State of the TBR – February 2014

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Feb 2014Well, the state of the TBR is frankly parlous at the moment. It’s all those acquisitions from December and January that have done it! But I am doing a nice lot of reading now, slotting in good chunks of book time, so I’m hoping that I’ll get going through it and reduce it to manageable proportions again soon. You can see, can’t you, that this shelf is double-stacked? Oops!

Feb 2014 currently readingA quick reflection on the Month of Re-Reading in January – it was pretty disappointing, to be honest. I finished eight re-reads, plus reading a book of Hardy stories and two e-books that I’d won from LibraryThing, so had to be read within the month. I didn’t have much reading time early in the month, and one of the books wasn’t great, so I felt cheated out of some of the ones I’d selected. One will go now, as I’ve not got round to it twice, and I will keep the others aside for July. I do like devoting a month to re-reading, so I will try again. I am still re-reading “Jude the Obscure”, which is excellent, and I’m so glad that I picked it up again after all these years, because there is a lot to recommend about it. My other current read is Simon Reynolds’ “Rip it up and Start Again”, a history of post-punk that I paused at the end of December.

Feb 2014 next 1Coming up next, I want to re-read the anthology of First World War poems, “Up the Line to Death” through the rest of the year, encouraged to do so by my re-read of Vera Brittain’s classic war book. So that will be on-going, with a section or two read per month. I think that will be my way of honouring the centenary of the start of the war.

Feb 2014 nextThe other books coming up are a bit of an overly green bunch, so I might have to do some judicious juggling. I am keen to read “Murder at Mansfield Park” reasonably soon, so I can see how it works off the Austen classic, but might do a Virago first. I wonder how many of these I will get through …

What are you planning on reading this month? How’s your TBR looking at the moment??

Book reviews – The Crowded Street (Persephone) and Mansfield Park

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Reread Jan 2014It’s back to the re-reading after a brief foray into the world of e-books and review copies, and what a pair of excellent books with which to continue! Neither of these disappointed, and I loved the tie-ins with previous Month of Re-Reading posts, as Winifred Holtby was of course Vera Brittain’s great friend, and I’ve been reading a Jane Austen novel during each Month of Re-Reading so far. Both of these books treat unconventional women; Holtby’s is almost as strictured as Austen’s through much of the book, but she manages to make her escape from the clutches of conventional society in a more modern and – perhaps to the modern reader – satisfying way.

Winifred Holtby – “The Crowded Street” (Persephone Books)

(25 December 2013 – From Ali)

A brilliant novel, full of stories and ideas and a careful consideration of what is really meant by society, duty, family, morality, love and women’s place in the home and wider world.

A quiet, Jane Eyre-like central character is contrasted with her more impulsive, emotional sister and the one emancipated woman in the village, who she feels is a version of herself that she could never hope to be, as well as her glamorous half-French school friend, who has all the worldliness there could be but does not understand English small-town life in the years around the First World War. Can she achieve escape from the stultifying half-life of helping her mother run a house that doesn’t need that much running and offer herself – still in service – in a more meaningful way? Dare she develop a ‘temperament’ and a personality of her own? Will she just go from one form of subjugation to another?

Holtby does seem here to value the quiet virtue of home-making and service as a way of life, as we will see that Austen values the quiet, timid goodness of  her heroine. But will Muriel speak out and speak up, even flourish on the lecture platform, as she needs to? And then, when offered what she has been conditioned to believe she has always wanted, will she make the right decision? It’s a heart-in-the-mouth moment when she does that, and a very satisfying ending.

A novel of ideas and one that depicts some important times in the development of the women’s movement, charting the state of flux that always seems to exist between the sides of the home-maker and the non-domesticated activist.

I last seem to have read and reviewed this in July 1997, although I was at pains to point out then that it was already a re-read:

“(Library) Read before. Story of woman’s realisation of her own needs away from family and community. A bit over-metaphorical, but told with good plot and character.”

