Tag Archives: Barbara Cartland

A Month in the Country – J.L. Carr

There is something rather wonderful in the fact that Granny Savidge is still influencing my reading almost a year, in fact it is a year tomorrow, since she died. As someone who I talked about books at least three times a week there is a void left now yet through having inherited some of her books my thought was that some of her favourites, as they were the only books she would keep unless a random gift like the Barbara Cartland I once bought her as a joke, would become my future reads and maybe some of my favourites. Well luck struck first time with J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, which I tried to read when she was ill (on her recommendation) yet just couldn’t yet have been much, much more successful this time around.

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Penguin Modern Classics, paperback, 1980 (2000 edition), fiction, 112 pages, inherited from Gran

In A Month in the Country Tom Birkin reflects several decades later on the summer of 1920 when he ended up in the village of Oxgodby for a single month. Here on a mission left by recently deceased spinster Miss Hebron he is being paid, begrudgingly by the Reverend Keach who is only allowing it as Hebron left the church money if he did, to uncover a possible medieval wall painting inside the church. Birkin reflects upon that summer, the place he was in mentally in his life at the time and thinks about the place he was in physically and those who peopled it.

Ostensibly it sounds like there isn’t really much to this novella and in some ways you would be right, plot wise there are no twists and turns. Yet somehow Carr creates a novel where very little happens and yet everything happens too. We learn through reflections he had that month which he reflects upon (bear with me) of his failing marriage, yet we also get hints of what happened after that summer. We also get glimpses of what he had to face during the war which has left him with shellshock and a nervous twitch. We learn of the friends he makes; Charles Moon who also fought in the war and is on another of Miss Hebron’s missions, Alice Keach the younger wife of the Reverend who feels like she isn’t accepted, Kathy Ellerbeck a young girl who befriends Birkin and whose family are the first to welcome him properly into the area.

Through all these friendships Carr creates very condensed additional stories. With the Ellerbeck’s he looks at how the families and people in the countryside were as affected by the war as those in the cities, only in a different way, and also looks at class. With Moon, whose storyline is sharply bittersweet, we get another side of the war and also another side to social mores of the time. Through Alice Keach we look at marriage, a mirror of sorts to Birkin’s to an extent, and indeed lust verses love and how love and marriage connect or don’t.

See it is brimming and what makes this all the more masterful is that fact that Carr does this all so succinctly. The story is in itself only 88 pages and yet there is all of this life within it. The prose is magical, not something I say often yet is so true in this instance. Within a line he conjures a character completey, a situation is a mere paragraph or so. Sometimes within very few lines he can capture the things we ponder about life and just put them plainly and simply, in terms we wish we could, it is just marvellous.

I never exchanged a word with the Colonel. He has no significance at all in what happened during my stay in Oxgodby. As far as I’m concerned he might just as well have gone round the corner and died. But that goes for most of us, doesn’t it? We look blankly at each other. Here I am, here you are. What are we doing here? What do you suppose it’s all about? Let’s dream on. Yes, that’s my Dad and Mum over there on the piano top. My eldest boy is on the mantelpiece. That cushion cover was embroidered by my cousin Sarah only a month before she passed on. I go to work at eight and come home at five-thirty. When I retire they’ll give me a clock – with my name engraved on the back. Now you know all about me. Go away; I’ve forgotten you already.

One of my favourite things in fiction is looking at difference and also the relationship between the outsider and the insider. Interestingly it is books with a rural setting where this can be used to its full potential. In villages things are rarely missed or go unnoticed, in cities you can lose yourself, others or things. With A Month in the Country Carr adds even more levels to this. The metaphor of the outsider is tripled as not only is Birkin an outsider to Oxgodby, he is an outsider to some of the religious views of the villagers and in many ways in his present state an outsider to life. This is doubly felt as he uncovers the wall painting, seemingly learning about the villagers (possibly uncovering their secrets) and himself at the same time, and of course there is the image that the walls depict, but I won’t spoil that for you.

The other things that I loved so much about the book are firstly how awash it is in the sense of nostalgia and secondly the way the atmosphere and place are so well depicted and come to life. I left the book feeling as if I had been wandering away and hour or two reflecting on that summer, as I had walked it’s streets, seen Miss Hebron’s spooky old house, witnessed a sermon in the church, has dinner with the Ellerbeck’s and tea with Charles Moon when these moments are just a sentence here and there within.

