The 1968 Club

1968

At the moment I’m reading A Small Town in Germany by Len Deighton for the 1968 Club which has been organised by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. This week came around far too quickly for me, I had intended to read a few books for it, but here are a few that I’ve read previously.

A Cargo of Eagles by Margery Allingham

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith

The Public Image by Muriel Spark

Mount Vernon Love Story by Mary Higgins Clark

Garden Open Tomorrow by Beverley Nichols

The Salzburg Connection by Helen MacInnes

It’s an eclectic mix I think you’ll agree. I hope to have A Small Town in Germany finished soon.

The Public Image by Muriel Spark

The Public Image by Muriel Spark was first published in 1968. The setting is Rome and it’s about a young actress called Annabel Christopher. The Italians call her the English Lady-tiger and she’s married to Frederick who was also an actor when they first got married, but Annabel’s career has gone from strength to strength whilst Frederick found it difficult to get work. He eventually takes to screen writing instead, but he’s obviously very disgruntled at his wife’s success, and spends his time trying to chip away at her confidence. Annabel is supposedly a bit dim but of course she’s anything but dim.

It’s at a time when image is everything and so it’s very important that the paparazzi see the Christophers as the perfect married couple. Time and time again Frederick has told himself that he will leave Annabel, he has had a string of affairs over they years, but then Annabel gets pregnant and he delays leaving her again.

Meanwhile Billy O’Brien, a long term friend of Frederick’s since they were at drama college together is equally jealous of Annabel’s career and he does his best to cause trouble for Annabel and Frederick too, whilst pretending to be a friend.

I find Muriel Spark’s work to be very ‘curate’s eggish’ in that for me her books are hit and miss-ish and often just good in parts. I thought this was one of the more enjoyable ones but I found the ending somewhat underwhelming and just unsatisfying. I’m glad I read it though, I gave it three stars on Goodreads, I would have given it 3.5 if possible. My favourite of Spark’s books is still The Girls of Slender Means, but I think I’m quite unusual in that.

Reality and Dreams by Muriel Spark

Reality and Dreams by Muriel Spark was first published in 1996. It begins with Tom Richards who is a film director, he is in hospital as he has fallen off a crane whilst filming and he has broken a lot of bones, he’s lucky to be live apparently.

It’s the story of him and his dysfunctional family really but as none of them are particularly nice characters I found it difficult to get involved in it all. That could explain why although it’s only about ten days since I finished it, I find it has faded rather quickly from my mind – and that says it all really.

I do find Muriel Spark to be quite hit and missish. This was another choice from a local library and I thought I would give it a go as I haven’t read many of Spark’s more recent books, on balance I think I prefer her earlier work. Of course this is another one which qualifies for the Read Scotland 2014 challenge.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark was first published in 1961. It’s one of those books which I seem always to have known about, there have been a few TV dramatisations of it and of course a film starring Maggie Smith and Gordon Jackson. For that reason I was never in a rush to read the book although I have read a lot of Spark’s other books. In fact I think that for a long time I thought I had already read it. For a lot of people this one seems to be their favourite but my favourite is still The Girls of Slender Means, which nobody else seems to rate!

The setting is of course Edinburgh where Miss Jean Brodie is a teacher at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, obviously a rather posh fee-paying establishment. She isn’t keen to stick to the curriculum, preferring to teach her own form of ‘education’ giving her own views on politics and art rather than teaching the arithmetic which will be necessary to get the girls through their exams. The school authorities are not happy about Brodie’s attitude and are looking for a way to get rid of her.

I wasn’t keen on the way this book was written, I don’t like it when an author ‘gives away’ the future fate of characters, jumping ahead to something which happens years in the future, and the repetition annoyed me too. How many times did we have to be told that Rose Stanley was famous for sex? It’s the sort of writing which was more usually used in poetry or song writing where you expect the same refrains to be repeated. But I don’t happen to be a fan of poetry.

It is however a very Scottish or maybe more correctly an Edinburgh book, very Calvinistic and split personality-ish, light and dark. Nothing is as it seems.

