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StuckinaBook’s Weekend Miscellany

Is it spring? Maybe? Almost? My apple tree is showing some lovely blossom, my wisteria is refusing to do anything, and my hay fever has kicked up a notch. So I would conclude – on balance, yes, but let’s not put away the jumpers yet.

Hope you have good weekend plans. Here’s a book, a link, and a blog post to cheer you along the way…

1.) The link – is really a book too (cheat!) – I wanted to alert you to the fact that A Pin To See The Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse is the British Library’s Book of the Month. That means the print edition is only £5 from the shop. As I wrote on Twitter, there’s a strong argument that this is the best and most important of the British Library Women Writers series – and now you can get it for a steal.

2.) The blog post – Is it cheating to send you to a blog post of links? I’m just always amazed at how Jenny at Reading the End finds so many links to share – check out her latest round-up.

3.) The book – You might have already heard about Latchkey Ladies by Marjorie Grant, but this description will sell it to you if you haven’t: “The latchkey ladies are the women who live alone or in shared rooms in London at the end of the First World War, determined to use their new freedoms, and treading a fine line between independence and disaster. A powerful and moving novel from 1921, about the lives and choices of single women, by Marjorie Grant, a Canadian novelist and reviewer, and a close friend of Rose Macaulay.”

British Library Women Writers 14: Strange Journey by Maud Cairnes

When I originally wrote about Strange Journey by Maud Cairnes in 2020, I ended with ‘Strange Journey is not at all easy to find – but I am certainly mulling it over as British Library choice at some point…’ Thankfully they agreed with me that it should enter the series, and it’s now back in print. I particularly love when there’s the chance to bring back impossible-to-find books – saving people a lot of money and time spent refreshing ebay!

Below is what I wrote originally. When I was writing my afterword to the book, I looked at the class issues in the novel – which are obviously front and centre – but also a little about contemporary cinema, how much a Rolls Royce might cost you, and which circumstances mean you use Lady Elizabeth rather than Lady Forrester (Cairnes assumes her readers will know!)

As has become custom, here’s a video review from Lil too – I love how she reads the whole series!

The body-swap comedy is one of those tropes that is often talked about as if there were millions of them about, but in truth I can only think of a handful. In the world of literature, I’m down to Vice Verse by F Anstey, Freaky Friday by Mary Rodgers, Turnabout by Thorne Smith, and, if you read it somewhat elastically, Asleep in the Sun by Adolfo Bioy Casares. Do let me know if there are others I’m missing. But I can now add to that number Strange Journey by Maud Cairnes.

If you’ve heard of it, it’ll be because of Brad’s review at the excellent Neglected Books blog, where he wrote about it in June. Brad is up there with Scott of Furrowed Middlebrow for his extraordinary knowledge of books nobody else on the internet has mentioned. And he certainly knows how to wipe the internet clean of the books he mentions – as soon as the reviews are out, the secondhand market is drained. The first copy of Strange Journey I ordered got me a ‘sorry, this book has gone’ reply – the second, thankfully, came to my house. And with such a fab cover!

Given my love of the period (it was published in 1935) and my interest in fantastic novels, I couldn’t wait to get stuck in. When I say ‘fantastic’, I mean elements of fantasy happening in the real world. It had such a vogue in the ’20s and ’30s and so often commented on issues of the day. And in Strange Journey, the issue appears to be class.

Polly is a housewife in a middle-class (leaning towards lower-middle-class) household. Her family certainly aren’t poor, but they don’t have money to spare for luxuries. Even the basics can be a little bit of a struggle, and Polly feels rather run ragged. In 1935, it was still a novelty for some households to deal with only an occasional help, rather than a more regular maid or two. She is looking at from her front gate when she spots a woman in a Rolls Royce, clearly well-to-do.

