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…in which I somewhat belatedly discover Slightly Foxed!

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As someone who loves books, longs for a decent literary periodical and reads a lot of blogs, you would think, wouldn’t you, that I would have become involved with Slightly Foxed before now! For anyone who doesn’t know (and there shouldn’t be many) SF is a bookshop based on the Gloucester Road in London, and a quarterly literary magazine. They also produce beautiful editions of lost memoirs as well as lovely paperback editions. So what’s not to love?

I don’t know why I’ve resisted for so long, unless it’s the knowledge deep down that I would have to subscribe and this would give me yet more reading material with not enough time. Suffice to say, I succumbed recently when I read that issue 41 contained some thing about one of my favourite painters, (Dora) Carrington.

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In the early days of my Bloomsbury obsession, in the early 1980s, I was reading everything to do with the group I could. I worked my way through everything of Woolf first (including *all* the diaries and letters published at the time!) then started to explore further. Carrington’s wonderful paintings caught my eye, and then I read about her life (biography and letters and diaries) – I had quite an obsession with her, which never really went away. So when I saw that the spring issue of Slightly Foxed featured a piece on her, I cracked and ordered a sample copy. That was that, really – I’ve now subscribed and thankfully have a lovely literary journal to look forward to quarterly. And what a delight it is too – beautifully put together and printed on lovely creamy paper, packed full of fascinating pieces. I’m trying to pace myself so that the articles keep me going between issues.

Of course, now the real danger is that I rather want to visit the Slightly Foxed shop……. And as for their lovely books – well, let’s not even go there!!

Recent Reads – Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson

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The hypnotic prose of Tove is definitely getting to me! I keep being drawn back to her work, and I’m gradually accumulating a little collection of Moomin books. This is the third in the series and from what I’ve read is regarded as the first ‘proper’ introduction to all the main Moomin characters. Of course, we’ve encountered many of them in “Comet in Moominland” but it seems that each book in the series introduces a wider range of beings who reside in Moomin Valley. However, FFM was the first of the Moomins books to be translated into English and so I believe it’s often been regarded as the first in the series over here. My very sweet little old Puffin version has a foreword attributed to Moominmamma explaining all about Moomins for English children, which I assume was written in that language by Tove herself!

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FFM opens with the Moomins hibernating, after eating lots of pine needles (yuk!) When Moomintroll awakes it is spring, and with Sniff and Snufkin, he discovers a large hat which he brings home. This, however, is a magic hat, belonging to the Hobgoblin, and it has the ability to change things…. Much fun and mayhem follows, with the arrival of new characters (Thingumy and Bob), adventures with the old (the Muskrat and my favourite, the Hemulen). The extended family has a wonderful boat trip, Moominmamma loses her handbag and the Hobgoblin returns from the moon in search of a royal jewel.

Tove Jansson had such a wonderful way with words, and she’s created such a beautiful and surreal world here. Moominvalley is definitely somewhere you’d like to live – accepting, full of creatures happily getting along together, and the Moomin family itself is so welcoming:

“They had had many strange adventures on this river and had brought home many new friends. Moomintroll’s mother and father always welcomed all their friends in the same quiet way, just adding another bed and putting another leaf in the dining-room table. And so Moominhouse was rather full – a place where everyone did what they liked and seldom worried about tomorrow. Very often unexpected and disturbing things used to happen, but nobody ever had time to be bored, and that is always a good thing.”

All is not sweetness and saccharine though, as there are elements of threat in the story – the Groke, in particular, a most unpleasant creature who freezes the ground where she’s been sitting. The Hobgoblin is a bit unsettling until he arrives, and there is definitely the feeling with his hat that there are some kinds of magic with which it’s better not to meddle…

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The drawings of course are a huge delight, bringing the story, the characters and the valley to life – I actually wish the book was in larger format so the pictures were easier to see, as a small paperback really doesn’t do them justice. I’m definitely finding that if I need to switch off and escape for an hour, Moominvalley is the place to go!

A little bit of wonderment….

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…..from Kristin Hersh, featuring Michael Stipe.

A sombre anniversary

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Today is the birthday of American journalist John Hersey, who’s best known for his stunning piece of work “Hiroshima”. I first stumbled across this in a little book department above a stationers in Grantham, Lincs, where I was visiting with family. It was a slim, ‘silver cover’ Penguin Modern Classic, and I knew nothing about it but as I also knew little really about the horrors of Hiroshima I bought it and read it.

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Hersey’s book is an amazing journalistic exercise, bringing home the horrors of the atomic bomb in an unsensational way which is all the more effective because it’s unhysterical. As the consequences and effects of the bomb become clear, it’s hard not to despair of the mentality of the people who dropped it, with no real knowledge of what the long-term effects would be.

