Tuesday, 31 December 2013

2013: Reading Round-up

I have written blog posts about 32 books this year (14 non-fiction and 18 fiction which includes short story collections). In total I have read forty-five books and failed to finish another ten, which is probably about average for me. The books I have blogged about were all written by British, American or French authors, so one of my goals for blogging in 2014 is to write about books written by authors from other parts of the world.

Favourite Fiction 

Maybe you can tell from the enthusiastic postings that Emile Zola's Germinal was my favourite novel of the year. I read two Zola books as part of the Zoladdiction event hosted by Fanda and enjoyed both of them. 

Favourite Non-fiction

My best non-fiction read of the year was Anne Fadiman's At Large and at Small: Confessions of a literary hedonist which I read back in March. I didn't blog about this collection of essays here, but I am planning to reread this again in 2014 so will write about it then. I actually ended up reading this as Ex Libris: Confessions of a common reader was missing (maybe it's so good someone stole it?) from the library when I tried to borrow it, I plan to read this in 2014 too.

Off-blog Reading

I have read quite a lot of Scandi noir this year. I am probably rather late in discovering this crime fiction trend, but being behind the times hasn't dampened my enthusiasm for snowy landscapes and depressed, middle-aged detectives. 

At the beginning of 2013 I watched both series of the Swedish production of Wallander with Krister Henriksson, so I began by reading a few of Henning Mankell's novels. The other  Swedish authors I read were Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo and Stieg Larsson. 

A few months ago I discovered the Icelanders: Arnaldur Indridason and Yrsa Sirgurdardottir (both of these surnames are written with an eth: the fifth letter of the Icelandic alphabet, but I don't know how to insert it with Blogger - sorry Icelanders, Faroese and Anglo-Saxons). I don't think I have ever read Icelandic literature translated in English before, and in fact, apart from hot springs, volcanic eruptions and banking crises, I know very little about Iceland. In these novels, history doesn't stay in the past and in the four books I have read so far,  secrets and  hidden crimes resurface after many years causing death and destruction for the modern day players of the stories.

2013 has also seen me experiencing cyberpunk for the first time. I planned to read Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and William Gibson's Neuromancer choosing these as archetypal works of the genre. After looking on my local library's shelves, I ended up with Stephenson's The Diamond Age and Gibson's Pattern Recognition.

Pattern Recognition was not what I was expecting at all. I thought it would be set in the (near-ish) future and would feature lots of discussions around computer science and artificial intelligence. It didn't. The book is set in 2002 and in a pre-Twitter and pre-YouTube world feels rather dated. The central character, Cayce Pollard, is a cool-hunter who consults for multi-nationals and advertising firms about the latest trends. The book is a fast-paced thriller set in London, Russia and Japan and it was a real page-turner which I finished in about two days. However, certain elements of the plot and characterisation, in particular, annoyed me - Cayce suffers from an anxiety disorder brought on by certain logos: nausea brought on by Prada and Louis Vuitton. I wouldn't have thought that such a "disorder" would be much of a problem. Now, if it was Primark that would be another story. 

I will consider reading another William Gibson novel as I found Pattern Recognition a bit cheap-thrillerish, so I think his other works will probably be quite fun and not take too long to read.

The Diamond Age was probably the most difficult book I read this year. It had a highly complex plot with a lot of moving around in the timing of events (making it a bit difficult to keep track of where I was) and in depth discussions of Turing machines, nanotechnology, societal groupings and collective consciousness. Although I struggled with this novel, I still plan to read Snow Crash, as Neal Stephenson's writing deals with some really interesting discussions about the use of technology in society.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Tiny Library

My local library is absolutely tiny. It is approximately 10 m x 6 m and is furnished with just two PCs. Every available space is used with three walls lined from floor to ceiling with (mainly) brightly coloured paperbacks. Walking into such a small place with book-lined walls is really quite pleasant: it is warm (insulation from the books) and very cheerful with lots of primary-coloured book spines. Small libraries in historical stately homes with leather-bound, serious looking tomes have a completely different feel to this cheery public library.
Small, but warm and welcoming.

These days I use Bath Central Library. Bath is a small city, but, as the library in the centre is the main library for residents, I was expecting more. There is not much to say about the library's physical appearance and proportions, it is on the top floor of The Podium, a small, 1980s style shopping centre with a car park in the basement, a supermarket on the ground floor,  and a cafe, toilets and the library on the top floor. I have also been rather disappointed by the availability of the library's stock as when I search the catalogue the books I want are nearly always on loan (Bath and North East Somerset charge a £1 reservation fee). The reference collection is not particularly edifying either and this week I searched in vain for a Russian-English dictionary (Russian is not an obscure tongue: it is one of the six official languages of the United Nations and is the native language of over 144 million people), a member of staff checked the store for me, but it seems that they really do not have a dictionary for one of the world's major languages! Also, the behaviour of some of the other library users is a bit worrying: recently whilst choosing a book from the shelves I passed by a man sitting down with his socks off clipping his toenails, I admit that I felt quite disgusted.

Rant over.

Despite the number of failings mentioned above (I am trying to moderate my moaning, but I could easily continue), it is wonderful to see a library well-used with so many people using the local history service, browsing the shelves and actually borrowing books rather than just using the IT service.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Bristol Central Library

When I had the opportunity to spend the day in Bristol a couple of weeks ago, I knew that as part of my Library File activities I would take a trip to the Central Library. As my visit to the city was largely unexpected, I did not have the chance to carry out any preparatory research, but as soon as I saw the Grade I listed building I knew I was in for a treat!