Suddenly I felt a longing to change places with her, to get into that big, comfortable looking car, lean back in the soft cushions I felt sure that it contained, while the chauffeur made it glide away through the dusk to some pleasant house where there would be efficient servants and tea waiting, with a silver teapot, thin china, and perhaps hot scones, nice deep arm chairs to sit in, and magazines lying on the table.

I’ve quoted the same bit Brad did, but it is the key moment. Polly’s longing to exchange lives with this woman doesn’t happen instantly, but the seed is sown. A few days later, remembering that idle daydream, Polly suddenly feels dizzy – and discovers she is no longer in her own home.

Her dream seems to have come true. She is in a beautiful and enormous country house, with a team of servants and with no labour required of her. One of the first things she notices is her immaculate hands, which clearly have never had to be plunged into a bucket of soapy water.

Novels which use a fantastic device have to deal with the surprise of the protagonist. It’s the main difference between a fantastic novel and magic realism – this bizarre turn of events, and the character’s reactions, must be taken into account. Cairnes handles Polly’s disorientation very well. Her attempts to work out who the people around her are, and how they relate to her. Her frequent faux pas, as she tries to take on the tone of Lady Elizabeth (for such she is). And perhaps chiefly, trying to behave in a convincing manner to her new husband, Gerald (Major Forrester), without betraying her real husband, Tom. As it is, any affection from her seems to baffle Gerald.

Polly doesn’t stay there. Before too long, she is whisked back to her normal life – and it becomes clear that Lady Elizabeth has been there in her guise, telling Scottish folklore stories to Polly’s two children.

One of the less convincing elements of the book, albeit essential for the plot, is that Polly decides not to confide in her husband, or anyone. As the months go by, she keeps finding herself having dizzy spells that land her in Lady Elizabeth’s world. Cairnes has good fun with the humorous side of things, as Polly reveals Lady Elizabeth to be a secret bridge player, or as she gets confused with titles of nobles. At the heart of it is a lovable and empathetic character, making the most of the strange world she has found herself in, throwing in some matchmaking on the side. As the reader, I longed for Polly and Lady Elizabeth to meet… and, thankfully, they eventually do.

I loved Strange Journey. The novel sustains the initial idea wonderfully, and Cairnes is obviously an adept, if fairly light, writer. She appears to have only written one other novel, The Disappearing Duchess, and this costs $300 online…

Brad’s detective work add another fun twist to the tale. Maud Cairnes was a pseudonym – for Lady Maud Kathleen Cairns Plantagenet Hastings Curzon-Herrick (!!), known as Lady Kathleen. Head over to his piece for a bit about her extraordinary milieu; it’s safe to safe she was more familiar with Lady Elizabeth’s world than with Polly’s, so it is to her credit that she makes both equally believable.

Strange Journey is not at all easy to find – but I am certainly mulling it over as British Library choice at some point…

Project 24: Books 4 and 5

Sometimes it isn’t that I really need a particular book that makes me add to my Project 24 list – sometimes it’s just that it’s been too long since I went to a bookshop. So on Saturday I went to one of my favourite secondhand bookshops, and certainly the nearest good one – in Wantage. As usual, there were a lot of books I might have taken a gamble on if I weren’t under Project 24 restrictions. As it is, I came away with these two…

The Patience of a Saint by G.B. Stern

I had a bit of a flurry of reading Stern last year, and still have some of her non-fiction left to read – but this novel seemed extremely up my street. Here’s a bit from the dustjacket copy that persuaded me that The Patience of a Saint (1958) had to come home with me:

It is the unshakeable conviction of Lady Eileen Francis that on the millenary of his martyrdom, St. Cedric of Hallowbridge will appear again. And he does – but not quite in the way she expected.

Why I’m not a Millionaire by Nancy Spain

My shelves already have a Spain novel and a memoir that I’ve not read, but I’ve been keeping an eye out for this one for years – not assiduously, because I might have then noticed it was reprinted a couple of years ago, but I’m still keen to read it. Why? Because of the pages that Ann Thwaite refers to in her biography of A.A. Milne, where Spain meets him. And I’m hoping the rest of it will be interesting, of course!

