Classics Club = 68 classics read since 2012

I joined the Classics Club way back in 2012 with the intention of reading 55 classics by the time my 55th birthday came around. Sadly I missed that deadline, shockingly I’m getting on for 58 now! I recently realised that I must have passed my target so I thought it was about time I counted up. Below is the result and if you click on the titles it’ll take you to my thoughts on the book. The list isn’t chronological – I’m not that well organised.

I’m just going to continue with the Classics Club though. Over the years my idea of what a classic book is has changed a lot. In the beginning I was just counting much older books, mainly Victorian, but recently I’ve been a lot less strict about that. I do feel that it’s a bit strange calling something a classic when it has been written well within my lifetime, but I think a lot of people regard 30 years in print as meaning that a book is a classic – fair enough I suppose. Going by that my list of classics read since 2012 would be much longer than the one below. I’ve really enjoyed reading them, some more than others of course but I’ll write about that in another post soon.

1. In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck
2. Linda Tressel by Anthony Trollope
3. Kim by Rudyard Kipling
4. The Lady of the Camelias by Alexandre Dumas
5. Swan Song by John Galsworthy
6. An Academic Question by Barbara Pym
7. Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
8. Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov
9. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
10. The Talisman by Walter Scott
11. Ivanhoe by Walter Scott
12. The Quiet American by Graham Greene
13. The Three Clerks by Anthony Trollope
14. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
15. The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope
16. The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett
17. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
18. The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett
19. Roderick Random by Tobias Smollett
20. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
21. O Pioneer! by Willa Cather
22. Moby Dick by Hermann Melville
23. The Land of Green Ginger by Winifred Holtby
24. The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne
25. An Unsuitable Attachment by Barbara Pym
26. The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett
27. England, Their England by A.G. Macdonell
28. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
29. The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell
30. Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh
31. Witch Wood by John Buchan
32. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
33. The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck
34. Love by Elizabeth von Arnim
35. Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitgerald
36. Good Morning Midnight by Jean Rhys
37. Rachel Ray by Anthony Trollope
38. One of Ours by Willa Cather
39. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
40. Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada
41. Civil to Strangers by Barbara Pym
42. The Silver Spoon by John Galsworthy
43. An Eye for an Eye by Anthony Trollope
44. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
45. The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola
46. The Ladies Paradise by Emile Zola
47. The Castle by Franz Kafka
48. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
49. Miss Mackenzie by Anthony Trollope
50. He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope
51. Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope
52. The Duke’s Children by Anthony Trollope
53. The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope
54. Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope
55. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
56. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
57. My Antonia by Willa Cather
58. Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather
59. The Professor’s House by Willa Cather
60. Therese Raquin by Emile Zola
61. Germinal by Emile Zola
62. A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
63. The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh
64. Men at Arms by Evelyn Waugh
65. Scoop by Evelyn Waugh
66. In the Mountains by Elizabeth von Arnim
67. The Pastor’s Wife by Elizabeth von Arnim
68. Introduction to Sally by Elizabeth von Arnim

The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore

The Betrayal cover

The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore was first published in 2010 and it was long listed for the Booker prize. Howard Jacobson won the prize that year with The Finkler, I haven’t read anything by him, but I’m wondering if I would have enjoyed that one as much as The Betrayal.

It’s the first book by Helen Dunmore that I’ve read, it was Judith, Reader in the Wilderness who pointed me in the direction of The Betrayal – and what a great read it was.

Given the subject matter this was never going to be an easy or comfy read. The setting is mainly Leningrad and it’s 1952, Stalin is of course in power. Andrei is a young hospital doctor, married to Anna who is a nursery school teacher. They’ve been together for years, all through the siege of Leningrad and they feel lucky to have a two room apartment that they share with Anna’s much younger brother. Like everyone else they are constantly walking on egg-shells, knowing that there are spies everywhere, just waiting to denounce them to the communist authorities.