What I was thinking about when Miss Brodie was gathering her wee coterie of acolytes about her – her ‘creme de la creme’ was: What were the other girls in the class thinking? The ones deemed not to be special enough to be one of the chosen. I have in fact witnessed something very similar in the past, amongst grown women can you believe it? all fluttering around their goddess. I know that I was just observing and thinking to myself – what a bunch of embarrassing idiots. So the likelihood is that one of the girls, or all of them who were not in the Brodie set, would have spiked the Brodie guns many years before and complained to the headmistress about her via their parents. But that’s me over-thinking a book – as usual, because obviously if that did happen, there would have been no book.

I read this for the Read Scotland 2014 challenge which is thankfully being carried on into 2015. I haven’t read any Scottish non fiction at all this year as far as I can remember and I must rectify that soon.

The Comforters by Muriel Spark

The Comforters cover

The Comforters was the first of Muriel Spark’s twenty-two novels to be published. It was published in 1957 and as I’ve just recently finished reading Lanark, Alasdair Gray’s first novel I have to say that I did notice similarities between the two, they’re both a bit crazy, written by Scots, influenced by Calvinism and are about writing and characters, with books within books. The Book of Job also features in both books.

At the beginning Laurence Manders is on holiday, staying with his grandmother Louisa, and on waking his first morning there he overhears her asking at the baker’s van for a wholemeal loaf, claiming that Laurence won’t eat white bread, which isn’t true. Laurence works for the BBC, isn’t sure if he is still engaged to Caroline Rose and his main hobby seems to be snooping into everyone’s business, even reading their letters. When he finds a cache of diamonds in the centre of the wholemeal loaf he thinks that his grandmother must be part of a diamond smuggling gang.

Caroline Rose, his sometime fiancee has converted to Catholicism, whilst Laurence is a lapsed Catholic. Caroline has taken herself off to a Catholic retreat as she is having some sort of nervous breakdown and hears a typewriter which seems to be narrating her thoughts.

Throw in a handful of unusual characters, including one Georgina Hogg, a ghastly self-righteous and poisonous pain who was almost certainly a nod to James Hogg’s book The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, and it all adds up to a strange but enjoyable read, although it isn’t one of my favourites by Spark.

This book was written as Spark was converting to Roman Catholicism and she was very poor and undernourished. Whilst writing the book Spark took Dexedrine which was apparently used as an appetite suppressant in the 1950s but resulted in her having hallucinations, like the Typing Ghost in this book, she didn’t realise that it was the drugs which were to blame for the hallucinations and she continued to take them for 3 or 4 months. Well, they led to this book I suppose and she certainly wasn’t the first writer to have her imagination boosted by drugs. Just think of Lewis Carroll!

I read this as part of the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge.

Books and a dental mishap

Last night I fancied a treat so I unwrapped a creme egg, my first of the season. I actually paused before chomping into it because that first bite is always a bit scary as the chocolate is so thick at the top. The worst happened I’m afraid and a front capped tooth sheered off, so I had an unexpected trip to my dentist in Glenrothes today to begin to get it all sorted out. I’m now exactly like that girl in the advert which warns you to take care of your teeth – or else!

Anyway, after the dentist I had a look around the town and went into The Works, more in hope than expectation really because their choice of books has been dire the last year or so, but I was in luck. They were having a stock liquidation sale and they had quite a lot of books at the princely sum of £1 each and amazingly there were four that were worth buying. So I bought:

The Land of Green Ginger by Winifred Holtby. I read and enjoyed South Riding years ago and I’ve been meaning to read this one for ages.

Marking Time by Elizabeth Jane Howard
. Apparently this one was on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour but I missed it. I like her writing, sadly she died just a week or so ago, but I suppose she had a good innings – as THEY say.

Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge
. I’ve enjoyed quite a few of her books, this one is yet another Titanic setting which did put me off a bit because I think that that subject has been overdone in the past but I’m sure I’ll enjoy this, if that’s the word in the circumstances.

And lastly, Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White. I’ve never heard of this author before but it’s vintage crime and apparently this book inspired the classic film The Spiral Staircase. I thought that would have been inspired by the Mignon Eberhart book of the same title, but I bow to their superior knowledge!

