Tag Archives: Books

Howards End is on the Landing

This morning I stumbled across Susan Hill’s HOWARDS END IS ON THE LANDING – though “stumbled” is perhaps the wrong word as this book sits comfortably on my coffee table, on top of THE FOLKLORE OF DISCWORLD and THE LORE OF THE LAND. Hill’s book is about books, about the books she owns, the writers she has met, the books she has never read. Some passages are somewhat snobbish, and she could be accused of rather heavy name dropping, but still, I like her book because it always makes me think about my own library. (Besides, you can’t really blame her for babysitting Arnold Wesker’s children back in the 1960s.)

And thinking about my library this morning, made me realise that, for somebody teaching English Lit at university, I have rather plebeian tastes. Sure, I love Ludwig Tieck’s “Blond Eckbert”, and I adore E.T.A. Hoffmann’s KATER MURR as well as Gaskell’s NORTH AND SOUTH and CRANFORD. I have read and enjoyed Austen’s novels (yet I don’t like all of them). I prefer Thackeray to Dickens, and thought THE NEWCOMES a lot of fun. I’m very fond of Anna Seghers’s DAS SIEBTE KREUZ, which I once knew by heart (years I helped to prepare the centennary edition and had to read the whole novel about six times in as many weeks…). I have always enjoyed medieval literature, and thanks to Dorothy Dunnett I have fallen head over heels for late medieval and Renaissance poetry as well. Despite his suicidal maidens, I’m also very fond of Tennyson, and love a score of other poems and ballads.

Modern literary fiction, however, leaves me stone-cold. As a student I gave up on a seminar on Virginia Woolf because I considered her books tedious in the extreme. Robert Musil – dear heaven, when I struggled to get through DER MANN OHNE EIGENSCHAFTEN, most of the time I didn’t have the faintest, foggiest clue what the author was talking about (if any novel ever deserved the title of “loose, baggy monster” it’s this one!). Ondaatje, THE ENGLISH PATIENT – uhmm …. what’s the point??? And A.S. Byatt’s POSSESSION bored me to tears because I thought it was so utterly predictable. I’m currently reading Alan Bennett’s THE UNCOMMON READER, which is funny, sure, but IMO, a short story would have done the trick just as well, or rather, even better. I’ve reached about the middle of the book, and I’m already getting impatient and wonder what the point of this story is. Where does it go? Indeed, I find that this is my biggest problem with a lot of mainstream as well as literary fiction: a story that kind of ambles along without a clear goal (e.g., solve the crime, get the two lovers together, kill off the hero, etc.) makes me itchy. What’s worse, a lot of it is pretentious and utterly depressing. Why the heck would I want to read a book that’s utterly depressing? If I want to get depressed, I switch on the news, thank you very much.

I wonder why literature written by dead people works so much better for me. Probably because said dead people were dependent on writing stuff that actually sold (don’t get me started on publishers‘ policies in regard to advances for literary fiction vs advances for popular fiction! sufficient to say that it makes my blood boil). Hence, they had to be entertaining. Moreover, I can more easily stomach the world view of dead white men, whereas I really don’t see the point of involving myself with the world view of living white men.

See? I admit it: when it comes to reading I’m a shameless sexist, with only a few exceptions, among them Terry Pratchett and Guy Gavriel Kay

This might not be so very obvious in my study, where the classics live and all my books on literature and British history. The other, the older, half of the inhabitants of the study are, perhaps, much more interesting: there, books on on doll houses and on building castles huddle next to books about wolves, dogs, and snails. There are books about nineteenth-century fashion, cooking and historical erotica, about Roman plumbing, mythological creatures, the history of gardening and about European china. This is the collection that goes back the furthest into my own history, the collection that was started twenty years ago or even more. No wonder then that I always get a warm, fuzzy feeling when I stand in front of these shelves and contemplate their contents.

