Iris Murdoch Society Conference 2017 – University of Chichester @IrisMurdoch #IMGandT

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Last night I got back from the marvellous Iris Murdoch Society Conference and I thought I’d share my experience of it here. I hope you enjoy, and sorry if I left anyone out.

Thursday – getting there / guided tour

I set off from Birmingham after an exhausting three days of hard work and long hours and doing all my invoicing. The train down was fine, I just had to pop from Euston to Victoria, then I got the train to Chichester. It’s one of those dividing trains so I spent the whole time worrying I was in the wrong carriage when I knew I wasn’t. Everyone does that, right?

I arrived at Chichester railway station at a quarter to three to find my friend Pamela waiting for me as planned. We walked through the very pretty city to the university – about 20 minutes’ walk – as we were both staying on campus. We checked in to our student accommodation and I sorted out the important things …

and did a little bit of work.

My room was perfectly serviceable – we certainly never had en suites when I was a student!

I met up with Pamela in the lobby of our building and we bravely found the Main Gate and met up with various other Murdoch scholars known and new, including blue-haired Shauna who has just got a first in her undergraduate degree and is preparing to do her Master’s on Murdoch. I might have wittered auntily about being glad Young People are studying our favourite author. We set off across the park to the Butter Cross to meet our guides for the guided tour that had been arranged for us.

More people to greet and old friends to catch up with, then off we set, in two groups, taking in the Cathedral and the lovely streets. A charming city with lots of lovely Georgian and older buildings and interesting sites.

Our guide is in the foreground, Frances and her lovely dad and a selection of international scholars. Here’s the cathedral:

and two views of St Richard, one statue by a modern artist which was very powerful, and one stained glass window within the cloisters, “Given by a vagabond” in 1908 (the year our house was built):

We joined the other group and had a convivial dinner at Carluccios, then wended our weary way etc. I discovered my room window was still stuck open but a Nice Young Man from reception was still there and sorted it out for me.

Friday 1 September: Conference Day One

Breakfast was from 7.30 in the refrectory across the courtyard, past the chapel.

Poor Daniel had to take charge of me, doing the doddering aunt thing, busily adding coffee to my teabag and being unable to find a tray. I didn’t risk the toast machine. We sat with new and old colleagues including David from Hungary and got straight into the academic/historical chat – a bit of a context switch for me but usual for everyone else. I found a lightness and freedom in not having a paper to present.

We checked in at the desk outside the chapel, and were given a fabulous tote bag and programme:

and went in to find … the book stall. At which I had a ‘moment’, as there was my book, on the table with all the ‘proper’ books.

Yes, that’s my book.

Thank you again to Miles Leeson for encouraging me to get a box of books sent to him to put out.

We were in the rather amazing chapel for the big sessions on this day.

There was an introduction by Professor Catherine Harper, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, about the history of the university and strong tradition of women taking senior roles. Then Miles officially welcomed us. I’d found my fellow Alternative Approaches to Iris Murdoch ladies and we sat together for the first plenary.

Rivka (pink hair) is a research scientist who writes wonderful papers on Murdoch’s books and aspects of science, and Carol is an amazing artist who’s done a truly astounding project on Iris’s books – more on that below. It was lovely to see them again: we presented on the same panel at the last two conferences.

Anne Rowe presented on teaching Iris Murdoch as she ran a module at Kingston University for 25 years. It was fascinating to hear about the triumphs and difficulties and moving to hear the feedback from various students. So many of her students were there on the day, too, and she’s had a huge influence on lots of people.

After coffee, it was time for the first panel. I went to one where Wendy Jones Nakanishi discussed IM’s Letters (slightly horrified to find the editors of such letters in the audience), Fiona Tomkinson talked about IM’s Japanese foxes, which was absolutely fascinating, and my friend Rebecca Moden talked about IM’s relationship with the artist Harry Weinberger and the work there is still to be done on colour and synaesthesia in IM’s books.

