Friday Feature : On Reviewing Fiction


 If you are a practised reviewer of fiction, you will very soon learn to divide the books you have to review into quite a few categories according to their subjects. Thus, they may deal with Family Life, Village Life, London Life, Married Life, Individual Life, School Life, American Life, Corpses, International Conspiracies, South Sea Islands, or Love. As you will not wish to read the books, I will set down a few hints as to what to say of each class.

Family Life and Village Life are both rather sad, disagreeable subjects. The people who live in families and villages are seldom good or at all nice to one another. Villagers are the worst, for they are imbecile as well as criminal. They go further than families, as families only think and speak criminally, and villagers act. You may safely call a Village Life novel realistic and powerful, even, in some cases, sordid. If you call a Family Life novel any of these, you will probably be going further than the text warrants, and may be sued for libel.

London Life novels are much gayer. They deal, as a rule, with London . You may say , if you like, that they are about well-known society figures, many of whom will be easily recognisable to their friends and enemies. London Life novels are not realistic, powerful or sordid, as people in London have a wider range of entertainment and are therefore more cheerful. Besides, novels about persons who pay income tax are not realistic. And persons who pay super-tax are not considered by most reviewers real people at all.

Novels about Married Life are often ‘poignant studies of a very modern problem’ (a propos, you will find much of what you need to say kindly supplied for you by the publisher on the paper wrapper. But you must not trust blurb-writers too implicitly, for they have not, any more than you, read the book about which they blurb) …. Stories of School Life are a little passé now. But should one come your way, you can safely say that it deals once more with the problems of adolescence from a realistic angle, and that nothing us shirked, though Mr – is always restrained.

American Life may be divided into sub-sections. There are novels about Eastern America, or civilised life (perhaps by Mrs Wharton or Miss Sedgwick), Middle Western Life (which you should praise), Wild Western Life (which are about cowboys or long white trails, and published by Messrs. Hodder and Stoughton), and South American Life (which I recommend you to read, as they are probably readable).

Novels about Corpses are often readable, too. For the corpse, you should look in the library, in one of the early chapters, and there you will find the murdered body of an elderly gentleman. It is safe to say of this book that the mystery is well kept to the end (or else you spotted the murderer straight off, according as you wish well or ill to the author) and that there is a happy affair between the detective, or the suspected but innocent young man (you had better ascertain which) and the corpse’s niece, daughter, or ward (you need not ascertain which).

Novels about International Conspiracies deal with Bolshevists, and relate world-wide schemes for the overthrow of established governments and the setting up of a world dominion. You will quite soon see if a book is about this. you may safely say that the Bolshevists are bad men, and that their schemes are defeated by the intrepid hero.

Books about South Sea Islands reveal themselves at once. If you open them anyway, you will see ‘yam’, ‘bread-fruit’, ‘palm toddy’, ‘kanaka’, ‘beach-comber’, or ‘lagoon’. You can call them picturesque, romantic or exciting, or (if you feel more like it) ‘cheap lagoonery’.

Books about Love deal with a well-worn subject in a new and moving way.

Some reviewers like to be quoted by publishers in advertisements; others are shy, and do not. If you do, you should make your favourable comments detachable from the context; thus, if you desire to express distaste and yet be quoted, you may say ‘This cannot be called a really good book,’ and trust that the publishers may know which words to select. If you do not like being quoted, you should be careful to express any favourable views you may hold in a delicate and obscure way which shall elude the publisher’s grasp, and see you do not hang your laudations like cullable blossoms on a bough.

Rose Macaulay, A Casual Commentary (1925).

Now, that was rather helpful, wasn’t it? 😉


April Acquisitions

Towards the end of March, I received an email from one of my favourite online booksellers for new and used books saying that they have not ‘heard’ from me for a while and that they missed me. They also included a discount voucher code for 20% off any purchase of their used books. And so, with an offer like that, coupled with the fact that though I have not been buying, I certainly have been picking and piling up for myself quite a good load of books into the basket/ wishlist. It works as a kind of therapy for the withdrawal symptoms that come when I seem to have not been buying any books for a substantial period of time, although in this case it was barely more than a month (strange, but it sure did feel much longer than that). What can I say, I kinda ‘missed them’ too. :p

With the exception of the first five books at the top of the pile, the rest are used copies, including the two standing hardcovers which I am particularly excited about. 

