25 November, 2008


Reading: spent Sunday in a mildly hungover fug reading Shirley as the rain lashed at the windows. It was a pretty much perfect book for that.

Listening: bought the Barenboim box set of Brahms' symphonies. Also v good for rain-lashing winter afternoons.

Watching: opera on Youtube. The post-apocalyptic BBC1 drama Survivors. Elektra at the ROH. Take me out to the ballgame.

26 October, 2008

F.'s done this, so I will do it too: the Time magazine list of the 100 greatest novels 1923-2005. Green for books I've read, blue for authors I've read other works by:

1 - Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

2 - A Death in the Family, James Agee

3 - Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis

4 - Money, Martin Amis

5 - The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood

6 - Go Tell it on the Mountain, James Baldwin

7 - The Sot-Weed Factor,John Barth.

8 - The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow

9 - Herzog, Saul Bellow

10 - The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles

11 - The Death of the Heart, Elizabeth Bowen

12 - Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret Judy Blume

13 - A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess

14 - Naked Lunch, William Burroughs

15 - Possession, A S Byatt

16 - Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather

17 - The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler

18 - Falconer, John Cheever

19 - White Noise, Don DeLillo

20 - Ubik, Philip K Dick

21 - Deliverance, James Dickey

22 - Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion

23 - Ragtime, E L Doctorow

24 - An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser

25 - Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

26 - Light in August, William Faulkner

27 - The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner

28 - The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald

29 - The Sportswriter, Richard Ford

30 - A Passage to India, E M Forster

31 - The French Lieutenant's Woman, John Fowles

32 - The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen

33 - The Recognitions, William Gaddis

34 - Neuromancer, William Gibson

35 - Lord Of The Flies, William Golding

36 - I, Claudius, Robert Graves

37 - Loving, Henry Green

38 - The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene

39 - The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene

40 - Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett

41 - Catch-22, Joseph Heller

42 - The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

43 - Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

44 - The Berlin Stories, Christopher Isherwood

45 - Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

46 - On The Road, Jack Kerouac

47 - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey

48 - The Painted Bird, Jerzy Kosinski

49 - The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, John le Carre

50 - To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

51 - The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing

52 - The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, C S Lewis

53 - Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry

54 - The Assistant, Bernard Malamud

55 - Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy

56 - The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers

57 - Atonement, Ian McEwan

58 - Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller

59 - Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

60 - Watchmen, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

61 - Beloved, Toni Morrison

62 - Under the Net, Iris Murdoch

63 - Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

64 - Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov

65 - A House for Mr Biswas, V S Naipaul

66 - At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O'Brien

67 - Appointment in Samarra, John O'Hara

68 - Animal Farm, George Orwell

69 - 1984, George Orwell

70 - The Moviegoer, Walker Percy

71 - A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell

72 - Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon

73 - The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon

74 - Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys

75 - Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson

76 - Call It Sleep, Henry Roth

77 - American Pastoral, Philip Roth

78 - Portnoy's Complaint, Philip Roth

79 - Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie

80 - The Catcher In The Rye, J D Salinger

81 - White Teeth, Zadie Smith

82 - The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark

83 - The Man Who Loved Children, Christina Stead

84 - The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

85 - Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson

86 - Dog Soldiers, Robert Stone

87 - The Confessions of Nat Turner, William Styron

88 - The Lord of the Rings, J R R Tolkien

89 - Rabbit, Run, John Updike

90 - Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut

91 - Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

92 - All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren

93 - Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh

94 - A Handful of Dust, Evelyn Waugh

95 - The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West

96 - The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder

97 - Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf.

98 - To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

99 - Native Son, Richard Wright

100 - Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates

Edit - found the link. They're in alphabetical order of title here.

24 October, 2008


If I don't do this I will never catch myself up.

Empire of the sun, JG Ballard. This was quite amazing and I would like to write more about it. You can see why Ballard writes such weird books, given a childhood roughly like this (I think he was in a Japanese camp, but not separated from his parents). The bit when he is alone in Shanghai, eating cocktail food from the bars of the deserted but opulent houses of departed Westerners (the servants have already taken the food from the kitchens; all that's left is chocolates in bedside tables and bar snacks) has a haunting, post-apocalyptic feel. [53]

Just in case, Meg Rosoff. [54]

From the Boer war to the Cold war, AJP Taylor. A sort of follow-up to his colllection of essays on the nineteenth century, From Napoleon to the Second International, which I thought was terrific (although, looking back, I didn't manage to write anything about that either). This was very interesting as it deals with the twentieth century, and so a lot of the essays concern events that took place during Alan Taylor's lifetime. I really like the way he writes: he's very clear and understandable, and often very witty. [55]

Resistance by Welsh poet Owen Sheers was one of those rare books that I finished reading despite the fact that it actually wasn't very good. This was an alternative history novel, in which the Germans had successfully invaded the UK, and is set in a remote Welsh valley. I liked the evocation of wild Wales, but the alternative history bit of the story seemed a bit pointless, and the characters were very wooden, particularly the central woman, a farmers' wife whose husband has left to join the resistance. There were also a few grating bits - would a Welsh farmer's wife in the 1940s compare the smell of gorse to coconut? Perhaps that's very picky, but that sort of thing is very jarring. [56]

Confessions of a survivor, Doris Lessing. I really enjoyed this. One of the things I really like about this is that it's sort-of a post-apocalyptic novel, but the disaster (which is never fully explained) is gradual, rather than drastic: it's described in terms of things getting worse and worse, not some sudden event. I also really like Doris Lessing's almost squinty-eyed honesty about the way her characters think and behave. [57]

Dead end feminism, which I re-read for my women's group, but have written about briefly before. I like the critique of Andrea Dworkin, and what she characterises as 'victim feminism', but I think she goes too far in, for example, her claim that breast-feeding is fetishised in order to keep the mother tied to the child. (Although I think in France breastfeeding isn't considered as important as it is in other Western countries?) . The other smart-arse light-hearted book by a French philosopher I've read recently was How to talk about books you haven't read by Pierre Bayard, which was mildly entertaining, but which I now remember nothing about. [58] [59]

A collection of poetry about london, London lines, selected by Kenneth Baker. [60]

The ballad of Lee Cotton, by Christopher Wilson, which was light, entertaining, but trying a bit too hard to be unpredictable. [61]

15 October, 2008

Holiday reading

Of course, I actually read this in August, when I had my holiday.