Andrei is a specialist in childhood arthritis, but when one of his colleagues asks him to look at a child’s swollen leg joint he realises that it is something far worse, he suspects cancer and he knows that his colleague has just handed him a poisoned chalice, because the child is Gorya the ten year old only son of Volkov a man very high up in the secret police. Volkov is a name that strikes fear into everyone.

Sadly it’s too late for Gorya, the cancer has spread and there’s no hope for him. Volkov has to hit out at someone and the doctors are the obvious targets for his rage, and so begins a nightmare for Andrei and Anna.

The Betrayal portrays what seems to me to be a realistic view of life in the Soviet Union, just before the death of Stalin. Hundreds of thousands of people had been sentenced to death or sent to labour camps for life under Stalin’s rule. He had begun with the artists and writers, then moved on to the engineers, after that it was the doctors who were targeted and accused of being butchers and Volkov says ‘We are uncovering an international conspiracy of Zionists working as tools of the Americans, who directed these criminal saboteurs.’ That’s a dictatorship for you and they’re all run on much the same principles!

Thankfully in reality the death (murder?) of Stalin meant that the doctors and many others who had been imprisoned under Stalin’s regime were eventually set free.

This isn’t the sort of book that you an say is an enjoyable read but it’s a real page turner.

Bridget Riley Exhibition

One day last week we went to Modern Art 1 in Edinburgh, this time to see the free Bridget Riley exhibition. Her canvases are massive, I must admit I’m not a huge fan of her Op Art work as some of it is just about guaranteed to bring on a migraine. I admire it though as I can’t really imagine how she managed to actually get it done so precisely as it has to be.

There’s information about her works on the walls and Riley says that she had to work her way through the black and white before going on to colour. You can see images of her work here.

It didn’t take us long to go around that exhibition, so as there was a blizzard going on outside we decided to look around the rest of the galleries. If you’re in Edinburgh and you like art it’s well worth taking the time to visit. You can see what else is on view here.

Most of downstairs has been taken over by Karla Black and Kishio Suga works. This is the sort of art that makes you think – I could do that! In fact anybody could do it, given a pile of cotton wool and powder paint, or some rocks from a beach and rope. I can’t tell you how unimpressed I am by that so called art.

In the old days whenever Jack and I saw something that made us almost speechless with disdain we would say – Oh my God Sadie in a sort of homage to a woman we knew who always said that when she was shocked at something. Nowadays though we seem to have updated it to – What would Freya say?! – an homage to a discerning twelve year old.

One thing that really impressed me was an early Francis Bacon painting. I’ve seen a lot of his work recently as when we went to The Guggenheim in Bilbao there was an exhibition on of his work, none of it really spoke to me, but the one below that I saw in Edinburgh did. The image below doesn’t do it justice as the actual painting is so detailed with the herringbone material of the coat really seeming three dimensional.

Francis Bacon

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

We Have Always Lived in the Castle cover

I had no plans to read We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, not so soon after reading The Haunting of Hill House anyway, but it almost leapt off a library display at me as I walked in.

Happily I enjoyed this one much more than Hill House. Jackson is known for her quirky characters and relationships and that’s exactly what we have in this book.

The Blackwood family consists of Constance and her younger sister Mary Katherine (Merricat) and their Uncle Julian. They live in a large and grand house where Constance spends her time cooking and Merricat does the food shopping in the nearby village. This is an onerous task as the Blackwoods are more or less outcasts. Uncle Julian is confined to a wheelchair and spends his time looking through his papers.

The family had been much larger and after a disastrous meal there had been only the three survivors. When a member of the extended family turns up things go from bad to worse. Cousin Charles is only interested in the money that he thinks is in a safe. He’s getting in between the two sisters who had until then been devoted to and protective of each other.

It’s a bit like a mystery/fairy tale/horror story rolled into one. A great read.

I’ve just realised that these books probably count as classics and would count towards the Classics Club. What do you think, would you count them as classics?