On entering the Library I found myself in a vaulted foyer with walls of green Cipollino marble. I headed to the first floor and the reference section in search of information about the library building. The reading room of the reference section dates to the opening of the Library in 1906. It contains the original, wooden study carrels, sculpted columns and a glass ceiling allowing in plenty of natural light.

In the alcoves to the sides of the central reading room you can still see the book lifts at intervals, used for ferrying books around in the days before open access.

A dumbwaiter for books!
The reference section continues through to a modern (1950s) extension at the Western end of the building. The interior of the ground floor lending library has been thoroughly modernised and there is a further modern, level entrance at the Western end of the ground floor. Bristol Central Library seemed well-stocked with both reference and lending materials and I am sure it is an invaluable resource for its members. As a visitor, the stand out feature of the Library is the building itself, and the fascination continues with the exterior.

The front of the building features three decorative lunettes (crescent-shaped alcoves, often containing sculpture or other decoration) with sculpted tableaux of great personalities from the history of English.

Chaucer and characters from the Canterbury Tales.
The Venerable Bede and friends.
Alfred the Great and Chroniclers.

The building was designed by the English architect Charles Holden who also designed a number of Tube stations in London and the University of London's Senate House. Holden was a contemporary of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and perhaps they shared ideas, or were influenced by similar sources, as when you walk around to the rear of the Library you are instantly reminded of Mackintosh's Hill House.

The rear of Bristol Central Library - designed contemporaneously and very similar to Hill House
To celebrate the centenary of the library a book, Bristol Central Library and Charles Holden,  written by one of the librarians, was published detailing the architectural history of this fascinating building. If you would like to find out more about the building, Bristol Central Library holds a few copies and I am sure copies can be found second-hand.

Monday, 30 September 2013

A Life in Letters - Here and Now, Paul Auster & J.M. Coetzee

Here and Now, Letters 2008 - 2011 by Paul Auster & J.M. Coetzee

I spend a lot of time researching what to read next. In fact, I think I spend more time discovering new books on various themes than actually reading. Despite this controlled and pre-planned approach to my reading I do occasionally read books (often rather good ones) which I come across in a more serendipitous manner. 

Here and Now belongs to this category of serendipitous finds. This book attracted my attention while I was browsing the 800s section (literature) in my local library. Faber and Faber did a great job of producing this collection of letters: it is a lightweight hardback book, with tasteful portraits of each author on the cover and it has wonderful chocolate brown end-papers (my favourite colour). As this is a collection of letters many pages feature quite a lot of formatting at the top of the page: date, address, Dear John or Dear Paul.  I liked the fact that the pages had been arranged with balance in mind by placing the authors' names (verso page) and the title of the book (recto page) at the foot of the page. 

The physical appearance of the book encouraged my to pick it up, but beyond aesthetics, I didn't know anything about it or have any preconceived ideas about what I would find inside, when I checked the book out. I have not read any of Paul Auster's writing and although I have read Disgrace I used to think that J.M. Coetzee was a woman, not a man (I also used to think that A.S. Byatt was a man and not a woman)!

I found the collection very readable indeed, and I think the diverse topics discussed in Auster's and Coetzee's letters would appeal to many people. Among other topics, they exchange ideas about sports (the concept of losing in individual games versus team games. Take singles tennis, for example, the majority of entrants in a tournament will be losers and not winners), the financial downturn and capitalism, film, how to deal with literary criticism and critics, the challenge of the digital age in novel writing,
"You say that you are quite prepared to write novels in which people go around with personal electronic devices. I must say I am not. The telephone is about as far as I will go in a book, and then reluctantly. Why? Not only because I'm not fond of what the world has turned into, but because if people ("characters") are continually going to be speaking to one another at a distance, then a whole gamut of interpersonal signs and signals, verbal and nonverbal, voluntary and involuntary, has to be given up. Dialogue in the full sense of the term, just isn't possible over the phone." [From J.M. Coetzee to Paul Auster April 2011).
And, discussions on the degradation of culture since the late 1970s, early 1980s (although, don't most people over the age of about 55 make a similar lament?).

In addition to containing interesting discussion on a varied list of topics, I also found the letters quite touching. The authors express delight at the opportunity of meeting each other in person at literary festivals (to be in the same place, at the same time is quite a feat as Paul Auster lives in New York City and J.M. Coetzee lives in Australia) and on return home from their meetings they say how much they enjoyed being able to spend some time together. The warmth that shines through their letters makes me want to pick up my pen and write an old-fashioned letter to a friend.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Book Art at the Library

A couple of days ago, I stumbled across an interesting exhibition at Bath Central Library. For the second time the Library is holding its annual Recycle an Ex-Library Book Competition. Participating members of Bath and North East Somerset Libraries  were given an ex-library book, which was ear-marked for recycling, and tasked with turning the unwanted book into a work of art.

The entries are currently being displayed at the Central Library until 24th September. Visitors to the exhibition are encouraged to vote for their favourite piece from each category: under 12s, 12-17 years olds, over 18s and group entry. It was quite a challenge to pick my favourite as I didn't know whether to focus on the best piece as regards paper-crafting skill or original concept.

Maybe some book lovers shudder at the thought of cutting, pasting and excising book pages, but the books in the exhibition are books which did not sell at library book-sales and whose ultimate end would have been the pulping machine. A piece of art, whether created by a child at school or by a professional artist is usually treasured and, to me, it seems a fitting new life for a book which would otherwise be discarded.

