Book review – “Living on Paper” (ed. Avril Horner and Anne Rowe) #amreading


jan-2017-tbrThis, like the last one, but for different reasons, is an intimidating book to review. Published in 2015, not only has it thus been reviewed fairly recently in the Serious Papers, but it and those reviews have been discussed by much greater and more academic minds than mine in the Iris Murdoch studies community. In addition, I know not only the two editors, but also those who keep the archive and who consulted on and even proofread the volume, to varying degrees. On top of all that, it’s also the letters of my much-loved favourite author; indeed, I once received a letter from her myself (not so surprising, given the volume  of her correspondence), alas lost decades ago in a house move. So I hope I do it justice, and I’m responding to the book here in a personal, not critical way (which does fit in with my use of Reception Theory in my research, right?!).

Avril Horner and Anne Rowe (eds.) “Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1934-1995”

(Bought from Foyles, 2 July 2016)

Murdoch’s collected correspondence at last (or at least a small proportion of the huge amount that must be out there), boosted by the acquisition by the Archives at Kingston of several important runs of letters in recent years.

My main reaction to this was that she was so darn busy. She often writes to the same person on consecutive days, and these are big, meaty, handwritten letters. She does say she can’t act without speaking in one letter, and indeed she works out thoughts, feelings, reactions and relationships through the letters. On any one day she appears to be answering letters (for up to 4 hours per day, apparently), carrying on affairs, often simultaneously, being married, making, breaking and remaking friendships and relationships, doing philosophy and then writing – no wonder she and John Bayley let the housework slide a bit!

The other massive point this made to me was the difficulty of making arrangements in a pre-digital era. I remember this – of course I do – but it’s quite shocking to see the amount of time and energy that has to go into, for example, letting people know which address to write to; making silent phone calls to alert people that she needs to speak to them; sending stamped addressed postcards for people (mostly Canetti) to use to let her know if they can meet her (I really don’t like the way she debases herself in front of some people, primarily him, however much he inspired her to create her wonderful fictional monsters); and trying to recall the names of pubs, outside which she will be at 3.40 on 4 March, for instance. I couldn’t help wondering how many more novels we’d have had if she’d lived in the age of the Smartphone, although given her propensity for writing in longhand into the 90s, I wonder if she’d have taken to it. Surely, she’d have loved the intrigue of Facebook Messenger, though?

I was struck by how interwoven Iris and John were into her mother’s mental decline, and this was distressing, imagining how she might have felt as her own brain started to skip words and lose things. Indeed, the final letters show this – or discuss it – hard things to read but I felt just the right representative examples were included, and nothing too intrusive.

On a lighter note, although the novels are not much discussed, save the odd research trip to, for example, Lot’s Road Power Station to research the location of “Bruno’s Dream” and some discussion of points raised in people’s letters, her reading does come up quite a few times, and I was regularly entranced by finding favourites there. She reads Ada Leverson’s “The Little Ottleys” in 1966; I bought the first volume late last year and of course had to download the whole lot; she enjoys Sylvia Townsend Warner’s “Lolly Willowes” in 1967. She demonstrates a good working knowledge of Tolkien, mentioning his magic metal, mithril, and falls in love with Widmerpool from Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” in 1971. She discovers Trollope at the age of 54, a decade and a bit older than my discovery of him, but finding him more conducive to a good solid read than she did at a younger age. I smiled as she struggles through having to (re) read the whole of Virginia Woolf in a short space of time for a lecture, and was surprised to find her not discovering John Cowper Powys (who I knew somehow to be a favourite author) until 1984 – I have yet to explore him but really want to, as he apparently affected her later novels.

I was very pleased to find her in Iceland at one stage, although she does claim there aren’t any trees – maybe they’ve grown since then. But it’s always nice when your interests overlap. She even meets Halldor Laxness, “a very nice old bean”!

Of course it goes without saying that the introduction to the book, the introductions to the sections, the captions to the letters and the notes are impeccably done. The introductory pieces set the letters in their contexts and also discuss the novels in some detail, which is useful for the reader coming to this book from those. It’s an excellent read, the product of a busy but overwhelmingly warm, attentive and caring person, sometimes very cross indeed but always human and thoughtful.


