Chipping Norton Bookshop and The Uncommon Reader


Whilst we were in the Cotswolds last week we drove through Chipping Norton and decided to stop for a coffee. There is a small parking area on Middle Row, just off the main road through the town and there was just one space available. When we got out of the car, we saw behind us some tables and chairs outside a bookshop and thought great that’™s just what we wanted ‘“ a bookshop and a café too!

This is Jaff̩ & Neale, a bright, welcoming bookshop with a good variety of books on offer. There wasnժt much space left inside to sit and have a drink, but as in the car park there was just one table left. It was our day for sure! We had coffee and I was very tempted by the cakes, but resisted.

It was just too much to expect me to resist buying a book and I had a wander round the shelves. They had some books that have been signed by the authors and I was really pleased to find a pile of books signed by Alan Bennett. I had seen on the BBC website a while ago that Alan Bennett had been reading his new book The Uncommon Reader on Radio 4, but I hadn’™t managed to listen. So I was delighted to find it here.

It’™s a lovely little hardback book and it only took me a couple of hours to read it. It tells the story of Her Majesty, not named, but she has dogs, takes her summer holiday at Balmoral and is married to a duke. She comes across the travelling library, thanks to the dogs, parked next to the bins outside one of the kitchen doors at the palace and ends up borrowing a book to save the driver/librarian’™s embarrassment. There are some wonderfully amusing touches, such as the Queen asking:

‘œ’Is one allowed to borrow a book? One doesn’™t have a ticket?’™ No problem,’™ said Mr Hutchings.
‘˜One is a pensioner’™, said the Queen, not that she was sure that made any difference.’™ ‘Ma’am can borrow up to six books’. ‘Six? Heavens!'”

Helped by Norman, who works in the kitchen, she borrows books regularly and this changes her life. This little book is full of interesting ideas about books and the nature of reading and society. As the Queen expands her range she realises that ‘œBooks did not care who was reading them, or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth: letters a republic.’

I love the way Bennett describes how the Queen becomes a bookaholic (my word, not his) and wants to discuss her books and what she is reading. The French President had mentioned Proust to her, when she had asked him what he thought about Jean Genet, which led to her taking Proust’™s novel, all thirteen volumes of it, and George Painter’™s biography of Proust, as her holiday reading at Balmoral. What an image!

This book is only 124 pages, but what a lot is packed into those pages, not a word is wasted. It’™s amusing and thought provoking as well. I wondered where it was leading and how Bennett was going to end the story, but all I’™ll say is that the Queen realises that books have enriched her life ‘œin a way that one could never have expected. ‘œ Her next venture follows inevitably. Do read this book. I wonder if the Queen has.

Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott – R.I.P. Challenge II

On the cover Iain Pears describes Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott as ‘a compelling contemporary love story and a fascinating historical investigation.’I’ll add to this that it is a tale of the supernatural concerning two mysteries – one from the present day and one from the 17th century, where the past and the present are seen to overlap.

As indicated by the title the book is haunted by ghosts. It’s also full of alchemy, mysterious figures, quantum physics and animal liberation campaigns. All of which make a potent mixture. This is the second book I’ve read recently with alchemy as a theme – see The Season of the Witch, here.

It is set in Cambridge, following the death of Elizabeth Vogelsang, a reclusive historian, found floating in the river that runs through her orchard, clutching an antique glass prism in one hand. Was it suicide, or was she murdered? Cameron, her son a neuroscientist, asks Lydia Brooke (formerly they were lovers) to finish writing his mother’s book about the 17th century and Isaac Newton’s involvement with alchemy. Lydia moves into Elizabeth’s house – a strange house full of light moving upon the walls, flickering, appearing and disappearing for no apparent reason. Lydia explains:

Light that looks like water- as if it’s reflected off a bowl of water. Rainbows that appear in little stubs that stretch out till they disappear, really slowly. I’ve tried photographing them but my camera doesn’t seem to be good enough to catch them.

