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

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Through the Garden Gate by Susan Hill

After being totally enchanted with The Magic Apple Tree last year, by the author who is otherwise known for her ghost stories, I managed to buy second hand copies of her other similar books, about living in the countryside. Through the Garden Gate is the first of the 2 titles.

The illustrations by Angela Barrett draw you into this lovely book, where Susan Hills voice describes the various gardens throughout her life. Starting with The Gardens of my Childhood, and on to other chapters covering Herb Gardens, Rose Gardens, Wilderness, Winter Gardens, Vegetable Gardens, Potted Gardens, and Night Gardens, among others, you get a little burst of pictures and musings in each chapter. This book is about sharing a love of gardens rather than a tome of practical information. It is an indulgence, for writer and reader.

I loved the reference to Alice in Wonderland at the beginning, and the Ten Delights of a Garden which included such carefree thoughts of 'Rhubarb plants left to spread, tower and run all to seed...The smell of tomato plants inside a conservatory...Pincushion moss growing in the crevices of a stone wall'. Susan Hills gardens are not the ordered kind of exotic blooms, tamed into submission and planned to the last detail. They are places to get lost in, marvel at how they do their own thing, a little bit wild, but always beautiful, surprising and full of wonderful things. A partnership between gardener and garden with an adventure around every corner. Exactly the kind of garden I would love to have, but try to emulate with my modest bit of ground at the front and back of the house.

Although not quite as amazing as The Magic Apple Tree, it is certainly a book to dip into if, like me, you enjoy listening to Susan Hills voice, taking you around gardens of the imagination, that you would love to visit for real. A book to get lost in, very sensory, and a short read that some of you could polish off in one go.

The nearest places I have seen that come close to the ideal gardens of my imagination are The Forbidden Corner in Yorkshire (like visiting every childrens story you read when you were a child) and Newby Hall near Ripon, for a beautiful historic garden with quirky details, including a gate that was taken from Newgate prison in London when it was closed down in 1902.

I would love any recommendations for beautiful or interesting gardens that you know of.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

The English Novel in History 1895 - 1920

A train journey to and from Hull during one day last week provided an excellent opportunity to read and make notes for this months installment from this literary theory book.

Last month we covered chapters 2 and 3, about Labour and Gold Standards. Here are another 2 chapters for this months installment...

Chapter 4 - Thresholds

Earlier in the 19th century novels had been available in 'three-decker' form, that is in 3 volumes. This made novels expensive and out of the range of many peoples income. However, with the advent of serialisation in popular journals, there was a new format for writers to make use of. With the new one-volume novels at the end of the 1880's, at 6 shillings, the demise of the 3 volume novel came in 1895. Circulating and public libraries remained the main buyers of fiction, but to secure individual sales meant more profits for the publishers. The desires of the reader -consumer were now key, leading to the rise of the modern bestseller. This also led to a new diversity in writing.

To acheive bestseller status and the mass market, there needed to be recognition of the smaller groups of people within that mass market. W D Howells, Henry James's American mentor and friend, identified 2 markets for the novel. There was one type of fiction 'which was the equivalent of the circus or the variety theatre' which was 'essential to the spiritual health of the masses' (p66). The 'cultivated classes' demanded a different type of writing, one that was determined by fashion. This impacted on the way authors wrote. Modernism became 'the literary equivalent of the theory of marginal utility' (p67).

A new purpose drove the writing style of the Modernist period. The metaphor became the mode of choice when representing the world in fiction. It was argued that the Modernist writer did not want to experiment with the 'free-play' of language, so much as 'test our powers of inference', how a reader processes the text, making us dig deeply into our own emotions and experiences of the world, challenging our assumptions and generating rich contextual effects. Relevance theory 'analyses communication in terms of effort and effect'. Previous works had kept attention, memory and reasoning to a minimal effort. However the writers of the Modernist period could not be put into this category, that is James, Conrad, Lawrence, Joyce or Woolf could not be described as writers whose work required little effort in the reader. Many writers, especially James, stretched their readers by their use of syntax. 'Disturbances of linguistic structure alert us to the possibility that we may have to work very hard indeed in order to understand what the writer might mean us to infer' (p70). Lawrence employs a loose sentence structure devoid of any anticipatory devices. In Sons and Lovers and The Rainbow the awakening of the characters as they develop in the novel is portrayed as a negative experience, 'an awakening from an old life, rather than to a new life.' (p78). These new stylistic devices illustrate a new kind of change where the change remains unexplained.

Chapter 5 - Interiors

Expanding the theory of Modernist writers using established styles and then disrupting them, to stretch the experience of the reader by making them work for the meaning in the writing, we examine descriptions of rooms in various fiction to define relevance in the work.

In the popular fiction of Arthur Conan Doyle, we can compare Holmes and Watsons descriptions of a room as a crime scene to illustrate relevance and irrelevance. Watson describes the room using stereotype to convey meaning, whereas Holmes describes the seemingly irrelevant details with his superior obsevant eye to deduce the rooms secrets. 'Holmes embodies the Principle of Relevance, the guarantee that effort will be adjusted to effect.', (p82). Richard Hannay from The Thirty Nine Steps was the same, ignoring stereotypes to arrive at alternative scenarios.