Though the study contains the majority of classics I own, traces of classics can also be found in the library: Louisa May Alcott lives there as well as Frances Hodgson Burnett. WINNIE-THE-POOH hangs out somewhere, too. But for the most part, the library is filled with rows upon rows of romance novels (which can hardly come as a surprise to anybody who reads this blog!), some fantasy novels and mysteries. There’s Christie, of course, but also Sayers (a more recent addition) and Kerry Greenwood’s wonderful Phryne Fisher series. Next to Phryne, you’ll find some old green Penguins squeezed into the shelf. I got them secondhand a few months ago and thought about starting a collection of green Penguins, but quickly abandoned the idea once I saw how grubby the copies were that I got (and they had been deemed to be in good condition on abebooks!).

On another shelf rests a string of Mrs. Pollifax novels (written by Dorothy Gilman). I got the first of them ages ago on a holiday in Spain back in the 1980s. It was so hot that summer that all you could do was sleep or read, and naturally I chose to do the latter with the result that after a few days I had run out of reading material. So I snatched one of the novels Dad had brought with him. Now, THE PERFUME is a book that’s not exactly meant to be read by young teens, and so, not surprisingly, my parents took it away once they figured out what I was reading (that was the one and only time they forbade me to read a particular book). The very next day the family drove to Benidorm in search of suitable books for me. There wasn’t much on offer, really, that might interest an adolescent girl. I chose an anthology with short stories about cats, I believe (or was it an anthology about hobgoblins and ghosts?) (anyways, it obviously didn’t make much of an impression), and an omnibus edition of the first three Mrs. Pollifax novels. The subtitle read “3 heitere Romane in einem Band“, i.e. “three amusing novels in one volume“. “Amusing” sounded nice enough, if slightly old-fashioned, and the book certainly didn’t disappoint. A few years later I was thrilled to discover that Gilman had written even more Mrs. Pollifax novels, though none of them, imo, is quite as charming as THE UNEXPECTED MRS. POLLIFAX

Several of my favourite novels are grouped together in a cabinet in my hallway, right next to the dining table. It contains some childhood favourites – Rosemary Sutcliff, Auguste Lechner, and Henry Winterfeld, who made me fall in love with historical fiction. There are the German editions of Gillian Bradshaw’s Arthur trilogy and her BEACON AT ALEXANDRIA, Diana Paxon’s WHITE RAVEN, Penelope Williamson’s KEEPER OF THE DREAM, and Margaret Hodges’s AVENGER. On a lower shelf you can find Anne Rice’s vampires, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, and German translations of Susanna Kearsley’s novels (for some strange reason, I’ve never read her in English). But the best-loved shelf of this cabinet is that which houses Dorothy Dunnett’s novels. I simply love the sight of the bright, colourful spines of the Penguin edition of the Lymond Chronicles (another sight that is bound to give me warm fuzzies). On top of her Johnson Johnson mysteries rest Tom S. Hall’s TRAMPING HOLIDAYS IN SCOTLAND, which I bought because it once belonged to Dunnett’s husband, Alastair Dunnett, and Mary Stewart’s THE WIND OFF THE SMALL ISLES, which I bought because it came with a letter from Dorothy Dunnett: in 1974 she had sent the book to a friend after a dinner invitation. “I don’t know anyone else,” she wrote, “with such a gift for sending their friends away at the end of a dinner not only full of lovely food and drink, but pleased with themselves in the bargain! Bless you both.” Judging from the letter, Dorothy Dunnett, bless her heart, was just as charming in real life as her novels lead one to believe. 🙂

Mr Punch has arrived!!!

Today the lovely UPS man brought me five packages filled to the brim with books, and thus I spent the afternoon dusting and squeezing 70 kg of Mr Punch into my bookshelves. For such a short man, he sure is heavy!

(The image is “Mr Punch portrayed by different hands” from Spielmann’s History of Punch)

Anne Mather, The Reluctant Governess

Several years ago I bought this in the British Bookshop in Mainz. Thanks to the decade-long presence of the US army nearby, the shop had accumulated a nice collection of older Harlequin titles (most of them in desperate need of a dusting – or, in more severe cases, of a wiping down with a damp cloth), so consequently I‘ve accumulated a nice collection of older Harlequin novels as well. Most of which I haven’t yet read, I have to admit.

But this morning, I was in the mood for an older romance and picked Anne Mather’s The Reluctant Governess, first published in 1971. As you can probably tell from the cover it is set in what today would be deemed an “exotic” location for a category title: in Austria. In winter (hence the lovely snow-covered views of steep rocks and the castle). In a remote castle. And I have to say, the castle on the cover even looks like an Austrian castle!

