Book Stats 2013 and Reading Resolutions for 2014

Following hard on the heels of my Books of the Year – it’s time for bookstats.  Many of you may know that I keep a spreadsheet of everything I read so I can analyse my reading at the end of each year.  Don’t groan – it’s not that bad!

I had a really good year statswise, managing to finish over 100 books for the first time in a couple of years. The pagecount is holding up too (although see how many chunky books I must have read in 2011!). NB: The stats are based on 101 books read as at 24.12.13 – I’ve managed to read five more books since then to make 106 books read in total. Book Stats Books Read & Pagecount

Each year I say I plan to read more books from before I was born and the 20th Century in general.  I’ve failed yet again!  Last year 44% of books read were from 2011-12, this year 2012-13 account for even more at 55%. I am such a sucker for new books, (although this year I read more review copies which probably accounts for the increase).
Book Stats 2013 Date of Pub

Then I like to look at author nationality, and I have managed to read a little more widely from around the world, but only managed to increase the total in translation by 3 from 10 last year to 13. Less by American authors too, and more by UK ones.Book Stats 2013 Author Nationality

This year I’ve added a genre chart. The mix is much the same though – a smattering of SF, historical, crime/thrillers, children’s/YA, a few more modern classics, but the largest part is what I call contemporary fiction. Non-fiction remained at the same level around the 10% mark.Book Stats 2013 GenreOne last stat for you before I make my Reading Resolutions – that of male/female author ratio.  Last year I almost reached parity for the first time ever, reading as many books by women authors as by men. This year it returned to 70/30, despite having read my first books by Barbara Pym, Margaret Forster and Penelope Mortimer for instance. I never knowingly consider an author’s gender when I’m choosing what to read, within the constraints of any review copies, I largely go by whim (which is a big  reason that I’m really crap at challenges apart from the TBR dare).

READING RESOLUTIONS FOR 2014…

Triple Dog Dare

  • Again – to read more from my TBR. Initially by participating in The TBR Triple Dog Dare as hosted by James at Ready when you are, C.B. until the end of March. Only exceptions are book club books, plus one I have pre-ordered for January.
  • To read as much as I can, from as wide a choice of books as I can.
  • To only read books I want to read – when I want to read them – that means being tougher on accepting review copies, and that unsolicited books will not get read at all unless they fit my mood.

That’s it really!

Do you make reading resolutions?  

How has your reading year been in stats?

BRING ON THE NEW YEAR OF READING!

My Books of the Year 2013

I’ve had a great reading year in 2013. I’ve managed to read more books than the past few years, topping the hundred mark, and at the time of review thirteen of those scored ten out of ten. Not all of those will make my list below though, as the score is just a snapshot – a useful guide, but not definitive, for often it is those books that initially may not have the instant wow factor, but stay with you and keep you thinking about them that become treasured reads later on.

So here we go with my usual mix of categories – both serious and fun. Links will take you to my original review …

Best sense of place: The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers
A quiet novel with emotional depth set around the great cathedral. I was lucky enough to hear Salley talk about the novel too which was fascinating.

Best at messing with your mind – The Explorer by James Smythe
More than just SF, this is a claustrophobic psychothriller that just happens to be set in deep space. I shall be re-reading it for book group in January before turning to the sequel The Echo – out in the New Year.

Best novel that’s been in the movies this year – The Great Gatsby
The critics may have thought Baz Luhrman’s GG too flashy, but I loved it. I loved re-reading the novel again even more.

Best by a newly mourned author (R.I.P.) – The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
I had been planning a project to re-read all of Banks novels this year, when the shock announcment came of his terminal illness. I re-read his debut novel – and the power of it blew me away again. He is deeply missed.

Best portrait of American life – Mrs Bridge (& Mr Bridge) by Evan S Connell
Told in a series of vignettes, this pair of novels, each from the PoV of half of a couple, capture the minutiae of suburban life just before the war so perfectly. The personalities of Mr and Mrs Bridge are quite different, so Mrs Bridge is frothy, Mr Bridge is rather stoic. You must read both.Books of the year 1

Best portrait of English life – Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes
There were many novels I could have chosen here including ones by Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym and not forgetting The Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield, however I plumped for MacInnes because of its youth and optimistic outlook.

Best witchy novel set in Paris – Babayaga by Toby Barlow
Russian witches in fin de siècle Paris, American spies and a police inspector who is transformed into a flea – What’s not to like. Fabulous fun.