The book moves in time between the present day and the future as well as the past. Life is seen as a palimpsest, layers of time overlapping and interweaving. It’s narrated by Lydia, who finds herself heading back into a relationship with Cameron, as she looks back on the events that lead up to a court case and into a series of mysterious deaths in the 17th century. At first I found it somewhat puzzling and fragmentary – who was being addressed and who is on trial, how did the animal liberation campaign fit in, what was Newton’s involvement, who was responsible for the deaths and how or if they were connected to the present day?

The image of ground elder with its tenacious roots joining a ‘great network of root systems underground’ indicates the connections that will be revealed as the story unfolds, once Lydia starts digging into the past. The paranormal is added to the mix through Elizabeth’s friend Dilys Kite, a psychic, who reminded me of Hilary Mantel’s character Alison in Beyond Black, who Lydia consults in an attempt to find out more about the past than is revealed in written sources. The interconnection theme is continued in the theories of quantum physics, with the mystery of how particles of light and energy, and time and space are intricately entangled.

The setting is brought to life through Stott’s beautiful descriptions of Cambridge, invoking the smells of the medieval fair, the colours along the River Cam and the landscape of the Fens. Colour and light play a large part in the book; a description I particularly like is this of the river:

Reflected colours ran from the brightly painted barges into the water. Greens – so many greens all around us: the silver-green of the underside of the willow trees, the emerald of the grass along the bank, the mottled grey-brown-greens of the scrubland on the common over the other side. Virginia Woolf had described the riverbanks as being on fire on either side of the Cam, but there was no such fire here now. Or at least not yet. There was red – rowan berries, rose hips, pyracanthas – but the red sat against the astonishing palette of autumn green like the sparks of a newly lit fire, like drops of crimson blood in the hedgerows.

A book to read and savour on many different levels.

Crow Lake by Mary Lawson

Crow Lake is one of those books that stick in my mind long after I’d finished reading it. I borrowed it from the library and wish I’d bought it, as it’s a book I’d like to re-read in the future. I read it quickly and didn’t make many notes, which means that I was too engrossed in my reading to jot down points of interest. In fact I just wanted to read on and on and was sorry when I finished it.

It tells the story of a family of four children living at Crow Lake in the north of Canada in an isolated house miles away from any town, with just a few other families in the vicinity. The narrator is Kate Morrison and the story unfolds as she looks back on her life, triggered by an invitation to her nephew’s 18th birthday party. When she was seven her parents were killed in a car crash, leaving her, her baby sister and two teenage brothers, orphaned. The trauma of their parents’death affects the children in different ways and as Kate looks back on the events that followed she begins to see that not everything was as it seemed to her at the time.

Things that struck me as I read this book were thoughts about the nature of memories; the difficulties of understanding other people and feeling empathy; the relationship between character and destiny; and the concepts of free will and choice as opposed to being carried along by fate.

Kate has bottled up her memories thinking she has put the past behind her. But it’s not that easy, because years later when she received the invitation and saw her brother Matt’s handwriting she realised it was all still there, simmering away at the back of her mind:

I got the same old ache, centred more or less mid-chest, a heavy, dull pain, like mourning. In all those years it hadn’t lessened a bit.

From that point on, she goes back over the chain of events that had led to the tragedy linking her family with the Pye family who lived about a mile from the Morrisons and were their nearest neighbours and to Kate’s alienation from her family and Crow Lake.

The book focuses on Kate’s relationship with her brother Matt, in particular, but there are also wonderful descriptions of her baby sister Bo, with her independent defiant attitude and her oldest brother Luke, who sacrifices his career to look after his sisters. In addition the complex relationship Kate has with Dan Crane and his parents reflects the difficulties she has in coming to terms with herself and her family. Combine these memorable characters with the beautiful descriptions of Crow Lake and its ponds and the result is a memorable and lyrical novel.

Outmoded Authors – Ivanhoe – Introduction

I’ve now started my choice for the Outmoded Authors Challenge as Dorothy’s post on Scott’s Waverley has encouraged me to start my reading of Ivanhoe. Currently I’ve been reading books for the R.I.P. Challenge and being a bit disappointed with Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination had turned to modern books and Ivanhoe had slipped down my list of books to be read.

