by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Books”

Magical Mystery Bookshelf Tour Stage Five: Still In The Spare Room

Posted 31 July 2008 in by Catriona

Honestly, it’s going to be a while before I’m finished with the spare room: there are still three (maybe three and a half, depending on how you count them) bookshelves to go, all much bigger than these two, and all stacked to within an inch of their lives.

On the plus side, this is the room in which I’m bound to find some interesting material: the situation is so dire in here, that I avoid pulling books off these shelves if I can, and tend to default to the more accessible ones in the living room and the hallway.

Really, maybe things are getting a little silly.

A case in point:

Oh, not the top shelf. Despite the fact that it includes a figurine of Deanna Troi in her embarrassingly unprofessional lavender number (Nick’s, I’m sure I don’t need to add) and a baseball cap with a propeller on the top (also Nick’s), this shelf is reasonably sedate. You can see the names of the books and everything!

I have a weak spot for Norton Critical editions, even though so many of these are rather old versions, which means their critical apparatuses—often written in the 1960s—are rather out of date in terms of current critical approaches.

But they’re so pretty! And their notes to the text are actually in footnotes rather than, as in Penguin and Oxford classics, endnotes, which means I can read the books without having to keep my finger in the back to hold my place.

On the other hand, that red book just behind Deanna is The Scarlet Letter, which I bought exclusively because I can’t resist a reasonably priced Norton Critical Edition, have never read, and may never read.

To balance that, though, eight books to its left, next to Moll Flanders (which I also haven’t read but may in fact own two copies of) is Frankenstein (the 1818 edition), which I’ve read multiple times. So it all works out even in the end.

(On the other hand, that book next to Frankenstein isn’t a Norton Critical Edition at all, now I look at it: it’s Andrew Lang’s Yellow Fairy Book, in a Dover reprint. That shouldn’t be there!)

That copy of Basil by Wilkie Collins—on the top of the horizontal books there—was one of my great finds of the last Lifeline Bookfest: it’s a Dover imprint. I do love Dover: they publish the most fascinating things, and they’re extremely readable editions. And under it is my little pile of Broadview Critical Editions. Broadview editions are fantastic: beautiful text and paper, gorgeous covers, clever and up-to-date critical essays. But they’re not cheap, and I only have the half-a-dozen. (Plus, one of those half-a-dozen books is yet another copy of Frankenstein, which is rather disturbing.)

I started this section with a point, didn’t I? Well, it’s more than could be expected for me to remember that for a fifteen-minute stretch at the end of the first teaching week of the semester.

But my point was that the second shelf here really illustrates the problem with this shelf: the situation’s becoming increasingly absurd.

It only gets worse on the next two shelves:

Honestly, what’s the point of even putting books on shelves when you can’t get to them anyway? And the books at the front aren’t even the ones that I read most often—case in point: Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution on the far left, there—they’re just the ones that I’ve bought most recently. Or, in the case of Trilby, the ones that I’ve most recently moved off the bedhead where they’ve been languishing for many months.

(Actually, you know what’s really embarrassing? I’ve only just now come to the realisation that the only copy of Dangerous Liaisons that I own is a movie tie-in edition. Fair enough, it was a good movie. But when you own—and, miracle of miracles, have actually read—eighteenth-century French epistolary fiction, it’s best to own it in an edition that doesn’t have Glenn Close and John Malkovich on the cover. Really, I should read that again, though: that’s a brilliant book. I like the way De Laclos plays with the notion that correspondence is superficially transparent but actually opaque, explicitly intended for a single reader but actually easily transmissible. But that’s not important right now.)

(I seem to be thinking in asides tonight: another point that’s just occurred to me is that I really should pull Salem Chapel off this shelf, now I’ve reminded myself that it’s here, and read it. I’ve only just bought it, but I’ve been keen to read it for a while.)

(Note to self: blogs don’t really work when they’re stream of consciousness.)

But when you pull the front row of books off the shelf, a miracle occurs:

Really, there’s nothing prettier than a row of Penguin paperbacks, is there?

(Although I mainly note, looking at this, that I don’t own enough purple Penguins (I think that one is Saint Augustine’s Confessions) and certainly not enough green Penguins (those two are Arthur Waley’s translation of Monkey, which I definitely need to re-read, and One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, which should be on everyone’s bookshelf. I don’t actually buy my books on the basis of their colour—well, not often—but it seems as though an absence of purple and green Penguins speaks to a corresponding absence in my knowledge of literatures other than those published in English and—if I’m to be entirely truthful—in England: as my point about The Scarlet Letter above probably showed, I’m woefully behind in my reading of classic American novels.)

The only thing that might come close, pretty-wise, is a row of Oxford World’s Classics in paperback:

I vastly prefer the older Oxford editions with the cream-coloured spines and the broad coloured stripes to the modern white-and-red covers. Although this row just showcases the gaps in my organising principles: why are Fanny Burney’s Cecilia and The Wanderer at the back when her Camilla is at the front? That’s just odd. And, on that note, where is my copy of Evelina, the only Burney novel I’ve ever actually finished? Honestly, the point of this was to have a better idea of what I owned and where I had stored it. (Well, that, and to give myself an excuse for talking endlessly about books. As though I needed an excuse.)

Oooh, actually De Laclos isn’t the most embarrassing book on my shelf:

That’s right: I have a television tie-in copy of Middlemarch. But I have two points to raise in my own defense, here.

Firstly, I do own another copy of Middlemarch.

Secondly, it’s got Rufus Sewell on the cover. Seriously: Rufus Sewell. It would take a stronger woman than me to get rid of that.

But, hey: at least I vacuumed the carpet this time.

So, Anyway . . .

Posted 30 July 2008 in by Catriona

Way back in May, I mentioned that I wanted to blog about Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, but I didn’t know where I’d put my copy.