Wikipedia describes Hersey thus: John Richard Hersey (June 17, 1914 – March 24, 1993) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer and journalist considered one of the earliest practitioners of the so-called New Journalism, in which storytelling techniques of fiction are adapted to non-fiction reportage. Hersey’s account of the aftermath of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, was adjudged the finest piece of American journalism of the 20th century by a 36-member panel associated with New York University’s journalism department.

I can’t disagree with that assessment – Hersey’s account is definitely one of the best pieces of journalism I’ve come across and should be required reading for anyone interested in the history of the 20th century.

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Rather chillingly, I also discovered at the same time a book by Japanese author Masuji Ibuse, “Black Rain”, which covers the same ground as Hersey’s. And I found as I read it incredible parallels between the two works, in structure and in the sequence of telling the story. Ibuse’s book was longer but in many ways they were telling the same story in the same way, but simply from very different perspectives – Hersey’s journalistic outsider viewpoint and Ibuse’s insider view, as a Japanese citizen. Interestingly, I believe Ibuse used historical records of the devastation as source material, and I can’t help but wonder if Hersey’s book was one of those.

Both books are essential reading in my view for any understanding of our world and what human beings are capable of.  “Hiroshima” in partircular must have had a huge impact at the time. As the Writer’s Almanac comments:

“He wrote more than a dozen books, but he’s best known for his 31,000-word nonfiction piece “Hiroshima,” which appeared in The New Yorker on August 31, 1946. The cover of the late-summer magazine issue featured a cheerful picnic with people sunbathing, strumming mandolins, dancing, playing croquet and tennis. Then, readers opened to the “Talk of the Town” page to find the beginning of Hersey’s voluminous essay and this note from The Editors:

“TO OUR READERS. The New Yorker this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city […]”

John Hersey’s Hiroshima begins:

“At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.”

Hersey did the world a great service by recording the aftermath of the atomic strike and deserves all the accolades heaped on him.

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Happy birthday Mr. Hersey.

Happy Bloomsday!

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joyce

 

“Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.”
― James Joyce, Ulysses

Recent Reads – The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

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I seem to be having a year of reading Tove in 2014, which is not something I would necessarily have expected. I knew of her, of course, from the Moomins, even though I hadn’t read them – but Simon at Stuck-in-Book‘s championing of her other prose had made me keen, and being lucky enough to find two of her adult books in the Oxfam has encouraged me along! I reviewed the first, “Fair Play” here, and enjoyed it hugely – so picking up “The Summer Book” when I was unsure what to read recently was a no-brainer.

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TSB is reckoned by many to be her best adult book, and apparently is a classic in Finland. Sort Of books have championed Tove’s adult books, and this one is as beautifully produced as the others I’ve seen, with French flaps and lovely cover illustrations. It tells the story of a summer in the lives of 85-year-old Grandmother and 6-year-old Sofia, and the time they spend on together on an island in the Finnish sea. There is a darker side – mother is absent, and father spends all of his time working, a brooding presence slightly offstage.

The story is based on Tove’s life, with Grandmother being Tove’s own mother, and Sofia her real-life niece. And the darkness is shown here too – Sofia’s mother, Tove’s sister-in-law, died when the child was 6 and it’s hard not to see that event reflected in the fiction, with father burying himself in work and the child and grandmother left to fend for themselves.

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And the two do this admirably, having the kind of wonderful relationship that only seems to be possible between a grandparent and grandchild. Both are in effect children and happily go their own way over the summer – rambling over the island, going out in a boat, lying in the grass dreaming, experiencing a huge storm, trespassing on a neighbour’s property, quarrelling and making up. The book is structured in many ways like “Fair Play”, a series of short linked chapters each of which tells a tale.

Jansson’s storytelling is wonderful: deceptively simple, easy to read but packed with insight and joy. You feel as though you’re experiencing the book with the participants, living a summer on the island. Her prose is lovely and evocative, summoning up the feeling of isolation:

“Sometime in July the moss would adorn itself with a kind of long, light grass. Tiny clusters of flowers would open at exactly the same height above the ground and sway together in the wind, like inland meadows, and the whole island would be covered with a veil dipped in heat, hardly visible and gone in a week. Nothing could give a stronger impression of untouched wilderness.”

She’s not afraid to tackle with big subjects too – it would be far too easy to paint an idyllic picture of an island life, but Jansson puts in the quarrels and bickering, nature red in tooth and claw, and acknowledges the presence of darker thoughts:

“(Grandmother) started thinking about all the euphemisms for death, all the anxious taboos that had always fascinated her. It was too bad you could never have an intelligent discussion of the subject. People were either too young or too old, or else they didn’t have time.”

