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Reading Life: 17th October 2018

A photograph of an open gate in a stone wall, surrounded by autumn leaves, part of the Hever Castle mock-Roman gardens

Reading a Christmas book in October has been an experience, especially considering the current weather. It’s not been particularly cold and there have been a lot of sunny days; of course October isn’t the correct month for seasonal reading anyway, but the fact it’s been so mild has made it actively feel unusual. Has it put me in a Christmasy mood? No, but it’s given me a gentle reminder of the atmosphere, not that one was needed because I’m planning for Christmas in other ways and have had In Dulci Jublio in my head for several days. It’s just as well there aren’t any lyrics and it’s difficult to hum.

Book cover

The book was Jenny Colgan’s Christmas At Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop; I finished it yesterday evening but will be leaving the review until December. It was very seasonal despite its relative lack of time spent on the event itself – there was a lot of plot set during Advent but the Christmas days were dealt with swiftly, using a few romantic notions to make it more cosy. It may well be even better if read in December but to be honest I don’t think it particularly matters; the return dates stamped on the library issue paper at the front of the copy I read backs this up – there have been 5 other borrows (the book was published in 2013) but none have been at Christmas. In fact my late September issuing is the latest of the lot.

Having finished This Duchess Of Mine, book #5 in the Desperate Duchesses series, I’m looking at reading the last book, A Duke Of Her Own. I’m usually one to procrastinate over finishing a series I’ve enjoyed but as I didn’t like This Duchess Of Mine as much as most of the others (I wasn’t keen on book #2, An Affair Before Christmas, but it was for different reasons) I kind of want to get back to a better story; the plot of A Duke Of Her Own sounds more promising, seeming to be more focused on the ‘duke’ than the ‘duchess’, which may be an interesting change.

Something I did enjoy about book #5, however, was the information about medical advances, mostly factual. James included the basic story of Dr William Withering’s discovery of foxglove as a cure (or partial cure, she didn’t go into it) for heart problems. In the past it was proffered that this came about when Withering discovered a woman pharmacist giving people a mixture of various plants that seemed to work; Withering conducted a process of elimination to find out the effective active ingredient and then the right dosage. In reality, and whilst James included this anecdote, it has been debunked1 – it’s more likely to have been a family recipe. It seems James was keen to include Withering particularly as the discovery was hijacked by Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus, who published a paper with but a footnote about the doctor. The two had been acquainted earlier before Darwin’s need for a second opinion on a patient, resulting in the relationship breaking down. Withering has since been established as the discoverer of foxglove.

Book cover

As well as this, James made far more than a passing reference to the 1700s usage of old war hulks as prisoner ships on the Thames. Whilst the riots she wrote in weren’t so real – she switched locations and reasons – the prison ships of the time were based on history. I’m not sure what keywords to look for in order to find out much about this, but did find this snippet on Wikipedia.

In non-reading but still bookish news, I’m slowly writing the draft of a blog post I’ve been loitering around for a few years, ever since I read The Awakening. I’m not sure why I never finished the post at the time but recent reading brought in another possibility for it and suddenly the basic idea I had had has taken extra shape. I’ve been doing a lot of research and reading around the subject, including looking at the origins of the rediscovery of Chopin’s work in general2. I’m not sure when I’ll have finished the post as I’ve added a lot of extra work into it and became a bit too enthusiastic about research which means lots of opinions to par down, but it’s been quite fun.

Whilst I’ve not read as many books as I was hoping I would have by this time, I have watched a lot of films and am currently in a situation that rarely happens – I’ve not got any books lingering on my ‘currently reading’ list except the eternal Vanity Fair. It’s making me want to pick my next few reads very carefully so that I keep it up.

A photograph of a scene from Wicked

Photo copyright © 2013/14 London Company, photo by Matt Crockett.

And as a sort of literary aside, because I found out yesterday it is based on a book, I saw the latest touring production of Wicked. I didn’t think much of the plot, but the set design, and the singing in itself, were fantastic. It’s in Southampton for the next week before moving on to Wales and Manchester.

Footnotes

1 Kirkler (1985) says: “In republishing a plate suggesting a discussion between Withering and “Mother Hutton,” presumably a rural herbalist, in which she appeared to give him the “family receipt,” Willius and Keys (7) did, however, acknowledge that this was an imaginary depiction. There is no need to improve on the account given by the author; town and country were then still much intertwined, and the crucial aspect is surely Withering’s botanical expertise.” (p. 5A) [Willius and Keys published their piece in the 1940s.]
2 It happened in the 1960s – the main facts passed around have to do with Per Seyersted, a Professor of American Literature, who found out about Chopin and reintroduced her work to the literary scene in 1969. However Chopin had been discovered already, in the 50s, by a Frenchman, Cyrille Arnavon, who translated the 1899 English book into French, calling it, simply, Edna. Arnavon wrote an essay to introduce the book, saying that it should be more well-known and studied.