So, last weekend, I was doing a last-minute scavenger hunt among the Space Marines that currently occupy the outer reaches of the living-room bookshelves, looking for characters who would serve as suitable table-top avatars for that afternoon’s game of D&D, when I suddenly noticed Beowulf hiding on the far edge of the smallest bookcase, next to The Princess Bride.

That’s frustrating in and of itself, since I was convinced that it would be either in the study or in the spare room, and tore both rooms apart looking for it. It never occurred to me that it would be in the living room—and, frankly, I still don’t don’t how it came to be on a shelf sacred to sci-fi and fantasy (and one hardback copy of Sayers’s Five Red Herrings that won’t fit anywhere else).

Still, I’ve found it now.

And this is what I wanted to talk about:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

I love these opening lines. There’s something about that opening “so” that, more than any other translation of Beowulf I’ve ever read, evokes a sense of orality in the poem, of a speaker sitting down and thinking, “now, where were we?”

This is Heaney’s intention:

Conventional renderings of hwæt, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with ‘lo’, ‘hark’, ‘behold’, ‘attend’ and — more colloquially — ‘listen’ being some of the solutions offered previously. But in Hiberno-English Scullion-speak, the particle ‘so’ came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom ‘so’ operates as an expression that obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.

I was going to mention that it warms the cockles of my heart to think of someone paying such attention to a two-letter word . . . and then I realised that that was foolish. These are possibly the most famous opening lines in English literature: of course you would give them your full attention.

And that colloquial, conversational “so” works far, far better in the context of Heaney’s translation than any archaic “behold” or “hark” ever could.

But the other thing that struck me about this explanation was that my mother does this.

My mother is a natural storyteller. Whenever things happen—be they amusing or disturbing or even a little dull—you can almost physically see her turning them into anecdotes in her head.

This used to drive me absolutely mad when I was younger, because she’s thoroughly ruthless in her employment of said anecdotes. All she’s worried about is whether it makes a good story: veracity has nothing to do with it. All I was concerned about as a teenager was that credit was given where credit was due: I didn’t want to be the butt of a dinner-party anecdote if the event had actually happened to my brother or my sister.

I’m more or less over that, now.

But what I have noticed recently is that my mother is not great at taking turns.

All I remember from a brief and unsatisfactory (for both parties) fling with discourse analysis many years ago was the statement that taking turns in storytelling is vital to the health of conversations and the well-being of the participants.

That doesn’t happen here.

What happens is this: my mother and I sit in the living room and chat over a glass of wine. My mother tells an amusing story. I am reminded of a funny story of my own, and tell it in turn. My mother waits patiently for me to finish, and then says “Anyway . . .”

Anyway.

Much as I love my mother, this drives me nuts.

Like Heaney’s “so,” my mother’s “anyway” operates as “an expression that obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.”

(And I did tell her this, which was the first thing that struck me when I read the translation. I rang up, and my mother asked if I wanted anything in particular. “Not really,” I said. “I just rang up to be rude to you”—and read out the piece from the introduction. She found it hilarious, but it didn’t stop her saying “anyway.”)

To be fair, I don’t suppose it really is a call for immediate attention.

But it certainly obliterates all previous discourse and narrative. Once my mother has said “anyway,” my poor funny story may well never have been told.

So, anyway . . .

Aha!

Posted 26 July 2008 in by Catriona

I have triumphantly located my copy of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, which I have been futilely seeking since, apparently, May this year.

It was on one of the living-room bookcases, on a shelf devoted exclusively to sci-fi/fantasy, next to my copy of The Princess Bride.

But of course.

No, Seriously, I Have to Stop Surfing the Internet

Posted 25 July 2008 in by Catriona

Because otherwise I really am going to bankrupt myself.

This time I’ve come across the small, independent publisher Valancourt Books.

They operate out of Kansas City (oh, bless you, Internet. I love you, and don’t pay any attention to the title of this post; I will not abandon you) and they specialise in late-eighteenth and early nineteenth century novels, especially Gothic works.

I haven’t steeled myself to actually buy anything yet, but I have made a list.

Seriously, who could resist these titles?

There’s The Fate of Fenella (1892). The title alone would be enough to make me buy this book but, in addition to that, each chapter was written (without seeing the other chapters) by a different author, including Arthur Conan Doyle, Frances Eleanor Trollope, ‘Tasma,’ and George Manville Fenn.

Or maybe Miss Cayley’s Adventures (1899) by Grant Allen, which is one of the earliest female-detective novels (although the earliest examples appeared in the 1860s, and the first professional female detective, Loveday Brooke, appeared in 1894).

Or The Datchett Diamonds (1898) by Richard Marsh, another early detective novel, and one republished with a stunning cover based on an early edition.

Or The Necromancer (1851-1852) by George William Macarthur Reynolds. Seriously, this book has a beautiful woman with a deadly secret, a ruined castle whose walls conceal terrible secrets, a mysterious chamber emblazoned—literally, in “letters of fire”—with the names of ill-fated women, and, best of all, a cover illustration of a skeleton who appears to be playing the violin.

Or The Magic Ring (1825) by Baron de lat Motte Forque: an influence on Tolkien, this one draws on Germanic folktales, Icelandic sagas, Arthurian romance, and Gothic horror. As for the plot, I think I should let the website speak for itself on that one:

It is the twelfth century, the era of Richard the Lion-heart and the Third Crusade. Along the Danube, the tranquil world shared by the young squire Otto and his cousin Bertha is changed forever when they witness a knightly contest for possession of a magic ring. Soon both are drawn into a quest that transforms them and endangers all they love. The resulting adventures lead each to different paths of enchantment and peril, from the mysteries of Moorish Spain to the birthplace of Norse mythology. While navigating an ever-changing sea of allies and foes, both natural and magical, the two seek love, honor, survival, and a ring that possesses more power than either can possibly understand.

