Another edition of Lit Titbits is here, with some wonderful links I’ve found of late. If you have anything you’d like to see featured in a future list, please let me know.
- Simon at Stuck In a Book and Rachel at Book Snob are two of my favourite reviewers, and their podcast, Tea or Books?, is wonderful. I tend to listen to it before bed, and have to make sure that I have a notebook and pen handy to note down all of those new-to-me books that I want to read immediately.
- Find out about the weird and wonderful things found in books sent out by AbeBooks here.
- Some wonderful artists have come up with the Corbyn Comic Book. It was launched at a Labour Conference in 2017, and I feel I need to get my hands on a copy. Read about it here.
- The excellent Jon McGregor’s companion to Reservoir 13, entitled The Reservoir Tapes, were serialised on BBC Radio 4 last year. They’re the perfect length (fifteen minutes) to listen to when whipping up a quick meal or washing up. You can find them here.
- Sarah Dunant speaks wonderfully, drawing links between the Ancient world and the modern. You can listen to ‘When Greeks Flew Kites’ here.
I was most excited when the copy of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading dropped through my letterbox. It has been in my top twenty list of ‘please read soon!’ books since I found out about it, but I was unwilling to pay full price for a copy because I had read some rather unfavourable reviews of it. If it was anything like Sankovitch’s second book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, however, I knew it would be a real treat.
After the death of her sister Anne-Marie, the grieving author decided to ‘put all other obligations on hold and devote herself to reading a book a day: one year of magical reading in which she found joy, healing, and wisdom’. Its blurb heralds it ‘a resonant reminder of the all-encompassing power and delight of reading’; just the thing for bookworms. Sankovitch began her year of reading on the 28th of October 2008, three years after her sister’s passing, for the following reasoning: ‘I looked back to what the two of us had shared. Laughter. Words. Books… That was how I wanted to use books: as an escape back to life. I wanted to engulf myself in books and come up whole again’. For Sankovitch, the catalyst is that she is approaching the age – forty-six – that Anne-Marie was when she died.
In undertaking her project, Sankovitch put several sanctions in place to ensure that she made the most of the year for which a similar opportunity in future may never come: ‘The rules for my year were simple: no author could be read more than once; I couldn’t re-read any books I’d already ready and I had to write about every book I read… All the books would be ones I would have shared with Anne-Marie if I could have…’. Sankovitch also chooses to read from the comfort of a purple chair, which she has had since pregnant with her eldest son. She writes wonderfully about the very experience of getting to grips with a book: ‘For years, books had offered to me a window into how other people deal with life, its sorrows and joys and monotones and frustrations. I would look there again for empathy, guidance, fellowship, and experience. Books would give me all that and more… My year of reading would be my escape back into life.’ As well as the experiences which her current projects bring her, Sankovitch weaves in familial memories, which makes her memoir all the stronger. Her writing is bright and intelligent, and never feels forced or overdone.
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair does tend to become a little cheesy at times – for example, the tendency to draw out morals from every book – but it is a great read, and a marvellous project to undertake. Sankovitch’s book is about remembrance, as well as forging new memories with the books which she has chosen to include during her project. I would personally love to undertake something just like this; I tend to average around a book a day, but I do not read as methodically as Sankovitch does. This is partly, I think, because I do not choose what I read based on whether it is of a manageable length to get through in a day, as she does. I can spend a week reading something long (hello, Dostoevsky), and then get through seven or eight novellas in a weekend. I read as often as I can, but sometimes life gets in the way. Kudos, then, to Sankovitch’s husband and four sons, who allowed her the freedom to do what she most wanted to; they allowed her to grieve in a constructive way, and from what she writes of her reflections, it seems as though she got an awful lot from the process.
Just a tiny niggle; I would have liked to see the list of read books in chronological rather than alphabetical order. I was interested in the journey which she took from one tome to another, and how one choice perhaps led onto another. Whilst she does not even mention a lot of the books which she read, those which she does discuss are varied and interesting.
The enduring message for me is as follows: ‘I had never sat so still, and yet experienced so much’.
I was expecting to love Fiona Mozley’s Elmet; it sounded like just my kind of book. I favour quiet novels with brooding settings, and characters who come to life on the page, and expected all of these elements to be present here. As with many readers, I expect, my interest within Elmet was piqued when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2017.
It is rather a slow novel, and I have no problem at all with that, but Elmet did not sweep me away anywhere near as much as I had hoped it would. I found a few anomalies within the prose, discrepancies with small details which were a little more obvious than they perhaps would have been had the novel been packed with plot points.
I found some of Mozley’s writing, particularly during the passages in italicised text, achingly beautiful, but other sentences were too choppy and matter-of-fact for there to feel as though there is a balance here. An example of the latter is as follows: ‘We left the house soon after. A girl, a boy, two men. Hungover, half-asleep. We stopped for a quick breakfast at a bakery on the High Street. In the mornings it served bacon, sausage and egg sandwiches. I had bacon then asked Daddy if I could have an iced bun like a shy child with a sweet tooth. He paid 50p for three.’ I feel, with such passages, that the reader is party to far too much information; yes, it is admirable that Mozley recognises and writes about the minutiae of life, but the narrative becomes bogged down with trivialities like this, which add nothing whatsoever to the novel. The detailed descriptions of the natural world are often stunning, but I was not so interested in the detailed depictions of what people were wearing in every scene, or of tiny movements which they made. It felt like I was being given an endless commentary, which made the novel something close to dull at times in consequence.
I have mixed feelings about Elmet. Whilst I can understand why other readers love it, it simply did not come together for me in the way which I would have liked. I felt little connection with most of the characters, and whilst the bleakness of the mood which settles onto the novel has been built and handled so well, it was not enough to lift the whole for me.