Book review – Barbara Kingsolver – “The Poisonwood Bible”


jan-2017-tbrGosh, it’s really hard to write a review of a book everyone else in the world seems to have read first! I’m the first to admit – and feel bad – that I’m not very good at reading books about Africa; although it seems a cliché to say it, they do seem to dwell on conflict and while I completely accept it’s important to read and know about conflict, I’m a fairly wussy reader and can’t deal with scenes of peril and violence. Knowing this was about the bloody history of what started out as the Belgian Congo from the 1960s, I did check with a few friends first as to whether I’d be able to cope with this one, and was reassured. And, it being by a favourite author, of course I found it amazing.

Barbara Kingsolver – “The Poisonwood Bible”

(11 July 2016, charity shop, Bridlington)

An amazing and powerful read, told in the voices of Orleanna Price and her four daughters, who are compelled by their paterfamilias, the misguided and pig-headed Nathan, to move to the Belgian Congo to be missionaries, originally for a year, until history sweeps over their lives. As the women of the house adapt, bend and blend (as well as becoming frustrated, depressed and ill), noticing and learning from their mistakes, he blunders along, making things worse and worse, insulting the villagers they live with and ending up with a “congregation” of misfits and outcasts.

Added to all of this and the biblical plagues that attack the small community and smaller mission, it’s the early 1960s and the fight for independence and also the international fight over the country’s natural resources get underway, leaving the Price family trapped and in danger.

For Orleanna, every day for a long, long time has been a fight to stay within her family, and as the hardships pile up, each woman must make the decision on how to save herself and/or her sisters. The different routes to physical and moral salvation – or not – are explored and the history of the country, shamefully not noticed at the time, has its inexorable effect on their lives in different ways, to greater or lesser extents, but is explained and not forced onto the reader.

Danger and peril are prefigured from the very start and throughout the book, with Kingsolver’s literary skill able to weave tiny references through the text and to show how the smallest bad decision can multiply into disaster. The voices of the women are beautifully differentiated, from spoilt Rachel with her malapropisms to little Ruth May with her small child’s take on events. It’s not entirely clear whether it’s better to try to save yourself or to throw in your lot with Africa and its people – the continent has its effect on everyone and perhaps the most positive characters are those who seek to help without changing, understand without preaching and imposing beliefs, whether that’s the previous missionary who got “too close” to the villagers or Adah with her understanding of medical science.

An ambitious work which does, I think, succeed: it’s not all grim, there’s beauty and wonderful description, and it feels like an important and respectful record of the evils of colonialism.

Phew, done! I’m going to move onto NetGalley book “Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars” next, because I need a light palate cleanser after this excellent read. Do you remember reading “The Poisonwood Bible”? Would you press it upon someone who’s not read it?

Book review – Anna Kessel – “Eat, Sweat, Play”


jan-2017-tbrOops, it’s been a while, after my flood of posts around the New Year, hasn’t it. Problem is, I’ve been reading one Big Book (Iris Murdoch’s letters, very good, almost done now) and got in a frenzy about getting my book for Margery Sharp Day in on time this year (after a slight fail last year) so read that early on then am saving the review for the 25th. But here I am with a really good book about women and exercise. And I’ve only developed one new NetGalley review copy so far …

Anna Kessel – “Eat, Sweat, Play”

(2 July 2017)

I remember the joy of buying this along with those Iris Murdoch letters and Sylvia Patterson’s “I’m Not With the Band” when I had a book token to spend in Foyles. I’m also pleased I’m only 6 months behind on the TBR dates at the moment.

This is a book about sport and women’s lives, inspiring and frustrating by turns, written with authenticity (to a high degree – see my comments further down) and trying to show the authenticity of women’s sporting lives, whether as participants at all levels, fans or commentators. We meet people from new mums sparring in an old-school boxing gym to Jessica Ennis, from fans who decide they don’t have to know everything about the rules of football to the first woman to commentate on TV (men’s) football.

The book opens looking at teaching of PE and societal attitudes to women and sport, highlighting the fact that women are encouraged to exercise to look good (although being “allowed” to sweat these days) but not to look “unfeminine” or “undignified” or feel competitive or proud of themselves while engaging in sport (it does make the point that men are increasingly facing the issue of exercise and appearance now, but don’t have the same criticism of their looks when competing). Although this is changing, Kessel then looks at women’s sport and exercise as related to menstruation, pregnancy, motherhood and menopause, bringing out some horrific detail about how women’s bodies have been treated in research as an extension of men’s, with almost no research on the effect of periods (or birth control) on women’s performance, likelihood of injury, etc.

