A Reading Meme

I’™ve seen this meme on several blogs recently and thought I’™d like to do it too. I don’™t know where it started but the last blog I saw it on is Emily’™s.

Number of Books You Own

I don’™t know exactly how many books my husband and I own. We have books all over the house. I had started to catalogue the books in a database on our laptop when were burgled and the laptop was stolen. I felt too disheartened to start again. Later when I found Library Thing I started to use it and I keep adding to it gradually.

Last Book you Bought

Completely Unexpected Tales by Roald Dahl ‘“ bizarre and macabre stories. I bought this at The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre when we visited it on Sunday. I have so many unread books that I really shouldn’™t have bought another one, but I enjoyed the museum so much that I wanted to read something by Roald Dahl. This book includes all the stories previously published in Tales of the Unexpected and More Tales of the Unexpected ‘“ I remember watching the TV series years ago. I’™m looking forward to reading them soon.

Last Book someone else bought you

My husband bought me some books for my birthday, including Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. He knows that books always please. This is one that I’™ve heard is very good, so again I’™m looking forward to it.

Five books that Mean a Lot to Me:

Books as a whole mean a lot to me so this is impossible to choose just five. I would probably choose different ones tomorrow but these five came to mind today.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I think I like this one best of all Jane Austen’™s books. I’™ve read it so many times since I was about 12 and still have the copy that belonged to my mother. Elizabeth Bennet is the character I most admire for her forthright, strong character. I love the way she rejected Mr Collins and stood up to Lady Catherine de Burgh. I can even forgive her initial prejudice against Mr Darcy.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. This was the first Dickens I read. My Great Aunt gave me this for Christmas one year when I was a child and I’™ve loved it ever since. She gave me a beautiful little illustrated book and I can’™t find it just now, which is just awful.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. I could have chosen Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, but decided on Wuthering Heights as it was such a revelation to me the first time I read it. I was completely engrossed in the story ‘“ the tragedy, passion, love and mystery of it all.

An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan. I was completely taken with this book. It’™s the autobiographical account of Keenan’™s captivity in Beirut. It’™s beautifully written, compelling, sensitive and hauntingly horrific and sad. I read this along with Taken on Trust by Terry Waite and Some other Rainbow by John McCarthy and Jill Morrell also telling of their experiences as hostages. They’™re all remarkable books, but Keenan’™s is outstanding.

Windows of the Soul by Ken Gire. This is about seeing beyond the ordinary, mundane moments of our lives to the eternal. He uses examples from art, poems, novels, music and films as parables to illuminate the deeper meaning in everyday life. I love this book.

Sons and Lovers – D H Lawrence

I’™ve had my second-hand copy of Sons and Lovers sitting unread in a bookcase for several years. The Outmoded Authors Challenge gave me the incentive to read it, one because I was surprised to find D H Lawrence is considered to be outmoded, two because I didn’™t have to buy or borrow it and three because it could then come off my to be read list.

When I took off the tatty cover, I discovered that the book inside was not a bit tatty or worn out and as an added bonus it not only contains Sons and Lovers, but also, St Mawr, The Virgin and the Gypsy and The Man Who Died. I’™d read The Virgin and the Gypsy a few years ago, but the others were completely new to me.

If you’re planning to read the book, be aware that there are spoilers ahead.

Sons and Lovers is a powerful, emotional novel depicting the struggle, strife, and passion of relationships and their intensity, and possessiveness. Throughout the book Lawrence’™s vivid descriptions and observation of the English countryside are so beautiful that I couldn’™t stop marvelling at his writing. There are so many examples I could quote. Here is just one:

The sun was going down. Every open evening, the hills of Derbyshire were blazed over with the red sunset. Mrs Morel watched the sun sink from the glistening sky, leaving a soft flower-blue overhead, while the western space went red, as if all the fire had swum down there, leaving the bell cast flawless blue. The mountain-ash berries across the field stood fierily out from the dark leaves for a moment. A few shocks of corn in a corner of the fallow stood up as if a live; she imagined them bowing; perhaps her son would be a Joseph. In the east, a mirrored sunset floated pink opposite the west’™s scarlet. The big haystacks on the hillside, that butted into the glare, went cold.