Guardian links

Spookily – just as I have started reading Shirley Jackson’s books, up pops a biography of her called Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin. You can read a review of it by Sarah Churchwell here.

There’s also an article by Frances Spalding about the Joan Eardley exhibition at Modern Art 2 in Edinburgh – the one we went to a couple of weeks ago, you can read the article here.

There’s also an article about Doris Lessing’s books by Nick Holdstock, and you can read that here.

In this article Nick Holdstock writes that he had been asked to make an inventory of Lessing’s over 4,000 books. He had hoped that Doris Lessing’s books might have notes in the margins, clues to her work maybe, but very few of her books had been written in.

How do you feel about writing in books? I have to admit that I don’t write anything in books, not even my name, although when I was first married I did do that on bookplates that I stuck in my books. I think that was because I was putting both my own name and my married name on them. I had a friend who used to write her name and the date and place that she bought the book on the inside cover. I thought that was quite a good idea but I’ve never done it myself.

I buy a lot of old books and often they were originally gifts, in fact I’m just about to start reading Miss Mole by E.H. Young and I noticed that it was given to Evelyn Heaton-Smith from Rodi – in July 1937. I love that, I want to know who they were, what sort of lives did they have?

Partly I think that it’s because I have so many books that makes me not bother to write even my name in them. I can’t really understand why anyone would want to write notes in books – to themselves. But I do have just one of my dad’s books and he wrote his name in it, it’s one of the very few examples of his handwriting that I have. Mind you people tend not to write anything at all nowadays, everything’s done on computers.

The Buttonmaker’s Daughter by Merryn Allingham

The Button Maker's Daughter over

The Buttonmaker’s Daughter by Merryn Allingham was just published last month and the sequel is due out in July. I heard about this one from Margaret @BooksPlease and you can read her thoughts on the book here.

I went from not being quite sure about this book to really feeling sorry that I had come to the end of it, then happy when I realised that there was a sequel coming out soon.

The setting is rural Sussex 1914, in the run up to the beginning of World War I. Summerhayes is an estate belonging to Joshua Summer who had made his wealth in the button making trade. His daughter Elizabeth is now nineteen and her parents are keen to marry her off, but during her summer London season when she was presented at court she turned down two good offers of marriage. She’s an artist and has hopes of making a living through her art.

Relations between the Summer family and the owners of the next-door estate are fraught, it was Elizabeth’s mother’s family home, now owned by her brother who is jealous of the wealth that she has married into, but despises them for being in trade.

This book deals with lots of topics in a time of change. Women’s suffrage, arranged marriages, religious bigotry, class distinctions, romance, same sex relationships and Irish politics – it’s all going on.

This is the first book I’ve read by Merryn Allingham and I’ll definitely be reading more. She also writes under the name Isobel Goddard.

I’m swithering between giving it a four or five on Goodreads.

The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson

The Lost Continent cover

The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson is subtitled Travels in Small Town America and it was first published in 1989. In fact this book is probably something of a nostalgia trip for anyone who knows any of the areas mentioned, I imagine things have changed quite a bit in the almost 30 years since he wrote it. I believe that Bryson recently said that in his earlier books he set out to be very amusing and aimed for two laughs on every page, but he has now become more relaxed about his writing and less needy for laughs.

I really enjoyed this book although I am of course reading the laughs with a pinch of salt and allowing for exaggerations, however I had a look at the Goodreads comments and most of them seemed to be by disgruntled Americans who maybe are not very good at laughing at themselves. As we Brits have the most fun laughing at ourselves I find that difficult to fathom, but for that reason I’m wary about recommending this one to people in the US – who may suffer from a sense of humour by-pass.

Bryson comes from Des Moines and as he says – Somebody had to. At the beginning of this book his father had fairly recently died and it set up a nostalgia for the past and the roadtrips that his family went on during holidays, so he decided to revisit some of the places, beginning in the East. He’s on the trail of the perfect US small town, but suspects that such a thing doesn’t exist, a place where kids still go about on their bikes and throw newspapers on lawns (that has always seemed bizarre to me).

