My life with Jane Austen

Today marks the 200 year anniversary of the death of Jane Austen. She died at the age of 41 in Winchester, having moved there whilst ill to spend her final days with her beloved sister Cassandra. She lived almost all of her too-short life in Hampshire. She first lived in the village of Steventon, where her father was the local vicar. After her father’s death she spent some time in Southampton, but it is Chawton near Alton with which she is most closely associated and where, between 1809 and 1817, she wrote most of her great works. Her former home is now the Jane Austen museum and provides a centre for scholarship of her work as well as a place of pilgrimage for her many millions of fans across the globe.

Like many women writers of her time, Jane did not achieve fame and fortune for her work in her lifetime. It was only in the second half of the 19th century, many decades after her death, that she grew in renown, although many at the time still did not favour her writing. It was considered too subtle for Victorian tastes, lacking in powerful sentiment and extravagant prose. It was only really as literary taste evolved that she was more widely appreciated in the 20th century as being way ahead of her time.

2017-07-18 12.56.38I fell in love with Jane Austen in my teens, and I have never fallen out of love with her. The first book I read was Pride and Prejudice, and I remember I much preferred this colourful collection of sisters to Louisa May Alcott’s in Little Women! But it wasn’t until I read Emma for my English Literature A level that I really ‘got’ Jane Austen and I was blown away. Even now when I read Austen I still see her writing as impossibly brilliant. And then when you think about the life she led, her modest rural upbringing, her insight into human character is barely plausible. After Emma I quickly gobbled up all of Austen’s work (sadly, there is too little of it) and my favourite is probably Mansfield Park.

At times, I have felt rather unfashionable saying that Austen is in my top three favourite authors (another being Emily Bronte, who only wrote one book, and was said not to be a fan of Austen). Many people, who have not read Austen deeply, assume she is rather staid and formal and for the middle-class and middle-aged. But to me she is an icon, a woman doing what she was good at in an era when women writers were virtually non-existent and if they were published it was under a masculine pseudonym. Yes, you can argue the range of her subject matter is limited, but she is so much more than that. She tells truth.

In this bicentenary year, there are many celebrations planned, many of them in Hampshire, unfortunately for me! You can find out about the various events planned here. She will also grace the new British £10 note to be issued by the Bank of England in September:

Austen note

The anniversary of Jane Austen’s death provides an opportunity to celebrate her great achievements as a writer. For me, she deserves to stand alongside Shakespeare as one of the literary greats at the heart of British arts and culture.

What is your favourite Austen novel?

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog and for us to connect on social media. Click on the ‘Subscribe’ button. 

Children’s Summer Reading Challenge – Animal Agents

Last week I posted here about my July reading challenge, which was to go along to your local library and select a book. I couldn’t resist the appeal of three titles (as usual!) and found myself uncertain about which to tackle first (I decided on Evan Davis’s Post-truth: Why we have reached peak bullshit and what we can do about it in the end and I’m loving it!) This month’s challenge is linked with the annual Summer Reading Challenge aimed at  primary-age children, which is launched in libraries this weekend. So, if you have children or grandchildren it’s a cheap, rewarding and wholesome activity you can do with them.

Animal AgentsChildren these days have so many distractions which can take them away from reading; they seem to be so busy with out of school activities, have more homework than ever before and, of course, there are the digital distractions…don’t even get me started. But reading is such an important activity for them:

  • it supports their ability to sustain concentration, which, in a world of instant gratification and over-stimulation, is a crucial skill,
  • it is an aid to relaxation, by providing downtime, taking them away from social pressures,
  • it can help with their imaginative and creative development – good writers are usually good readers, and
  • it helps their literacy skills – time spent reading may be just as if not more valuable then learning about the rules of grammar and sentence structure (IMHO!). And is far more interesting.

Reading takes kids into new worlds, it helps them learn to be alone, another important skill in building their mental health resislience, and it gives them access to experiences that they don’t have in real life. The beauty of the Summer Reading Challenge is that all books count, so if you have a reluctant reader, they can still get rewards for non-fiction, reference books, science books, there is no judgement of their chosen material. This year, there is also an online link where kids can sign up, create a profile, review the books they’ve read, and generally share their thoughts. They can do it all here.

If you are reading this you are probably a keen reader yourself, so I don’t need to tell you about the benefits, of course. The trick is getting the reading habit embedded in our children’s lives from the outset, and that is where the Summer Reading Challenge is so good. This year’s theme is Animal Agents,  a group of crime-busting creatures, beautifully illustrated by Tony Ross (of Little Princess fame). The idea is that for each book children read they get a smelly sticker and a clue that will help them solve a mystery.

