Tag Archives: Penelope Fitzgerald

Other People’s Bookshelves #42; Victoria Hoyle

Hello and welcome to the latest in Other People’s Bookshelves, a regular series of posts where you get to have a nosey at other book lovers bookshelves. This week we are back in the UK and heading to the delights of York, which you will be hearing more about next week, as we join blogger extraordinaire Victoria Hoyle to have a nosey through her books. So grab yourself a good strong cuppa Yorkshire Tea (the best kind) and have a nosey through her bookshelves and find out more about her.

I’m Victoria and I’ve been blogging about books at Eve’s Alexandria for just over 8 years.   I live in York with my partner in a little house completely overwhelmed by books.  Books doubled up on shelves, books on the floor, books in boxes, books stacked in piles on tables… I have always been an avid reader.  When I was a child my mum took me to the library every Monday evening and I borrowed armfuls of fiction.  Apart from my family the adult I looked up to most was Pam the librarian, who introduced me to some of my favourite authors as I got older.  When I went off to university I still rang her up for a chat about the latest paperbacks.   At university I was bitten by the book buying bug and met the friends I founded Eve’s Alexandria with.  These days I work for York Libraries and Archives.

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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 don’t keep all the books I read – it would be chaos if I did. We would literally drown under the sea of them. When I’ve finished something I give it a week or two for my impressions to settle and if I really loved it and think I’ll want to read it again (or stroke it lovingly sometimes) then I keep it. If it doesn’t pass the test I donate it to the library (if it’s not a review copy) or to charity. Every year or so I do a full sweep of the shelves and give away some books that I initially decided to keep but which don’t seem worth the shelf space in hindsight. I’d rather someone else was reading and enjoying them. I’d say about 1 in 5 books stays permanently, maybe less. The only exception I make is for favourite authors where I want to keep all their books even if one or two didn’t work for me.

Occasionally I make the wrong decision and give away a book I want to go back to – this sometimes happens with series, where I want to check something or re-read it before the next book comes out – but the rate at which the books are coming in means a lot have to be going out. What this means in reality is that the unread books vastly outnumber the read in our house. When people come to visit us and browse the bookshelves I’m always ashamed to admit that, no, I haven’t read that one, or that one, or that one…

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?

Yes and no. The books in the main ‘library’ (aka the dining room) are split into fiction and non-fiction but otherwise are completely random and higgledy-piggledy. Basically I put things where there is a space, which means that books I’ve read and books I haven’t are side by side, and things by the same writer are in seven different places. It’s not a very efficient system; I’m always hunting for something or wondering where a particular book has disappeared to. Most days I think to myself ‘You should really sort this mess out’ and decide to alphabetise them but somehow is never happens. I think because I know it would be hard to maintain with all the books coming and going. And there is something to be said for having to look through your whole collection just to find one thing. I’m always rediscovering books I forgot I had.

Different story in the living room. I suppose because the books in there are more ‘on show’. We have two shelves in there: one for classics and the other for favourite authors. Both are alphabetised, and I try to maintain order (although I’m rapidly running out of space). I like to see the black, red and cream spines of the Penguin and Oxford classics in neat rows, and love to have all our books by Ali Smith or Sarah Waters together – it pleases the completist in me. The top shelf of our ‘favourites’ bookcase is entirely books by or about Virginia Woolf. Both Esther and I studied her at university, and one of the reasons we first started seeing each other was a shared love of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Twelve years later we are still together and Woolf has pride of place.

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

My parents didn’t buy many books when I was younger – why would you when you can get as many as you like for free at the library? So apart from the occasional present at Christmas and birthdays all my books were borrowed. When I was about thirteen Pam (the librarian) introduced me to the Outlander series of time-travel romance-adventure books by Diana Gabaldon. I was really into multi-volume epic fantasy at the time and the Outlander books were like heaven. I was in *love* with the two main characters Jamie and Claire and literally read the first three books to pieces. When the fourth book – Drums of Autumn – came out in hardback I joined the incredibly long library request list and waited and waited and waited. It seemed to take forever to be my turn.