Online References

Krikler, Dennis (1985) The foxglove, “the old woman from Shropshire” and Willam Withering, Journal Of American College Of Cardiology, Vol. 5, Issue 5, Supplement 1, pp3A-9A

 
Reading Life: 5th September 2018

A photograph of the Japanese garden at Kingston Lacy

With more reading time to spend as of late, I’ve found myself reading the books I received at Christmas, novels I’d asked for upon request for a list. The Nakano Thrift Shop was one. Originally drawn in by the hype, I decided to read it when browsing my shelves and whilst I thought early on that it probably wasn’t my cup of tea I wanted to keep going, after all it was a present and I was intrigued by the author. I wonder if perhaps, looking at things with introductions in mind, I should have read Murakami first, but then one book doesn’t speak for all and to my knowledge the translators for the two authors are different.

From there I picked up Americanah – first started in January – and read it until the end, which meant from 1/3 of the way through. It’ll be on my best of list. The variety of subjects under the one umbrella topic, particularly with a main character who isn’t all that likeable, was very well done.

And then I opted for the book that sat next to the Kawakami on my higgledy-piggledy to be read shelf, also a gift – Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. It hardly bears repeating that it’s difficult, but for its literary value, both in terms of Plath and in the context of literature as a whole, it’s also enjoyable. I’ve noted down a number of extracts – the story of the bellhop, Esther/Sylvia’s views on women’s lives in those years – and am also enjoying the lighter moments, elements I didn’t expect would be included. For now it’s less dark than I imagined, but I know it goes further. I’m working at a sort of 50/50 pace with research – reading a few chapters, switching to research, then going back to the book. I read about the debates surrounding Plath and Ted Hughes when I read Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, but there have been more recent reports about her father aligning with the Nazis – like this one from 2012 by Dalya Alberge – that paint a picture that gives a more rounded story to Plath’s poem, Daddy, from which the following comes:

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You—

I’m half thinking that after Plath I should continue on to other books received as presents, because it’s a good mix, and includes Eowyn Ivey’s To The Bright Edge Of The World. I’ll see – I’m inclined to be completely whimsical, and reading books received as gifts sets an expectation, however random.

Which difficult book have you read recently and how did you find the experience?

 
Reading Life: 8th June 2018

A photograph of the green outside Salisbury Cathedral

As you’ll have seen, I finished Lennox’s The Female Quixote, and wrote the review. Throughout my blogging years I’ve often found myself floundering when it comes to writing reviews of books I have taken a lot of notes for; it’s most often led to me not completing the review; but this time, I did it. I wrote a basic plan and then made it more detailed until it was practically written. I will be trying out that method again in future.

Having started reading around the subjects of the book, I ended up going down an internet rabbit hole and searching through digital copies of 1700s literary magazines for information required to write this post. Many issues of Samuel Johnson’s The Gentleman’s Magazine still exist, which as it turned out not only included Johnson’s blurb for the book and Henry Fielding’s brief views, but the month in which Lennox’s book was published. After two hours searching through the editions for the correct information, finding the month of publication was an added bonus. I may have celebrated with coffee.

Having finished all the research, I’ve moved on to Frances Burney, which also sent me on a search for information, this time in view of Austen’s usage of ‘pride and prejudice’, which is believed to be taken from Burney’s Cecilia:

Remember: if to pride and prejudice you owe your miseries, so wonderfully is good and evil balanced, that to pride and prejudice you will also owe their termination.

I’m reading Evelina and getting back into Valeria Luiselli’s Faces In The Crowd which has turned from ‘simply’ meta to ‘a book in a book in a book maybe in a book maybe reality’… yes, it requires a lot of attention. I’m also reading The Peace Machine, a steampunk-esque Turkish novel set in the 1800s, and so far so good. It’s about a Turkish erotic novelist, who publishes under a pseudonym in France. The first couple of chapters covered his childhood during which he was living in poverty, before he saved a rich man’s life and being adopted. The blurb speaks of WWI and the fictional creation of a machine, which reviews online mention can create peace but at an ethical loss. The translation is excellent – the translator has chosen to keep the rhymes of the fragments of poetry that are scattered about so that whilst the words may by necessity be changed, the concept carries over completely.

A photograph of authors Rosie Travers, Sue Fortin, Carol Thomas, Lyn Lile, Liv Thomas, and Rosemary Smith

Lastly, I spent a lovely Wednesday lunchtime with a group of writers, most local but a few from as far as Devon, and a diverse selection of genres. It was interesting hearing about marketing and publication from an author’s perspective, as well as the writing process. They are, from left to right (excuse the awful photo – mine): Rosie Travers, Sue Fortin, Carol Thomas, Charlie Cochrane, Lyn Lile (May Raymond), Liv Thomas (writes as Isabella Connor together with Val Olteanu), and Rosemary Smith.

On a completely different note, given the Twitter-trending Love Island and Big Brother-esque set up of many discussions and challenges but nothing otherwise to do I would like to ask you: how long do you think you could leave reading behind before you’d need to return? (I reckon I could go without reading for a month fairly easily but I’d want to leave from then on.)

 
Reading Life: 11th May 2018

A photograph of a copy of Faces In The Crowd against the backdrop of Spain

You may have seen on Twitter that I was away over the last week. For the first time I took only my Kobo and one very thin book, Valeria Luiselli’s Faces In The Crowd, which I found on a library shelf, the last date it had been borrowed suggesting to me I’d better take it out soon. I’ve learned a lot about library use the past few months.

