Book Reviews – The Choir and Iceland Saga

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July 2013 coming up My Month of Re-Reading  is drawing to a close, although I hope to fit in another Georgette Heyer (or two!) before the end of tomorrow. I’ll do a round-up post right at the end, but I have done really well, I think, only missing one out and not finishing one (which is allowed, as I’m reading along with Matthew and neither has he!), and adding in an extra one plus a whole load of Pyms.

So, a pair of books for which I cannot find any link, save they are re-reads and were bought within two or three years of each other …

Joanna Trollope – “The Choir”

(30 December 1993)

Her first novel, and perhaps she chose to consciously ape her distant relative, Anthony, in setting this in a Cathedral Close. We meet a variety of characters, all connected to the Cathedral and its boys’ choir in one way or another, from the school headmaster to the old school left-wing city councillor who happens to have a grandson in the group. As money tightens and passions run high, splits appear in all sorts of likely and unlikely places. Will anyone be able to save the day? Will broken relationships be repaired? Does anyone actually want them to be?

What’s interesting about this book, looking back from a perspective of having read almost all of her contemporary novels, is that this doesn’t really feel like a first novel. It just feels like a Joanna Trollope novel. All of her stylistic quirks are there: people start padding around almost immediately, and “They all,” she thought as she wrote her review, “split their utterances in a weird way” (I once wrote a whole review in her style – deary me!). She has women who are not good wives, women who have Agas, children, hapless men … all as in all of her books. It’s quite an achievement to have such a homogenous whole and very comforting to her fans.

I picked this one up for re-reading precisely because I wanted to check whether I should keep these. And I still don’t know. It’s not like the “quest” books, where a re-read of a Dave Gorman has reminded me how fun those are – I really am torn. I’ve had these and my Mary Wesleys (in a similar edition) for 20 years. But with pressure on the bookshelves and these not exactly invisible on the charity shop and library bookshelves, do I NEED to keep them? I don’t even have the later ones, even though I’ve read them: I didn’t need to keep those! The jury is still out!

Magnus Magnusson – “Iceland Saga”

(1991 – I would have bought this when I was in the middle of my degree course, as my subsidiary subject (worth 20% of my whole degree!) was in Old Icelandic)

This was a real treat to read. I love Iceland, I loved some aspects of studying Old Icelandic and did get a love of the sagas from doing so even if the endless translation was a little wearing. I like reading books about Iceland (and have done during other Months of Re-Reading) and I do hope to go there one day.

This book does nothing to prevent that happening. It’s sensible, literary, literate, well-written and enjoyable, with interesting asides and a style that is reminiscent in many places of the sagas it discusses. It provides a view of the geographical structure of Iceland, its place names, topographical features, archaeology and existing towns and homesteads, always weaving them in to the sagas and other writings that still live so vividly in the culture of the island until the modern day, with most of the sagas happening in recognisable locations that can be visited today. He takes historical themes such as the settlement of Iceland and the coming of Christianity, deals with important personalities like Snorri Sturluson, and tells the stories of some of the main sagas.

The book’s strength lies in the combination of a supremely knowledgeable author and a very good editor. Mentions of historical characters in one place are tied back to other chapters in which they appear. People who pop up more than one story or saga are cross-referenced so you know where they fit in. This is masterful work and I wonder if that quality would be found in a book published today. Some lovely photos and a good index complete a marvellous book which was a real joy in the reading.

Best of all, perhaps, at the beginning of each chapter was a little bit in Old Icelandic with its translation underneath. Covering up the translations, I managed to make out more of the Icelandic than I thought I would – obviously I’ve not forgotten as much as I feared. This bodes well for brushing it up if I ever go to Iceland myself (Old Icelandic and Modern Icelandic are closer than Shakespearean and Modern English, as they didn’t have a Great Vowel Shift (ouch!) like we did, and the vocabulary has been carefully controlled).

My last books will probably both be Georgette Heyers, or at least one. I’m off to read it now, having started it in the gym, on the exercise bike. I’m so enjoying my Month of Re-Reading, but my thoughts are now jumping ahead to All Virago All August …

Book Reviews – Are You Dave Gorman? and Devil’s Cub

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July 2013 coming up I’m really pleased with how my  Month of Re-Reading is going. And unlike some of those millions of Barbara Pyms, these two are very firmly on the book pile to the left (as are the two I’m currently reading – more of those later. But for now, two very different books, although both of them seem quite escapist and like some more holiday reading. I suppose it is the summer holidays, even if I’m not off much. Actually, I took advantage of having some free time on Monday and Tuesday (including a thunderstorm during which I turned off the computer and went downstairs with my book and cats) to get a lot of the first one read, and have been able to linger over my meals a little with the second one. Of course, work is ramping up again now, but I’m still determined to carve out reading time!

