Tag Archives: Evelyn Waugh

Noblesse Oblige – Nancy Mitford (Editor)

I am rather a fan of the Mitford sisters, I have made it my mission to at some point have read every book they have published, be they fictional, essays, memoirs, investigative pieces or letters etc. One book I didn’t think I would get to read until I had saved up some serious cash was ‘Noblesse Oblige’ an edited collection by Nancy Mitford. This is a book which is rather expensive second hand and being a series of essays about class I wasn’t sure I was that fussed spending oodles of money on now. However a while back one of my friends was making an art installation of books for a hospital and had bought over 4ft of old Penguin classics and invited me to peruse it and pilfer from it as he had too many. This was one of the gems inside, one of those ‘oh my god’ book moments you sometimes have when your bookish excitement runneth over. Well actually it would have been worth the money because ‘Noblesse Oblige’ is a fascinating look not only into class and social history but also into how language evolves.

Penguin Books, paperback, 1956, non fiction, 109 pages, from my own personal TBR

I do think that the subtitle of ‘Noblesse Oblige’ is a rather off putting and misleading one. It states it is ‘An Enquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy’ which both sounds like it could be rather irritating and also potentially rather dull, actually it is neither. It does look at the distinctions of class, through essays and response essays and letters from various sources, but it looks at a lot more than that too, and is really rather funny both on occasion with intent but also with the hindsight of a modern reader.

In 1954 Professor Alan Ross of Birmingham University published an paper called ‘U and Non-U, an Essay in Social Linguistics’ all about class, the upper (U) and lower (Non-U) and how you could tell them apart in times where “a member of the upper class is, for instance, not necessarily better educated, cleaner or richer than someone not of his class’. This didn’t produce much outrage in Helsinki where it was published until Nancy Mitford’s beady eyes spotted it (possibly because her book ‘The Pursuit of Love’ was mentioned in it) and used it to discuss her love of the British aristocracy in an article in Encounter which then did cause a huge level of controversy, debate and some absolute fury and ill will throughout the UK and even in Paris and New York. This piece, ‘The English Aristocracy’ is the second section of the book.

What follows are further reactions to Nancy’s own essay. One looks at the future of class in ‘What U-Future?’ which is the last full essay before John Betjeman’s poem ‘How To Get on in Society’ and sadly is rather a damp squib to end upon as it is a little dull. The other two essays are fascinating, one, ‘Posh Lingo’ by ‘Strix’, looks at how language evolves and changes naturally but also with ‘fashion’, I found the history and stories behind words like ‘cinema’ and who the lower classes got it correct quicker when it arrived, plus tales of how ‘wizard’ and ‘cheers’ came in (and in the former case out) of fashion utterly fascinating.

My favourite response though was ‘An Open Letter’ to Nancy from her own well known friend Evelyn Waugh. Renowned for being a wit but also rather acerbic and occasionally spiteful he does indeed seem to have his claws out for his very own friend as he adds his own thoughts to the class debate and points out that Nancy is a delightful trouble maker to write such a thing but also someone who only just managed to be upper class and now resides in another country, so who is she really to even bring it all up?

“That way lay madness and I fear that if you are taken too seriously you and Professor Ross may well drive your readers into the bin. When in your novel you made ‘Uncle Matthew’ utter his catalogue of irrational prohibitions, you were accurately recording a typical conversational extravagance. When you emerge in propria persona as the guide to Doric youth, you are more mischievous.’

There is this dry and often sly wit running through the whole of ‘Noblesse Oblige’, in fact at the time many people thought (or hoped) it was a satire and now in the modern day the preposterous nature of it is often rather laughable. Really though ‘Noblesse Oblige’ is, as I mentioned earlier, a thoroughly interesting and insightful look at both class in social history and of the late 1940’s to early 1950’s in the UK but also as a record and look into how language and words change their importance and usage. I really rather enjoyed it, how could you not enjoy any book that brings in the word ‘primogeniture’ to argue a case? I do hope someone reprints it again one day.

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Filed under Nancy Mitford, Non Fiction, Penguin Books, Review

The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street: Letters Between Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill 1952-73 edited by John Saumarez Smith

There is nothing worse than a book funk, those dreaded times where no matter what you might have on your bookshelves/at the library/in the local charity shop nothing, but nothing, seems to tempt you. Thank goodness then for friends’ bookshelves, as spotting ‘The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street’ the other day I begged and pleaded to borrow a copy, now they might be begging and pleading for it back. I mean seriously, how could a book combining Nancy Mitford, books and bookshops go wrong?

Francis Lincoln Publishers, paperback, 2005, non fiction, 192 pages, kindly lent by a friend

I have to say initially ‘The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street’ made me feel like a bit of a Mitford ignoramus. How did I have no idea that Nancy Mitford had owned part of a bookshop when I am such a fan? I had a good think about it and a vague memory came to me from ‘Letters Between Six Sisters’ that she does actually mention working in one. 10 Curzon Street was that bookshop and though she owned it in some part for some time and it became known as ‘Nancy Mitford’s Bookshop’ the owner was actually Heywood Hill (which sounds like a place but is in fact a man). This book is a collection of edited snippets of their correspondence through two decades, an utter joy for a Mitford fan like me.

Being a writer, a lover of literature and having worked in a bookshop Nancy Mitford makes an interesting correspondent to start with. Throw in her wit and the fact that she mingled in some of the most interesting society in London and Paris as a Mitford sister and you have insight into so many worlds, written in such a way that you cannot help be fascinated whilst smiling wryly. Who else read and yet knew Evelyn Waugh, and many other authors of the times, so well? Apparently Heywood Hill as it goes, close friend of Nancy and the likes of Ivy Compton Burnett, and so the sparing of these two literary lovers, who also happen to be at the heart of the literary world at the time, is any book lovers dream.