I’m still one book in hand, given that I could have bought six by now. (Have I read any of my Project 24 books yet? Er, let’s not ask.)

The City of Belgium by Brecht Evens

You might know that I’m a fan of the graphic novelist Brecht Evens. The City of Belgium (2021) is his fourth or fifth book and I’ve read and enjoyed all the others to differing extents – from deeply loving to being deeply disturbed, but still recognising his brilliance. The City of Belgium was translated by Evens himself – it was originally published as Les Rigoles, which Google translate tells me means ‘the channels’, but is a venue in Paris. I thought it was originally written in Flemish, so this all gets a bit confusing. Suffice to say, I was delighted to get a review copy of this from the publisher, and I think The City of Belgium is a brilliant title.

The book follows three people on a night – three separate nights out for Jona, Rodolphe, and Victoria, and the various people they meet, interact with, love and loathe. We interweave between them all, with a colour-coding indicating which world we’re in.

Being Evens, these are not quiet, happy nights. His work often includes menace, unhappiness, warped eroticism, and the surreal. But it also includes moments of joy, unexpected connections, and hope. The balance of these elements is what makes an Evens’ book a favourite or not, in my eyes. The Panther went a bit too far into warped territory for me; The Making Of hit the sweet spot.

I think The City of Belgium is perhaps a little to the right of the sweet spot – perhaps not quite enough hope to balance out the despair. We see violence, loneliness, arguments. But then there are pages like this one, showing the humour that Evens threads through any situation.

 

The story is one thing, but what always draws me back to Evens again and again is his stunning use of colour and form, and his astonishing imagination. Some pages are spare, like the one above – or even more so, even disappearing in a mist. Others are a riot of colour and action, beautifully balanced and judged perfectly. The cover is one example, but sometimes a whole world is going on. You can see more examples in this excellent article, which includes interviews with Evens. The stereotype of graphic novels is still that they look like superhero cartoons – and, while there is a world beyond that, I’ve browsed through a graphic novel shop for hours without finding anyone who uses colour so gently and sensuously as Evens’ watercolours. The meeting of subject matter and technique is particularly striking.

You’ll leave an Evens graphic novel feeling both unsettled and satisfied. Perhaps that isn’t always the combination you’re looking for from a book – but it is a profound mix, and sometimes feels exactly right.

The Magic Apple Tree by Susan Hill

Occasionally I post a book on Instagram which gets a chorus of approval from people who’ve loved it. Never more so than when I posted that I was reading Susan Hill’s 1982 The Magic Apple Tree. It sounds like a children’s book but it is not – the subtitle ‘A Country Year’ gives a bit more of a clue about what you’ll find inside. This is a non-fiction look at life in Hill’s Oxfordshire village – called Barley here, though I imagine that’s a pseudonym – over the course of a year.

The book is divided into the four seasons, and each section starts with a description of the titular apple tree (after, in my edition, a beautiful full-page engraving by John Lawrence. They look like woodcuts but are credited as engravings, so let’s go with that. Here is the opening to the section on spring:

The blossom opens slowly, slowly on the apple tree.  One day the boughs are grey, though with the swellings of the leaves to come visible if you look closely.  The next day and the next, here and there, a speck of white, and then a sprinkling, as though someone has thrown a handful of confetti up into the air and let it fall, anyhow, over the branches.

The weather is grey, it is cold still. The blossom looks like snow against the sky. And then, one morning, there is snow, snow at the very end of April, five or six inches of it, after a terrible stormy night, and rising from it, and set against the snow-filled sky, the little tree is puffed out with its blossom, a crazy sight, like some surrealist painting, and all around us, in every other garden, there is the white apple and the pink cherry blossom, thick as cream, in a winter landscape.