So, if you’re kids have or are about to break up for the summer holidays and you’re looking for something to fill in the gaps, get along to the local library and sign up. This is my last year at primary school so I hope my 11 year-old will embrace it, even if it’s just for old time’s sake!

 

How easy do you find it to keep your children reading as they get older?

If you have enjoyed this post, please sign up to follow my blog and let’s connect on social media.

Book review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

This book was everywhere when it first came out last year, surprising since it was written by a little known author and published by a relatively small independent publisher. It became a bestseller, was shortlisted for the 2016 Costa Novel Award and was the Waterstones Book of the Year. I was very keen to read it but it seemed to take a long time to be issued in paperback, so I’ve been hanging on for a while.

The Essex Serpent imgThe book is set mostly in the fictional Essex village of Aldwinter in the 1890s and the action takes place over the course of a year. The central dynamic of the plot is the relationship between Cora Seaborne, a woman approximately in her late 30s, who at the start of the novel is newly widowed, and William (Will) Ransome, the local minister. Will is happily married to Stella and they have three children, while Cora is happily widowed! It seems hers was a fairly loveless marriage in which she felt constrained and imprisoned and her husband appears to have been somewhat older than her. The lack of intimacy in the marriage is indicated by the fact they had only one child, Francis, and that he is an unusual boy (for Cora “nothing shamed her as much as her son”), who is almost certainly autistic.

Once she becomes widowed, Cora is able to follow her passion for natural science, and she moves out of London to Essex. There she becomes captivated by a local myth, a mysterious serpent that villagers feel is responsible for unnatural happenings, including unexplained deaths, crop failures, madness and distressed livestock. Cora first encounters Will on one of her forest walks, when the two rescue a sheep from a bog. They later meet socially and thereafter strike up an increasingly intimate friendship. The book becomes about the development of their relationship against a backdrop of events connected with the serpent, with the illness of Will’s wife, and Cora’s relationships with other friends, including that of Luke Garrett, a brilliant surgeon who is clearly in love with her.

Whilst the book is essentially about relationships and the nature of love (it is explored in many forms) it is also about a clash of worlds. Firstly, the old versus the modern – it is no coincidence the book is set on the eve of the 20th century – and science versus religion, where Cora and Will have some of their most passionate debates. There is also reason versus superstition; the villagers fear the Essex Serpent, whereas Will finds his parishioners’ fears almost pagan in tone, and Cora wants to prove the existence of the serpent, as some sort of lost creature.

Perry also explores the position of women, from Cora, the scientist, for whom marriage had “so degraded her expectations of happiness” and for whom widowhood and thus the single life had “freed her from the obligation to be beautiful”, to Stella the model dutiful Victorian wife and mother, afflicted by a quintessentially 19th century illness. There is also Martha, Cora’s maid (although her exact position in the household slightly defies definition!), also a political activist who utilises the connections she has made through Cora to further her Marxist leanings. In many ways the themes of the novel are very modern indeed – Martha’s campaigning for suitable social housing for the poor of London is resonant of a very 21st century problem. It’s also a very erotic novel, in the Gothic sense, without being explicit; there are many tensions below the surface and some of these do not get fully resolved, which is actually quite true to life when you think about it.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it highly. It gripped me to the end. It’s a novel rich in themes, rich in its descriptive power and rich in its evocation of time and place.

If you have read this much talked-about book, I’d love to know what you thought of it.

If you have enjoyed this post please follow the blog, and let’s connect on social media.

July reading challenge – something from the library

You know summer is on its way when the local library announces the annual Summer Reading Challenge! Aimed at children of primary school age in the UK it is a great way of getting kids engaged in books (any books!) and giving them rewards for achieving certain reading goals. I love the way the organisers come up with different themes each year, and interesting activity packs that provide a surprising amount of diversion. This year the theme is Animal Agents and it’s being launched next week, so do look out for it if you have primary age children. I’ll be writing more about it once it’s launched so look out for a future blog on the topic.

2017-07-06-09-53-13.jpg

In the meantime, it’s the beginning of the month so it must be time for this month’s reading challenge! With the holiday season upon us, June’s challenge was to read a literary travel book. I chose On a Shoestring to Coorg by Dervla Murphy, and posted my review earlier this week, which you can read here.