I became briefly troubled when Anne Rowe mentioned how our reading of IM’s letters and journals will affect our reading of her novels (Reception Theory again!) and also got emotional when she described how Iris’ last letters, when gripped by Alzheimer’s, consisted of the same repeated phrases, born of the long-lasting need to still be writing letters. This reminded me of a gentleman who used to run at a local run, running almost the only thing left to him – I blurted this out then felt a bit teary. But a fascinating panel.

Popping across the lovely campus was always a delight and I made sure I took photos for Gill, who studied there a few years ago.

After lunch (our special diets were catered for after checking and I had a nice chat with a lady from the IM book group), the next session I attended was Traumas in The Sea, The Sea. Norwegian Elin Svenneby talked of the gender trauma in the book and shared her own struggles to read it, Adela Branna from Brno did a very interesting reading of The Sea, The Sea based on concepts introduced by Camille Paglia, including reading Rosina as the sea monster, and chair Cheryl Bove read a paper on female ageing as trauma, centring on Clement Makin, that was interesting and moving (the lady who was meant to present couldn’t attend). There was a good discussion afterwards.

After tea, we were lucky enough to experience A.N. Wilson in conversation with Miles, talking about his book “Iris Murdoch as I knew her” with lots of little details about their friendship. As he had spoken about the sad lack of IM on school syllabuses, I bravely rushed up at the end and told him I’d made 25 book groups read “The Bell”. “Ah, jolly good,” said he, and I rushed away. BUT I found out later that he bought a copy of my book! Shocking!

Third panel time and it was Rivka Isaacson on the liver, detoxification and “A Fairly Honourable Defeat”, Gillian Dooley talking about music in “Message to the Planet” and Carol Sommer with an update on her Cartography For Girls art project.

I’d already bought Carol’s book so could leaf through it – she manually extracted all of the sentences in all of the novels illustrating women’s experiences of consciousness in the novels. One result is this book, listing all those sentences in an arbitrary but controlled manner.

seen here with a copy of one of the postcards she used in her exhibition. You can read more about the project here, and I need to work out an arbitrary but controlled way of reading the book now! I was able to thank Rivka and Carol publicly for having me in their sessions and supporting my alternative perspective on IM with my book group research.

To continue quite a long day, there was a wine reception to launch the new Iris Murdoch Review, which members of the Society collected as part of our membership. I had a lovely chat with new friend Tania, from Russia, now living in Buckinghamshire. I really love the international aspect of the conference. We then went to dinner at Bill’s, which was a  bit chaotic but jolly, and I chatted with Chris and Ruth, who I’ve met a few times before, and other folk. A bit late to bed after walking back – I don’t have conference stamina!

Friday 2 September – Second day

Breakfast again on another clear and bright morning.

Tania and David had been for a 6am swim and collected pebbles (there was also the transfer of a root of ginger) – very Murdochian.

The first plenary was by Gary Browning, who is a philosopher, therefore should be terrifying (only joking, philosophers!). He’s actually so lucid I can understand him (if not the questions) and his talk about Iris Murdoch and history, including mention of the relevance of her refugee characters as well as the politics in “The Book and the Brotherhood” were very interesting. Talking to Jan about first reading “A Severed Head” in our teens and about my book groups made us almost late for the session she was presenting in – oops!

The Iris Murdoch and other Women Novelists panel was superb. Pamela Osborn discussed the influence of IM on Sue Townsend – I knew Adrian Mole mentioned her but in fact Townsend’s work was full of her novels and name, and the paper was so interesting, and funny, of course.

Jan on George Eliot, IM and intention and guilt was equally fascinating, drawing parallels between two authors I love but had never really compared. Great stuff and a good discussion afterwards about who has been influenced by IM, with Paul Magrs’ name being bandied around as he includes her as a character in his novel “Aisles”.