Dave Gorman and Danny Wallace – “Are You Dave Gorman?”

(11 October 2001)

As I may have mentioned in my original post about this Month of Re-Reading, I chose a few representative books for this month to see if they were actually worth the re-read. This one, the Joanna Trollope (which I haven’t got to yet) and the Molly Moynahan (which I might well not get to at all) fall into this category. I have quite a few “quest” books on my shelf, you know, the kind of book that starts with a daft bet and then tells the story of what happened next. Once you know who won the bet, is it worth keeping for a future re-read? Well, the answer as regards this one, which will stand for and thus protect all the others, is a resounding “Yes”.

I hadn’t read this at all since the original purchase and read back in 2001 (a few days after I got together with M – I dimly remember buying stacks of books at the Books Etc. near his flat), and it’s still fresh and funny, as well as endearing. In fact, it’s probably more sweet and endearing than I remember, being very much about Dave and Danny’s friendship. This friendship, and Danny’s relationship with his girlfriend, is put to the test as they embark upon an almost accidental search for people called Dave Gorman. Having two writers alternating sections works well and allows for very funny double-aspect descriptions of the same events at times, although avoids being repetitive, and there’s a palpable sense of the friendship and people behind the humour, which makes it more of a satisfying read than just whizzing through to see if they achieve their target. I like the epilogue, which updates us on various developments and appearances of badges and t-shirts in different TV programmes. This actually made me want to go and re-read other quest and travel books in my collection.

Georgette Heyer – “Devil’s Cub”

(18 March 2013)

One of my naughty purchases from The Works; I pulled three of these out of the TBR because I’m confident that I’ve read them all before, so it’s an easy way to make the Month of Re-Reading work to whittle down the TBR shelf to an extent (an extent rather undermined by my purchases this month, admittedly!)

You find all that you could wish for in a Regency Romance in this one – and sorry if you never wish for a Regency Romance; I love Heyer and have done since my teens, and make no apologies for that. It’s not a guilty pleasure, just a pleasure! There are dangerous heroes, resourceful heroines, chases, France, elopements, misunderstandings, dresses and boots, and excellent supporting characters. In this book’s case, there’s the additional delight of it being the sequel to the equally marvellous “These Old Shades” (read last July), finding the characters from that novel twenty years down the line, but still very much the same, and not very wiser, with Leonie in particular as fiery as ever. After a rather violent beginning for Heyer, we settle down for a good, rollicking read, with clear-headedness and bravery celebrated and love being found in odd corners. Very enjoyable.

———

Current reading is Magnus Magnusson’s “Iceland Saga”, first purchased and read in 1991, while I was studying the sagas at University, and very enjoyable still, and Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time: Spring”, which I’m reading with M and some friends in the usual fashion, so that’s progressing a little more slowly than it would if I was reading it independently. Much fun being had by all, though!

Book Reviews – Pym Fest! Crampton Hodnett, A Very Private Eye and Civil to Strangers

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July 2013 coming upThis photo gives the lie, doesn’t it. Well, I started reading “A Very Private Eye” just before this Month of Re-Reading, and all of these are in fact re-reads. Basically, I panicked just before going to the Barbara Pym conference, and threw “Crampton Hodnett” (a full novel published posthumously) and “Civil to Strangers” (a collection of a couple of three complete novels, one unfinished work and some short stories) into my rucksack at the last minute. I know I must have read them when I bought them back in the 1990s, but I certainly haven’t done since, and was unsure of their contents. As it happened, I managed to read only part of “Crampton Hodnett” before the conference, but never mind …

Barbara Pym – “Crampton Hodnett”

(7 Jan 1993)

A very early novel, published after Pym’s death, this is a hilarious portrait of North Oxford life with Miss Doggett and Miss Morrow, who were recycled for “Jane and Prudence“, taking centre stage.