Best rediscovery of a childhood favourite – The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner
Going to the Bodleian for it’s Magical Worlds exhibition, and then a lecture by Alan Garner at Magdalen College, rekindled my love of his children’s books from the 1960s, and has made me want to read everything he’s written.

Best historical monster – Magda by Meike Ziervogel
This short work of fiction packs such an emotional punch – telling the story of Magda Goebbels through the eyes of her mother and oldest daughter as well as herself. Meike manages to get inside Magda’s mind to understand without condoning her actions. Simply stunning.

Best one-sitting read – Glaciers by Alexis M Smith
A young woman, who works in a library, muses about her life – her friends and family, her dreams of travelling, finding the perfect dress for a party, and the man she hopes will notice her there. Dreamy and delicate prose, but strong themes of losing people – through distance, break-ups and war.

Books of the year 2
Best comic novel – The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
The story of an Australian professor with Aspergers who sets out to find a wife, and ends up on a voyage of self-discovery. Simsion manages never makes fun of him – but Don is so matter of fact, he can’t help but make you laugh out loud. A delight!

Best memoir – Born Standing Up by Steve Martin
In the 1970s, Steve Martin was one of the US’s top comedians, playing sell-out tours to huge audiences. After eighteen years, worn out by it, and noticing the first empty seats in an audiences appearing again, he turned his back on stand-up. This book is part comedy masterclass and part memoir – and a fine read indeed.

Best book group discussion – Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut
This is my pick of the books we’ve read this year as the one which generated the most meaningful discussion. It may not have been a novel that everyone liked, but we all had something to say about it – which suggests it is a good book group choice.

Best book group read of the year – The 100 year old man who climbed out of a window and disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
This is the book our group voted for as our fave of the year. This hit book in translation contains some of the most novel ways to die we’ve encountered, and was hilarious to boot.

Books of the year 3

… and finally – My Book of the Year is …

Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo

mr loverman

Mr Loverman is the story of Barrington Walker, who emigrated from Antigua in the 1960s. Barry has a big secret. His friend Morris has been his lover for decades. His wife Carmel is at her wits’ end thinking he’s a philandering womaniser, while Morris is putting pressure on Barry to do the right thing. In Mr Loverman, Evaristo has created a memorable family with a magnificent patriarch whom you can’t help falling for. Hilariously funny and exhuberant, yet compassionate and bittersweet in its portrayal of the difficulties of family life – I loved every single page.

So those are my picks of the year. It’s true to say that both Magda and The Explorer came very close to being my book of the year, but the ability of Mr Loverman to put a big smile on my face won out in the end.

Have you read any of these books?
What were your stand-out reads in 2013?
Do tell me …

A Trio of Short Reviews

I thought I’d sneak a couple of short book reviews into that week between Christmas and New Year.  Too bloated with turkey, booze and chocolate to concentrate on reading, I often find I’m scouring the web at this time for stuff to read and do!

The Last Kings of Sark by Rosa Rankin-Gee

last kings of sarkThis is the story of new graduate Jude, who is engaged to be a tutor during the summer to Pip, a sixteen year old boy and Sofi, a young Polish cook from Ealing. The action takes place initially on the island of Sark (one of the smaller Channel Islands between England and France).

It’s an odd household. Eddy, Pip’s father, is often absent, away on business. Esmé, Pip’s French mother, mostly stays upstairs and never appears to eat anything. Pip doesn’t want a tutor, but it is to prepare him for school on the mainland for the sixth form. Sofi, meanwhile is full of life, and not a very good cook!  When Eddy goes away on an extended trip, the three drop lessons and get a life. Needless to say summer doesn’t last forever and the trio have to part after an extended farewell. The last part of the novel looks back several years later at where the three of them are now, and how they wish they could rekindle that summer.

This was a beautifully crafted novel, but not enough happened in it for me. Narrated by the quieter Jude, Sofi dominates the story and her weird little flashes of insight can’t make up for her limited ambitions and love of partying. Pip is underdrawn, and I couldn’t bond with Jude either, and wanted to know why Esmé was so reclusive. This could have been brilliant, but was rather so-so for me. (6/10, review copy)

The Orphan Choir by Sophie Hannah

orphan choirThis was another novel I really wanted to love – Sophie Hannah turning her hand to a short horror novel in Hammer’s new imprint.