‘It’s like with Mr Maugham who calls me Nancy and I always feel I can’t get out Willie… Oh for an amusing novel – no not Henry Green, not yet at least. How I wish I could get on with Miss Compton Burnett but it’s my blind spot. So I plod on with St. Simon, such a nice readable edition, Racine, which, on account of the notes, is as good as Punch.’

My one slight issue with the book is that whilst it is called ‘letters between’ it’s actually very much ‘edits of letters between – with notes’. None of the full letters actually appear in the book, it’s very much just tasters of the best bits. The positive of this of course is that we get the highlights, yet unlike having read so many of her full letters Nancy Mitford could describe walking to the shop or some other every day event in an immensely readable and funny way, it seemed a shame these day to day comments were cut. It also annoyed me and yet intrigued me to read John Saumarez Smith’s notes and the regular mention of a collection of Mitford’s letters called ‘Love from Nancy’ when he didn’t include them, I wanted to read them there and then but alas don’t own them, which of course needs to be rectified. I liked the highlights as I said, yet I wanted more and not just simply the snippets we get. You read a bit and want the rest.

‘…I would like a book plate, simply Nancy Mitford like the Baskerville Bible title pages, lots of squiggles. Could you ponder…?’
‘…Oh isn’t it lovely [the bookplate]… Can we start with 500 or do I have to stoke up for life? Goodness what a sticking and licking there’ll be – yes please, gum…’

That aside I think John Saumarez Smith does a good job with editing this collection of letters. He explains the background behind Nancy and Heywood’s interesting relationship as business partners (‘do let’s divorce’ Nancy wrote at one time) and thanks to a great introduction, best read after you have finished the book as always I think, plus footnotes and commentary between some of the letters to explain what was going on in Nancy or Heywood’s life, we get more insight into the underlying tones of the words and where some of the in jokes, which are never too exclusive, are directed.

I came away feeling I knew Nancy Mitford all the more, well as much as anyone can ever know one of their sadly deceased icons, through these letters of a friendship that lasted decades. Best of all there were times when certain things she wrote particularly struck a chord with me and that can be a rarity and feels all the more special in the instances where it happens.

‘You know my flat and now there’s not room for another bookcase. Every month I give at least 20 books to “the students” who come for them with a sack – many French writers now send me their books, with fulsome dedicaces all of which go in the sack! Unread of course…’

I really, really, really enjoyed ‘The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street’, being a fan of all things Mitford it bowled me over far more than Helene Hanff’s ’84 Charing Cross Road’ which I enjoyed but actually now think is slightly inferior to this collection of letters (though that is more personal taste and love of Nancy) and deserves to be as well read frankly. If you are a lover of the Mitford’s, and Nancy in particular, then you simply must read this book. I would also strongly suggest any lover of books to give this one a whirl; though maybe try a Mitford novel first for a flavour of the style of wit you are getting, as she might not be for everyone. I really must order ‘The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh’ back out from the library pronto.

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Filed under Books About Books, Books of 2012, Francis Lincoln Publishers, Heywood Hill, John Saumarez Smith, Nancy Mitford

Finding Books Funny…

Nothing quite beats sitting down with a book loving friend in the flesh over a pot of tea/glass of wine or two does it? It is also great for catching up over what you have both been reading and passing on great reads. It also sometimes throws up heated debate, say about Jennifer Egan’s ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’, and some lively discussion which fires your brain about all things bookish. This is exactly what happened when I spent several hours with my lovely friend Emma yesterday and the first of two things we talked about which made me internally note ‘that would make a good blog post’ was funny novels. I have always struggled with comic novels and yet would like to read some as I do like a laugh. Yet we were both really pushed to think of that many novels that have made us laugh out loud.

I do pointedly say novels because I have noticed as Christmas draws near it’s that time of year when all the comedians decide it is really time to share their life story and generally, in my humble opinion, they are rubbish. The only good comedian memoirs I can think of are Alan Carr’s ‘Look Who It Is’ and Dawn French’s ‘Dear Fatty’, the latter was funny but also very moving.  

Dawn French was actually one of the first names I thought of, and her novel ‘A Tiny Bit Marvellous’, when I was thinking of contemporary writers who might be very funny, but I wouldn’t know as I haven’t read it (I should here apologise to my mother who bought me this last Christmas) as yet. I then thought about Stephen Fry and pondered if maybe his novels would be funny? Not memoirs, the fictional novels. Julie Walter’s novel didn’t sound like it was going to be funny, was it? Has anyone read them? Emma was struggling too, she mentioned Jon Niven and we both discussed Sue Townsend (though we also said Adrian Mole etc were funnier when we were younger) but then we were a little lost.

Even with classic funny novels I struggled, I could only think of three. Emma said Charles Dickens, and then told me to ‘get out this house’ when I shamefully admitted I have yet to read him. Dickens… funny… really? Anyway the first I thought of was ‘The Loved One’ by Evelyn Waugh and the second and third were ‘The Pursuit of Love’ and ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ both by Nancy Mitford. I have heard Stella Gibbons is very funny, ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ has been on my TBR for years, I really must get round to it… I must.

  

The thing is though that humour is subjective isn’t it. I like my humour dark in the main, hence the Waugh novel which is set in a funeral home and cemetery is right up my street, and also that dry observational wit which can leave me in stitches as Mitford does. I don’t like slapstick and I am not that fussed by pastiche. It is tricky isn’t it and yet quite unlike Zoe Williams who believes in a time of worry/crisis we should read nonfiction (you can hear me and Gavin discuss this article on the latest episode of The Readers); I think I might quite like the odd hilarious read instead.

