My dear husband, Peter Blundell Jones, father, writer, architect, scholar, died on Friday after a short illness.
Someone very close to me is very seriously ill. I’m taking a break from the blog.
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.
Once again my good blogfriend Moira (at Clothesinbooks.blogspot.com) and I are indulging in a bit of cross-blogging, in which we choose a book for both of us to read and put up a post about it on the same day. This time it is Happy Ending by Italian writer, Francesca Duranti (1987), also the book most recently chosen by the wonderful multi-national book group to which I belong. This post owes something to an illuminating discussion that we had earlier in the week and I’d like to thank the group for so much reading pleasure and friendship over the years.
The setting of Happy Ending is an estate in the countryside outside Lucca, and the time is a midsummer week-end sometime in the 1980s. There are three houses: the matriarch Violante lives in one, her son Leopoldo who is in a sexless marriage with his rich American wife, Cynthia, lives in another. The third is empty, waiting for the summer visit of Lavinia who was married to Violante’s older son, Filippo. Their brief and disastrous marriage was cut short twenty years ago by Filippo’s death and their son, Nicola, has been raised by Violante. The family are all observed by their friend and neighbour, Aldo, who has always been in love with Lavinia, who in her turn has been infatuated by a series of awful men. All the characters are blocked in some way and then a young man, a friend of Nicola’s, arrives . . .
What I enjoyed most about this book was the setting: the houses, the garden, the drowsy midsummer heat, which made me long to go back to Italy. I wasn’t so keen on the characters and I found Lavinia in particular very irritating. And when late in the novel Violante remarks, ‘I have ruled like a czarina, and now they are all good-for-nothing,’ I really had to agree. That summed up my feeling about these privileged, mostly idle, people. But maybe that is to take too seriously what is really a comedy in which, as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, and The Marriage of Figaro, everything in the end is magically resolved.
And I did like Aldo and the account of how as a poverty-striken fourteen year old at the end of the war he wandered into a neglected estate and spied on a party of rich and glamorous people. This enchanting experience inspired his career as a forger of paintings and then as a successful art historian (sadly my own career as an art historian hasn’t enabled me to live in fortified house near Lucca. Something must have gone wrong somewhere). And there was a nice little twist at the end which I enjoyed. To sum up: wonderful setting, some excellent writing, but not entirely my kind of novel.
So what did Moira make of it? I long to know and will add a link when her post is up.
Here it is! Fascinated to find that this time we were not quite in agreement: Clothesinbooks.blogspot.com.
These glorious photos came via Moira from PerryPhotography. One is of the countryside outside Lucca, and the one of the house and garden is reproduced by kind permission of the owners, K & T Wynn. My thanks to them and to PerryPhotography.
Joan Smith thought After the Crash was ‘one of the most remarkable books I’ve read in a long time’, Maxim Jakubowski called it ‘a compulsive page-turner’ and Barry Forshaw said ‘Michel Bussi knows exactly how to keep the reader turning page after page.’ So I was expecting great things, and maybe that was the part of the problem. I did read it compulsively – but only until about half way through, when I ran out of steam and found I couldn’t – or rather didn’t want to – suspend my disbelief any longer. Yes, it’s a brilliant premise. A baby survives a plane crash in which everyone else dies and two families fight over which of them she belongs to. I won’t say exactly when I guessed the answer to this conundrum and the final twist in a very convoluted plot, because that might constitute a spoiler, but it was pretty early on. I hope I wasn’t going to be right, but I was.
This got me thinking about the challenges of writing for a crime fiction readership, which includes of course other crime writers. Like many other readers (and writers) I must have read thousands of crime novels, and these days I am rarely surprised by a plot twist, though I love it when it happens. Just at the moment I am especially obsessed with plots as I am plotting a novel myself, so maybe that too was part of my problem with After the Crash. I was too conscious of the machinery. Sometimes that doesn’t matter as long as I am enjoying other aspects of the book, the setting, the characters, whatever. In fact, I often reread favourite crime novels, knowing perfectly well who did it. But this time I did mind and I ground to a halt.
So how do you feel? Are you disappointed if the writer doesn’t manage to fool you, or are you happy to go along for the ride anyway?
I didn’t win, but it was – and still is – a thrill to have my story ‘Faceless Killer’ long-listed and then short-listed for the Margery Allingham Short Story Competition. It’s not quite the first time I’ve been short-listed for something – but it was the first time I’d been there when the winner was announced, this time at a reception at Crimefest in Bristol, and it did add a frisson of excitement to the week-end. In the end the winning story was ‘The Box-Shaped Mystery’ by Peter Guttridge. I’m looking forward to reading it when it goes on line. Meanwhile here are introductions to the short-listed stories: http://thecwa.co.uk/debuts/short-story-competition/.
Crimefest was a blast, as always, masses of friendly readers and writers, interesting panels, impeccably organised in a good hotel in a great city. I staggered home with a load of books, DVDs, and audio books, some of them the result of winning the Crimefest pub quiz, which I achieved by the simple ploy of making sure I was on the same team as Martin Edwards. I also won a book in a raffle at a terrific session on German crime fiction run by Kat Hall (aka Mrs Peabody). And then yesterday Captain Hastings (aka Hugh Fraser) politely opened a door for me – who would have thought it? So it was all good and I’ve already booked for next year.
These I rarely read a book in one sitting. Maybe sometimes on holiday, but otherwise it tends to be when I am not very well. Such a day came last week – just a cold, but I didn’t feel up to much. I retired to bed with Ellie Griffith’s The Outcast Dead, which I’d been saving for when I wanted a treat. There was no-one at home so I read it straight through without interruptions, including over lunch, and I enjoyed it hugely.
I used often to read like that – for hours on end. I remember as a teenager that a favourite place to read was sitting on the stairs, back against the wall, feet against the bannisters, while the sunlight through the stained glass of the front door of our between-the-wars semi sent shifting patterns moving across the hall carpet.
The great thing about a one-sitting reading is that you don’t forget who characters are or mislay bits of the plot. You get completely immersed in the book, sinking into it, leaving your ordinary life behind. Of course not everything can be read like this. Proust or Tolstoy demand a greater expenditure of time – the reading has to be spread over days, weeks, or maybe months – and that sense of living in a parallel universe is part of the experience of reading the book. But I like a crime novel to be short enough to read in one sitting – and if the writer has done their job, I should want to read it in one sitting, drawn on and on until at last the final page is reached, it’s over, and with a sigh of satisfaction, I close the book (and go online to download the next in the series).