Lunch and a big chat with the leader of the U3A Iris Murdoch Book Group and then it was straight into that session. Joined by a select few, including Tania and Kent Wennman, who charmingly claims to read only books by and about Murdoch and about Elvis, and the Czech ladies and one more, we had an amazing discussion, led by the U3A ladies and their leader. It was fabulous, a real highlight. I blabbed on about my research, but they were interested in it of course, and we also met a friend of theirs who was taught by IM herself (not pictured below – they all started rushing around and it was hard to pin them down).

Then it was back to the Academic Building ground floor for a final cuppa and look at the book table (all of my books had sold! I was still being overwhelmed by people asking me to sign them: I had not expected that and was very unprepared). Then it was the final plenary, given by James Jefferies, who in his spare time and as a labour of love has produced an app which maps the London locations of IM’s novels and characters, using Cheryl Bove’s walks book and character list as a basis and using technology and coding to make this amazing website.

His enthusiasm for IM came over beautifully, he felt (as another alternative type) very welcomed by us all, and I urge everyone to go and have a look at it here.

As I’ve finished my project, I’m hoping to be able to provide some typing/checking support for this amazing project in the future.

Miles said a final piece, and it was goodbye – oh no! Always sad, and you can never find everyone to say goodbye to. I thanked the students who’d run the book stall, said goodbye where I could and took one last photo of the chapel:

and a cheeky selfie with Rebecca.

She and I headed back up to the railway station, buying our dinner in Marks and Spencer’s (the man at the till had read “The Bell”) and then getting trains in opposite directions to end up about 20 miles away from each other. I had a brief chat with Cheryl on the platform (mainly about how many of IM’s books our respective husbands had read), and then it was train-tube-train-bus, home, enlivened by my breaking up a fight and talking about IM so persuasively to  my seatmate that he felt compelled to write her name in his phone.

A lovely, lovely time, thank you to Miles and Frances and the students and the university people for the organisation. One exciting thing that’s come out of it – I’m going to read IM’s novels chronologically from next January. Anyone in for a group read? Just watch this blog or I’ll announce it on the IM Facebook page.

You can find other people’s comments and photos under the Twitter hashtag #IMGandT.

(And in case anyone wanted to buy my book but it had run out, you can find it on all varieties of Amazon, just search for Liz Dexter.)

New acquisitions and some excitement of my own … #bookconfessions

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I’ve had another little burst of book-buying and I don’t always like mixing that up with Persephone reviews or Shiny New Books links, so I thought I’d do a post about those. And I’ve got some exciting book news of my own – I know some of my readers will know this already, as I shared it on my work blog, but this is where I have kept details of my Iris Murdoch project and I wanted to share with you, too, that I’ve finally finished my research project.

Four pretty books that seem to go together first (I could have taken the labels of those two, couldn’t I – but they’re shelved now! “Proust and the Squid” is about the science of reading, it was passed to me via BookCrossing by my friend Sian and I know just the friends in Cornwall who will find it interesting, so will take that down to read on my autumn trip and then pass it along. “Adventures at Black Pony Inn” was bought last week because I was basically sick of seeing “FURTHER Adventures at Black Pony Inn” sitting on my Extra Pile, waiting for its forebear (excitingly, this was listed as a paperback but is a nice substantial hardback). Clare Balding’s “Walking Home” is not exactly an update on her autobiography (“My Animals and Other Family“) but about walking and her life in general, apparently. And Robert MacFarlane’s “The Old Ways” is one of those books EVERYONE has read, isn’t it, and I really should, again about walking, and the old tracks of the countryside (I’m assuming this is like Roger Deakin’s “Waterlog” and you’re all going to tell me you’ve read it).

