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Interests, Time, Frustration, Balance + Podcast

On today’s podcast I’m joined by Andrew Blackman, author of On the Holloway Road and A Virtual Love. Andrew’s also a fellow book blogger. We discuss life on the road, following in Jack Kerouac’s footsteps, offline and online identity, climate change activism, and withholding – for very good reason – the endings your readers expect.

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The main episode page, which includes the full episode details, the transcript, and a question index, is here. The podcast is also available on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, and now Google Podcasts as well. (Those apps may take a few hours to receive the episode.) You can also subscribe via RSS.


A photograph of a conservatory on a summer's day

Something I struggle with, and I had a particularly difficult time of it Saturday evening which is why the concept came to mind, is the way that I feel like I’m not using my free time well if I’m not reading or doing a bookish thing. It may well be a me-only thing; it may be something where the activity that feels important changes based on the person at hand; it might be because I’m a recovering perfectionist; it’s probably because I’ve made books such a big part of my life, that it transcends ‘hobby’, much as it does others who’ve chosen to blog about them. It’s a self-created pressure.

If I’m only reading, however – in other words doing the exact thing I feel I should be doing – I then feel I need more variety in my life. When I’ve read a lot – say most or all of every evening for a week – and I’m not experiencing burnout, I often still have a need, almost, to watch a film or play a video game, and in turn doing those things will feel like I’m having a break.

Yep, it’s a self-created pressure of a recovering perfectionist… But I do know I’m not unique in feeling this sort of way.

It’s likely down to the question of attention span, again. Sometimes – most often when I feel this way – I wish life were more like it was before screens, of all kinds, came on the scene. I think of women gathered together in parlours and men in clubs, visiting cards and so on, and wonder how having less to chose from would have felt. My guess is it would have been less demanding, but without any experience, that’s looking with rose-tinted glasses. Less to choose from probably made what you could choose from feel less… wasteful. No Fear of Missing Out – or less of it. But then of course we know women didn’t have as many options and if we know anything, it’s that sewing all day when it wasn’t your thing got boring quickly.

There’s no conclusion here; I’m still sorting out the best way to feel less unproductive and then less wasteful for differing reasons. Certainly it’s easier to relax into hobbies when on holiday, particularly when Internet signals are weaker. An idea of a schedule works – compartmentalising my days – but it’s something that needs more work and inevitably there are times I cheat a bit.

Do you ever feel like this? How do you deal with it?

 
Sherry Thomas – Delicious

Book Cover

If food be the music of love?

Publisher: Bantam Dell (Random House)
Pages: 404
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-440-24432-5
First Published: 29th July 2008
Date Reviewed: 6th February 2020
Rating: 3/5

Verity is a highly-regarded cook. Her food brings goodness to any dinners her employer puts on for guests. Verity has been in a relationship with her employer. But now Bertie is dead and his estate is to go to Stuart, his illegitimate brother, who is engaged to be married. Verity once spent a night with Stuart and she’s worried about what will happen when they meet. And then there is Verity’s past – she was certainly no cook.

Delicious is a romance set in the 1800s that looks at various consequences, mainly those that affect Verity, but a couple for Stuart, too. It sports Thomas’ ever-good usage of language but is lacking in what made her previous book (her first) so good.

Where the book works most is in its hero – Stuart has come from an incredible humble beginning, and at the place he is in his life when the story is told, he remains fairly humble. His choices aren’t always great but they mostly make sense.

The issue is mostly with Verity. Whilst her background, which it would spoil to discuss because you don’t find out much until the end (this is an additional problem because the resulting secondary thread essentially means you’re kept in a state of confusion the entire time) has an understandable impact on her thoughts and emotions, there is further issue in the way that Verity’s worries become a means to keep the book going. Verity hides from Stuart, very literally, and whilst it works at first it later becomes a bit of an ‘oh not again…’ situation, particularly during a couple of scenes where she goes against common sense in her situation as a servant. During the flashbacks, where we find out about the day Verity and Stuart met, her actions are more understandable and certainly less of a device.

The main issue, though, is that state of confusion; with Verity’s background being hinted at but then seemingly taken back, so to speak, and with a minor character’s situation also being hinted at before being taken back, it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on. Being able to keep track would have aided the process of understanding character motivations. And when the confusion finally ends and you get a clear answer, you may just wonder why the idea was there in the first place because without it the story would have been a lot stronger, and with it, though it might just about work in the historical context, you almost, in fact, don’t have a story.

