The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

I got this one from a box of old books that a friend gave me some time ago. After seeing the brilliant series by the BBC a couple of years ago, starring Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, Philip Glenister and so many other famous names (for full BBC Cranford Cast click here), I wanted to read the novel and see how closely it had been adapted. I also set it as one of my directional reading challenges in January, to read another novel by this author. This is my 3rd Gaskell novel having read Cousin Phyllis and North and South previously.
Written and set during the 19th century this story is essentially a character study of the genteel ladies who inhabit the small Cheshire town of Cranford throughout a series of happenings and local events. Narrated by a young lady called Mary Smith on her many visits to Cranford, she is privy to all the gossip while she stays at Miss Matty's, an old friend of the family as well as a respected and loved member of the community. A paucity of males in the town due to war, illness or old age means that the Cranford ladies have free run to visit, gossip and also to support each other. There are some men, but this story is about early-Victorian middle aged women of certain social standing.
The tone of the book is one of subtle and gentle humour that never fails to hit its mark. After a briefing on town etiquette as regards visiting others and acceptable topics of conversation, we are introduced to the ladies who form the bulk of Cranford society as they prepare for such things as a visiting magician, the protocol regarding a certain Lady Glenmire as a guest, contact from a former suitor of Miss Matty's and the threat of robberies in the local area.
Those who like a substantial meaty plot which progresses at a fast pace will be disappointed with this book. It is gently paced, about small happenings and the interest lies in getting to know the characters who are portrayed with warmth and more than a little satire in a small setting. It is all in the detail.
I really liked it. It is clever, witty and acutely observational. The time period is palpable and a delight. I grew very fond of the ladies, particularly Miss Matty, who lives in her older sisters formidable shadow even after her death. I also liked Miss Pole with her concrete belief in her own exaggerations. It is the kind of period setting that becomes very comfortable very quickly. I felt as if I was there with them, through the various interiors, taking part in town life.
An English classic which would be great for those who love the study of 19th century manners and lots to talk about for reading groups.
There is a free online version of Cranford if you click the link.
The Gaskell Society website can be visited by clicking the link.
There is even a Cranford walk around Knutsford in Cheshire.

Monday, 22 November 2010

The Magic Apple Tree: A Country Year by Susan Hill

I picked this one up in Oxfam when I was stocking up on Herbal Medicine books and I was totally drawn to it. By the author of The Woman in Black this is a completely different kettle of fish altogether. Documenting a whole year of her life in Moon Cottage in a small Oxfordshire village during the 1980's.
The book is split into seasons, starting with winter, and then split into chapters covering such things as village life, creatures, cooking, the garden, people, the wood, festivals and many other subjects. Overlooking all of it is the Apple Tree in the garden, gnarled, weathered and constant. Throughout there are lovely engravings by John Lawrence depicting the year passing around.
We are taken through all the lovely transitions of nature and how Susan and the other villagers lived alongside it, worked with it, and with each other to share their strengths and look out for each other. This is not a book about self sufficiency but about people living side by side. In fact Susan says she doesn't believe anyone can be totally self sufficient and she has seen many a well-meaning person arrive in the village only to depart a year or so later. The secret is not to exist alone but to exist as a community and this is a strong message that comes through in the book.
Susan's voice is unassuming and very easy to listen to, describing the beauties of the home she clearly loves and the people of the village. I loved hearing about the Twomey brothers who make cider, the WI autumn fair where jams and cakes are on show, the carol singing in winter, the preserving week in autumn, the hens, the cats, the walks with the dog in the woods. It is not about a super-woman ploughing the land single-handed in all weathers, but an attainable life in a small community, and what that meant to the author. It is quiet, observant and gentle. Looking for lights in the other houses, picking damsons, riding your bike up and down the lanes.
I totally loved this book. I felt a calmness descend upon me whenever I picked it up. Described as a 'comfort book' it was a pure pleasure to read and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in country life with nature and the English countryside on your doorstep.
Susan Hill has her own website and you can read about this book and lots of others by clicking the link.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Book Blogger Holiday Swap

Michele over at A Readers Respite has reminded us about this event again this Christmas and I have signed up for the fun. I think the deadline for signing up is today. It is such a brilliant idea and thanks go to the organisers. I remember seeing this event on the blogs last year so I am glad to be taking part for this Christmas.
I am really looking forward to finding out who I am to be Secret Santa to. You can read more about the Book Blogger Holiday Swap by clicking the link here or on my sidebar.
I am about two thirds through Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell so hope to be able to blog about it soon. I have also nearly finished The Magic Apple Tree by Susan Hill which I have enjoyed immensely so look out for that too.

Monday, 1 November 2010

October Roundup

Apples are such a part of this time of year, colourful fruits on trees, as well as duck-apple at Halloween. A neighbour brought us a bag full from the tree in his garden and I have been cooking appley things. Also, with evenings drawing in it is easier to spend time indoors with a book.
Read - 1 and a quarter books
Completed - Tethered by Amy Mackinnon
Currently Reading - Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell as well as continuing The Magic Apple Tree by Susan Hill
TBR Pile - Currently at 81 (according to GoodReads) with one book added...
The Peoples Act of Love by James Meek.
Challenges - I am reading Cranford because one of my directional reading challenges from January was to read another Elizabeth Gaskell.
Wishlist Additions - none this month, probably a good job too.
Discoveries - Slung Low Theatre (not strictly true because I encountered this theatre company in the summer) who have brought their unique and brilliant style of theatre to Liverpool during October and created a buzz around the Hope Street area with Anthology (see below).
Events -
Anthology, part of the Unbound season at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre, by Slung Low. Seven different stories all playing simultaneously, written by seven writers. Each night you see one story, determined by a prop, a feather, party popper, spoon, milk bottle...put on your headphones and follow your actor outside the theatre to tell you a story, with the streets of Liverpool as your setting. It has been so much fun, moving and very addictive. I managed 5 of the stories over 5 nights and loved all of them. Sadly this event has finished but I hope Slung Low come back to Liverpool soon. Very memorable.
Also Shakespeares Antony and Cleopatra at the Liverpool Playhouse with Kim Cattrall and Jeffrey Kissoon. A notoriously difficult play, done with lots of style and sophistication.
It has got colder and darker, time to curl up with a book...

Hay on Wye

Hay on Wye