Set in and around Cambridge and Hannah’s invented Spilling, The Orphan Choir concerns Louise Beeston, a woman who is slowly being driven mad on all sides (we think): by her neighbour’s late night parties that always end with the same Queen song played at loud volume; by her husband who wants to get their expensive house sandblasted, which will mean covering the windows and living in the dark for weeks; by Dr Freeman, the choirmaster of the boarding school where her seven year old son is a chorister – Joseph has to board, and he is taking him away from her; and the voices of children singing! She finds escape, persuading her husband to buy them a second home in a gated community near Spilling, but after an idyllic start the voices start again. Is she going mad?

While I could understand Louise’s problems, especially with her son having to board at only seven years old, I didn’t like her at all. The first half of this quite short book went on for so long with the spat between Louise and her noisy neighbour, I got a bit fed up with it, then the second half rushed by, getting twistier and twistier in Hannah’s trademark style, and I reached the end thinking what just happened?  However, Hannah is always readable, and her twisty plots are something else – I look forward to her next horror outing, but this one missed being a hit for me. (6.5/10, own copy)

Dr Who: Last of the Gadarene by Mark Gatiss

bbc-book-50th-3I love all Mark Gatiss’ TV work, but I’ve not read one of his novels before. This Dr Who one, reissued as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations probably wasn’t the best place to start, I should have tried one of his Lucifer Box novels perhaps?

This novel features the third incarnation of Dr Who, as played by Jon Pertwee together with his assistant Jo Grant. The Dr was Earth-bound at this stage of Who-history and worked for UNIT, investigating supernatural phenomena.  Set in a disused RAF base in East Anglia, which is taken over by a secretive organisation. Local villagers go missing, only to return grinning inanely, having been taken over by the Gadarene who are invading Earth as their own planet is dying.

It may have had a classic plot, but there were quite a few boring bits in this novel, and the Doctor didn’t appear until over a quarter of the way in. I didn’t quite warm to Gatiss’ style of writing here either – a little overdone in places, and quite adverby. Basically though, I’m not a fan of the third doctor – his outfit, cape and yellow vintage car (Bessie) wasn’t my cup of tea, even if the Maggots (remember them?) scared me stiff (though not as much as the Yeti).  (6/10, own copy)

Sorry to end my book reviewing of the year with several books that didn’t quite make the grade for me – but you may think differently!

I will be back in a day or two with my BOOKS OF THE YEAR post.

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To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Last Kings of Sark by Rosa Rankin-Gee. Pub Virago Nov 2013. Hardback 288 pages.
The Orphan Choir (Hammer) by Sophie Hannah. Pub Hammer Oct 2013. Hardback 336 pages
Doctor Who: Last of the Gaderene: 50th Anniversary Edition (Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Collection) by Mark Gatiss, pub 2000, BBC paperback 320 pages.

2013 in First Lines

I did this meme last year too, a bit of fun for pre-Christmas. It originated at The Indextrious Reader, and you can see Jane at Fleur Fisher in her World’s post here.

The “rules” are simple: Take the first line of each month’s first post over the past year and see what it tells you about your blogging year. Links back to the original posts. Here goes:

January: ‘Shakespeare’s question from The Two Gentlemen of Verona is an apposite one to ask of Dawn French’s new novel, for the title character never says a word, being in a coma after a fall from a third floor balcony.’ (from my review of Oh Dear Silvia

February: ‘Written ten years after his 1959 novel Mrs Bridge, Connell’s companion piece Mr Bridge tells the story of the Bridge family through the same time period from the 1930s into WWII, but from the husband’s point of view.’ (from my review of Mr Bridge

March: ‘I have shelves full of proper non-fiction books all awaiting my attention. Books historical, geographical, biographical, scientific, and so on – you get the picture.’ from my post on Non-Fiction and Me

April: ‘Well today is the start of the second quarter of 2013 and the official end of this year’s TBR Double Dog Dare hosted by James at Ready When You Are, C.B.

May: ‘Distractions! I had hoped to read or re-read more Banks books by now.’ (from my re-read of Iain Banks debut novel The Wasp Factory

June: ‘Playing with my books this morning, I spotted my pile of Ladybird books from my childhood.’ from my post on The Joy of Ladybird Books

July: ‘In the UK, it’s Independent Bookseller’s Week. Indie bookshops all over the country are running special events and promotions.’

August: ‘It’s lovely when you get a nice little surprise (or ‘pleasing’ as Lynne at DGR would call them). I’ve had a couple of good bookish ones this morning.’ on buying a second-hand book and discovering it to be signed by the author. (here).