So I thought I would throw this out to all of you and see if you could help. Have any novels by comedians been as funny as you hoped? Which books have made you laugh out loud be they modern or classic and why? Recommendations are highly welcomed.

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Four Metres of Penguin Classics…

As I mentioned recently, one of my friends did an art installation involving books for a local hospital and this meant buying 4 metres of Penguin classics, from a charity shop warehouse – so the a good cause benefitted too, with the odd additional book mixed in. As they ended up only needing just over three metres of these gems I was asked if I might like to have a few for myself. Well how could I say no? The only problem was choosing which ones to take out of quite a selection…

Which went on and on…

I can’t pretend I wasn’t like a kid in a sweet shop. However after some whittling down, because literally I could have ended up taking away about 30+ of the books, and I am aware I have a lot of books already, I decided that I had to be strict. There were a few books that I simply had to have as soon as I saw them. I also allowed myself to pick a few books that just took my fancy; the only rule was that they had to be short. There was then some more whittling from the rather large amount I had picked up/pulled off the shelves…

And I ended up with just the ten copies, though four of them weren’t for me so actually just the six…

  • Noblesse Oblige edited by Nancy Mitford – this one I grabbed the second I saw it, it’s a fortune on Amazon so I was thrilled to get this with my Mitford obsession.
  • The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen – I have read no Bowen and after seeing Rachel’s raving about her I think it’s high time.
  • My Memories of Six Reigns by Princess Marie Louise – I have a copy of this already but I love this one’s simplicity more, Neil Bartlett recommended it to Savidge Reads and its readers last year. I am debating what to do with the spare.
  • Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan – I haven’t read much Fench fiction, and this seemed short and a little dark and possibly tragic. Maybe I am wrong?
  • A World of Strangers by Nadine Gordimer – This I picked up for Kimbofo (who won’t know it yet, surprise) as I thought she might like it – she’s probably read it but it’s a fabulous edition.
  • Where Angels Fear To Tread by E.M. Forster – I read Forster for A-Level English and the teacher put me off completely. I have heard lots about this so it could end up being the next one I try.
  • The Comforters by Muriel Spark – I was very tempted to keep this one for myself but Polly of Novel Insights introduced me to Spark and I thought she would like this one.
  • Castle Gay by John Buchan – Again a present for Polly, I know she likes and adventure, and yes – the title made me snigger too.
  • The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh – who also writes in ‘Noblesse Oblige’ interestingly, though the cover doesn’t say so, I read this a while back and LOVED it so now I have two, my other one might have to find a new home.
  • Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford – with my Mitford-mania you might expect this to be another one for my never ending Mitford collection. In actual fact this if for my lovely friend Dom (again, surprise) who introduced me to the wondair clan.

I think I was quite restrained, though I have been thinking of finding out the number of the charity that sell 4 metres of Penguin classics for £20 (seriously that’s all it cost) though that would be dangerous wouldn’t it. Oh and I found one more gem of a book, that one (and what I found inside it) needs a special mention all of its own. What Penguin Classic would you most love to own? Why is it that those orange covers are so appealing? What do you make of my collection and choices?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Penguin Books, Penguin Classics

Love in a Cold Climate – Nancy Mitford

I am sure that you are well aware by now that I am something of a Mitford maniac. Ever since reading their collected letters a few years ago (one of my very favourite reads) I have watched endless documentaries about them and the like and yet I read their memoirs and Nancy Mitford’s novels rather sporadically. Having been in the need of some comfort reading over the last few weeks, as well as having something of a crime fest, ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ was a book I knew I would adore and indeed did.

Technically ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ is a sequel to the wondair (those of you who love Mitford will know what I mean) ‘The Pursuit of Love’ though in many ways it runs alongside it in terms of nattaive and time scale. Told once again through the eyes of Fanny who narrated its predecessor we follow the story of the beautiful and perfect Polly Hampton from their childhood friendship, through to their ‘coming out’(no, not that sort) and onto a rather scandalous relationship that she then embarks upon. As this all goes on we are once again given an insight into the society of the 1930’s between the wars. Women’s roles are still to be somewhat submissive and the aim of a lady’s life is to find a suitable husband, it does seem odd to think that this was actually not that long ago.

It has been said, including by the authors sister Jessica Mitford who writes the introduction to my edition, that ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ was very much a rather autobiographical fictional piece. Uncle Matthew being very much like Nancy’s father and the children seeming to have all the traits of her sisters even down to the gang they called ‘The Hons’. What I love about all of Nancy’s writing (and I have also been reading the letters between her and Evelyn Waugh alongside) is her sense of humour. Some may find the setting rather twee or even irritating as she describes the naivety of the children, which soon becomes hilarious cheek and gossip, and the pompous nature of the adults in the society that Fanny and Polly frequent, I myself haven’t laughed so much at a book in quite some time.

“Well, the Lecherous Lecturer’s lecture was duchesses and, of course, one always prefers people to gates. But the fascinating thing was after the lecture he gave us a foretaste to sex. Think of the thrill! He took Linda up on the roof and did all sorts of blissful things to her; at least she could easily see how they would be blissful with anybody except the Lecturer. And I got some great sexy pinches as he passed the nursery landing when he was on his way down to dine. Do admit, Fanny.”

The characters are clearly caricatures of people Nancy knew or had met in passing, from Fanny’s mother ‘The Bolter’ who is mentioned through gossip often as a salacious lady who bolted from husband to husband, to Polly’s highly dramatic mother Lady Montdore and the wonderful if slightly disturbing Boy Dougdale also referred to as ‘The Lecherous Lecturer’. That this book is based so much on real people and how society worked in the 1930’s I find fascinating and should interest any of you who want to know more about that period in history.