What do you think about creating works of art from unused books?

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield

There is a serendipitous satisfaction in enjoying a book which found you rather than you searching it out. A while ago I was at the library browsing in the section where I expected to find the 745.6 classmark (calligraphy). Even though my local library holds just four or five books on calligraphy I was surprised that I couldn't find any of the books on the shelf even though the catalogue said they were in the library*. Just My Type jumped out at me with it's striking cover and subtitle, "A Book About Fonts" and although it wasn't what I was looking for I thought I would give it a try.

Before reading this book I can't say that I thought about fonts much apart from choosing which fonts to use for my blog (the main script is Arial - not much thought there then, as this is the font I use for nearly all my computer produced texts - and the blog title and post titles are in Dancing Script which Google Fonts advise using "when you want a friendly, informal and spontaneous look". I wasn't aiming for spontaneity, just a contrast and, yes, I am a sucker for cheesy brush script pretending it's hand written and not really type.

Simon Garfield's survey of fonts deals with: the history of popular typefaces: Garamond, Gill Sans, Times New Roman, Baskerville, biographies of famous type designers: Lucas De Groot, Adrian Frutiger, Eric Gill, Matthew Carter, Margaret Calvert (the designer of Calvert, the font used on the Tyne and Wear Metro), the history and job of type foundries and how the innovations of the digital age have changed the nature of type designing and our relationship with type, "Computers have rendered us all gods of type, a privilege we could never have anticipated in the age of the typewriter."

This book made me look around a lot more at signs (road signs, street signs, shop signs) and think about the form of what I was looking at and not just the content.  I have also been paying more attention to the form of the books and magazines that I read. I picked up ten books from my shelves at home and was disappointed to find that only three out of these ten books credited the font on the copyright page. The fonts used were: Giovanni Book (designed by Robert Slimbach in 1989), Granjon an old-style serif typeface from 1928-29 and a similar typeface, Ehrhardt from 1938. I also had a look at my Oxford English Dictionary which uses Swift (a sans-serif from 1985) and Arial (1982) presumably for legibility.

I haven't read any of Simon Garfield's work before, but based on my experience with this book - an entertaining, witty and fascinating introduction to a subject about which I knew very little - I hope to read more of his work. He is a rather prolific non-fiction author, so there are lots of other titles from which I can choose.

Oh interrobang, how had I never seen or heard of you before? Okay, it's not a font, just a single character, but the interrobang is one of the fun little factoids that I will be taking away from Just My Type.  If you too want to represent quizzical surprise then input Alt + 8253 in Microsoft Word.

* The calligraphy books had been moved to a separate Arts and Crafts section in the area of the library which houses the "popular" books: Home and Gardens, Family, Health, Cooking. I hate it when the library is arranged like this; please, when using Dewey just start at the beginning and progress in a systematic order, it makes it so much easier to find items.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

A Life in Letters - Dear Laura: Letters from a Mother to her Daughter

Dear Laura: Letters from a Mother to her Daughter - Laura Hird & June Hird

Elizabeth Chatwin, the widow of Bruce Chatwin said, "letters are the most vivid writing" and in reference to the book I read this week, I would certainly agree. The letters which fill Dear Laura are full of wit, sentimentality, sometimes admonishing, full of gossip and quotidian banalities, but always vivid and entertaining.

The majority of letters in Dear Laura cover the years 1988 - 1991, when, at the age of twenty-one, Laura Hird left her working-class home in Edinburgh to attend university in London. All bar one of the letters are from June to her daughter.

Laura is an only child, and despite a sometimes fraught relationship, the bond between daughter and mother is an incredibly close one. After signing off one of her letters, June writes "till midnight" as before leaving home Laura and her mother had agreed that every night at midnight, even though they will be 400 miles apart, they will think of each other and send good "vibrations" to each other. They also send a plastic, lucky horseshoe back and forth depending on who needs the most luck at any particular time, which reveals as much about Scottish culture as it does about the love and support mother and daughter show each other.

I can't say that I found the twenty-one year old Laura a particularly sympathetic character. In the letters she comes across as incredibly spoiled and struggling to survive her entry into independent adulthood after a sheltered childhood. Her mother often sends stamped addressed envelopes to London along with her own letters, which contain thank you notes for various friends and relatives who have sent Laura money or birthday cards and presents and all Laura has to do is pop them in a postbox in London, so they have the required postmark. In one letter June describes visiting Nannie an elderly relative who, "was in tears today about the beautiful letter you didn't write for her birthday fiver. It had pride of place on her sideboard and she made me sit and read the letter I had written, while she wept at how sweet you were."

June Hird is an accomplished letter writer (with the added ability of forging thank-you notes!) having had plenty of practice. At the end of one of her letters she says, "I must stop. I have 6 more letters to write." When was the last time you wrote one letter, let alone seven in one day? Her letters are often funny whether relating anecdotes of her daily life in Edinburgh or just expressing her thoughts. I was particularly amused by a discussion on the merits of coloured writing paper.
"Why is it healthy to write on technicoloured notepaper? - well according to a TV programme last week bleached paper contains the deadly poison dioxin. Tea bags, coffee filter paper, white tissues and toilet paper, disposable nappies and tampons, and notepapers are all suspect. Only recycled paper is safe.
Who wants to write a letter on a recycled tampon, toilet roll or nappy? Even if one does tend to write a lot of verbal diarrhoea, one doesn't need to have one's nose rubbed in it as a punishment. Thought-provoking, isn't it?"
If you are looking for a memoir about the relationships between mothers and daughters, read this book. However, don't be tricked into expecting a heartwarming tale of sentimentality, this is also a great read for anyone interested in late 1980s, early 1990s Britain: polytechnics, poll-tax riots, Margaret Thatcher and classic TV (I'd forgotten all about Lilo Lil from Bread). Dear Laura is a fascinating, easy-to-read piece of social history and a beautiful tribute to Laura Hird's parents.

