This Time 10 years ago …

Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book posted earlier this year on books he had read ‘œOn this day ‘¦’ where he listed books he had read on a particular day in the year going back several years ‘“ in his case on 28 September. I haven’™t kept such accurate records as Simon, but as I found a notebook listing books I read in 1997 I thought I’™d look back to see what books I was reading in December in 1997, 2002, 2006 and this December. I didn’™t record the precise dates and have just picked one book out of the books I read in December during those years.

December 1997 ‘“ Homeland and other stories by Barbara Kingsolver. I made just a brief note at the time ‘œv. readable’. This is a book of short stories and I have to admit that at a distance of ten years I can’™t remember much about them. So, I’™ll just quote from the back cover:

‘œExtraordinarily fine. Barbara Kingsolver has a Chekovian tenderness towards her characters ‘¦ The title story is pure poetry.’ New York Times Book Review.

December 2002 ‘“ Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkein. I first read the books when I was at Library School ‘“ everyone on my course was reading them. I’™ve read them several times since then and this time I read them again, prompted by the films. The films compared quite favourably with the books, although I think the Ents didn’™t live up to my expectations. Ian McKellen as Gandalf was just perfect.

December 2006 ‘“ Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. I have read several Atwood books and I think this one is one of her best. It’™s based on the true story of the murder of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper in Canada in 1843. Grace and fellow servant James are found guilty of the murders. James was hanged and Grace imprisoned for life. The question, never answered to my satisfaction, all through the book is, was Grace guilty?

December 2007 ‘“ All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West. I haven’™t read any other books by Sackville-West and was pleased to find it most enjoyable with an awful lot packed into what seems on the face of it to be a novel where not much happens. It’™s a novel of opposites. For example old age and youth are contrasted in looking back over the life of Lady Slane, widowed at the age of 88. I’™ll be writing about this in more detail, after 15 December, as it’™s the chosen book for Cornflower’™s book group.

Cranford – a “Multi-Threaded Production”

The third episode of “Cranford” is being shown on BBC1 this evening. Over the course of last week I have puzzled over my reaction to the production. If I hadn’™t only recently read Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford I might not have been so bemused. I was quite prepared to find that the actors and the locations didn’™t match the pictures in my mind ‘“ how could they? I also didn’™t expect the dramatisation to follow every word in the book ‘“ after all it is a dramatic representation, not a book.

Still, after seeing two episodes and looking at the preview of the third, I think that by amalgamating Cranford with two other books the end result is not Cranford. One difference that really has jarred is concerning Mary Smith. In the novel Mary is the narrator. She lives in Drumble (Manchester) with her father and writes about her visits to Cranford at different intervals over a number of years. Her father is an old friend of the Jenkyns family, maybe even a distant relative, who helps with Miss Matty’™s business affairs. Nowhere in Cranford is there any indication that Mary Smith has a stepmother and stepbrothers and sisters, but they appear in the TV series ‘“ I can’™t see how they add anything to the story. And why was it necessary to make Miss Brown’™s death take place before her father’™s? I could go on.

The BBC’™s Press Office page has some interesting information that explains how the script was written. The creators did not think that there was enough material in the novel suitable for a straightforward adaptation. So, as they wanted to keep ‘œtrue to the spirit of Gaskell’ they took several of her books and interwove them together. This quote from the Production Notes explains the process:

“We took a lot of liberties with Elizabeth Gaskell,” Sue continues. “We lost some of her characters, we amalgamated some and we invented. We shuffled story beats around and we added extras to some of the stories from the other books.

“And we lifted out two comic incidents from her essays about her childhood which weren’t in the novels. In the end, we had interwoven parts of all the three novels so closely that it took on a life of its own, and essentially became a new drama.’

Cranford is thus a multi-threaded production, combining three of Elizabeth Gaskell’™s books and essays as well as introducing new material. They have indeed produced a new drama. My question is ‘“ do I want to watch it? I’™m not so sure that I do.

Francesca Annis is quoted in the Press Pack:

“I read Gaskell’s My Lady Ludlow, and (Cranford writer) Heidi Thomas’s characterisation is quite faithful to her but she obviously had to leave out a huge amount of detail that I found completely fascinating.

“But then this serial isn’t called Lady Ludlow… unfortunately!”

Maybe it shouldn’™t be called ‘œCranford’, either.

One thing I do know is that thanks to this production, I shall read Mr Harrison’™s Confessions and My Lady Ludlow.

November Round Up of Books

Another month of good reading. I have already written posts about most of the books I finished reading in November. Clicking on the titles links to my posts.