Whichever other books I have to forgo, I’m definitely buying that one.

This is the Most Exciting Book Ever

Posted 25 July 2008 in by Catriona

See?

Not convinced? All right: I admit that the front cover alone isn’t the most exciting thing you’ll have seen on the Internet today.

But look!

This little octavo is volumes three and four of Fiction for Family Reading, the obscure and short-lived mid-Victorian journal edited by Eliza Winstanley.

Now I bet you’re excited.

I found this in Barcelona—thanks to the magic of the Internet, obviously, although I will now add “shopping for rare Victorian books in Spain” to my list of things to do—a month or so ago, and inveigled Nick into allowing me to put it on his credit card. And it arrived this afternoon, accompanied by a courier with whom I had a brief but interesting conversation of the futility of having a doorbell when said doorbell doesn’t actually work. I really must put a sign up.

These volumes include all installments of Winstanley’s longest work for the journal: “My Own Diggings,” a series of discrete stories about Australia during the convict era, linked by a single narrator who plays a more or less active role in the various events.

So obscure is this journal that when I was working on it myself, I had to work from a set of microfilms (very generously purchased by the library) made from the British Library’s copy, because I could not locate a single copy in an accessible library anywhere in Australia and the run hadn’t been previously microfilmed.

The only drawback to this glorious little book is that this neither of these volumes includes the rewriting of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Travelling Companion” that was curiously accompanied by an illustration of a half-naked woman.

Random Weirdness from the Bookshelf

Posted 23 July 2008 in by Catriona

The strange phobias of the 1950s:

From Nigel Kneale’s The Quatermass Experiment: A Play for Television in Six Parts (London: Penguin, 1959).

Surfing Amazon.com in Your Spare Time is Dangerous

Posted 18 July 2008 in by Catriona

Thankfully, I don’t actually have a credit card and still have a sufficient sense of self preservation, which has so far stopped me from organising a debit card.

But it’s still dangerous.

It’s not dangerous in an exchange-rate sense: not right now.

But it’s dangerous in the sense that books look sexy on Amazon.com: the site seduces you into thinking that maybe you really do need a trilogy of novels set in a boarding school with a haunted east wing.

At least, that was what I ended up considering last time I was browsing the site.

But this time, I’ve come across Cara Lockwood, and I’m even more conflicted.

According to her Wikipedia page, she’s published a number of novels that I’ve never heard of.

Keep reading, and you’ll find that apparently the novels “most identify with the multicultural Asian chick lit genre” and that the most successful of them “was made into a Lifetime Original Movie starring Denise Richards and Dean Cain.”

Which really begs the question of why I’m even flicking through her various publications.

I have no opinion whatsoever of Lifetime Original Movies—never having seen one—but I have little interest in chick-lit; I read and enjoyed both Bridget Jones books and Helen Fielding’s first novel, but generally find that I can’t sympathise with chick-lit heroines any more than I can sympathise with the characters from Sex and the City. We just don’t speak the same language.

But those aren’t the books I’m looking at.

No, the problem is that I ran across The Bard Academy series.

Perhaps if I give you the titles it will explain why I’m putting these on a mental “think I sort of want them” list: Wuthering High, The Scarlet Letterman, and Moby Clique.

Oooh.

According to the Wikipedia page, these novels “update” the author’s favourite classics.

That’s something that always worries me. It seem to tie in with the models of literary criticism that I, at least, was taught at high school, centring on my favourite fallacy: “universal themes.” I don’t believe in universal themes.

Oh, sure: issues such as love and hate, ambition and jealousy, pride and despair have been explored in literature for as long as we’ve had literature. (Note to Hollywood: that doesn’t mean that Grendel’s mother is supposed to look like Angelina Jolie.) But their manifestation, their presentation, their significance—these change radically depending on a number of variables, of which the period of composition is only one.

But I’m hoping . . . a little . . . that Wikipedia is being slightly ingenious in presenting the novels this way.

Because according to Amazon, it’s not that simple.

The protagonist is sent to a strict boarding school, because she wrecks her father’s car and runs up enormous bills on her stepmother’s credit cards?

Not interested.

The school is staffed by the ghosts of writers who died before their time, including Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, and Charlotte Bronte?

Oooh.

Of course, they might not be my kind of thing at all.

But speaking as someone who also wants Simon Hawke’s out-of-print Time Wars series—purely because they have such titles as The Ivanhoe Gambit (1984) and The Dracula Caper (1988)—and who reads anything that Jasper Fforde publishes, I think probably need to take the risk.

Magical Mystery Bookshelf Tour Stage Four: The Spare Room

Posted 16 July 2008 in by Catriona

I had thought to move on to the living room after the hallway, but I have a feeling I should get the spare room over and done with: it’s a disaster area.

To be fair, the spare room is home to a couple of our more specific collections, namely Nick’s art books and my girls’ school stories, which are the books I’m dealing with below.

But it’s also the place where we store books that we have no other space for (namely, everything I’ve bought in the last eighteen months or so) or that we don’t re-read very often (like Nick’s New Adventure and Missing Adventure Doctor Who books). Almost every shelf is double-stacked to some extent, and finding anything is a nightmare.

(Actually, I thought my Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf—which I still haven’t found—was bound to be in there, but I couldn’t locate it. That doesn’t mean it isn’t in there, of course.)

So the spare room it is, but it will take a while: there are five bookcases in there, all heavily stacked.

But I’m starting with a small shelf, one of the few shelves to be limited to a single genre: girls’ school stories. It’s largely impossible to make out specific titles, but that’s fine. After all, many of the books are completely interchangeable in terms of plots and characters. Plus, I’ve added some close-up photographs, for reasons that should become apparent.