We find the classic Pym clergymen and their wives, women who are bad at being a wife, happy, wry spinsters and of course a curate, described deliciously here at one point as resembling a satisfied marmalade cat, with the addition of the adoration of a professor by his clever student and a delightfully waspish Bodleian librarian. Heavily edited by Hazel Holt, it remains a good, fun read, with plenty to say about love and marriage, spinsters and wives, and fussy and foolish men, with some great characters and some interesting insights into what Pym’s women actually do want out of their relationships with men.

Barbara Pym – “A Very Private Eye” (ed. Hilary Pym and Hazel Holt)

(? No indication as to where I got this. I suspect the book stall in Greenwich, but I’m not sure)

An autobiography collected by Barbara Pym’s sister and executrix out of her diaries and letters, this is of necessity not as selective or well-shaped as a conventional biography would be. Some of the student writings were pretty gushy, and I found the Stevie Smith-like letters to Elsie almost unbearably pathetic in their attempts at cheer and not caring about her marriage to Pym’s love, Henry; but I did love the letters to Larkin, although I would have liked to read his to her, too), even though the inclusion of these, diary entries and letters to another correspondent gave rather a repetitive effect at times. There was a lot of good detail about the writing of all of her books, the background to Quartet in Autumn being particularly interesting (this from someone who claims not to want to know about the authorial intent – oh well!).

On this repetition, I suppose that in 1984, with Pym gone 4 years previously and the posthumous publication of “Civil to Strangers”, etc., not yet completed, this gave people want they wanted – as much more of Pym’s words and writings as they could possibly get. You can’t really argue with that.

I loved the glimpses of Iris Murdoch (of course), and also of Paul Binding, who I met at the Pym Conference, and who actually introduced BP to IM, at his house!

Barbara Pym – “Civil to Strangers”

(9 January 1993)

This substantial book contains the title novel, a well-done study of a taken-for-granted wife with increasingly clear sight and a perhaps inadvisable trip to Budapest; the autobiographically based what-if novel, “Gervase and Flora”, set in Finland and re-writing early disappointment as created by the disappointed one, looking for a sort of closure; the unfinished “Home Front Novel”, with its detailed portrayal of a village in wartime; and the madcap spy novel, “So Very Secret”, which is competently plotted but surely both written and read for the characters; plus some pleasing short stories which look at old love revisited, show us Mark and Sophia Ainger and Faustina from “An Unsuitable Attachment” in later life, and are all very interesting; and an essay about developing her voice.

Slightly patchy on the whole, but we must remember that they were unpublished at Pym’s death, except for certain short stories, and they do, of course, give us more of Pym, which is what we all want, really, isn’t it!

Book Reviews – Perch Hill and Emma

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July 2013 coming upTwo more old friends in my Month of Re-Reading, and you can see them both in the photo, I think … These were two more that I read on our recent holiday; I read all of “Perch Hill” in a few sittings and got up to the end of Book II of “Emma” on my Kindle, but I tired of reading the “Collected Works” on that and not knowing how far I was through the book, so stopped there and picked it up in my old Penguin Classics edition when I was back at home.

Was it worth taking my Kindle on holiday, by the way? The jury’s out this time. To be fair, I had crammed in a large number of Barbara Pyms because of the Conference. I would not have normally taken that many print books on a trip, now that I have the Kindle. So, even though I only read 2/3 of one book on it this time, I will take it next time …

Adam Nicolson – “Perch Hill”

(10 December 2005)

Needing respite after a bad year culminating in a mugging, Adam Nicolson and Sarah Raven determine to find a place in which they can nestle down and hide from the world. Having searched all over the country (as an ex-fellow Weald dweller, I smiled at “even East Kent”), they find Perch Hill, an unprepossessing collection of shabby farm buildings and poor land, but tucked into a beautiful, almost magical valley in Kipling country.

Their concerns may be the same as in any other “giving it all up and going to live in the country” narrative – hateful chickens, dim sheep, hard lessons, collapsing buildings, neighbours good and bad – but because it’s written by this author, we get wonderful writing that you can enjoy for its own sake as well as for the sake of the narrative, precise descriptions, emotional depth and a deep, abiding sense of his love of the English landscape and land, and in addition, it’s often very funny (I was constantly reading bits out to Mr Liz).

A worthwhile and enjoyable re-read as I had half forgotten that I owned this book, and remembered the feel of it (except at the very beginning) but not the detail. One of the great narratives of countryside living.

Here’s my previous review pf this book from March 2006 (when I didn’t review so comprehensively!)