September: ‘I was sad to hear of the death of Elmore Leonard a week and a half ago.’ Celebrating Elmore Leonard and reviewing Glitz.

October: ‘Occasionally we like to have a different kind of reading experience in our Book Group, and for this month’s read, we chose a play.’ from my Book Group Report on reading The Weir by Conor McPherson

November: ‘It’s a rare thing for me to read a graphic novel – in fact the only one I’ve read since starting this blog was The Crow by James O’Barr.’ from my review of graphic novel Dark Satanic Mills.

December: ‘This is the second novel in Aaronovitch’s ‘Rivers of London’ series of humorous police procedurals involving magical crimes in contemporary London.’ from my review of Moon over Soho.

I enjoyed that, and actually think the results are pretty representative of my blog this year. Still obsessing about the TBR; missing Iain Banks and Elmore Leonard; book group; and a bit of most of the types of books I usually read.

Because our kittens didn’t manage to be the first posts in any of the months since we got them, I shall leave you with a couple of Christmas kitty photos. Both are of Ginny, as Harry has been too busy sleeping somewhere else to be photographed…

Good Kitty…Christmas kitty 2Bad Kitty!…Christmas Kitty

Brian Aldiss, still going strong at 88

On Thursday evening, I was privileged to attend the book launch of veteran author Brian Aldiss’ latest novel Comfort Zone at Blackwells in Oxford.

Given that it, and his entire backlist is being published by imprint The Friday Project, I also got to meet TFP’s head honcho Scott Pack for the first time too. Scott’s blog Me and My Big Mouth was one of the first I discovered when I dipped my toe into the blogosphere all those years ago, and we’ve been Twitter and FB friends for ages, but never met. He was lovely, (and his wife makes gorgeous ceramics, see here – a pair of her Christmas tree ornaments are now hanging on our tree, hopefully out of kitten reach!).

SF ART THE FANTASIES OF SF COVERBack to Brian … I read a lot of his books in my twenties, notably the wonderful Helliconia Trilogy which is epic SF following a civilisation over a thousand years on an Earth-like planet with seasons which last for centuries. I recently bought a copy of Hothouse – an eco-SF novel from 1962, when Penguin Modern Classics brought out an edition a few years ago. Apart from that the only other book by Aldiss residing on my shelves is Science Fiction Art (right), a history of SF illustration from the 1920s to the 1970s, published in the mid 1970s. All those wonderful pulp SF covers and magazines – fab stuff with a mixture of colour and monochrome illustrations; being a large format softback it was too big to fit in my handbag to get signed though.

comfortAlthough most famous for his SF, Aldiss has written many non-SF works, poetry and is also an accomplished artist. He has said that the Finches of Mars published earlier this year will be his last SF novel, and his latest book Comfort Zone is certainly set close to home – in his immediate neighbourhood of Headington, Oxford. It explores what happens when plans are made to close down the local pub and put up a mosque in its place – Brian is not scared of controversy, and it also looks at ageing. I’ve heard it compared to Jane Gardam’s Old Filth in that respect so am looking forward to reading it a lot. You can read more about Comfort Zone and Brian in this article from the Oxford Times.

Brian Aldiss, 19.12.13  pic by A.Gaskell

Rather than read extracts from the book, Brian, recumbent in a leather armchair, regaled us with tall tales – telling how he got started as a magazine columnist, writing a weekly humorous column for a publishing magazine for starters. Then, in a bit of a shaggy dog tale (obviously much loved and a bit of a party piece), he told how he got to rewrite Russian history on a visit to the USSR. If I remember correctly, he was waxing lyrical to his minder about Stalin’s favourite film being Springtime in the Rockies (1942) starring Alice Faye. This story came full circle back to him some time later, when someone expressed surprise at knowing what Stalin’s favourite film was. He chuckled at the retelling, as did we.

When I got him to sign my books, I told him about my treasured book of SF Art. He recounted how he had collected the covers for ages, keeping them in photo albums with his text about the books opposite – he chuckled as he remember how some of his text for that was quite abrasive, as not all the books were very good.  I then said how my favourites of his books to read (so far) are the Helliconia trilogy, and he told me his story about having done two years research for them, and it was great to write them in Oxford, for you could knock on a door and find an expert to answer questions for you so easily in those days.  He was great fun to meet, and I hope he keeps on writing and entertaining for years to come.