Unsurprisingly he discovered that the touristy places are best avoided as they’re too busty and tend to be tacky – but we all knew that. He mentions that Cleveland is disgustingly polluted, and that a river there had so many chemicals in it that it caught fire and burned for four days! He says it has improved a lot but, given that the present President has apparently allowed people to start dumping who knows what in rivers again – it won’t be long before rivers, lakes and wells are poisoned again.

He mentions that when he was in Times Square only two of the forty or so electronic adverts were for American products, the writing for US industry was literally on the walls. One thing that he really missed was the Burma Shave signs – nostalgic things like that will speak to Americans I suppose, but he is of course speaking about things that non-Americans have no experience of.

I’ve only read a few of Bryson’s books but as I recall they’re written from the perspective of a foreigner in England/Britain and US readers seem to have been very happy to laugh at the quirkiness of those crazy Brits, but weren’t so happy when the spotlight was turned on them. He mentions that the first thing an American asks a foreigner is ‘what do you prefer – America or your home country?’ and are always very disappointed when the person prefers home, but why wouldn’t they?!

When Bryson turns to the West he’s really out of his comfort zone and finds that the people there are not nearly as friendly as the Easterners. This is completely opposite from Britain, folks in the west here are always much warmer and more friendly. But maybe those Westerners just didn’t like his accent much. Bryson gets much jollity from southern accents in particular. It seems like America is really an amalgamation of different countries with very different ways of living, and indeed some people thought that he was foreign and he was complimented on his English! Maybe he had lost his Iowa accent after being in England for a few years.

He liked a town called Bloomsburg, a small college town not far from Gettysburg, but it seems that it was just about to be ruined by developers. He loved Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, Mount Vernon. He said at one point that all of the towns in the south were nice, mentioning Macon, Selma, Columbus and Savannah.

This is an interesting and fun read, even if you’re never likely to visit any of the places mentioned, and the information is way out of date.

The Wooden Overcoat by Pamela Branch

The Wooden Overcoat cover

The Wooden Overcoat by Pamela Branch was first published in 1951 but my copy is a 1961 Penguin reprint. I had never heard of Pamela Branch before I came across this book but I’ll definitely be looking for more of her books. Sadly she only wrote four of them.

If you don’t like any comedy at all with your vintage crime then this book won’t be for you, but I found it to be an absolute hoot.

It begins with a murderer getting off with it, the jury has just brought in the verdict, but the reader knows that Benjamin Cann had indeed strangled his girlfriend. When he gets out of The Old Bailey he is befriended by Clifford Flush who takes him to his house in Chelsea, it turns out that it’s the headquarters of a ‘club’ and all of the members are murderers who have got off with it. For very good reasons they’re all very scared of each other.

The house next door is inhabited by two married couples who are house sharing, they’re all artists of some sort and have decided to start taking in lodgers. Benjamin Cann is their first lodger and it isn’t long before murders ensue, but not at all as you would expect.

This book has some wonderful characters and hilarious situations. It’s a real shame that it wasn’t made into a film by Ealing Comedies, along the same lines of The Ladykillers (1955), it would have been brilliant. The BBC have dramatised it for radio apparently but it isn’t available on the iplayer at the moment.

If you enjoy comedy along with your vintage crime then you’ll love this one. I was lucky enough to pick this one up for about £1 in a local shop but the ones I’ve seen on the internet are stupidly priced. Yet again I wonder if anyone ever buys these wildly priced books.

If you are wondering what I mean by The Ladykillers you can see it on You Tube below.

