Auschwitz

Auschwitz: A footnote to the Periodic Table post:

Now that I have discovered the handy ‘aside’ post facility I can jot down snippets as I think of them…

I just wanted to add a link to a blog post by one of my colleagues at the Irish News Review Glenn Dowd, which ties in with one of my ‘Landing Eight’ authors, Primo Levi. Glenn describes a tour of Auschwitz, which was the concentration camp where Levi was incarcerated. Some of the stories in Levi’s Periodic Table (mentioned in 31 August’s entry) describes his experiences there. I can highly recommend If this is a man/The Truce if you want to know more.

That’s all for now…

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Landing Eight Progress: L.P.Hartley

The Go-Between

The winged messenger

Turning my attention back to the Reading Challenge that was whole purpose of this blog, I have been scanning the remaining Landing Eight titles to decide what will come next. My choice will be to read L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between (Penguin) as a complete contrast to The Periodic Table. In common with many people I suspect, I have known the famous first line to this novel for years without ever having read the book. Well, now is the time to put that lack of experience finally to rights. That is, after I have finished a couple of other books that are floating around, procrastination being my modus operandi (she confesses sadly).

The Locust and the Bird

The Locust and the Bird – trade paperback edition

At present, I am reading My Mother’s Story: The Locust and the Bird by Hanan Al-Shaykh, a completely engrossing Lebanese memoir. The book is a trade paperback title that I grabbed from a bargain section some while ago because the lovely title (and the stylish woman on the jacket) appealed to me. A quick mention also for the memoir, The Storyteller’s Daughter by journalist Saira Shah; in which Shah tells of her attempts to come to terms with, and understand her Afghan heritage. She has had some truly close shaves during several years of conflict in Afghanistan, which are un-nerving even to read.

A wonderful thread running through the book is that of the stories passed down the generations of the family. At one point Shah quotes her father comparing stories to dried onions. He told her that stories are ‘like dried experience. They aren’t the original experience but they are more than nothing at all’. The stories have a purpose in helping to explain and deal with life’s experiences as they come along. I have written a little about the importance of stories and storytellers in a previous post (April) so this aspect of the book was of particular interest to me.

Now, your starter for ten: tell me about your favourite storyteller…

Other News:

As I am sure many people know, the nice folks running the Grafton Media Blog Awards Ireland have recently announced the shortlists. This blog has been shortlisted in the ‘Best Newcomer’ category, which is very exciting for me. A big ‘Thank You’ is due to the organisers (Amanda Webb, Lorna Sixsmith and Beatrice Whelan) for selecting the Landing Bookshelves for inclusion on the list. I put my head in the sand after the nomination went in and tried not to think too optimistically about the awards, so it was particularly cheering to find that I had got this far. I will be firmly crossing fingers (and maybe toes too) ahead of the Finalists announcement (29th September). However, the crossing fingers part may make typing tricky so perhaps I will simply try to visualise crossed fingers and see how that works. Actually, page turning would be awkward as well and I definitely do not need any obstacles on the reading front either.

So, it’s back to The Go-Between for me…

Blog Wards Logo

It’s awards time…

The Best Science Book of All Time*: The Periodic Table

As I explained in a previous post, the latest book that I have been tackling here on the ‘Landing Eight’ Reading Challenge is Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table (or Il Sistema Periodico in the original Italian, 1975). I have previously read If This is a Man and The Truce (published in one volume) which I would list as a ‘must read’ even though strictly speaking I dislike the idea of telling folks what they should read. I find it hard to resist doing it occasionally though. To read of Levi’s experiences is the nearest that most of us will, fortunately, ever get to such inhumanity. Reading of them, bearing witness to such actions, is therefore the very least we can do.