Hilary Mantel's A place of greater safety was utterly gripping, despite being about eight hundred pages long, and I spent most of my time in France unable to put it down. It's a fictionalisation of the French revolution, following Camille Desmoulins, Danton and Robespierre from early life to their various deaths by the guillotine. I thought this was an utterly fantastic novel. It's very political, and in fact the characters talk almost exclusively of politics, but they are incredibly vivid for all that. And despite following the three central figures from childhood to adulthood, she manages to avoid biographical clichés and cheap sentiment.

In fact, I really like Mantel's view of history: there's a sense of irresistible forces constantly pushing change (the hunger of the people; migration of the starving to Paris), but at the same time with the key events - like the storming of the Bastille - there's a sense of randomness and chaos. People know that something big is going to happen, but when it actually does happen it almost comes as a surprise, even for the people who are later seen as leaders. There's no inevitability to the storming of the Bastille, or even the beheading of Louis XVI: these things are symptoms of the greater historical forces at work. And the way she represents this can be very powerful, cutting from a discussion of politics in Danton's bourgeois home to a short separate paragraph:

Under the bridges, by dim and precarious fires, the destitute wait for death. A loaf of bread is fourteen sous, for the New Year.
It's a very good representation of the way that material conditions force change, but when that change comes, it's difficult to predict exactly what it will be.

Despite the chilling depiction of the starving population, though, (the paragraph about the starving migrants who come from the country to Paris is genuinely spooky), the novel is actually very funny in parts. Camille Desmoulins in particular is very entertaining with a ridiculous love life and a sort of childish helplessness. [52]

10 October, 2008

Reading in public

I love this post with great photos of women reading in public, over at feminist blog Hoyden about town.

08 October, 2008

Book art

I love these book clusters by artist Nina Katchadourian.

07 October, 2008


Reading: I'm trying to finish off all the half-read books I have on the go before I start anything new: still to finish are Doris Lessing's Landlocked, Roth's Hotel Savoy, The ballad of Lee Cotton, and Riddley Walker.

Listening: the library was selling off CDs, so I have Stravinsky's Firebird and (I think) some random Brahms to listen to this evening.

Watching: spent quite a lot of the weekend rewatching the 70s BBC adaptation of Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy. I love 1970s London.

08 September, 2008


Reading: having reread Radetzkymarsch, I'm reading the sort-of sequel, Die Kapuzinergruft and another short novel by Roth, Hotel Savoy.

Listening: I meant to go to hear Friday's prom, but it was raining (yeah yeah I know). But it was lovely on the radio.

Watching: I'm surprised how entertaining I'm finding The Sweeney, which was my birthday present to my cohabitant. They're so splendidly South Londony and seventies.

30 August, 2008

Middle class women in the mid-twentieth century

The feminine middlebrow novel, 1920s to 1950s by Nicola Humble was a really interesting look at a lot of books I'm very fond of, including Cold Comfort Farm, The pursuit of love, the Peter Wimsey mysteries and a whole lot of books by (or for) women - she even mentioned the Anotia Forest children's series at one point. Basically, the kind of books that have been reprinted in the Virago Modern Classics series and by Persephone. This was really fun, looking at all sorts of stuff I'm very interested in: class and gender roles, and the retreat into domesticity after the second world war. Obviously these kind of novels mostly deal with very upper middle class women - the sort of women who had the leisure to write books rather than having to run households or work for money.

This led me on to a couple of things - E.M. Delafield's Diary of a provincial lady, which was a very charming fictional diary: a sort of 1930s Bridget Jones, but funnier and a lovely period piece.

More interesting was Elizabeth Bowen's Death of the heart, which was a very odd and unsettling novel, but I'm still trying to put my finger on quite why it was so unsettling. The story is about Portia, an orphaned teenager, who moves in with her half-brother and his wife into their grand, chilly London home. They don't really want her there, and she is desperately lonely, so that in the end she turns to the wastrel Eddie for love and companionship. The reader can see that Eddie is not serious, but nonetheless Portia is devastated by his casual betrayal of her.

Another set of diaries, but not fictional this time, Joan Wyndham's Love lessons and Love is blue, which were wonderful: the first one is her teenage diary, which is precocious and totally sex-obsessed, and the second about her adventures in the WAAF, which mostly involve sleeping her way around Scotland. Fascinating to see how limited women's sexual expectations were at the time: she records her various lovers' pieces of advice about how women are very unlikely to come, and spends a long time having fundamentally unsatisfactory sex and only vaguely wondering whether it might be better somehow. But these were very funny and excellent reading with a hangover.

Finally an interesting book in the form of one of those collections from the Mass Observation Archive, this one a collection of articles written as part of a collaborative correspondence magazine set up between a group of women in the late 1940s. Can any mother help me? is the title, after the letter sent to a magazine by a depressed housewife, asking for suggestions of how to overcome her depression and sense of isolation. The articles are amazing - the women write very frankly about things like childbirth and medical experiences, as well as their marriages, divorces, childcare and career and social successes. The group fairly diverse, although they are all middle-class, and it's very interesting to see how they have a similar dynamic to, say, a talkboard: beginning with anonymity and the freedom of expression that that offers, but eventually becoming close friends - which correspondingly limits, sometimes, the things they feel free to say. I would have like to read some of the less personal articles - through the book they refer to things like 'such and such's article on socialism', but the editor, Jenna Bailey, has pretty much confined her choice of articles to ones on personal experience. [42] [43] [44] [45] [46] [47]

Zola: the low life

God, I read these before I finished my exams. In June. I'm so horribly behind with this blog. So anyway: Thérèse Raquin and L'assommoir. Both horribly gloomy books in which everyone, pretty much, comes to a bad end. I like a bit of doom and gloom.