Our dashing hero is Horst von Reichenstein, an embittered and impoverished baron with a ten-year-old daughter, Sophie, the bane of all governesses. Victoria Monroe, the heroine, comes to the castle as — guess what! — Sophie’s governess and is somewhat appalled by the lack of central heating and electricity in the majority of rooms (most certainly in her room). There are also big, huge wolfhounds around (one of which is called Fritz). And a pair of elderly servants, Maria and Gustav, who seem to inhabit the kitchen. So far, Victoria hasn’t had much success in making Sophie behave and instead is currently going for a walk around the castle, with Fritz on her heels.

More to follow!

Acres and acres and it’s all MINE!

One of the bad things about going to conferences is that you might run into people who are working on similar things as you do and who are very, very enthusiastic about what they do. If bad comes to worse, they might actually pass this enthusiams on to you. Or, if you are already enthusiastic yourself, might rouse your enthusiasm to fever-pitch. If you hate it when something like this happens, you should better steer clear of the conferences of the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals. For these people are bad: they not only fill your head with ideas (oh dear!), but they also inspire you to do research (oh dear, oh dear!).

In case you wonder where this all leads, well … I just want you to be in possession of all facts in order to show you that I’m blameless. Completely blameless. Because, as you all know, I have generally an abhorrence of books and never buy the things (after all, they fill up your shelves in this rather disorderly fashion and then they start to mulitply like rabbits and that creates an entirely new set of problems! ghastly things, books!!!). That leaves only one possible solution: during my last stay in the US I’ve been bewitched by these Victorian periodicals people. In other words: IT’S NOT MY FAULT!

For today I’ve finally succumbed and bought these: 26 volumes of Punch. *happy sigh* (It’s a good thing my shelves are so empty – because I never buy books, you know – because where would I store those beauties if it were otherwise?)

Currently digging: Jacqueline Gilbert

… and it’s all Laura’s fault! 🙂

Between 1976 and 1994 Jacqueline Gilbert wrote twelve novels for Mills and Boon. I started with Poppy Girl (isn’t that a sweet title? note that there’s no mention of Spanish billionaires, French millionaires, or Greek tycoons!), fell in love with Gilbert’s writing (how can I not love somebody who’s a fan of Dorothy Dunnett?) and thus ran to the computer to order more or her novels. So far, I’ve read The Chequered Silence and Capricorn Man (still no tycoon! nor any secret wives or babies!!) and really enjoyed these, too.

More to come!

Charming, Indeed!

Didn’t I tell you that the world is full of meanies? Here’s another one: Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Not only does she have a name which I never know how to spell (Is it two Ls? Or two Ps? Or both???), no, she also writes books that you can’t put down, like this one:

How mean is that?

Last night, after a long period of not reading or buying any e-books, I switched on my Cybook once again and browsed the titles I have stored on the reader. That’s when I stumbled across NATURAL BORN CHARMER, which I hadn’t read before. I just wanted to have a little peek inside the book. Read the first chapter perhaps, as a kind of Betthupferl (you know, that itty-bitty piece of chocolate that you eat just before you go to bed) (only this was a Betthupferl of the non-chocolate variety, of course). So, just an itty-bitty peek. No more.

Then I read this first sentence:

It wasn’t every day a guy saw a headless beaver marching down the side of a road, not even in Dean Robillard’s larger than life world.

Now that’s mean, isn’t it? Uber-mean, in fact. How can you start a novel like this? It’s so not fair to your poor reader!

But that’s not the worst! This is what follows:

“Son of a”” Dean slammed on the brakes of his brand new Aston Martin Vanquish and pulled over in front of her.

The beaver marched right past, her big flat tail bouncing in the gravel, and her small, sharp nose stuck up in the air. Way up. The beaver looked highly pissed.

She was definitely a girl beaver because her beaver head was missing, revealing sweaty, dark hair pulled into a scraggly ponytail.

See what I mean? Things like this should be forbidden. Not only is it highly unfair to other authors, who might turn green with envy while reading this novel, but it’s also highly unfair to the poor reader who gets sucked into the story before she even knows what has hit her.