This month’s challenge is to go to the local library and pick out a book (the challenge will be to keep it to just one!) and to read it before its due date. I have had a deep passion for libraries since I was a child (I was lucky that my mother took me regularly) and believe firmly that they provide an essential service. I am a compulsive book-buyer, but there is no doubt books can be expensive and what if you’re not sure whether you’re going to like the book? For the old and the young and for those on fixed or low incomes, libraries may be the only viable source of books. Not only that, but libraries provide a host of other services: librarians are information specialists and can help you find things out, they are often at the centre of a community providing reading groups, children’s book clubs, places to sit when it’s cold, places to study where it’s quiet, access to computers (not everyone has one at home) and of course reference books which you may not necessarily want to buy. Need I go on?

You will gain much from a visit to your local library. I came away with a whole bunch of leaflets about things to do over the summer, theatre guides, etc, a couple of guidebooks on Portugal (where I’ll be heading in August) as well as three books:

2017-07-07-15-04-05.jpg

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2013, and caught my eye as I love Indian literature, and having just read about Devla Murphy’s travels in the south of the country, my interest was piqued anew. It’s set in Calcutta in the 1960s and ’70s and is about two brothers, very close as children, whose lives take dramatically different paths as historical events unfold around them. I was also drawn to The Art of Flight by Frederik Sjoberg which I think is a kind of memoir, structured as a number of short essays and prose pieces about the natural world. Sjoberg is a Swedish writer I’ve never heard of, but the book looks interesting. Finally, I had reserved a copy of Evan Davis’s newly-published book Post-truth: why we have reached peak bullshit and what we can do about it, after spotting it in the bookshop recently. Evan Davis has for years been one of my favourite journalists because he is warm, watchable, connects well with the viewer and is fantastically clever. He has an ability to cut to the essence of an issue and frequently outsmarts even the most nimble interviewees, so I’m interested in his take on this cultural shift we seem to be experiencing in politics.

I want to read all of these now, so I’m not sure which I will take on for the July challenge. I’m off on a train journey to London tomorrow, so it might well be the one which weighs least!

Have you picked up anything interesting from the library recently?

If you have enjoyed this post, then please subscribe to my blog by clicking on the button below or to the left, depending on your device. Let’s also connect on social media and Goodreads.

Book review: “On a Shoestring to Coorg” by Dervla Murphy

I selected this book for my June reading challenge. June was a slow month for reading for me – half term, plus running my son to and from school for exams ate into my time. So, it took me a while to get through this book. That said, I think it’s genuinely a slow book to read, rather like the unhurried travelling that takes place within the pages. I was very specific in my challenge for the month, which was to read a literary travel book, not a guidebook. I am somewhat perturbed by the preponderance of ‘pack as much into as little as possible’-type travel guides that I see all over the bookshops: the 48 Hours in… series is popular, but the New York Times now has a range of 36 hours in… various European capitals! I’ve spent longer than that in the railway stations and airports of various European cities on my travels in the past! Art imitates life, it is true, and that is the nature of life these days. I feel sure this will be to our detriment, ultimately, but perhaps the pendulum will swing the other way at some point.

On a Shoestring to Coorg imgIf, like me, you find yourself a little nostalgic for an era when travel meant slowing down, getting to know a place and its people  (rather than just taking a selfie with a local and posting to Instagram), and immersing yourself in the new environment, then Dervla Murphy could be the travel writer for you. In On a Shoestring to Coorg, Murphy travels for the first time with her five-year old daughter, Rachel. They travel scarily light (I would take more stuff on a day out when my kids were younger!) with very little money and are dependent on the kindness and hospitality of people they meet, including a number of British ex-pats, who have made India their home in the post-colonial era.

Murphy confesses at the outset to being not especially enamoured of India generally, and openly expresses what she sees as the hypocrisy implicit in Hinduism and the caste system which she feels keeps so many in poverty and destitution. (You have to remember this was written in 1976). However, she and Rachel fall in love with the tiny region of Coorg (in southern India), with its continued observance of many traditions (which she sees as an indicator of the society’s wellbeing), the warmth of its people and the beauty of the landscape.

“Seldom in the 1970s is folk-dancing performed for fun – not self-consciously, to preserve customs, or cunningly, to please tourists. But my pleasure can never be unalloyed when I chance upon such fragile and doomed links with the past. One knows that before Rachel is grown even Coorg will have opted for that pseudo-culture which ‘kills time’ (grimly significant phrase) but leaves the sprit starving.”