Hm, not sure what to make of that. Onwards …

Jane Austen – “Mansfield Park”

(1988, School Form Prize)

A re-read of perhaps the Austen I know least well. And of course, many people seem to cite it as their least favourite, especially given the ‘prim’ heroine, Fanny. Well, maybe it’s the quietness of age, or maybe it’s the influence of lovely Muriel in the Holtby, but I found a lot to like in quiet Fanny, trying to do the best she could, trying to stick by her morals and those of the age, in the face of the rather dodgy influences that come into play around her.

We all know the story, of course – Fanny is taken in by  her uncle and aunt, raised to feel inferior to her cousins and to be a support to her aunt. She observes the wickednesses that ensue when Mary and Henry Crawford enter the vicinity, with their play-acting and flirtatiousness, takes refuge in her little room full of books but no fire, is flirted with herself, has a difficult trip ‘home’, loves her one decent cousin, witnesses further wickednesses (at one step removed) and finally prevails.

There is a lot in the Penguin Classics introduction about how Fanny represents the status quo of the old order before war and money broke in and changed society, and in showing her quiet, decent heroine winning through, she reminds me of Hardy’s promotion of the good, gentle and quiet above the passionate and those who seek to break society’s mores. She does stand up for herself, quietly and firmly and, while the younger or more lively reader, keen on the wittiness and reversals of “Pride and Prejudice” and the like, might find her boring, I found her intriguing. It’s so clever to write a novel with such a quiet, almost non-existent heart, and the foreshadowing of more concrete events in plays, trips to a park and seemingly innocuous card games is so masterfully done.

Although I was heard to complain that things were going a bit slowly in the first half of the book, I will remember next time to look out for those small, revealing moments.

I have to include a photo of the bookplate and bookmark in this copy; I took this photo to contrast the school prize bookplates in my copy of “Mansfield Park” and a book that I hoped was published in 1914 (but proves to be from 1908, with a bit of research):

Jan bookplates

Currently reading: I’ve really finished the Month of Re-Reading now, I’m going to have to get on with the rather large history of post-punk music that I started in December, but I am about to start re-reading “Jude the Obscure” for the Hardy project, so one more, even if I am unlikely to finish it this month …

Book reviews – The Strange Case of Dr Terry and Mr Chimes and Dark Horse

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kindleI’m breaking off from the Month of Re-Reading here to review two LibraryThing Early Reviewers Programme e-books. Why I received two, I’m not quite sure. One was very, very disappointing, one was good for what it was, although not directly relevant to me and my business endeavours. I did resent them a little bit, especially as I don’t seem to have had as much reading time as I’d hoped this month, so they definitely took at least one book off that lovely pile, but when you sign up for LTER, you undertake to read and review within a month, so read and review within a month is what I’ve done …

Terry Chimes – The Strange Case of Dr Terry and Mr Chimes

(e-book, LibraryThing, Jan 2014)

Terry Chimes was the original drummer in The Clash and rejoined the band part-way through their career, as well as working with other rock bands until he decided to change career and become a chiropractor. I thought that this book looked very interesting from a music and career-change perspective, but I was, I’m afraid, sadly disappointed.

It’s very … pedestrian. He manages to make life as a rock drummer sound really boring, and the business wisdom that has been praised in other reviews already published consists of truisms and exercised in stating the obvious. Be reliable and things will be better for you. There is no limit except that set by your mind. All that sort of stuff. Although he thanks an editor in the acknowledgements, he must have ignored their suggestions, as the prose is flat, full of dangling identifiers and non sequiturs, and littered with errors. I was really pretty disappointed with this, and was glad I didn’t pay for it.

Re the editing issues, I know it’s a pre-publication copy but it seems to have been out there for a while, perhaps in print, already, judging by the number of reviews.