The story starts with a description of the cottages in ‘œThe Bottoms’ where the Morrels live in Nottinghamshire overlooking the hills of Derbyshire. Places feature strongly in the novel and for me provided reality and solidity. Lawrence takes the ordinary and it becomes extraordinary. The family conflict between Walter Morel and his wife and sons is one of the main themes. To Walter, his wife is a ‘œthing of mystery and fascination, a lady‘ but although at first she thinks he is rather wonderful and noble she soon becomes contemptuous of him and eventually despises him.

Mrs Morel is the dominant character in the Morel family. She is described as a ‘œrather small woman, of delicate mould but resolute bearing’. She is disappointed in her life and her marriage and lives her life through her children and in particular through her three sons ‘“ William, Paul and Arthur. William, the oldest leaves home, marries and dies young; Arthur, the youngest, joins the army and also marries; but Paul remains at home and is dominated by his mother and her intense, possessive love for him.

Paul is sensitive, torn between his love for his mother and his feelings for Miriam. Miriam ‘œis very beautiful, with her warm colouring, her gravity, her eyes dilating suddenly like an ecstasy.’ Her intensity makes Paul anxious and feel tortured and imprisoned. It is a love/hate relationship. His mother thinks that Miriam will ‘œabsorb him till there is nothing left of him, even for himself. He will never be a man on his own feet ‘“ she will suck him up.’

This struggle with Paul alternately loving and hating Miriam continues for seven agonising years. Paul cannot break free either from Miriam or from his mother’™s suffocating love. Indeed, he realises that his mother is the ‘œpivot and pole of his life, from which he could not escape‘. At the same time this is not enough for him and it makes him mad with restlessness. Although Paul cannot finally break off his connection with Miriam, he and Clara, a married woman who is separated from her husband, have a passionate affair. He still feels a desire to be free. His mother sums him up when she says, ‘œBattle ‘“ battle ‘“ and suffer. It’™s about all you do, as far as I can see.’

In parts I found it a harrowing book, in particular the illness and death of Mrs Morel, such a vivid portrayal of Paul’™s agony at watching and waiting for his mother’™s death. Sons and Lovers is described on the book cover as an autobiographical novel depicting his domination by his mother’™s possessiveness. I think that the description of Mrs Morel’™s death must also be based on Lawrence’™s own experience to a certain extent as well; it is so compellingly real.

There is so much sadness and tragedy and though Paul is lost after his mother’™s death he does find hope for the future:

On every side the immense dark silence seemed pressing him, so tiny a spark, into extinction, and yet, almost nothing, he could not be extinct. Night, in which everything was lost, went reaching out, beyond stars and sun. Stars and sun, a few bright grains, went spinning round for terror, and holding each other in embrace, there in a darkness that outpassed them all, and left them tiny and daunted. So much, and himself, infinitesimal, at the core, a nothingness, and yet not nothing. ‘¦ But no, he would not give in. Turning sharply, he walked towards the city’™s gold phosphorescence. His fists were shut, his mouth set fast. He would not take that direction, to the darkness, to follow her. He walked towards the faintly humming, glowing town, quickly.

Current and Ongoing Reading

Today I finished reading Sons and Lovers for the Outmoded Authors Challenge (post to follow) and haven’t started another book yet. I thought I’d take stock and see which books have been hanging around, lurking in different piles waiting to be read.

Currently I’m reading:

1. Lewis Carroll by Morton Cohen. This is a long and detailed biography and I read some each morning, so it’s taking me quite a while to finish. I’m just over half way into the book.