Luiselli isn’t an author who has been on my list, but I recognised her name from a panel at Hay two years ago and knew that if she was there along with other well-known authors, her books were likely worth picking up. Faces In The Crowd, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Luiselli is Mexican) is about a woman who works as a translator, going around her city’s libraries to find more Latin American authors to add to her small company’s list. It’s a clever book-in-a-book, the novel she’s writing interspersed with dialogue and questions from, for example, her husband – on one page there is a paragraph about how the character shares a bed with another woman, and the couple of sentences that follow after a pause are composed of her husband asking her if it’s true she’s slept with women. It’s sometimes difficult to tell when or where any one vignette is set and whether it’s fiction within the fiction or simply the first level of it, as it were, but that becomes part of the charm and is undoubtedly a part of the point of it all.

I didn’t consciously borrow this book thinking I’d take it to Spain, but for the language it ended up being a good choice. As it turned out, my plans to read outside early each morning weren’t realised – the weather wasn’t very good – so I’ve still a fair amount of the book to read.

In other bookish news, I recently received Claire Fuller’s upcoming Bitter Orange and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing; the latter is set in the 1700s and already at page nine I’m loving it. With my event now less than a week away I’ll be switching between these two books, leaving others aside until the end of next week; the Gyasi is set for review on Monday, and I plan to have a good chunk of Fuller’s book behind me by Thursday. The remaining portion of The Female Quixote will have to wait a little longer.

At some point in the near future I’ll be reading Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter. I’ve wanted to read it for a while and found a library copy to browse through. The opening pages took me straight back to the fantastic literary atmosphere Anna Hope created in Wake; I want to go back to that particular combination of writing and setting.

What was the last translated book you read?

 
Reading Life: 11th April 2018

A photograph of a stalked flower bed at Hever Castle

I’m preparing for my next Southampton event; having been to Cobbett Road Library – the one recently used for the Cheryl Butler talk I covered last month – and knowing now a fair bit about it, it seemed the right venue in which to go ahead. I’ve arranged for Claire Fuller to join us in May and whilst there won’t be a video recording to share, we will have photographs and I’m hoping I can get some notes down. I’m catching up on Fuller’s work and loving it; in Our Endless Numbered Days, which is about a young girl whose father takes her to a remote location to live for years in secret on the pretense that the world outside is gone, the writing is such that there’s a fantastical element to it; the shock isn’t contained by it, but the book is unique for it, almost at times evoking a children’s adventure story and very unlike other stories of the same type for it.

When you finish a book on a Kobo, you are taken back to the home screen where a selection of your newly-added books are shown, and if you turn off the device following this, the screen will often default to a picture of a book you’ve started sometime previously, whether one you’ve actively started to read or just taken a peak at. Prior to finishing Emmeline a few days ago, I’d had thoughts of beginning Aphra Behn’s work, but when the Kobo showed Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote I decided that maybe my plan wasn’t the best thing at that moment and decided to take the Kobo’s mechanical suggestion to continue reading works from the 1700s, particularly because it also meant continuing Project Charlotte – Lennox is number 4 of 5.

A picture of Charlotte Lennox

There is just one problem and I’m not sure yet what to do – it is entirely a parody of the Spanish book, where I had thought perhaps there would be a few references, and as such I wonder whether I ought to read Cervantes first. In another situation I might simply put the later book aside and read the first for context, but I remember the bookmark that remained stuck around 2/3s of the way through my father’s copy of Don Quixote for years and I know how big a book it is and… that’s one heck of a commitment to make. (I expect the bookmark is still there, but recently Dad culled his shelves of a lot of super classics and books that brought back fond memories and I’ve found it hard to look.)

I hope that simply by knowing the basics of the original – loss of sanity, chivalry, shooting at windmills… the 1980s Nik Kershaw song… this is the sort of book that might stand alone.

Aside from this, I’ve been reading about Lennox’s life. Well connected but yet incredibly unknown otherwise, she was friends with Samuel Johnson and Samuel Richardson, and likely knew, through the former, Frances Burney and other – now less well-known – female writers such as Elizabeth Carter and Hannah More, but her books were published without credit and she made little money, relying on money from the Royal Literary Fund after separating from her husband. The Female Quixote was fairly popular, and she created the first comparative study of Shakespeare’s work, but despite the fact information on her seems to eclipse that of the other female writers I’ve mentioned above (barring Burney), she’s very obscure today.

Away from literature, the defining moment of the last few weeks came last Friday when the England Ladies’ Football arrived in Southampton to play their World Cup qualifier against Wales. It was quite surreal – I’ve seen them play once before but having them in Southampton was incredible and the stadium was pretty packed. It was a 0-0 match that was surprisingly good to watch because England had 22 shots at the goal; the ball rarely passed over the halfway line. They are currently 2nd in the world.

Today’s question must be bookish:

How do you deal with reading around the subject and reading source material – do you cover the originals first?

 

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