Yes, that is a bright-green wig in a fetching 1960s’ style bob over that flower vase. How I come to own one of those is a long and not very interesting story. Still, it makes an interesting objet d’art, in its way.

Nick’s X Files figurine, on the other hand, led to the following conversation the first time my parents came to stay with us:

MAM: What’s that on the bookcase?
ME: Alien corpse. Why?

(And if you think that’s geeky, bear in mind that this is only one of a matched pair of bookcases: the other one has, in relative positions, a baseball cap with a propeller on the top and a figurine of Deanna Troi.)

Really, though, the top of this bookcase just shows that these books are outgrowing the small space I allocated them, even though I haven’t been actively seeking to increase the collection in recent months. (I think part of the problem is that there were so many girls’ school stories published: it’s almost impossible not to find them in bookstores and sales.) I found an old photograph recently, when we’d first moved into the house, and there were only enough of these books for a single shelf: perhaps that’s evidence that I do need to keep a grip on my avarice?

Even though I say the books are more or less interchangeable, those paperbacks standing upright on the bookcase’s top are some of the most sought-after among girls’ school story collectors: the Chalet School series. Obviously, these are inexpensive reprints (mostly Armada paperbacks from the 1970s) not collectors’ editions, but the series itself is one of the most heavily collected, along with the Abbey School series two shelves down.

The Chalet School series ran for decades in the hands of Elinor Brent-Dyer: Wikipedia lists fifty-eight books by Brent-Dyer from The School at the Chalet (1925) to Prefects of the Chalet School (1970)—Brent-Dyer herself died in 1969— as well as eleven books by other authors that slot into the original series, and Merryn Williams’s Chalet Girls Grow Up (1998), which, they carefully point out, is not recommended for young readers, and caused enormous consternation among Brent-Dyer fans because of its representation of infidelity, suicide, and marital rape among characters from the original series.

(Actually, if you have time—and are interested—the debate about Williams’s book on the U. K. Amazon site is fascinating.)

The Chalet School books themselves are intriguing, although often in a disturbing way. I was fascinated, initially, by the discrepancy in numbers between English girls and local students in the school, by the fact that English was not the dominant language in the school, and by the focus on Austrian culture. And the late Austrian books, with the increasing encroachment of Nazism, both in terms of actual soldiers and in terms of the spread of Nazi ideology among German and Austrian students, were genuinely distressing.

But then the school moved the Guernsey (after the Anschluss in 1938), then to the England-Wales border, and ultimately to Switzerland in the 1950s. With World War Two, the school shifted noticeably to a more uniformly British institution, and by the time they moved to the Swiss Alps, the tone was more reminiscent of the Enid Blyton-style “teaching foreign students the English code of honour” approach than it was to the tone of the early books. I found that a shame.

Ah! There are the Abbey School books, on the top shelf to the far left. This isn’t nearly as extensive a series: thirty-eight books, from The Girls of the Hamlet Club (1914) to Two Queens at the Abbey (1959), although Elsie J. Oxenham was extremely prolific outside this series, as well.

These aren’t always school stories, strictly speaking: many include the term “Abbey School” in their title, but so few of them take place explicitly at school that they’re often referred to as the Abbey Series.

But they have two fascinating points. The first is Oxenham’s involvement in the revival of English folk dancing (which is also an element of early Chalet School books, but falls away fairly quickly). I have no idea how accurate the details are, but the accounts of folk dancing are extraordinarily detailed, right down to music and steps.

The second is the Abbey itself: two of the primary characters are cousins, one of whom inherited a manor house and one a ruined abbey. It’s the Cistercian abbey of Grace Dieu, which my sister-in-law (whose specialty is Cistercian nuns) tells me is an actual abbey. Reverence for the abbey is threaded through the books—which also foreground Christian faith far more than most school stories—including a focus on the daily lives of monks in an order far less prominent, to the average reader, than the Dominicans or the Franciscans. It may only be a hook to drag in new readers, but it’s fascinating.

More so, certainly, than your average Enid Blyton (which are on the bottom shelf at the far right), although I own to a sneaking interest in the construction of Whyteleafe school in the Naughtiest Girl series (which is also the basis of my favourite in-joke in Green Wing.)

But what I love most about these books is their sheer beauty:

They’re just gorgeous to look at; Jan of the Fourth, there, was the first one that I bought in this new cycle of collecting (back in 1999), and I bought it purely because I loved the original dust cover.

And look at Margaret Plays the Game! Although that one is interesting textually, as well; it’s written as a schoolgirl version of a Sir Walter Scott novel that the six-form girls are acting out, in a truncated form, as the end-of-year play, and the association between Scott’s nineteenth-century rewriting of mediaeval codes of honour and the codes of honour pertaining among schoolgirls is intriguing.

Even the ones that have lost their original dust covers are beautiful objects:

In fact, those two on the far left were part of Nick’s inspiration for the design of this site.

But if you want real beauty, you have to look at the covers of early Angela Brazil editions:

These are so stunning that it’s a shame I can’t display them with their covers facing outwards rather than their spines. Although they don’t always reflect the contents: Leader of the Lower Fourth is about a rather bolshy lower-school girl who doesn’t see why the upper school should run everything and organises a revolution among the younger girls, while the singer on the second cover is a rough-mannered New Zealand girl who is gradually civilised, apparently through some magic in the English air.

And it wouldn’t be a post on school stories if it didn’t end on a thoroughly bizarre note:

Why are those two girls climbing into a trunk? No idea. But don’t tell Matron!

