Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett

Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett was one of the books that I read on my Kindle while I was on the Baltic cruise. I actually ran out of ‘real’ books to read on board, that’s because I found it quite boring, cruises are fine if you are keen on stuffing your face a lot, otherwise there isn’t much else to do but read, unless you’re interested in boozing or gambling!

Anyway, back to the book. Riceyman Steps was first published in 1923 and it won the James Tait Memorial Prize that year, which is one of the reasons that I decided to read it as I’m hoping to read as many as those prize winners as I can get my hands on. It is set in London’s Clerkenwell, mainly in a bookshop and attached flat which has been inherited by Henry Earlforward from his uncle. One window looks into The King’s Cross Road and the other onto Riceyman Steps. Henry had had to learn the book business quickly and despite the shop being really dirty and dingy he had a good number of loyal customers for the antiquarian books in stock. Books are piled everywhere, as is dust and as Henry is a terrible miser he only has one electric light, the rest of the building is lit by candles.

There’s a confectioner’s across the road, inherited by Violet who is a widow, and Henry has taken a shine to her. It isn’t really romance he’s after though it’s more the fact that she has a business and he thinks that maybe Violet would take over the cleaning in the shop. That’s a bit optimistic considering they both already share the same young cleaning woman/maidservant in the shape of Elsie. She has trouble with her young man who is a survivor of World War 1 but he suffers from shell shock, which causes huge problems within their relationship. Henry’s chief joy is to spend half an hour picking his teeth with toothpicks after a meal, not that he would ever go to the expense of buying toothpicks. His only other joy is to fashion spent matchsticks into toothpicks – waste not want not!

Violet isn’t really cut out for being a confectioner and when she decides to sell her shop she also decides to marry Henry, after all – he has good living accommodation. But they really know nothing about each other. When Violet decides to employ a firm of cleaners – complete with new-fangled vacuum cleaners to clean the interior of the building as a wedding present to Henry he is absolutely aghast. She had spent £14 on the firm of cleaners and of course everything had been moved. Henry thinks his customers won’t be able to find the books they are looking for.

Henry’s miserliness becomes worse and worse and he cuts back on food and fuel for both of them to starvation levels – with disastrous results. This sounds a bit of a grim read but I enjoyed it and it’s a lesson for all misers everywhere.

The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett

This book was first published in 1908 but Arnold Bennett was looking back to the Potteries area of North England in the 1860s, around about the time that the country was opening up with railways just being built and all the changes in society which that caused.

When the story begins the Baines family is doing well with their drapery business in Bursley, a small market town, the story follows the family over the next 50 years. At the beginning the Baines daughters Constance and Sophia are 15 and 16 years old and their lives take very different turns as one stays at home, ending up running the business whilst the other runs off and ends up in France.

The men in the family play a small part compared with the women, mainly because they die much earlier or just disappear. Bennett was obviously far more interested in the womenfolk.

I enjoyed this but not as much as I expected to. I remember reading quite a few of Bennett’s ‘Potteries’ books when I was a teenager and they appealled to me far more then than now.

Mind you, it must be at least five months since I finished reading this book, I just haven’t got around to blogging about it in all that time, but large parts of the story are still clear in my mind, and I certainly can’t say the same for a lot of books which I’ve read.

This is another book which was on my Classics Club reading list. By the by, when I was compiling my list of classic books to read I wasn’t really sure what constituted a ‘classic’. I was surprised when I had a look at other people’s lists that lots of them included books which I clearly remember being published and in fact I remember Jack waiting for the next in the series of Len Deighton books to be published, and I’m sure some people have them on their lists. I suppose a classic is something which is still in print 20 or 30 years after it was first published. It makes me feel old though.

A Classics Challenge

November's Autumn

I had absolutely no intention of ever doing any more challenges but when I saw this classics one which is being hosted by Katherine Cox at November’s Autumn I decided to join in because it will fit in with my reading for 2012 anyway. It’s more of a bloghop really, with the action going on on the 4th of the month – which should be fun!

So my list of seven classic books to be read in 2012 is:

1. The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope

2. The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope

3. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

4. Summer by Edith Wharton

5. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

6. The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett

7. The Pirate by Sir Walter Scott

I haven’t read any of these books before but they’ve been hanging around the house for years, patiently waiting to be read so this challenge is really going to encourage me to get stuck into them at last. It’ll be interesting to see what the other people involved in the challenge are planning on reading too.

Thanks Katherine, for organising it all.

The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett

It was Susanne who recommended this one for the CPR Book Group which is a place for neglected authors or books. The only books by Arnold Bennett which I had previously read were all set in The Potteries and this one is completely different from them, as far as I can remember anyway because I think I was a teenager when I read them, which wasn’t yesterday! I don’t know how widely read his books are nowadays, I certainly haven’t come across many people reading them but this one is certainly worth reading.

I really enjoyed this book which was first published in 1902 but my copy is a 1954 Penguin, orange. It could just as well have been in their green vintage crime livery because that is what it is.

The Grand Babylon Hotel in London is the sort of discreet but oppulent place that if you have to ask the price – you can’t afford it. The American multi millionaire Theodore Racksole is staying there with his daughter Nella and he isn’t pleased by the way the head waiter, Jules is looking down his nose at them. On the spur of the moment Theodore decides to buy the prestigious hotel, at least then he’ll be able to get the steak and bottle of Bass which he wants.

Things aren’t what they seem to be and it isn’t long before Theodore and Nella realise that there are nefarious goings on behind the facade of quiet classiness.

This was originally published as a serial and Bennett wrote the 15 installments in 15 days and sold it for £100. It was described as the most original, amusing and thrilling serial written in a decade.

Arnold Bennett lived at the Savoy Hotel in London and it was the chef there who came up with the dish which became known as Omelette Arnold Bennett because he was so fond of it. You can see Sophie Dahl whipping one up if you’re interested.

There aren’t many people who have had dishes named after them. The only others that I can think of at the moment are Peach Melba and Melba toast, named after the opera singer Dame Nelly Melba and Pavlova after Anna. Eggs Benedict too, Lemuel Benedict was an American stockbroker. There must be others though.

Recent book purchases

Just a quick one tonight. I’ve been managing to buy a few old books on the internet. So in the past couple of weeks I’ve taken delivery of:

The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett

Ice Palace by Edna Ferber
Show Boat by Edna Ferber

Miss Bunting by Angela Thirkell
Half Term by Angela Thirkell

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

Susanne recommended The Grand Babylon Hotel and Anbolyn at Cousins Read came up with Edna Ferber as a possible neglected author from the past. I must admit that I hadn’t even heard of her before, so I’m really keen to read some of her work as she was so famous in her heyday. Most of the books are quite old but clean, but the copy of Show Boat is a beauty. It’s a facsimile of the 1926 edition and is pristine and I got it for peanuts.

Show Boat cover

Well I like it anyway. I had been doing so well at not buying books until the new year really. Then somehow I just started buying them again and it has snowballed.

I think it’s a bit like when people go on a diet and do very well at it, until they relax a bit and before they know it, they’re even heavier than they were before they started on the diet.

I’ve had book buying binges recently and I just know that I’ll end up having bought more than 52 books by the end of 2011. So by the time I’ve got through my 2011 reading list from my TBR pile – my book pile will be even bigger.

Why isn’t there a Bookaholics Anonymous? And what would reaching rock bottom be for a book buyer?