2. Remainder by Tom McCarthy – a novel about a man who is suffering from amnesia and trying to re-discover his identity. I started this in August and at first I was enjoying it. But then I found it hard going, as it seemed to be going over and over the same ground. Whilst this does reflect the state of mind of the main character as he tries to regain his memory it became tedious. It’s a disturbing book, strangely unreal. On the back cover the book is described as a ‘darkly comic meditation’. Well, it’s dark but I don’t think it’s funny. I’ve only got about 90 pages left to read, so I suppose I’ll pick it up again sometime. I don’t think it will matter if I can’t quite remember what happened in the first 196 pages, as it’ll probably be repeated before the end.

3. Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allen Poe. I’ve read quite a number of these and will carry on until the 31 October at least – that’s when the R.I.P.II Challenge finishes.

Ongoing reading:

I’m still dipping into is Body Parts by Hermione Lee. I came to a full stop with Thomas Hardy: the Time-Torn Man by Claire Tomalin and Michael Palin’s Diaries of the Monty Python Years some time ago. I still intend to read the latter two books, but they have been pushed to the sidelines. I may go back to one of these now.

Body Parts: Essays on Life-Writing is a very interesting to book to read, especially in conjunction with reading biographies and memoirs. Its about the relationship of biography to fiction and history and also about the writing of biography. When you think about it it’s obvious that because biographers are trying to reconstruct a person’s life from different sources – letters, diaries, other people’s accounts etc that the end result although it may seem as if it is factual, is an interpretation and quasi-fictional. So much has to be assumed. As Hermione Lee writes “Biography is a process of making up or making over.” I bear this in mind as I’m reading Cohen’s biography of Lewis Carroll. There is so much in it that Cohen has read between the lines, without any real solid evidence to support it. Cohen asks questions when it isn’t known what Dodgson’s feelings and opinions were and although he writes that these are ‘almost unanswerable questions‘ he does speculate and suggests answers, prefaced with‘perhaps‘ and questions such as ‘what if?

Body Parts includes essays on Shelley’s Heart and Pepys’s Lobsters; Virginia Woolf’s Nose; Reading in Bed; and Jane Austen Faints. Ill go into more details in another post or two (or more). It’s good stuff.

The computer room/office/little bedroom is in dire need of a good sort out, so I’m going to have to leave the more interesting topic of what book to read next until another time. I’m tempted by One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones (short listed for the Booker Prize), or Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke.

Claydon House

It was a beautiful sunny afternoon on Wednesday this week when my husband and I visited Claydon House in the north-west of Buckinghamshire. The National Trust doesn’™t allow you to take photographs inside the house, so my photos are just of the outside.

It was a most enjoyable visit. We weren’™t quite the only people going round the house, but, except for the room stewards, we were the only people in the rooms as we toured the house. Although it belongs to the National Trust, most of the contents of the house still belong to the Verney family. Sir Edmund Verney, who inherited the baronetcy in 2001, lives in the east wing with his family. I’™ve heard that Lady Mary Verney, the widow of Sir Ralph (who died in 2001), is a concert pianist and although she is now in her mid 80s, she still gives concerts and takes her own piano with her. Apparently she’™s known in the nearby village as a bit of a madcap driver and one day last summer she was giving a recital at Claydon House and arriving late she drove up to the house, spinning the car round in the car park, making the gravel fly as she pulled up. As we left the grounds an elderly lady drove in and politely waited for us to go out, as the drive is only wide enough for one car ‘“ we’™d like to think it was Lady Verney, but, of course, it could have been another visitor.

One of the most interesting rooms is Miss Nightingale’™s bedroom. Florence Nightingale was Sir Harry Verney’™s sister-in-law and often stayed at Claydon House between 1857 and 1890. Sir Harry had first asked Florence to marry him but she declined and he married her older sister Parthenope (they’™re named after the places they were born ‘“ Parthenope, being the Greek name for Naples. That’™s like the Beckhams calling their son Brooklyn ‘“ I wonder if that’™s where they got the idea? Somehow I don’™t think so, but you never know!)

