Monthly Archives: March 2011

Scribbling Women- Marthe Jocelyn

Scribbling Women book cover

I know I shouldn’t think this way, and I know I’ll be punished for it, but I just love it when bad things happen to people I can’t stand.

Though we might not care to admit it, I’m sure that many of us have felt like this at some point or another in our lives. There’s nothing especially remarkable about the sentiment. What is remarkable is that this quotation is taken from the diary of Sei Shonagon, a tenth century lady-in-waiting at the Imperial Court in Japan. Scribbling Women is a book of remarkable women. Remarkable because of the times they lived in, remarkable because of the stories they wrote down, remarkable because their experiences resonate with the women of today.

Marthe Jocelyn became interested in the legacy left by female diarists when researching her book A Home For Foundlings which introduced her to the importance of the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who helped to cure smallpox in Britain by writing letters home from Turkey explaining how the disease was treated there. What knowledge then might be found in the diaries and letters of less prominent women in history? And how would they relate to the experience of modern women?

Taking its title from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s frustrated outburst to his publisher, “America is now given over to a damned mob of scribbling women,” Scribbling Women is a whistle-stop tour of women’s writing in history aimed at, though not exclusively for, young adults. Some of the women may be known to readers, other names will be unfamiliar but all have extraordinary stories to tell. From the letters of Margaret Catchpole, a deported female convict who became one of the early settlers in Australia, to Hatty Jacobs whose story of life as a slave challenged the conscience of America almost every woman has something profound to tell us about her historical period and attitudes to women at the time when she wrote.

I say almost every woman, because I disagree with the inclusion of Daisy Ashford, who wrote The Young Visiters, a novel, as a nine year old. I don’t think that this fitted with the rest of the book which focuses on the experiences of women who lived incredible lives and recorded their memories in non-fiction formats. It’s almost as though Daisy’s story was included as a novelty piece, or curios, and I think that this is reflected in the length of text that the author dedicated to this.

Despite this, I loved this book and my main criticism would be that I think Jocelyn could have taken the concept further to include the stories of even more remarkable women. There are many remarkable women whose stories could have filled the pages, and I would like to see an extended edition, as I think that there would be a market for this book with a greater depth of exploration without it wandering into the scope of an academic text.  I especially liked the way that the story of each woman was linked to the next, comparing their situations or biographies to allow the distance, both physical and chronological, to flow away between the pages.

Zlata Filipovic

A diarist that I really think should have been included: Zlata Filipovic

I noticed that all but one of Marthe Joyce’s women have died, and I think that it would have been good to include some living writers. Zlata Filipovic was a teenage diarist during the war in Sarajevo, and has been compared by many to Anne Frank. However, unlike Anne, her story has had a happy ending. Not only is her diary an important historical record, but Zlata went on to study at Oxford University, and now lives in Dublin. She still writes in support of freedom, and has collaborated on works for children affected by conflict and has been involved writing forewords to projects such as The Freedom Writers Diary, which helps teenagers help themselves and the world around them through writing.

A big thank you to Tundra Books and Marthe Jocelyn for offering me the opportunity to read and review this book. Please check out the Tundra Books website for the chance to win some great Scribbling Women prizes.

I’m not a Philatelist, but…

I’m not a philatelist (stamp collector, but how cool is that word?) though I did once buy the royal mail Dracula and Frankenstein stamps to decorate my diary. I was about 9 at the time, and stamp prices weren’t quite as ridiculous as they are now. It was a short lived obsession, and while I do appreciate a nice stamp, stamps are not a major obsession for me.

However, I think I might be forced to rethink this after a colleague in work showed me these amazing book related stamps on The Royal Mail website.

Fantasy Stamps- Magical Realms

Nostalgic Stamps- Winnie-the-Pooh

I don’t know if I mentioned that I’ve decided it might be time for me to go back to old fashioned correspondace, but I have started sending a lot of letters to my friends living elsewhere, because who doesn’t love a proper letter? I think I might have to buy these.

Weekend Book Snacks

I decided to treat myself last night. The perfect accompaniment to a good book; this weekend Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand That First Held Mine. I get mine in Waitrose, not Laduree sadly, though they are still ridiculously expensive. The good thing about them as a weekend snack is that my boyfriend will only steal one, at most two, as he gets upset that his hands are too big and they always seem to crack no matter how gently he picks them up.