Now, I do like a nice walk although I’m a complete wuss when it comes to “undulations” and scree slopes and business like that. Give me a road to run down and I’m happy, though, the longer the better. There are almost infinite numbers of running-related books out there, and I’m even in a running readers Facebook group, but this one was mentioned by my friend Cari (old BookCrossing friend, now a happy new runner) as something she thought I’d recommended to her – nope, and then I looked, and then I clicked and now I’ve got a copy, too. How did that happen? Anyway, it looks rather good, all about running round at the back of marathons, with cartoons and everything. I have a few running books I need to dig out to read before I do my next marathon in October – although I’ve already got another booked for the spring (NOT London, not yet) so there’s plenty of time, I hope. Anyway, one more running book on the shelf, and it looks like a quick read.

A little bit of self-congratulation now. For seven years – yes, SEVEN YEARS, I’ve been doing a very part-time, very unofficial research project on what I would call (Virginia Woolf’s) Common Readers but might be called Ordinary Readers – you and me, really, and Iris Murdoch. First I compelled a group of friends to read all her novels in chronological order (this was the start of our various enthusiasms for doing the same with Hardy, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym, etc., all ending up with Dorothy Richardson!) and then I managed to persuade 25 book groups to read “The Bell” and fill in a questionnaire for me. Imagine! Anyway, I tried to write it up as well and as academically as I could, various ideas about doing official research or approaching a publisher were posited, but all of that seemed too formalised and deadline-bound for what I could manage between paid work, volunteering, reading and running, so I ploughed my own furrow right to the end and have produced a write-up myself.

So, here it is, and I’m going to put the Amazon links up so you can go and have a look at it if you want to, but no one should feel compelled to (I’ve stopped making people read things now!). It’s funny to have it all out of my system and to be going to the Iris Murdoch Society Conference next month without quivering about doing a presentation on my Work in Progress, and not having it hanging over me, unfinished, lurking in the corners, but I’m quite proud that I saw it through to the end.

Buy from Amazon UK Buy from Amazon US Buy from Amazon CA Buy from Amazon AU Buy from Amazon FR Buy from Amazon ES


Have you read any of these books (not my one, the other ones!)? Am I last to the pile with “The Old Ways” yet again?

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

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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 reviews – Desperate Romantics and Estates (April reads)

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TBR April 2015Oh dear – I’ve got all behind and confused with my book reviews! These are the two books I read on holiday in early April, between the last two sets of reviews. I seem to have forgotten about them when I posted my poorly reading. And then I discovered I hadn’t written up the two reviews before that in my reading journal, either! Nightmare. So, I think I’m sorted out now, and you’re going to get a few reviews over the next week as I catch up on here.

What I did find on holiday was that if you have a friend join you for a few days in the middle of a holiday, you have wifi in the place you’re staying so you check social media all the time AND you only go on a couple of trips and with both of those the scenery is so amazing you don’t read on the coach, you don’t read much. I took my Kindle with me as well as these two books (one for each flight) and only read a bit of one book on the Kindle. I need to redress this situation next time we’re away!

Franny Moyle – “Desperate Romantics”

(02 January 2015, via BookCrossing)

A book about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their art and women, apparently accompanying a TV series. Pretty well done, drawing links, keeping who was who clear and clearly written, using multiple sources to reflect on the bitter scandals and clarifying them. Decent notes and an index, and didn’t seem too full of conjecture, or when conjecturing was done, it was marked as such.

I think the book was originally written in the present tense and then changed to the past some time in the editing and revision process, because quite a few instances of “has” and “are” had managed to cling on, which made it a bit confusing at times. But it was nicely and competently done and interesting, with an Epilogue that tied up all the loose ends and good illustrations of the central characters and artworks.

Lyndsey Hanley – “Estates”

(30 November 2014, charity shop)

A book about English council estates, covering their history, treatment, policies and current state. The author grew up on a huge housing estate near Birmingham and talks about that time in detail and revisiting the estate to visit her parents and consciously explore it for the book, as well as the London estate where she lives now, actively struggling with policy-makers and the local authority.