Friday, 16 August 2013

The Never Ending Book

Take away a book from the art gallery

I visited Tate St Ives art gallery last weekend and had the pleasure of viewing and interacting with The Never Ending Book 2007 an installation by American conceptual artist Allen Ruppersberg

This work consists of brightly coloured boxes, benches and tables which have cardboard boxes placed on them. Each box is filled with A4 photocopies of pages of books from Ruppersberg's personal library and visitors are encouraged to sift through and collect six sheets to take home as their own 'book'. As I was visiting the gallery with someone else (who is not as interested in collecting random pieces of paper as I am), I was lucky enough to take home 12 sheets.

At home, I cut down some of the sheets to postcard size, found some coloured paper to form the cover and bound my chosen sheets into a commemorative book.

I found another review here about a visit to The Never Ending Book and they also bound their collected sheets into a book. However, I noticed that the number of sheets they were allowed to collect was different when they visited back in June. 

I wonder what other visitors do with their chosen sheets apart from binding them into books?

Sunday, 28 July 2013

A Life in Letters - Up With the Larks: Starting Again in Cornwall

Up With the Larks: Starting Again in Cornwall - Tessa Hainsworth

I mentioned in my introductory post to A Life in Letters, that I would be reading a wide range of books related to letters and letter writing. This week instead of reading a collection of letters I read a memoir about a letter collector, i.e. the postman, in this case, a postwoman.

Up With the Larks tells the story of Tessa Hainsworth and her family as they adjust to life in a small seaside village. Tessa Hainsworth leaves her high-powered job in London and in an escape from the rat race, moves, with her husband and two young children, to South Cornwall. 

The book charts their struggles to keep financially afloat after their initial business plan designed to provide their livelihood in Cornwall collapses,
"Our golden dream was slowly turning to dust as we worried ourselves sick night after night. By this time we didn't even know if we could afford to move back to London, where we could at least find work."
Forced to find jobs, Tessa and her husband apply for everything from receptionist to taxi driver and supermarket assistant manager. Her husband ends up working multiple part-time jobs and Tessa, much to the surprise of her friends and family, gets a job with Royal Mail delivering the post.

Tessa is initiated into the life of a postwoman during the busy pre-Christmas delivery weeks by barking dogs, savage cats and suspicious locals. Ms Hainsworth's storytelling is both witty and engaging and the parts of the memoir that deal with her daily round and the lives of her customers (particularly the sympathetic descriptions of elderly Mr Hawker and the B&B owners Martin and Emma) make this book an enjoyable read.

There were elements of the writing that made me squirm in my seat and think that the book could have done with more strident editing. On its third appearance, I was thoroughly fed up with the figurative use of clotted cream, e.g. "one minute as thick as clotted cream and the next sparring with each other". Also, when her husband returns from providing a massage at the local, upmarket hotel she says, "I hope it was a rich Eastern European princess who was so thrilled by your exquisite application of healing oils and massage that she gave you a huge tip". Shouldn't that be Middle Eastern princess? I think you would be hard-pressed to find an Eastern European princess anywhere, let alone in Cornwall.  

Despite these pedantic niggles, I did enjoy this quick and easy read. Tessa Hainsworth's memoir must have enjoyed a measure of commercial success, as since the publication of Up With The Larks  in 2009 a further two books (Seagulls in The Attic and Home to Roost) about village life on the Roseland peninsula have been published.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

A Life in Letters - The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, Part Two

Enclosed sketch from a letter dated 16th October 1888.

I finished The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh this week and, I think I may have found a contender for my book of the year. 

Vincent Van Gogh's letters have been fascinating to read and have really changed any preconceived ideas I may have had about the great artist. I didn't really know that much about Van Gogh before I picked up this book - I love some of his paintings, but I had the general idea that he was a madman who cut off his ear and eventually committed suicide.

Reading these letters showed me a man who was dedicated to the creation of art and who longed for close relationships and a family, but who faced obstacles (poor health and poverty) in the pursuit of both of these goals. 

The letters in the second half of the book detail Vincent's disputes with his mother and father and the strain that this puts on his relationship with his brother Theo (to whom most of the letters are addressed). The close relationship which the Van Gogh brothers clearly had is one of the elements of the letters that attracted me when I started to read the book. That their relationship is sometimes strained is understandable when you take into account that Theo more or less supported Vincent throughout his adult life by sending him money to live and buy painting equipment.

Van Gogh's father died suddenly in March 1885 and from that time Vincent's relationship with his family (his mother and sisters) seemed slightly better. However, he still felt frustrated with Theo (an art dealer) who did not seem able, or willing, to sell any of his work neither as a professional nor in an individual capacity. 

In November 1885 Vincent moved to Antwerp to attend lessens at the Antwerp Academy, although at that time he began to have the idea that a move to Paris and the ability to study the works in the Louvre and the Musée du Luxembourg would benefit his artistic progression. He discusses a move to Paris with Theo, but before any definite plans can be made he takes any mutual decision-making out of Theo's hands by turning up in Paris in March 1886.