L'assommoir is the novel where Zola introduces the parents of Etienne (from Germinal) and Nana, and it's got a lot of his theories about heredity: essentially, that alcoholism and violence are passed down in families. Thankfully, this isn't stated explicitly (I can't bear 19th century novels full of essays on science) but is made clear through the story: Gervaise has plenty of opportunity to make good, but her natural laziness and alcoholism lead to her downfall. (Etienne, of course, is a good and admirable man, but it's made clear in Germinal that this is because he manages, with great effort, to keep his inherited alcoholic and violent tendencies in check - if he ever gets drunk, he may kill a man.)

It's fantastically detailed, as a picture of life in mid-nineteenth century Paris: I like the way Zola shows the landscape changing as the slums are cleared (I guess as part of Haussmann's projects?), and he's excellent with the details of life. I always like it when authors tell you about costs and prices, and particularly here, the details of how much everything costs add to the feeling of grinding poverty in the area, particularly in the beginning where Gervaise and Lantier are first living in horrible squalor.

I also really like the way Zola captures the experience of some really ghastly social events. The big binge in the middle of the novel is so horribly evocative, as they all stuff themselves and are then sick in the street. He does a similar thing in Thérèse Raquin: the evenings above the shop with the horrible stuffy pompous guests are wonderfully cringey and awful. Otherwise, I enjoyed this less than the Rougon-Macquart novels I've read: Zola's obsession here is with temperaments and types, and how people's lives play out according to their natures, which I find less interesting than his mad heredity theories, and I can do without all the stuff about human brutes as well. But on the whole, I enjoy tragic melodrama and liked this well enough. [40] [41]
Three novels by Barbara Trapido, in quick succession (I think all in the same weekend): Juggling, The travelling hornplayer and Noah's ark. I love Trapido's stories. There's a sort of fairytale element to them: themes of twins and odd deceptions and weird coincidences, like Shakespeare's comedies, but at the same time they're firmly rooted in the material life and social circumstances of modern Britain. I like the way she always describes houses and clothes and delights in the gadgets and comforts that the middle-classes fill their houses with.

These were all particularly entertaining books as they're loosely connected: characters from previous novels turn up again in completely different contexts (lovely Jonathan from Brother of the more famous Jack turns up in The travelling hornplayer as 'the Novelist', having an affair and a mid-life crisis). And they're funny, full of eccentric familes and clever funny people. I'm tempted to track down all the ones I haven't yet read in the library, but think I might leave it for a while until I really need some comfort reading. [37] [38] [39]

26 August, 2008


Reading: spent yesterday in a fug of hangover reading Joan Wyndham's diaries which are very silly and entertaining.

Listening: very much enjoyed the Sleeping Beauty in last week's proms.

Watching: watched Empire of the Sun with a massive hangover and a Chinese takeaway.

28 July, 2008


Reading: still reading Riddley Walker, and I've started Robert Conquest's The great terror.

Listening: the Proms have started, yay! I particularly enjoyed the Saint-Saëns organ symphony last Monday.

Watching: we have no TV at the moment, which is nice, but I'm looking forward to the Clint Eastwood season at the NFT next month.

01 July, 2008

It was Melissa Benn's article in the Guardian that put me on to EL Doctorow's The book of Daniel and I'm so glad it did. I thought this was a terrific book. It's a fictionalisation of the story of the Rosenbergs, the communists executed in America in the 1950s for passing atomic secrets to the Russians, who here become Paul and Rochelle Isaacson. It's told from the point of view of their son Daniel in 1967, who is dabbling in hippie activism while looking back at the activism of his parents.

I thought this was so clever because the tone is so subtle, while the novel as a whole is bleak and angry. Daniel mocks his parents and ironises their politics, but he doesn't despise them, nor is he cynical. And although Daniel is sadistic and fucked-up, he's still terribly sad and basically sympathetic: he treats his wife and child badly, but we feel for him. And his view of events is so beautifully captured: the narrative drifts between contemporary events as he is writing and the events of his childhood: his parents' arrest, imprisonment, trial and execution are given as random chunks of memory. He sometimes refers to his father, or our father, sometimes to Mr Isaacson; the passages in 1967 switch between first and third person, but even in third person there's a sense of Daniel as narrator, as though he's trying to make sense of his life by writing about it.

The book has a terrible sense of tension and unease and dread (electricity is used as a metaphor all the way through), and I wondered how Doctorow would sustain this in dealing with the execution of the Isaacsons. There is no coy 'and when it was done': it is brutally clear and horribly dispassionate. It's a fantastic, intense, sad book, one of the best I've read this year. I have Doctorow's Ragtime waiting: looking forward to it. [36]

30 June, 2008

Light reading

Two similarish and very enjoyable books, as a post-coursework, pre-revision treat (I am so behind with updating this blog). PG Wodehouse's Pigs have wings and the Damon Runyon omnibus. Both fun more for the language than the story: the silly literary jokes in Wodehouse and the marvellously unreal dialogue in Runyon. [30] [31]

Then as a post-exams mindless indulgence, four Georgette Heyer novels: The Nonesuch, Cotillion, Arabella and A marriage of convenience. Reading Georgette Heyer is like taking a hot bath, really. But I do like the fact that all her lovely men are so well-dressed. I can't think of any other novels in which such attention is paid to the details of the men's outfits. Maybe Gone with the wind? I think Rhett Butler does dress well, but I can't remember if there's any detail about it. The regency period is interesting, though: it's the point where men's outfits (that is, upper class men's outfits) lose the extravagance of the eighteenth century and start being modelled on riding clothes: women's clothes remain impractical and decorative. I suppose the fascination with the period is to do with the men being beautifully, elegantly dressed but also wearing recognisably 'manly' clothing: clothing which looks good on strong, athletic male bodies with broad shoulders and long legs. [32] [33] [34] [35]


Reading: a very annoying book on feminism and fashion called Fresh lipstick and Riddley Walker. And some random Georgette Heyer novels.

