Mar tbrFinally I’ve finished those two books I was so bogged down in. In fact, I finished them on the same day, as I thought I had loads to go on the Jane Austen then discovered wodges of plot synopses in the back (this only usually happens to me with Kindle books, where you get to about 95% and it suddenly ends – or is that just me?)

Anyway, I was pleased to finish these as it was all getting a bit wading-through-mud – and then, of course, I had a day trip to London on Wednesday and finished two more little ones, so watch this space for more reviews on Sunday! But here are two non-fiction books, both the products of their author’s enthusiastic more-than-just-a-hobby, but both frustrating in their ways, too.

Roger Deakin – “Waterlog”

(16 July 2013 – British Heart Foundation, Penrith)

Yes, I’m still on those Northern Odyssey books, but not for much longer: I’ve finally got to the ones purchased in August 2013 in London now! This is a somewhat famous book in which the author wild swims around the UK – although I have to admit that I was a bit bothered that he didn’t do it in order, but darted here, there and everywhere, taking a piecemeal approach which I suppose had to fit around his other activities, but made the book a little disjointed (I could have done with a map, too).

It is however worth reading for the beautiful descriptions of the seas, rivers, lidos, streams, pools, reaches, tarns, lakes, canals, swimming pools and moat, well-known and hidden, that he explores during his series of journeys. There was an exciting (to me) excursion to the Oasis rooftop swimming pool at the end of our old street in Covent Garden (do you get all excited when a book pitches up at somewhere you know well, not set there in its entirety like my obsession with books set in Birmingham, but just a flash of a place you know?). The main plus point about the book for me was the detailed, respectful and accurate descriptions of the flora and fauna he meets along the way – the people come second, in my view.

Deakin was obviously an eccentric chap, addicted to the pleasures of swimming au naturel (and telling us about it), and delighting in having ‘brisk’ discussions with those in authority who are not keen for him to dip in their waters – a real maverick who likes a good ruck. And that makes for a good read, too, of course.

Points, too, for his mention of Iris Murdoch, famously an enthusiastic wild swimmer herself, and, of course, given our recent storms and freak tides, for recording places that quite frankly probably aren’t there any more now. The only problem I had with this book was that it took SO LONG to read. The style (which had some odd quirks which had me hurriedly muting the protestations of my editor’s brain) was quite long-winded; swimming is not something I know much about, so I had to concentrate on working out what he was doing; and there was an indefinable something about the book that meant that, however much I was enjoying reading it, and however alert I was when I picked it up, I would invariably find myself dropping off to sleep after a mere half hour in its company!

Jane Aiken Hodge – “The Double Life of Jane Austen”

(15 July 2013 – Beckside Books, Penrith)

As an espouser of the ‘Death of the Author’ theory (the author has nothing to do with your reading experience; you react to the book yourself and it doesn’t matter what they meant, it’s what you read that counts, in brief), I do tend to be wary of books matching an author’s life to their works. There’s always the danger of finding out that beloved author was a bit of a monster, and I know a few of my readers have come across biographies like that recently. And you can easily love a book but know nothing about why the author wrote this or that, the context of the times, etc., etc.

Having said that, this does do a meticulous job of taking contemporary and just-posthumous sources on Austen – letters, in the main, and recollections and the Life issued by her close relatives – and relating them to the times at which she was writing her books, family and historical events, and something of the writing and publishing environment of the time. Except we don’t really know when Austen wrote her books – especially not the early versions of them – and we don’t have many surviving drafts and notes; add to that the big gaps in her correspondence caused by her sister’s enthusiastic excising of the record after Jane’s death, and while it’s a fair enough point that they were private letters that might hurt family members if they were to be published, we’re left with a lot of spaces to fill.

Aiken Hodge fills these spaces with a fair amount of speculation. She does flag this up both in the introduction and at the point at which she leaves the safety of the sources and paddles into murkier waters, but it is a bit annoying, to be honest. Bad enough to have to relate the books to their author without having to do guessing anyway!

Another quibble is that the introduction states clearly that it’s a reader’s book, not a critic’s book. So critical assessment of the novels is done with regard to character patterns and the relation to Austen’s own life, which is fine, but it does rely on the reader knowing the plots and characters of the novels in intimate detail (yes, there are those synopses, but they are chunks of text which you would have to scan through for character names), and there are many, many asides which throw in a character name and expect you to know immediately who it is, which book they inhabit, and their relevance to the point at hand.

So, a frustrating book on a number of points, but it is good at what it does, and there are some interesting insights.

And yes, if you were wondering, too, she was apparently the older sister of the children’s writer Joan Aiken Hodge, and she wrote a biography of Georgette Heyer that I read and reviewed a few years ago.

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Well, I sound a bit grumpy there, don’t I: sorry! I did enjoy both of these books, I just got a bit frustrated at how stuck I was getting. Next up, two short books for review, and then I have to admit that I’ve started reading “Sunlight on a Broken Column”, which I’d threatened to read later in the month but which fitted in my handbag when I went to London the other day. So, Ali and Karen, if you want to read along, I haven’t got very far yet! What’s everyone else reading?