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To explore titles mentioned further on Amazon UK, please click below
Comfort Zone pub 19.12.13 by The Friday Project, paperback, 300 pages.
Helliconia: Helliconia Spring, Helliconia Summer, Helliconia Winter: “Hellonica Spring”, “Helliconia Summer”, “Helliconia Winter” (S.F. MASTERWORKS)
Hothouse (Penguin Modern Classics)

Be of good cheer! (No, not that type of cheer)…

Dare Me by Megan Abbott

DARE-ME-PBBAn image of pony-tailed cheerleaders is arguably the ultimate cliché when we think of the most popular girls at High School in the USA.  Most teen films portray them as bitchy, and not big on brains. They are there to look like clean-living girls next door, to strike poses, but act like teen temptresses and get first pick of the jocks on the soccer team.

The Cheerleading squad in Megan Abbott’s novel Dare Me are not like that at all. They are fit and lean athletes who train hard every day. They live for cheer, boys are mostly an encumbrance.

Ages fourteen to eighteen, a girl needs something to kill all that time, that endless itchy waiting, every hour, every day for something – anything – to begin.
“There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.”
Coach said that once, one fall afternoon long ago, sharp leaves whorling at our feet.
But she said it not like someone’s mom or a teacher or the principal or worst of all like a guidance counselor. She said it like she knew, and understood.

Beth Cassidy is the captain of the squad and her best friend Addy Hanlon is her lieutenant. Everyone wants to be like them, they are admired and feared in equal measure. When a new coach arrives – everything changes.

Coach French wants to take the team to the next level, to raise their game so they can compete in cheerleading competitions.  At first she appears to be the Mary Poppins of coaches ‘practically perfect in every way‘. She’s inspirational, she changes the way the squad works – without a captain. She invites the girls to her house to hang out – they all love her (except Beth).  Coach French really seems to take to Addy, effectively estranging her from Beth – and this, of course, will have consequences, for Beth wants the old order back.

Then someone dies. There is a connection to the coach, and thus the squad, the police begin an investigation. This happens as the girls are making the final push, training for the season’s finale and a performance in front of a talent spotter. The stakes grow ever higher and loyalties are tested to the limits…

The most striking aspect of this novel, apart from the psychothrilling triangle of Addy, Beth and Coach at its heart, is the sheer physicality of it. These girls are serious about cheer. They’re not conventional friends outside of the squad, they’re work colleagues – or soldiers even, assembled into a formidable team whose goal is to support and catch the ‘flyer’ at the top of the pyramid at the climax of their routine. This is something that most people don’t see. As Addy says:

That’s what people never understand: They see us hard little pretty things, brightly lacquered and sequin-studded, and they laugh, they mock, they arouse themselves. They miss everything.
You see, these glitters and sparkle dusts and magicks? It’s warpaint, it’s hair tooth, it’s blood sacrifice.

But it’s more than just training, the higher up the pyramid you are, the lighter you have to be. There are many scenes involving girls throwing up what they’ve just eaten, surviving on just protein shakes and grass juice shots, varying shades of bulimia and anorexia. One scene that stayed with me is not so horrific (perhaps), but very visual:

We get a fat-slicked chocolate-chip muffin, which we heat up in the rotating toaster machine. Standing next to it, the hear radiating off its coils, I imagine myself suffering eternal damnation for sins not yet clear.
But then the muffin pops out, tumbling into my hands. Together, we eat it in long, sticky bites that we do not swallow. No one else is there, so we can do it, and Beth fills tall cups with warm water to make it easier then spit it out after, into our napkins.
When we finish, I feel much better.

NOOOOOO!

Coming back to that central triangle briefly… The novel is narrated by Addy – the sensible one, and it is Addy that is stuck in the middle of a tug-of-war between Beth and Coach. Beth and Coach compete for Addy’s attention, each confiding in her, yet never telling her the whole story to keep her wanting more. It’s psychological warfare – very creepy.

Dare Me is Abbott’s sixth novel. Her first four are all slices of classically styled 1950s noir with strong female leads – I would love to read these, and have heard good things about them. With her fifth novel The End of Everything, she moved into new territory – that of teenage sexual awakening – apparently Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides is a big influence (I really must read that too, the film was fab). I gather that Dare Me is going to be filmed, Natalie Portman has been linked for Coach.