Dan Mack – “Dark Horse”

(e-book, LibraryThing, Jan 2014)

A book about small companies that do better in business and against their larger competitors than they logically should do, with insights from the leaders of such companies culled from seminars and groups run by the author. He certainly knows his stuff, and the book is packed full of insights, inspiration and real-life, concrete examples of the theories and practices he discusses.

This book would be most useful for companies that are offering a product (rather than a service), and in the sectors of health, beauty and wellness, as these areas are where most of the examples are located, although there are some good general principles too. It would also be of most benefit to the small-to-medium sized enterprise, rather than a very small or single-person business, as there’s information about recruiting and managing the appropriate staff and departments working together which wouldn’t be so directly relevant.

It’s well laid out, in an easy to follow structure that is consistent across the chapters, and there is a good bibliography and references list to back everything up. I would recommend this to the CEO of a small company trying to hit above its weight, or to anyone in business (and in fact big businesses could learn much from this, too).

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Currently reading: I am finishing off “Mansfield Park” at the moment, and then it will be goodbye to the Month of Re-Reading with “Jude the Obscure” for the Hardy challenge, which is a re-read of which I remember nothing but a very dim impression!

And so the TBR explodes …

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My friend Elaine, met through the LibraryThing Virago Group, was coming to the UK again from her home in Chicago. The Virago Group didn’t seem to have had a meetup for a while. So, with Elaine being in Stratford and Stratford being full of bookshops and tea shops, it seemed too good an opportunity to waste.  I had accepted a while ago that it’s not a bad thing to buy lots of books, but I was a bit worried about today, given my recent Christmas haul and Birthday haul, and I already knew from a trip to Stratford two years ago that Elaine is a very good “enabler” (sorry for the rather grainy pic in that post, but you get the idea. To be fair, she just took me to the shops and pointed things out. She’s very good at that!)

So, Ali and I got the train to Stratford, meeting new real-life but familiar online chum Genny on the train. We arrived in Stratford to meet Elaine, Julie, Claire and Luci, all arrived safely from London, Oxford and, well, Stratford for the week. We started off with a coffee at the White Swan (thanks again, Elaine, for the coffee, and Luci for the wonderful pile of books to pick through!), we definitely went to that cafe in the antiques centre (does it have a name?) for lunch, and I’m sure we went to the Shakespeare Hospice Shop and Oxfam, and some other places, too. It all blurs a bit.

Anyway, I came home with these …

Jan 2014 3

Charlotte Mendelson – “Almost English” – I read her “When we Were Bad” back in 2011 and really enjoyed it, this is a proof copy of her new one (thanks, Luci).

Dorothy Sheridan – “Wartime Women” – a Mass Observation book about women in WWII – what’s not to like? I do still count myself a MO participant, although I’m lagging woefully in returning my responses to them (thanks, again, Luci).

Victor Skipp – “The Making of Victorian Birmingham” – how can I resist a book about the history of my city?

Mary Webb – “The House in Dorner Forest” – I am a big Mary Webb fan now, so pleased to find a nice Virago Green.

Rachel Hewitt – “Map of a Nation” – the history of the Ordnance Survey. How did I not already have this one?

Gwen Raverat – “Period Piece” – her childhood memoir, plus charming illustrations.

Rosie Swale-Pope – “Just a Little Run Around the World” – her memoir of running thousands and thousands of miles – I’ve been vaguely looking out for this for ages.

Antonia White – “Frost in May” – the first Virago Modern Classic; of course I have it anyway, but this is for some young friends of mine.

After another cuppa at the station, it was time to wend our weary et ceteras. I’ve now put all of these and my birthday books on my TBR shelf, and was slightly horrified to find that this …

Jan 2014 recent acquisitions

… represents just my acquisitions from Christmas onwards. Oops. I’d better slow down (and up the reading) for a bit, hadn’t I. I think this represents something of a record, even for me. You will be able to see the full TBR on 1 February; all I can say is that you won’t see many of these behind the front layer when I’ve done that!

Have you read any of my new ones? Had any splurges yourselves …?