Jane Austen – “Emma”

(late 1980s / early 1990s, dated from sticky-backed-plastic covering)

How DO you actually review a book by Austen? Hasn’t everything already been said before? This was one of the two least-known of her books to me (the other being “Persuasion”, which I read back in January) but it’s just such a good read, with wonderful characters, and, although I had forgotten much of it, I remembered the well-plotted and satisfying story.

As with other classics (see Hardy reads and “Middlemarch“, I have found my reaction to this book changing over time. I found Jane Fairfax unjustly judged now – although that’s obviously part of the story – where I found her annoying before, and I recall being more frustrated with Mr Woodhouse in earlier days – now I can see the worry shining through his dealings with anything at all out of the ordinary, having lost his wife young and only having one daughter left at home. Book blogger Dovegreyreader, who has also recently read and reviewed this book, although for the first time, points out the effects of the loss of her mother on Emma, and you can see that when it’s pointed out to you, with the lack of female guidance (think of Jo from Little Women without her mother) and only her governess to oversee her moral development, someone who is, although full of sense herself, perhaps a little over-indulgent of her dear Emma.  And I think that it is to these women of sense, rather than sensibility, that we turn as we get older, isn’t it? Emma perhaps moves from one point to the other over the course of the book, and of course her relationship with Mr Knightley is just perfect! A great read, anyway.

I haven’t read this one recently enough to have an existing review to quote. But here’s Heaven-Ali’s review from her Austen in August re-read.

Terrible confessions of a book buying addict

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Oh dear! I was wittering on in my last State of the TBR post about how “good” my TBR was looking and how I was re-reading this month and would try not to acquire many more new books.  Then I went on holiday. Now, I do recall that I bought a number of books last time I went on holiday, and so it happened again. Except that that time I came home with three new books and had released some via BookCrossing that I’d read on the trip: this year I came back with a whole bag of 11 books, plus the ones I’d been re-reading on holiday. Oops!

July 2013 3The first lot – Simon Reynolds’ “Rip it up and Start Again”, “The J.M. Barrie Ladies’ Swimming Society” by Barbara J. Zitwer (noticed after a brisk discussion about “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” in which Paul and I discovered that we liked and disliked the book respectively for pretty well the same reasons) and Patrick Hamilton’s “The Slaves of Solitude” were bought on a trip to Fopp in Manchester with Paul and Jeremy. I didn’t know there were any Fopps left and I could have bought loads of CDs. I’ve certainly looked at the Reynolds book a few times, so it was time to pick it up.

The two F.M. Mayors, “The Rector’s Daughter” and “The Third Miss Symons”, E. Arnot Robertson’s “Ordinary Families”, Ellen Glasgow’s “Virginia” and Jane Aiken Hodge’s “The Double Life of Jane Austen” were bought in the delightful Beckside Books in Penrith. I had a lovely chat about hayfever, TBR piles and all sorts with the bookshop lady, and I couldn’t resist these Virago Greens (and one in a different edition) and a book about Austen when I was reading “Emma” at the time. Again, I could have bought more there. Many more.

Matthew had run out of books, even after reading one of my Barbara Pyms, so wanted to go to the charity shops to get a new one. And that’s where I found a Persephone! (Noel Streatfeild’s “Saplings” which I already have) with a bookmark, now earmarked for a friend, and another Virago Green, George Gissing’s “The Odd Women”. One last charity shop and I found the interesting looking “Waterloo” by Roger Deakin, all about wild swimming. I know someone who might like this once I’m done with it, and of course Iris Murdoch loved what wasn’t yet called ‘wild swimming’ when she was dipping into odd pools and bays.

All well and good, but then I got home and ran into our neighbour, who had a parcel for me. I’d forgotten that the kind people at Bello Books had offered me the pick of their catalogue of print-on-demand reprints: I’d mentioned a few authors and they generously sent me these three lovelies!

July 2013 4Gillian Tindall wrote a marvellous book about a village in France, so her short stories, “Journey of a Lifetime” should be good, and Vita Sackville-West should need no introduction to readers of this blog, and here are her first novel, “Family History”, and “Heritage”, which a few of my friends have read.

So, 14 books, although one will pass straight out of my hands and at least two others will be passed along … Do you do this kind of terrible thing on your holidays, too? And have you read any of these new acquisitions?