Though it might not be to everyone’s taste I do urge anyone who hasn’t read Nancy Mitford to give her a try. If you like your books full of humour, crazy characters and some bittersweet moments thrown in then you simply can’t go wrong. In fact with the current craze for shows such as Downton Abbey this would be just the thing. A perfect read for when you need laughter and escapism. I loved it. 10/10

My edition, which features both ‘The Pursuit of Love’ and ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ was a wonderful edition that my friend Dom (who I speak in slight Mitford with and calls me ‘Jassy’ after the character who is really rather cheeky – cant see the resemblance can you) bought me a while back. It has been a perfect treat I’m glad I’d saved until I was feeling somewhat under the weather.

As I mentioned I have been back in the land of Mitford rather a lot of late. Alongside this I have been slowly making my way through Deborah Devonshire’s (the last surviving of the Mitford sisters) memoirs ‘Wait for Me’ and the letters between Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh which make for fascinating reading and I will be reporting back on in due course. Have you read and loved anything Mitford, or are you yet to try them? If it’s the latter then you have some marvellous reading ahead, do admit!

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Filed under Books of 2011, Nancy Mitford, Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, Review, Vintage Books

Books You Dip Into…

When I was last at the hospital (and I could be back in there again as these posts are scheduled hence why I haven’t been as good at commenting back of late but I will catch up on them I promise) I picked up a rather blooming big book alongside a book that I simply couldn’t resist because of the cover, the fact it was rather old, the fact it seemed like it could be just up my street and that it could be a book I could dip in and out of…

You see dipping in and out of books seems to be becoming a hobby of mine at the moment. I am reading books, though they are tending to be short. However on top of that somehow I have ended up with this pile of five books on my bedside table which are being dipped into and out of at random moments which Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Stories Not For The Nervous’ has now joined…

I think this picture illustrates how dipping in and out works for me from the varying titles on there. You see in my head, though I know it’s not the case, its not multiple reading as when I am reading a novel I leave the rest of them alone, hence why the pile keeps growing. As you can see, well I hope you can, there is a double whammy of Mitford going on as not only do I have Deborah Devonshire’s ‘Wait For Me!’ memoir which I am still reading a chapter of every now and again because its so delightful I am dragging it out not wanting it to end. The same thing is already happening with ‘The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh’ which I picked up from the library recently. I already know this book is one I am going to be asking for a copy all of my own for my birthday (only 22 days to go) as it’s just brilliant.

The Alfred Hitchcock short story collection, the stories aren’t by him by the way – just some of his favourites, is providing the sensationally spooky and letting me try new authors between books. Speaking of sensational writing though… You know how I love my Victorian sensationalism and the whole atmosphere of the time too; well what could be better than some real life mysterious cases and murder mysteries from the time? Nothing actually, and that is why ‘The Devil & Sherlock Holmes’ is being read a case at a time every so often (and getting a lot of library renewals) and proving to be the perfect non fiction read for me.

Finally, though it’s not the novel I am reading in one go, is ‘Cedilla’ by Adam Mars-Jones. This breaks my tradition with reading fiction books as a singular read which I only concentrate on and nothing else. Why? Well two reasons. The first is that it’s bloody massive and not that easy to carry around on any commutes that I might have. The second is that it’s the first ‘Green Carnation Prize 2011’ submission that I am reading and I am making notes (I haven’t put my specially bought Batman notepad in the picture, maybe I should have) originally it was because it was so big and then because I felt as Chair of the judges I should but now, having given it some thought, as we are reading them over a six month period this might be the best way to remember them. Or maybe the ones that stick with me should be the ones I push as my contenders for the longlist?

So that’s my ‘dipping in and out of’ selection for you all to see. Do you do this with books? Are there five or six titles bubbling between your fiction novels or do you always juggle a few books at once? Are you a one book and one book only person? Which books can you simply not dip in and out of and have to become a devotee to?

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Books of 2010 Part One…

I do like a nice top ten list of some kind and here is the first of two that cover my favourite reads of the year. 2010 has been a fairly vintage year for reading both with discovering some wonderful new books along with some older classics and so I thought what I would do is one list which is the top ten book I read in 2010 which were published before the year started and another list which covers all the books published in 2010 be it in hardback or paperback. So let us start with the top ten books I read in 2010 but published before it, links to the full review can be found by clicking on the titles…

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte (Vintage Classics)

“I will simply say that ‘Jane Eyre’ has instantly become one of my all time favourite novels. I have even given ‘Villette’ a few enquiring sideways glances since I finished this yesterday. I would give ‘Jane Eyre’ an eleven out of ten only that would be breaking the rules. I shall simply have to give it a ten out of ten in bold… a simply MUST read book, it’s even made me think about the way I read – and it takes the most special of books to do that to us I think personally.”

Peyton Place – Grace Metalious (Virago)

“I cannot pretend that I didn’t originally want to read this book in part because it sounded like a wonderfully shocking and slightly trashy romp of a tale. Yet to label the book trashy is unfair on ‘Peyton Place’ because Grace Metalious (possibly the best name for an author ever?) writes wonderfully and as a piece of fiction it’s really rather complex, as there are so many characters and undercurrents, and also has a lot to say. Fear not though never once does the author baffle you or over complicate things.”

Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber & Faber)

“If I gave anything away I would be so cross with myself because knowing nothing about this book is probably the best way to let the emotional impact hit you as it unfolds. I will say that Ishiguro creates such a realistic story and scenario that rather than thinking ‘Never Let Me Go’ is set in an ‘alternative England’ in the 1990’s I could very well believe that all that happens in the novel could have really happened and still be happening and you would never know. You might find yourself looking at people you pass in the street a little bit differently. I know I did after finishing the book and to me that shows how real and engrossing a modern masterpiece Ishiguro has created.”

