Friday, 31 December 2010

Annual reading meme 2010

How many books read in 2010?
Around 75 - there are nearly 40 books blogged here, a couple still to get blog posts, and the other 35 relate to my studies.  I've ignored books where I read only a chapter or two, and those I'm reading for the second time.

Fiction/Non-Fiction ratio?
About one-third fiction, which - given the number of critical and historical works that I've read this year - is unsurprising.

Male/Female authors?
Only about 15 by male authors, which is less than I thought, but perhaps it is to be expected that the historians of feminism and theorists of feminist autobiography are women - Martin Pugh the honourable exception.

Favourite book read?

I can't pick favourites, but would particularly recommend Jane Robinson's Bluestockings, EMD's Mrs Harter, Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, and for pure self-indulgence Armistead Maupin's Mary Ann in Autumn.

Least favourite?
I really didn't like The Bolter, Frances Osborne's life of Idina Sackville.  An opportunity wasted.

Oldest book read?

It is a tie between EMD's Zella Sees Herself and Clemence Dane's Regiment of Women, both published in 1917.

Probably Mary Ann in Autumn, which is only just out.

Longest book title?
Of all the books I read, and to give a taste of my unblogged reading: Sidonie Smith's Subjectivity, identity, and the body: women's autobiographical practices in the twentieth century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993).  Of those blogged here, The Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion in the Year 1764-1765.

Shortest title?
Probably Jill by EMD.

How many re-reads?
Around a dozen, I think - mostly for the purposes of study, and including The Well of Loneliness which is above and beyond the call of duty.

Most books read by one author this year?
E M Delafield takes that prize - I've now read all of her works, which included 10 novels and 2 volumes of short stories this year.

Any in translation?
By a Slow River by Philippe Claudel, and Tove Jansson's The True Deceiver.  I also read, but didn't blog, Henning Mankell's Faceless Killers.

And how many of this year’s books were from the library?
I'd say around 50.  I'm trying not to buy historical or critical works unless they are really essential, as I have two university libraries as well as the British Library at my disposal, and have no real excuse for doing so.  I have added to my stock of copies of EMD's works, and have done well with secondhand bookshop finds this year, but book space here is getting ever tighter.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Mary Ann in Autumn by Armistead Maupin

I'm a long-standing admirer of Maupin's Tales of the City series, and his latest book continues the story of the band of friends and enemies linked to 28 Barbary Lane in San Francisco.  Mary Ann Singleton returns from Connecticut to San Francisco, her second marriage in ruins, to confide this and other problems to her oldest friend, Michael Tolliver.  Michael is still working as a gardener and married (or not married, depending on the Californian legal position during the time the novel covers) to Ben, a much younger carpenter. Returning to San Francisco allows Mary Ann to rediscover other old friends: DeDe and D'orothea still live at Hillsborough but now have grandchildren; Anna Madrigal is the aged flatmate and mentor of transgender Jake; and Mary Ann's somewhat estranged adopted daughter Shawna is a well-known and fearlessly frank blogger.  Her reconnection to San Francisco will sustain Mary Ann through her various crises, but also force her to confront well-hidden aspects of her past.

Maupin, as usual, is incredibly skilled at drawing together what initially seems like a disparate set of people, and in this novel he has a lot of deft fun with various loose ends left in the earlier books.  His excellent characterisation allows the people in his novel to change and grow in ways that are consistent with their previous incarnations.  He also has the advantage of a ready-made younger generation of characters in  Shawna and her contemporaries, which prevents the novel becoming merely a heartwarming reunion of old friends; and, as usual, he is not afraid to explore the grimmer aspects of life in a city.  I devoured this book in a few hours on Boxing Day, and I'm already looking forward to reading it again.

The kind friend who gave me this went to hear Maupin read, and he was, inevitably, asked whether there would be more books in the series.  While he didn't rule it out, he did point out that he can't keep Anna Madrigal alive forever, and in fact I think he (or perhaps Anna herself) has sliced a few years off her age in this one. So there may be more to look forward to - but in the mean time all the Tales books are eminently re-readable.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

The Thirties: an intimate history by Juliet Gardiner

This vast book gives an overview of the political and social history and at the same time reaches deep into the authentic voices of the 1930s, drawing on diaries, letters, and forgotten published texts.  In her preface, Juliet Gardiner acknowledges the various and partial ways in which the decade has been depicted: the long decline towards world war, the effects of the great Depression, the inexorable march of progress and modernity.  Her history seeks to recognise the validity of all these accounts and to explore all of them in great detail, and in this she undoubtedly succeeds.  If there is anything you would like to know about 1930s Britain - and one of the advantages of this book is that it is definitely a history of Britain, not of England - it is probably in here somewhere.

