many other people than me, too, I promise!). This is a fairly slight book made up of three long letters sent home from a guided trip walking and climbing in the Andes with among other people, Andrew, the Duke of Devonshire, married to Debo Mitford. It’s all full of self-deprecation about his fitness and climbing ability, but there’s nothing lacking in his writing, of course, where limpid prose and wry asides abound. There’s a charming hand-drawn map and delightful illustrations (by an illustrator) and it’s a precious thing to have and read.

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