Originally published in 2014.
Edith Olivier is most famous for her enchanting 1927 novel The Love Child, which can be found upon the Virago Modern Classics list. A lot of her other work has sadly faded into obscurity, but much of her canon has thankfully been reissued by Bello, making her charming books available to a wide audience once more.
Night Thoughts of a Country Landlady was first published in 1943. It is a non-fiction account of a woman named Miss Nightingale, who lived in Olivier’s village. The preface both intrigues and sets the tone of the piece from the first: ‘Like most living creatures, Miss Emma Nightingale possessed two distinct personalities. In her case, they were the Emma-by-day, and the Emma-by-night… Miss Nightingale went early to bed; and once there, she lay quietly, unaware that she was, in some curious way, quite another person from the familiar figure known to her neighbours as they met daily in the village street’.
Olivier received the fifty to sixty notebooks which Miss Nightingale – the goddaughter of George du Maurier – had kept throughout her life during a wartime ‘Salvage Week’. On getting rid of her notebooks, she told Olivier, ‘Everything is changing so much that we never need to refer to the past. It doesn’t apply’. The next morning, ‘the whole village was shocked by the news that Miss Nightingale had died suddenly in the night’, and Olivier commented that, ‘it seemed that she had consciously made an end’. It was Olivier’s decision to transcribe the notebooks into the format of a coherent work of non-fiction, thus giving ‘a picture of one aspect of rural life which during the war came into being in many country places’ – the notion of becoming a landlady to various evacuees who were sent away from London, and other European cities.
Miss Nightingale’s account in Night Thoughts of a Country Landlady focuses solely upon the Second World War, and her viewpoint is set out immediately: ‘War is so antipathetic to most English people, that it was almost equally antipathetic to believe that any country could desire it’. As well as setting out how war affected her own home, and the lives of those around her, Miss Nightingale also touches upon a lot of issues and elements which are not directly involved with war, from holidays, architecture and painting to historical figures, astrology and the great outdoors. She was clearly so passionate about so many things, and this shines through in her writing. She demonstrates how history related to her present, and how the war affected ordinary people such as herself. Miss Nightingale comes across as such a kind-hearted, benevolent lady, and one can only thank Edith Olivier for publishing her charming and fascinating diaries.
I chose to read Rana Dasgupta’s novel Solo for the Bulgaria leg of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge. I went to Sofia on holiday last year, and absolutely loved it; it’s probably the only capital city I have ever visited which has not succumbed entirely to tourism, and it still felt rather authentic. I have read very little set in the country though, and was very much looking forward to this novel in consequence.
Solo, which was the winner of the ‘Best Book’ category of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2010, is blurbed as ‘a book about lost roots, broken traditions and wasted endeavours – and the exquisite ways in which human beings overcome them.’ Salman Rushdie deems it ‘a novel of exceptional, astonishing strangeness’, and most of the other reviews which I have seen when scrolling through blogs and Goodreads have been largely positive.
Solo, in its first part at least, centres upon a blind chemist named Ulrich, who is ‘reaching the end of his life’s tenth decade’ in Sofia. This has caused him to comb through his life: ‘He has no wealth and no heirs, and if he has anything at all to leave behind, it will be tangled deep, and difficult to find.’ He lives in poverty, helped by his neighbours who ensure that he is fed and has company for at least part of each day. ‘The absurdity of [his] name,’ writes Dasgupta, ‘can be blamed on his father, who had a love affair with all things German. Over the years, a lot of time has gone into explaining it.’
We first meet Ulrich as a child; when his father forbids his love of music, for reasons not explained until much later in the novel, he makes friends with a boy at school named Boris, whose father has a laboratory in the family home. He begins to embark on an exploration of chemistry, and it soon becomes a large part of his life: ‘The teenager who laboured there believed he would chance upon something that would change the world forever.’ Whilst relatively well off when he is younger, taken on many foreign trips, and living in a luxurious house, Ulrich’s fortune changes when his father goes off to fight in an unnamed war, and he is left in Sofia with his mother. The family have to move to a smaller home, and uncertainty begins to rule their lives. When his father returns, ‘his left trouser leg was rolled up and empty, and his ears were damaged by the shells’. Rather than feel the pity for his father which is expected of him, Ulrich struggles with his emotions: ‘… he found it hard not to blame him for having returned so unlike himself, and over time he began to punish him in countless insidious ways.’
Dasgupta’s prose is beautiful, and it has such depth to it. He recognises from the very beginning the tumultous position of Bulgaria in the wider world; it has belonged to both Europe and Asia, and is a melting pot of differing influences and customs in consequence. The historical context which is given is rich and textured. Dasgupta’s descriptions of Ulrich’s loss of sight are sensitively wrought, and appear to be highly understanding of the character’s plight: for instance, ‘The shape of the world changed when Ulrich lost his sight. When he had relied on his eyes, everything was shaped in two great shining lone rays. Without them, he sank into the black continuum of hearing, which passed through doors and walls, and to which even the interior of his own body was not closed.’
Searching and introspective, the precise and haunting story within Solo which focuses upon Ulrich is a wonder to read; he is presented as a believable and three-dimensional protagonist. Dasgupta slowly leads his reader through a life lived against rather an unstable social and historical backdrop. Whilst the first part was often achingly beautiful, I felt that the novel lost momentum somewhat when other protagonists were written about later on. These characters had not been introduced until at least a third of the way through the book, and it felt rather jarring to tear myself away from Ulrich’s story and become invested in those of others. This structure detracted rather a lot from Ulrich and his plight, and had Dasgupta focused solely upon the first protagonist here and carried his story throughout, I would more than likely have loved it.