Listening: the Summer Stock and Kiss me Kate soundtracks.

Watching: Mary Queen of shops on BBC1 which is moderately rubbishy but enjoyable.

23 June, 2008


Reading: devoured Nicola Humble's book on The feminine middlebrow novel over the weekend.

Listening: I lasted about ten minutes of Harrison Birtwhistle's Punch and Judy on Radio 3 on Saturday night. So not much at the moment.

Watching: the Sex and the city movie. Have you ever bought a six-pack of crappy chocolate mousses from the supermarket and eaten them one after the other?

21 June, 2008

Revision books

I can't be bothered to do reviews, but these are the books I read as part of my revision:

The Weimar republic - Eberhard Kolb [23]
Weimar and the rise of Hitler - A.J. Nicholls [24]
The Weimar republic - J.W. Hiden [25]
Balzac - Wendy Mercer [26]
Zola: Germinal - Colin Smethurst [27]
La peau de chagrin - Alain Schaffner [28]
Germinal - Colette Becker [29]

Too many books

Someone pointed me towards this Wall Street Journal article about owning books. It's a subject I've been thinking about recently, especially as we are moving house soon: I estimate I've got about five or six hundred books to move in my current flat, and another couple of hundred back at my parents' place. It's a source of mild friction between myself and my cohabitant: he doesn't believe in owning books, but gets them from the library. I also use the library (I am a member of eight libraries, at least five of which I don't owe massive fines to) but I like to own books. I think he feels mildly oppressed by the sheer number of books I own, and they do tend to get everywhere.

I'm actually much less of a book hoarder and compulsive book buyer than I used to be: I almost never buy new books these days, but I still find it difficult to pass a second hand bookshop without acquiring one or two. I had a massive clearout a couple of years ago when I got rid of around three hundred books, discarding the ones that I was never likely to read again, the ones which would be freely available in the library if I did want to read them again and the duplicate copies. Since then I try to limit my library to books I definitely do want to read or reread, and try and keep books that are freely available in the library to a minimum. I like this passage from Luc Sante's article:
It occurred to me that I had little need for most of the shrubbery surrounding the works of major authors: the letters (with one or two significant exceptions), the critical approaches (unless they are worth reading on their own terms), and any biography over 500 pages long (except maybe those by Richard Ellmann and Leon Edel). I also had no need for books with funny titles, books acquired only because everybody else was reading them, books with no value except as objects, and books that inspired a vague sense of dread whenever they caught my eye -- possible cornerstones of culture that nevertheless only solitary confinement would ever compel me to read.

I still have a lot of books. I like having them, I like being around them, I like the fact that I can go to the shelf and look up a half-remembered passage whenever I want to. It sometimes seems to me, though, that owning books is not recognised as the materialist act it actually is. Because having a library is seen as a cultural, educated thing to have, it's as though it's somehow morally superior to owning a lot of clothes, say. In some ways I'd like to be more like my partner, with his half dozen books and his library card.

Things I've noticed

Favourite blog of the week: Shapely Prose, a great blog about fat acceptance.

Wonderful article in the New York Times about shared parenting. OK, the people they talk to are all quite affluent middle-class parents, and therefore have many more options to take fewer hours and less pay, but it's a really positive interesting article.

This made me laugh.

And the Guardian review of Leonard Cohen's concert made me look forward to seeing him even more than I already am. Roll on July 18th...

13 June, 2008

Excuses excuses

Oh well, so much for updating 'tomorrow'. Work has been hellish this week and I've been in a permanent state of stress. I will update... some time.

05 June, 2008

Normal service will shortly be resumed

In fact, I have grand plans to blog more frequently. But I've been doing my final exams and turned myself into a giant neurotic mess so I haven't posted anything for a while. So anyway! Tomorrow I will start catching up posting all the books I have read in the last couple of months.

12 May, 2008


Reading: Having sped through Thérèse Raquin (post soon), I've just started L'assommoir.

Listening: Tosca tonight!

Watching: went to see Jeremy Hardy doing stand-up in Stratford on Saturday as my birthday treat with my family. Also, The good soul of Szechuan on Friday at the Young Vic, which was well... ok.

08 May, 2008

Gospel truth

I came across an excellent Penguin paperback copy of the Gospels in a charity shop, so I've been reading them. Gosh, they're bizarre. Very episodic and unliterary, and nothing seems to follow anything else with any kind of logic. And some of the parables are just strange and incomprehensible. I like the fact that they are four retellings of the same story, and in some bits the story is exactly the same and other bits the emphasis is completely different. I also like this bit from the end of Matthew 28, which my brother says shows that Jesus didn't really rise again.

11 Now when they were going, behold, some of the watch came into the city, and shewed unto the chief priests all the things that were done.
12 And when they were assembled with the elders, and had taken counsel, they gave large money unto the soldiers,
13 Saying, Say ye, His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept.
14 And if this come to the governor's ears, we will persuade him, and secure you.
15 So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day. [22]

07 May, 2008

Be careful what you wish for

Finally finished Balzac's La peau de chagrin, which was an odd little book. I was expecting to find Balzac's style much tougher going that I actually did: clause upon clause, and constantly breaking off to offer a little aphorism here and there, but I actually relaxed into it pretty quickly. It's the story of Raphael who, when about to commit suicide, comes across a mysterious little antique shop where he buys a piece of ass's skin which grants wishes. Every time he wishes for something, the skin gets smaller until it disappears and he dies. And on the way he meets an evil temptress, and then a sweet, innocent young girl who he falls in love with. So it's very fairytale-like, but at the same time Balzac describes absolutely everything in detail: rooms, clothes, street scenes. This makes it very uncanny, the contrast between the nineteenth century Paris and the supernatural event which take place. Some of it I didn't understand and will have to go back to: particularly the banquet scene, where Raphael and his friends discuss politics and philosophy in a sort of mad drunken discourse. [21]

Phil's review of it is here.