Writers and Their Houses: Essays by Modern Writers – A Guide to the Writers’ Houses of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland edited by Kate Marsh.
This collection features a wide range of contemporary writers, discussing the homes, lives and work of their predecessors, looking at the environments where some of the finest works of British literature were produced. The essay writers include John Fowles, Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Drabble, P.D. James, Seamus Heaney, Malcom Bradbury, A.N. Wilson, Penelope Fitzgerald, Ian McEwan, Claire Tomalin, Peter Porter and Jenny Uglow. The reader is taken on a detailed tour through the work and homes of writers such as William Shakespeare, Beatrix Potter, James Joyce and Jane Austen. From lively social circles to places of retreat, the homes described here reveal unexpected facts about their occupant’s taste, habits and eccentricities.

Doesn’t that sound delicious? I am really looking forward to reading these essays and poring over the photographs in there (unfortunately though, the photos are all in black and white). This book will complement my copy of ‘A Reader’s Guide to Writers’ Britain’ by Sally Varlow very nicely, I think. 🙂

A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel.
Another compilation of interlinked essays on the history of reading. Manguel’s set of essays ‘…. explains not only the ability of the Bible and the classics to speak to successive generations, but also clarifies the deeply personal appeal of any favorite book: It says what we need it to say, what we wish we could say for or about ourselves. Manguel’s urbane, unpretentious tone recalls that of a friend eager to share his knowledge and enthusiasm. His book, digressive, witty, surprising, is a pleasure.’ Can’t wait to have the pleasure of dipping into this one! 

A closer look at the paperbacks.

I absolutely love the cover of Paris In Mind (edited by Jennifer Lee). Next to being a major Anglophile, I have to admit I am a lover of all things Parisian, too. The city holds no end of fascination and appeal to me. “Paris is a moveable feast,” Ernest Hemingway famously wrote, and in this captivating anthology, American writers share their pleasures, obsessions, and quibbles with the great city and its denizens. Mark Twain celebrates the unbridled energy of the Can-Can. Sylvia Beach recalls the excitement of opening Shakespeare & Company on the Rue Dupuytren. David Sedaris praises Parisians for keeping quiet at the movies.”
Among the writers from which these excerpts, essays, letters and journals are taken from are James Baldwin, Sylvia Beach, Saul Bellow, T. S. Eliot, M.F.K. Fisher, Janet Flanner, Benjamin Franklin, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Jefferson, Anaïs Nin, David Sedaris, Gertrude Stein, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton & E. B. White.

Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner.
Written with the French Revolution of 1848 as the backdrop, this is the story of how a young Englishwoman from an aristocratic family finds her way to Paris and ends up forming the unlikeliest of relationships with her husband’s mistress. Bold and unconventional in its ideas, this novel is described as “at once an adventure story, a love story, and a novel of ideas, Summer Will Show is a brilliant reimagining of the possibilities of historical fiction.”

The classics.

Isn’t this another lovely cover? I fell in love with the cover of this latest Vintage edition of Anthony Trollope’s The Warden and felt that I must have it. I think this is just the perfect starting point for me to discover the charming world of Trollope’s Barsetshire chronicles. This is yet another significant Victorian novelist whom I managed to miss out on during my younger days. I intend to rectify that this year, and am thrilled to know that this is just the begining of a whole new series waiting to be savoured.

Wordsworth Classics have recently been re-issuing a combination of Virginia Woolf’s works in very affordable editions. I got my pre-ordered copy of The Years & Between The Acts from The Book Depository for only USD2.36, which I think is a steal! And it has quite a lovely piece of artwork for its cover too, aptly named The Bookworm. 🙂  

Virago Classics and my first Thirkell.

I have to say that I much prefer this VMC cover of Lettice Cooper’s The New House as compared to the plain (though elegant) grey cover of the Persephone edition.  Another writer whose works I have been looking forward to get acquainted with is Rose Macaulay. I remember reading a good review of Crewe Train some time back on one of the blogs, and has since been very interested to read it. After reading all the rave reviews for Angela Thirkell’s books on Claire’s blog, I just couldn’t resist adding The Brandons into the basket. Interestingly, it is also one of her series of novels that is set in Trollope’s Barsetshire. Guess I can look forward to spending quite abit of time with the some rather memorable characters from Barsetshire this year. 😉  

Having recently discovered Barbara Pym as one of my new favourite writers, I grabbed hold of two more of her goodies. Civil To Strangers and A Vey Private Eye : An Autobiography in Letters And Diaries. The former consists of a collection of materials that were unpublished during Pym’s lifetime, while the latter is as the title suggests, an autobiography in the form of Pym’s letters and diaries, two of my favourite formats in writing, by the way. 