And another day, just before the blossom withers and shrinks back into the fast opening leaves, there is the softest of spring mornings, at last it is touched by the early sun, and the apple tree looks as it should look, if the world went aright, in springtime.

Though Hill is writing about one particular year, much of the book could be about any year. The seasons are, of course, roughly the same – though with enough differences to make each year distinct for a bit, before they all fade into one. But there is no plot that puts The Magic Apple Tree specifically into any particular 1980s year. In any approximate time could Hill have discussed what she grew, what she cooked, which village events she attended, how her neighbours dealt with cold weather and unpassable roads, and so on and so forth. In some ways, it could be similar to 40 years later – though now, living in my own Oxfordshire village, I am rather more easily connected with the outside world.

What I most loved in the book were flavours of the village community. The brothers who lived in a run-down house, selling illicitly made cider and completing each other’s sentences. The amiable rivalry at the village flower and produce show. The bartering system of goods, and the friendly competence of villagers who’ve lived in the same spot for decades or generations.

Hill and her then-husband Stanley Wells are not among those who’ve lived there for long. They are relative newcomers – and I can attest that it is quite easy to become part of an Oxfordshire village on short acquaintanceship. Certainly, Hill seems at the centre of activity. There is an element of sharpness that those of us who read her book blog will remember. She is certainly sure of her views, and offers them decidedly. It makes The Magic Apple Tree all the more distinct, as nobody else would or could have written this sort of book with precisely her perspective. Sometimes she offers her opinions as fact, but that is all part of the character of spending the year in her company.

Large sections of The Magic Apple Tree are about gardening and cooking, and these are the parts that I enjoyed a little less. Hill includes recipes and, while some recipes are eternal, others are curiously tied to their decade. And I am not a gardener, so am unlikely to take any of the advice she gives in that quarter – most of her advice being about the growing of fruit and vegetables, which she much prefers to growing flowers and non-edible plants.

But there is still plenty to delight, in the less practically minded parts of the book. Hill’s perceptive eye is turned not just on her fellow humans but on all the other living beings around her. Any description she gives of flora or fauna is done with beauty and accuracy, and without the cluttering of undue sentiment. She is able to delight in the active world of nature around her, and we can share in that delight, without it ever stepping in the fey. For example…

On the last Sunday in August, at about eleven o’clock, in the morning, I carried a pile of bolted lettuces and old pea haulms down to the compost heap, and, as I was stuffing it down, I glanced up into the Buttercup field. It was a fine morning, the early mist was rolling back across the Fen and cows and trees and fences were emerging from it in the sunshine. Near at hand, the grass was glittering with dew. And not ten yards away from me, looking straight into my face, was a dog fox, big and bold and handsome, sniffing the air. I waited. He waited. He had been on his way to our garden, there was no doubt, at all, he would have been up and over the stone wall and among the hens in seconds. And the hens were all out of their run and scratching about the garden.

Then the fox caught my scent and turned and went streaking away down the slope towards the willows and up the Rise on the opposite side, brush up, ears pricked, and I called the hens in with a handful of corn, and shut the gate on them, just in case.

I really loved The Magic Apple Tree. I might have loved it still more if there had been a little more on fellow villagers and less on practical advice, but that is by the by. It is charming and honest and vivid, with much to recognise and to remember.

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Happy weekend – and, if you’re in the UK, happy sunshine! Well, there may well be sunshine elsewhere too, but it has been a long time coming here. I never realise what a difference it makes until the grey skies disappear for a bit, and blossom starts showing itself. Yes, hay fever too, but one can’t have everything.

I’m spending this Saturday at my college reunion – I was still an undergraduate (just) when I started this blog in 2007, and it’s odd and pleasing to think that it’s still going despite all the other changes in my life. Though rather fewer changes than many of my fellow Gaudy-goers will have experienced. Me? I live half an hour down the road.

Hope you have lots of lovely plans this weekend – or, equally lovely, no plans. Here is a book, a blog post, and a link to take you into your weekend.