I’ve never read Scott before and didn’t really know what to expect. So far Ivanhoe has had me chuckling. I’m delighted to find it so entertaining and thinking I wish I’d read this before. My copy was published by the Odhams Press Ltd in the 1930s and has this line drawing of Sir Walter Scott as a frontispiece. From the Foreword:

“Certainly there have been few more lovable, more unselfish figures than the lame Laird of Abbotsfield.”

It continues promising a enthralling tale of the “triangular love drama of Ivanhoe, Rowena and Rebecca, the pomp and chivalry of the Lists and the adventures of Robin Hood, Friar Tuck, and the merry gangsters of Sherwood Forest.”

So, a complete change of mood from Poe and modern fantasy novels.

Ivanhoe is set in the time of Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionheart (1157 – 1199), over 100 years after the Norman Conquest of England, when there was still opposition between the conquering Normans and the native Anglo-Saxons. Scott’s introduction(dated 1830) to the novel (written in 1819) follows the foreword in which he explains why he has decided to write a novel based on English history instead of Scottish – he felt he was “likely to weary out the indulgence of his readers, but also greatly to limit his own power of affording them pleasure”, as, “when men and horses, cattle, camels and dromedaries, have poached the spring into mud, it becomes loathsome to those who first drank of it with rapture.” In other words he didn’t want to bore his readers with more of the same and he fancied a change himself.

Scott called his novel Ivanhoe, as it has “an ancient English sound” and because it didn’t convey anything at all about the nature of the story. A rhyme including the name had come to his mind “according three names of the manors forfeited by the ancestor of the celebrated Hampden, for striking the Black Prince a blow with his racket, when they quarrelled at tennis.”After the Introduction there is a “Dedicatory Epistle to the Rev Dr. Dryasdust, F.A.S.”, which Scott uses to expand his reasons for writing an English historical romance and apologises in advance should the antiquarian think “that, by thus intermingling fiction with truth, I am polluting the well of history with modern inventions, and impressing upon the rising generation false ideas of the age in which I describe.”

The novel eventually starts on page 29, where follows long and detailed descriptions of the location of the story; of the continuing hostility between the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons; and of the first two characters that we meet.

To some extent this reminded me of the rustic characters in Shakespeare’s plays, provided for comic relief, but as I’ve only just got on to Chapter Two perhaps I shouldn’t be too hasty in my views. Anyway, so far I’m finding this book refreshingly very different from the books I’ve read recently, although that’s not to say that I haven’t enjoyed those, because I have enormously. But it’s a relief to find that I’m enjoying Ivanhoe, as I had thought it might be a bit dry. If I start to write in long, complicated sentences, with detailed descriptions I can blame it all on Scott.

R.I.P. Challenge Tales of Mystery & Imagination

I found the unexpected when I started to read Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales. I was disappointed. They had built up I my mind as scary, creepy tales, partly as a result of my mother saying not to read her copy of Tales when I was a child. Of course I got it out of the bookcase when she wasn’t around and had a peek inside and was scared and put it back quickly before she caught me. I hadn’t looked at the book since.

The first one I read, William Wilson, just wasn’t scary at all. I didn’t find it mysterious, or very imaginative either. I read this a few days ago and on reflection it wasn’t as bad as I first thought. It’s about the nature of personality and how we can’t see or come to terms with our own nature.

If you don’t want to know the story then you’d better not read any further, but I did find it predictable and so there was no suspense or shivery feelings for me in this tale.

William Wilson, not his real name, meets another William Wilson, not his real name either, at school and becomes convinced that his namesake is making himself into a perfect imitation, which he detests and he left school to get away from him. Three years of ‘folly’ follow and then at Eton during an evening of ‘debaucheries’ when the wine flowed freely at a ‘party of the most dissolute students’ he re-encounters his double. He continues in this vein whilst at Oxford University descending to yet greater depths of depravity, and then flees to Paris, Vienna, Berlin and Moscow in attempts to shake off the presence of his tormentor, all the time demanding, ‘Who is he? – whence came he? – and what are his objects?’

Finally in Rome, having ‘indulged more freely than usual in the excesses of the wine-table’ he determines to confront him ‘Scoundrel! Impostor! Accursed villain! You shall not – you shall not dog me unto death! Follow me, or I will stab you where you stand!’ They struggle – he stabs him. Then, and this is where I think the tale is so predictable and I had seen it coming from way back, he sees a large mirror and the reflection of his antagonist who whispers ‘In me didst thou exist – and in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.’