The fertile Parisian period of Van Gogh's life when he came into contact with Impressionism for the first time, met many artists (including: Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Signac, Emile Barnard) and developed his style significantly is not well covered in his letters. He shared an apartment with Theo, so they did not need to write to each other.

Vincent's Parisian period ended in February 1888 when he arrived in Arles, Provence. These letters were some of the most interesting, for me, when Vincent is full of ideas for his artist's union (a concept he developed which was designed to provide artists with a measure of financial security), his excitement at all the subjects available to paint in the surrounding area, his improving health and artistic development, notably in his fascination with colour theory.

The final letter in the collection does not feel like a goodbye as it contains Vincent's customary order for more paints. Nevertheless, on the 27th July Vincent shot himself and died two days later in his brother's arms.

Instead of finishing this post with Vincent's death I will leave you with a quotation about technique and the creation of art (I wrote out so many little snippets as I was reading, but this is one of my favourites),
"That art is something which, though produced by human hands, is not wrought by hands alone, but wells up from a deeper source, from man's soul, while much of the proficiency and technical expertise associated with art reminds me of what would be called self-righteousness in religion."

If you can't wait for a trip to your local library to pick up the Letters, or if you really want to read more right now, you can do so online at this fabulous resource www.vangoghletters.org

Sunday, 14 July 2013

A Life in Letters - The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh

I am only half way through this collection (it is 500 pages long, so I will probably do a review of the second half next week). Although I have been slow with my reading this week it is not because this is a difficult read, in fact, quite the opposite. This is a collection to be savoured as, among other talents, Van Gogh was a fantastic letter writer.

The collection almost feels like a diary rather than letters as they are very personal and we only have one side of the correspondence. The book is filled, in the main, with Vincent's letters to his younger brother Theo, who must have been quite a hoarder as it seems that he kept every letter he received. There is at least one letter from Theo in the collection, but we only have that as Vincent sent the letter back to his brother with numbers in the margins as a time expedient way of responding to his brother's criticisms (Vincent had just had a blazing row with his mother and father and been thrown out of the house).

The letters start three years after Vincent began working at the art dealers Goupil & Cie. He begins his career in the Hague and then is transferred to the London branch in June 1873. Vincent eventually loses his job with the art dealers and spends some time working as a teacher before returning to the Netherlands and working in a bookshop. This period, when he loses his job in London and returns to the Netherlands to work in a bookshop, is Vincent's religious period and his letters are full of his plans to follow his father into his noble position as a clergyman. During a period working as an evangelist in a mining village in Belgium, Vincent decides to become an artist. The letters have not been as full of art as I would have expected (he mentions his predilection for Ingres paper (a type of drawing paper), live models for his drawings and the problems of finding a suitable studio), but I think that the focus on art and painting will increase in the second half of the collection, now that he has abandoned his religious leanings and his infatuation with his cousin Kee Vos.

Almost thirty pages of the book are taken up by Vincent's love problems. He falls violently in love with his widowed cousin Kee, who tells him that she could never be with him. Despite this setback, Vincent continues to ask her father for her hand in marriage and the letters of this period detail his perseverance in the face of adversity and his family's increasing discomfort in the face of his obsession.

These letters seem to contain all sorts of thoughts and feelings that many others might choose to write in a diary rather than in a letter. Vincent seemed to recognise the dramatic and revelatory nature of his letters, as in one letter he writes,
"Write to me soon and try to separate the wheat from the chaff in my letters. If there is some good in them, some truth, tant mieux,* but there is, of course, much in them that is more or less wrong or exaggerated perhaps, without my always being aware of it."
* So much the better.

It is this, I suppose, that makes the letters so readable.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

A Life in Letters - Dear Friend & Gardener

Dear Friend & Gardener: Letters on Life and Gardening by Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd

This is the first post for my Sundays in summer theme: A Life in Letters.

Dear Friend & Gardener is slightly unusual for a letter collection between two correspondents as it was published, in 1998, whilst both writers were still alive (Christopher Lloyd died in 2006). As both Christopher Lloyd and Beth Chatto are very popular garden writers, I suppose the publisher thought that a series of letters written by the two friends, over the space of two years (1996 and 1997), about gardening and their wider lives would sell well.

The letters didn't feel particularly contrived when I read them, and as Christopher Dixter writes in his last letter of the series,
"The main difference, from a totally private letter, is the extra explanatory matter that is necessary, as, in this letter, 'the autumn-flowering Crocus speciosus'. Obviously, 'autumn-flowering' would be omitted in a wholly private letter, as we both know this perfectly well. Apart from that, perhaps the odd indiscretion had to be foregone, but nothing much."
Perhaps, "the odd indiscretion" would have made the collection more thrilling to read, but I was happy enough with Chatto and Lloyd's discussions on plants, planting trends, fellow horticulturalists and horticultural students, the vagaries of the English weather, reminiscences of previous lecture tours they had taken together,  health problems, Glyndebourne and opera, family and friends and from Christopher Lloyd lots of news about Fergus (Fergus Garrett is now head-gardener at Great Dixter).

In addition to singing Fergus' praises in nearly every letter, Christopher Dixter also mentions his dogs a lot. Canna, in particular, gets plenty of mention in his letters, probably because at the beginning of the collection she is only about 6 months old and is not fully trained (or, perhaps she is, and she is just naughty). Some of his comments on Canna's behaviour were really quite disgusting: "Canna greeted me effusively, when I called the dogs, early this morning. That is ominous. She usually lies in bed. Sure enough, she had left me a 'present'. After I had rubbed her nose in it, she knew that that was over, and was effusively affectionate." He is obviously very attached to his "girls" as he calls them, and his letters see him relaxing on a sofa with the dogs alongside his right leg and sitting in the garden with his dogs at his side.