06 May, 2008


Reading: Lothar Kettenacker's Germany since 1945 and Eberhard Kolb's The Weimar republic. Revision time is upon me...

Listening: Birthday presents - the latest Kris Kristofferson album and Ella Fitzgerald's Cole Porter songbook.

Watching: series 3 of the Wire! Yay. The first episode was already so funny and good. And looking forward to The good person of Szechuan at the Young Vic on Friday - my birthday treat.

29 April, 2008

A question

Why do comment spammers always use the phrase 'this post is likeable'? What could be more damning-with-faint-praise than that?


Reading: just coming to the end of Bowen's The death of the heart, and half way through La peau de chagrin; now that I'm more used to the style, I'm settling into it, although it's a very odd little book.

Listening: truly fantastic concert last night; a newish piece by Thomas Adès and Steve Reich's Music for 18 musicians. The first one was accompanied by a 'video interpretation' which was pretty amazing, and it was really fascinating to watch the Steve Reich being performed: some of the noises are very odd and it's interesting to see how they're done with perfectly normal musicians and singers, not computers or trickery.

Watching: just been lent series 3 of The wire, yay! Can't wait.

21 April, 2008


Reading: I've mostly been stressing about my essays and not reading but I managed to really get going with La peau de chagrin today.

Listening: Philip Glass's Satyagraha, on Radio 3's Opera from the Met on Saturday evening was surprisingly enjoyable, and what's more, compelling. Which is, I admit, not what I was expecting.

Watching: nothing apart from Have I got news for you and Bremner, Bird and Fortune.

18 April, 2008

Sweet Valley

A lovely funny blog in which someone is reading all the Sweet Valley High books and commenting sardonically on them. I love the fact that there is a blog about everything.

The New York Times blog about the seven deadly words of book reviewing. The blog post isn't that great, but the comments are pretty funny.

Young me-now me is a great collection of matching photos of people as children and as adults.

A marvellously grumpy interview with James Kelman. I really must get round to finishing How late it was, how late some time.

16 April, 2008

Synopsis of the great Welsh novel

Dai K lives at the end of a valley. One is not quite sure
Whether it has been drowned or not. His Mam
Loves him too much and his Dada drinks.
As for his girlfriend Blodwen, she's pregnant. So
Are all the other girls in the village-there's been a Revival.
After a performance of Elijah, the mad preacher
Davies the Doom has burnt the chapel down.
One Saturday night after a dance at the Corn Club,
With the Free Wales Army up to no goood in the back lanes,
A stranger comes to the village; he is, of course,
God, the well known television personality. He succeeds
In confusing the issue, whatever it is, and departs
On the last train before the line is closed.
The colliery blows up, there is a financial scandal
Involving all the most respected citizens; the choir
Wins at the National. It is all seen, naturally,
Through the eyes of a sensitive boy who never grows up.
The men emigrate to America, Cardiff and the moon.
The girls find rich and foolish English husbands. Only daft Ianto
Is left to recite the Complete Works of Sir Lewis Morris
To puzzled sheep, before throwing himself over
The edge of the abandoned quarry. One is not quite sure
Whether it is fiction or not.

-- Harri Webb


Tom Lehrer videos on Youtube. Tom Lehrer celebrated his eightieth birthday last week on April 9th. Happy Birthday!

Magnolia shoals

Up here among the gull cries
we stroll through a maze of pale
red-mottled relics, shells, claws

as if it were summer still.
That season has turned its back.
Through the green sea gardens stall,

bow, and recover their look
of the imperishable
gardens in an antique book

or tapestries on a wall,
leaves behind us warp and lapse.
The late month withers, as well.

Below us a white gull keeps
the weed-slicked shelf for his own,
hustles other gulls off. Crabs

rove over his field of stone;
mussels cluster blue as grapes :
his beak brings the harvest in.

The watercolorist grips
his brush in the stringent air.
The horizon’s bare of ships,

the beach and the rocks are bare.
He paints a blizzard of gulls,
wings drumming in the winter.

15 April, 2008


Reading: Elizabeth Bowen's Death of the heart, La chartreuse de parme (still)

Listening: George Jones, Doris Day

Watching: just finished series 2 of Deadwood. Not as good as the first, but still pretty good and v funny. Al Swearengen is just such a fantastic character.

12 April, 2008

Photography and war

Two related books. I finished Sontag's On photography a couple of weeks ago and followed it up with Regarding the pain of others: interesting to read two connected books by the same author, written twenty-odd years apart, on similar topics. I thought they were both fascinating

With regard to On photography, I'm finding it hard to think of things to say now because I find I'm more mulling over questions she raises than agreeing or disagreeing with things she says. Like, what is the effect on society when it is 'saturated' with photographic images, as ours is? She uses the phrase 'image junkies'. What is the relationship between a photograph and reality? We see photos as more real than paintings, but how real does that make them? She suggests that photographs can be very unreal: for example, in the section on Diane Arbus she talks about the way that Diane Arbus's photos distance the viewer/photographer from the bizarre or freakish subject.

In Regarding the pain... she talks about images of war and suffering, something I think about a lot. As I get most of my news from the radio and the newspapers online, I miss out on the visuals of the TV and printed papers. This isn't a moral choice, but convenience and personal preference (TV news pisses me off even more than the Today programme). Sontag writes about the authenticity of war photos, and how the way they are used can change their meaning, but she also discusses whether the enormous number of photos of wars and suffering lessens their impact. In contrast to her earlier ideas about society's saturation with photographic images, she concludes than no, they don't.

I think this has been discussed a lot in the media, whether shocking pictures on the television cause 'compassion fatigue' (horrible term) and make people become numbed to tragedy. I think someone looked into this and found that on the contrary, while shocking pictures are there, people's awareness is raised and they are more likely to donate to causes and charities. When the pictures go, people (unsurprisingly) forget about that issue.