If I’d stayed there, would I always have been happy? No, I suppose not. People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvellous thing around the corner fades. It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.

I think it is safe to say, and very apparent, that I adored A Month in the Country. I think it is easily one of the best things that I have read in years and a book that will not only last with me for years to come but also be read by me again and again for years to come. It is the kind of rare book that makes you look at your life and tells you not to waste it, not to have regrets and to do all the things you want to do, not what people want you to. If you haven’t read it, which is possibly unlikely, then you must. I can see why so many authors have it as a firm favourite, it is a perfect piece of prose. A little gem of a novella.

Inscribed by Gran

Inscribed by Gran

My only real regret with the novel is that I can’t talk to Gran about it. As soon as I had finished it I felt the age old urge to phone her and rave about it all (yes, a year down the line this still happens when I read a book I really love) and discuss it further. However, not to get too nostalgic and melancholic, I just sat and thanked her for a moment for having led me to it, plus I have all of you to discuss it with now don’t I?

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Filed under Books of 2014, J.L. Carr, Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, Review

Dorothy Savidge; The Woman Books Built

On Wednesday this week we all said our final goodbyes to Granny Savidge Reads, aka Dorothy Savidge. I thought I would share the speech I gave as part of her eulogy with you all as it is fitting and also because it does show the importance of books in people’s lives. You can also hear Gran talking about books in an episode of The Readers that I recorded with three generations of the reading Savidge’s here. Thank you all so, so, so, so much for your comments, emails and tweets about Gran, the support has meant so much to me and my family. Savidge Reads will be back properly on August the 1st, I will leave this as a fitting interim post until then…

To say that my Gran, Dorothy, quite liked a book would be something of an understatement. She loved books. Gran once said that “one of the wonderful things about books is that despite reading being a solitary activity, in the main they can bring you together with other people”. Gran proved this often, with family, friends, neighbours, people in libraries younger than her whom she then founded book groups with, potential son in laws who liked Philip Kerr and random strangers on her travels. You name them, Gran could talk books with them.

The other thing she said recently was that “books can have the power to educate people and make you walk in their footsteps”. She would often read veraciously about places she was going to before she went and sometimes read a guide book so closely you would have to remind her she was actually in the place she was reading about. Yet Gran didn’t come from a bookish background, she was predominately a self taught reader.

Gran grew up in a house that only had three books, though a saving grace was that one of those was ‘Gone With The Wind’. Her father was away at war, her mum busy with all Gran’s siblings and so it was her eldest brother Derrick who would read Rupert Bear adventures to her and her younger brother Gordon from the Daily Express. However on his return from the war her father took Gran to the library often, it was there that she discovered the page turning addiction that is Enid Blyton and the adventures of the Famous Five.

From the library Gran progressed to Broadhurst’s book shop, which is still running, in Southport. Gran said “I couldn’t afford the books but I could sit in the corner and read, hopefully hidden”. She wasn’t as well hidden as she thought, thanks to a kindly bookshop owner though Gran was allowed to sit and read as she pleased from ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ onwards.

I don’t know much about Gran’s reading life when she was courting my Grandfather, Bongy, and had moved away from home to the suburbs of London. I do know that he influenced her reading, partly with his love of Anthony Trollope and how often he re-read ‘Barchester Towers’ which Gran soon caught. I also know that a discussion with Bongy made Gran read Hardy as, for some unfathomable reason, he mentioned there was a book in which a man sold his wife at a market like she was cattle’. Make of that what you will but it certainly made Gran read ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ even if out of incredulity.

Reading to her children Louise, Caroline, Alice and Matthew and helping them learn to read was something which gave Gran a great amount of joy. My mother, Louise, can remember hours with Peter and Jane and ‘This is Pat. Meet Pat the dog. Watch Pat run’ a little too well. It was the same with her grandchildren. I remember many an occasion cuddling up to Gran with a good story, even until quite recently. I still get that same feeling of excitement walking into a Waterstones as I did as a child. Trips to Scarthin Books with Gran have been a highlight of the last twenty years, or more, of my life.