Many authors set out to examine the 'condition of England' in their writing. Rooms represent the people who own them, providing excellent material to examine the condition of England. Rooms, houses, dwellings and establishments were endlessly used to represent the wider society within them. H G Wells in In the Days of the Comet uses description sparingly, using seemingly irrelevant items to provide an absence of relevance to enhance a world governed by irrelevance. Wells is at his best when forcing us 'to confront a surplus of information we cannot make sense of,' thus commenting on the condition of England'.

Galsworthy, Forster and Walpole all gave us houses with descriptions of relevant details to convey the owners character. Woolf and Lawrence identified the limitations of this. Wells invites new possibilites by using irrelevance, demonstrating the need for change in writing. Conrad destabilises characters identities by describing interiors from the outside, shattering their own illusions of themselves. Woolf also plays with expectations of narrative in Jacob's Room by describing the contents of Jacob's Cambridge University room being devoid of anything informative within. Jacob is simply not present in his possessions. His only presence is ghostly, and this is only in the minds of those who search his room after his death.

Contemporary works that illustrate the above points include...

Ulysses by James Joyce

Sons and Lovers by D H Lawrence

The Rainbow by D H Lawrence

The Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchan

In the Days of the Comet by H G Wells

Howards End by E M Forster

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Victory by Joseph Conrad

Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf

Look out for the next installment from this literary theory book which will be posted on this blog some time in May.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Caught by the river: A Collection of Words on Water by various authors

This lovely book was bought for me as a Christmas present from a friend in 2009 and was a perfect bedside table book to dip in and out of.

Evolving from the website about angling, music and culture,, this is a collection of stories, essays and musings about the varied rivers of Britain. Covering many of the usual suspects, The Severn, The Ouse, The Irvine and The Thames, and quite a few lesser known treasures, this book allows us to while away the hours in the countryside with the authors. Sharing a passion for rivers the authors too are an interesting array of journalists, known writers and musicians. Frank Cottrell Boyce and Irvine Welsh sit alongside Jarvis Cocker and Edwyn Collins, Roger Deakin alongside Lord Peregrine St Germans, at home describing currents, Kingfishers and shopping trolleys.

The subjects are as varied as the writers. There are a fair amount of remembered fishing tales, but also canoeing adventures, childhood wanderings of legendary proportions, as well as rivers as personalities that we live with and provide a sense of place and stability, or a little known peaceful retreat. Among my favourites were The River Cary with author and journalist Gavin Pretor-Pinney, Tickling Fish by Lord Peregrine St Germans, or Way Across the River by punk historian Jon savage. To be truthful though there was not a single chapter I did not find enjoyable.

As I said, this was perfect to read before sleep because it was so relaxing and each chapter was reasonably short. The words are peppered with illustrations by Robert Gibbings and John Richardson making this book very special. You can buy some of the maps as prints from the caughtbytheriver website.

The blurb on the back describes the book as 'a uniquely modern take on an age old writing tradition -a rock 'n' roll nature book even'. Highly recommended for not just anglers, but lovers of the British countryside, and for those who appreciate the quiet moments we enjoy by our waterways.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

March Roundup

I have been a huge fan of Sophie Ryder's sculptures since I saw her big bronze hare hugging a greyhound in the city of Bath in 1999. I had to find out who the artist was because it stirred such emotion in me. If you google image her name you can see lots of examples of her work, which is mainly huge bronze hares, and so appropriate to the month of March. The drawing to the left is by Ryder too. Take a look at this wonderful artist by using the link above.

Anyway, on to the books...

Read - 2 and a half books

Completed -

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

Caught by the River: A Collection of Words on Water by various authors

Currently Reading -

Tinkers by Paul Harding

Through the Garden Gate by Susan Hill

The English Novel in History 1895 - 1920 by David Trotter

TBR Pile - Currently at 96 (according to GoodReads) with 4 books added...

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce

Notes from Walnut Tree Cottage by Roger Deakin

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Challenges -

Finished The Great Gatsby, one of the titles I have from AR, a work colleague for a personal challenge to read at least one of three books recommended.

Summarised Chapters 2 and 3 of The English Novel in History 1895 - 1920, that I am serialising each month. Will soon be on page 90 and ready for the April bulletin.

Wishlist Additions -

Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

Corag by Susan Fletcher

Discoveries - the website Literature-Map is a fun site where you can type in your favourite authors and it conjours up a cloud of other authors that you may also like. Give it a go.

Events -

World Book Night on the 3rd of March was an interesting and successful night with lots of books given and received.

I also went to see one of my favourite theatre companys, Propeller, doing Shakespeares Richard III at The Lowry in Salford. Totally brilliant. A cross between Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween. Great fun!

It's April showers all day here in Liverpool. A rainy sunday, good for reading books!

Hay on Wye

Hay on Wye