Delicious is an okay read, but the structure is such that you’re right at the end before you’re in a position to really ‘get’ it, and for this book, that doesn’t really work.

 
In Which Jane Austen Reviews A Book And Makes Me Laugh

The engraving of Jane Austen

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m currently doing some research for a post, about Jane Austen. It’s taking a lot longer than I’d thought it would so I’ll share a brief part of what I’ve noted and add to it.

On Sunday 25th November 1798, Jane wrote from Steventon to her sister Cassandra about a variety of things that were happening. Her letters to Cassandra are often lengthy, and at present I have a hunch (from the bit of research completed so far) that she is more open about her opinions of books to her sister than to anyone else; this is to be expected – as we know, they were very close.

On this day, Jane included a fair paragraph of fun background context and opinion of a book that had been published earlier that year; I’ve not been able to trace the month, but it was Arthur Fitz-Albini by Samuel Egerton Brydges, a novelist/bibliographer. Here is Jane’s opinion:

“We have got ‘Fitz-Albini’; my father has bought it against my private wishes, for it does not satisfy my feelings that we should purchase the only one of Egerton’s works of which his family are ashamed. That these scruples, however, do not at all interfere with my reading of it, you will easily believe. We have neither of us yet finished the first volume. My father is disappointed – I am not, for I expected nothing better. Never did any book carry more internal evidence of its author. Every sentiment is completely Egerton’s. There is very little story, and what there is told in a strange, uncorrected way. There are many characters introduced, apparently merely to be delineated. We have not been able to recognise any of them hitherto, except Dr. and Mrs. Hey and Mr. Oxenden, who is not very tenderly treated.” (Jane Austen in Le Faye (ed.) (2011), pp. 22-23)

Had they been a thing, I think she may have given it one star.

I’ve made a cursory search for contemporary reviews of this long-forgotten book, but it’s been difficult to find any. What I did find was an obituary for Brydges, written by John Bowyer Nichols and published in The Gentleman’s Magazine, November 1837. I’ve redacted it down to the most poignant sections on the man himself as well as the novel because as you might expect, it’s Dickensian in length:

“The biography of this gifted and laborious litterateur, this imaginative poet, and in one sense we may accurately say, this imaginary character, can scarcely be treated in the sober detail of our ordinary narrative; yet, as our object in this place is always the relation of facts, we shall, in the first instance at least, state the circumstances of his birth and early life as we should do those of any other distinguished individual, premising that the particulars are derived from his own account …

The hopes and disappointments of his early years are disclosed in his Novel, called Arthur Fitz-Albini, in which he clothed a fictitious personage with his own sentiments and aspirations, and at the same time depicted with the utmost freedom the foibles not only of his neighbours and acquaintances, but even those of his own family and relations. In Arthur Fitz-Albini, “the few, whose penetration and freedom from envy enabled them to appreciate such a character, beheld the eloquence of the enlightened senator, with the independence of the country-gentleman, and the spirit and hospitality of the feudal chief, without his fierceness, his tyranny, or his uncultivated mind. Before such a man, all the paths of glory seemed to open, and the ascent to fame appeared to be covered with flowers.”

[…]

In these and many similar passages may be traced the adumbrations of Sir Egerton’s own character, and proofs that he was not unconscious of the defects which repelled the affections of his fellow-creatures, though unhappily destitute of that sober discretion and that Christian humility which would have proved the only efficient means to control or correct them (pp.534-539)

It’s likely that, with this obituary, and references to Brydges’ own forays into writing for the magazine, there is at least one review of the book out there, likely favourable.

Later notes about the book can be found in various biographies. A Biographical Dictionary of the Living Authors of Great Britain and Ireland (1816) notes on page 43:

“Sir S. E. B. has distinguished himself in almost every sort of polite literature, but more particularly as a critic of English poesy, in which character it is not too much to say that he stands unrivalled by any living author.”

