Book Review: Don’t Tell Alfred

You may remember that one of my new year resolutions was to read something by the Mitford girls. I’ve never read any of their books before, have been widely recommended both The Mitford Girls by Mary S. Lovell and The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters by Charlotte Mosley, but feel I should know their books just a little before I delve into biographical details. After much charity shop scouring, a trip to Oxfam a couple of weeks ago came up trumps with this rather fetching 1960 Penguin edition of Don’t Tell Alfred. Only six months into the year, I know – I do get there in the end!

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This little beauty has the advantage of actually being “little”, so I dutifully tucked it into my handbag on Saturday for train-time reading. And it is funny! So funny! It’s falls into that breed of social satire that I find so very apealling – creating humour out of the quirks of the political aristo classes and the situations they find themselves in. It’s a feel-good book, in the same way that Miss Pettigrew was – in that it quite simply leaves you feeling good! It just makes a person beam without really knowing why…

So, should you need a light read to pack in your overnight bag this summer, get thee to Oxfam books (or Green Metropolis, or Waterstones, if you prefer) and pick up some Mitford. She’ll make a drab commute that little bit brighter!

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Coach reading

Nobody loves long journeys. They’re usually cramped, smelly and featuring extremes of temperature, and on UK public transport at least, always involve delays. The upside of all this is the opportunity to read. It’s something of a gift to a bookaholic like me!

I took six books with me this weekend. It may seem a lot for 5 days, but books are like a safety blanket to me – as long as I have one nearby, no matter what happens I’ll be ok! Over my break I read three and began the fourth of the six. These are they:

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The Affinity Bridge by George Mann: true traditional science fiction set in Victorian London and combining automatons, evil geniuses and a zombie plague. Great sci fi trash in the classic style!

The 39 Steps by John Buchan: a marvelously fast-paced classic with twists and turns, special agents and secret codes aplenty. Brilliant stuff, utterly of its time.

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink: This one isn’t on the photo as I sent it home with my Mum. I haven’t seen the film, but would like to. Amazing book – nothing like I was expecting, with twists and turns that catch the heartstrings in confusing ways. Left me emotional, perplexed and pretty much reeling!

Pavel and I by Dan Vyleta: Only just started this one – I’ll let you in on it once I have a better idea myself!

All in all three very different books, each one highly recommended!

BBC’s list of 100 Best Fiction

I’ve borrowed this from Shoegal’s blog. There seems to be a lot of Pratchett, which is something I keep meaning to make more an effort with but is always fairly low down my priority “to-read” pile!

BOLD = Read
NOT bolded = Unread

1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
2. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
3. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling
6. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
7. Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne
8. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
9. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis
10. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

11. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
12. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
13. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks
14. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
15. The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
16. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
17. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
18. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
19. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres
20. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
21. Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
22. Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, JK Rowling
23. Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, JK Rowling
24. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, JK Rowling
25. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien
26. Tess Of The D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
27. Middlemarch, George Eliot
28. A Prayer For Owen Meany, John Irving
29. The Grapes Of Wrath, John Steinbeck
30. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
31. The Story Of Tracy Beaker, Jacqueline Wilson
32. One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
33. The Pillars Of The Earth, Ken Follett
34. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
35. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
36. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson

37. A Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute
38. Persuasion, Jane Austen
39. Dune, Frank Herbert
40. Emma, Jane Austen
41. Anne Of Green Gables, LM Montgomery
42. Watership Down, Richard Adams
43. The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
44. The Count Of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
45. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
46. Animal Farm, George Orwell
47. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
48. Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy
49. Goodnight Mister Tom, Michelle Magorian
50. The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher
51. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
52. Of Mice And Men, John Steinbeck
53. The Stand, Stephen King
54. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
55. A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
56. The BFG, Roald Dahl
57. Swallows And Amazons, Arthur Ransome
58. Black Beauty, Anna Sewell
59. Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer

60. Crime And Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
61. Noughts And Crosses, Malorie Blackman
62. Memoirs Of A Geisha, Arthur Golden
63. A Tale Of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
64. The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCollough
65. Mort, Terry Pratchett
66. The Magic Faraway Tree, Enid Blyton
67. The Magus, John Fowles
68. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
69. Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett
70. Lord Of The Flies, William Golding
71. Perfume, Patrick Süskind
72. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell
73. Night Watch, Terry Pratchett
74. Matilda, Roald Dahl
75. Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding
76. The Secret History, Donna Tartt
77. The Woman In White, Wilkie Collins
78. Ulysses, James Joyce
79. Bleak House, Charles Dickens
80. Double Act, Jacqueline Wilson
81. The Twits, Roald Dahl
82. I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith
83. Holes, Louis Sachar
84. Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake
85. The God Of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
86. Vicky Angel, Jacqueline Wilson
87. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
88. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
89. Magician, Raymond E Feist
90. On The Road, Jack Kerouac
91. The Godfather, Mario Puzo
92. The Clan Of The Cave Bear, Jean M Auel
93. The Colour Of Magic, Terry Pratchett
94. The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
95. Katherine, Anya Seton
96. Kane And Abel, Jeffrey Archer
97. Love In The Time Of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez
98. Girls In Love, Jacqueline Wilson
99. The Princess Diaries, Meg Cabot
100. Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

Armistice Day

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Image from FreeFoto.com

Today is Armistice Day here in the UK. At 11am on the 11th November (the 11th month) the country acknowledges two minutes silence in memory of all those who have died in combat. Today is particularly special as it marks the 90th anniversary of the First World War, said to be “the war to end all wars”. Over 20 million people died and 21 million were injured in WW1. How could we ever forget it?

I’ve been thinking a lot about our link back to the World Wars recently. The loss of an elderly friend set me thinking about the lost stories and memories he took with him. I was lucky enough to interview my Grandmother for a history project before she died – somewhere I have an audio tape of her memories, and I know where my written report is safely stored. But so many personal accounts, important recollections, are falling by the wayside – it makes me want to collect them all together for posterity’s sake. When I imagine doing this I do not see written tales in a volume, but shelves and shelves of jars containing “living memories” – much like the dreams in The BFG.

I have been reading a book called Singled Out: How two million women survived without men after the First World War. The author, Virginia Nicholson, interviewed hundreds of women who suffered an irreplacable loss during the war years, and whose stories are often heart-wrenching to read. These women were part of the “two million surplus” for whom the high death toll had dashed the dream of marriage – whether by taking their sweethearts and husbands from them or by leaving too few men for the number of women. These women shaped our lives as we know them, seeking satisfaction in other aspects of life, proving their worth in the workplace and in society, and enabling women as a body to live fulfilled lives alone. Before the horror of war forced change upon us, a woman who did not marry was seen, quite simply, as a failure. For these women marriage was not even an option. They had no choice but to get on with it, alone.

A couple of weeks ago I helped my Mum clear out a couple of rooms at home. In a tin in a wardrobe, buried amongst old fur coats and forgotten toys, we found hand written letters from France, sent from my Granddad, Harry, to my Gran, Joan. Joan lost her first husband, my Uncle’s father, in the Second World War. His name was Morris, he was a paratrouper, and he asked his friend Harry to look after his wife and son if anything should happen to him. Harry and Joan fell in love, and after the war were married. The letters we found were the most beautiful, moving words of genuine affection I have ever read. They were so honest and so personal – true “love letters”, professing the kind of love only utter tragedy can inspire.

They also represent an authentic history, the history of individuals, the history of a family and the history of a country all at once. There are so few British families without a link to the World Wars, but simple discoveries such as ours suddenly make that link so much more alive.

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Image from FreeFoto.com

Word Power

There’s been a bit of talk in the blogoshpere of late about favourite words and phrases – words that roll of the tongue and taste divine to say, as well as those hated words that make people feel physically sick. I find it very difficult to pin down favourite words – I find new ones that I love almost daily – but I do adore “discombobulate”, which I think resonates with humour, “scriptures”, which I think has a magical quality, and I always beam at “fisticuffs”. The c-word offends me somewhat in meaning, but wounds more deeply in sound – it’s such an ugly word to hear. I have been known to avoid the company of people I have heard using it, I detest it that assiduously.

Words can be sensuous – can awaken senses with their sound, their shape (the way they create patterns of touch within the mouth) and their taste. I have always enjoyed the phrase “fair enough”, so much so that it evolved into a nickname, and I’m known in many a forum as fairynuff27. But if we extend phraseology into sentence structure we side-step nicely into the realm of poetry, prose and iambic pentameter (another great phrase!).