Despite this darker side, however, the book is remarkably uplifting – full of wisdom, reflecting the complex love between the old and the young, and painting a wonderful picture of the life that must have been led on the island by her mother and her niece.

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I absolutely loved “The Summer Book” – Tove Jansson is rapidly becoming a favourite author, and I think I will definitely have to explore the Moomin world a little further too. But in the meantime, I can’t help longing for the isolation of an island in the cool sea….

Georgia O’Keeffe’s New York paintings

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Some absolutely stunning Georgia O’Keeffe images shared on the ever-interesting Charnel House….

… in which I really *do* exercise restraint and consider the state of the shelves!

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The shelves, it has to be said, are bulging and straining at the weight of books on them – so much so that I think I shall have to spend some time over the summer rearranging and pruning a bit. And this is never a happy experience, as I was reminded this weekend by the Persephone letter, which carried the news that they’re republishing the book “Madame Solario”. I know I had this – it was on my shelves in the 1980s – but it isn’t there now, so it obviously went in a cull. Cue much annoyance, gnashing of teeth and gazing at various online sites…

However, bearing in mind the amount of books I have to read, I’ve been having one of my periodic “mustn’t buy any books” phases. And there have been temptations – last weekend I popped into Claude Cox books for the first time in ages. Well, I could have brought home half a dozen Ann Bridge books (and believe me, the temptation was hard to resist) – but in the end I settled for one little old Penguin I liked the sound of for £1:

The others were enormously tempting but I was honest with myself – since it’s unlikely I would read them all in the immediate future, I simply haven’t got the room for casual purchases. *Sigh* – I wish I had, though!

This weekend there were other temptations, particularly in the Sue Ryder charity shop, in the form of about a dozen Wilkie Collins books – obviously someone had had a clear-out! But again, I reminded myself that I was unlikely to read them soon and so passed on. It’s doubly hard for me, because I love finding a bargain!

However, I did find a couple of treats to compensate:

I’ve wanted to read “Manon Lescaut” since coming across Alex in Leeds’ wonderful review here – so a reasonably priced copy in the Samaritans Book Cave with a wonderfully tacky and inappropriate cover was a must! It’s an American Signet edition and the cover is luridly hilarious!

The “Mapp and Lucia” was a find at the Bookcrossing station in our local Nero’s which was a great delight. I read all 6 Lucia books about 30 years ago or so, and have often thought about revisiting them. As I recall, things really took off in the series at this particular book, so I shall feel no guilt about starting the sequence halfway through! In fact, it was so enticing I started reading it while I was waiting for the bus – which has played havoc with my Proust!!

But at least the shelves will survive for a little longer…. 😉

Happy Birthday Dorothy L. Sayers

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Today is the birthday of one of my all-time favourite authors – Dorothy L. Sayers!

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I first came across Sayers’ work via the TV, in the early 1970s. I’d begun reading Golden Age crime with a vengeance, having recently discovered Agatha Christie, and also had a bit of a thing about the 1920s era. So the BBC’s adaptations of Sayers’ novels, with Ian Carmichael as Wimsey, were perfect viewing. After watching “The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club” I was hooked, and set off in search of the books.

And what a joy to discover that the books were even better than the TV adaptations – with wonderful writing, depth of character, superb plotting and really gripping tales. Needless to say, I devoured the lot very rapidly.

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Ian Carmichael was perhaps every-so-slightly too old for the role of Wimsey, but nevertheless I did *love* his take on Wimsey very much. He obviously cared very much about the books and getting his portrayal right, and I just wish he’d had the opportunity to do all the stories. As it is, the ones he did do are still a great watch today!

Sayers’ stories have survived because of their quality – one of the joys of reading her works is not only the wonderful mystery but simply that she writes so well. These are novels with a crime theme, not just pot-boilers. I can still pick up one of her books and just sink into it instantly – and I shall continue to do so for as long as I can read!

As the Writer’s Almanac tells us: She was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford University, which she did in 1915, with a degree in medieval literature. Her first two books were volumes of poetry, published in 1916 and 1919; she published her first mystery novel, Whose Body?, in 1923, and it featured Lord Peter Wimsey, a witty aristocrat who solved mysteries as a hobby. Lord Peter is featured in 11 novels and two collections of short stories. She worked as an advertising copywriter from 1922 to 1931, and came up with the “zoo” series of Guinness ads, which have become classics. She’s also credited with coining the phrase, “It pays to advertise.”

Happy birthday DLS!

Throwing Muses – Dizzy

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Simply because I love their music and Kristin Hersh for some reason always makes me think of Sylvia Plath!

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