On the topic of horrific detail, there is a grim description of a miscarriage which the easily triggered might wish to skip – it is signposted but only very soon before the detail starts. Fair play to the author for breaking the boundaries by including this, although I couldn’t decide whether this fed into the “women are personal, men are impersonal” narrative and whether this will make it more easily dismissed by those who should be taking notice of the very important points raised in the book. I do hope not, as it’s a brave thing to talk about stuff that is just not talked about in public.

We move on to fandom and sports journalism, and here, as throughout the book, Kessel uses her own experiences but broadens them out through networks of women (and men) she speaks to. She’s great on the camaraderie of sport, using her contrasting experiences of running with supportive women and competitive, pushing men (I have to say here that I’ve not had that kind of divided experience myself; I know a lot of kind and supportive male runners, luckily, as well as my fab group of mainly female Sedate Ladies). The groundbreaking images of This Girl Can campaign are highlighted, although she does point out that this campaign is not aimed at the older women and there should be something for them (us?), too.

Inspiring reading, with a good mix of research (nicely referenced) and anecdote: lots to think about here.

On a slight whim, and because in light of Brexit, the Trump presidency and various stuff going on locally I have been thinking about how to do good and community, I responded to a NetGalley email and bagged myself a copy of The Power of Meaning by Emily Esfahani Smith, which apparently “explores how we can begin to build a culture of meaning into our families, our workplaces and our communities”. It was published yesterday so would be next on the list were I not supposed to be reading another NetGalley book published on the same day.

I’m actually reading Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible” which I was unsure of, being as I am not usually keen on books about Africa (they so often seem to concentrate on bloody conflict: if you know of books on the continent which don’t, or non-conflict, non blasted Magic Realism South American books, do let me know!) but love her writing. So far, I can’t put it down!

Top Ten Books of the Year 2016 (and reading report)


jan-2016-tbrWell, the TBR started the year as above and (sneak preview) finished it like this, so that’s some progress, right?


In 2016 I read 126 books in total (up from 115 in 2015): 77 of them were fiction (83 in 2015) and 49 non-fiction (32 in 2015) and I had 6 Did Not Finishes (3 in 2015). 84 of the books I read were by women and 42 by men (very tidy stats). As to diversity of location: not so much. 59 books where the location could be identified were set in England or the general UK, 24 in the US, 9 in Iceland, 4 in Switzerland, 3 in France, 2 each in India, Ireland and Scotland and one in Wales. Then there were 1 in Canada, Morocco, Japan, Spain and Europe in general. None in Eastern Europe, Russia or China? No South America or Africa as a whole? Hm. I re-read just five or six books, half for Woolfalong.

Top 10 books of 2016

So here are my top ten with links to their reviews.

Barbara Kingsolver – Flight Behaviour – community, nature, science, learning, wonderful novel.

George Eliot – The Mill on the Floss – just wonderful: these are classics for a reason, aren’t they!

Katharine d’Souza – No Place – set in a Birmingham that’s so recognisable and a fabulous story.

Lisa Jackson – Your Pace or Mine? – removed the last traces of shame at being a slow runner and the author even emailed me on marathon day.

David Kynaston – Modernity Britain – his volumes of social history always make my top ten.

Joan Russell Noble – Recollections of Virginia Woolf – such a special book of pieces by her contemporaries.

A.S. Byatt – Ragnarok – a good old-fashioned read and about the Norse mythology.

Simon Armitage – Walking Home – a bloomin good read about a long walk.

Bob Stanley – Yeah Yeah Yeah – the definitive history of pop and SO entertaining.

Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse – difficult to choose between this and some of her others.

Honourable mentions to:

The rest of Woolf

Margery Sharp – brilliant and just pipped to the post

Jo Pavey – This Mum Runs

I know you’ve all done your top 10s now but have you read any of these?

Challenges completed

I got on well with my own A Century of Reading and now have read or own 70 of the years.

I completed 20BooksofSummer this year!

I completed #Woolfalong, reading a book for every section and thoroughly enjoying the process.

I read all of Dorothy Richardson’s “Pilgrimage” series.

Happy reading for 2017!

Thanks to all my followers, readers and commenters; hope you have a great year of reading.

Coming up later: Christmas book pile (yay), state of the TBR and challenge plans for 2017 …


Book reviews – Dorothy Richardson and The Years #woolfalong #amreading


dec-2016-tbrTwo final reviews for the year – of course, I’ve now got a few hours of 2016 left with no book started as I don’t like to be untidy, but there you go. Hope everyone’s had a good reading year, I’ll be doing my roundup and TBR photo tomorrow, and until then, I’ll leave you with two reviews of books connected with Modernist writers, the outcome of my competition to pass along the set of Richardsons and an offer to share one of the books reviewed here.