Florence Nightingale slept in this room, but the furniture is not necessarily the furniture she used, although it is furniture that was found in the house. It’™s very unlikely that the four-poster bed is the one she slept in, as she wouldn’™t have thought it was hygienic – the dust would collect in the fabric and the curtains wouldn’™t have allowed the air to circulate. Sir Harry was devoted to Florence and as he championed her cause in Parliament, he was known as the ‘™Member for Miss Nightingale’™, rather than the Member for North Bucks.

Before seeing Florence’™s bedroom you pass through the Museum. This is a fascinating room, chock full of objects that the Verney family collected and placed there in 1893. I love such old fashioned museums as this is, with artefacts displayed in glass cabinets and labelled in spidery handwriting ‘“ the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford is the most interesting museum I know (another post some day maybe). The Verney Museum displays amongst other items, tribal artefacts from British Columbia collected in the 1860s, masks, native clubs and other weapons; British army uniforms and the Colours of the 14th Regiment of Foot, carried at the Battle of Waterloo. There are also some of Florence Nightingale’™s personal items, including her little, travel communion set and a lock of her hair ‘“ a rather striking, brown chestnut colour. Taking up centre stage in the room is the gamelon, an orchestra of gongs and other instruments used in religious ceremonies from Java.

The library is the only other room that is fully furnished. Parthenope converted this room into a library in 1861. I love seeing the books in libraries like this and these were obviously the personal collections of generations of the Verneys, being a mixture of different subjects and looking as though they had been read and weren’™t just there as decoration.

There is so much more I could write about ‘“the beautiful mahogany staircase, with its balustrade of fine ironwork that rises the full height of the house ending on the top floor, which is inlaid with coloured woods and ivory (needless to say the public can see but not use this staircase); about the intricate, painted wooden carvings that looks like delicate plasterwork; the intricate and rich decorations in the Chinese Room, which are unbelievably also carved wood in the chinoiserie style; and so on and so forth.

At the end of our visit we went to the tearoom, which is in one of the outbuildings. The entrance is the single blue door on the left next to the hanging basket. I had Afternoon Tea, comprising a pot of tea (enough for two cups), two scones, with clotted cream and jam and a strawberry, whilst my husband had a cup of coffee and an enormous slice of chocolate fudge cake.

Suitably refreshed, we then visited the Secondhand Bookshop, opposite the tearoom. The entrance is the dark doorway shown in the photo. It’s a treasure trove of books and we bought The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning ‘“ the first novel in her Balkan Trilogy (for The Outmoded Authors Challenge), rather a dusty copy; The Chymical Wedding by Lindsay Clarke (mentioned by Ann); and One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, a Virago Modern Classic.

Finally we went into the Church of All Saints, Middle Claydon, which is next to the House. This doesn’™t belong to the National Trust and is still in use as the parish church. It’™s a little church dating from 1231 and contains monuments to the Verney family, including one to Sir Edmund Verney, the Standard Bearer to Charles I, killed at the Battle of Edgehill in 1642. The story goes that Sir Edmund was killed clutching the Standard and as they were unable to prise it from his hand the soldiers had to hack off his hand. You can just see the representation of the hand holding part of the Standard in my photo of the church interior.

The Verneys: a true story of love, war and madness in Seventeenth-Century England by Adrian Tinneswood is on sale at the ticket office, where I was told that he is currently writing a further book about the family history. I’™ve borrowed the book from the library and have just dipped into it ‘“ it looks as though I should have bought it.

Booking Through Thursday Live and In-Person

  • Have you ever met one of your favorite authors? Gotten their autograph?
  • How about an author you felt only so-so about, but got their autograph anyway? Like, say, at a book-signing a friend dragged you to?
  • How about stumbling across a book signing or reading and being so captivated, you bought the book?

I’™m normally far too shy to ask anyone for their autograph, especially if it was one of my favourite authors. I certainly wouldn’™t ask an author I only felt ‘œso-so’ about for an autograph. It’™s all a bit too embarrassing.