I viewed a house today (loved it, she had excellent bookshelves) so am really going to have to cut back on the spending. Maybe I can try making my own macarons and sell them to buy the house. If I go down the Laduree price plan I’d probably only have to sell… five… to get a deposit.

One Day- David Nicholls

What did you do on July 15th? Maybe you fell in love, maybe your heart broke, maybe you were fired, maybe your dreams came true, maybe you had a fight with your best friend. Maybe your life changed forever. Maybe all of these.

July 15th 1988, Dexter and Emma spend the night of their graduation in bed kissing and talking knowing that afterwards they have to go on with their very different lives, Dexter will go travelling and on with his privileged middle class existence, Emma back to her parents’ home in Leeds. Neither really expects to see the other again, but this is the start of a friendship and love that will last the rest of their lives. One Day tracks their relationship through the next twenty years, always on July 15th.

This was a great book and cleverly written by David Nicholls who also wrote Starter for Ten. I’m sure you’ve heard the massive praise for this book (another one that had me laughing and crying in public) so I just thought I’d share my thoughts on the book very quickly.

Though I really enjoyed the book and liked the characters an awful lot, I find David Nicholls’ writing style a bit strange. His background is in acting and television, and his writing is somehow reminiscent of this, focusing on the establishment of scenes, juxtaposing Emma and Dexter’s situations across the years in a way which is almost visual, and with fantastic dialogue which bounces back and forth in a manner that is reminiscent of sit com banter, funny, but somehow artificial. It reminded me of a diluted literary version of my favourite film, Jeux D’Enfants, the characters unable to acknowledge their real emotions and throwing unnecessary obstacles in the way of their love.The film version, wow that was fast...

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the book was really engaging, presenting characters who are loveable not because of their flaws, but because of the quirky charms that shine through regardless. In a way it’s Starter For Ten grown up. The class conflicts, the arrogant little tosser, the brainy girl, the feeling of being lost and found. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think I’ve read an author like David Nicholls for capturing the British university experience, and this seems to be an extension of this. I fully sympathise with Emma’s awkwardness, and understand the sarcasm she uses to cover her shyness and unease about life not panning out as she had imagined upon collecting her first class honours. I can even relate to the attempts at inspirational speeches to students who just don’t want to get along.

You can’t miss the hype surrounding this book, even if you missed that it won the Galaxy Popular Fiction Book of the Year Award and the mentions in TV and Radio as the must read book of 2010 there have been countless WordPress reviews of it. The book certainly does not disappoint even after all these accolades. Unsurprisingly, the film adaptation is already in the works, and names like Anne Hathaway (Emma), Jim Sturgess (Dexter) and Romola Garai (Sylvie) mean that it will be a massive box office hit, though the casting of a flawless American smiley smiley beauty as Emma is sure to raise quite a few eyebrows.

 

 

 

Books to Read by Candlelight

Get your lights out of Earth Hour

At 8:30pm tomorrow people all around the world will be turning off their lights for earth hour as a stand against climate change. Now, it’s not all that light at 8:30pm still, and reading in the dark can cause serious eye strain, so to save you bookworms that trauma I have come up with a list of five great books to read by candlelight- the flickering shadows will only enhance their dark and mysterious goings on.

 

The Turn of the Screw-Henry James

Two uncannily beautiful children led astray by the demonic spirits of their deceased governess and her lover, or the twisted workings of a naive young woman’s mind? Henry James’ master parody of Jane Eyre, designed to confound literary analysis, is as at least as entertaining as that governess’ tale, if not more so.

 

The Thirteenth Tale-Diane Setterfield

A young biographer is summoned from her father’s second hand book shop to the home of a reclusive author who delights in leading journalists on a wild goose chase, however, she wants the girl to write the truth in a tell all biography, and could it be that truth is stranger than fiction? A story of twins, decaying mansions, foundlings, secrets, love, betrayal and ghosts- if you haven’t read it, you must.