Carol Watts – “Dorothy Richardson”

(29 October 2016, Buxton)

Quite a hard book on the author whose “Pilgrimage” series I have of course been working through this year, which purposefully doesn’t set out to match biographical details to the novels, but instead looks at memory, relates the books to a separate short story called “The Garden” and talks a lot about the relationship of the books to the world of the cinema, which I can see, even though Richardson never mentions the cinema in the books, with all the tracking shots and changes in focus, etc.

There were some good finds in this short volume – as well as herself cutting up five volumes of Proust and reading them in a random order, Richardson apparently advocated reading “Pilgrimage” from a random starting point! There is a lot of meat in this but it was maybe a little academic for me. I do feel compelled to read the autobiography; not sure if I can face the semi-fictionalised book about her as I’m not usually keen on that sort of thing.

If you would like to read this book … As there have been a few of us reading “Pilgrimage”, I’d like to share this book about it. If you’d like to join a book ray for the book (so you will undertake to read it and post it on; it’s 90 pages long and will probably go Large Letter in the UK) then please post a comment and I’ll put a list of email addresses in the front cover and send it out.

*We have a winner* Winner of the full set of “Pilgrimage” books, chosen by random selection (numbers in a hat) is Dee! I will get in touch for your address. Of course you might like to circulate them among all three of you who entered the comp!

Virginia Woolf – “The Years”

(25 December 2016 – from Belva, my LibraryThing Virago Group Not So Secret Santa)

How fortuitous to receive this book just when I wanted to read it to round off #Woolfalong! It would make my top ten of the year easily were it not for the glaring anti-Semitism – I know it’s of its time etc. and expresses what people were thinking but it did make me pause.

But anyway, I got totally absorbed in this family saga running from 1880 to the late 1930s. It’s not nearly as experimental as “The Waves“, read earlier this month, although, as we’ll see, it’s far from being traditional. The middle generation are seen as they age from being a set of anxious children with an ailing mother to prosperous – on the whole – elderly stout folk, but the events and attitudes of the age undermine the paterfamilias, who is found to have feet of clay, and the central character, Eleanor, one of those spinsters who has lived for everyone else and not herself finds a new life of travel and maintains a gay best friend, and women move from father-funded and mocked philanthropy to independence, rooms of their own and careers.

I felt my assessment of this book as a “Forsyte Saga” with more on women’s rights and people’s feelings and better descriptions, or a “Pilgrimage” that you could actually understand and follow (there’s even a Miriam on one of Eleanor’s committees!) was a bit shallow, but the introduction to my (Wordsworth Classics) copy does in fact compare it to Galsworthy. But although it seems like a return to the standard novel in some ways, the ebb and flow of repeated memories, totem objects and thoughts is all Modernism and reminded me of “The Waves” to an extent. It’s moving, too, how episodes of childhood remain with the middle-aged and elderly and an object is given, ages, wears out, is discarded and is rescued by the servant.

Compulsive reading and an excellent finale to the year and to my participation in #Woolfalong.

Still to come tomorrow, State of the TBR, Christmas Book Pile, round-up of my reading stats, Top 10 books of the year and plans for book challenges for 2017. Happy New Year, everyone! And don’t forget to comment if you’d like to read “Dorothy Richardson”!

Book Reviews – Hypothermia and Atlantic Britain #amreading


dec-2016-tbrTwo reviews today, both set in the North Atlantic, as I rattle through some shorter books at the end of the year. The Adam Nicolson might be a candidate for my Top Ten of the year, as it was very good, and the Indriðason was a bit of a downer, to be  honest, but well-done still.

Oh, and excitingly, my post on the Jewellery Quarter Pavement trail (the second one) was picked up by a BBC journalist and has been written about here!

Arnaldur Indriðason – Hypothermia

(August 2015)

Another installment of the Reykjavik Murder Mystery series, and I know a couple of people have told me they start to decline in quality near the end of the series – can anyone tell me when that starts? This one was quite depressing, with the main investigation being on a woman found to have committed suicide, and following up on the loss of Detective Erlendur’s brother in a blizzard in their childhood. He has a depressing encounter with his ex-wife and regrets the mistakes he made with his children.