Magical Mystery Bookshelf Tour Stage Three: Last Time in the Hallway, I Promise

Posted 15 July 2008 in by Catriona

I would love to fit more than three bookcases in the hallway but, alas, it’s only a thin hallway and a relatively short one. Odd, really: I would have thought the primary purpose of a hallway was for the storage of books. Well, that and to allow access to other rooms, I suppose.

The relative narrowness of the hallway is also the reason why these photos are also taken on a funky angle: artistic impulses don’t really come into it, compared to the pressures of a narrow space and a linen cupboard digging into your shoulder blades.

The picture on top of this bookcase is a photograph taken by one of Nick’s colleagues—or former colleagues, perhaps. I never met him, so I’m uncertain. I believe it’s a Shinto temple, but I’d have to ask Nick to be certain, and he’s otherwise occupied creating music on his iMac (meaning I’m writing this post with my own headphones on and, should I need to speak to him, would have to send him an instant message. Odd, but it works for us, mostly. Plus, I have a glass of a rather nice Peter Lehmann white—a riesling, I think—and the opportunity to update my blog, so I’m perfectly content.)

If I’d been able to take this photograph from the other side, the Georgette Heyers wouldn’t have been quite so prominent—but that’s a confession of weakness I’m going to leave for a lower shelf, which will speak for itself.

The Steven Brust is Nick’s: he’s always telling me to read Brust because I’d enjoy him—although his claims that “It’s The Three Musketeers! But with elves!” reminds me a little too forcibly of this Penny Arcade comic. I’m sure I would enjoy Brust, but somehow I’ve never actually got around to opening one.

Ooh, look: I Capture the Castle. I’d forgotten I had that. I really enjoyed it—which isn’t a surprise, since I loved One Hundred and One Dalmatians, far more than I enjoyed the movie. In fact, that book inspired me with a desire for my own Dalmatian, but I had to settle for an imaginary one in the end. Actually, I still don’t have a real Dalmatian . . . although I suppose, technically, that the imaginary one is still around, somewhere.

I bought the Noel Coward short stories at, of course, a Lifeline Bookfest, but have never read them. At the time—and we’re talking the dark reaches of last year, here—I felt it behooved me to move out of the nineteenth century, and read some of the great writers of the early twentieth century: I’d never moved past a small amount of Mitford and an enormous amount of Wodehouse. So now I have shelves stacked with Vita Sackville-West, E. F. Benson, Ethel M. Dell, Rosamund Lehmann, and the like, most of which I’ve not read (or only read half of, as with George du Maurier.) But I’ll get around to them, someday.

The naked woman at the end is the illustrated spines of Casanova’s memoirs. Unfortunately, I could only buy half the set in this rather lovely Johns Hopkins UP edition, so I only have half a naked woman on my shelf. It’s the top half, but I don’t know if that’s better or worse.

I hadn’t realised how much of the next shelf was devoted to Nick’s books: I’ve never read Robert Heinlein, Piers Anthony, or Robin Hobb. I have read Neil Gaiman’s Stardust—and loved it, of course, despite the rather melancholy flavour—but even that’s Nick’s copy.

But the second shelf here is all mine, and while I’m an admitted fantasy fan, this is more specifically what I love: classic children’s fantasy. I’m not sure there’s much that’s truly classic missing from this shelf (except Lewis Carroll, who’s in the living room), although it’s not a complete collection of any of the authors.

But look at these lovely things!

Running from left to right, I have on this self alone

  • George Macdonald (including At the Back of the North Wind, although my personal favourite, by far, is The Princess and the Goblin)
  • Susan Cooper (we’ll just skip over the recent film adaptation, shall we?)
  • L. Frank Baum (I think I made my passion for Baum fairly well understood in the comments thread to this post)
  • Lloyd Alexander (but not, alas, a complete series)
  • Alan Garner (I adored The Owl Service and Elidor, particularly)
  • Mary Stewart (I don’t know how widely her children’s fantasy is read these days, but I’ve cherished my copies of The Little Broomstick and Ludo and the Star Horse for at least twenty years: these are still those original editions)
  • Hugh Lofting (although I wonder, sometimes, whether I’d let children of mine read them, especially the first one, where they visit Africa. I’d certainly not stoop to the bowdlerised versions, though)
  • C. S. Lewis
  • Elisabeth Beresford (ah, would that we all could womble free)
  • Madeleine L’Engle (more sci-fi, I know, but A Wrinkle in Time is still one of my all-time favourites. I think the others in the series are on a lower shelf of this bookcase)
  • E. Nesbit

In fact, I should have more Nesbit. I’m sure I just bought The Would-Be-Goods, Five Children and It, and The Phoenix and the Carpet. I wonder where I put those?

Even the non-fantasy books on this shelf are classics, like Richmal Crompton and Helen Cresswell.

Oh, look, an entire shelf of Georgette Heyer books. I wonder how they got there? Let’s just move on, shall we?

In my own defense, can I just say that the Anne McCaffrey and Warhammer books are absolutely Nick’s? I’ve actually never read any McCaffrey, which is a little odd for a fantasy reader my age. At least, I’m fairly certain that I haven’t read any. I wonder?

Mind, many of the other, more obscure books on these shelfs are also Nick’s, including the Ken MacLeod and Snow Crash; that’s my copy of The Diamond Age, but I’ve not read it yet. And, sadly, those are my copies of David Eddings at the end. I have neither bought nor read any of his books in years . . . but I have read up to the end of the second Sparhawk series, which is what’s on that shelf.

On the other hand, there are my Scarlet Pimpernel books! I haven’t read those in years: I don’t think I have all of them, but I’m not certain how necessary it is to read them in order. I really must pull those out again, although they’re an unfortunate mix of inexpensive and fragmentary paperbacks and one fascinating, plump little hardback that’s been roughly treated and poorly rebound.