BUT I did do it once. I went to a talk Adrian Plass gave at a local church. Adrian Plass writes really funny books about Christianity and he’™s even funnier in person. A link to his website is here. He’™s written many books, perhaps the most well known is The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass aged 37 1/2 and I think my favourite book is Alien at St Wilfred’™s. He had the whole church in hysterics and I was laughing so much that tears were running down my face. I can’™t remember any other time when I have laughed so I cried ‘“ my face was aching. He hardly ever cracked a smile and delivered his talk in such a deadpan way that made it even funnier.

The talk was called An Evening of Serious Stuff with Adrian Plass. We have it on video, but I can’t find it on Amazon now. He started off as though he were a vicar giving the church notices. One was about opening the Side Chapel of the church ‘“ the key to the chapel is on a hook in the junction box outside the vestry door ‘“ the key to the junction box is in the tall cupboard at the back of the church ‘“ the key to the tall cupboard is in the robing chest, which is outside the vestry door under the junction box ‘“ the key to the robing chest is held by Mr Dumpney ‘“ who has kindly made it available on certain days of the month ‘¦ It’™s much more funny when he says it than when I write it down, believe me.

At the end of the talk his books were on sale and he was signing copies if you wanted him to. Very nervously I joined the queue and when it was my turn and he asked my name I chickened out and said the book I’d bought, A Smile on the Face of God, the biography of Philip Ilott , was for my husband, so he wrote my husband’™s name on the title page and signed it ‘œTo D ‘¦ God bless, A Plass’. I wish now I’™d been brave enough to admit it was for me really, although my husband likes his books as much as I do.

We were at my friend’s Ordination Service in Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford recently and when the Bishop of Oxford read the notices we were both reminded of Adrian Plass’s talk – it made us chuckle, inwardly. It wasn’t the same of course.

Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson

I found this book at my local library on display in the 1st Novel Collection. That’™s one of the features of the library that I really appreciate. Sometime I must write a post about why I love libraries so much.

I’™d never heard of Linda Olsson before and didn’™t know what to expect, but the first sentences drew me effortlessly into the story:

‘œThere had been wind and drifting snow during her journey, but as darkness fell, the wind died and the snow settled.

It was the first day of March. She had driven to Stockholm in the gradually deepening dusk that seamlessly became night. It had been a slow journey, but it had given her time to think. Or erase thoughts.’

This sets the scene ‘“ it’™s coming to the end of winter and there is the promise of spring. Veronika, a young writer, has come to live near a small village in the Swedish countryside. Her only close neighbour is Astrid, who is an elderly recluse. From this opening it’™s obvious that Veronika is troubled, needing to sort out her thoughts. There is a mystery too concerning Astrid’™s past and she too is troubled by her memories. At first she does not respond to Veronika’™s tentative efforts to get to know her, although she watches Veronika as she walks passed Astrid’s house on her way to the village. When she hasn’™t seen Veronika for a few days and there is no sign of life coming from the house this disturbs her and she finds herself knocking on Veronika’™s door. Veronika is ill and Astrid, unused to any social contact looks after her. And so, slowly, their friendship begins and gradually they confide in each other as the year moves from spring into summer.

Astrid reveals how she struggled as a child after her mother left her and her father; the troubled relationship with her father; and how she realised that she had married a man she didn’™t love. Veronika eventually reveals the circumstances surrounding her relationship with James, a New Zealander she was living with after leaving her Swedish boyfriend, as she helps Astrid cope with visiting her dying husband, who she hasn’™t seen since he was taken into a rest-home.

