Sunday Scenes

OutsideI looked out of the window first thing this morning and saw these four pheasants. One was motionless in the middle of the field watching the other three as they walked in procession along the boundary fence. I grabbed my camera, and this is the best shot I could get before they disappeared beyond my view. I’m sorry that they don’t show up very well.

Later in the morning D said he wondered what people were looking at opposite our window (we get quite a few hikers walking by at the weekend) and then realised it was this cat sitting staring at the field. The pheasants were long gone, but the hedge is a haven for mice and voles, as well as birds and the cats are always on patrol, but we’ve never seen one sitting on top of the hedge before.

I decided it was about time I sorted out the pile of bedside books, which were in piles on the floor. Some of these I’ve read, some I’ve started and others are ones I want to read. Sometimes I can’t decide what to read which is why there are so many in these piles – 19 books! I am only actually reading Hearts and Minds at the moment, and Virginia Woolf’s book of Essays, and Half of a Yellow Sun, but they are downstairs.

From left to right they are:

Dead Language, by Peter Rushforth
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
Author, Author by David Lodge
Mysterious Wales by Chris Barber
The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs
W. Somerset Maugham Collection
Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd
The Genealogist’™s Internet by Peter Christian
The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen
The Death of Dalziel by Reginald Hill
Hearts and Minds by Rosy Thornton
Florence and Tuscany a Dorling Kindersley travel guide
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
The Book of Air and Shadows by Michael Gruber
Back from the Brink, autobiography of Paul McGrath
The Innocent Man by John Grisham
Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe
The Sound of Paper by Julia Cameron
The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill

The Illusionist by Jennifer Johnston

The Illusionist is the third book I’ve read recently on the theme of illusions. The Magician’s Assistant by Anne Patchett was the first followed by Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions. Of these three I found The Illusionist the most satisfying. Jennifer Johnston is a new writer to me, but from the biographical details in the book I see that she has won many awards – the Whitbread Prize in 1979, the Evening Standard Best first Novel Award in 1972 and was short listed for the Booker Prize in 1977. I’m sorry I haven’t come across her books before, but I’ll be looking out for them from now on.

Once I started this I stopped reading the other books I have on the go and read this through in about two sittings. I wanted to find out what happened and why. Set in Ireland and England, it starts with Stella, looking back on her life after the death of her estranged husband, Martyn. Thirty years earlier they had met on a train when he had taken the book she was reading out of her hands and asked if she would like to play cards. Now if a stranger had done that to me I wouldn’t have been too pleased but Stella is charmed by him, and after a very short time they are married, against her parents’ advice. Martyn has a full time job but practices magic tricks, although he corrects her description of him as a conjuror – he is an Illusionist. However, it’s not long before she begins to have misgivings, particularly when he won’t tell her anything about his background or his job or what is in the locked the room where he is devising an extraordinary new trick, with the help of two mysterious men.

The situation gets worse as Stella is manipulated and controlled by Martyn, so much that she gives up her own job and they move with their daughter, Robin to a large house in the countryside. Eventually, as things become so bad and Robin is alienated from her mother, Stella has to take action.

There are various themes running through the book; the nature of love and trust, how much you can trust or know another person, what is real or illusory, and above all about preserving one’s integrity in relationships between husband/wife and mother /daughter. It’s so easy to read this book as the words just flow across the pages, bringing to my mind vivid pictures of the countryside:

Out beyond Clifden the world seems to end: hills, islands, clouds drift together in the huge ocean of the sky. Sometimes the sun overwhelms both the sea and the sky with its glitter, sometimes pillars of rain move across the emptiness, then the colour, the texture of the land and sea change as the rain falls, from blue to grey, sometimes to black. Other times a shawl of mist hides mountains, sea and sky.

The characters also came alive in my mind and I began to dislike Martyn more and more as the book progressed and I found myself wanting to support and encourage Stella in her struggle to survive. There is so much in this book that I liked and here is one example indicating the themes explored within the story:

Some words lurk in the darkness of your mind, like young men lurk in the shadows, waiting to damage, maim, or merely frighten unsuspecting walkers once the light has gone.

Words can be like missiles or rose or travellers to another world. You can play delightful games with them, that will make you and others smile, feel light-hearted, or you can kill; you can hide the truth or manifest it.

Eating, Sleeping and Living with Books

Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs: the Left Bank World of Shakespeare & Co. by Jeremy Mercer (Phoenix 2006 paperback 260 pages).

I read about this book on Ann’™s Blog and was intrigued enough to read it for myself. It’™s a remarkable memoir of the author’™s refuge at the Paris bookshop, Shakespeare & Co. on the banks of the River Seine opposite Notre Dame. Jeremy Mercer, a Canadian crime reporter, packed his bags and headed for Paris after receiving a death threat. He arrived during the last days of 1999 and shortly afterwards found his way to Shakespeare & Co, where he was amazed to find not only is it a bookshop but also a place providing beds for a number of writers. The owner George Whitman, then 86 years old, had been inviting writers to stay in the shop since he opened it in 1951, provided they helped in the shop and read a book a day, hardly an onerous task.