Playing with the Moon by Eliza Graham – an excellent book, looking back over 60 years.
Lewis Carroll: a biography by Morton Cohen – long and detailed.
The Sidmouth Letters by Jane Gardam – good (better than I expected).
Remainder by Tom McCarthy – mixed feelings about this one, thought provoking.
Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell – a very enjoyable read, better than the TV series for me.

The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning (the first in her Balkan trilogy) – set in Bucharest during the ‘phoney war’ period of the Second World War.

Posts to follow on these books that I’ve also finished:
Surveillance by Jonathan Raban – an interesting look at modern life.
The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson – a thought provoking book.
Currently I’m reading:


My Cleaner by Maggie Gee. I’ve nearly finished this about Vanessa, English, middle class and Mary, Ugandan who used to be Vanessa’s cleaner.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West. I’ve read the first chapters of this story of an aging British aristocrat. This is the book chosen by Karen for her new book group.

Winter In Madrid by C J Sansom. I’ve just started reading this. I chose it because I read with great enjoyment his three earlier books, Dissolution, Dark Fire and Sovereign, historical mysteries featuring Matthew Shardlake, a lwyer-cum-detective. I hadn’t realised this book was set in the 1940s when I decided to read it – yet another book from that period.

Rolling – Booking Through Thursday

Do you get on a roll when you read, so that one book leads to the next, which leads to the next, and so on and so on?
I don’™t so much mean something like reading a series from beginning to end, but, say, a string of books that all take place in Paris. Or that have anthropologists as the main character. Or were written in the same year. Something like that’¦ Something that strings them together in your head, and yet, otherwise could be different genres, different authors’¦

I suppose my immediate answer to this is yes, very often. I do like to read another book by an author when I’ve enjoyed one – but that’s not the question. Books in the same genre are also easy to think of – I took part in the R.I.P. Challenge, so that was all books with themes of mystery and imagination – I like those, not gory or horrific but books that keep you guessing and make you ponder. I like to vary my reading as well, so I do try to pick different types of books and different authors, ones I’ve never read before as well as old favourites.

But to answer the question, recently I find that some books I’ve read have a 1940s theme. I’m thinking of One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, set in England in 1946 just after the Second World War, Playing with the Moon by Eliza Graham lokking back after 60 years to the 1940s and The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning, set in Bucharest in 1939/1940 at the outbreak of the War. Even Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner fits in with that time and Surveillance by Jonathan Raban looks back to the 1940s as Augie writes about his wartime experiences as a refugee from Germany.
When I decided to read these books I had no idea that they were all linked like this.

Cranford – Revisited and Nostalgic Memories

It was the second episode of Cranford on Sunday – see the BBC website here. There were so many scenes that were all totally unknown to me that it was as if I’d never read the book. I was able to watch it without my pre-conceived pictures intruding. It was a mixture of comedy and tragedy, as is life. See the Radio Times website here for more information on the cast and crew, location shots, photos and video clips. I thought Julia Sawalha was just right as Jessie Brown and I was pleased to read in the RT that she is in Lark Rise to Candleford, which is coming to the BBC next year. I read Lark Rise about 10 years or so ago when I was recovering from flu, so I’m looking forward to seeing it. With such a gap since I’ve read it I’ll be able to watch it with fresh eyes – I’m not planning on reading again until I’ve watched the drama.

Thinking of Cranford has made me think back with nostalgia to my schooldays at Altrincham Grammar School for Girls. I remembered today that the house I was in at school was called Gaskell after Mrs Gaskell (the school houses were named after people with local connections). I got out some old school magazines and read them with great pleasure wondering what has happened to my old school friends. My school has its own website and I had a look tonight. It has changed almost beyond recognition, although the main school building is still the same. I wonder if they still have the same house system.

Cranford is the only book I’ve read by Elizabeth Gaskell and I must read some more. I’d like to read Mary Barton and Ruth, which sound very different books from Cranford, but as I’ve got Sylvia’s Lovers I’ll start with that.

The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning


The Great Fortune is the first in Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy. It tells the story of Guy and Harriet Pringle’s marriage set against the background of Bucharest during the ‘Phoney War’ period of 1939/40. Guy teaches in the English Department of the University and Harriet has to find her place in Guy’s friends’ and colleagues’ university circles in the multicultural city. England and Germany are already at war and tensions are high, as the Rumanians fear a German invasion.

Throughout the novel there are contrasts between the rich ruling classes and the peasantry; between life as it was pre-war and the uncertainties and fears that the war is bringing; between the British community in Bucharest and the Rumanians; and between Guy and Harriet as they both adjust to married life, with Harriet making most of the adjustments.

It’s a richly descriptive book of both characters and place. Olivia Manning vividly depicts pre-war Bucharest. In the following scene Guy and Harriet hire a coach to take them out one evening :

When the trasura stopped at Pavel’s, one of the largest of the open-air restaurants, there could be heard above the traffic the shrill squeak of a gypsy violin. Within the shrub hedge of the garden all was uproar.