1.) The book – I saw Hourglass: Memory, Time, Marriage by Dani Shapiro mentioned on Christina’s Instagram, and immediately added it to my wishlist. Some blurb: “The best-selling novelist and memoirist delivers her most intimate and powerful work: a piercing, life-affirming memoir about marriage and memory, about the frailty and elasticity of our most essential bonds, and about the accretion, over time, of both sorrow and love.”

2.) The blog link – Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow has the rare joy of adding a previously-unpublished novel to the roster of the wonderful Furrowed Middlebrow series from Dean Street Press! I won’t steal his thunder, but will send you to his blog post to find out what it is. (I’m hoping if I butter him up, he will read and review some of the British Library Women Writers titles, because I am LONGING to know what he thinks of them. Especially Sally on the Rocks.)

3.) The link – Bored Panda does a ‘weird buildings’ list every couple of weeks, and it’s always the same, but it is also always great. If you haven’t explored one yet, here you go. Enjoy a cat-shaped kindergarten, for starters.

British Library Women Writers 13: A Pin To See The Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse

I think A Pin To See The Peepshow (1934) is probably the British Library Women Writers title that was best-known before being republished. It wasn’t a household name, of course, but a lot of people have come across it for various reasons – the 1980s Virago reprint, a couple of TV adaptations, or the fact that Sarah Waters cited it as helping inspire her novel The Paying Guests.

We were really lucky to get it for the British Library Women Writers series. Or, rather, the people at the British Library who are in charge of such things are very talented – I think it was complicated to sort out the rights (since the copyright holder from the 1980s has since died). But they did it, and this much-sought-after book is once again easy to get hold of!

If you’re new to the novel, it is heavily based on the 1920s Thompson/Bywaters murder case. To quote the opening paragraphs of my afterword…

Like many novels, A Pin to See the Peepshow starts with a disclaimer: ‘Every character in this book is entirely fictitious, and no reference whatever is intended to any living person.’ The note is more disingenuous than such notes usually are, but one part is true: neither of the two main characters on whom the novel is based were any longer ‘living persons’. Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters had both been killed by hanging 11 years before the novel was published.

Not all the details of their lives match those of Julia and Leo. Edith had a sister, and her father outlived her, for instance, and Tennyson Jesse slightly closes the age gap between the lovers. But the gist of the case was the same: a husband was murdered by a jealous man in the throes of an adulterous affair – and a jury determined that both halves of the affair were responsible, and should be hanged. The trial was a cause célèbre that everyone was talking about and everyone had an opinion on.

It is clear that Jesse is very sympathetic to Julia/Edith. Julia is an intelligent, articulate woman who suffers from a poor background, unsympathetic family, and unpleasant husband. When she starts an affair with Leo, it feels taboo but also like an escape from the drudgery that she has been unfairly condemned to. When the murder case starts – surprisingly late in the novel, and it would feel like more of a spoiler if the novel weren’t so closely based on fact – we remain on Julia’s side. But Jesse doesn’t paint a simple black and white case. Julia may be ultimately an innocent, but she is a complex, flawed one. She’s very good on class – and the fact that Julia’s precise place in the class pecking order condemned her fate:

If only she had been higher or lower in the world! In the class above hers the idea of divorce would not have shocked, and a private income would even have allowed her and Carr to live together without divorce, and no one would have been unduly outraged. Had their walk in life been the lowest, had they been tramps or part of the floating population of the docks down London River, they could have set up in one room together, and no one thought twice about it.

I think A Pin To See The Peepshow is an astonishing work – it might not be my favourite of the titles in the series, but I think there’s a strong argument that it’s the best.