The author has obviously done a lot of research into cheerleading, (you can read about that here). Although it was fascinating (in a horrible way) to read about how a normal cheerleading team become a great one, there was a bit much of the cheer which didn’t allow the psychodrama enough space to breathe. This also meant that the only two male characters of any note in the book were too mysterious, even by the end – and they are crucial to the plot. Abbott is clearly an author to watch, and although this book wasn’t quite a hit for me, it was well worth reading. (7.5/10)

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Source: Review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Dare Meby Megan Abbott, pub Picador (2012), paperback, 320 pages.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

Mr Sandman, bring me a dream …

The Sandman by ETA Hoffmann, translated by Christopher Moncrieff

sandman

I’m slightly familiar with the 19th century author E.T.A. Hoffmann through adaptations of his on the stage: the ballets Coppélia by Delibes, and Christmas evergreen The Nutcracker, also Offenbach’s opéra fanastique, The Tales of Hoffmann – but I’ve never read any of the source stories before. Alma classics has just published a new translation The Sandman, and sent me a copy to read.

The Sandman of Hoffmann’s imagination is nothing like that in the song by the Chordettes from 1954 win which the girls ask for certain qualities in their dream male:

“Give him a pair of eyes with a come-hither gleam,
Give him a lonely heart like Pagliacci,
And lots of wavy hair like Liberace.”

That interpretation derives from the nice Sandman in Hans Christian Andersen’s story (1841), in which he sprinkles sand or dust on children’s eyes to send them off to sleep and give them good dreams.

Hoffmann’s earlier version from 1815 is truly nasty – a complete opposite.  The boy Nathanael is traumatised as a child when his nurse tells him about the Sandman who throws sand in the eyes of children who won’t sleep and this makes their eyes fall out which the Sandman collects to take to the moon as food for his children who have beaks and peck at them.

See – there are two sides to every story!

Hoffmann’s tale starts with letters to and from Nathanael, now a young man, to the brother of his fiancée Clara, in which he recounts episodes from his childhood when his beloved father had a regular visitor in the evenings. That was Doctor Coppelius, and together they carry out alchemical experiments. Nathanael hides in his father’s room and when discovered Coppelius threatens to blind him with embers from the fire. A year later his father is killed in one of their experiments and Coppelius disappears. So a terrified Nathanael equates Coppelius with the Sandman. Then one day an Italian barometer salesman called Guiseppe Coppola appears, and Nathanael is convinced he is Coppelius in another guise and all his old fears are reawakened.

Nathanael is spiralling into depression and his relationship with Clara and her brother Lothario is threatened, especially when he becomes besotted with Olimpia, the beautiful doll-like daughter of Spalanzani, whom he sees in the opposite window… Anyone who has seen Coppélia or The Tales of Hoffman, will be familiar with the second half of this story which features in both.

I loved that in the best metafictional tradition, the author inserts himself into the story as the narrator and friend of Nathanael …

…I have done my utmost to begin Nathanael’s story in a meaningful, original and moving way: “Once upon a time” – the finest possible opening for a tale, too prosaic! “In the small provincial town of S., there lived …” Slightly better – at least it builds up to a climax. Or why not medias in res*: “‘Let him go to the devil,’ exclaimed the student Nathanael, his eyes filled with horror and rage as the barometer salesman Guiseppe Coppola …” In fact this is what I had already written, believing that I sensed something comical in Nathanael’s wild eyes – although the story is not exactly amusing. I couldn’t think of an expression that even began to reflect the glorious colours of the inner portraits, so I decided not to try. So, gentle reader, take the three letters that his friend Lothar kindly entrusted to me as a brief outline of the picture to which, by now telling the story I will endeavour to add more and more colour.

* Medias in res – a quote from Horace – in the midst of things.

This edition includes a fascinating extract from an essay by Siegmund Freud after the short tale. Freud subjects the tale to psychoanalysis, interpreting Nathanael’s fears of losing his eyes as a common, albeit terrible childhood dream, and goes on to cite blindings in literature and more. This was a big bonus to this slight volume, indeed my only regret was that there weren’t more of Hoffmann’s tales included. (9.5/10)

The end result of reading this novella is, of course, an immediate desire to read everything else Hoffmann wrote, there are two more on Alma Classics’ list. However, being a collector of luxury editions of fairy tales, I’d love it if the Folio Society would ‘do’ Hoffmann!).

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Sandman (Alma Classics) by ETA Hoffmann, pub Alma classics, new translation Dec 2013, paperback, approx 100 pages.