So I thought I’d try one I’d heard of and read The Fall of the House of Usher, having a vague memory of seeing an old black and white movie with Boris Karloff opening a huge, ancient door, covered in cobwebs and creaking loudly on its hinges, at the dead of night. I’ll write about what I made of this in another post.

Speaking of Love by Angela Young

I enjoy reading Angela Young’™s blog Writing, Life and the Universe and so of course I just had to read her book, Speaking of Love. I found it a moving book, but never sentimental and as stated on the book cover it is:

‘œ ‘¦ a novel about what happens when people who love each other don’™t say so. It deals passionately and honestly with human breakdown. And it tells of our need for stories and how stories can help make sense of the random nature of life.’

This is a story told by three people ‘“ Iris, her daughter Vivie, and Matthew. It takes place over three days leading up to the story-telling festival where Iris is performing. Iris and Vivie are estranged and gradually the reason is revealed as all three characters tell their stories. As the book starts Matthew and his dad Dick are about to travel to the festival, Iris is already there and Vivie, living in London is having a crisis in her life, unbeknown to the others. Matthew and Vivie had been childhood friends, living next door to each other at the time when Iris first suffered a breakdown, which is later revealed to be schizophrenia.

This is also a book about story-telling, indeed the book is structured into separate tales which interlink and finally unite. Along with the stories of the three characters’™ lives there are also the stories that Iris tells. These are reminiscent of folk and fairy tales. Appropriately, Iris treasures the book of fairy tales that had belonged to her mother. I must have read all the books of fairy tales in the junior library as a child – I loved them. So it was with nostalgia that I read Iris’™s stories such as ‘œEarth and Sea’, the story of the fisherman, his wife and Murmurina their daughter, ‘œborn with a fat fishtail that glistened where she should have had legs’ and who ‘œmade ‘˜O’™ shapes with her mouth when she should have had a voice’.

The story-telling motif also runs through Dick and Matthew’™s journey to the festival. Dick has planned it to take place over three days, stopping over night at various places and using only the minor roads. I liked the comparison of travelling in this way as ‘œdarning’ by going under and over the motorways and A roads.

The main theme is the effects that not communicating has on the people we love. Iris’™s father is locked in his grief after the death of his wife and Iris believes he blames her for her mother’™s death; Iris isolated by her illness can’™t communicate her love to her daughter; Matthew, who learnt at the age of twelve that ‘œif you say how you feel you lose control over what happens next’ couldn’™t tell Vivie he loves her; and Vivie knew that ‘œyou had to be on guard because you never knew when your own insides ‘“ or anyone else’™s insides ‘“ might spill out.’

The book explores the difficulties and effects of living with someone with schizophrenia, burying frightening experiences and the way we lose control over events. Dick sums it up in his advice to Matthew:

‘œThe real risk, it seems to me, lies in not talking about the things that matter the most. That’™s what made Iris ill. What we don’™t say doesn’™t go away. It stays inside and after a while of not being spoken about it turns against us. ‘¦ The things we don’™t talk about fester and then they infect us. They eat away at us like a cancer.’

The book is full of beautiful descriptions ‘“ of trees, particularly the laburnum (the “story-telling tree”) and gardens in East Anglia, of the mediaeval castle over looking the Bristol Channel and the festival performers and the landscape of England as Dick and Matthew travel across country, which brings the story alive.

The opening sentence sums up Iris’s story “I have come home, after a long and difficult journey.” Everything after that is the story of how she got there. A book worth reading.

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman – August Books Part Two

The trilogy is made up of Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Taken together the books form a grand epic, encompassing parallel universes and their inhabitants. It’s a fabulous story, featuring armoured bears who talk, witches, spectres, angels, and tiny hand sized creatures who fly on the backs of dragonflies.