Then, during a day trip with my parents (to York, of all places), I spotted it in the window of Waterstones. I had some birthday money left over and my mum suggested that I could buy Drums of Autumn with it. It was a revelation – I didn’t have to wait any more, I could buy it! I was almost hyperventilating carrying it to the counter to pay, and think I gabbled something embarrassing to the shop assistant about it (who was probably wandering what a teenager was doing buying the fourth book in a series mostly read by middle aged women). I can still remember the extraordinary sense of happiness and wellbeing I felt sitting in the car on the drive home with it next to me on the seat. I hardly dared open it. I’ve bought hundreds of books since then, probably searching for that same feeling of contentment, but never quite attained it.

And yes, Drums of Autumn is still on my shelves, along with all the other Outlander books. The series is still going and the eighth book Written in My Own Heart’s Blood is due out in the US this June. Oh, and they are currently making it into a TV series. I am very, very excited and also terrified that it won’t live up to my expectations.

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 don’t have a hidden shelf but I’ve sometimes been guilty of ‘hiding’ books at the back of others, epic fantasy instalments behind the latest contemporary fiction for example. I still love reading fantasy, which is definitely an acquired taste and some of the covers can be difficult to explain in polite company. Dragons, half naked ladies, you get the picture. They are much better than they used to be – Game of Thrones has ushered in a new era of pretty classy covers – but still can be a bit weird. They also come in a lot of non-standard shapes and sizes, from dumpy little paperbacks to enormous trade and fat hardcovers, so they can dominate a shelf and draw the eye. That said if you look at the library shelves at the moment you will see all sorts jumbled together – fantasy and historical fiction and Booker and Nobel prize winners jostling for space. I quite like it that way.

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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 memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

This is a really hard question because I’m sentimental about quite a lot of books. But I think I’m going to have to tell another anecdote about Pam and beloved library finds. Around the same time that Pam was feeding me Diana Gabaldon she also introduced me to Guy Gavriel Kay, a Canadian writer who specialises in alternate historical fantasy. He has written lots of incredible books and I urge everyone to try him, even if you’re not a fantasy fan. I started with his Fionavar Tapestry trilogy: The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road. I *loved* those books and when I was at university I tracked down hardback editions of the second and third books online and bought them. I couldn’t seem to find an affordable copy of the first one in good condition though so my collection was incomplete. Later, via the power of the internet and a friend, I got to know Guy a little through email as well as the illustrator who drew the Fionavar covers, Martin Springett. When Martin came to London 6 or 7 years ago I went down to meet up with him and he gave me a copy of that wonderful first book, which he signed. The powerful memory of reading it for the first time, along with Martin’s kindness, make it one of my most prized possessions.

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?

I segued pretty early from the children’s section of the library to the adult one, via Terry Pratchett and the fantasy shelves. I just read whatever I wanted; I’m pretty sure Pam let me take books out on my children’s ticket that I shouldn’t have.  I don’t remember there ever being a book that I wanted to read that I didn’t feel allowed to or was discouraged from. That said, there were definitely books I read that I probably shouldn’t have or that I was too young for. I think if my mum had known how much sex there was in the Outlander books for example she wouldn’t have let me read them so young, and the same goes for quite a lot of the fantasy series I gobbled up. And there were definitely books that I tried to read and failed at because I was too young, like Far From the Madding Crowd and To the Lighthouse. I’ve re-read them as an adult and loved them though, and they are still on my shelves now.

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 buy about 2/3 of my books and borrow the other 1/3, and usually I will buy a copy of a book that I’ve had from the library and loved. I use the same criteria as I would use to keep a book I suppose: will I re-read it, and do I need to have it in my line of sight. In the last couple of years I’ve borrowed and then bought Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller and The Accidental by Ali Smith.

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

I’ve bought quite a lot of books this month – it’s a bit embarrassing how many, so I won’t say – but the absolutely most recent is J.L. Carr’s A Month in Country which I bought after reading Lynne’s recent post about it at Dovegreyreader. She made me want to read it immediately. This is how quite a lot of my books get bought – blogging has made me very impulsive.

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

I am in a constant state of wanting books. Every day it seems like I have a new fascination to feed. At the moment I would like to grow my collection of Doris Lessing. In fact, a book that I would love that hasn’t even been announced or written yet is a biography of her; I live in hope that my favourite literary biographer Hermione Lee is working on it already. She has done such masterly lives of Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton and Penelope Fitzgerald. Surely someone has asked her to do one of Doris?