They travel further south to Kerala, which Murphy also loves. As the book progresses you get the sense of Murphy settling into the journey more, as she adapts to travelling with her young companion where, previously, this very unusual and idiosyncratic traveller was accustomed to being alone and not having anyone depend upon her. She writes more and more of the landscape:

“Beyond the palmy islands across the bay the sun was sinking in a red-gold sky and when it had gone – so swiftly – a strange amber sheen lay on the water and I felt very aware of the drama of day and night: something that passes us by in the twilit north.”

On a Shoestring to Coorg img 2

It is a meandering but engaging read, where you very much travel with the author and her daughter and feel the pace of their journey. This is a way of travelling that most of us no longer do. It feels very much like a bygone era and yet is only 40 years ago. The pace of change in all our lives all across the globe has altered so dramatically in that relatively short time. It felt good to slow right down with this book. If you fantasise about long slow travelling (with or without your children) you will find this an interesting read and after reading it you will definitely want to go to Coorg!

Do you have any travel writers to recommend? Are there any young contemporary travel  writers you enjoy who take the ‘slow’ approach?

If you have enjoyed this post, please subscribe to my blog by clicking on the button below or to the right (depending on your device).

Life without a computer!

I have a poorly computer and so it’s off at the repair shop getting its hard drive replaced 🙁

I am typing this post on my mobile phone and whilst it’s truly amazing what these little devices can do, I’m afraid I can’t face typing a book review! So this month’s Reading Challenge book (On a Shoestring to Coorg by Dervla Murphy) will have to wait until next week. 

It’s amazing how dependent we now are on our technological connectedness. I’m just hoping the computer repair lady is able to retrieve all my data from the corrupted hard drive…not least the several thousand words of my book that I’ve written since we last backed up!

On the plus side, lack of computer has given me lots of ‘found time’ for reading, so I’ve been able to finish two books this week; The Essex Serpent as well as the Dervla Murphy. And that’s been rather nice!

#IBW 2017 – Independent Bookshop Week 24 June – 1 July

IBW 2017We’re all on a budget and we’re all busy, so why would you make the effort to go to an independent bookshop when, with a couple of clicks, you can get what you want from the comfort of your armchair and have it delivered, and probably for a discount on the jacket price? Well, as they say, use it or lose it!

The bigger they get the more powerful they become

Most of us would be uncomfortable with the idea of only one major supermarket or only one petrol station. We all recognise that competition means consumers get the best deal. If there were only one supermarket around, you would not see the BOGOFs, the price reductions, the CHOICE. Don’t get me wrong, I use A****n along with everyone else, but I try to spread my spending. And when you work it out, it usually is not that much cheaper. As for choice, well, I am plagued by daily emails recommending heavily-marketed titles to me, but what about the books that are not pushed my way, and the authors that have written them? There’s nothing qute like discovering something new, a title you haven’t heard about. Bookshops can give you those surprises.

If it’s cheap you value it less

Anything that is cheap and plentiful we tend to treat with less respect than something that is scarce or more expensive. In my household, cheap food is much more likely to go to waste or pass its ‘use by’, whereas we are undoubtedly more disciplined about expensive organic or free range products. I think the same is true of other items we consume in our households; if we’ve paid more for a book, we may be more inclined to value it.

You don’t get much buzz with a ‘click’

For me, there is nothing quite like the smell of a bookshop, or the pleasure of browsing the shelves, spending time properly choosing, reading the first couple of pages, feeling the weight of a book in may hands. An online purchase just does not give me that same experience. I know some people like to choose in the shop and then go home and buy online, to get the discount, but, really, for a book? If you’re there in the shop, you’ve made the effort to go there, is it really worth the one or two pounds you might save by buying  it online? And then you’ve to wait until it’s delivered!

Real-life independent bookshops provide an experience, and the good ones (and it’s mainly the good ones that have survived) often provide spaces for you to sit and read, or to hang out with your kids. A Saturday afternoon activity that will cost you less than a tenner! For a child this is exciting, and will encourage them to read much more than a brown package arriving through the post, two or three days later.

You are dealing with people who are passionate

It’s hard running a small shop in today’s often under-crowded high streets, but it’s even harder running an indie bookshop when you consider what they’re up against. Bookshop owners definitely don’t do it for the money! If you love books you have to love indie bookshops and for my money their passion, expertise and sheer tenacity deserve our support.

So, check out your nearest indie bookshop here and make an effort to take yourself along some time this week. You won’t regret it.

Do you live near a great indie bookshop? If so, give them a shout out here.

If you have enjoyed this post, please subscribe to my blog to read future posts.