Italian first edition of Il Sistema Periodico

First edition with Escher etching

The Periodic Table has long been on the back burner (as opposed to the Bunsen burner), probably because the scientific term of the title put me off a little. I was anticipating the prose to be inevitably laden with chemical names and processes and consequently rather hard going. After having finally read the book I can testify to the fact that my brain has been absorbing the names of elements and compounds that it has not had much reason to consider in years (apart from the basics such as oxygen and carbon that is).

stack of classics

It’s the fifth one down

As it happens, I found the chemistry experiments fascinating (especially when things failed to turn out as hoped) despite it being a very long time since I last studied science.  I admit that I would have had trouble recalling many of the elements on the Periodic Table off the top of my head (of course, chemists have added new discoveries to the table over the years). Since reading the book, I have been trying earnestly to recall the chemical symbols I used to know.

Having my chemical memories jogged a little has brought back images from the school year that saw our form ensconced in Lab 12 with Dr F as our form mistress. Looking back, I question the wisdom of the school using a science lab as a form  room, but I suppose anything really dangerous was locked safely away. I actually used to enjoy chemistry though I have a vague memory that my experiments generally failed to turn out as expected. There was a definite excitement in the processes of measuring and heating. Fortunately nothing actually exploded.

Then, I did go on to study bakery and confectionery, which is where you mix one ingredient with another to produce a chemical reaction.

diagram of The Periodic Table of Elements

The Periodic Table showing elements used by Levi

We all do chemistry every day, but just tend not to realise it as such. Now, I think that before I go in search of my old school lab coat, perhaps I had better do just a little more reading. If anyone has a favourite scientific read I would love to hear about it, so drop me a line in the comment box.

*As voted for in 2006 by a Royal Institution survey – link to a Guardian article here.

(Thanks as always to the nice people at Wikipedia for the additional illustrations of The Periodic Table diagram and the cover of the original Italian edition of Primo Levi’s book)

‘Landing Eight’ Progress (or lack thereof): Primo Levi

It is time to return to my self-imposed Reading Challenge task of tackling the ‘Landing Eight’ selection. After several literary distractions (of which more below) I have decided to tackle The Periodic Table by Primo Levi which I have long intended to read. I have been racking my brains trying to recall where and when I acquired my copy. It is an Everyman Classics hardback edition with an introduction by Neal Ascherson. I am almost sure that I bought this one new (I often put my name and date of purchase or gift on the title page, but not this time) when I was a student in Preston. If I remember correctly, I bought it with the proceeds from winning a student prize. Of course, next week I might have a blinding flash of memory and recall the real circumstances. Anyway, as The Periodic Table has languished patiently on my TBR Pile ever since then, the moment to read it has finally arrived.

stack of classics

It’s the fifth one down

I mentioned the literary distractions that have lured me away from my blogging mission. One such diversion was Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which I found recently on a bedroom shelf. I had completely forgotten that I had ever bought it. It just goes to show how beneficial it can be to clean ones shelves on occasion. The results often amaze me: gems from a foray to a charity shop tucked away for safe keeping. I should make a memo to self about cleaning book cases more often.

There was a Guardian interview with Mantel this week in which the author talks about the ending of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy. I can see that I might need the tissues handy at the end just as I did in the closing pages of A Place of Greater Safety when I was crying over the execution of Camille Desmoulins. You know how the story is going to end, but it is just the way she tells it. Mantel manages to bring historical figures that you may never have thought too much about before, alive and kicking. I have a feeling that I may resort to the tissue box once more when Cromwell’s story draws to a close.

Other digressions have involved reading books (with my bookseller’s hat on) for reviewing on the brilliant writers’ website  www.writing.ie . Recent reviews have been on Tana French’s Broken Harbour and Chris Ewan’s Safe House. I have also been trying to keep up with my commitments to Irish News Review with this piece on the sand sculptures on at Dublin castle this month. I have a notebook with ideas jotted down for articles from various activities, so I have no excuse not to keep writing.

At the same time I must push on with Primo Levi; more next time!

