Nov 2013 TBRTwo excellent books that I really can’t find any way to link today! A book telling the history of London through the maps drawn of the capital, and that marvellous classic, “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”. So, I think we’re just going to have to jump in and review them. Watch out for this week’s book acquisition below the reviews …

Peter Whitfield – “London: A Life in Maps”

(02 Feb 2013 – birthday present from Sorcha)

An exhaustive history of London told through historical maps, both well-known and obscure, most from the collection of the British Library, who also published this book (I wonder if it accompanied an exhibition. If so, I wish I’d seen it!). The illustrations are a little hard to see in detail, even in this larger format book, although it’s difficult to see how this could be addressed, apart from having the book published as an app for tablet or computer.

I would have liked a few more modern maps and mention of the A-Z perhaps (copyright issues probably came into play here), and the ordering is a little odd, skipping around in the chronology a little, but overall it’s a fascinating and absorbing read. I particularly liked the various schemes for improving the layout of the city, including one for straightening the Thames and leaving the redundant loops, converting them into docks, and of course the glimpses of my own old haunts.

I learned a lot from this book, and enjoyed understanding how particularly the large aristocratic estates shaped and formed the city as these tracts of land were developed.

Thomas Hardy – “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”

(Bought late 1980s – dated from Penguin Classics ‘red-top’ edition covered in sticky-backed plastic)

I still can’t quite believe that I had never read this before – but reading it through, I know I really hadn’t – and I’m grateful for Ali’s Hardy Project for compelling me to do so (a bit late, although I did START it in October …).

Her father’s ridiculous pride on discovering their ancient family connections sets Tess on one of Hardy’s inexorable paths of fate, and if you’ve read any Hardy before, you’ll know that she will be crushed by her fate in one shape of form. Mind you, I did think I knew the story, and found  that I didn’t. She can’t escape the family that is her downfall, and as her birth family and her ‘family’ both start to collapse in on themselves, she is thrown on her own, not inconsiderable in terms of physical strength and fortitude, resources. The choices she makes are not optimal, but are logical and believable given the personality she is described as having, and rather a lot is made of the fact that her lack of education and then half-education have a role to play in her eventual fate.

Some of the content of the novel is decidedly gothic, with sleepwalking, horror and mystical elements. We also have the usual wandering oddities, but I personally like the fact that the silly country-folk are toned down here into some realistic if doomy maidens and some farming folk. By the by, this does slot into that rural gothic genre inhabited by Mary Webb – the two cross artistic paths on many occasions.

The ending is mystical, powerful and affecting, coming quickly but not exactly brutally when it comes. The descriptions of nature and the countryside are worth mentioning, too – there is a portrait of the coming of winter on the farm that is sublime and unforgettable.

The introduction makes the point – reasonable in my view – that Hardy himself is in love with his heroine. She is certainly an unforgettable member of his tribe of passionate and troubled women. As I always say, the thing about Hardy is that he gives you a blooming good read, alongside the layers of personality, fate and landscape, and this is what he does here.

Nov 2013 1And now to my book “confession”. Well, I’m going to have to keep the category and tag as otherwise I’ll mess up links I’ve put in other posts, but reading this post over at A Musical Feast did make me stop to think about using the word “confessions”. Because it’s not actually BAD to buy books, is it? There are worse addictions, aren’t there? And what better gift than a book? This little beauty came courtesy of my lovely friend, Sian. She knows I’m plotting and planning a trip to Iceland, and want to brush up my Icelandic (I studied Old Norse at university for three years; as Icelandic didn’t have a Great Vowel Shift like English did, it’s pretty much the same language now, but there’s obviously a slight issue around vocabulary, seeing as all I read for three years were myths and sagas – good for dogs, swords and torture, not so good for, well modern life). She was in Grant & Cutler in London and had found their Icelandic section – did I need anything? A few texts later (and after she’d been told off for taking a photo to send to me to see if I wanted her to, well, spend money in the shop!) and this was on its way to me. It’s perfect – lots of vocab on geology, fairly obviously, but also colours, geography, and it’ll get me back into how the sentence structure works. I’d better pick up a dictionary now, though!

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Currently reading – I’m still working my way through “English Eccentrics” and am half way through now. I’m also reading my last Barbara Pym of the year, “An Academic Question”, for the LibraryThing Virago Group Pym readalong, and enjoying that more than some others are!