Woe about sink estates and policies that work against community spirit, as well as about the shoddy construction and corner / budget cutting that degraded the original grand architectural plans and the lack of maintenance which is really damaging, is balanced by some positive stories about community action. A strong case is made against the ghettoization of the poor and disenfranchised and the way estates have worked to hide the poor from the eyes of the rich, and also against the way in which people growing up on estates are not encouraged to have any ambition or belief in themselves.

It was a little chaotic at times, sometimes confusing me as to the general principle or aim of the book, but it was a valuable and useful read.

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Those were read a month ago, but I’ll catch up quickly with what I’m up to now. I read two more non-fiction books at the end of my illness, then two sagas (a very dense book on Dolly Parton and my Forsyte for the month) and now I’m finally reading Trollope’s “Barchester Towers”, and am half-way through it and loving it, and have started reading Gillian Dooley’s excellent “A Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction”, which is a collection of interviews by various luminaries with Iris Murdoch. That one needs a set of post-it tabs to be kept close by in case of anything of relevance to my research, but I’m glad I seem to have regained the cognitive / intellectual capacity to manage the two current reads. More reviews to come …

 

State of the TBR March 2015

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March 2015 To Be ReadWell, here’s the current state of the TBR and I have chipped away at it a bit since February’s excesses, even though some books have come in (more on those later) and I didn’t feel like I’d been reading much this last month. The front row ends with Dolly Parton. At least I was fairly frugal with my acquisitions last summer, so I’ll be on September’s books soon, which feels a bit better.

I’m currently reading Karen Armstrong’s “The Spiral Staircase”, which is about her post-nunhood life, and is OK although there were a few themes I wish they’d highlighted in the blurb. Not getting into the trigger warnings debate, but when there are two main themes and the blurb only mentions one, it’s a bit annoying. I’ve also finished but not yet reviewed Iain Sinclair’s “Edge of the Orison” which was Quite Hard but makes a nice mental-health related pair with the Armstrong, and Vita Sackville-West’s “The Edwardians”, recently also read by Ali, which has intersections with the world of the Forsytes, handily enough.

March 2015 upcoming readingComing up on the TBR, I have two books about the Vikings – the first one is a biography of Snorri Sturluson, who collected many of the sagas together in manuscript form but was also a bit warlike himself (I’ve been to his house, which was very exciting), and a more picture-book style one on the Vikings in general. This will be good preparation for our upcoming return trip to Iceland (I also have that lovely book of sagas to continue dipping into. Then I have Nick Hornby’s reading diary, what I’d call some “easy” books – one on rock stars’ children and two novels by the lovely Helen Cross, before diving into some Iris Murdoch stuff and some slightly elderly literary theory which should help with my Iris Murdoch research (so I’d better get on and get my new business books written before I get there, right?).

Of course I’ll also be reading my third book in the Forsyte Saga, “To Let”, which will conclude the first three-volume set, and I might start my next Anthony Trollope, too, although that might need to stretch over a couple of months.

Race Horse Holiday Josephine Pullein-Thompson and Mr TeaIn acquisitions / confessions, I fear I’ve missed a few as I have had a couple more in from lovely friends, but I’ve lost track so you’ll have to see those as I read them (in the “fullness of time”, as I somewhat euphemistically call it). I had a small bonanza on Saturday, first of all collecting Josephine Pullein-Thompson’s “Race Horse Holiday” and a very amusing tea infuser from the parcel office, courtesy of my friend Verity. I can’t believe she found one I didn’t already have, but so she did! And it fills in 1971 in my Century of Reading, too – hooray!

Philip Hensher The Missing InkAnd then in The Works, I found Philip Hensher’s book about handwriting, “The Missing Ink”, which was on my wishlist, so one down, 3,000,000 to go off that list and it looks like a lovely read. I read seven books in February, but I should have a couple of bus and train journeys this month which will encourage some nice long bouts of reading, so here’s to a good reading month for everybody. What are you tackling? Have you read any of my upcoming books?