A Tale of Four Sisters: revisiting Little Women

colour illustrations of the March sisters

The March family

A few posts ago, I mentioned that I had bought a biography of Louisa May Alcott at the Trinity College Book Sale. This book by Martha Saxton conveniently ties in with my Landing Project since Alcott’s best-known novel Little Women and its sequels are residents on the landing. Little Women was written in 1868 and Good Wives, the second volume in 1869. Both stories were published together in 1880 as Little Women. Alcott continued the saga in Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886). Sadly, none of my volumes dates from that early on so they have no financial value. I think I bought all of them in second bookshops several years ago to replace my original childhood copies. They are from a series called Juvenile Library and all have a colour plate in the front depicting the characters. Only Jo’s Boys still retains its illustrated dust jacket. As you can (just) see from the photograph the girls are depicted as rather more glamorous than is consistent with the novels.

In common with so many other teenagers, I read and loved Little Women and I am sure that I was not the only one to identify with and be inspired by, the lively, tomboyish character of Jo March. In sharp contrast, Meg was too good and youngest sister Amy was too fine and fussy. Poor saintly Beth died after illness and decline, which would not have inspired anyone a great deal. I also remember being deeply disappointed that Jo eventually married Professor Bhaer instead of Laurie, the wealthy boy next door. I wanted fun, romance and frivolity but got practicality and companionship instead.

It is strange to pick up an old childhood favourite to re-read and then perhaps to revise long held memories of a cherished book. I started to read the opening chapters of Little Women, revisiting the March sisters as they prepare for their Christmas festivities. After such a lengthy passage of years, I now find myself not particularly in sympathy with the constant striving for goodness and selflessness on the part of the girls. While I can appreciate the solid work ethic and the ability of making the best of what they had, so much virtuousness is hard to take. The emphasis on womanly attributes and virtues is of course strange from a twenty first century perspective. During the progress of the novel, poor Jo is urged to put away her boyish ways and become a woman; an angel of the home. This is in contrast to the eldest sister Meg who is already well on the way to conventional, domestic womanhood.

Until I picked up Martha Saxton’s biography, I had not read anything about Alcott’s life. I had always assumed that her own family inspired the March family portrayed in her work. Which indeed it did, but there was much more to the story than a straightforward re-working of her family life. The March sisters were fictional versions of Louisa and her sisters: Anna (Meg March), Louisa (Jo March), May (Amy March) and Elizabeth (Beth March). Similarly, Bronson and Abba Alcott inspired the characters of Mr and Mrs March; but Louisa’s relationship with her parents was much more problematic than her fictional counterpart’s was with her parents.

I would like to return to Louisa Alcott and her family in a future post, but meanwhile please let me know which was your favourite March sister and why…

Jane Robinson’s Bluestockings: Heroines of Education

This post came about because I have been reading a couple of biographies at the same time: one about the Crimean heroine Mary Seacole (Jane Robinson) and the biography of Louisa May Alcott (Martha Saxton) that I mentioned a while back. While thinking about the role of women in the nineteenth century as a result of this reading, I remembered that I had another book by Jane Robinson tucked away. This one is a fascinating account of the long struggle for the right of women to be educated. Robinson is an engaging writer on various aspects of women’s history and I thoroughly recommend her work. I read Bluestockings over a year ago and wrote a couple of short posts on the topic for a student site. I’ve dug them from the archives:

Bluestockings: the story of female undergraduates

 

cover of Bluestockings

Bluestockings

I’ve recently been reading an excellent book about the early years of women’s university education in England, Bluestockings: The Remarkable Story of the First Women to fight for an Education by Jane Robinson. It is still shocking to realise that women were at one time not considered to be capable of serious study. And worse than that, the (male) medical profession of the Victorian era thought that women would lose the use of their wombs (atrophy would set in apparently) through the effect of all of that dreadfully tiring brain activity. It would be just too much for the poor things. Early women students also really had to fight hard to be taken seriously and accepted as equals by male academics who didn’t think that women could produce work of a comparable standard. Though to be fair, some women also held similar views, believing that women’s place was in the home and that women had more to lose than to gain by trying to attain an education and a degree. Apparently no man wanted a clever wife, so an educated woman risked throwing away her chances of marriage and children. And of course this was at a time when many professions were still closed to women.  