Crazily, on the way home I dropped into the museum shop as it’s a good place to get unusual cards and I made the mistake of hopping into the library next door, which due to the refurbishment is now only one step away. I couldn’t resist the new books shelves and ended up borrowing:

The Doll – short stories by Daphne du Maurier
Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford
The Comforters by Muriel Spark
Summer by Edith Wharton

I’m trying to read my way through everything by du Maurier. I think it was Peggy who mentioned Elisabeth Gifford, but I haven’t read anything by her yet. The Muriel Spark book will count towards the Read Scotland 2014 challenge and I’m also trying to read my way through everything by Wharton, so that was a great haul of shiny new books. Now I just need the time to read them all!

You might want to have a listen to Pam Ayres reciting her poem – I wish I’d Looked After My Teeth. – It’s exactly how I feel although of course I don’t have her rural English accent. But ‘tak tent’ (pay attention) as we say or used to say in Scotland, and if I ever eat another creme egg I’m thinking that I might just bash it on the head with my rolling pin, to soften it up first. If you have a better idea of how to go about eating one safely, let me know!

Symposium by Muriel Spark

This book was published in 1990 and it begins with the hereditary Lord Suzy shouting “This is Rape” – his home has been burgled during the night as they slept and he feels violated. He can’t stop talking about it and when he and his wife attend a dinner party soon afterwards he is still relating the experience.

It was an okay read but I was glad that it didn’t take long as it’s only 145 pages. I find Spark’s books to be very ‘curate’s eggish’ – I don’t normally rate books but if pushed I would give this one no more than 2 out of 5. The whole storyline is quite predictable. There are no likeable characters and it really annoyed me that she has a character with red hair who is evil and the fact that she has red hair is talked of by others – “…what malign vibes that girl gives out! That red hair – ”

I had thought that that Victorian habit of giving the bad guy red hair had died out but apparently not with Spark. It’s so lazy, just like giving the baddy in a western a black hat or making the evil person in a modern film a chain smoker. It gives sustenance to those idiots (and there are plenty of them around) who think that it’s acceptable to make denigrating remarks to people simply because of the colour of their hair. They wouldn’t get away with it if they were making remarks about the colour of a person’s skin, so I don’t see why it should be acceptable for hair colour. There are characters in this book who tell the police that a person’s red hair is natural -as if it means it’s a foregone conclusion that they are a murderer.

It all adds to the nonsense which redheads are expected to put up with. I’ve always just assumed that people who do that are sick with jealousy!

Olivia in India by O. Douglas

This is the first book which O.Douglas, sometimes known as Anna Buchan, had published (in 1912). It’s very autobiographical and it’s written in the form of a series of letters, the first of which is written from a ship in Liverpool which is ready to set off on the long voyage to India. Olivia is going to India to spend time with her bother, affectionately nicknamed Boggley. He is in India doing some sort of Empire related job.

We only read the letters which Olivia is writing and it’s very near the end before we learn who she’s actually writing them to. There are never any replies, although she sometimes alludes to something which has been mentioned in a letter to her. Obviously the early letters are all about the voyage and the other passengers but when Olivia reaches India she’s all over the place, experiencing as much of the life there as she can, taking trains across the country, visiting the Taj Mahal and meeting all sorts of people, good and bad.

So it’s all very different from her other books which are set in Scotland but she does write about home and reminisces about the past. She even mentions that she’s writing a book, encouraged by her brother John’s books’ good reviews.

So I started wondering how much of this book was fiction and I had a look at the index of O.Douglas’ biography “Unforgettable, Unforgotten” and sure enough she did go to India to visit one of her brothers. I’ll have to get around to reading that one soon.

I enjoyed Olivia in India and I think it is probably a realistic account of life in India for Anglo-Indians, the fear of mutinies and disease and the odd bomb or two being thrown as Indians became more and more dissatisfied with their position as part of the British Empire.