Last pile of goodies in this stack is Elizabeth Bowen’s To The North, Catherine Hall’s debut novel Days of Grace (whch I am already midway through, and am enjoying it very much) and Katie Roiphe’s Uncommon Arrangements :Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles 1919-1939.

Love the vintage black and white cover of Bowen’s To The North and can’t wait to read it after all the glowing reviews from so many fellow bloggers out there.

Uncommon Arrangement, also promises to be an interesting read. Said to be : “Drawn in part from the private memoirs, personal correspondence, and long-forgotten journals of the British literary community from 1910 to the Second World War, here are seven “marriages à la mode”—each rising to the challenge of intimate relations in more or less creative ways. Jane Wells, the wife of H.G., remained his rock, despite his decade-long relationship with Rebecca West (among others). Katherine Mansfield had an irresponsible, childlike romance with her husband, John Middleton Murry, that collapsed under the strain of real-life problems. Vera Brittain and George Gordon Catlin spent years in a “semidetached” marriage (he in America, she in England). Vanessa Bell maintained a complicated harmony with the painter Duncan Grant, whom she loved, and her husband, Clive. And her sister Virginia Woolf, herself no stranger to marital particularities, sustained a brilliant running commentary on the most intimate details of those around her.”

So, there you have it. My indulgences for the past month all laid bare here.
Has any one of these caught your eye (or attention) too, in particular? 😉

Friday Feature : On Reading In Bed

“Hundreds and thousands, possibly millions, of people every night in England read something in bed. They say nothing about it except, ‘I read for a little last night and then slept like a top,’ or ‘I didn’t feel like going to sleep last night, so I read for a bit,’ or ‘I began reading so-and-so in bed last night, and damn the book, I couldn’t get to sleep until I finished it.’ Usually nothing at all is said; if anything is said it is very little. Yet what a large slice of each of our lives has gone into this harmless occupation.

We get our clothes off. We put our pyjamas on. We wind our watches. We arrange the table and the light and get into bed. We pile up, or double up, the pillows. Then we settle down to it. Sometimes the book is so exciting that all thought of sleep fades away, and we read on oblivious of everything except the unseen menace in that dark house, the boat gliding stealthily along that misty river, the Chinaman’s eyes peering through that greenish-yellow fog, or the sudden crack of the revolver in that den of infamy. Sometimes we read for a while and then feel as though we could go peacefully to sleep. Sometimes we struggle desperately to gum our failing attention to the acute analysis and safe deductions of our author. Our eyes squint and swim. Our head dizzies. We feel drunk, and, dropping the book aside from lax hands, just manage to get the light out before falling back into a dense and miry slumber.

We all know these fights against inevitable sleep, those resolves to reach the inaccessible end of the chapter, those swimmings in the head, those relapses into the gulf of oblivion. And we all know those long readings when the mystery and suspense of the text so excite us that every creak of the stair and every fluttering of the pertinacious moths makes the heart stand still, and then keeps it beating hard for minutes. We have all turned the light out just in time; and we have all turned it out from boredom, or in an access of determined common-sense, and then turn it on again to resume dreary reading where we left the piece of paper or the pencil in the page. But we seldom talk about it. It is part of our really private lives.”

J.C. Squire, ‘Reading in bed’ (1927)

Reading in bed. I am sure this is something that is done (or attempted) by just as many other “Hundreds and thousands, possibly millions, of people every night……” around the planet, and not just England.

I, for one, do (try). Hahah! Sometimes I succeed in keeping my eyes open long enough to make sense of what I’m reading, before the words start ‘swimming’, or before my arms give way under the weight of the book (no matter how slim the volume may be). My greatest concern is that I hope I don’t damage the dear book in the event of having lax hands. Really.

And sometimes I just downright fail. Those are the times when ‘the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak’. But still I say, it’s always worth a try! 😉
By the way, my current bedtime reading has been Wilkie Collins’s No Name, and alternatively Elizabeth Bowen’s The Collected Stories. Both are chunksters, and therefore fall under the category of ‘high risk’ for ‘damage-prone-books-resulting-from-lax-hands’. :p

Alternatively, one could always consider taking on Rose Macaulay’s suggestion.

Only one hour in the normal day is more pleasurable than the hour spent in bed with a book before going to sleep, and that is the hour spent in bed with a book after being called in the morning.

Rose Macaulay, A Casual Commentary (1925)

But for those of us who still think we prefer to do our reading in bed when all is dark and still…. I think we can well benefit from heeding the words of Erasmus.

A little before you go to sleep, read something that is exquisite.

Desiderius Erasmus, Colloquies: Of the Method of Study (c. 1500-8)