The place was crowded. The silver-gilt glow from the globes set in the trees lit in detail the wrinkled tree-trunks, the pebbled ground, and blanched the faces of the dinners, that damp with excitement of food, gazed about them with deranged looks, demanding to be served. Some rapped with knives on wine-glasses, some clapped their hands, some made kissing noises at the waiters, whilst others clutched at every passing coat-tail crying: ‘Domnule, domnule!’ for in this country even the meanest was addressed as ‘˜lord.’

Of all the characters Harriet and Prince Yakimov, or as he refers to himself ‘poor old Yaki’, a Russian emigre, half Irish and half White Russian, are the most memorable to me. Harriet is finding it difficult living in a foreign country amongst people she doesn’t know, feeling isolated among strangers, both British and Rumanian, jealous of Guy’s friends and his relationship with Sophie (who had hoped he would marry her) and his allegiance to other people seemingly over his marriage.

Harriet eventually realises that Guy is ‘a comfortable-looking man of an un-harming largeness of body and mind. His size gave her an illusion of security – for it was she was coming to believe, no more than an illusion. He was one of those harbours that prove to be shallow: there was no getting into it. For him, personal relationships were incidental. His fulfilment came from the outside world.’

Yaki, a raconteur and joker, who is said to ‘have a peculiarly English sense of humour’ uses every opportunity to sponge off anyone who will ‘lend’ him money, give him a meal or a bed for the night. He is forever ‘waiting for m’remittance from m’™poor old ma’, promising to repay the loan when it arrives, only to spend it as soon as it does without repaying anyone.

Guy decides to put on a play, Troilus and Cressida, using the students, friends and the ‘chaps at the Legation’ to act the 28 speaking parts. Whilst seeming at first to be over-ambitious and divisive the play is the means of consolidating the Pringles’ relationship and it is a success. However this coincides with fall of Paris and the despondency and fear that this brings. The book ends with the realisation that Rumania will also fall and that the Pringles’ survival depends upon their leaving:

“We’ll get away because we must. The great fortune is life. We must preserve it.”

I found the book interesting and informative about the start of the Second World War. It is also an entertaining book working on different levels, exploring the nature of marriage, friendship, patriotism and the attitudes and beliefs of the pre-war period. It’s written in a style that is slightly detached yet energetic and sympathetic. I think I’ll re-read it, as I’m sure there is much that I missed at this first reading. The next book in the trilogy is The Spoilt City. I’ve reserved it at the library and hope it won’t be too long before it arrives.

The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson – the Opening Chapters

I’™ve just started to read ‘œGideon Mack‘ this morning and must write about it. I’™m enjoying it so much that I’™ve had to slow my reading down to make sure I read every word. I’™m reading this book as part of the From the Stacks Challenge, and cannot think why I haven’™t read it before now.

I first came across this book in my local library at the beginning of this year. It was on display on the ‘œQuick Choice’ stand. I started to read it and was enthralled. I was disappointed that I couldn’™t renew it as someone else had reserved it, so I had to take it back, largely unread. Because I liked what I had read, I decided to buy a copy. However, by the time I could get a copy I was well into reading other books (which ones I can’™t remember now), so ‘œGideon Mack‘ sat in a pile and gradually got further and further down until I almost forgot about it.

Thanks to the Challenge I remembered that this was a book that I’™d wanted to read, or rather had felt compelled to read. So when I finished The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning (post on this to follow when I have time) I picked it up. I’™m so glad I did. I’™m sure already that it’™s going to be one of those books that I’™ll be enthusing over for a while yet.

Just a small taster. Gideon Mack, a faithless minister is writing an account of what happened to him. Here he is describing how he feels about running:

‘œI was somewhere in between ‘“ an escapee from my professional hypocrisy, a minister off the leash, a creature neither wholly real nor wholly imagined, hurrying through an ancient landscape. Yes, even then I suspected what I now know to be true: that life itself is not wholly real. Existence is one thing, life quite another: it is the ghost that haunts existence, the spirit that animates it. Running, whether in the rain or sun, felt like life.’

There is so much on a variety of different themes that I’™m interested in packed into the opening pages of this book! References to other books (some I’™ve read and others I’d like to read); what is life and what is real; belief or non-belief in God; the nature and importance of evidence and facts, that can be misleading or just plain lies, and the slipperiness of truth; the pleasure to be found in the doing of something and not in its completion; reminiscences of one’™s early life; not to mention the pleasure of ‘œthe glide and flow of nib and ink on paper’ and the benefits of writing with a pen over writing on a computer!

I can’™t wait to get back to it.