Nannying in the 1980s

Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life by Nina Stibbe

love nina nina stibbeThis volume of memoirs in the form of letters was the perfect reading for me in the past couple of weeks, when life has been so hectic. I’ve just finished a couple of weeks of full-time cover teaching, and then with all the usual Christmas events from bazaars to carol services to help at, editing the school magazine etc. etc. etc. I’ve fallen asleep within minutes of going to bed – waking in the early hours with the light on – still sitting propped up with my thumb jammed in the book! Not a good posture for dozing, but now term has ended and I can relax. This book of short sections was just the thing to ensure I managed to get some reading done. Let me tell you about it…

In the early 1980s, aged twenty, Nina Stibbe left Leicestershire for London to become a nanny. It still being the days when not everyone had a phone, she wrote home regularly to her sister Victoria telling her all about her successes and non-successes at nannying and the amazing family she worked for. Luckily for us, Vic kept the letters.

Nina worked for Mary-Kay Wilmers, who was then deputy editor of the London Review of Books, and she looked after her two sons, Will and Sam (whose father is Stephen Frears). They lived in North London near Regents Park Zoo; Alan Bennett (AB) was a neighbour – always popping in for tea, and Jonathan Miller lived up the road.

When he (AB) comes over for supper he does this tiny short doorbell ring, hardly a ring at all, he just touches the bell and it makes just the beginning of a ring. That’s him. Minimum fuss.

It seems to have been a very haphazard, but lovely household. Neither MK nor Nina really cooked much but everyone seems to have thrived. MK seems to have been quite liberal, and her sons (aged 9 and 10 at the start) are able to get away with quite adult language and they’re all naturally witty in a dead-pan way.  They are all completely loveable, with Sam and Will forming a comedy double act with their amazing conversations.

S & W had a row yesterday afternoon. To annoy Will, Sam said he might switch to Manchester United. Will called Sam something mysterious in German, which he claimed to be extremely offensive, but turned out to be mother-in-law (according to AB).

At supper:
Will: (to Sam) By the way, it was ‘swiegermutter’.
Sam: What was?
Will: What I called you – it’s German for ‘motherfucker’.
AB: ‘Swiegermutter’? Actually, I think that’s German for ‘mother-in-law’.
Will: Oh. What’s the German for ‘motherfucker’, then?
MK: Probably ‘motherfucker’.
AB: (pondering) It might be ‘mutterficken’? Or perhaps ‘arschficken’, ‘arshlock’? But please can’t we discuss nicer things?

Eventually Nina, egged on by boyfriend Nunney, who is a helper at the Tomalins – another literary family nearby, decides to apply to do an English degree, having enjoyed doing A-level English. She is offered a place at Thames Poly, and at first moves out so a new nanny can move in. However, it’s not long before they have a jiggle round and she moves back in with her adopted family.

It’s really nice to hear about Nina’s discoveries of the literary canon as she progresses in her degree, but her college friends are less interesting than the Wilmers. Given that Nina is a mature student, they seem immature in comparison to her. I was longing for more Sam and Will, and AB during these sections. Bennett constantly surprised me actually – this passage when their washing machine malfunctioned really tickled me…

Once neither of us nudged it and it went for hours and everything came out all matted. AB suggested it was something to do with the water not heating up to the target temperature and therefore not moving n to the next part of the cycle. It’s amazing how much AB knows about appliances (when you consider he’s a writer and pretty much just writes all day.)

Me: You’re good with appliances.
AB: (proud) Well, I don’t know about that.
Me: You sorted out the car, the fridge, the phone, bike tyres and now the washing machine.
AB: I don’t think I’m particularly good.
MK: But it’s nice to know you’ve got something to fall back on.

Anyway, it’s fixed now, a bloke came round and it was what AB said (temperature thing).

Although this book is completely one-sided – Nina seems not to have kept Vic’s replies, she does acknowledge her sister’s life events in her letters. Vic is always sending her recipes to try and cuttings so we get a slight sense of her sister. Nina, like her charges is witty; she’s also opinionated, but self-deprecating too. We’re about the same age, and I can tell you the early 1980s was a great time to be in your twenties in London. The book comes to an end after six years of letters when Nina graduates. The Wilmers were definitely brave to let Nina publish her diaries – but they needn’t have worried, for they are lovely, and so is Nina. (9/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life by Nina Stibbe, pub Viking, Nov 2013, Hardback 336 pages.

The loneliness of genteel old age…

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

Mrs Palfrey

This is only the second novel by Elizabeth Taylor that I have read, the first was In a Summer Season (reviewed here), but thanks to her popularity amongst many of my blogging friends I feel as if I know her works better than I do in reality.