Next, a rather lengthy biography, which is titled an autobiography, likely due to John Gibson Lockhart’s over-use of Brydges’ own words (an amount that would cause a superb number of cautions for anyone using another’s material today) was published in the Quarterly Review, no. 51, in 1834. It does cite positive points, but the majority leans towards the negative in a way that rather supports Austen’s own view:

“The other great grievance is Sir Egerton’s literary one. With respect to it, we cannot do better than re-quote an emphatic sentence from Mr. Sharp’s “Letters:” namely, “A want of harmony between the talents and the temperament is, wherever it is found, the fruitful source of faults and of sufferings. Perhaps few are less happy than those who are ambitious without industry who pant for the prize, but will not run the race.” Sir Egerton has all his days been busy without industry — perpetually panting for the prize, but never sufficiently persevering to make out one real heat.”

Over all, biographies and other writings published later than the book was published speak moderately to highly of Egerton, who was an MP who it seems tried to style himself as the then-head of a baronetcy he was not entitled to. Nevertheless, whatever the objective truth to the novel may be (I must say I don’t plan to read it) Austen’s effective review is definitely, if snarky, the most entertaining there is. Unfortunately, perhaps, for Brydges, it’s also likely the one that will last the longest when it comes to literary studies.

References

Books

A Biographical Dictionary of the Living Authors of Great Britain and Ireland (1816) Henry Colburn, London
Courtier, Peter L (1806) The Lyre Of Love: Volume 2, John Sharpe, London
Le Faye, Deirdre (ed.) (2011) Jane Austen’s Letters, 4th edition, Oxford University Press

Articles

Gibson Lockhart, John (1834) Autobiography of Sir Egerton Brydges, Quarterly Review, no. 51, pp.342-365
Nichols, John Bowyer (1837) Obituary: Sir Samuel Egerton Brydges, The Gentleman’s Magazine, New Series, Vol 2, pp.534-539

 
January 2020 Reading Round Up

This month has seemed both very long and incredibly short; people do say it’s February that drags, no matter the fewer days. I’ve spoken enough about my reading this month so I’ll simply say here that I managed to finish everything I planned and have made a start on another; two, actually, though the second may be a longer-term read.

All books are works of fiction.

The Books

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Andrew Blackman: A Virtual Love – Various narrators discuss their time and dealings with Jeff, a man who posed as a famous blogger when a woman mistook him for that blogger and proceeded to show a romantic interest. Very good commentary what was in 2013 a current issue and still is today (the environmental issues have expanded, now, too). A re-read.

Andrew Blackman: On The Holloway Road – A man discontent with his life embarks on a journey with a notorious local, aiming to find true freedom in a country full of restrictions. Excellent. (This was a re-read.)

Camilla Bruce: You Let Me In – Aged 74, popular romance novelist Cassie has disappeared, leaving a letter in the form of a manuscript for her niece and nephew to find; in it she explains her version of the story of her childhood, during which she believes she saw fairies (she still does) but that a therapist at the time saw as a coping method for severe abuse and neglect. This is a debut novel by a Norwegian writer; it’s out on 5th March and is absolutely fantastic.

E C Fremantle: The Poison Bed – Frances Howard and her husband Robert Carr have both been arrested for murder and are being held separately in the Tower of London; they each tell their stories. Dark, thrilling, fab.

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Nicola Cornick: The Forgotten Sister – Dudley’s wife, Amy, has died, and, seen by the media as his likely lover, popstar and presenter, Lizzie, finds herself caught up in a suspected murder case; whilst this is happening, we read about Amy Robsart, wife of Robert Dudley, Elizabeth I’s favourite, who was found dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs. A thrilling, compelling, tale with time-slip elements and an intriguing, well-thought-out way of offering a solution to the historical mystery. The book will be published late April.

Sherry Thomas: Delicious – An ex-member of the nobility has a relationship with an Earl, and later a one-night-stand with his brother, somewhat unknowingly; years later, her lover is dead and she finds herself in the role of Head Cook for the brother. Strictly okay – the heroine was rather annoying and the plot artificially drawn out.

Susmita Bhattacharya: Table Manners – A collection of stories about human relationships and connections, linked by the theme of food, whether the food is an item, an idea, or a construct. Awesome.

Tracy Chevalier (ed.): Reader, I Married Him – A collection of stories by twenty-one women writers based on Jane Eyre. Seems longer than it is but the stories are all pretty good.

This was a stellar month; five 5 star reads, one 4 star, and only one less than those. I had a ball.