Jeremy recounts how George made him welcome, how he found ways to exist on very little money, with meals from George, Sunday morning pancake breakfasts, morning ablutions at the Café Panis and baguettes (‘œwith the occasional speck of blue-green mold on the bread’) from the Sandwich Queen. Jeremy finds friends amongst the other residents and tells of their story-telling sessions on the banks of the Seine, and other escapades, including a trip to Ireland with Simon, an English poet and long time resident at Shakespeare & Co. As the future of the shop was called into question Jeremy helps George produce a booklet on the history of Shakespeare & Co and succeeds in tracking down George’™s daughter Sylvia, whom he hoped would carry on the shop in the future.

It’™s full of fascinating characters – the many writers who have been connected with it including Henry Miller, Anäis Nin, Lawrence Durrell and Alan Ginsberg; the individuals living in the shop; and not forgetting perhaps the most remarkable character of all, George himself. George’™s generosity is in line with the original occupants of the building, built on the foundations of a 16th century monastery. He ‘œcompares himself to the monks who used to live on the same spot, a frere lampier who keeps a light on to welcome strangers and cares for old books and lost folk with semisacred devotion.’ However, as the residents of the shop change Jeremy eventually finds that it felt ‘œstrange and dislocating’ when he saw new people ‘œamok among the books’ and he decided that it was time to move on.

From the website I learned that George has retired but Shakespeare & Co is still ‘œa wonderland of books’ and has a full programme of forthcoming events. The website also has a tour of the shop, showing interior and exterior views and giving details of the book readings and other events held at the shop. I would love to visit it one day.

Booking Through Thursday – After the Honeymoon

Here’s something for Valentine’s Day.
Have you ever fallen out of love with a favorite author? Was the last book you read by the author so bad, you broke up with them and haven’t read their work since? Could they ever lure you back?
This question has made me think, once more, about just who are my favourite authors and why they are favourites. They are favourites because most importantly I enjoy their books, then because I like the way they write and I like what they write about; they are authors whose books live in my memory (for a while at least) and make me think. To qualify as a favourite author I have to have read more than one of their books.
I can’t say that I have “fallen out of love” with a favourite author. I may think one book is better than another or I may enjoy one more than the next but I can’t think of a book that was so bad it would stop me from reading their work. This week I’ve read various comments about the lack of “authority” of book bloggers to express their opinions and not post negative reviews if they don’t like a book. But reading is a very subjective matter. Other people may, and do, think differently and come to a book with different expectations. What one person likes is not necessarily the same for everyone and it’s useless to think otherwise. I like to know what other people have read and what they thought about it.

Coming to a new (to me) author I have found that the first book may appeal to me, but the next won’t and then I may not pick up a third. I’m thinking here of Maeve Binchy. I’ve only read one – Nights of Rain and Stars. I enjoyed it, easy to read (I was in the mood for a fast read), interesting story, believable characters, etc etc. This is not a well-thought out review of this book just memories of a book I read at the beginning of 2007. It was good enough for me to want to read more of her books, so I bought Whitethorn Woods. I started it – put it down – started it again – put it down and haven’t picked it up again. The reason being that it seems disjointed, trite and well – boring. Maybe I’ll read it sometime but life is just too short to carry on reading a book that I’m not enjoying.

Mr Blossom’s Shop by Barbara Euphan Todd

When I read about the Heart of a Child Challenge I immediately thought of several books that I still had, Mr Blossom’™s Shop being one of them. I remembered reading it as a child and hadn’™t given it away because it was a prize from Sunday School for attendance. When I was a child every Christmas we were encouraged by the Sunday School to give books and toys for the ‘˜poor children’™ whose parents couldn’™t afford to buy them Christmas presents. I always found it difficult to give away books, and would look for excuses to hold on to them! I’ve included photos of the illustations in the book, which I particularly like now. I’d coloured them in my book as I had a book that used to belong to my mother when she was a child in which she had coloured the pictures, so I knew she couldn’t tell me off. I don’t think I coloured in any other books after that.

I was eight when I was given this book and I remember thinking it was a bit young for me (how ungrateful) but it has stuck in my mind so it can’™t have been too bad. Mr Blossom’™s shop was of course not your everyday, ordinary village shop but was stocked full of the most surprising and magical things. There was the Sally Lunn bun that turned into Miss Sally Lunn, a plump little old lady with ‘œblack curranty eyes set deeply in to her shiny brown face, and she wore a stiff little bonnet, as prim and neatly goffered as though it were made out of pie-crust.’ I can’™t believe I knew what ‘œgoffered’ means when I was eight or if I did I’™ve forgotten because I had to look it up. ‘œ To goffer’ is to make wavy or to crimp, so it’™s a good image for a frilled bonnet or a crimped piecrust.