 

Frankenstein– Mary Shelley

It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein caused outrage when it was released because very few people could accept that a woman could think such dark thoughts, and because it didn’t criticise Victor’s attempts to break the laws of God and nature. Exploring that evil is less about ghouls and goblins, and more the corruption that lurks in men’s souls, in an age of cloning and xeno-grafting  the books remains as relevant as ever.

 

The Shadow of The Wind– Carlos Ruiz Zafón

As a young boy, Daniel’s father takes him to The Cemetery of Lost Books to choose a book which he must protect for life. However , before too long, Daniel finds himself being followed by a man with the same name as one of the main characters in the book, Laín Coubert, the devil. A fascinating adventure which speaks volumes about love, loss and the power of books.

 

Rebecca– Daphne du Maurier

If you’ve ever worried that your partner’s ex was cooler, sexier or more exciting that you are, you should be able to sympathise with the plight of the new Mrs. De Winter. Having met the mysterious and melancholy Maxim de Winter while holidaying in the French Riviera, the young unnamed woman soon finds herself at his ancestral home Manderley, which is still filled with his first wife Rebecca’s clothes and possessions after her unexplained disappearance. And while the new Mrs. De Winter struggles to find her place in another woman’s home, Mrs. Danvers, the fearsome house keeper, pulls the rug from under her at every opportunity.

Read More, Spend Less, Save the World

Keep your piggy fed

Cash strapped? I know I am at the moment, even more so since I started trying to scrabble together each and every spare penny for a deposit for a house. Inspired by this I decided to put together some handy hints on ways to get the books you want to read at a price you can afford. On the bright side all of these tips are environmentally friendly, because you are reusing rather than demanding the print of extra books.

1) Libraries

Making use of your public library or school library is probably the easiest way to get hold of the best sellers for free. Sign up for a library card and you can rent a selection of books for weeks at a time, just make sure that you renew or return by the due date to avoid fines. Libraries have the added advantage of having a great sense of community spirit, and if you make friends with your librarian they will get to know your tastes in literature and be able to tell you when they have some great books in that you are likely to enjoy. I’ve been introduced to some great books and authors this way, including the fabulous Gatty’s Tale by Kevin Crossley-Holland.

2) Set Up a Swap Table

At work we have a swap table in the lobby where you can take your books when you’ve finished reading them and pick up a new book in exchange. This doesn’t even need to be limited to books. Our table is fairly book dominated because of the nature of the publishing industry, but I’ve also seen CDs, DVDs, cake and in the summer a glut of allotment fruit and vegetables. All the benefits of swapping with a friend of family member but with much greater variety.

3) Charity Shops

As well as clothes that I’ve realised just don’t suit me, I take books that I’ve read to my local charity shop. I have regular clear outs, and not only do I get the exercise benefits of lugging along some pretty weighty tomes on the way there, but I invariably end up finding something I haven’t read but want to. On my last charity shop book buying spree I ended up carting home eleven books for six pounds. Now that is amazing value.

4) Green Metropolis

If you prefer to be able to select the book you want rather than have fate choose the book for you, greenmetropolis.com is a great site to allow you to boost your financial wellbeing at the same time as your eco credentials. There is a flat fee of £3.75 for each book, and 5p from each sale is donated to the Woodland Trust. Not only does the site sell cheap books with great green clout, but you can sell the books back when you’re done and receive a fee for £3 per book. You’ll have to pay for postage out of this, but can still turn a profit when recycling packaging and sending via second class post.

5) Book Mooch

Or if anonymous swapping is more your thing (I don’t know who left the Mills and Boon and Jackie Collins books on the swap table, I’d die if anyone thought it was me…) then swap online via bookmooch.co.uk . Though you do have to be patient while you wait for the book you want to appear, there is an immense sense of satisfaction in hunting down that little gem. Especially good for classics such as The Great Gatsby or set study texts.

What are your money saving reading tips?

Scribbling Women

I am very excited to be taking part in the Tundra Books Scribbling Women blog tour later this month. Check it out here. I understand that if you follow all the blogs in the tour you can win some pretty exciting prizes, so do check it out.

In the meantime, which women writers have you found most inspirational?