The Drivers Seat – Muriel Spark (Penguin Classics)

“I think this has almost instantly become my favourite Spark yet. In comparison to some of the other works of hers I have read this has the darkest undertone despite its bright cover and flamboyant lead character. It also packed one of the hardest punches yet, and I will say I thought The Girls of Slender Means had a dark twist; this one hits you early on.  It also see’s Muriel dabble in a genre that I wouldn’t have seen her try and yet she does brilliantly in her own Sparkish way. I realise I sound vague but I do so hate to spoil things and this is a book that should not be spoiled in any way at all and in fact if you haven’t read must be read immediately.”

Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks (Vintage)

“It is incredibly hard to try and encapsulate ‘Birdsong’ in a mere few paragraphs and I am sure I haven’t done it justice. The writing is incredible, as I mentioned above I don’t think I have ever had war depicted to me – especially life in the trenches themselves – with such realism. By turns dramatic yet never melodramatic you find you heart racing as much as you do feel the longing of a love affair that seems doomed from the start in the first section. I did initially get thrown by the addition of the modern narration through Elizabeth, Stephen’s granddaughter; however Faulks uses this to add a further dimension to the journey we are already on whilst adding a further tale of the effects of war. The only word for it really is epic, ‘Birdsong’ is a book you’ll want to get lost in for hours and yet be unable to put down.”

The Loved One – Evelyn Waugh (Penguin Classics)

“I laughed out loud a lot with this book and I wasn’t expecting it (though maybe with a dedication ‘to Nancy Mitford’ inside I should have guessed) it charmed me. I loved the irony, comical cynical attitude of the author and random plot developed and it entertained me and took me away from everything for the two hours that I couldn’t put it down. Ten out of ten! This is a lesser known work of Waugh’s that has left me looking forward to reading many, many more of his books in the future… It’s wickedly entertaining and a real riot to read, if in some slightly dubious taste, I bet this caused quite the stir when it was published in 1948.”

Skin Lane – Neil Bartlett (Serpent’s Tail)

“I will admit it left me a bit of a wreck (am not doing spoilers but feel free to in the comments), it was all utterly worth it for a reading experience like this as they don’t come around all that often… I could go on and on raving about this book, the other wonderful characters that Bartlett creates (Mrs Kesselman is a wonderfully drawn formidable yet secretly caring middle aged woman who works with Mr. F), the descriptions of London in 1967 with its living and breathing atmosphere, the parallels with the much mentioned and alluded to ‘Beauty and the Beast’, the role of a victim as a tormentor, sexuality… the list is endless.”

Stiff – Mary Roach (Penguin)

“It might not be a subject that you would think you would want to read about but death is really the only guarantee that we have in life, and though we might not openly admit it aren’t we all a little bit fascinated (in a morbidly inquisitive or scientific way) by it? Well in ‘Stiff’ Mary Roach is very intrigued by just that and meets all the people who have dealings with us when we die and asks all the questions that we would if we honestly could… You get history, you get insight, you get emotion and laughter – yes I was in hysterics at some points – and you get reassurance in a strange way. All the while in the company of Mary Roach who by the end of the book I felt I was firm friends with, if only all nonfiction whatever its subject could be as readable as this.”

On The Beach – Nevil Shute (Vintage Classics)

“Nevil Shute has created possibly one of the most brilliant ‘tart with a heart’ heroines in Moira, who from her first drunken arrival on the pages (and soon followed up with a hilarious ‘accidental’ bra loosing moment which made me laugh out loud) promptly steals any scene that she is in. You could actually say to a degree it is the tales of Moira and Mary that in part make the book such a special read. I know I have picked a few holes in it but I still ended up coming away from ‘On The Beach’ feeling very emotional and it’s made me do quite a lot of reflecting and thinking which all the best books should do. It’s one of those books that will stick with you for days and days, I am sure I will be mulling this book and the question it raises over for weeks and weeks to come. Like I said before ‘On The Beach’ is not the perfect book but it’s an incredible one.”

Firmin – Sam Savage (Phoenix)

“It was the ending and then surprisingly the authors note that popped it back to being five star as I didn’t realize the period in which the book was set was a strange time for Boston and in particular those in Scollay Square. Don’t look that up though until you have read it as the impact of that and the ending left me feeling a little winded and a little more emotional… I would call this ‘a tale of a tail whose owner who loves tales’ and a book that will leave you with more book recommendations than you could shake a tail at!”

You can find the rest of my top books of the year here. Which of the books above have you read and what did you think? Have any of these books been on your must read lists? What were your favourite reads of 2010?

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Another Night With Novella’s

Just under a month ago I had the pleasure of a Saturday night on my own and spent it with some novella’s. Guess what? I am having another one tonight! Though some could see this as being a bit of a sad fact at 28 I would strongly disagree. This is in fact an ideal night for me when I can devote some serious time to some shorter fiction between Book Group reads, Green Carnation Longlisted books and some classics that I have planned ahead. So tonight I raided the shelves and have a host of shorter books to read…

  • 84 Charng Cross Road by Helene Hanff
  • A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
  • The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khandra
  • Ready To Catch Him Should He Fall by Neil Bartlett
  • Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote
  • The Magician by W. Somerset Maugham
  • Peace by Richard Bausch
  • Strangers by Antonia White
  • Strange Boy by Paul Magrs

I am going to go and get some tea (possibly a pot full) some biscuits now and then get under the duvet with a few of these delights. I might read one slowly, I might read a good fair few. Either way its going to be a treat of an evening. Let me know if you have read any or can think of any great novellas for future nights like these… I might make this a monthly event at Savidge Reads HQ! I honestly think this is a craze which could catch on.