If you like gardening then this letter collection is definitely for you. However, if you have a passing interest in gardening but like to read about genteel days gone by then this collection would also appeal to you. There was something quite touching about these letters written by two (sometimes quite opinionated) experts in their field who were facing the challenge of dealing with the constrictions of aging bodies, if not, minds.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Summer Recess - A Life in Letters

A Life in Letters

Much as I am enjoying reading a short story, or a whole collection, every week,  I decided to have a change of theme for Sundays in the summer: The Library File's summer recess.

Throughout July and August I will be reading letter collections or books associated with letter writing and posting about what I have read on Sundays. I flirted with the idea of naming this theme "Literary Letters on a Sunday"; however, when it came to sourcing books from the library to read I discovered that some of the collections I was really interested in were not written by literary figures, so most of the books I will be blogging about will be literary letters but with a sprinkling of something else too.

If you have written a review of a letter collection please feel free to put a link to your blog post in the comments section of my Sunday posts.

Short Story Sunday will return in September.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Independent Booksellers Week - Plymouth

University Bookseller

In recognition of Independent Booksellers Week, which is taking place this week, I decided to take a trip to my local independent bookshop.

As the name suggests, University Bookseller is an academic bookshop that stocks textbooks for courses taught at Plymouth University which is just around the corner from the shop.

The bookshop is spread over two floors with the science and medical sections taking up the basement. In addition to the edifying academic books, the shop also displays a good selection of fiction titles.

The ground floor of the shop.
There are a couple of good secondhand bookshops in Plymouth, but University Bookseller is the only independent bookshop I know of in the city that sells new books. 

Do you have many independent bookshops where you live? Do you use your local bookshop, or do you prefer to buy online or from a chain store?

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Short Story Sunday - Michel Faber

The Apple - Michel Faber

Michel Faber's collection of short stories, The Apple, is subtitled Crimson Petal Stories as many of the characters that first make their appearance in Faber's novel published in 2002, The Crimson Petal and the White, reappear in this collection. I have not actually read the novel about Sugar, a young woman who works as a prostitute in Victorian London, but as the author notes in the foreword to this collection, you don't need to have read the novel to appreciate this collection, "The stories are, as stories should be, little worlds of their own."

The Apple contains seven stories in 199 pages:
  • Christmas in Silver Street
  • Clara and the Rat Man
  • Chocolate Hearts from the New World
  • The Fly, and its Effect upon Mr Bodley
  • The Apple
  • Medicine
  • A Mighty Horde of Women in Very Big Hats, Advancing
It took me no time at all to finish reading the collection, and every story pulled me in to the action, fascinated and entertained me and impelled me to continue reading. This is not to say, however, that I liked all of the stories; some of the stories came across as unnecessarily crude and made me feel quite peculiar. I read the whole thing in two sittings, but that was more due to time constraints than anything else, as this is the sort of book that you could read in one go if you had a couple of hours free.

The two stand-out stories for me were Chocolate Hearts from the New World and A Mighty Horde of Women in Very Big Hats, Advancing. I think that the second story is probably the favourite of fans of The Crimson Petal and the White as the narrator of the story is Sophie's (the little girl from the novel) six year old son and as such constitutes a continuation of the Sugar saga as readers discover what happens to Sophie as an adult. The story follows the arrival of Sophie's family in London where they have returned after living in Australia for several years. Her son's impressions of life in England after his wild and free childhood in Australia and his comments about his bohemian parents are most amusing and although this is the longest story in the collection (64 pages) I was quite sad when it ended.

Chocolate Hearts from the New World describes a father's frustrations with and fears for his daughter Emmeline. Dr Curlew is worried that his teenage daughter will leave marriage too late as "The same physical features that made him such a distinguished looking man - tall, rangy build, aquiline nose, long face, strong jaw - were a calamitous inheritance for a girl." Despite Emmeline announcing that she does not want to get married, her father hopes that she will find a suitor when he learns that she writes to many men around the world. Most of Emmeline's letters go unanswered however, as her letters are missives on the subject of slavery and she mainly writes to cotton plantation owners in the United States urging them to turn their back on slavery and allow their hearts "to be penetrated by the love of Christ". Most of the responses she receives to her letters take the form of a rebuke, 
"I will thank you to keep your ignorant and impudent babblings to yourself, said one. Has it occurred to you, Miss, said another, that the very clothes you are wearing as you pen your imperious missive may have their origins in my cotton fields?"
The story of Emmeline and her father, like the other stories in this collection, is realistic, subtly-crafted and features witty dialogue.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Dreaming of Libraries

Spijkenisse Library in the Netherlands
At this time of year many people's thoughts turn to summer holidays and trips abroad. I do not have any vacations planned for the summer, but if I were to travel abroad, my dream trip would be to the Netherlands on a library tour (I am aware that this is not everyone's idea of fun, but like Citizen Reader I am not a huge fan of hot weather and lounging around beside the pool).

The libraries that I am particularly interested in visiting are: Spijkenisse LibraryDelft Media Library and the Library at Delft University of Technology

Spijkenisse Public Library, also known as Book Mountain is a really exciting concept for a public library. Around fifty thousand books are shelved on, what is in essence, one huge bookshelf which begins with a wide base and tapers up to the roof (like a mountain, hence the name). Sustainable principles were employed in the design of the building and the bookshelves are actually made from recycled plastic bags. The interior of the Library is designed to feel as spacious as possible and does not have a proper ceiling. A glass pyramid-shaped cover protects the books and patrons from the elements whilst allowing plenty of natural light into the Library.