Most of these are Nick’s too, especially the Will McCarthy: I’ve not read McCarthy, but Nick swears by him, having read Bloom. He writes just the type of science fiction that Nick adores.

At the opposite end of the shelf, there are my Glen Cook novels. I have a number of the novels from the Black Company series—and must get back into them, actually—but what really fascinated me was the Garrett, P.I. series, the hard-boiled detective working in an insane fantasy world. I’m not sure why they appealed to me so much; I’ve never been an enormous fan of hard-boiled detective fiction, because of the complicated gender politics associated with thinking of women as broads and dames (the main reason, actually, why I never got into Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber), and the plots are sometimes rather incoherent right up until the parlour scene. They just thoroughly appealed to me. I might re-read those, actually, once I’ve finished this journal article.

I’m past apologising for the carpet, since this photograph makes it quite clear that I really should have vacuumed. But at least this shelf shows some slightly more high-brow reading tastes. (Not that I’m ashamed of my low-brow tastes.) I mean, look! There’s Kurt Vonngeut (honestly, I really must gather my entire collection together: they’re scattered all over the house), Vikram Seth, and Umberto Eco (now there’s another book I must re-read: I’ve not read The Name of the Rose in at least ten years.)

Sure, there’s also Helen Fielding, but she is funny. I’ve not read the Olivia Joules book, and haven’t the faintest idea what it’s like, though: I picked it up in a Lifeline store, figuring I’d get around to it sooner or later. That was only six months ago, so I’ll probably read it sometime within the next four or five years. (There are, perhaps, some disadvantages to organising your house as though it were a small lending library.)

And my Anne Tylers! I can’t even say what I like about her, although The Accidental Tourist is wonderful . . . and devastating. I think it’s the evocation of the minutiae of life that appeals to me, but I won’t deny that I need to be feeling fairly emotionally robust to deal with some of them, especially Breathing Lessons.

Perhaps that’s why they’re on the bottom shelf, near the grubby carpet.

Magical Mystery Bookshelf Tour Stage Two: Still The Hallway

Posted 4 July 2008 in by Catriona

Don’t worry: you can still skip over these posts if they become too boring. But I have tried harder this time to make the title of the books visible, which—whether my purpose is solipsistic or practical—seems a key concern.

Mind, the pictures in this case are on a funny angle, because this is the middle bookshelf in the hallway, and I couldn’t get far enough back from the shelves to take a straight shot. But, really, it all adds an illusion of artiness to the project.

This is the most recent of the shelves, which Nick’s father made over the last Christmas holidays. I think it was this past Christmas, anyway. It had to be made narrower than the others so that all three would fit in the hallway without blocking any doorways (which didn’t bother me, but Nick claimed would be highly inconvenient).

Oddly, it was only after this shelf went in that I told Nick that I was slightly worried that the house was starting to look like a slightly disreputable secondhand bookshop. (It’s odd, because prior to that I’d always secretly hoped that the house would one day look like a disreputable secondhand bookshop.)

The painting on the top of this bookcase is a print of one of Sydney Lough Thompson’s paintings; he was a New Zealand-born Impressionist, and also Nick’s great-grandfather. Coming as I do from a line of anonymous peasants, I find it quite fascinating that Nick’s great-grandfather has his own Wikipedia page. (I mean, sure, it’s Wikipedia. But it’s still cool.)

(In case anyone is really interested, some of his paintings are here, although the site’s in French, and—even more astonishing to me than Wikipedia—there’s even a Youtube video, also in French but with some nice images of his works. See, the blog is educational!)

I’ve managed to retain most of this shelf, although that is Nick’s copy of Charles Stross’s Halting State lying horizontally up there—horizontal books on these shelves are a sure sign that space is desperately short elsewhere.

The copy of the Brothers Grimm I bought down in Sydney as a necessary tool for the thesis. I mentioned back in March that I ended up with multiple copies of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales: the Grimm tales were part of the same process, in that my author also rewrote several of these tales for her own journal. But the tales that she chose were fairly obscure ones, often not reprinted in incomplete collections, so I bought this complete edition. It’s good to have on the shelf, but it never actually made it into the bibliography for the Ph.D.; I defaulted to a late-Victorian translation by Margaret Hunt that I found on Project Gutenberg, as a more contemporary version of the tales.

How cool is The Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature, though? Everyone should have this on their shelf! No, seriously. Of course, this isn’t the most recent edition, but it’s still a fairly comprehensive survey of a wide range of authors.

It would also make a useful doorstop, if I were inclined to treat books in such a cavalier fashion.

But the books on this shelf that I love the most are those three slim, green volumes on the right: those are volumes seven, twelve, and fourteen of All the Year Round, conducted—as they point out on the spine, and the front cover, and the title page, just in case you didn’t see it the first two times—by Charles Dickens. Actually, all the volumes at that end of the shelf are Victorian periodicals, but these are the most exciting. Because of Charles Dickens, really.

Certainly, it’s far from a complete set—though I hope to pick up more in time; I bought these ones at the wonderful Berkelouw’s Book Barn in Berrima, the most alliterative antiquarian bookshop in Australia—but they’re fascinating. Volume 7, for example, has the fabulously titled “The Wicked Woods of Tobereevil,” by the Author of “Hester’s History” (seemingly, based on a quick Google search, by a woman called Rosa Gilbert, but don’t quote me on that) while volume 14 has “A Charming Fellow” by Frances Trollope. I could go on, but I won’t—I just never cease to be fascinated by how inexpensively one can buy some Victorian periodicals (although I did just pay a lot more than I did for these for a pair of much rarer volumes. But that’s another story).

Frankly, the first thought that springs to mind when I look at this shelf is a sense of surprise that I own two hardback James Herriot books. He’s a fun read, especially in the early days, but I didn’t think I bought him in hardback.

