Lit Titbits (3)

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Find out about the weird and wonderful things found in books sent out by AbeBooks here.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Sarah Dunant speaks wonderfully, drawing links between the Ancient world and the modern.  You can listen to ‘When Greeks Flew Kites’ here.

One From the Archive: ‘Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading’ by Nina Sankovitch ****

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.

9780061999857After 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’.

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‘Elmet’ by Fiona Mozley ***

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.

9781473660540It 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.

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One From the Archive: ‘Night Thoughts of a Country Landlady’ by Edith Olivier ****

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.

9781447272007Night 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.

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‘Solo’ by Rana Dasgupta ***

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.

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‘The Finishing School’ by Muriel Spark ***

My University held a two-day conference to mark Muriel Spark’s centenary in early February, and it seemed rude not to buy a book whilst I was volunteering.  I have read quite a few of Spark’s books to date, but The Finishing School is one of those outstanding which I have had my eye on for quite a while.  I was intrigued enough, in fact, to begin reading it right away.

According to a few of the lecturers and general Spark fans whom I spoke to at the conference, The Finishing School is her weakest book.  Ali Smith, however, deems it ‘one of her funniest novels…  Spark at her sharpest, her purest and her most merciful’.  The Smith quote held weight for me, as she is one of my favourite authors (this will come as no surprise to anyone who follows my reviews, I’m sure!). 9781782117575

The Finishing School, first published in 2004, comes in at just over 120 pages in its newest Canongate edition, and is easy enough to read in a single afternoon or evening.  It is Spark’s final novel, published 45 years after Memento Mori, and 43 after her most famous work, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  It certainly marks a departure; whilst there are definitely similarities to be found between The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Finishing School, particularly with regard to its school setting and imparting of an education of sorts from rather a tyrannical teacher, it is neither as searching, nor as acerbic as the former.  The story here is not quite as tense psychologically as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie either.

The Finishing School, named College Sunrise, is located in Ouchy, on the edge of Lake Geneva in Switzerland.  Here, a ‘would-be’ novelist, Rowland Mahler and his wife, Nina Parker, run a finishing school ‘of questionable reputation to keep the funds flowing’.  After having failed to make a profit in Brussels, where the school was opened several years beforehand, Rowland ‘moved the school to Vienna, increased the fees, wrote to the parents that he and Nina were making an exciting experiment: College Sunrise was to be a mobile school which would move somewhere new every year.’

One student named Chris, just seventeen years of age, shows remarkable promise in the field of literature, and is working on his first novel about Mary Queen of Scots, with interest from a host of publishers.  In the school, in consequence, ‘jealousy and tensions run high’.  No one person’s relationship with Chris is as fraught as that between himself and Rowland, whose criticism Chris relies on, but who is markedly jealous that he is getting somewhere with his writing.  Nina, whose opinion is given at points later in the novella, believes that Rowland’s jealousy of Chris is what is prohibiting him from producing a coherent novel of his own.

Spark gives an insight into the workings of Rowland’s mind and frustration within his own writing.  This manifests itself into a seething hatred of Chris’ work, which he can see is very good: ‘Rowland was frightened; he felt again that stab of jealous envy, envious jealousy that he had already experienced, on touching and reading Chris’s typescript.’  Of his writing process, Spark goes on to say: ‘All the students of Sunrise knew that he struggled with a novel.  They often volunteered to give him ideas for it, which he accepted politely enough.  They begged him to read it aloud to them, but the truth was, the book was not yet in any readable condition.  It consisted of paragraphs here and there on his computer, changing from day to day.  He was in a muddle, which was not to say that he would not eventually get out of it, as in fact he as to do by writing a different sort of book.’

The Finishing School uses a structure of rather short chapters, which works well.  Much is included about the craft of writing, the price of education, and relationships between particular characters; there are extramarital affairs, crises of self, and friendships which will not be shaken by anything.  The style here, as ever with Spark’s work, is amusing in places – in fact, the humour here is noticeably biting in places – and peopled with interesting character constructs.  I did find it engaging, and whilst it is not my favourite Spark book, it is fascinating to see how her writing style has evolved since the beginning of her career.  My only qualm with The Finishing School, which made me give it a three- rather than a four-star rating, is that the ending is quite peculiar; I do not feel as though it was quite satisfactory, as it feels rather hasty and cobbled together.  Regardless, this is certainly a novella worth seeking out.

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‘The Delivery Room’ by Sylvia Brownrigg ***

Sylvia Brownrigg’s fourth book, The Delivery Room, was my choice for the Serbia portion of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  I was intrigued by the storyline, which revolves around the Serbian conflict, and was eager to read it due to the reviews which promised lyrical prose, something which I adore within fiction.  Michael Chabon, for example, writes, ‘In Sylvia Brownrigg’s hands, grief and longing are as sensuous a part of life as a fine meal or the touch of a lover.’

The Delivery Room, heralded a ‘compelling, complex, and always deeply human’ novel, begins in 1998, in the ‘safe haven’ of Mira’s north London flat.  She works as a therapist with a host of very different clients from one of the rooms, which her husband has dubbed ‘the Delivery Room’.  Mira herself is Serbian; the book’s blurb states that she must exist ‘in a time when Serbs have become the pariahs of the West, when Milosevic’s Yugoslav army is continuing its bloody struggle in Kosovo, testing NATO’s resolve.’ 9781582434247

In terms of the characters who people Brownrigg’s novel, the reader gets a feel for them immediately.  Mira’s husband Peter, for instance, ‘opened his eyes, and there she was before him: confessor, magician, wife.  His beloved Mira.  Gatherer of stories.’  Vastly different viewpoints about many issues are explored here, all using the lens of Mira’s quite diverse psychology patients.  In this manner, Brownrigg opens up her novel to encompass more than one viewpoint on the war in Serbia and its aftermath.  Mira’s story, as one might expect, is by far the most compelling, perhaps because she seems to relate everything with more authority than some of the secondary characters have.

Brownrigg’s sense of observance, and the attention to detail throughout The Delivery Room, are sharp and focused.  There are some startling pieces of comparative prose here which illustrate Brownrigg’s world and character descriptions wonderfully; for instance, ‘a voice so thick he wanted to stroke it’, ‘a pale planet of a face that floated for a moment there by the night-dark door’, and ‘there was something he concealed from her, a tumour of information’.  Serbia herself is used as a character within the novel; she looms over and pervades all.  Mira, for instance, spends time ‘Watching from a distance as her former country worried itself into separate bloodied pieces, and parts and limbs…’.

The Delivery Room is well informed about this particular period of Yugoslav history, and the ripples which it leaves in the West.  Brownrigg’s writing is measured and intelligent, and sometimes quite powerful.  The author’s use of language in this multilayered novel is often packed with meaning.  Whilst there is rather a lot going on here at times, Brownrigg does not let this detract from the poignancy of the war’s effects, both upon those caught up in it, and its observers. Many themes run through The Delivery Room, but by far the most pervading is grief.  In Mira’s particular case, Brownrigg demonstrates the importance of family, no matter how many miles and conflicts may separate them.

Due to the sheer amount of characters we are introduced to here, and whom the author has clearly made quite an effort to make distinct from one another, The Delivery Room sadly does not always feel like an entirely focused novel; rather, it tends to become a little meandering and repetitive at times.  Regardless, the story does come together well in the end, and if you are interested in this period of history, it is certainly worth a read.

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