I borrowed “Olivia in India” from the library but I’ve promised myself that I’m not going to look at books when I return the ones I have out. Last week I went to two libraries in two different towns and apart from this book I also borrowed:

Symposium by Muriel Spark
The 12.30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts
Augustus Carp Esq. by Himself
The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allen Poe

The Poe book is one of those ones that I feel I should have read years ago and for some reason or other I haven’t.

So, with an eye on the due back dates I’m neglecting my own books and Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree in particular has been glowering at me from the top of a pile of books which are balanced on a cantilevered sewing box near my bedside. I’m banning myself from the library!

The Finishing School by Muriel Spark

This is just the third book by Spark which I’ve read and I liked it better than the last one which was Memento Mori but I don’t think it was as good as The Girls of Slender Means. The Finishing School was first published in 2004 and it was her last published book, she died in 2004.

Nina Parker and Rowland Mahler are a young married couple who set up a finishing school for both sexes and any nationality. College Sunrise, as it’s called, was originally started in Brussels but in an effort to make it more successfull and pay more they’ve started moving the school to a different country each year. It’s put forward as being an exciting experiment and it seems to go down well with the parents.

The main reason for running the school is to give Rowland time to concentrate on his own writing and he hopes to become a novelist. The only work which he does is teaching the creative writing class and everything else is done by poor Nina.

One of the students is a 17 year old boy called Chris Wiley and he is writing a novel too and when Rowland reads the beginning of it he is shocked at how good it is and is consumed with jealousy. Rowland isn’t able to write anything at all and he is obsessed by Chris and his novel.

Chris’s novel is about the murders of Mary Queen of Scots musician, Rizzio, and her husband Darnley. Jealousy was supposedly the reason for Rizzio’s murder but Chris has a new theory about Darnley’s murder and the small community in the school sort of mirrors his idea of the atmosphere of the court of Mary Stuart, with jealousy, lust and obsession playing their part.

Meanwhile Nina carries on with the teaching and it’s this part of the book which gives the humour as Nina imparts supposedly important pieces of information to her students like: If you get a job with the UN and you are chased by a large python, run away in a zig-zag movement, as a python can’t coordinate its head with its tail. and even dafter advice.

Anyway, it was a fairly enjoyable and quick read at just 155 pages.

Book Sale Haul

We walked to the sale which was in the Adam Smith Theatre in the pouring rain this morning. At one point I had a very long armful of books but I ended up putting more than half of them back as I reckoned that I wasn’t going to get around to reading them before we move house, hopefully in about a year’s time. We have so much ‘stuff’ to take with us that I don’t want to add too much to it. Having said that I still bought:

A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
Close Range by Annie Proulx
Heart Songs by Annie Proulx
The Finishing School by Muriel Spark
Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

and

it was thirty years ago today by Terence Spencer – ‘An extraordinary document of life inside the claustrophobic capsule of The Beatles in 1963.’

The Beatles book is a pure nostalgia trip for me. My sister Helen is 11 years older than me but we shared a bedroom and in 1963 I was only 4 years old, she was 15, the perfect age for Beatlemania. George Harrison was always our favourite and we had a framed photograph of him on the dressing-table. (Whatever happened to it?) Who was your favourite?

So that was quite good, just six books, but I wish I hadn’t put the Edna O’Brien book back.

After lunch the rain cleared up and we took ourselves off to Perth as it was absolutely yonks since we had been to look at any shops.

The recession isn’t going to be ending anytime soon if we are being relied upon to spend money and help to drag us all out of it. We only bought one book each.

I bought:

The Far Cry by Emma Smith. It’s a Persephone book and I haven’t read anything by her. It seems to be set in India, another Anglo-Indian book when I’m supposed to be reading more authentic Indian books.

My husband bought :

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov and he got a Christopher Brookmyre book from the library sale – Country of the Blind.

The rain stayed off for most of the time that we were in Perth so we had a good stroll around the place before heading for home via Milnathort ice-cream shop. We indulged in double cones. I had chocolate and cream brulee – lovely. Husband had creme brulee and Bakewell Tart flavour. Next time I’m definitely having the Bakewell Tart ice-cream, absolutely gorgeous, and somehow I hadn’t fancied the sound of it.