Robinson’s book deals with the struggle that females had to get into universities (and on equal terms) in England, but at one time the picture in Ireland wasn’t much better either. Apparently Trinity College Dublin fought hard against the monstrous regiment of women undergraduates and only finally gave in and admitted them in 1904. Even then however there were many restrictions governing their conduct and access to various parts of the university which lasted well into the twentieth century.  A Danger to the Men? A History of Women in Trinity College Dublin 1904-2004, edited by Susan Parkes gives a fascinating picture of women’s life in the realms of higher education here in Ireland. It makes you fully appreciate how far women have come when you read of the determination that the early female students needed to prove that they really could stay the course (sorry about the pun). And naturally they still needed to be full of the womanly virtues at the end of it all.

Maybe every college and university should have one day in the academic year where the previous cohorts of women students are honoured for the courageous trailblazers that they were (with or without blue stockings). What do you think?   

 

 More Shades of Blue

In this follow up to my first blog I want to mention a few of the heroines (and heroes) of the fight for women’s education on both sides of the Irish Sea. It’s such a big subject with many people playing a part that it’s difficult to pick out names, but here goes. In Ireland one woman at the forefront of the struggle was Anne Jellicoe who was to become founder of Alexandra College, Dublin. She was a pioneer of women’s education, who along with Ada Corlett began the Dublin branch of SPEW, the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women in 1861. The society, which was renamed the Queen’s Institute gave classes to women to help them get jobs in offices or as sewing machinists. The emphasis was on helping to equip women who had to earn a living to find ‘respectable’ employment. Later on, there was more focus on girls’ higher education as the college forged strong links with Trinity College. I did mention heroes at the beginning, and so an honourable mention goes to one man who was involved in women’s education in both England (Queen’s College London) and in Ireland. Anglican Archbishop of Dublin Dr Chenevix-Trench was a prime mover in the establishment of Alexandra College (1866), enlisting Anne Jellicoe to help develop the college.  In 1879 the Royal University of Ireland was created, which awarded degrees to women right from the start (Trinity didn’t crumble until 1904) thanks to robust representation by a committee set up by Isabella Tod. She had previously successfully campaigned to have the new Intermediate Exams opened up to girls in 1874, which paved the way for university education. The fight to open Trinity College to women was a long one, assisted by the first women graduates from the RUI such as Alice Oldham and Mary Hayden. For anyone who wants to know more about women’s education, the two books I have mentioned provide a wealth of information and some fascinating personal accounts.

Originally I posted the previous articles up on Campus Dig (a student web site) on  8/1/2011 and 18/1/2011.

Georgette Heyer: Doyenne of Regency Romance

portrait of Georgette Heyer in evening dress

Georgette Heyer

For Christmas, I bought my mum the hard back copy of Jennifer Kloester’s Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller, about one of my all time favourite writers. My cunning plan was (obviously) to read it myself too, but as this has proved tricky due to the two of us not living in the same country, I have had to resort to borrowing a copy from the library. I am now on my third renewal and not quite finished reading it yet as various other books have intervened. I may actually buy myself a copy since it is an excellent addition to my stash of literary biographies. I could see Georgette nestling in nicely next to Daphne; though I am not sure what she would have made of Dolly Wilde.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my journey through Georgette Heyer’s extensive output and I feel inspired to do much re-reading. However, I will have to make do with the sole Heyer title residing on the landing bookshelves. This is an Orange Penguin edition of The Devil’s Cub (1954, first published in 1932). The original price of this volume was 2/6 though I see from the inside cover that I paid £1.50 for it in 2001. It is still in good condition so it was money well spent despite the inflationary price.

The Devil’s Cub is a title that I have read and then re-read many times. It is possibly my favourite Heyer, though in truth it would be tricky to decide which of her forty-six titles is my favourite. I think I have read most of her books, barring only a couple of her contemporary novels that Heyer suppressed and that I have not yet managed to locate. I have a feeling that either I’ll need to be very lucky or very wealthy to get hold of them.

I wrote the short piece below about The Devil’s Cub a couple of years ago (I think) when I was inspired by reading a piece by journalist Rachel Cooke. Many people still tend to dismiss Georgette Heyer as just another romantic novelist without bothering to find out anything about her work. Some people even speak of her in the same breath as Barbara Cartland which is mystifying to a Heyer fan like me. Heyer’s heroines had much more character and courage than any of Cartland’s creations. And of course, a Heyer heroine had a sense of humour!