The edition of Mrs Palfrey I read was the film tie-in one with the same introduction, given to me by a secret Santa a couple of years ago; I have only now got around to reading it! Last month Virago Modern Classics gave it a new livery adding it to their hardback collection (below).

For those unfamiliar with the story, a few lines of introduction:

Laura Palfrey is recently widowed, and as the book opens she is moving into the Claremont Hotel on the Brompton Road in Kensington. She will be a long-term resident of this affordable establishment, but doesn’t plan to stay there forever. One day out for a walk, she takes a tumble and is rescued by a young man who ekes out an existence while he writes his magnum opus. Mrs Palfrey and Ludovic strike up a friendship. He appears genuinely interested in old people, and when Mrs Palfrey is shamed by her grandson Desmond not coming to visit her at the hotel, she persuades Ludo to be a stand-in, and indeed she becomes a bit of a surrogate granny to him. Eventually the real Desmond will turn up to complicate matters.

Mrs P VMC Hdbk

The novel also follows the other older inhabitants of the Claremont, a collection of old ladies and one gent who have nothing better to do than gossip about each other until it’s gin o’clock, when they repair to dinner, each at their own table.

Mrs Palfrey’s urge to ask Ludo to pretend to be her grandson gives her a frisson of excitement. He comes to dinner at the Claremont, and Ludo is eyeing up the other residents as they in turn are watching him…

Ludo leaned back easily, but his eyes were darting to and fro, noting everything, noting Mrs Arbuthnot noting him, and Mrs Post, in her sad pot-pourri colours, fussing over her knitting.
‘Over there is Mrs Arbuthnot,’ Mrs Palfrey said, in a low voice to Ludo. ‘With the sticks.’
‘I thought so. I shouldn’t be afraid of her, you know. Although you seem very much the new girl around here.’
‘Of course. Mrs Arbuthnot has been at the Claremont for years.’
‘It has entered her soul.’
‘But we aren’t allowed to die here.’
He threw back his head and laughed.
‘But isn’t that sad?’ she asked doubtfully.
‘I don’t see anything sad about you,’ he said. He thought, I mayn’t write it down; but please God may I remember it. We Aren’t Allowed to Die Here. By Ludovic Myers.

The residents at the Claremont don’t get much excitement – so a new face is subjected to much speculation and scrutiny, and each piece of information extracted over sherry before dinner, is devoured and saved up for use another day. They don’t seem to really make friends with each other though – all being rather set in their ways.

Of course, eventually, they reach a state of such decrepitude that they must leave one way or another, something Mrs Arbuthnot is having to consider …

The time was coming, she knew, when she would no longer be able to manage for herself, with her locked and swollen joints, and so much pain. The Claremont was the last freedom she had left, and she wanted it for as long as she could have it. She knew the sequence, had foreseen it. Her total incapacity: a nursing-home then, at more expense than the Claremont, and being kept in bed all the time for the convenience of the nursing staff. Or going to stay with one of her sisters, who did not want her. Or – in the end – the geriatric ward of some hospital.
Can’t die here, she thought, in the middle of this night. And there might be years and years until that. Arthritis did not kill. One might go on and on, hopelessly being a nuisance to other people; in the end, lowering standards because of rising prices. For her, the Claremont was only just achieved. Down the ladder she obviously would have to go.

The other residents are also well-drawn, but it wasn’t until I read Dovegreyreader’s post here that I got the joke about one of them – Mrs Burton, who likes a tipple – and turns out to be a little parody of the author’s more famous namesake, and is growing old slightly disgracefully. I loved reading about the residents of the Claremont.

Now to Ludo, being young and easily distracted, he on one hand is less interesting, but he is also unusual in his concern for Mrs Palfrey. Of course she becomes a bit of a project for him, but his motives don’t (on a first reading at least) appear mercenary – indeed it is touching that he works as a waiter to replay a loan which Mrs P gives him to help out his mother. It was such a shame that Mrs P’s own family didn’t show any of Ludo’s concern.

Despite the central theme of the sadness of growing old on one’s own, Taylor adds so many humorous touches, she seems to combine the two extremes perfectly to make a whole that is a joy to read. This novel isn’t as grim as Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn (reviewed here), another 1970s novel of old folk, but Taylor’s keen eye sees all – and I will look forward to re-reading this book in due course to spot other nuances that I’ve missed on my first reading. (9.5/10)

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Source: Gift. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Mrs Palfrey At The Claremont: A Virago Modern Classic (VMC) by Elizabeth Taylor, new Hdbk edition from VMC – other formats available, 208 pages.