The scope of her project, and the level of detail she seeks to include, sometimes make the book an unwieldy read; at nearly a thousand pages, the hardback is literally unwieldy.  Consequently I read this book rather slowly, the odd chapter here and there, and probably missed some of the narrative drive as a result.  However, Gardiner's achievement is extraordinary and the place she gives to the authentic voices of the period provides a refreshing and, as intended, intimate view of this fascinating period which has so many parallels with our own.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

The Long Week-End by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge

Anyone who has read histories of the interwar period in Britain will have come across references to this book.  Published in 1941, the book's stated purpose is "to serve as a reliable record of what took place, of a forgettable sort, during the twenty-one year interval between two great European wars".  Structured in thematic but chronological chapters, this approach allows Graves and Hodge to cover all sorts of ephemera alongside a thorough outline of the political upheaval of the period, as well as some excellent jokes.  The overall tone of the book, however, is both rather cynical and quite conservative.  Social and political campaigns are often attributed to the workings of fashion rather than conviction: feminism, for example, can be a threat, a joke or a force for good, depending on context.  Writing on demobilisation after the First World War, they note that "A million men found that their old jobs had either disappeared or were held by someone else - usually a woman, or a man who had escaped conscription", which is a familiar presentation of the employment position at that time, if not entirely borne out in other accounts.  A few pages later, however, women war workers are being described rather differently:  "The women who only a year or so earlier had been acclaimed as patriots, giving up easy lives at home to work for their Country, were now represented as vampires who deprived men of their rightful jobs.  By Trade Union pressure they were dismissed from engineering, printing and transport work, though cheap and efficient workers, and from the factories where they had worked on munitions." Possibly it is the opportunity for a bit of union-bashing that accounts for this change of heart.

There is a vast amount of detail in this book, particularly of the sort of domestic matters that often escape other histories, and accounts of the way the trends and events of the period actually affected day to day life.  The authors also have an unexpected familiarity with women's fashions - I wondered if one of them sat down with a huge stack of Vogue magazines to furnish the details of hemlines and hats.  The chapter titles can be idiosyncratic; "The Days of the Loch Ness Monster" covers press reporting of the Monster, press sensationalism in general, yo-yos, mechanisation, the music-hall and literary trends.  This variety, and the entertaining and witty style of the text, makes it an engaging read, however the reader feels about its political positioning.  It is also invaluable to the scholar of the period, giving a sense not only of what happened, by of how it was presented by the media of the day, and the influence of newspapers and broadcasting on social attitudes.  The Long Week-End seems to be out of print, but there are a lot of cheap second-hand copies around.

Monday, 6 December 2010

My Life in Books 2010

This year's version, at the prompting of the Victorian Geek:

Using only books you have read this year (2010), cleverly answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title. It’s a lot harder than you think!
Describe yourself: That Lady (Kate O'Brien)
How do you feel: Slightly Foxed (Quarterly)
Describe where you currently live: The Crowded Street (Winifred Holtby)
If you could go anywhere, where would you go: The Bridge (Maggie Hemingway)
Your favourite form of transportation: The Bolter (Frances Osborne)
Your best friend is: The Optimist (E M Delafield)

You and your friends are:
Regiment of Women (Clemence Dane)
What’s the weather like: A Reversion to Type  (E M Delafield)
Favourite time of day: The Long Week-End (Graves and Hodge)
If your life was a: Country Dance (Margiad Evans)

What is life to you:
The Entertainment (E M Delafield)
Your fear: The True Deceiver (Tove Jansson)
What is the best advice you have to give: Try Anything Twice (Jan Struther)
Thought for the day: Turn Back the Leaves (E M Delafield)

How I would like to die:
By a Slow River (Philippe Claudel)
My soul’s present condition: Housekeeping (Marilynne Robinson)

Posts on The Long Week-End and The Entertainment will follow shortly ...