Orange Penguin book jacket

Orange Penguin Edition

 

 

The Devil’s Cub Georgette Heyer

‘If you know, you know. If you don’t, you should stop being so stuck up, and read her, pronto’. This was journalist Rachel Cooke outing herself as a Heyer fan. It is, apparently not the done thing to admit a liking for Heyer’s books. I am however, willing to stand up and be counted as a fan alongside Cooke.

I first read The Devil’s Cub as a teenager and in retrospect, I can see that the ‘dark and extremely handsome’ hero appealed. However, in the end it was the wit, madcap adventures and sheer escapist fun that had me hooked on Heyer. The giggle out loud lines had as much (if not more) staying power than the romance. A lesson for life really. From Heyer I gained a lifelong love of comic fiction.

I also admired her heroines. Never passive, they were intelligent, capable, and calm in a crisis and certainly did not faint at the sight of blood. In this novel, a case of mistaken identity results in Mary Challoner being abducted by Lord Vidal for strictly dishonourable purposes. In the ensuing action, Miss Challoner shoots Vidal to thwart his intentions and then calmly dresses his wound. Next morning she makes him eat a nourishing gruel for breakfast.

‘I observe that the sight of blood don’t turn you queasy.’

‘I am not such a fool, sir’ Miss Challoner began to roll up his sleeve. ‘I fear the lace is ruined my lord. Am I hurting you?’

‘Not at all,’ said Vidal politely.

Heyer’s female protagonists were the equal of any man and commanded respect. Woe betides the man who underestimated them. It was about woman, not girl power and it was not necessarily the best-looking woman who won the beau. Of course, the novel ends happily but I think the great thing is that the story ends with a riotously comic scene and not a clichéd clinch. I would ove to be able to write comedy as well as Georgette Heyer could. It is a great gift. In addition, her elegant and precise use of language is something to which I have always aspired. Her grasp of historical details and Regency slang were second to none. She always made it look so easy.

Are there any more fans out there? Shout out if you’re a Heyer lover….

UPDATE – I’ve just discovered that the paperback edition of Jennifer Koestler’s book (published by Cornerstone) is due to be released on 20 June 2013. I may just treat myself!

The Humour of Dickens

Book cover of The Humour of Dickens featuring several characters

A little light Dickens…

My Reading Challenge has just taken a useful turn, as the members of my book club (all four of us!) have decided to read Charles Dickens this month as a contribution towards the centenary year. This means that I can read a book for my book challenge and tackle the latest book group choice at the same time. I am rather pleased about it, though unfortunately I cannot claim credit for the book club’s good idea.

I ran through a mental list of the Dickens titles that I have not yet read (the dreaded TBR Pile) and I thought of choosing Hard Times. My rationale was that Dickens based the story upon his experiences of Preston (re-naming it Coketown), and as I have lived in that very city it seemed a good reason to choose the book. Although, as I retain a great fondness for the Lancashire city, this may not prove to be wise move on my part. I have metaphorically crossed swords before now with authors who portray my favourite places in a bad light. I wouldn’t want to fall out with Dickens at his time of life.

Finally, I have settled on a compilation volume that I have had on the shelf for some time, The Humour of Dickens edited by R.J. Cruikshank. I have read this volume before, so is not strictly a TBR Pile candidate, but it is reading for sheer pleasure. It deserves a re-read especially in view of the brilliant illustrations it contains which add to the enjoyment enormously. The Humour of Dickens was published in 1952 (my copy has an inscription saying ‘Xmas 1953, from Mairi’) by the News Chronicle, London. The original price of the volume was a princely three shillings and sixpence. I did a quick out of print book search and discovered that copies of the Dickens anthology can now fetch up to around thirty pounds depending on the condition. You can also pay as little as sixty three pence plus postage, which would be more like my price. I can only hazard a guess that I probably paid a pound or so for my copy several years ago in (I think) Birmingham.