There were snapdragon seeds that produced real live little dragons that eat plants and candytuft seeds that come up as tiny cherry pies with sugary crusts and ‘œtufts and tufts of the most delicious mauve and white sugar-candy’.

One of my favourite stories is ‘œSand-Shoes’, which I used to call pumps when I was a child. They are canvas shoes with rubber soles (also known as plimsolls). The sand-shoes Jennifer’™s god mother bought her were very special shoes, ‘œas light as leaves’ that carried her out of her garden and then she ‘œfound that she was running on air. Her shoes never touched the ground.’ They carried her to the seaside. Unlike the shoes in Hans Christian Andersen’™s fairy tale The Red Shoes, the sand-shoes returned Jennifer home unharmed, the only signs being her sandy feet and tiny shells that fell out of the shoes. I did like The Red Shoes as a child, even though Karen is forced to dance without stopping when she puts on shoes and the ending is just horrible.

Helping Mr Blossom in his shop was Mrs Macgillicuddy who was a nice witch, complete with cauldron and broomstick. She is the source of the magic pills and potions, ‘œthe magic headache powders, and the everlasting ball of string, and the pencil that added up sums by itself, and many other strange things that only witches know the ways of.’

I enjoyed my journey into the past reading this book. I’™d read on Tara’™s blog of an adult book by Barbara Euphan Todd and when I found this was in the library I was lucky enough to find it on the shelves recently. So now I’™ll see if I enjoy Miss Ranskill Comes Home.

Until I started to write this post I knew nothing about Barbara Euphan Todd. She was born in 1890, worked as a VAD (volunteers who ran military hospitals) during the First World War and began writing at first for magazines such as Punch and the Spectator. Her first book, Worzel Gummidge was published in 1936, followed by nine others. She died in 1976 as plans were being made to televise her Worzel Gummidge books. So, what a pity she never saw Jon Pertwee (Doctor Who) as Worzel.

Olivia Manning – The Balkan Trilogy

I have just discovered that The Balkan Trilogy is being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 as Fortunes of War. Today was the third in a series of three programmes, two programmes allotted to each book in the trilogy. It seems that Olivia Manning is no longer an outmoded author. The dramatisation is good, with Joanna Lumley taking the part of Harriet, looking back on events and Honeysuckle Weeks as young Harriet. Both are just right for the part.

I’™ve read the first two books The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City, but not yet read the third book Friends and Heroes. I am waiting for it to be delivered, so in the meantime this is just perfect. I’™ll be able to listen to it in the next two episodes before I get to the book.

W. Somerset Maugham

After I’™d finished writing the previous post I went to the library and found a Book Club Associates’™ volume containing six stories by W. Somerset Maugham, which includes The Moon and Sixpence. This has an interesting Preface written by Maugham in 1933.

Maugham wrote that he had been living in London, working hard but not earning much money. He had written four or five novels, two of which had not been very successful and he was unknown to the general public. In 1904 he set out for Paris, where he was born, and it was there that he became aware of Cézanne, van Gogh and Gauguin. He met men who had known and worked with him and he read the only life of him that existed at that time. It occurred to him that here was the subject of a novel and he kept that in mind for over ten years.

When he went to Tahiti it was with the idea of finding out what he could about Gauguin’™s life and again he came across people who had been more or less connected with him. The Moon and Sixpence was written in 1918 in Surrey whilst he was recovering from the tuberculosis he had contracted earlier in the war.

For the experiences of Charles Strickland in Marseilles he had used a travel book, A Vagabond Journey round the World by Harry Franck and as he had not acknowledged the source in the novel he was condemned by an angry gentleman in an article in a magazine. This did not bother Maugham, who gladly acknowledged his debt to Franck, but pointed out that he thought it is an absurd notion that a writer should pretend to invent everything he writes out of his own head. He considered

‘œThe novelist cannot know everything. A great deal of the information necessary to him must be got from other people or from books. ‘¦ The writers of the past took from one another want they wanted. Many went further and without a sense of shame copied whole passages. This would be reprehensible now that to write books is a commercial proposition, but to make a fuss because one author uses an incident that he has found in another’™s is nonsense. By turning it to good account he makes it his own. Books of facts are legitimate quarry for the imaginative writer.’

He then referred to an article a young man had written in which he had copied almost word for word from a chapter in The Moon and Sixpence. He continued:

‘œIt contained not only all the passages I myself had used from Mr Harry Franck’™s book, but others that I had written from my own observation in the less reputable quarters (now alas, owing to the economic situation deprived of their garish vivacity) of the ancient city of Marseilles. I calmed the editor’™s fears (he saw me bringing an action for infringement of copyright) and begged him to congratulate the writer of the article on his ingenuity.’

Thinking of copyright law (which I confess I don’™t really understand) I wonder if there are there many authors who would have the same attitude today?