Birthday Haul

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a pile of books

Well, haven’t I been a lucky lady! I had a birthday on Tuesday,  not an exciting or big one, just a Douglas Adams-style one (some of you will get that). And my friends gathered together and made sure that I had plenty of books, as good friends do.

Icelandic Folk and Fairy Tales – this is registered on BookCrossing and I’m going to make sure to read it before and release it during our honeymoon in Iceland. Hooray!

Judy Budnitz – “If I Told you Once” – I know nothing about this: this and the three below it were bought by a friend to help me fill in my Century of Books project. This one is billed as an Angela Carter-like magical journey through a family’s history – looks very interesting.

Nella Larsen – “Passing” – I have heard of this book but never read it – the tale of childhood friends, one who ‘passes’ as white and marries a white racist, one who remains in Harlem and works for racial equality.

Ruth Park – “The Harp in the South” – an Australian novel about a poor family living in Sydney – again, looks very interesting.

Mary Lavin – “The House in Clewe Street” – I’ve previously read her “Mary O’Grady” and this looks to have a similar theme, set in working-class Ireland.

Angela Thirkell – “High Rising” / “Wild Strawberries” / “Pomfret Towers” – quite a few of my friends have been reading these light and interlinked novels from the 1930s, and I’ve been wishing I could, too, so I was pleased to receive this set of modern Viragoes.

Jeffrey Eugenides – “The Marriage Plot” – I adored this “Middlesex” and have had this one on my wishlist for a while. An appropriate title in this Year of Our Wedding, too!

Bob Harris – “The International Bank of Bob” – the story of Kiva and how it’s developed, Kiva being the microfinance loan organisation through which I regularly support entrepreneurs, business people and farmers around the world.

What a lovely haul and how well my friends know me (these came among notebooks, mugs, scarves, tea and appropriate gift vouchers, of course). Have you read any of these? What did you think of them?

Oh, and I know someone who I know through book blogging is a  big Beverley Nichols fan – is it Kaggsy or Fleur Fisher or someone else? Do get in touch, as I’ve been having a weed of my biography section and found a lovely elderly hardback of “The Sweet and Twenties” which I’d love to pass on to you. Hopefully you’ll see this. Oh, the weed? Well, it made room for the books that were sitting in piles in front of the other books, so I suppose that’s some form of progress …

Hope you’re all having a lovely January of reading – any re-reading going on? I’m currently enjoying “Mansfield Park” …

Book reviews – Talking for Britain and Frost on my Moustache

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Reread Jan 2014I’m managing to read a bit more at the moment and am slipping behind with my reviews a little – but here are two non-fiction books that I added to my pile for my Month of Re-Reading. One of them was sadly a bit disappointing. One of the purposes of the Months of Re-Reading was always to check whether I do in fact still need to keep certain books, authors or even genres, but I’ve already weeded out one author this month, and now I fear I’m about to remove another! Oh well, I’ve had some cracking reads, still too …

Simon Elmes – “Talking for Britain”

(26 December 2006 – from my parents-out-of-law for Christmas)

I was partly inspired to read this by passing my language and literature shelves every time I go in or out of our bathroom, and partly by a conversation with my father-out-of-law where he mentioned that he has been re-reading the popular science books I like to give him for Christmas. This book is a survey of the dialects of the United Kingdom, informed by a 1980s survey and older works on the particular dialects and then a new survey done in 2005.

It did have a lot of interest and was a worthwhile re-read. However, I did feel that it wasn’t able to go into enough detail, as of necessity the chapters had to cover a wide geographical area and many variations between, for example, rural and urban speech. For example, in the chapter on the South East, London was lumped in with all of the rural accents of the Home Counties, and I felt that Kent, for instance, didn’t really get much of a look-in at all. Conclusions were drawn and comparisons made that linked the chapters at times, but there were no general conclusions about language change and spread. I did also wish that the examples of transcribed speech used the standard phonetic alphabet rather than an approximation of the accent made up with the common alphabet. I do accept that this was all done to make a book that could actually be handled and enjoyed by an ordinary reader, and it’s also interesting to note that I must be even more obsessed with language than I was before I started working with the English language all day, every day in my job!