I should also say that I love the way Susan Sontag writes: she is so clear and elegant, and these books are no exception. Anyway, what I really want is to own these books so I can come back to them, but a really crappy Penguin Modern Classics edition of On photography is ten pounds! for a really flimsy paperback printed on horrible cheap paper. So if anyone sees either in a charity shop/second hand bookshop/being sold off by a library, please can they snap them up and I will reimburse them. [20]

The catch

the long, smouldering
afternoon. It is

this moment
when the ball scoots
off the edge

of the bat; upwards,
backwards, falling

beyond him
yet he reaches
and picks it

of its loop

an apple
from a branch
the first of the season.

-- Simon Armitage

11 April, 2008

Did I miss anything?

I love this poem on the excellent 37 days blog.

I've also been reading my way slowly through the archives of the So Many Books blog.

An interesting article from the New York Times about Antoine Saint-Exupery and his disappearance in a plane crash during the Second World War.

Some debate about women's representation or under-representation in poetry, following the Guardian's recent poetry booklets series.

Amazing photos of an abandoned library in Russia, via Things magazine, as well as a flickr set of pictures of an abandoned book depository in Detroit.

10 April, 2008

Le vide

Je descendais, je m'accrochais à des broussailles
Cherchant quelque rocher pour assurer mes pas.
D'habitude nous avons en nous ce compas
Qui mesure vite une pente à notre taille.
On sait s'il faut continuer une voltige
Et même si le goufre est un peu en retrait.
Mais ici plusieurs fois de suite le vertige
Du vide me laissait imaginer après
La même chute encore.

-- Edith Boissonnas

Recent acquisitions - poetry

Components of the scene - poetry and prose from the Second World War, ed. Ronald Blythe
Anthology of modern French poetry, ed. C.A. Hackett
Spells, ed. F. McEachran
French poetry today, ed. Simon Watson-Taylor and Edward Lucie-Smith

The book called Spells is a lovely collection of all sorts of bits of verse, from Homer to Auden. The introduction explains: "Essentially a 'spell' is an incantation, and all I can say is that the actuall practice of saying verse aloud, stressing the incantatory side, is the origin of the term here... I have defined a spell as 'concentrated poetry, of sound or sense'."

Recent acquisitions

Walter Benjamin - Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit
Gore Vidal - United States (essays)
AJP Taylor - From the Boer war to the Cold war (essays)
György Lukács - The meaning of contemporary realism
György Lukács - Essays on Thomas Mann
Decca: the letters of Jessica Mitford

09 April, 2008

The end is nigh

Sped through Cormac McCarthy's The road in the plane back from Lisbon and absolutely loved it. It's a post-apocalyptic novel about a father and son travelling through a devastated landscape in which unburied corpses litter the roads and bands of cannibals roam in search of humans to kill and eat. The language is beautiful: the desolation and the dead landscape are wonderfully evoked, and at times it reminded me of Samuel Beckett, particularly the conversation they have with a blind old man, who speaks like a strange prophet.

It's also really scary, more scary than any book I've read for a long time. Two passages actually made me shudder with fright. I'm not sure quite why I had such a strong reaction. I suppose because the world depicted is both horribly alien and completely familiar: everywhere they go the father and son find traces of our own world - an unopened can of Coke, supermarkets and garages, and a complete train sitting in a siding - but the world around them is completely dead, no sun, no animals, no plants, no food except in the few tins they can scavenge. The two very horrible and frightening bits seem particularly upsetting in that context. [19]

08 April, 2008


Reading:Cormac McCarthy's The road, Balzac's La peau de chagrin, various stuff on the GDR for an essay, La chartreuse de Parme.

Listening: Kris Kristofferson at the Albert Hall last week, fado music in Lisbon - both terrific.

Watching: I've been away for the weekend in Lisbon, so nothing much. Sleeping Beauty at the ROH tonight, though.

02 April, 2008

National poetry month

So, I forgot about this last year, and I forgot about this the year before, and I nearly forgot this year, but April is National Poetry Month and this year I'm going to make sure I read some poetry. It's actually an excellent time - just as I'm approaching exams - as it's so much easier to read poetry in little bits, picking it up and putting it down again without getting engrossed in it as I do novels (some novels...). I've signed up for the poem-a-day from poets.org and I'm going to post some poetry on here as well.

Feminist book club - part 1

So, it's my unilateral decision this time - democracy can come later - and I'm suggesting two books, to read over two months, as that gives us all a bit more flexibility, especially those of us with finals in May...

Books one and two are The female eunuch by Germaine Greer and The dialectic of sex by Shulamith Firestone. Anyone interested in reading along is very welcome to, and eventually we'll have a drink and discuss the books. Men are very welcome to join in!
Just a quick post about this excellent article in New Left Review by the Italian communist Rossana Rossanda (what a great name). Beautifully written and the description of her life as a partisan in the second world war is gripping. It's an excerpt from her autobiography, which I'd love to read, but it doesn't seem to have been translated into English, except this extract. Maybe it will be translated into French at some point.

01 April, 2008

Love and literary taste

A friend brought this New York Times essay to my attention, about whether romantic compatibility goes with shared literary taste. I tend to agree with Ariel Levy that shared tastes are irrelevant: it doesn't matter to me whether my boyfriend reads or likes the same books as me; in fact, it wouldn't matter to me if he didn't read at all. I'd rather share a sense of humour than a taste in music.

Sharing tastes is tremendous fun: one of the nicest things about spending time with my sister is that she's just about the only person I know who shares all my musical tastes. But for someone to live with, make a life with? After a while it all feels a bit like navel-gazing. It's nice to get away from each other now and then, and the things that only I like stay special in part because only I like them.

