Happy Boxing Day, everyone! I hope your Christmas Day was a beautiful one. (As with all of my Christmas posts, this was written a couple of weeks before the big day, so my excitement is building greatly at present.) Below, I shall be writing about one of Philip Larkin’s novels, another of Carol Ann Duffy’s gorgeous poetry books, another in the A Series of Unfortunate Events series, and a most interesting piece of non-fiction about women who lived in Paris between 1900 and 1940.
‘A Girl in Winter’ by Philip Larkin (Faber & Faber)
A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin ****
My sister purchased this beautiful book for me for my birthday (I have a different cover to the one pictured, with a beautiful painting upon it), but I patiently waited until winter came around to read it. I must confess that I have read very little of Larkin’s poetry, which is awful of me, particularly as he was born and grew up in the city in which I went to University. I was most looking forward to reading his two novels, and was overjoyed when A Girl in Winter was given to me.
The novel begins in the most beautiful of ways. Larkin is so in control of the language which he uses, and he weaves some truly stunning sentences. In A Girl in Winter, he tells the story of Katherine, a young girl who comes from somewhere abroad to spend a holiday with the Fennel family in Oxfordshire. Part of the novel deals with her teenage self, and another with her early adulthood, in which she is living in a dreary town and working as a librarian. We never find out where it is that Katherine hails from, but I quite enjoyed the ambiguity. As a character, she was fully formed and such information, whilst it would have been mildly interesting to know, may have been rather superfluous to the plot and her experiences. In A Girl in Winter, Larkin has written a great novel, in which the character arcs work marvellously, and everything is so very believable.
One of the beautiful illustrations from Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Wenceslas’
Wenceslas by Carol Ann Duffy *****
I purchased this gorgeous little book from Waterstone’s just after the New Year, but felt that it was too seasonal to read immediately. It has languished on my to-read shelf ever since, and I am so pleased that I have been able to read it at last. As with all of her Christmas books, it goes without saying that Wenceslas is absolutely beautiful. Stuart Kolakovic’s illustrations are sublime, and I could look at them for hours. The marriage of prose and picture is perfect.
In Wenceslas, Duffy treats us to a medieval feast. She has written a reimagining of the Christmas carol, which ‘celebrates what is truly important at this special time of year; the simple acts of kindness that each of us can show another’. Duffy has made me long to back to beautiful Prague, where Wenceslas, of course, is set. The rhyme scheme is lovely, and like The Christmas Truce, this is a book which I shall enjoy each and every year. It is a delight from start to finish.
The Austere Academy by Lemony Snicket ***
April very kindly sent me the missing fifth book in the A Series of Unfortunate Events, so that I could slot it into my reading of Snicket’s books. The Austere Academy, whilst interesting, is definitely my least favourite of the series so far, merely because it does not seem to be as original as those which precede it. Whilst I liked the Quagmires, friends of the Baudelaire children, I felt as though the tale was a little too predictable, and I guessed a lot of it far before it happened, which was a real shame.
‘Women of the Left Bank’ by Shari Benstock
Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940 by Shari Benstock ***
I spotted this book in a tiny little Cambridge bookshop whilst I was in the process of hunting for Viragos, and even though it was not part of the Modern Classics list which I am working my way through, I just had to read it. Some of the authors which Benstock touches upon here rank amongst my favourites (the marvellous Colette and Anais Nin), one amongst my least favourites (Edith Wharton, with the exception of her marvellous novella, Ethan Frome), and a couple of them, I had not even heard of. Within the book, Benstock covers many different elements: homosexuality, thoughts of feminist critics, why the authors chose to move to Paris in the first instance, the notion of art and artists, modernism, experimentalism, and so on. The entirety is split into sections which seem to be made up of essay-length works, all of which consider one of the elements or authors in question.
The prose style in Women of the Left Bank tends to veer towards academic, and it is therefore not the easiest of non-fiction books to immerse yourself into. Whilst it is very interesting, it does feel a little heavy going at times, possibly due to the plethora of quotes which have been placed at every possible juncture. It is probably more enjoyable to dip in and out of, rather than to read it all in one go as I did. Overall, it was a little too much of the ‘let’s all go and burn our bras’ strain of feminism for my liking, but it was most interesting nonetheless.