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Between Us Girls – Joe Orton

Until I saw this copy of ‘Between Us Girls’ at the local library I had no idea that Joe Orton has written anything apart from his plays, of which I have seen the marvellous ‘Entertaining Mrs Sloane’, and his infamous diaries. I simply had to pick it up, seeing the quotes on the back cover comparing it to the likes of Nancy Mitford, E.F. Benson and Evelyn Waugh (all authors whose work I really admire, especially for their sardonic wit) made it irresistible.

‘Between Us Girls’ is the tale of the rise of Hollywood starlet Susan Hope from her London roots in the swinging sixties via Soho review bars and the white slave trade in Mexico. With a premise like that and Joe Orton writing I can promise you that you’re in for a real treat. Susan Hope is an innocent little soul from the start, all she wants is simple, and she wants to become one of the most famous actresses in the entire world, which she assumes should be really easy, no? Well no, it’s not easy and so we follow her on her journey her naivety making us laugh all the more along the way.

In fact from the opening Orton quickly gives us a huge insight into the character whose diary entries we are reading.  On the opening page Susan divulges that she has not only had the worst restyling of her hair ever by the dreadful Miss Fleur, but a book she has been waiting on for an age soon gets taken off her and read by her mother! How awful! Yes, Susan’s life is full of what appear to her to be life shattering dramas but to the normal average person are really just small blips, and very funny ones if you happen to be reading them. It could make Susan rather irritating to be such a dreamer with no idea of the real world but somehow Orton makes her endearing.

“The Divine Marquise, the novel I ordered, was in the book shop waiting for me this afternoon. I was just dying to read it, but mother snatched it off me directly I got in. It all seems so utterly depressing. I have made up my mind that I shall not allow mother to ruin this book for me. I won’t listen when she reads the interesting bits. Mother really is sickening. My God! How awful everything is. No romance – no real romance, I mean. I’d give seven years of my life to be swept off my feet by a handsome stranger – like Pompadour in The Divine Marquise.”

Susan also provides the perfect set of eyes in which the more knowing reader can make more observations than her naïve head could ever do. You will know just what might be coming when she goes to a bar owners house for some ‘light supper’ yet she has no idea, or when she signs two years of her life away for a ‘dancing show in Mexico’ because its that much nearer to Hollywood. I also think this adds a dark streak to the book, I wonder if Orton used this so we could be shown just how seedy the scenes were in which Susan found herself and how young naïve girls could be taken for an absolute ride because they knew nothing but wanted everything? It adds  an edge to what initially appears to be a light frothy read but actually is much more subversive than you think.

A book that will: indeed be perfect if you love Mitford and Waugh for it has their comedy and their slyness. 8/10

I have since found out that there are several other Orton novels and I of course want to read them all now too, have any of you already? I also very much want to finally read the Orton Diaries which have been sat on my TBR for months and months. The more I watch and read or Orton’s the more of a tragedy it seems that his life was taken from him at such an early age. But then that could be a story in itself couldn’t it?

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Where Do We Read?

As you may know I am away on a reading retreat this weekend and I am hoping I will be back with some pictures of the stunning reading views I have encountered, as well as some of the fun and frolics. Some people might think that you don’t need a nice view to read, after all aren’t we all just staring at the page. I myself think that environment is important when you are reading. For example I find it really hard to read anywhere where people are talking, in London I am fortunate as very few people like to talk to each other on the underground during commuting hours. I thought I would start a mini project which I am hoping you will all get involved with both in words and in images, read on and I will explain…

A few weeks ago (which shows you how long I have been plotting a post like this) I decided that I would take pictures of some of the places I read during a fortnight, or if I happened to end up reading anywhere special. I was surprised in how many places I stopped and read, especially as I didn’t record all of them, when I looked back at them all. Here are the results…

Anita Brookner in Somerset House…

Neil Bartlett on a bench in London’s east end…

Evelyn Waugh on my knees (yes those are my pyjama patterns) in bed or on the sofa…

Horace Walpole in the bath…

Natasha Solomon’s in St James Park (my favourite park in London)…

Sophie Hannah on the tube…

It’s quite a mixed bag isn’t it? So I thought I would ask if you guys would do a couple of things for me. The first of which is to answer three quick questions for me;

  1. Where is your favourite place to read?
  2. Where can you simply not read for love nor money?
  3. What’s the strangest place you have read?

The next thing I wondered relates to the last question a little. I wondered if you had any pictures of a book you have been reading in a really bizarre place and if you would like to share them? Or do you have a picture of the environment of your favourite reading spot? If so, how about sending me a picture or two. I thought it would be interesting to see the results either in a post at a later date, on a separate page, or in my bookish bits each week? Might give us more of an idea where we all read and get to know each other better? What do you say?

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Savidge Reads for Brazil

You may have been wondering why I have been getting rather focused on Brazilian literature in some posts of late even leading me off to Daunt Books to do some research (yes winners of those bags and some surprise books are at the bottom of today’s post). Well as I am off there for a while in November I decided to set up a little sort of ‘reading expedition/challenge’ in the lead up to that date that I hope you will all join in with in some form or other into the foreign lands of Brazil (unless you already live there of course).

It was a conversation about Brazil that originally sparked all this off in my head when one of The Converted One’s best friends said to me ‘you know you should immerse yourself in the Brazilian culture and history before you go, and you are a bit of a book geek to why not read yourself silly about it’ and so I thought ‘well why not?’ It was then another conversation where The Converted One said ‘when you get back from Brazil you will be buying and reading books for England’. And I thought ‘well why not twist that phrase and before I go read for Brazil!’ So now I am planning on doing just that. (Thanks to Kim of Reading Matters who has done my lovely logo’s!)