The other police characters don’t really feature in this novel, and are only mentioned in passing, which makes it feel a bit claustrophobic. The plot is cleverly worked out as always (although a sub-investigation that I thought would mesh with the main one didn’t seem to), but the geography (apart from some cool stuff about lakes) and the range of characters was lacking for me.

Adam Nicolson – “Atlantic Britain”

(3 September 2016 – Astley Book Barn)

I picked this off the shelf as a short book to pop into my handbag for a journey, so slightly out of order in the TBR (gasp!). It’s about Nicolson’s (a favourite author of mine, grandson of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson) sea adventure sailing from Cornwall to the Faroes up the West Coast of the British Isles, also the subject of a TV series I didn’t catch.

I loved the boating details, the beautiful descriptions, the birds and the honesty – the description of Nicolson’s near-drowning is amazingly and powerfully written, but so is his account of his relationship with George, skipper and accomplished seaman but employee and in imbalance with the requirements of filming, going wrong. He even shares George’s rather damning assessment of him as a “plucker” – one who floats from one thing to the other without really having to take responsibility, as opposed to the person who handles the risk and responsibility – which I think is a brave thing to do (he apparently ran the text by George before publishing, and they remained friends).

Full of memorable scenes and scenery, from monks in an odd community to bare rocks buffeted by the sea, and full of the wonder and horribleness of the sea – a great book.

I’ve almost finished my Hard Book about Dorothy Richardson then will I get “The Years” done in time … ? How’s your reading going?


Book review – Yeah, Yeah, Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop #amreading


dec-2016-tbrNow, this is why I don’t do my Top 10 Books of the Year until the actual end of the year (I am aware that I need to do a Books Received for Christmas post, a round-up of the challenges and reading I’ve done this year and fit in my State of the TBR and plans for challenges for 2017 …). Because if I’d already put my Top 10 together, this book wouldn’t have gone onto it. And I’m pretty sure it’s going to be up there.

Bob Stanley – “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop”

(19 February 2016)

I’ve been reading this hefty tome as my Downstairs Book (at the kitchen table and for chunks of time after lunch during the week) for quite a while now, but as the chapters are short, it’s felt like I’ve been making progress all the time. It’s the story of the modern pop era from the first singles in the 1950s to the dawn of a time when singles no longer came out on 7″ vinyl, although individual threads reach further forward and back. And pop is defined as anything popular – rap, country, r’n’b, bubblegum, doowop, shoegazing, etc., etc.).

It takes things chronologically but in short, thematic chapters – on an artist, a label, a genre – which by necessity jump around a bit, but the narrative is as coherent as it can be under these circumstances. Stanley’s amazing at pulling out tiny details and links and making connections across the whole of pop, and his footnotes are epic, amusing and human. He’s human all through it – waspish at times, with opinions: he has his likes and inexplicable dislikes, and I don’t agree with him on Erasure, but you have to be human and show your own feelings, I think, if a book like this is going to be great, and it speaks volumes that I cheerfully read chapters on bands or people I really do not care for.

The author is so perceptive on monolithic stars like Dylan, picking up on how he created his backstory and soaked up the coolness of the Greenwich Village vibe like a sponge, and he admits defeat on someone like Mickie Most, not able to give him more room because he can’t pull his story into a coherent whole. He’s great on the workings of the music business, whether it’s the Motown / Brill Building / other such song writing structures or the effect that the closing down of the pirate radio stations had on what music people heard, with The Who being lost for a while, or pointing out with a subtle reference to intoxicant of choice and hairstyle that reducing Jamaican pop to reggae and Bob Marley is like reducing British pop to blues rock and Rod Stewart.

There are Easter Egg references to Smiths lyrics and some great puns, and he doesn’t rush things towards the end, but he’s at his best when making those connections: how UK punk emerged years later in US hardcore; how the slow-mo sound of 1990s Bristol had wide-ranging routes in the 1980s and beyond; how there’s been a strand of “big men on the brink, tough guys choking back the tears” that reaches all the way back from Kurt Cobain to Frankie Laine and Del Shannon.

Masterful, amazing, a brilliant read and highly recommended.

I’ve got myself on to Iris Murdoch’s collected letters now, and am also going to try to give Woolf’s “The Years” a go, as I have a few more reading days left in the year. I might even finish the Hard Book about Dorothy Richardson I’m trying to read … watch this space for a few more reviews before the Top Ten. How are you all doing in this middly-bit of the holiday season?

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