As you have probably guessed by now, I found NATURAL BORN CHARMER highly enjoyable. What’s more, it reminded me why I love romance so very much. It reminded me that a good romance displays an optimistic attitude towards life and leaves the reader with a big, happy smile on her face. 🙂

Mean Authors

Some authors are incredibly mean. Really, really, really mean.

Take Lisa Kleypas. Boy, is she mean! Not only did she distract me from reading those medieval romances (btw, did you know that when you are a royal baby in disguise, you glow in the dark? Really! That’s what I learnt from reading medieval romances this week! *g*) by producing books like this:

No, she then also made me buy those:

And if that weren’t enough, I was also forced to buy all the Lisa Kleypas books which I have already read in digital format as dead-tree books. Just because they’re so good. If that isn’t mean, I don’t know what is. 🙂


You can probably tell that I’m going to teach a class on drama and (most likely) a class on the 18th- and 19th-century novel this summer. 🙂

Preparing for Winter

Each month the arrival of the credit card statement tells me that I’m spending too much money on books. It could be worse, I guess. Like other women, I could have a serious passion for shoes. Or bags and purses. Or jewellery. Books are relatively cheap by comparison (welllllll, if you love buying rare 19th-century editions of the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales, you might find that books can be horrendously expensive, too!).

So the piles on the top of my piano continue to grow and make me smile with satisfaction whenever I enter my little library-cum-music-room. (The Kitteh is less satisfied, I’m afraid, since the piles tend to be in her way when she climbs about on the piano and the lower bookshelves.) The sight of books has always filled me with warm, fuzzy feelings and thoughts of happily snuggled up on the couch with a cup of tea and a nice book (and a Kitteh).

Of course, at the moment I don’t really have time to actually read all these new books thanks to the Dratted Exam that will hit me over the head in three or four weeks’ time (*gasp* so soon??? Waaaargh!). So for now I regard those lovely piles as my winter hoard to be enjoyed over Christmas and in the new year. 🙂

Which reminds me of this lovely story:

Not that I would ever need an excuse to drool over the lovely Mr. Armitage. 🙂

Good Bed-Fellows

In one of the last chapters of Susan Hill’s Howards End Is on the Landing, titled “Bad Bed-Fellows”, you find the following passage:

A child’s nursery rhyme books does not have the language in which to speak to a Latin dictionary. Chaucer does not know the words in which Henry James communicates but here they are forced to live together, forever speechless. […] Does Elizabeth Bowen find Swift congenial company? Ah yes, surely, they were both Irish, they have a lot in common. I should like to sit here on the landing in the last glimmer of daylight and listen to them whispering together. […] Can books learn from one another? Can they change as a result of sitting on a shelf beside another for years?

What an intriguing thought, isn’t it? To test the idea I’d want to sandwich Anne Bronte’s (please imagine those two dots over the e; I’ve no idea how to insert an e with dots here in Blogger) The Tenant of Wildfell Hall between Elizabeth Taylor’s At Mrs. Lippincote’s and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Making of a Marchioness. One hopes that this would improve Bronte’s angelic heroine (hey-ho, I run away from my husband because he’s a beastly sadist, but when he’s about to kick the bucket I’m going to return to mop his brow and make sure he doesn’t kick the bucket after all *head desk*) and that, upon opening The Tenant the next time, one would find that Helen has bashed in her beastly husband’s skull with the chamber pot.

Not that Burnett’s heroine isn’t any less angelic – in fact, she’s a much better person than Helen: always smiling, always being grateful to other people, always happy to run errands for others. No, in The Making of a Marchioness you have to turn to the secondary female characters to get women with some more bite (and, eventually, one dead beastly husband).

Reading both At Mrs. Lippincote’s and The Making of a Marchioness has finally convinced me (if I needed any convincing at all!) to teach a course on women writers of the early 20th century. Next winter, perhaps?


The picture was taken inside Barter Books in Alnwick, a gigantic UBS inside an old railway station. I could have spent hours inside there (instead I went to see Alnwick Castle and then travelled on to Berwick-upon-Tweed – that latter point definitely not one of my finer ideas)