To me there is nothing in the world as delicious to pronounce as a Shakespearian text. At school I taught myself to quote big chunks of Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth, and my favourite sonnet, 116, by heart. I would like in bed at night, reciting lines to send me to sleep. I have been known to pause Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet in order to recite the cut lines – there is a reason that the balcony scene is one of the best known (and most often mis-quoted) in history, and believe it or not, Leo and Claire in a swimming pool have nothing to do with it.

Shakespeare’s arrangement of language works the tongue in such a way that the words take on another level of feeling when spoken. Lady Macbeth’s speech beginning “The raven himself is hoarse…” is dark and mystical and reads like an ancient incantation, mirroring its content and her “unnatural” actions. Her words are dark and bitter to form, as she is. It tastes raw, base, almost erotic on the lips.

The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry “Hold, hold!”

Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 5

There is one other text that has an overpowering effect on me, that has a strong taste and affects my senses. It’s the Nicene Creed as recited during holy communion. I think it’s beautiful to say, light, uplifting, creating a sense of freedom, but also a paradox. It’s a statement of faith pronounced as statement of fact. Each point of fact is preceeded with the words “we believe”. The effect of this, I imagine, is designed to set up faith as fact, but for me it simply litters it with underlying doubt. Still, the language is wonderful, the rhythm of speech (though varying with edition favoured) sweeps you away with it, the story is enlightening and before you know it you’re pronouncing “…and his kingdom shall have no end” with no residual hint of the aforementioned doubts. And I love the word “apostolic” too – especially in context:

“…we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church
we ackowledge one baptism for the remission of sins
we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”

Phew – that got heavy for a moment! Spot the literature graduate!

Book at bedtime

Do you remember a month or so back I wrote that I had begun to read Miss Pettigrew lives for a day by Winifred Watson? Well, out of guilt I pushed it aside, and read some of the borrowed books I should long since have returned to their rightful owners.

Then, after the weekend’s revelations, I felt I needed a distraction, and picked it up to begin again at about 10pm last night. It is marvelous! Truly inspirational. Written in real time over the course of 24 hours (with chapters titled the like of 1.17 p.m.-3.13 p.m.), the story follows middle-aged, down-on-her-luck and generally frumpy governess, Miss Pettigrew, whose agency send her to the home of a young, beautiful, bed-hopping nightclub singer who might have one or even two illegitimate children. As Miss Pettigrew steps out of character again and again to rescue her new-found friend from fiendish gentleman callers and potentially disastrous situations, the reader finds herself celebrating every tiny event as a soul-elevating victory.

First published in 1938, this novel is a wonderfully contemporary tale of misunderstandings featuring frothy negligees, cocaine and “exaggerated kisses”.

Book Meme

I’ve seen this meme on a number of blogs now, but liked this version as seen on From Sparkly to Single as Laura has added a category of her own to represent books you have started but not finished. In this spirit, I have also added a rule of my own – to choose at least three books from the list you’d recommend above and beyond the rest.

1) Bold those you have read.
2) Put an asterisk next to those you started but didn’t finish.
3) Italicize those you intend to read (or have started and intend to finish).
4) Underline the books you LOVE
5) (Bracket) the three books you enjoyed most.
6) Reprint this list in your own blog.

(1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen)
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien*
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
6 The Bible

7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell*
(9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman)
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch – George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame

31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis
34 Emma – Jane Austen

35 Persuasion – Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis
37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres*
39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
(48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood)
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel
52 Dune – Frank Herbert
(53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons)
54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
72 Dracula – Bram Stoker

73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses – James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
(77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome)

78 Germinal – Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession – AS Byatt

81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton

91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
94 Watership Down – Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

As I was going through these it occurred to me that a lot of the titles chosen here weren’t necessarily my favourites by the authors listed. I think everyone’s favourites Roald Dahl differs, for example – personally, while I love pretty much everything he’s ever written, my faves are The BFG and Fantastic Mr Fox. The book of my childhood – the one I read most frequently and adored more than any other was by Francis Hodgson Burnett, but was The Little Princess, not the more popular The Secret Garden. And while I LOVED the Magic Faraway Tree books, I also adored Mr Pinkwhistle almost equally. I guess everyone has varied taste.

There are also some books on here I hated – The Lovely Bones, for example, which may have one of the worst endings ever, and Possession, which I found purely pretentious. And my favourite writer, Umberto Eco isn’t mentioned at all! Travesty!

Anyway, as per usual, not so much one for the naming of names… so, if you’d like to do this one for yourself, just run with it!