Gran and I bonded over lots of things, books were a particularly constant source of conversation. She could be a book snob on occasion, only months ago asking if I had thought of reading ‘anything of any actual worth’ this year, scary. She often broke this snobbery though, sometimes by force like when she had to read all Philip Pullman’s ‘Northern Lights’ trilogy as Bongy had done the awful thing of only allowing Gran to pack four books for a whole four weeks away… she unashamedly cried her way through the final book by the pool, secretly loving every moment of it.

Mainly her love of reading was infectious. I’ve Gran to thank for my love of Kate Atkinson, Andrea Levy, Margaret Atwood and many, many others. Sometimes her enthusiasm could also be overzealous. For example when I was about halfway through the aforementioned Margaret Atwood’s complex and lengthy tome, ‘The Blind Assassin’, Gran suddenly said ‘Oh that is the book where **** happens at the end isn’t it?’ Then the awkward silence followed before an ‘oops’.

No matter what was going on in our lives, good, bad or indifferent, we could talk books and did so several times a week. She was always up for recommending something or have something recommended to her. Though I have recently noticed that a copy of a Barbara Cartland novel I bought her as a slight joke over a decade ago is still looking rather pristine.
It was the challenge of wanting to try new books and her love of discussion and bookish debate that led Gran to book groups. Some might say that joining three was slightly excessive, not for Gran. It seems she was a popular member of the groups whether she co-founded them or simply joined them. “Her opinion on a book was always looked forward to, even if sometimes with baited breath” her fellow member Jim told me. She was often seen as something of a book encyclopaedia, often called upon to name an author or book title that had slipped someone else’s mind. Invariably Gran would know exactly what they meant.

In the last few months I know it was hard with Gran not being able to read so much. I tried reading her new favourite series to her, unlike her big brother Derrick I didn’t do the voices and so in the end we had to settle with the audio book or episodes of The Archers.

Books still brought her joy in other ways during this time. Be it talking with friends and family about books or recommending them. We had marvellous discussions with nurses at various hospitals about books including a lengthy one at the Whitworth where we discussed what happened to the books in our heads. Did we just see the words, hear voices or watch a film playing in front of our eyes? There were also all the friends who visited who she had made through books and via book groups and all the laughter and smiles that they brought with them.

Gran’s reading legacy will live on through her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren when they arrive one day. Also through all the friendships that she made through books and reading and the book groups she started and joined. She loved getting any book recommendation, so on behalf of Gran, when you can, go and pick up one of her favourite authors, Graham Greene.

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Other People’s Bookshelves #1: Dorothy Savidge aka Granny Savidge Reads

A while back I said I wanted volunteers for a new series of posts called ‘Other People’s Bookshelves’, as you may know things have been a bit manic of late and so I simply haven’t gotten back to anyone who said yes (I will be emailing you all though, you have been warned) as yet. Though when I was sat chatting with Gran I suddenly thought ‘ooh, I must get her to do Other People’s Bookshelves. She seemed the perfect person to start it off with. So instead of emailing her the questionnaire, as she is quick on an iPad with one hand but not for too long, I thought I would ask her over a cup of tea, and she trusted me enough that my notes would ‘sound like me, and not like you’. So here goes…

Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

I used to keep all of my books on one set of bookshelves, whether I had read them or not, though eventually they became full and so I have had to change it. Mainly the ones in the lounge are the ones that I have read though I think there are some exceptions, Barbara Cartland for instance which I think you bought me because I had never read her and for some reason I felt I should. Funnily enough I still haven’t read that one. I don’t keep every book I read but then I don’t buy every book I read now.

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Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

Alphabetical order yes, well except non-fiction. As I mentioned I used to keep them all together on one set of shelves but now they are almost overflowing. So now though new books tend to go in the study, by my bed or in a pile in the lounge or dining room now. Oh, and I keep my non-fiction separate. As for culling… once a year I tend to have a tidy up.

What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?

I don’t think so, no. It would have been an Enid Blyton novel though I would imagine, probably one of the Famous Five. I have a few here but I doubt they are the original that I bought.

Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

I do not! Have a separate bookshelf I mean, no shame. I don’t tend to feel guilty about books, it seems a silly idea, books are to be enjoyed. I would be more ashamed if I didn’t have any books at all, imagine! Oh… well there is that Barbara Cartland we mentioned.

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Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick, your brother, gave me as a child? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

I thought that was a bit of an odd question at first. Uncle Derrick would be delighted about you still having that book I am sure. As for prized books, I don’t think I have any fictional ones, most you can replace and fiction is a wide subject, how can people say they have a ‘favourite’ single book. I would save some of your Grandfather’s, Bongy’s, art books as some of them are quite rare, if battered. Yes, those I would save in a fire.

What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

Hmmm. ‘Eastern Approaches’ by Fitzroy Mclaine, which has become a classic, I have now read it and really enjoyed it. There was an edition of ‘Home Doctor’ I used to be intrigued by though I never read that but do have a modern version of sorts. Oh and Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone With The Wind’ which I started to read in my teens whenever I was sick, I have that on my shelves now but I think it is the only one of them. I suppose actually I would like the editions of those I remember on my shelves.

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If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

I wouldn’t buy a book after I had read it unless I really, really loved it. I doubt it. Especially now the shelves are so full. It would have to be really special. I try and borrow books from the library or from friends now, or get them from a certain family member. I would only buy a book now if I heard it was a real classic, like ‘The Good Soldier Svejk’ by Jaroslav Hasek which is a classic no one seems to like. It is rare though. You don’t have to own a book to remember how much you love it do you, unless I suppose you plan on reading it again one day.

What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

I think it would be someone else who would have added them to my shelves now I suppose. It was Journey’s End… no, ‘The Casual Vacancy’ by J.K. Rowling which you gave me. I liked it, it got better again by the end.

Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?

Apart from some really antique ones, or editions from my childhood, no not really. I think I am quite lucky in the fact I could get any I really wanted, should I need to. Oh actually… I wish I had all the books I have lent people and they have not returned.

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

That I was “discriminating, but universal in taste”.

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A big thank you to Gran for letting me grill her, and trusting my note taking and typing up not to be too different to what she said or would have liked to have written if she could. Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to) in Other People’s Book Shelves series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Gran’s responses and/or any of the books she mentioned?

*Note: I know lots of you emailed about taking part in this, I am struggling to find these emails, could you email me again? Sorry, very embarrassed!*

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“Fluff” Fiction?

The latest in the Booking Through Thursday ‘recent series’ is a tricky one, and not in a difficult way. The question is “what’s the lightest most “fluff” kind of book you have read recently?” I do read some quite ‘light’ reads on occasion but I wouldn’t never call them ‘fluff’. To call a book fluff seems to imply that actually it’s a bit throwaway and rubbish and I try and avoid books like that.

I do have phases, and am just on the cusp of possibly have one on holiday next week, of reading what I call my ‘guilty pleasure reads’ but then again to label them as such is probably doing them a disservice. I should actually just call them ‘blinking good escapist reads’. I am talking about my Tess Gerritsen addiction, my new found love of Lynwood Barclay and the like. I wouldn’t call these ‘fluff’ though as with the plots, twists and pacing they have they are just books you can’t put down.

I think it depends on what you see as ‘fluff’ though and the ‘recent series’ on Booking Through Thursday has been interesting in terms of how people (including myself) perceive the terms ‘funny book’, ‘serious book’, ‘worst book’, etc. I would perceive Barbara Cartland as ‘fluff’ but then again I haven’t read any of her work.

A while ago I shamefully would have perceived Persephone Books as ‘light and fluffy’ possibly from the ‘wallpaper cover’ image but in reading ‘Good Evening Mrs Craven’ by Mollie Panter Downes as part of Persephone Reading Week (and having a Booker Break, more on that later) at the moment I am finding that they are anything but ‘fluff’ and if this one is anything to go by they are clearly delightful, insightful, observational, witty and intelligent fiction that I am glad are being reprinted.

So what do you think of the word ‘fluff’? Is it cute and light, or slightly demeaning? What was the last ‘fluffy’ book that you read? I will be very interested in your thoughts. Also what books do you turn to on your holidays for gripping fast paced reads, I could do with some idea’s for next week.

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