I now have a sort-of plan for this new month; I have three books I’ve started tentatively – subject to change, effectively. One is a book I want to read but is a little longer than I should be reading at the moment, another is a short-ish classic comedy I started purely because I only had my tablet with me and have read the majority of the books I had on there, and the last is a potential re-read. I’m going to take February more slowly in terms of planning – have a basic idea but some options for those.

What books have you started the year with?

 
Tracy Chevalier (ed.) – Reader, I Married Him

Book Cover

There was every possibility of reading a book that day.

Publisher: The Borough Press (HarperCollins)
Pages: 282
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-15057-0
First Published: 7th April 2016
Date Reviewed: 30th January 2020
Rating: 4/5

For this anthology, twenty-one women writers, some very well known, others less known but no less great, come together to tell various short stories inspired by Jane Eyre, in particular the famous line that comes towards the end.

This collection is pretty special. Not only are the stories on the same theme but on the same sub-theme, the same sentence. It’s true that many of them do not deal closely with the subject itself, but they do all revolve around it, just at different distances.

Reader, I Married Him explores the variety of ideas that accompany all our personal experiences of Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester’s union – some look at it in terms of love, just love; some look at it in terms of the thoughts that have been explored in our more modern times of Rochester’s personality and the difficulties with his ‘woman in the attic’, as well as in terms of Jane’s beliefs in herself, and her experiences in childhood. Others look at it in terms of how it might play out today, others in a modern day context in general. Some look overseas, in countries Charlotte Brontë had possibly never heard of, and some look at same sex romances that would have been completely off the table.

The variety is, both by its nature and simply by fact, the best aspect of this book. You get enough stories about Jane Eyre and other characters from the novel to be satisfied with the literary context and classical exploration, and then there are also enough stories that are close enough, too, in that way, which means that the others – far more loosely based – become an excellent palette cleanser and are highly interesting in themselves. (Because, suffice to say, if you’re picking up this book, you’re either picking it up for Charlotte Brontë or for the authors.)

Chevalier’s compiling of the stories has been done well; the contributing editor has arranged them in such a way that even if you tire of any one particular story, you’re still very interested to read the next. And this is no mean feat when there are twenty-one to get through.

No surprise – there are plenty of standouts. Standouts for you, yourself, are necessarily going to depend on what aspect of the exploration intrigues you most, so this paragraph may be more subjective. Standouts in terms of this review include Kirsty Gunn’s Dangerous Dog, a very loosely-based story that centres on a woman who comes across a group of teenagers hurting a pit bull and tries to show them it’s not a horrible creature; Joanna Briscoe’s To Hold, where a woman marries three men for different reasons but loves Mary; the titular Reader, I Married Him by Susan Hill, a fictional narrative concerning the marriage of Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII (though they are not named as such); Francine prose’s The Mirror, which looks at Jane’s story as a repeating pattern in Rochester’s house, Elif Shafak’s A Migrating Bird, loosely-based and concerning a young Muslim student who falls for an effective exchange student who friends say will return home; Patricia Park’s The China From Buenos Aires, incredibly loosely based but fantastic, a tale of a young Korean Argentinian woman who moves to America and misses home; Salley Vickers’ Reader, She Married Me which is exactly what you would think it is; and Tracy Chevalier’s Dorset Gap, where a guy joins a literature student on a walk post-pub (public house) visit and tries to emulate her idea of signing a book for passing ramblers to poor effect.

Certainly a few of the above stories are better than the others in the paragraph but there isn’t a ‘bad’ one in the whole bunch; it’s simply the case that when you find the one or two that speak most strongly to you, be that in the literary context or otherwise, the others just can’t quite match up to them.

But that is to be expected; with the variety of debates on the various themes and topics in the original, some will speak more strongly to you than others. This is where the more average, more ‘plodding along’ periods of your reading will take place, when you want to be done with your current story so you can see what the next one is like. The book can also seem longer than it is because of the need to reset your expectations so often and so much, what with differences in closeness to Brontë’s work. Inevitably the work you have to do to understand them in context changes, too.

Reader, I Married Him does really need a reading of the source work behind it to get the most out of it; it doesn’t matter whether you read it once years ago or whether you’ve studied it over and over – you just need to have read it. And every reader will take away something different from it; interestingly, if we were to say that everyone’s opinions of the classic are branches of the same tree, then these stories and our opinions of them are further branches, from each of the first. It is effectively a secondary or tertiary source. And it’s a good one.

 

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