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

This is such an interesting question and I’m really not sure. It depends so much on where they are looking. They would probably think I have an eclectic taste in books, which I do. I hope it would make them think I was a curious person with wide interests rather than someone who just flitted from one thing to another. They would probably think I was a feminist or interested in women’s fiction, because books by women probably outnumber books by men 2 to 1 or more.   They would probably think I was disorganised because of the chaotic ordering system! They would probably think I was a bit of an escapist because of all the historical and fantasy fiction. I’d like to think they were interpret my willingness to suspend my disbelief as openness.

Sometimes I wonder if most ‘ordinary’ people wouldn’t think I was a bit weird for having so many. The last time we moved house we had to pack our books using library book crates, 40 of them in total. They were just too heavy for cardboard boxes. The removal men were honestly confused about why we had so many – did we own a second hand bookshop? Had we inherited them? Had we not heard of a Kindle? They were very solicitous in suggesting ways we could unburden ourselves of them, by giving them to charity or taking them to a car boot sale. They just couldn’t believe we really *wanted* them. We are about to move again and the crates are coming back again. It will be interesting to see what the next removal team think!

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A huge thanks to Victoria for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. If you would like to find out more about her and the books she loves make sure you head to her blog Eve’s Alexandria. If you would like to catch up with the other posts in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves have a gander here. Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint) in the 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 Victoria’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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The Bookshop – Penelope Fitzgerald

One of the things that lead me to wanting to have a little break from the blogging recently was that I had got myself into the habit of reading to write about the books on here. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing apart from the fact I was beginning to rush read in my enthusiasm and putting pressure on my reading and suddenly I just didn’t want to read. A lovely parcel then arrived in the post, from another very kind reader, containing ‘The Bookshop’ by Penelope Fitzgerald and I felt fate was sending me a sign and it turns out that I think it was because it was not only a book I wanted to read there and then because of the title, which I think would appeal to any book lover, it was also a book that made me read slower (that doesn’t mean it was boring) and sometimes you need good books that do that too.

‘The Bookshop’ centres around Florence Green and her desire to do something with her life after having been widowed. For several nights, as the book opens in the year of 1959, Florence has slept yet has felt she has been wide awake and the reason is she thinks she needs to open a bookshop in the seaside town of Hardborough. Something which she decides to do by converting the town’s ‘Old House’ which has been left derelict for several years so taking out a loan that’s what she does. Like all good smaller communities word spreads and as it does people start to ask her whether maybe she has chosen the right venue and before she knows it she is being subtly threatened by the towns self important and self elected honorary leader Violet Gamart who seems to have always wanted to make The Old House an arts centre but has never quite gotten around to it. Florence carries on with determination little knowing she will need courage as many an obstacle will be thrown in her way.

If I am honest I should have been slightly disappointed by this book. I was sort of demanding, in my head, a book about a book shop in a small town and all the crazy characters that pass through its doors. You do get that to a degree for example when Florence orders in copies of ‘Lolita’ causing a surge of gossip and huge crowds outside the shop causing traffic issues on the street. Some of it though seems slightly culled for the bigger picture which is that of a tale of a town wanting change and then being rather unsure it’s what the wanted at all and also of someone having the courage to do something different in the face of adversity. In the end for having all these strands I liked it all the better once I got my head around it.

Its not a book you can rush read (though its 156 pages so you could manage it in an evening or an afternoon) because its pace is meandering, rather like when you find your self in a book shelf slowly and enjoyably perusing the shelves you find yourself doing the same with Penelope’s prose and paragraphs. You get the feeling every word matters and every paragraph has been plotted, though there isn’t a massive plot in this novel, and placed where it is for a reason. Sometimes you get it and sometimes you don’t quite yet you still enjoy reading it regardless. An example would be the rather bizarre and unexplained haunting by the poltergeist in The Old House which the townsfolk are always talking about and when we endure it with Florence actually proved quite chilling, perfect for this time of year, which I loved and yet I am sure Fitzgerald had thrown in for a reason I didn’t pick up on my first read.