In writing my afterword, I enjoyed delving into the details of the original case more – seeing which bits Jesse chose to leave out, or amplify. Comparing Julia’s prose and Edith’s actual love letters was particularly illuminating. I found it quite complex to write the afterword while keeping reality and fiction separate, but hopefully it all made sense and it was certainly easy to choose which topic to write about. (Incidentally – the episode of ‘Tea or Books?’ that I’m proudest of is episode 34, where Rachel and I compared Jesse’s book with E.M. Delafield’s novel about the same case, Messalina of the Suburbs.)

I’m always wary of suggesting too many books for the series that have previously been reprinted, and there are three or four that were Virago Modern Classics at some point – so those ones have to really justify their place in this series. A Pin To See The Peepshow inarguably does that. I really hope that, now it is back in print, it stays there.

Others who got Stuck into this Book:

A Pin to see the Peepshow is a memorable and sometimes chilling work which gets under the skin; and it’s also a brilliantly written and constructed novel, which is compelling reading.” – Karen, Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

“The most remarkable thing about this book though is the sustained insight it offers into a woman’s life and way of thinking, and how convincing the portrait of Julia is.” – Hayley, Desperate Reader

British Library Women Writers 12: Which Way? by Theodora Benson

Two new British Library Women Writers titles have just been published, and I’m quite behind with keeping up to date with my posts about the previous ones. The new ones will turn up here before too long but, before that, let’s talk about the others!

Which Way? by Theodora Benson is the first book in the series where I didn’t have a copy previously. I read it many years ago in the Bodleian, and re-read it as a photocopy that the kind people at the British Library arranged, but it was impossible to get hold of otherwise. Which makes it feel all the more exciting to have rescued it.

I think I first read it after seeing a publisher’s advert – the premise intrigued me. I still think it’s a brilliant idea. Fans of the film Sliding Doors will recognise the idea – what if a small moment had been different? Something seemingly inconsequential could make a huge change in the way a life pans out.

For Claudia Heseltine in Which Way?, it’s choosing which invitation to accept. We get to know Claudia in the opening section of the novel, and it ends with her walking into a room with two letters and a phone call about to be answered. It’s a scene that is repeated a few times in the book – and each time she accepts a different invitation for the weekend.

There was a fire in the room, very comforting and gay. It threw a lovely sheet of orange on the big armchairs on each side of it….An antique clock marked time in a hushed monotone. Only the fire was alive, consuming its life – for what? Then the door opened and as Claudia came with hurried steps into the fire’s glow, two open letters in her hand, the telephone began ringing. She shut the door and turned up the lights.

What I particularly liked about Which Way? is that, though initially set up as a choice between three men, the different outcomes aren’t really about them. Yes, different paths lead Claudia to marriage or relationships or singleness, but what they really draw out of her are different ways to be a woman in the 1930s. Facets of her personality, occupations (domestic or otherwise), friendship groups, even taste in popular culture – all of these are influenced by the metaphorical door she chooses.

The main reason I wanted Which Way? to be part of the series is the innovation. There is nothing strictly fantastic here – Claudia doesn’t jump between timelines; she isn’t aware of the multiverse she inhabits – but it’s such a clever way to look at how circumstances can bring out latent aspects of a person.

Others who got Stuck into this Book:

“I read this book around two weeks ago, and it’s still hovering heavily in my thoughts. I highly, highly recommend it to anyone interested in women’s fiction or social history.” – Asha, A Cat, A Book, A Cup of Tea

“An excellent plot idea, then, and carried out impressively. But there’s more to enjoy here. It’s hard not to feel a sort of fascinated horror at the complete emptiness of Claudia’s life, or lives.” – Harriet, Shiny New Books

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I bought two copies of Fifty Sounds (2021) by Polly Barton in the year it was published – one for a friend and, because I couldn’t resist it, one for me. Not only was it that beguiling Fitzcarraldo white, adding to my growing pile of matching covers with diverse insides – but it was about languages. As a monoglot, I find the experience of becoming fluent in another language a total mystery, and absolutely fascinating. That is all the more true when an author writes about immersion in a language and culture, and even better if translation is involved. Polly Barton’s memoir (of sorts) was thus unmissable for me.