Book reviews – The Bookshop Book and Youth and the Bright Medusa (plus Christmas comes early!)

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December To Be ReadWhat HAVE I been doing? It’s 16 December and this is the first book review I’ve posted this month? I’ve looked around and I really can’t find that I’ve missed out reviewing some huge book that I’ve read. Oh dear! And my TBR has burst (more on that later) so I’ve really got to find the time for MORE READING! I am reading a book on editing to review, so there’ll be a standalone review later on in the week, and I have also been writing up my Iris Murdoch research, which has gone out for comments to my lovely mentors and will be going off to my reading groups once I’ve made a few amendments – that took a couple of evenings. Anyway, here are two book reviews that are both related to booky events.

Jen Campbell – “The Bookshop Book”

(Borrowed from Ali)

This book was the Books Are My Bag book this month – you can read more about this and this book on Heaven-Ali’s blog and it was she who loaned me this lovely book to read (don’t worry: I’ve got her back with a lend of a little pile myself!).

This is a delightful wander though the bookshops of the world, celebrating the shops (whether selling new, second-hand or a mix of books), their owners, customer and pets, with interviews with writers about their favourite bookshops and pages of little snippets and facts. It’s really nicely done by someone who clearly has a huge love for bookshops, and some of the stories about pairing customers and books are very affecting.

It was great to see some bookshops that I know in the mix, and good to be reminded of the excellent second-hand bookshop in Reykjavik which I haven’t explored properly (yet). Bookshops do come and go, so it couldn’t be used as an actual guidebook for very long, but it’s a lovely book to dip into, with a gallimauphry of images and impressions of book shops and their owners.

We don’t have an independent bookshop in Birmingham, but I would mention the excellent arts bookshop in the Ikon Gallery. Other favourites of mine are Any Amount of Books on the Charing Cross Road, the Penrith Bookshop in the north of the Lake District, Fireside Books in Windermere (which is moving to East Sussex), Halls in Tunbridge Wells (which I think is still there) and the marvellous High Street Books in New Mills.

Willa Cather – “Youth and the Bright Medusa”

(Kindle book – downloaded in December)

7-14 December was Willa Cather Reading Week, and again inspired by Ali, I downloaded this book of short stories, reasoning that even if I only read one out of the collection, I’d still be taking part in the Reading Week (and read more about that here and the round-up here). I did actually manage to read the whole collection by the end of Sunday (but didn’t get round to writing this review).

I’ve read several of Cather’s  novels over the last decade and greatly enjoyed their construction and atmosphere, although these have tended to be her pioneer novels (with the exception of Alexander’s Bridge, which was partly set in London). Here’s a link to all of the reviews I’ve done so far – some early ones laughably wispy! These stories mostly address Cather’s other main strand of interest: the artist and their psychology, with “Coming, Aphrodite!”, the longest and first story, examining both a painter and a singer and their startlingly modern relationship. “The Diamond Mine” goes into the demands placed upon the goose that lays the golden egg, narrated by that marvellous type, the quiet sidekick who’s seemingly there for every event while not taking part in the action themselves. “A Gold Slipper” throws the artist up against the implacable but strangely erodable dislike of Industry. “Paul’s Case” takes a different direction and is a fascinating and hugely atmospheric piece about a boy whose only desire is to grab a bit of sophistication and luxury for himself; I really don’t know how Cather manages to foreshadow the rather grim ending so that it is entirely expected, but a shock all the same, but she does, and she does it well. “A Death in the Desert” is a superb exploration of identity, art, personality and family.

These are very good stories, old-fashioned in a good way (I’m one for a short story that tells a proper story) and reminiscent of Edith Wharton’s stories, or even Thomas Hardy’s. I love the way she describes people’s faces and clothes, and the unexpected details of a room in a shabby house or the birds in Washington Square. I have downloaded “The Song of the Lark”, which takes her heroine from the frontier town to a singing career, and will definitely get to that one soon.