The Delft Media Library also looks like an amazing space to use, with pod-like chairs, bright coloured fixtures and fittings and, again, lots of natural light. The Library occupies a former blast-furnace building which has been transformed into a bright, modern building.

I would also make another stop in Delft as part of my library tour, in order to visit the University of Technology Library which looks rather like a temple from Star Wars or some other space-age fantasy. It has an enormous grass roof which is skewered by a protruding cone-like structure and a glass facade to allow the light to flow in. The architects responsible for this innovative building, Mecanoo, also designed the new Library of Birmingham which opens in the autumn.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Short Story Sunday - Victoria Hislop

The Last Dance and Other Stories - Victoria Hislop

Victoria Hislop's collection of stories was published in 2012 and features ten stories:
  • The Priest and the Parrot
  • The Kafenion
  • Aflame in Athens
  • The Zacharoplasteion
  • The Periptero
  • One Cretan Evening
  • The Butcher of Karapoli
  • The Lesson
  • The Pine Tree
  • The Last Dance
Each story features an illustration on its title page by British illustrator Quinton Winter (what a fabulous name!). Do you like/dislike illustrations in books, or are you indifferent? I don't really care for illustrations in novels, but I absolutely love them in short fiction. Placed on the title page, illustrations make a collection very easy to navigate and encourage me to think about the story in a more visual sense (I usually focus on plot and dialogue with descriptions taking a secondary role). I don't usually look at them before reading the story, but I always return to look when I finish reading; it's interesting to see what the focus of the illustration is and whether there is any cross-over between the mental images that the story created for me and the images that the illustrator, in conjunction with the author or editor, chose to create for the story.

I found the collection a bit up and down, although at only 146 pages and written in clear, simple prose it is certainly a quick read. The first story was one of my favourites and instantly brought Roald Dahl to mind: a simple, human story where the characters try to mould life in a certain direction, but the unstoppable desires of man (love, hate, covetousness, in this case love) take over and the characters are just incidental players in the story of life.

Some of the other stories displayed this same vivid spark (The Periptero was another one of my favourites), but others seemed not fully formed (just an idea, not a complete story) or poorly developed with cliched and facile conclusions. For example, The Zacharoplasteion (patisserie in Greek - translating a Greek term into a French term to garner an English meaning!), really, really, really annoyed me. The story focuses on Angeliki who works for her mother in their small-town patisserie. Despite the fact that she has a dutiful daughter who works hard in the family business, Sofia frequently gives vent to her frustration that her daughter is now twenty-nine years old, and, unlike her contemporaries in the town, is still unmarried, "Why was Angeliki not like other girls? Why was she not married?" If the story had stayed with these two characters and developed the mother-daughter relationship I think it would have turned out well. Instead, Angeliki is single because she has already met her "prince charming" and knows that in acquiring a mate only perfection will do. Some time previous to the action of the story, a handsome stranger comes into the shop,
"His laughter and his good nature completely overthrew Angeliki. For five years she had worked there each day, and not once had she served a customer who had made her smile like this. She felt that all the ice-cream in the nearby cabinet would melt in his warmth. As well as taking a delighted interest in what was in the shop, he smiled: a deep, life-loving smile. She had never met anyone who was so relaxed and at ease with himself."
Any man who can melt a cabinet of ice-cream at ten paces is definitely a keeper! Although Angeliki has not really met this man, he just popped into her shop, had a brief conversation with her and bought some marzipan, "she was both made and unmade by the encounter." And, "Angeliki knew that her heart had been woken, not broken." I found this cliched and utterly cringe worthy, but I suppose if you believe in the lightening-bolt of love at first sight then it might not seem so bad. In some of the other stories the names of the characters have a meaning for the story (Aflame in Athens features two badly suited lovers: Irini (peace) and Fotis (coming from the Greek word for fire), maybe the fact that the mother is called Sofia (wisdom) shows that Ms Hislop does not believe in the sentimental concept of the prince charming and love at first sight, which could explain why the character of Angeliki seems so poorly developed.

Other elements of the collection which seemed slightly ridiculous to me were: an evening of music undoing years of serious sibling rivalry and the certainty that time will cause an over-protective and controlling mother to accept her son's partner.

It may sound like I really hated this collection. I didn't. Some of the stories were beautifully crafted and very enjoyable indeed. The other stories, which I disliked, or had some issues with, will probably only serve to make this book unforgettable.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Charles Seale-Hayne Library, the University of Plymouth

The Library at the University of Plymouth allows members of the public to visit for free and, on production of ID showing current address, use the facilities on a reference only basis. I was interested to learn that the Library also allows members of the public and corporations to pay a membership fee allowing them to borrow books.

The Library holds over 500,000 books and 22,000 journals with particularly strong art and law collections. When I visited, the library was half-empty as the undergraduates have already departed for the summer and the few remaining students were hard at work at the numerous study desks (individual carrels and group study tables) or quietly enjoying a coffee in the Library cafe.

My preferred style of study desk.
There are separate study rooms on each floor of the library: quiet study, silent study and casual study (what's casual study?), but despite all these other non-book areas, the collection seemed huge with long rows of shelving packed with illuminating volumes. There is also a very interesting collection of children's books in the School Experience Collection which is designed to help teacher training students with their studies. I have not seen such a collection in a university library before and I was delighted to stumble across shelves of children's poetry anthologies, not what I was expecting to see, at all!