I am aware that I did say back at the beginning of the year that I would avoid all reading challenges; however that hasn’t stopped me from doing the NTTVBG and Persephone Reading Week etc, etc. So I am breaking my own rules again and have been off through the TBR looking for books that fit the criteria and I am most surprised by how many I already had at home…

The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts – Louis De Bernieres
The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman – Louis De Bernieres
Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord – Louis De Bernieres
The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa
Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes – Daniel Everett
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands by Jorge Amado
The Lost City of Z – David Grann
A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
Bel Canto – Ann Patchett
The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho
The Seamstress – Frances De Pontes Peebles
Viva South America – Oliver Balch
Equator – Miguel Sousa Tavares
Orphans of Eldorado – Milton Hatoum
Ashes of the Amazon – Milton Hatoum
Barbequed Husbands – Betty Mindlin & Indigenous Storytellers

I am already thinking that ‘The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts’ by Louis de Bernieres, ‘A Handful of Dust’ by Evelyn Waugh and ‘The Seamstress’ by Frances de Pontes Peebles (which sounds like a Brazilian Sensation novel set in the 1920’s and 30’s and really rather brilliant) would make two great choices for a read-a-thon if anyone is up for it?

  

I have also been researching what books I don’t have, which of course is most vexing because a) I am on a book buying ban and b) most of the books I would love to read aren’t available in the UK – so if any of my US readers spot anything by Clarice Lispector or a wonderful sounding crime series by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza which starts with ‘The Silence of Rain’ then do let me know as I am most open to Brazilian Relief Parcels hee, hee. There are lots of authors though who I have heard of and don’t own whose titles I will be hunting down in the library such as John Updike, Sylvia Townsend Warner, John Grisham etc. I have in fact added an all new page ‘Reading for Brazil’ which has more details of these authors and more plus more information on the lack of rules around this ‘challenge’. So do have a gander.

So will you be joining in with some of the titles? I would soooooooo love it if you did (and so would The Converted One) if you are let me know, if enough of you like the sound of certain titles maybe we could do some reading along together before November which might be nice? Oh and feel free to let other people know about it too! Hopefully you will all catch the Brazil bug (if only in terms of fiction)!

Oh and the winners of the two Daunt Bags with some surprise books thrown in are… Suejustbooks and Jodie (in true Brazil colours), well done Jodie thats two wins in a few weeks!

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The Loved One – Evelyn Waugh

I have to thank those of you who mentioned Evelyn Waugh’s ‘The Loved One’ when I asked for books on Victoriana or death because without them The Converted One would never have ordered this book for me and I would have been missing out on a treat. In fact only hours ago Granny Savidge Reads was discussing what a ‘hoot’ she found this as a read. No it’s not a funny book about Victoriana but a rather wonderful and whimsical book about the business of death and one I would insist you all go out and read, even if you don’t think it’s a very you book.

As ‘The Loved One’ opened I wasn’t sure that I was going to get on with it too well. It had a group of pompous British expatriates discussing many things banal in the material heights of Los Angeles. It is here and in this company that Dennis Barlow, an English poet, has come to stay with his uncle Sir Francis and tried to make a name for himself. However Dennis hasn’t managed and instead finds himself reading books behind a desk at a rather unsuccessful pet’s funeral parlour and not really getting anywhere in life, though seemingly happy with his lot.

“Dennis was a young man of sensibility rather than of sentiment. He had lived his twenty-eight years at arm’s length from violence, but he came of a generation which enjoys a vicarious intimacy with death. Never, it so happened, had he seen a human corpse until that morning when, returning tired from night duty, he found his host strung to the rafters. The spectacle had been rude and momentarily unnerving; but his reason accepted the event as part of the established order.”

This isn’t set to last and in fact doesn’t as very early on Sir Francis is fired from his Hollywood job at Megalopolitan Studio’s and decides to take his own life, in doing so his nephew Dennis is left in charge of the funeral and ends up in the necropolis ‘Whispering Glades’ where death seems like a wonderful option and can have all the finest trimmings and sometimes come out looking better than you did when you were alive. “Why, if he’d sat on an atom bomb, they’d make him presentable.” That line and its delivery made me laugh for about ten minutes. It’s very dark humour with sprinklings of an almost campness throughout, or maybe just a wry smile throughout.

“A young lady rose from a group of her fellows to welcome him, one of the new race of exquisite, amiable, efficient young ladies whom he had met everywhere in the United States. She wore a white smock and over her sharply supported left breast was embroidered the words, Mortuary Hostess.
‘Can I help you in any way?’
‘I came to arrange about a funeral.’
‘Is it for yourself?’”

It is going through the rigmarole of funeral procedures and arrangements for his uncle that Dennis meets the beautiful Aimee Thanatogenos, a corpse cosmetician, and becomes besotted starting not only one of the funniest and slightly outrageous books I have had the good fortune of reading, but also the unlikeliest but most readable love triangles between Dennis, Aimee and an embalmer called Mr Joyboy that leads to a rather shock ending I wasn’t expecting.

“We had a Loved One last month who passed over with electrical cord. Even Mr Joyboy could do nothing with that. We had to wind a scarf right up to the chin. But suspenders should come out quite satisfactorily.”