Books and The Assassination of JFK

 

The Sixth Floor Museum

 

A bit of famous book place tourism for you here, this is the Texas School Book Depository, now known as The Sixth Floor Museum where Lee Harvey Oswald hid to take part in/ undertake the assassination of JFK in 1963. I visited here on my first day in Dallas, apart from the TV show (which I’ve never watched) the assassination of JFK is the first thought that sprang to mind when I was told I would get to visit the city for work.

Displays at the museum show how text books were stacked to create a partition, seat and gun rest for the gunman, making them an active part of history rather than documents of the fact.

You can’t take pictures from inside the museum, but to contextualize the historical period, they had examples of popular culture at the time of the assassination which included posters from films which were released around the time, such as Breakfast at Tiffany and first editions of books such as To Kill A Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye and The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich. It was really interesting for me to see those books on display as part of the exhibit, because in my mind they are a part of what I would have considered the mid-20th century, whereas the assassination of JFK I thought of as later in the 20th century. It was interesting to see that historically they are much closer together than I thought, and it reminded me that this really was a time of historic turbulence and the Kennedy regime had so much potential as a turning point in this. Growing up in the UK it’s not something I’d ever studied.

It was really interesting to visit the museum and see that the curators had chosen to display these books. Seeing this done with modern history really brought home the ways in which books can contain the spirit of the times, and stand as a testimony to this.

 

When God Was A Rabbit

I have to admit that it was the title that drew me to this book. The idea that God, for a time at least, might have been a rabbit intrigued me much more than the blurb which didn’t really seem to summarise the plot, but having read the book, I now understand that this was something of an impossible task.

Narrated by Elly, When God was a Rabbit  follows her family and their friends from 70s suburbia to the early years of the 21st century. Though deeply concerned with the relationship between Elly and her older brother Joe, who she idolizes, it also observes the family’s wider relationships with a colourful array of characters with a curious mixture of dark humour and crushing pathos as they live through nativity plays, pool winnings and the aftermath of 9/11.

Though the plot of the novel is loose, perhaps best described as a group bildungsroman which has wandered into the terrain of magic realism, the novel is glued together though vivid characterisation and the plot’s momentum is driven by their responses to the situations in which they find themselves. Just a smattering of characters you should look out for include Jenny Penny, a gritty urban Pippy Longstocking; Nancy, the lesbian actress aunt who is deeply in love with her brother’s wife; Arthur Henry, a retired academic/diplomat who knows the precise moment he will die and has budgeted accordingly; and of course, God, the eponymous rabbit.

Without wanting to sound too much like a stock blurb, this is an epic story of family, but above all friendship, which runs the gamut between happiness and heartbreak, innocence lost and absolution found, and all the while you will be laughing and crying along with the characters. Even if you are on an aeroplane and attempting to maintain some composure, you won’t be able to. You’ll get lost in the story. Read it, read it or you will never truly appreciate how good it is.

My Top 5 Irish Writers

Having an Irish mother, an Irish name and being entitled to hold an Irish passport I should really celebrate St Patricks Day, but I don’t really. I’ll leave that to the good people of America who seem to be going for it in a big way (really, turning the river green? How many pints of Guiness made that seem like a good idea).

I will however share my five favourite Irish writers with you. James Joyce will not feature, so don’t hold your breath.

1) Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin I believe, but is probably better known for his amazing contributions to English Literature. My favourites? The Importance of Being Earnest and The Selfish Giant. Earnest is my favourite play and I can quote most of it, which is much cooler than most people realise.

2) C.S. Lewis because, religion aside, I loved the Chronicles of Narnia.

3) Jonathan Swift and not so much for Gulliver’s Travels more for A Modest Proposal, a satire made all the more cutting when you realise that Swift was of Irish descent.

4) Eavan Boland- it would be patronising to call her a little know poet, because she’s very successful and yet she isn’t one of the ancient white males that are still so commonly associated with “good” poetry, whatever that is. I studied her as part of a modern poetry course at university, and hers is one of the few set texts I move around with me.

5) Cecelia Ahern because anyone who says that they didn’t cry buckets when reading P.S. I Love You needs a bloody good slap. My housemate and I had to meet for hugs in the kitchen to compose ourselves enough to carry on reading.  

What are your favourite books/poems by Irish writers?