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Dec 2014 2Christmas started this year with the BookCrossing Christmas party, with its attendant Not So Secret Santa parcels flying around the table. I was thrilled to open the parcels containing these four lovelies, all from my wish list (some wished for aaages ago), as well as a lovely ornament, some chocolate and a Lush Christmas Pud bath bomb. Lucky me! I’m in another two Secret Santas this year – my LibraryThing Virago Group one has arrived and I can tell there are two books in there but I’m not opening it until Christmas Day, and I’m thinking the Project 365 Photo-A-Day one (not yet arrived) might NOT contain books, although you never know (and I will admit to sending my Santee a book …) I also have a little pile of grey-wrapped, grey books which I bought for myself from other people on my trip to the Persephone Bookshop in November – so that’s my own fault, isn’t it. There are two Dorothy Whipples in there, so what’s the betting I promote one up my TBR pile and get into it between Christmas and New Year.

Dec 2014 3I’m currently reading this book on editing which was kindly sent to me by the publisher. I’m quoted in the book and appear in the index, which is quite exciting (but won’t influence my review, I promise). On reviews, I’ve sent off my piece on James Evans’ “Merchant Adventurers” to the folks at Shiny New Books and will point you to the review when it’s out in January.

Claire visitsOne more thing – I had a lovely afternoon with Claire from the LibraryThing Virago Group, up in Birmingham for a training day, on Sunday. We had two cuppas, looked round town and peered at the Library of Birmingham, and had a nice meal with Matthew at Woktastic. Here’s a photo for all those LibraryThingers who wanted to see one!

Have you received any book-shaped parcels yet? Are you getting any reading in among the tree decorating and card writing (if you celebrate Christmas) or are you planning a reading fest between Christmas and the New Year?

A book confession and a bit of excitement!

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December 2014 1Regular readers might recall me claiming not to be acquiring any new books during this season of Christmas, not so secret Santa schemes and upcoming birthday. Well, unfortunately, this appears to have happened … what am I talking about? It’s fortunate – it’s lovely!

First off, one I forgot to include in November as it got itself into a pile of handbags – my good friend known in this household as Editor Laura (to distinguish her from the other 1,000 Lauras I know) visited us at the weekend with her other half, and kindly gave me “Unbridled Spirits”, which is a book about women of the English Revolution and looks fascinating. Then I was in The Works yesterday, picking up bits and bobs, and I found a copy of “Mr Selfridge”, which patently Doesn’t Count because I did have a copy I’d picked up in a second-hand shop, but it was really manky with odd stains and I ended up … discarding it. I did want to read it, though, and now I can. And then a biography of Dolly Parton. I’m kind of assuming that none of my friends or secret santas will be buying me a book on Dolly Parton for Christmas. But I love her, I have done for years, and was reminded of this only the other day while watching a TV programme about Nashville. So, Dolly’s on the TBR shelf.

And the exciting thing? Well, only last Monday I was talking about how I was glad I didn’t “win” NaNoWriMo but I was going to carry on working on my Iris Murdoch research anyway. I had a free evening tonight and I sat down and FINISHED writing up an extended version of the presentation on book groups reading “The Bell” which I gave at the Iris Murdoch Society conference in September. It’s with my mentors now for a read-through, and with any luck it’ll be going out to my book group leaders and other interested parties before the end of the month. Hooray! And thank you to everyone who’s supported and encouraged me through that.

I also worked on my longer piece, which will look at both aspects of the research I have done and pull it all together with a bit of theory and discussion. Who knows *what* that is going to turn into, as it’s an awkward 18,000 words long at the moment, but this piece will feed into it and we’ll see what happens then. But I have Research Output, and it feels like a good milestone. Night night! (or good morning if you’re reading this tomorrow!)

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