Book Reviews – A Few Green Leaves and A Start in Life

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July 2013 coming up My Month of Re-Reading  continues with two books by favourite women authors – to whom, incidentally, I was introduced by the same person. Mary was a neighbour whose garden backed onto ours. She introduced me when I was in my formative years to feminism, socialism, Iris Murdoch, Anita Brookner, Anne Tyler, Elizabeth Taylor, Erica Jong, Virago books and much more. Did you have someone like Mary in your young life? Who introduced you to the books you still love today?

Barbara Pym – “A Few Green Leaves”

(7 October 1994)

My re-reading interest in this book was piqued by the Barbara Pym Conference (more of that later in the blog) and luckily I had this one handy at the time, unlike “An Unsuitable Attachment”, which I also want to re-read soon. We’re back into village life with this one, with Emma Howick, perceived to be unsuccessful and the daughter of an academic, moving into her mother’s cottage and deciding to make an anthropological study of village life. She’s not the only one studying the population, with the young doctor interested in geriatrics, not to mention the beady eyes of the other inhabitants. Her notes and observations frame the tensions within the community between new doctor and old doctor, doctor and rector, original and newer inhabitants, and there is some of that unsatisfactory romance that BP does so well, too, as well as some marvellous lone men to throw into relief the difference between them and spinsters.

Many mentions of characters from other books – the ex-priest, Adam Prince was at Father Thames’ clergy house with Wilf Bason the adventurous cook, and there is news of Fabian Driver and Esther Clovis, the latter of which provides a plot point allowing us to be updated on the status of Digby Fox, Deirdre, Dr Apfelbaum and Gertrude Lydgate from “Less Than Angels”.

Satisfying, well-written as ever and extremely funny, for example Daphne’s increasingly violent memories of Greece as she contemplates the church flower arranging.

Anita Brookner – “A Start in Life”

(1990s)

I did want to re-read a Brookner anyway, but then Heaven-Ali came up with the idea of Brookner in July to celebrate the author’s birthday, so this forms part of that challenge, too. This one has a superb opening sentence: “Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature”. We’re in classic (early) Brookner-land here with a red-haired, solitary daughter with her slightly raffish mother and unreliable family in general, odd retainer and unsatisfactory lover, with London and Paris playing starring roles and minute observation of the disconnect between the central characters and modern life.

It’s quite Pym-like in ways, although much more melancholy than even the saddest Pym – a farcical attempt at cooking a meal for a lover is tragic here, rather than comic – but a world in which the reader can immerse themselves and as good a reading experience now as when I was much younger and reading Brookner for the first time.

Book Reviews – The Sweet Dove Died and Cider With Roadies

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July 2013 coming up Two old friends here as part of my Month of Re-Reading.  The Barbara Pym was read for my readalong with the Virago LibraryThing Group, and the Maconie was added at the last minute (so doesn’t appear in the book pile to the left) because I’d been to see him talking about his new book and he’d read bits out of it which reminded me how enjoyable it is. So on it went to the pile, and off it came straight away to be read!

Barbara Pym – “The Sweet Dove Died”

(9 January 1991)

I think this is the most Elizabeth Taylor-y of Pym’s novels (Pym and Taylor readers, do you agree?). We meet cool (cold? calculating?) Leonora, who uses her accidental encounter with Humphrey and his nephew James to entwine them into her life, getting all their useful aspects without having to engage in any of the messier or more uncomfortable side of human relationships. She is unable to see the parallels between her obsession with James and her friend Meg’s difficulties with her own young male friend, even when parallels between the young men’s lives come into sharp focus, and dispatches those who cause problems with ease and aplomb. Yet somehow we do feel sorry for this lady with her empty life and continual polishing in this quietly impressive novel which  Pym described as a study in selfishness (picked up at the conference). Originally read this in the early 90s and I’m not sure I’ve got a review written down. I did remember many parts of this although not the plot as such.

Stuart Maconie – “Cider With Roadies”

(08 May 2004)

A jaunt through Maconie’s early life up until his leap from journalism to radio broadcasting. Extremely amusing of course, and I also enjoyed a lot of the points about dealing with interviewing music people which are even more interesting for me now that I transcribe a lot of these (not for Maconie, I hasten to add). His sheer joy in music and bands shines through the humour of course … and also, I have to say, shines through the typos with which the text is littered. But a good, fun read. I can’t find my original review of this at the moment, as I would have read it about a year before I started book blogging online, but will dig it out of my notebooks and add it.

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