The fatuousness of this man:
James Collins, whose new novel, “Beginner’s Greek,” is about a man who falls for a woman he sees reading “The Magic Mountain” on a plane, recalled that after college, he was “infatuated” with a woman who had a copy of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” on her bedside table. “I basically knew nothing about Kundera, but I remember thinking, ‘Uh-oh; trendy, bogus metaphysics, sex involving a bowler hat,’ and I never did think about the person the same way (and nothing ever happened),” he wrote in an e-mail message. “I know there were occasions when I just wrote people off completely because of what they were reading long before it ever got near the point of falling in or out of love: Baudrillard (way too pretentious), John Irving (way too middlebrow), Virginia Woolf (way too Virginia Woolf).”
is superb. What exactly would be acceptable reading for him, one wonders? Apart from The Magic Mountain, surely a strange choice for a sexually alluring book.

31 March, 2008


Reading: the Gospels, Susan Sontag's Regarding the pain of others, Wilfred Loth's Stalin's unwanted child: the Soviet Union, the German question, and the founding of the GDR

Listening: Bobby Darin & Johnny Mercer's Two of a kind, Debussy's Études played by Mitsuko Uchida

Watching: series two of Deadwood. Particularly enjoying the way the relationship between EB Farnum and his servant Richardson is becoming more and more bizarre, like something from a Beckett play.

19 March, 2008

Catch-up list: what I've read recently

OK, I hate doing this but otherwise I never catch up with myself:

Naomi Segal: The adulteress's child [10]
Cormac McCarthy: No country for old men [11]
Ann Petry: The street [12]
Edith Piaf: My life [13]
Susan Sontag: On photography [14]
Anglo-Saxon verse [15]
Ibsen: Hedda Gabler/A doll's house [16]
Yevgeny Yevtushenko: Selected Poems [17]
Michelle Tea (ed.): It's so you [18]

12 March, 2008

Small things please small minds

Just (literally, I am on the first page) started reading Eric Hobsbawm's Bandits. He quotes this, attributed to 'an old brigand from Roccamandolfi':
'We are sad, it is true, but that is because we have always been persecuted. The gentry use the pen, we the gun; they are the lords of the land, we of the mountain.'

As a modern-day fictional bandit said, 'I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase; it's all in the game though, right?'

04 March, 2008

I don't update enough

I am keeping up with my reading, I am, I am... Much better than last year, actually. But I don't update enough.

I finished, and really enjoyed - not sure if 'enjoy' is the right word, but whatever - The hothouse by Wolfgang Koeppen, a loan from my friend N. I read Koeppen's book Death in Rome last year and thought it was superb and vicious. The hothouse is about the Bonn parliament in the fifties - which I am just in the middle of studying - and is sour and angry and despairing. The Bonn parliamentarians are the Christians and Social Democrats who have kept their hands clean during the Nazi period but are now middle-aged cynics, working for a public of self-satisfied, apolitical bourgeois. Short, but very powerful, sad and bitter.

It's translated by Michael Hofmann, who is such a good translator of German. His translations never jar, the way they can sometimes, and you can hear the German behind the English without it ever becoming intrusive. [9]

27 February, 2008

Feminist book club

I like to set myself projects for reading, and one of this year's projects is going to be to read some more feminist texts: some rereads and some new books, alternating some classics with some more recently published books. I'll try and do longer reviews of them here and link to them on my women's group blog - and anyone who fancies reading along and making this a collaborative effort, that would be great. So far the list of books I'm intending to read includes
  • Simone de Beauvoir's The second sex (I've only ever read bits of this as it's pretty wordy and heavy-going)
  • Mary Wollstonecraft's A vindication of the rights of woman (I read this as a teenager, but don't remember much about it)
  • Betty Friedan's The feminine mystique - again, I read this when I was a student, but fancy rereading it
  • Susan Faludi's new book The terror dream, about gender roles in America since 9/11
  • Sheila Rowbotham's Woman's consciousness, man's world
  • Élisabeth Badinter's XY, de l'identité masculine
  • Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas
  • Deborah Siegel's Sisterhood interrupted

Suggestions are welcome!

Edit: just want to add a couple of links to articles about inspiring feminist books: feminists name important books in the Guardian, and Guardian readers respond; the f-word has a similar article here.

11 February, 2008

Christa Wolf

Two books by the East German writer Christa Wolf: Accident and The quest for Christa T. I love her drifting, stream of consciousness style: it's very similar to the way my own thought patterns work, and I find myself becoming slightly hypnotised by the writing. I also like her sense of history: The quest for Christa T. is in part about the generation who grew up during the Nazi period, and the reader is always aware of that without Wolf overtly mentioning it much. Accident is an odd, very short stream of consciousness novel: the narrator goes about her day as her brother undergoes brain surgery, and, at the same time, one of the reactors in Chernobyl powers station is on fire. It's an odd little book but I really enjoyed it. [7] [8]

08 February, 2008

Free book

I entered a competition on the Penguin books website a while ago and won this book! It arrived yesterday in the post. I had forgotten entering the competition, in fact, and spent some time wondering where it might have come from. Anyway, I'm delighted. It's a beautiful hardback book, set and bound very nicely, and the poems are lovely too.

05 February, 2008

U & S lent me a pile of novels by Barbara Trapido while I was off sick last autumn, but as it turned out I didn't actually read many of the books people lent me. So I only got round to Brother of the more famous Jack a couple of weeks ago, while trying to get myself out of my reading block. It was tremendous fun, engaging and light with a lovely narrative voice, so I followed it up with Temples of delight, also by Barbara Trapido. I like her weird characters and her cheerfulness. [5] [6]

04 February, 2008

Two very different communists

Two odd biographies - the poet Yevtushenko's Precocious autobiography and the spy Kim Philby's My silent war. Both short, both strange, both by communists, but that's about all they had in common. Philby's book would have been more fun with a bit more in it about the way he met and contacted his Soviet partners (ie. geeky John le Carré tradecraft stuff) but I suppose at the time it was published he couldn't say anything for practical reasons. The Yevtushenko book was odd, but I'm still mulling it over, so maybe I'll write more later. [3] [4]