It’s a book I want to return to eventually though as it has all the right ingredients, it makes you laugh, its quite touching and frustrating as you get to know the town and its people and it actually made me incredibly upset towards the end – not by the ending itself but by something that happens about three quarters of the way through and which of course I am not going to tell you anymore about.  It’s not a book that will shout out its accomplishments and wry storytelling so you jump out of your seat with its brilliance; instead it quietly and unassumingly tells you a story that will stay with you a good while after the final page is turned. 9/10

Savidge Reads suggests perfect prose partners;

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald – I enjoyed Fitzgerald’s Man Booker winning novel when I read it last year (I actually didn’t realise it was that long ago so gave myself a shock, how does time whizz by so?) and said I wanted to read more Penelope Fitzgerald, now I am even more eager too.

Any of the works of Muriel Spark – I don’t want to compare specific books because there aren’t any I can think of and nor do I think Spark and Fitzgerald are of quite the same ilk, its just there is something that makes me think if you like Spark you would enjoy Fitzgerald too.

I don’t know if others will agree about my Spark comparison, is that helpful at all or true? Actually it’s less a comparison more a ‘maybe if you liked this, then you might like those’. Anyway regardless Fitzgerald is an author who I will endeavour to read even more of, and if you haven’t tried her do, I am just not sure where I should go next. There were lots of blurbs to her other books in the back of this one and they all sounded good. I thought I had some more of her books in the TBR but they are Penelope Lively, who I haven’t read any always confuse the two, is Lively any cop? Any advice?

This book was kindly sent to me by a reader of Savidge Reads just a week and a bit ago – a big thank you.

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Filed under Books About Books, Flamingo Books, Harper Collins, Penelope Fitzgerald, Review

Offshore – Penelope Fitzgerald

I personally think that when you open a book that you know very little about and start to read it you give it a much fairer chance than you would a book that everyone has been raving about which I think makes you judge it more harshly. So what about a book that people you know and trust choice wise don’t really care for? I tend to write them off from the start and having heard some reviews of Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1979 Man Booker winning novel Offshore, I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about this book at all. But I have set myself the challenge of reading all the Man Booker Winners and so I gritted my teeth and… enjoyed it.

Offshore is set just as it says off shore. The shores in particular aren’t some glistening desert island but instead London in the late seventies, which was actually ‘the now’ when the book was released. In a small little community ‘belonging neither to land nor sea’ we meet the various residents of the houseboats of Battersea Reach. There are three main characters in the novel that we follow; Richard a man in a mainly unstable marriage who tries too keep everyone’s spirits up and is in some ways ‘the captain’ of the community, Nenna who has randomly bought a boat to live on with her daughters and husband, that latter of which never moved in and Maurice a male prostitute by occupation who is also looking after stolen goods.

How does a book that is only 180 pages and less than 50,000 words manage to encapsulate this society through the day to day and slightly unusual dilemma’s I hear you cry? Well that’s why I think it won the Man Booker. Though I could actually have read a lot more by the end of the book there isn’t much left to add. Just as quickly (and as wonderfully descriptively) as you are thrown into these people’s lives you are equally quickly (and wonderfully descriptively) thrown back out. These are snapshots not life stories and I quite like that in novels, especially with such a jumble of characters as this book has.

I happily meandered through their lives (it isn’t a fast paced book at all), some mundane and average, some dramatic and emotional like a barge meanders down the Thames taking in all the scenery along the way. It is very much a London book and very much a book about normal real people, both factors I like in any book. I have to say my favourite characters and therefore parts of the book because they were in them were Nenna’s children Tilda and Martha. I wanted to join them on the muddy banks of the river finding hidden treasure’s and running wild. This is a very economic book, sparse in words but full of vivid imagery and characters. I am so pleased that I had taken up the challenge and found what may not be on of my favourite reads of all time but fine example of simple, pure literary fiction from an author whose work I want to read more of.

This book has also brought up a little something that I did want to mention though and that is the timing of reading books and how you might relate to a book dependent on mood, where you are etc. So for those of you who have read the book and think I might have gone crazy, I will leave you with an image of where I was reading it (it’s very short so only took me a few hours)…

I think the surroundings whilst I was reading were quite perfect for this novel.

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Filed under Flamingo Books, Fourth Estate Books, Man Booker, Penelope Fitzgerald