Most of these are Nick’s books, though—including the rather embarrassing Masters of Doom, although I admit that I did buy that for him. But there’s Tunnels: since I’ve written not one but two posts on that book, it seems only fitting that its picture should turn up on here at some point.

And I do love that Louisa May Alcott hardback: it’s mostly short stories, which I hadn’t read before. Some of them, of course, are intensely saccharine; I imagine that they were originally written for children’s periodicals or Christmas giftbooks and, while Alcott never patronised her child-readers, she did write some intensely sentimental works. Still, I’ve always loved Little Women—though the final book, Jo’s Boys, both bewildered and devastated me—so it’s delightful to come across a whole pile of her works that I’d never read before. Another Lifeline Bookfest find, of course.

Hey, Jasper Fforde! I love those books—and he’s so prolific, there’ll probably be another out before long. But those are exactly my cup of tea, and I’ll keep reading them as long as he keeps writing them. They remind me—in a circuitous fashion—of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but with less sex.

(Mind, Nick and I were watching Press Gang recently, and in the episode “UnXpected”—which deals with the illness of an actor who once starred in a Doctor Who/James Bond-style TV show—the character explains that he once spent two weeks inside The Hound of the Baskervilles thanks to a “fictionalising ray” but he escaped with another minor character. When the man he’s talking to says, “There’s no character of that name in Hound of the Baskervilles!” he urbanely responds, “Not now.” Nick turned to me and said, “Hang on, did Steven Moffat just invent Jasper Fforde?”)

I’m going to skip over everything else on this shelf (I’ve already expressed some concerns about the Twilight series, twice) except to note that I’m fairly certain that’s my copy of Bullfinch’s Mythology over there on the left.

Ah. No, that’s not a book called Who’s Who in Enid Blyton. It’s some sort of highly specific mirage. No, honestly.

On the other hand, that book next to the mirage is a gorgeous facsimile reprint of the stories from The Return of Sherlock Holmes as they appeared in The Strand Magazine. I’m a sucker for facsimile reprints, but the loveliest ones—a growing collection of Victorian and Edwardian children’s fantasy novels—are in the living room.

I also find that collection of Alcott’s sensation fiction two books down from the Conan Doyle absolutely fascinating: I know Alcott herself was rather ashamed of her “pot-boilers”—as was Jo March, in Good Wives—but they’re good sensation narratives, and a far less idyllic account of the opportunities available to women than the Little Women series is.

Oh, dear: I seem to have truncated Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading. That’s a shame. That’s the book that taught me that the ancient Sumerians—to whom I once referred as “Numerians,” to which my brother responded, “I suppose they were very good at arithmetic?”—called librarians “Ordainers of the Universe.” I have aspired to that title ever since.

I think that’s a complete set of L. M. Montgomery, too, although I may be lacking some of the short stories. The Anne books do get rather irritating after a while, but Anne of Green Gables remains utterly delightful every time I read it. And down towards the end is a copy of The Blue Castle: I never read that as a child, not until I bought it (at, surprisingly, the Lifeline Bookfest) a couple of years ago, and was quite astonished. It’s a fairy tale, of course, with a happy marriage to end things, but the fascinating aspect of it is the monotonous horror of the heroine’s early life—the sheer drudgery of being poor but of “good family,” thoroughly devalued for being an unmarried woman in a family that sees spinsterhood as the ultimate failure, unable to do anything independently, not even reading. It’s devastating, in a way.

But then Montgomery is often most interesting in the back stories of minor characters and in short stories: the women with illicit sex lives, with illegitimate children, with dark secrets. Little of this comes through in her best-known works, but some of the short stories show a much darker side to late-Victorian and Edwardian life than you’d ever imagine from the Anne books.

I’ve become overly prolific in my love of books, again—but I should point out Nick’s pride and joy, The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction. He’d wanted it for years, but baulked a little at the price. I found that one in a Lifeline store in Narellan for $5, and thus cemented my position as best girlfriend ever.

$5 is a small price to pay for such a honour.

Magical Mystery Bookshelf Tour Stage One: The Hallway

Posted 3 July 2008 in by Catriona

Well, technically, this is stage one of three, one side of the hallway being entirely lined with shelves. Oh, it was a happy day when I realised the hallway would sustain bookshelves! Lucky for Nick, it’s a narrow hallway, or there’d be shelves running down both walls. I did suggest it, actually, but Nick vetoed it on the grounds that it would be inconvenient to have to walk down the hall sideways.

The hallway bookcases, though, are the very shallow ones that my father-in-law made for us. Well, three of those—the original two are still in the living room. I love those bookcases: they just swallow books, and they don’t attract dust as obviously as ready-bought bookcases. Honestly, do the people who design bookcases not actually own any books? They make the shelves such inconvenient sizes.

(Actually, that’s just reminded me: I took the idea of putting shelves in the hallway from Who Magazine, back when I used to read it. I’d forgotten that. They briefly ran a page in the back of the magazine with allegedly fun ideas for each month: one example I remember was “take an embroidery class, then scatter silver butterflies over your skirts and T-shirts,” which I thought was an oddly specific use of your newfound skills. But on one occasion they recommended buying cheap bookcases—I wish they’d told us where to find those mythical creatures, the cheap bookcases—then paint them bright red and put them in the hallway, filled with colourful paperbacks. I was slightly appalled at the expense and effort involved in using books as set decorations—at no point did they actually suggest you might already own the books—but it did remind me of my hallway’s bookcaseless state.)

What I mainly like about this picture is how beautifully the Chagall print has turned out. (Ignore the matting: I know it looks like the print is by someone called “Marc Caoall.” I’ll fix that at some point.)