Fifty Sounds is about a lot of things, but the most obvious of them is Barton’s experiences moving to Japan to teach. The chapters are each headed with a ‘mimetic’ – close to what we’d call onomatopoeia in English, though Japanese has far more of them and the link between sound and meaning isn’t always immediately clear. And often the word has several different meanings, each of which can be traced back to some slippery integral sound-meaning, or may rely on subjectivity. Some examples of these chapter titles include ‘hiya-hiya: the sound of recalling your past misdemeanours’, ‘kyuki-kyuki: the sound of writing your obsession on a steamy tile, or the miracle becoming transparent’, and ‘shi’kuri: the sound of fitting where you don’t fit’.

Before Barton moved to Japan aged 21, she knew very little of the language or culture. It seems a very impulsive move – she cannot answer the questions she gets about why she chooses Japan. The surface answer is that a boyfriend convinced her they should both apply – though, as it happened, only Barton got a place. As you get to know her more in these pages, it’s a decision that embodies so much about the way Barton approaches situations: bravely, adventurously, perhaps unwisely. She doesn’t even go to Tokyo or somewhere that might be on a bucket list – she goes to a small island, and dives head-first into a period that seems absolutely overwhelming.

I loved Fifty Sounds for many reasons. As I’d hoped, Barton is so interesting on the topic of language-learning. The moment when she understands something she reads casually is described like an awakening. There are fits and starts as she gets closer to fluency – though ‘fluency’ is a concept she will examine in the book, as well as exploring what the stages between ignorance and fluency could be. And she is so good on the different personalities one might have in different languages, and what that phenomenon does for one’s sense of a stable identity.

Barton’s primary interest isn’t a clash of cultures – she finds the idea of exploring Japan only in relation to her own Englishness rather shallow and reductive – but she does write about how a language will interplay with a culture’s unspoken norms. And how much one may have to adopt a cultural viewpoint when one adopts a language. Here, for instance, is a conversation she has with Y – and older, married colleague, with whom she is having an affair:

That day, I had been reading something about kimi, which, the book said, is used by older men when speaking to subordinates at work or younger men, and also by men to women.

‘Is it true?’ I ask Y now of the above, and he nods. I actually end up asking him this question about a lot of things I’ve read in the textbook, like an idiot: is it really true?

‘But you don’t ever say kimi,’ I say. ‘I’ve never heard you say it.’

‘I could do,’ he says. ‘It’s kind of cute.’ And then he says, kimi, your hair is hanging in front of your face, and tucks it behind my ear.

And so, though I sense I am not allowed, I try it back. I call him kimi.

‘No,’ he shakes his head. ‘You can’t say it to me.’

‘Why?’ I say, in a way that is aiming to be cheeky and a little bit kittenish, but in fact makes me seem like a child. ‘Because you’re a man? Because you’d older than me?’

‘Yes,’ he says, serious. ‘It’s rude.’

‘But it’s not rude if you say it to me?’

‘No.’ He seems utterly unapologetic in a way that surprises me. I think I make a noise, some form of pff sound, and we get onto another conversation.

As that mention of her older, married boyfriend suggests, Barton doesn’t cloak anything. She is very open about her poor choices, indeed she often seems quite excoriating about herself in a way that makes Fifty Sounds as much confessional as linguistic exploration. It’s occasionally quite painful to read. As always with this sort of book, I can’t help feeling what the reactions were from friends and family (and exes) on publication day.

But I am not among that number, so I can simply admire the ambition and innovation of this book. It’s genre-bending, as so many of Fitzcarraldo’s output are, and Barton combines all the different influences with incredible success. I’ve previously loved Bleaker House by Nell Stevens and This Little Art by Kate Briggs, and Fifty Sounds feels rather like the meeting point of those two brilliant books. It is certainly an exceptional, and exceptionally interesting, achievement.