Having put down all those criticisms, there was much to enjoy and it was a good basic introduction, with the interest of words for the same things being extracted from regional speakers in each area, giving a good point of comparison and indication of how much general terms have spread and where regional terms still hold strong. I was particularly pleased to note “coupy down” for squat in the West of England section – I have always used this (especially, I’m afraid, for the kind of squat necessary to the archaeologist, field-walker, rambler or birdwatcher out in the wild) and wasn’t sure if it was my own or a family phrase, as no one else seems to understand it. But there it was, resplendently inherited from my Dorset forebears, just like my Spanish colouring! All in all, an entertaining and lively read.

This is what I thought of it when I originally read it in March 2007:

“A wonderful book looking at the dialects of each region in turn, historically and now, with a short glossary at the end of each section. Well and engagingly written and endlessly fascinating.”

Tim Moore – “Frost on my Moustache”

(31 March 1999)

Narrative of Moore’s travels in Norway, Iceland and Spitzbergen in the footsteps of Lord Dufferin. I like this kind of ‘in the footsteps of … ‘ book, and thought I remembered really loving this book first time round, but I struggled with it more than a little this time.

Although it is funny, it’s a bit TOO funny, even silly, and trite. It’s sub-Bill Bryson (or at least I hope it is and I haven’t gone off BB, too) with too much flailing and vomiting and not enough solid information or deeper entertainment than a man being a bit silly and making a fool of himself. There were some genuine laughs, but too many laboured puns and foolish moments took away from the balance of the book for me.

I will keep it because of the bits set in Iceland, but I’m not sure about the others of his books that I still have (I didn’t fancy the latest one at all).

What I thought of it when I last read it in May 1999:

“Very, very funny book about the author’s rather unwilling journey in the footsteps of Lord Dufferin, Brysonesque in the best way – self-deprecating, insightful and laugh-out-loud funny.”

Oh dear – have I become humourless in my old(er) age?

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Currently reading: I just finished the wonderful “The Crowded Street” by Winifred Holtby and am starting on “Mansfield Park” again, now, as I do like to get an Austen in during each month of re-reading …

Book reviews – Testament of Youth and 1914 and Other Poems

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WWISense a theme here? I was inspired by Heaven-Ali’s Great War Theme Read, which is based on the latest of the LibraryThing Virago group’s successful and enjoyable themed reads (a closed group so I can’t link to that), to pick up Vera Brittain’s “Testament of Youth” to read in this Month of Re-Reading. Now, that’s not the assigned read for this month, I know, but basically I’m taking inspiration but am not keen enough on war books in general to read them all through the year. So I thought I’d do my own form of In Memoriam and pick out books I love to re-read this year.

I was only going to do the Brittain, but then she mentions Brooke’s poems in her book, and so I felt drawn to pick up this lovely copy that I have of his “1914 and Other Poems” to read through, too. I’ve since picked that wonderful compilation of First World War poems, “Up the Line to Death” to read slowly through the next few months, too. I don’t think I’ve read that since I did a First World War poetry course during my degree, and I did that because I’d studied them in great detail for A and I think O level (my copy of “Up the Line to Death” is somewhat worryingly inscribed with my class name and room, although it has the pencilled-in price and Other Person’s Name indicative of a personal second-hand purchase). But I thought it would be interesting to do that, too.

So, two First World War re-reads (and reviews of other reads coming soon – I have been reading since my last review, I promise!)