01 February, 2008

Adorned in dreams: fashion and modernity was an interesting book of fashion history which was also trying to assess what fashion is. I liked it a lot: it discussed various ideas about fashion and how it works - does it enslave women and followers of fashion, for example, or is it a means of self-expression? It had some interesting things about fashion and modernity, especially when discussing Chanel: Wilson mentioned two things about Chanel that I thought were interesting. Firstly, on a pratical level, that she was the first designer to take aspects of sportswear and incorporate them into female fashions (male fashions had been modelled on male riding wear from the beginning of the 19th century), and secondly, that a lot of her clothes were deliberately unimpressive: tat under her influence, the clothes of rich women and of poorer women became a lot more similar in style, if still distinguished by the quality and fabric. [1]

On my other blog I quoted this passage:

Chanel created the 'poor look', the sweaters, jersey dresses and little suits that subverted the whole idea of fashion as display; although her trenchcoats and 'little nothing' black dresses might be made of the finest cashmere and her 'costume jewellery' - careless lumps of what looked like glass - were uncut emeralds and diamonds.

I also enjoyed Janet Radcliffe Richards' The sceptical feminist, which I've been reading for a while and finally finished: it's a lovely logical examination of some of the tenets of feminism and whether or not they're valid. She does quote some truly bonkers ideas, so I have to keep reminding myself that she's writing at the end of the 70s/beginning of the 80s when there were more truly bonkers ideas around. But her careful tracing and refutations of the arguments why women should be excluded from certain jobs or activities - or, on the other hand, her questioning of whether feminists should reject 'feminine' adornment - is a real delight. [2]

22 January, 2008

Reading block

So, I have only read one and two halves books so far this year. I have a weekend away this coming weekend, which involves ten hours on trains in total, so I may get some decent reading done then... although I also have a cardigan sleeve and a half to finish knitting, so, hmm.

I find reading blocks very difficult to deal with. I have successfully managed half of Barbara Trapido's Brother of the more famous Jack since yesterday, so I may be emerging from this one, but I have spent most of January feeling antsy and not-right. Partly this has been because I have been in an essay swamp (this evening I hand in To what extent did the fascination with the ‘new woman’ reflect social realities in Weimar Germany? Woo!) and haven't been able to settle to anything without guiltily worrying that I should be reading essay stuff. Then the chicklit novel I started to celebrate my emergence from the essay swamp turned out to be terrible, overly arch and full of anachronisms, so I've laid it aside. (I'm working on my new 'Life's too short to read crap' rule. It is too short. I don't need to finish a book before I judge it unworthy of me.)

Also, due to the aforementioned essay swamp, I haven't had time to tidy or clean the house, or to do any of my other projects (knitting, sewing, cleaning out my wardrobe) so I haven't got to the point where after a busy day I reward myself by sitting down with a book. And bus journeys have been spent staring into space and making mental lists of all the things I need to do rather than reading. Do any of my readers ever get reading blocks, and how do you get out of them?

16 January, 2008

More Christmas books

Bought with my book token for Skoob, a lovely present from J and E. Thank you!

03 January, 2008

Resolutions for 2008

- read 100 books
- read more in French
- update this blog more regularly, and try to write a bit more about the books I read
- keep my new blog going
- read more poetry
- read some Proust

02 January, 2008

On with the new year

So the new year starts well: I received a twenty pound book token for Skoob books as a Christmas present. Not sure yet what I'll spend it on.

I need to update this blog more regularly, although as I'm planning on starting another blog about clothes, this may require some dedication. Giving up the threads (again) should help with this aim.

I'll try and carry on reading more French and German stuff until June, when I'll graduate, at which point I want to rediscover all the science I've forgotten, and read lots of Russian stuff. Read more poetry, and maybe have a go at Proust, I think.

Happy New Year to all my readers.

European poetry - and the last books of the year

Some of the first poetry I read as an adult was from the handful of Penguin Modern European Poets that my dad had - I remember Yehuda Amichai, Miroslav Holub, Alexandr Blok, Zbigniew Herbert, Paul Celan. They had wonderful sixties covers and were just the right size to carry around. I've just finished very slowly reading two fantastic anthologies which cover a lot of the same writers: The poetry of survival: post-war poets of Central and Eastern Europe, edited by Daniel Weissbort, and Against forgetting: twentieth century poetry of witness, edited by Carolyn Forché. Both borrowed from the wonderful Poetry Library at the Royal Festival Hall. [85] [86]

Other Christmas reading included my wonderful Christmas present of Nigel Slater's Kitchen diaries (a really beautiful book as well as a great read), and the Tales of Hoffmann, which entirely by accident turned out to be the most fantastic Christmas reading: spooky and gripping. I also finished a history book about twentieth century Germany - my German courses this year are on the Weimar republic, and Germany 1945-reunification; a children's book about 1940s Vienna and Nazi persecution called Emil and Karl; and Stefan Zweig's Confusion, a brilliant, sad short novel about closet homosexuality. [87] [88] [89] [90] [91]

So, 91 books this year, which is better than last year, and my best ever, I think. The discipline of trying to read a certain number of books is good for me, discouraging me from re-reading things I have read a million times before, and making me think about what I really want to read rather than just picking things up from the library at random. I haven't really been successful at most of my 2007 resolutions, although I've read more in French, and more modern German stuff.

Ten best books of the year, in no particular order:

Life and fate, Vladimir Grossman
Germinal and Nana, Émile Zola (really two books)
Civilisation and its discontents, Sigmund Freud
How I live now, Meg Rosoff
Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann
Death in Rome, Wolfgang Koeppen
The bloody chamber, Angela Carter
A literature of their own, Elaine Showalter
Flight without end, Joseph Roth
Le chat du rabbin, Joann Sfar

There ought to be some poetry in there, as I've read a fair bit of poetry this year, but it always seems to be individual poems I really love, rather than collections or anthologies. Honourable mentions to John Cornwell, Billy Collins, Paul Celan and Keith Douglas.