I think of it as a modern myth, not just for children, but for all ages (although I wonder what age this would best suit – not for young children, I wouldn’t have thought). Karen Armstrong in her informative and most helpful book A Short History of Myth writes, ‘We are meaning-seeking creatures … mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality.‘ Concerning the novel and myth she writes:

Yet the experience of reading a novel has certain qualities that remind us of the traditional apprehension of mythology. It can be seen as a form of meditation. Readers have to live with a novel for days or even weeks. It projects them into another world, parallel to but apart from their ordinary lives. They know perfectly well that this fictional realm is not’real’ and yet while they are reading it becomes compelling. A powerful novel becomes part of the backdrop of our lives long after we have laid the book aside.

Yes, these books are exactly that. I read the books between July and August and they are all compelling reading, both in terms of storyline (with many parallel worlds) and in ideas. I am still contemplating the ideas and themes. My copy of Karen Armstrong’s book is in a Limited Signed Edition of Box Sets and includes an essay by Philip Pullman, which I had forgotten was there. In it he writes, ‘A myth is intoxicating, because it is something other than just a story.‘ How right he is and what a good description of his own trilogy.

I find it impossible to do justice to the plot in this post. I think the best thing is to read the books and look at Philip Pullman’s website. This is my brief and inadequate summary:

The main characters are Lyra and Will, who are from different worlds and the story is essentially about their journey into adolescence, from innocence into knowledge. ‘Dust’, seemingly similar to the idea of original sin, plays a large part in this. Once children reach adolescence Dust is then attracted to them, as they lose their innocence. The first book concerns the search for the source of Dust in Lyra’s world.

Will is introduced in the second book, The Subtle Knife. The action takes place in several universes and Will becomes the bearer of the Subtle Knife, which enables him to cut windows from one universe into a parallel one. In one of these worlds he meets Lyra and they join forces.

Daemons, representing the soul, feature in Lyra’s world where they are separate physical entities. A daemon takes the form of an animal or bird and in children can change form until the child becomes an adult. Then he or she assumes a form reflecting the person’s personality, for example a daemon in the form of dog reflects a faithful person, a cat an independent person, etc. In Will’s world (our world) the soul is an integral part of a person, and is invisible and non-physical.

The Amber Spyglass completes the trilogy, climaxing in a perilous journey through the Land of the Dead and the greatest war ever between the worlds and heaven, with the defeat of heaven and the death of ‘God’ in the form of the Ancient of Days, who is not the Creator, but a demented and powerless being, whose form loosened and dissolved: ‘A mystery dissolving in mystery.

The trilogy abounds with themes, alluding to Milton’s Paradise Lost in a retelling of the Creation and the Fall, where the ‘Authority‘ (the Ancient of Days) is a fallen angel and Lyra is seen as a second Eve. The relationship between the body and soul is evident through the concept of daemons, introduced in Northern Lights and this is developed throughout until it becomes explicit in The Amber Spyglass, particularly in the description of the passage through the Land of the Dead. Lyra has to leave her daemon behind and it’s at this point that it becomes evident that Will’s soul or daemon is also unable to travel with him. Lyra lives up to her name here (Orpheus in Greek mythology is able to charm beasts with his lyre), where she is able to win round the harpy ‘No-Name’ and release human beings from the Land of the Dead.

The question of the nature of consciousness and when it becomes self-consciousness for example during adolescence is explored. Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, when they become self-conscious and aware of evil and sin. Dust which is invisible to the human eye is the physical representation of original sin. It is attracted to adults and is the means of conferring consciousness and wisdom. It seems to me to be based on the biblical account of God creating Man from dust and also on the concept of dust being dirty and thus sinful, but it is also the element that indicates a living being.

Of course, one thing that comes to mind in reading these books is the question of their relationship with Christianity. I’m not surprised to read that they have attracted much criticism as being anti-Christian. One of the characters is Mary Malone, an ex-nun who has lost her faith on her realisation that there ‘wasn’t any God at all – The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all.

Philip Pullman’s view expressed in an interview in Surefish (Christian Aid) in November 2002 – (see here) is that he is telling a story. He is not Mary, she is a character in his book  – he is somewhere between being an atheist and an agnostic.

Another enlightening interview was recorded between Pullman and Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2004 – see here.

Other interesting articles I found are an interview Telegraph in January 2002 and one on the BBC website dated March 2004.