I liked this book, for the way the secrets of the two women’™s lives are gradually revealed as their friendship deepens. It kept my interest throughout, as I wanted to know what had happened to Astrid and Veronika in the past. I think the turning point for Astrid was when she was sixteen and had found a special place in the forest, high in the hills above the village. It was here that she found a clearing where wild strawberries grew and where she met her first and only love, Lars. Lars was killed in a farming accident and Astrid buried her memories of him, until she told Veronika about him. She tells Veronika:

‘œIt is in the nature of things to change. Nothing can last beyond its given time. ‘¦ I wish now that I had held on to the memories of that summer. Perhaps things would have turned out differently if I had. Instead I allowed what came before and what came after to overshadow it. I should have cared for it, the way I cared for my strawberry patch. Allowed it to develop new growth, new fruit. But perhaps they are one and the same, the strawberry patch and the memories of that summer. Finally retrieved.’

For Veronika, it’™s a time to put her life back together again. She says she has never understood time:

‘œMemories seem to surface in no particular order, with no time attached. Yesterday can seem as distant as last year. ‘¦ My life now consists of fragments ‘¦ where some are so blinding in their intensity that they make everything else indistinguishable. ‘¦ It feels as if my existence was extinguished in a flash, and afterwards my universe became incomprehensible. ‘¦ I want to remember everything. But perhaps I need to give it more time. Allow myself some rest. Distance myself a little, to see if I can make out a pattern. And face the truth about what is really there.’

The past, the nature of memories and time and above all the importance of love are themes that are explored in this novel. It’™s a story that lingers in my memory.

The Pit and The Pendulum – Edgar Allan Poe

It seemed appropriate that I should read The Pit and The Pendulum today as on this day in 1849 (Oct. 7) Edgar Allan Poe died in mysterious circumstances in Baltimore in the Washington College Hospital.

I have read several of Poe’™s Tales of Mystery and Imagination and so far had not found them to be too scary. I had come to the book with great expectations that I would be terrified, so to some extent it was a relief to find that the tales did not freeze my blood, although I do think they are gory and sickening. Today I have changed my mind, now that I’™ve read The Pit and the Pendulum.

This story is as horrifying as I had imagined it to be. I woke up in a tent once in pitch darkness, convinced I couldn’™t breath and in a mad panic to get out. This is how The Pit and the Pendulum starts ‘“ the narrator wakes after being sentenced to death by the Inquisition, lying, aware of the ‘œtumultuous motion of the heart, and in my ears, the sound of its beating‘ ‘“ oh, how I know that petrifying sound and feeling in the dead of night. He opens his eyes and can see nothing:

‘œThe blackness of eternal night encompassed me. I struggled for breath. The intensity of the darkness seemed to oppress and stifle me.’

The horror continues as he cautiously examines his prison and only by luck avoids falling into a pit at the centre of the dungeon. The mental torment piles on him at the thought of the means of his death, and the hideous torture awaiting him. Exhausted he then sleeps and on waking finds the dungeon lit by a ‘œwild, sulphurous lustre’, a pitcher of water and a loaf within his reach. The water is drugged and on waking again he finds himself bound head to foot on a low framework of wood, a pendulum suspended over him swinging and slowing descending towards his heart. He is left for hours to contemplate the result of the pendulum’™s descent and then becomes aware of rats swarming around him, ‘œwild, bold, ravenous ‘“ their red eyes glaring upon’ him.

I think my reaction to this tale is partly because of my own fear and panic at waking in utter darkness and breathless, but is also due to the tension and suspense Poe has instilled into the text. I did anticipate the ending to a certain extent, but not completely, so that was a plus as well.

The Poe Shadow, by Matthew Pearl gives a fictional account of the mystery surrounding Poe’™s death, based on the historical facts. I read this book some months ago and although I think it is too long and tedious in parts, it did trigger my interest in Poe, as did a more entertaining novel, The American Boy, by Andrew Taylor, which is based on Poe’™s childhood. For more information on Poe, go to The Poe Society.

I also found Ed’™s post Poe’s body claimed by Philadelphia at The Bibliothecary Blog very interesting. He has written a piece calling for the exhumation of his body to ‘œtranslate his remains’ from Baltimore to Philadelphia, where Ed maintains he belongs.