Vera Brittain – “Testament of Youth”

(25 May 2009, from my friend Julie, who was moving back to Australia. She gave me some boxes of books for BookCrossing but I saved this nice hardback for myself)

Her famous autobiography, covering the First World War and the terrible personal toll it took on her as she lost family and friends as well as suffering the horror and privations of being a nurse in England and France (I think everyone knows what happens but won’t give details just in case). Beautifully written, of course, having been constructed out of real letters, poems and diaries as well as novelised and mulled over for a decade or two before this was written and published. The distance shows, as she is able to view her and others’ changing feelings about the war with the objectivity gained from mature reflection, while representing the immediacy of those feelings through the vivid first-hand sources.

Even though this was at least my third time of reading, I had forgotten that there’s a long pre-war section and a presentation of her life as an undergraduate returning to Oxford changed beyond belief after her experiences. The psychological and physical effect that 1914-18 had on her are laid out without self-pity, and we get to enjoy her growing friendship with Winifred Holtby as well as her romance with her future husband, as well as her and Winifred’s work writing, lecturing and working for the League of Nations, that unfortunately doomed precursor to the UN. This had the effect of making it more contemplative and less harrowing, looking at the long-term effects of the war and people’s attempts at constructing their own and a world peace. It’s also a more feminist book than I remember from last time, with a good description of the worries of contemplating marriage when you’ve had a life of your own (more marked then than now, of course, but interesting in the context of some of my own recent experiences) and the pleasures of that rare thing in those days, a room of one’s own, however basic, freezing and rife with domestic dramas.

My review from my last re-reading in December 1997:

“Bought 1 June 1997. I had read this before, but a long time ago. Almost unbearably moving – at one point I was reduced to unstoppable tears, because of both the losses she experienced and the damage to her.”

I have to admit there were no unstoppable tears this time, but at times it was very hard to read and so poignant, especially a sentence about her eventual wedding. I’m really glad that I re-read this.

Rupert Brooke – “1914 and Other Poems”

(bought late 1980s)

As I mentioned above, I picked this off my “nice books” shelf to red because Brooke’s poetry is mentioned in “Testament of Youth”, as is Brooke himself. This has the famous early war poems, and was originally published in 1915, although I have the 30th impression from 1923. (I bought it at a book sale or Halls Bookshop in Tunbridge Wells for £3. It bears the ink inscription “To Bert Hewson, WIth every good wish, from Margaret Croker [?] 30.6.24”. I probably bought it because I was in my late teens and in love with R. Brooke. This led me to unsuccessfully apply to King’s College, Cambridge, who rejected me because I didn’t want to take a year out. Anyway …)

This volume lacks the slightly more disillusioned poems that Brooke wrote later in the war, when he’d experienced the conditions we all know about, so has the purity of those early poems of patriotism, written when there really was that idealism about a noble death for one’s country. It’s important to remember that that is how people felt (or were made to feel by the political and military leaders) before the reality and horror set in, and also to remember that he was representing a commonly held belief. He wasn’t a fool and he did realise, but he also died very early in the war, in 1915.

The war poems are almost unbearably poignant to read now, with the pages of history turned and the outcomes for Brooke and his compatriots and fellow soldiers of all nationalities known and mourned. I found myself feeling glad that he’d had the sunny, happy interlude in the South Pacific whence originate some of the “Other Poems” of this volume. “Grantchester” is included, too – I had completely forgotten how long it was and the humorous list of other places in Cambridgeshire – it’s really rather an odd poem.

Reading this volume has led me to pick up “Up the Line to Death” again, an important collection of poems published in chronological order of their writing, which records the progress of the war and the shared idealism of the early days so very well. I recommend that volume as a very good companion to this year of remembrance.

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Reread Jan 2014Currently reading: I’m working through my re-reading pile although I haven’t had quite as much reading time as I would have wished (I rather foolishly wished out loud that I could test out my new keyboard, leading me to get a massive load of transcription jobs in). Coming soon, reviews of some language and travel books, and some non-re-reads which I won this month from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme. I’m currently reading Tim Moore’s “Frost on my Moustache”, which is unfortunately sillier than I’d remembered, but is about Iceland in part … .

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