Of reads and re-reads

coverThe “Dead dames” series has made me think of the subject of re-reads.  The problem with being a keen reader is how to keep up with the tide of newly-published books. The short answer – it’s just not possible. The problem is compounded by the desire to re-read books that we have loved in the past, or to re-attempt those literary Mount Everests that have previously defeated us.

In this latter  category I would place those heavyweight classics that we feel we should read, but are just too hard. How many times have I attempted War and Peace or Remembrance of things past and not got past the first 20 pages? Now that winter is upon us    it’s a  good time to re-attempt the dizzy heights of reading difficulty.  I think  you really need to be snowed into a mountain cabin with nothing else to read but Henry James or James Joyce to get to grips with them properly.  I think you need a lot of time and nothing else to do. (Trouble is, the typical reading in mountain cabins tends to be of the Sven Hassell/Wayne D. Overholser kind).

The other kind of re-read is the comfort re-read, a pastime that the winter season lends itself to.  Those “old shoes” that we love so much we re-read them every year, especially in winter, when they become the readerly equivalents of chocolate fudge pudding. My favourite winter comfort reads are Love in a cold climate, Wind in the willows (especially the part where Rat and Mole find Badger’s house after being lost in the Wild Wood), Room with a view and the complete works of Jane Austen. Nothing controversial, nothing challenging.

So, gentle readers, which books are your mashed potatoes, your chicken soup?

The other Kiwi icon – The Yates Garden Guide

This library’s recent promotion involving that great Kiwi icon, the Edmonds Cookery Book, has provided a fascinating insight into social and family history, but there is another iconic guidebook that has been far more important to me personally. Let me sing the praises of Yates Garden Guide.

Like Edmonds Cookery Book, Yates Garden Guide sprang from a commercial imperative, to create a demand for the company’s product,  and like Edmonds transcended mere commerce to become a basic reference guide found in many homes.  My own old, battered copy of the Guide was bought in 1965 by my dad, when we moved from a mostly tarmacked backyard in Lyttelton to a quarter-acre section in Spreydon (there were houses on these properties but I always felt that the gardens were more important). Mum and Dad had migrated from London in 1958, and knew very little about gardening,  so a straightforward guide to New Zealand conditions was needed. 

Step back in time to 1965. The gardening world was different then.  The Guide sang the praises of DDT and artificial fertilisers. DDT and its component dieldrin wiped out everything, in a hygienic, efficient and cost-effective way, especially when applied via “convenient plastic squeeze dispersing bottles”.  And why use smelly, bulky natural manures when you could apply a clean, white powder and get better results?

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Italian noir

My colleague Mark was complaining in a previous blog about the lack of gritty crime novels. I think he should try Italian crime novels, part of a genre termed “Mediterranean noir” by those who write about books. I’ve long been a fan of Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti, but feel that she has “gone off” lately (another highly technical term used by librarians), so I went looking for some more in a similar vein.

I think I found an arterial supply of gritty stuff. Here are some names; Andrea Camilleri, whose Detective Montalbano is refreshingly sardonic. Carlo Lucarelli’s trilogy of crime novels Carte blanche, The damned season, and Via delle Oche feature De Luca, a police officer who changes sides from fascist to whatever will keep his skin in one piece, whilst preserving his passion for the truth in forensics. Ottavio Cappellani’s two novels Who is Lou Sciortino? and Sicilian tragedee (sic) are the Sopranos as filmed by Fellini. I could go on, but discover Italian noir (should that be nero?) for yourselves.

Rocks rock

Are you a real geek? Do you find geology fascinating? Indulge your geekiness; here are three great books about geology.

The first is A continent on the move: New Zealand geoscience into the 21st century. This is an encylopaedic book about New Zealand geomorphology and the work of New Zealand geologists, covering all sorts of topics from forensic geology to plate tectonics. A thinking person’s coffee-table book.

The second book is The mountains of Saint Francis : discovering the geologic events that shaped our earth
by Walter Alvarez, about Italian geology. Alvarez is a great writer, managing to cover several subjects almost simultaneously. Geologic time scales, the history of geological inquiry in Italy, explanations of terms such as ignimbrite, and what he ate in the restaurant in Gubbio. This is Alvarez’ second book, his first the wonderfully-titled T-rex and the crater of doom about the discovery of a giant impact crater buried deep inside Mexico, the impact of which probably killed the dinosaurs. I haven’t read this yet, but have ordered it.

If all scientists wrote as well as these guys, the world would be all the better for it. Passion, knowledge and clarity, who could ask for more?

Persephone’s books

Those who regularly browse the new fiction shelves may have noticed the recent quiet infiltration of small, dove-grey paperbacks. These are some of the offerings of Persephone Books, a publisher whose field of endeavour is to reprint “forgotten” novels of the twentieth century.

Mainly by women authors, Persephone’s catalogue includes novels, short stories, diaries and cookery books. Persephone reprinted and repopularized Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew lives for a day, now made into the movie starring Frances McDormand. Persephone has a website and a real shop that you can visit next time you’re in London, at the wonderfully named Lamb’s Conduit Street in Bloomsbury.

They now offer 81 books in print, some “minor” works by big names, some by unfamiliar authors. At the moment, I am reading Flush by Virginia Woolf , a novella about Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s dog. If you never usually read a preface (guilty), make an effort with Persephone’s; they are readable rather than scholarly, written by authors of our own time.

Persephone books offer something new, albeit old, filling the gap left by the Virago imprint. For those of us old enough to be tired of the “modern novel” (“how they all seem to be the same, my dear”) these little books may offer timely refreshment.

Welcome to the eighteenth century

If you like costume drama, “The Duchess”, with Keira Knightley as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, bids fair to be suitably sumptuous. (At least if the plot gets dull, you can admire the costumes and the art direction). I’m hoping that “The Duchess” may kick off a publishing frenzy for eighteenth-century biography, diaries and letters.

Amanda Foreman’s bookGeorgiana: Duchess of Devonshire gives a full account of her life, in particular her relationship with her interfering, dominating mother, her problems with gambling, and her involvement in the Golden Age of Whig politics.

Elizabeth and  Georgiana
Elizabeth and Georgiana

Caroline Chapman’s Elizabeth and Georgiana: the Duke of Devonshire and his two Duchesses explores the Devonshire menage-a-trois in more detail. An aristocratic affair : the life of Georgiana’s sister, Harriet Spencer, Countess of Bessborough by Janet Gleeson looks at the life of Georgiana’s only-slightly-less scurrillous sister Harriet, her affairs and her children. Harriet was the mother of Lady Caroline Lamb, and quarrelled with Byron over his pursuit of her daughter.  Some observers of the time believed that Byron was really in love with Harriet herself, and used Caroline to get closer to her mother.

If you get hooked on eighteenth-century biography, also try Aristocrats by Stella Tillyard,  Jane Dunn’s Read my heart and Flora Fraser’s Princesses: the six daughters of George III

Unfortunately, the books don’t have the fabulous dresses on display that the movies have. You’ll just have to imagine them.