Two non-fiction titles I’ve read recently…

Here are some very quick thoughts about a couple of non-fiction books I’ve read in the past few months. I expect a similar round-up of recent fiction reads will follow before too long – watch this space!

A Woman of Passion: The Life of E. Nesbit 1858-1924 by Julia Briggs

I didn’t know much at all about E. Nesbit – only that I loved her books as a child, and then rediscovered her as an adult writer a few years ago, with the incomparably delightful The Lark. So I dove into Briggs’ book, knowing that Briggs was a renowned biographer and expecting a treat. And it was… maybe weird? The biography is very good in many respects, particularly Briggs’ acute literary eye. She melds critical analysis and biographical detail so well, often slipping off onto tangents that would feel irksome if they weren’t so well observed. Here’s a bit…

The contrast between E. Nesbit and Kenneth Grahame is revealing: Grahame, here [The Golden Age] and in The Wind in the Willows, creates an ideal fantasy world – dreamlike, safe and largely sealed off from the disappointments, embarrassments and sheer muddle of daily life, though paradoxically Grahame’s writing is at its most powerful when it hovers on the edge of acknowledging its own evasions. E. Nesbit’s fictional world never had the irresistible imaginative appeal that his has had, being at once less perfect and more vital. The world of her books is as elusive, confused, messy and absurd as the world of lived life. When she makes use of fantasy elements, whether in the form of a children’s game or as some magic power present in her story, her characters are constantly brought up against the hard edge of things-as-they-are, often with hilarious, and always with informative consequences.

I learned a lot about Nesbit’s associations with the Fabians, about her progressive left-wing politics, and (most unexpectedly and enjoyably, for me) the period where she devoted herself mainly to identifying the ‘real’ author of Shakespeare’s plays. What I could have done without were the many rather prurient passages devoted to the people that Nesbit or her husband had affairs with. Briggs doesn’t feel completely at home with the more gossipy parts of a biography, and perhaps overcompensates for that by flinging herself into them with abandon. I also found the darting back and forth to comparisons between Nesbit’s life and her books a bit tricky, since it meant we were introduced to works piecemeal, often with a half dozen fleeting mentions before they were introduced properly.

An interesting and forthright biography, and certainly an enjoyable read, but I think I might prefer the apparently more discreet and probably more chronological biography by Doris Langley Moore – which seems the source of many of the details here.

 

The Long Week-End by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge

This social history of the interwar period was published in 1940, so it’s impossible to imagine anything more hot off the press. It’s the sort of book I could either write several thousand words about, or a mere handful – and either one would conclude ‘get this book, have it on your shelf, dip in and out of it with delight’.

Graves and Hodge cover literature, art, sport, politics, religion, fashion, the press, and many more aspects of everyday life – taking us through all the years in detail, so we are left with specific understanding of the progression of all these elements, rather than an amorphous sense of what happened ‘in the interwar period’. Almost every page will have a detail you’ll want to share. I particularly liked the fact that movie subtitlers were known as ‘came-the-dawner’s – and this snapshot of a craze which was as short-lived as the more recent British examples of loombands, fidget spinners, or tanks of tiny fish to nibble your ankles in the middle of shopping centres:

In 1922 the craze was for a simple gambling device known as ‘Put and Take’. It was a small six-sided top which players, after putting money into a pool, each spun in turn; and then acted according to the order printed on the side that lay uppermost when it fell — ^put one more coin to the pool, or two or three; or took one or two; or. took all. People spun their tops on luncheon table, on the bars of pubs, on the covers of magazines in railway carriages. For a few months scarcely a home was without its top, then suddenly the game entirely ceased. The simpler the craze, the more universal its scope, and the swifter its end.

It’s an invaluable book. I only wish I could remember all the fascinating details I read – but since there is no through narrative here, it’s worth having on a coffee table to dip into at whim, and enjoy.