Mauchline ware

After yesterday’s blogpost about Clark’s and Coats artificial silk thread, I was surprised that some people didn’t realise that those very successful companies had begun in Paisley in the west of Scotland. Paton’s and Baldwin’s wool and Anchor embroidery thread also hailed from Scotland, but I’m not sure if those companies became well know outside Britain. Like so many other things the manufacturing seems to have been moved abroad in recent years to cut costs.

Anyway, I used to collect Mauchline Ware, another Scottish invention, if you can call it that. Originally they were mainly small boxes made from good quality boxwood. These were produced for tourists so they have a huge variety of places printed on them, many castles of course and big houses, sometimes a view of a whole town or a bridge. With the coming of trains and the consequent opening up of the country, people were able to travel around as they never had before and they wanted to take a souvenir home as a reminder of their travels.

Mauchline Ware Collection

The manufacturers often decorated their wares with tartan paper, the boxes have several layers of varnish on them to protect them. When ferns became wildly popular in Victorian times they were used to decorate the goods. Of course Victoria and Albert started the craze for all things tartan and when Albert died Victoria went into mourning forever more and I think that is when Mauchline ware began to appear in black.

Originally made in the small Ayrshire town of Mauchline in the 1820s, other places in that area got in on the action, but the last of Mauchline ware was made in 1933. By then they had expanded their repertoire and made all sorts as you can see. Sewing things were popular – pin cushions, needle cases, thimble cases and crochet hook cylinders. Glove stretchers, egg cups, money boxes, napkin rings, glove boxes, watch stands, rulers, page turners, whisky glass cases – you name it and they made it.

As so many sewing related articles were made adverts for Clark’s thread and similar things began to be inserted inside the boxes, as you can see from the photo below.

Mauchline Ware Sewing Related

A huge fire at the last Mauchline ware manufacturers in 1936 put an end to the production, but so much of it was made that it’s easy to find at any antiques fair and sometimes charity shops.

They also put foreign tourist spots on their wares – such as Bunker Hill and the Champs-Élysées and sent them abroad for sale in America and France. Germany nicked the idea and made similar objects but these are easy to recognise as the quality is so poor compared with Mauchline ware. The German wood is pine and much rougher looking and the scenes depicted aren’t nearly so well defined.

You can see more images of Mauchline Ware here.

Charity/thrift shops – Clark’s Scintilla Silk

I’m not really a big fan of shopping and I would never trail around shops as a sort of hobby the way a lot of women do. It’s bad enough if I am looking for something specific to wear for a particular occasion, so shopping for kicks is just not for me.

I have to admit though to being a wee bit of a charity/thrift shop junkie. I don’t often buy anything mind you but as I always say to myself, you just never know what you might find in one of them, unlike the normal shops which seem to be the same, no matter even which country you’re in nowadays – that’s a form of globalisation I suppose!

Anyway, just before Christmas I was really chuffed to find these boxes of thread in a charity shop in St Andrews. At first I thought they were just empty boxes and I loved the old fashioned design of them, but looking inside I was thrilled to see the balls of thread inside and in pristine condition.

Vintage Threads

Aren’t the colours fabulous?

I think they must have been meant to be used as crochet thread, or maybe for doing very fine silky knitting, such as knickers! I have some old patterns from the 1930s that would use this sort of thread. In fact I think this is when these boxes date from, but they’re a bit of a puzzle. As you can see the manufacturer was Clark’s, a very well known Scottish make, and they are described as being artificial silk for knitting, crochet and art work. But I’m wondering why they are weighed in grams rather than the ounces of the Imperial measures that were used back then? Also the word Colors is spelled in the American way. The box also says Made in Great Britain. Coats/Clark was a company that started up in Paisley in the west of Scotland in 1755. Real Industrial Revolution stuff. In 1864 they expanded the business to Newark, New Jersey, USA as the Clark Thread Company.

I plan to use the threads, maybe in an embroidery project. They’ve obviously been in some woman’s thread stash for many decades, and no doubt she had great intentions of using them too, until she died and her house contents were ‘cleared’ to a charity shop in St Andrews, Fife.