I spent most of my visit on level 0 browsing the books in the 700s, the Library uses the Dewey Decimal system and is well laid out making it very easy to use for a first time visitor. As you can see from the photo below, the reading room is large and contains an extensive collection of art books from volumes about famous art movements to art and science and a noteworthy collection of Artists' books.

 I found another book to consult on the subject of bookplates (my current passion): British Bookplates: A Pictorial History by Brian North Lee. My favourite designs were the two below:

Although the bookplate designed for Granville Barker is quite simple I found it intriguing: is the figure trapped by books and wants to escape (a strange image for a bookplate), or do the books represent an accumulated understanding and appreciation of the wider world?

Unlike some university libraries, the Library at the University of Plymouth does not restrict members of the public to 3 or 4 visits per year only, so I hope to make use of this wonderful resource again in the future. If you are in Plymouth and have an interest in art I highly recommend a trip to the Library.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Short Story Sunday - Edgar Allan Poe

The Murders in the Rue Morgue - Edgar Allan Poe

I confess. I have not read any of Poe's work before, even though I am quite a fan of crime fiction. However, a few months ago I saw The Raven, a thrilling, but rather disturbing film, and I think for ever more John Cusack will be Edgar Allan Poe, for me.

The Vintage edition of The Murders in the Rue Morgue contains the three Dupin Tales, the title story, The Mystery of Marie Roget and The Purloined Letter. I read the first story, only, as I found Poe's writing very difficult to get into and frequently felt my mind wandering (there is a pile of library books on my bookshelf waiting to be read, so I hope that I haven't entered a reading slump). The four, preliminary pages describing Dupin's love of puzzles and "ratiocination" helped to build a psychological image of the detective but was severely lacking in physical description. .

The mystery itself (a murder carried out in a locked-room scenario) was interesting enough and the revelation of the perpetrator of the crime was certainly original and amusing. Perhaps it was a little too amusing: an orangutan with a razor, how extraordinary!

This week's brief introduction to Edgar Allan Poe has not totally put me off reading more of his work. I appreciate that he was a trailblazer when it came to crafting the detective story and I would like to do him justice by reading more of his stories in the future.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Short Story Sunday - Lorrie Moore

Birds of America - Lorrie Moore

This collection from 1998 contains twelve stories:
  • Willing
  • Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People
  • Dance in America
  • Community Life
  • Agnes of Iowa
  • Charades
  • Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens
  • Beautiful Grade
  • What You Want to Do Fine
  • Real Estate
  • People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk
  • Terrific Mother
The stories deal with relationships between: lovers, mothers and daughters and divorced, or soon to be divorced, couples; relationships that are ruptured, just beginning or changing in some way. The themes of marriage (the putting-up kind) and divorce are very strong throughout the collection, and like many of the other modern short story collections that I have read, cancer makes an appearance in a couple of the stories. I found most of the stories quite brittle and harsh; however, the dialogue (internal and between characters) in many of the stories made me chuckle and kept me reading.

Although I know that the stories are not about birds, the title made me look for them. In the collection, I found: jays, ravens, chickadees, blackbirds and vultures, gulls, grebes, flamingos, geese, ducks and crows. Audubon (the author of the original Birds of America) is mentioned in What You Want to Do Fine. The main characters of this story, Mack and Quilty, have visited Audubon's house on one of their previous road-trip vacations. Although Audubon is mentioned in this story, I thought that the choice of Birds of America as the title of the collection had a greater meaning - perhaps Lorrie Moore's Birds of America is supposed to be a comprehensive reflection of the lives of various types of modern Americans. I am not sure about this analysis, and when I was reading the collection I did feel that maybe I was missing various points from not understanding enough about life in the US. In any case, I enjoyed this collection and found the writing clever and witty.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Plymouth College of Art Library

I always assume that as a member of the public I may not have access to libraries of academic institutions. In Plymouth, thanks to an initiative called Learning through Libraries in Plymouth I can access the libraries of a number of institutions on a reference only basis. I made use of this wonderful initiative today and took a trip to the Library at the Plymouth College of Art.

The Library, situated on the third floor of the building, was not really what I was expecting: the college building has a modern-looking, dramatic facade and I thought the Library would be a spacious, airy, tiled-floor sort of space. It was not like this, at all. The Library was smaller and drabber than I thought it would be - more like a medical library and less like a place to keep information on the visual arts.

The College is currently undergoing a £7.7 million extension (due to open in September 2013), but as far as I know the extension does not mean change for the Library. Although I was not enamoured with the physical space, the Library has an excellent collection of journals (over 100 different titles), plenty of individual study spaces (with laptops) and a group study area too - all the students sat at the individual study desks were talking to each other anyway when I was there, so maybe the whole area should be renamed "group study". The Library holds almost 16,000 books, which seems like quite a small number for an academic institution (Falmouth College of Art holds 50,000 volumes, for example).

Despite being slightly taken aback by the small size of the Library, I was very pleased to find what I was looking for on the shelves. In addition to my interest in libraries, in general, I was hoping to spend some time referring to a book on my new obsession - bookplates.

The book in question, A Treasury of Bookplates from the Renaissance to the Present by Fridolf Johnson was a fabulous resource, and I am very pleased that I was granted access to it.

I am toying with the idea of designing myself a bookplate at the moment. Do you have a personal bookplate? If yes, did you design it yourself, buy a ready made one, or commission an artist to design one for you?

Here are a few of the bookplates from the above mentioned book: