Today two books arrived through the post (neither from Amazon, by the way) – and that was lovely. But still there is nothing like a real live second-hand or antiquarian book shop to get my pulse racing. I visited two splendid ones earlier this week. One was the East Grinstead Bookshop, new to me, which I visited with my friends, Carol and Peter, and where I picked up a couple of Agatha Christie novels that I don’t happen to have (Towards Zero, Death on the Nile). The shop stocks new books and a fine range of cards, too. There are also refreshments and I had Darjeeling tea which came with a real teapot and a china cup. Heaven. What could be more civilised?
The other bookshop was Hall’s, which has become an institution in Tunbridge Wells and which I’ve visited a number of times. I was hoping to find an inexpensive present to take home for my husband. I didn’t spot the perfect thing until I wandered down into the basement and found spread out on a table an attractive series of hardbacks from the 1940s called Britain in Pictures. Sorting through them I discovered British Windmills and Watermills by C. P. Skilton. We live in a watermill, so it was perfect – and only £4.50 for a copy in excellent condition. That kind of serendipity is the joy of second-hand bookshops. Long may they continue to hold their own against on-line buying. There is nothing like them.
Time for another list. My good friend, Moira (Clothesinbooks.com), and I are sharing eight of our favourite novels set in universities and colleges. Here are mine:
- Josephine Tey, Miss Pym Disposes (1947). Not just one of my favourite novels set in a college, but one of my favourite novels, full stop. I will be astonished if Moira doesn’t also choose this one. Miss Pym, who has had unexpected success with a work of popular psychology, is persuaded to give some lectures at Leys Physical Training College, where her old friend, Henrietta, is now head. There is a nasty accident in the gym and a student dies – or is it an accident? Lucy Pym at last uncovers the truth in a truly startling denouement. The depiction of the college and its students is wonderfully convincing and entertaining.
- Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sawyers (1935). I’ll be pretty surprised if she doesn’t choose this one, too. This scarcely need an introduction. Harriet Vane returns to her alma mater, the all-female Shrewsbury College, in Oxford for the annual ‘Gaudy’ celebrations. A series of malicious pranks includes poison-pen messages, obscene graffiti, the destruction of a set of proofs. Enter Lord Peter Wimsey . . .
- Tuesday the Rabbi Saw Red by Harry Kemelman (1973). Rabbi Small has had enough of the bickering of his congregation in the Massachusetts town of Barnard’s Crossing, and jumps at the chance to teach a course on Jewish Studies at Windermere Christian College. Soon someone lies dead, brained by a plaster bust of Homer! I love this series. The Rabbi is an engaging character, humane, perceptive – and stubborn. The mysteries are interesting, too, and are solved by some special bit of insight on the part of Small – usually springing from his rabbinical learning.
- Emma Lethan, Come to Dust (1968). The Emma Lathen novels were written by two economists, Martha Hennisart and Mary J. Latis. They feature as their investigator John Putnam Thatcher, urbane Vice-President of the Sloan Guaranty Trust, and how quaintly old-fashioned it seems that a banker could act as a moral touchstone. In Thatcher’s work he is involved in approving investments and the novels employed a wide range of business setting. In this one it’s the Ivy League Brunswick College and its alumni association. There’s a dead student and a missing bond worth $50,000.
5. Wonder Boys by Michael Chabron (1995). The joys of the comic campus novel: libidinous lecturers, hapless students, unwritten books. The variation here is that Grady Tripp is a lecturer in creative writing and his unfinished book is a novel with the title, Wonder Boys. Chabron’s novel, takes place over the single weekend of the yearly Wordfest conference and involves a collapsing marriage, a pregnant mistress, a stolen car, a dead dog, a tuba, a boa constrictor named Grossman, the ermine-lined jacket in which Marilyn Monroe married Joe DiMaggio, and more, much more. Very entertaining and in the end, rather touching,
6. Changing Places (1975) by David Lodge. Philip Swallow and Professor Morris Zapp participate in their universities’ Anglo-American exchange scheme, Philip heads for California and sundrenched Euphoric State university. Morris arrives in the rain-drenched university of Rummidge (a thinly disguised University of Birmingham – where I began an MA that very same year). Academic pretensions on both sides of the Atlantic are mercilessly skewered . . .
7. Eating People is Wrong (1959) by Malcolm Bradbury
‘Tell me, do you like this hairstyle? Be frank. I can have it done again somewhere else.’
‘Darling, I was going to ask what happened to it?’ said a man in a bow-tie. ‘You could have fought back. Or did they give you an anaesthetic?’
‘You should have seen what he did to my dog,’ said the lady.
A novel from the same decade as Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and was also inspired by the University of Leicester, incidentally my own almer mater. It’s funny and sad and more generous in spirit than Lucky Jim.
8. And so, finally, not a crime novel, or a comic novel, John Williams’ Stoner (1965) is a celebration and an affirmation of the value of universities and of the life of the mind. On the face of it William Stoner’s life has not been a success: he is an academic who makes no great impact either through his teaching or his writing. His marriage is a failure, more, a kind of hell, and his much loved daughter eventually becomes an alcoholic. Yet his love of literature redeems him and in an interview quoted by John Mcgahern in the introduction to the splendid, Vintage edition Williams described Stoner as a hero, who had a very good life. ‘He had some feeling for what he was doing . . . he was a witness to values that are important, The important thing in the novel to me is Stoner’s sense of a job. Teaching is to him a job – a job in the good and honourable sense of the word. ‘A beautifully written novel, pitch perfect in tone.
So, I’ll post a link to Moira’s splendid blog, when her post is up and I am longing to see what she has chosen. And here it is: http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk. Not a single overlap!
Are you a serial monogamist or do you like to have several books on the go at the same time? For myself, I am rarely reading just one book. Sometimes I must admit that I spread myself too thin. Here’s a snapshot of what I am reading at the moment.
I am approaching the halfway mark of Niall Williams’ novel, History of the Rain (2014). I have a deadline for this one as we’ll be discussing it at my book group next week.
I am also a few chapters into Elizabeth Hawes’ Fashion is Spinach: How to Beat the Fashion Racket (1938), a fascinating and amusing account of the author’s adventures in the fashion business in the 1920s and 1930s. Moira at ClothesinBooks.com wrote about this on her wonderful blog: I often read books she has reviewed.
These are both London Library books. I didn’t want to take them with me when I was away for a couple of days earlier in the week, so I took a break from them and read Ellie Griffiths’ new novel, The Woman in Blue on my e-reader. Arriving home tired, I didn’t want to read anything the least little bit demanding: Agatha Christie’s Towards Zero was perfect.
There is also usually something on my e-reader that I keep for when I can’t sleep or wake up early. At present it is Ethel Lina White’s The Man Who Loved Lions.
Also by my bedside is a brand-new book, just out, Lab Girl: A Story of Trees, Science and Love by Hope Jahren. I’m 100 pages in and have had a bit of a break, but I do intend to finish it.
So that’s the state of play at the moment and I’d love to know how others organise their reading.
These are dark days. I was in London when the results of the referendum came out. I was still reeling with shock and dismay that afternoon when I went to the Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds exhibition at the British Museum. For an hour and a half I lost myself in this wonderful exhibition.
The lost cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus lay at the mouth of the Nile and were buried under the sea for over a thousand years. Underwater excavation has been taking place over the last twenty years. Objects in the exhibition range from colossal statues to intricate gold jewellery. I was moved by the serenity and beauty of some of the figures which, like the one in foreground of this photo, fused Greek and Egyptian styles. I was fascinated by the sacred offerings and ritual objects related to the cult of Osiris – the god of the underworld. I came out feeling that I had escaped for a while and visited one of the great civilisations of the past. And I remembered that all things pass after all.
On the way home I stopped off at Hatchard’s and treated myself to another form of escapism. I bought Even Dogs in the Wild by Ian Rankin and spent the journey back to Chesterfield in the company of an old friend, John Rebus. There’s not much that can’t be made better by a good book or the consolation of art.