(The print was a Christmas gift, and I had to undergo a brief but intense battle of wills with my three-year-old nephew when he wanted to open it himself. I even tried misdirection: “Look, there’re the presents Auntie Treena bought you! Look, they’ve got ribbons and everything!” There’s something about preventing a child from opening a Christmas present that makes you feel like a cad. Luckily, his fingers were too small to get the top off the tube.)

(Does that anecdote make me look like a total monster?)

This top shelf’s a weird mixture of my books and Nick’s, but what I really want to know is why I don’t have those Iain M. Banks books together. That’s unusually sloppy. The Banks books are Nick’s; I don’t read him, having unfortunately started with Complicity, which scarred me for life. It doesn’t matter how many times Nick points out the difference between Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks, I’m still not reading more. Although I suppose I should consider myself fortunate that I didn’t start with The Wasp Factory.

I also note some of my Kurt Vonnegut books are on this shelf, over to the far right: I haven’t read Timequake in years and I only recently read Deadeye Dick. But the strange thing is that I have almost a complete collection of Kurt Vonneguts—I don’t have A Man Without a Country, though I’ve read it—so I wonder where the rest are. Why aren’t they on this shelf?

Ditto Sylvia Plath: I can see the copy of The Bell Jar that I bought for a third-year course on women’s writing and Ariel next to it, but I own another copy of The Bell Jar, surely? And her diaries? Why aren’t they all together?

And just to give you an even lower opinion of my classification system, I seem to have lodged The Prime of Miss Jean Brody next to The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. I’m sure there was a reason for that.

For some reason, the next two shelves are mostly Nick’s books. (Which reminds me: I wonder if he’s ever going to read those Alastair Reynolds? They look pretty, and all, but I might shift them into another room. Maybe then I can fit some more Kurt Vonnegut on there, if I can find them. And I still haven’t spotted my copy of the Heaney translation of Beowulf. Where is that?)

But I am building up a nice collection of Victorian detective fiction. Almost all of them are about male detectives: I do have a collection of stories of early women detectives, somewhere. I can’t remember what it’s called, but it’s not here.

And I really must buy the next in Charles Stross’s Merchant Princes saga. Actually, the fourth must be out now, although maybe not in paperback.

Hmm. My main intention here was to remind myself what I already had, not to make a list of what I still need to buy.

Hey, look, Agatha Christie! Some part of me thinks it would be nice to have these all in one binding, but I’m resisting the impulse to rebuy what must amount to forty-odd books.

But those numbered black-and-white books to the left of the shelf below the main Christies are brilliant. I found those at a Lifeline Bookfest, and they’re collections of old-school detective-fiction novellas, divided into themed collections: Women Sleuths, Police Procedurals, Locked Room Puzzles, and Great British Detectives. The books are oddly narrow and the binding crackles ominously when you open them—you can’t read them in bed, but have to sit up to do so—but they’re so cool. And pretty. I wonder if there are more than four books in the series?

Ooh, Ivanhoe. I don’t think I’ve ever read that—I find Walter Scott a real slog for the first hundred pages or so, before the narrative really grabs you—and I have a sneaking suspicion that I own more than one copy. I have read The Three Musketeers, though—which is one the next shelf down—and thought it was hilarious. (Except for the bit where Athos hanged his wife. That was well weird.)

Nick and I once had an argument about the Lord Darcy stories, which are on the third shelf here: I really enjoyed them, but Nick unexpectedly came over strongly republican and said he couldn’t stomach all the kowtowing to the Plantagenets, which I’d largely skipped over. I suppose that’s why he doesn’t read much fantasy fiction: there’re far fewer kings in science fiction. And two down from Lord Darcy is William Morris’s North of Nowhere: I haven’t read it, but I’m not the woman to turn down the chance to buy an obscure Victorian novel.

Oh, and hey! There’s my copy of Sylvia Plath’s diaries: last time I read those, I was completing my Honours year. I think it’s best to draw a veil over my resultant state of mind.

Okay, I realise this picture makes the carpet look really grubby, but it’s not, I promise.

Also, Nancy Drew! I love Nancy—she was feisty. In some of the books, anyway. Not the ones where she let Ned do all the dirty work. (One bookshelf over I have a “Nancy Clue” novel, which is slash fiction involving Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames—as Cherry Aimless—who was a nurse in her own series of books. Not usually my cup of tea, but I found it in the children’s section of an Alumni Book Sale. I’m all for children having an open view of life, but this was perhaps a little too explicit to sit next to Lucy M. Boston and Helen Cresswell. Plus, it makes a good anecdote.)

This has to be the geekiest pair of shelves in the entire house: my Nancy Drews—with some random Ray Bradburys propping them up at the end—and then Nick’s entire collection of Doctor Who Target novelisations. And that’s not even including his New Adventures and Missing Adventures, which are all in the spare room.

Still, I suppose you never know when you might want to read that one about the giant maggots again.

I'm About To Do Something Potentially Dull

Posted 3 July 2008 in by Catriona

And that’s sequentially upload images of my bookshelves on to the blog.

I do actually have some quite good reasons for doing this. Some are just solipsistic (example: I just like looking at books. Preferably other people’s books, but my own will do if there are no others available) and some are practical (I don’t have a decent catalogue of the books, which worries me slightly).

But the main impulse is practical. I love my books, and I’m radically running out of space. People do tell me that I should stop buying them (or worse: my mother once suggested that I throw a book away for every new book I buy) but the short answer is that I can’t.

I do restrict myself to the best of my ability, but it’s more than flesh and blood can stand to walk past a bookshop without looking in. And once you look in, you inevitably find something you want. And . . . well, the end result is you start posting pictures of your bookshelves onto the Internet just so you can be sure what you actually own.

So this might be dull. Might be exciting. Who knows?

But it’s rather a big task, and I’m not going to devote every entry to it for the next two weeks. That would be dull, no question.

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