The collection has excerpts from fifteen of Dickens’ novels including Oliver Twist, Our Mutual Friend, Hard Times and The Pickwick Papers. I mentioned the illustrations above; there are twenty of these by well-known contemporary (and by now highly collectible) illustrators. One of my all time favourites is Edward Ardizzone (remember the Tim stories?) whose frontispiece drawing of ‘Dinner at the Veneerings’ endows the dinner party guests with more charm than they probably deserve. Other great cartoon artists represented in the collection regularly featured in the newspapers of the time: Horner of the News Chronicle, Low of the Daily Herald and Giles of the Daily Express to name but three. All are different in style but equally vivid in their interpretation of Dickens’ characters.    

I shall be in the right mindset to tackle Dickens since I am reading David Lodge’s novel about HG Wells, A Man of Parts at present. After rubbing shoulders with HG and his literary circle including Henry James and Edith Nesbit, I shall slide back into communing with Dickens quite smoothly I think. Apart from seasonal re-reading of A Christmas Carol it must be a long time since I have read any of Dickens novels. I was all prepared to take the plunge again after our book group had an outing last year to hear Claire Tomalin speaking about her Dickens biography. That plan fell by the wayside (until now), along with the intention of reading said biography. Dickens is still on my ‘to read’ list as I have previously very much enjoyed Claire Tomalin’s literary biographies.

In the meantime, Reading Challenge satisfied, I will be content with Charles Dickens’ funny bits…. 

 

 

All should have bonnets: a letter from Louisa M Alcott

After the dedication of my #LetterMo writing challenge efforts have faded gently away, I have decided to return to the compendium of historic letters that I mentioned in one of my earlier entries. Having struggled to post at least one item of correspondence every day for a month, I can truly say that I stand (pen poised) in awe of the sheer effort involved in letter writing pre-Microsoft Word technology. After all, even keeping up with just a few relatives in the last century would have been a Herculean task. But thank goodness that so many people did just that, providing a mine of information and insight that would otherwise have been lost to later generations.

One of the epistles in The World’s Great Letters is one from Louisa M Alcott to her sister Anna and while it could not be claimed to hold huge historical importance, it does give you a glimpse into the life of a would-be writer who was struggling to support her family. Alcott was also mired in domestic chores as well as suffering the frustration of waiting for editors to reply to her story submissions.

Alcott’s letter, written around 1861 describes the trials and tribulations of fashioning a decent bonnet (a social necessity) with only one dollar to spend; the contents of Alcott’s ribbon box supplemented the lack of cash. She makes the whole enterprise into an entertaining anecdote for Anna Alcott, but she clearly would have loved to be able to go out and buy a smart piece of headgear. She describes her attempts to trim the one-dollar bonnet thus:

I extracted the remains of the old white ribbon (used up, as I thought, two years ago), and the bits of black lace that have adorned a long line of departed hats. Of the lace I made a dish, on which I thriftily served up bows of ribbon, like meat on toast.  Inside put the lace bow, which adorns my form anywhere when needed. A white flower A.H. gave me sat airily on the brim, – fearfully unbecoming, but pretty in itself, and in keeping. Strings are yet to be evolved from chaos. I feel that they await me somewhere in the dim future.

 

book cover with portrait of L.M. Alcott

Louisa May

All this occurred before Alcott struck gold with the phenomenally successful Little Women, which was published in 1867. At that time, she was still a ‘young woman with one dollar, no bonnet, half a gown and a discontented mind’ as she described herself. In one of those moments of literary serendipity, I spotted Louisa May (Martha Saxton, 1978) while rummaging in the Trinity Booksale on Saturday. I was meaning to re-read Little Women after seeing the sell out production last month at Dublin’s The Gate Theatre.  As Little Women and its sequels reside on the landing I can justify doing just that, but I will have to make (yet another) exception for reading the Louisa May Alcott biography. But, one of the joys of reading is that you never know what is going to be around the next corner of the bookshelf!

What have you discovered this week? And how is your Reading Challenge going? Drop a line in the comment box…