I laughed out loud a lot with this book and I wasn’t expecting it (though maybe with a dedication ‘to Nancy Mitford’ inside I should have guessed) it charmed me. I loved the irony, comical cynical attitude of the author and random plot developed and it entertained me and took me away from everything for the two hours that I couldn’t put it down. Ten out of ten! This is a lesser known work of Waugh’s that has left me looking forward to reading many, many more of his books in the future. In fact I am aiming to have a collection rather like this…

It’s wickedly entertaining and a real riot to read, if in some slightly dubious taste, I bet this caused quite the stir when it was published in 1948. I am pretty sure that this is destined to be one of my favourite books of recent years and quite possibly will be heading into my top 40 along with Neil Bartlett’s dark gem ‘Skin Lane’ (I have been very lucky with some excellent reads of late). I think that Waugh is also an author that may become a favourite, this is nothing like ‘Brideshead Revisited’ and yet equally brilliant in its difference from it. Which way with Waugh next?

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Filed under Books of 2010, Evelyn Waugh, Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, Review

Simon’s Bookish Bits #16

Thank goodness it’s Saturday, and I don’t know about you but here it is glorious sunshine so I won’t do a long post as I am sure, like me, you will want to spend most of your day out in it. It’s been a four day week here in the UK and it’s a weird one because I always feel so much more tired after working four days than if I have worked five, why is that? So on with some bookish odds and sods…

My internet has been evil and sporadic this week, so I have no link of the week, but touch wood after a very nice man came and sorted it yesterday it should be back on… I have so many of your blogs to catch up on, so do bear with me and I have been rather busy again this week, it seems like in the build up to Brazil (which is seven months away) I am going into overdrive in order to make sure the Brazil Fund is brimming and I have enough features up my sleeve to keep the magazine happy while I vanish for three months. Sorry you probably don’t really want to know about that haha. To illustrate how busy I have been, I haven’t even managed to get round to opening some of these…

I know shocking isn’t it! Who knows what treats lie in wait for me inside those parcels? I will report back in due course of course (I am opening them tonight when I get back) and let you know. I did get two little belated birthday parcels this week from The Converted One and they arrived thanks to some of your Victorian/deathly recommendations…

‘Falling Angels’ by Tracey Chevalier (who I am appalled I have never read a book written by before) is pretty much set in Highgate, where I will be most of the day today, and is one I am itching to read. The other ‘The Loved One’ is one many of you recommended by Evelyn Waugh who I have wanted to read much more of too so that’s perfect. The Converted One is narked because it’s not the cover that was ordered, I don’t know if you can send a book back on that basis? I collect the art deco covered one’s as you can see from my Brideshead Revisited thoughts last year back in 2008. Yes thats  yet another author I swore I would read more books by and then didn’t which brings me to my Contemporary vs. Classic post.

Thank you to everyone who left thoughtful, helpful and insightful comments I am mulling them all over (as are a few publishers I believe, it wasn’t an anti publisher post because I know someone’s been saying that) and especially big thanks goes to those of you who too the time to give me your wonderful lists of fabulous reading through the decades. I never expected any of you would and those who did I think deserve a special extra thanks. I will be emailing you all. I did say I would do mine and its hard blinking work and I want to get it spot on so you will be seeing those here next week, aren’t I a tease?

Right, I best be off because a busy Saturday of Highgate and the sunshine awaits, I am also meeting the author Natasha Solomons this afternoon for tea and cakes (I believe she has snuck me a goodie bag from the Sceptre event I couldn’t make yesterday too) in a secret hidden café with the most amazing skyline views, mind you in this weather I feel a quintessential picnic of cakes in a park with lashings of ginger beer might be more appropriate! Have a lovely Saturday, let me know what you’re doing etc, and hopefully see you tomorrow for the latest NTTVBG to discuss ‘Skin Lane’ which I have just completely amazed by. What book has blown you away of late?

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The Reader’s Table

I mentioned a while ago that whilst I was milling in Waterstones I happened upon  a table filled with an authors favourite books. The Waterstone’s Writers Table is a great idea, have a very popular author who many people love to read telling you what their favourite reads. Well it works if you love the author and so far the ones they have chosen apart from Philip Pullman I havent read a word of but I feel I would love Faulks and Mosse should I read them.

I then had the thought that a writers table is great, but wouldn’t a readers table in a bookshop be great? Well I decided that I rather than just start rearranging a display in Waterstones there and then I would go home and think about my forty favourite reads of all time and then make an all new page on the blog so you can see them. And I have almost done it…

You see forty books is actually much harder than you think and after hours and hours of listing I came up with 24, then I went away from it and came back with 57. I started whittling this down until I came up with around 43 considered 37 of which where definates leaving six of them are fighting as to which will make it into the final three. Well tha battle is still on and so am leaving it for a few days but leaving you with my Top 20 as it stands today and you can find them here.

The top ten was really, really easy… in fact actually the top fifteen was really easy then then it gets harder and harder. Which was my favourite? Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier of course though it was a close fight to the death between that and Wilkie Collin’s ‘The Woman in White’. There is another thing that has come out of this delightful little excercise and that is the desire to re-read quite a lot of my favourites. Rebecca, The Woman in White and The Time Travellers Wife all may have to go back onto my TBR in the neare future. Is this something that any of you ever do at all?

I also noticed that despite having written some of my favourite books I have never read another book by some of the authors in the top 20 let alone the top 40. Obviously some of them have only written one book, however I definately need to read more Wilkie Collins (I am desperate to try ‘Armadale’ and may now have to treat myself as have more long train journeys this weekend to see my mother and my Gran), John Boyne, Evelyn Waugh and Cormac McCarthy. I am also aware I need to read a lot more classics as I think this will change the list, which is a constant everchanging work in progress.

If any of you want to do your own ‘Readers Table’ page do let me know, and do say where you saw it hahaha! So which books would you have in your top twenty? Can you guess what might make it in my my top 40 – 21? i look forward to your thoughts and hope you like the new page!

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