Author: Rebecca Foster

Cats I’ve Encountered in Books Recently

Even when it’s not a book that’s specifically about cats, cats often seem to turn up in my reading. Maybe it’s simply that I look out for them more since I became a cat owner several years ago. Here are some of the quotes, scenes or whole books featuring cats that I’ve come across this year.

 

Cats real and imaginary

Readers see some of the action from the perspective of Polanski the cat in The Plimsoll Line by Juan Gracia Armendáriz. While the feline might not grasp the emotional importance of the scenes he witnesses, we do. “The cat narrows its eyes when it sees the man lean against the window frame, overcome by a fit of sobbing that has nothing to do with sadness, or sorrow, but with an internal crumbling, like the collapse of a wave breaking on the shore of his skin and sweeping away his memory.”

From Anna of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett: “Anna was disturbed by the arrival at the front door of the milk-girl. Alternately with her father, she stayed at home on Sunday evenings, partly to receive the evening milk and partly to guard the house. The Persian cat with one ear preceded her to the door as soon as he heard the clatter of the can. The stout little milk-girl dispensed one pint of milk into Anna’s jug, and spilt an eleemosynary supply on the step for the cat. ‘He does like it fresh, Miss,’ said the milk-girl, smiling at the greedy cat, and then, with a ‘Lovely evenin’,’ departed down the street, one fat red arm stretched horizontally out to balance the weight of the can in the other.”

From Kilvert’s Diary by Francis Kilvert: “Toby [the cat] sits before the fire on the hearthrug and now and then jumps up on my knee to be stroked. The mice scurry rattling round the wainscot and Toby darts off in great excitement to listen and watch for them.” (18 Oct. 1870)

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami starts with a missing cat. “So now I had to go cat hunting. I had always liked cats. And I liked this particular cat. But cats have their own way of living. They’re not stupid. If a cat stopped living where you happened to be, that meant it had decided to go somewhere else. If it got tired and hungry, it would come back. Finally, though, to keep Kumiko happy, I would have to go looking for our cat. I had nothing better to do.”

I’m also 64 pages into Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore; in Chapter 6 we meet another seeker of lost cats, Nakata, when he has an absurd conversation with a black cat named Otsuka. (Perhaps he’s the creature pictured on the cover of my paperback?)

 

 

Picture books

Doorkins the Cathedral Cat by Lisa Gutwein: This sweet children’s book tells the true story of how a stray cat wandered into London’s Southwark Cathedral in 2008 and gradually made it her home. It proceeds day by day through one week to give a helpful idea of the range of activities the cathedral hosts – everything from a wedding to a regular Sunday service – but also showcases important events like visits from the Bishop and the Queen. In every case we get to see how Doorkins insinuates herself into proceedings. I liked how the bright colors of the illustrations echo the cathedral’s stained glass, and appreciated the photo gallery and extra information at the end. The author, a doctor whose husband is a verger at the cathedral, and illustrator Rowan Ambrose, a dentist, met at King’s College London, where I used to work.

The Church Mice in Action by Graham Oakley: My third from the series, I think. The mice suggest to the parson’s sister that she might enter Sampson into cat shows to earn enough to repair the church roof. They then do their best to rig the results, but couldn’t have predicted the consequences. I loved the late summer/onset of autumn atmosphere.

 

On the extreme reluctance to remove a cat from one’s lap.

From The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë: Miss Millward, Eliza’s older sister and the vicar’s daughter, when he passes her a ball of wool that’s rolled under the table – “Thank you, Mr. Markham. I would have picked it up myself, only I did not want to disturb the cat.”

From the essay “On Cat-Worship” in George Mikes’s How to Be Decadent: “Having joked for decades about how the English worship the cat, like the ancient Egyptians only more so, I have fallen for the cat myself. It has become my sacred animal. … I have been late for appointments, failed to go shopping and missed planes because Tsi-Tsa was sitting on my lap.”

 

Other cat-themed reading on the horizon:

  • The Cat Who Stayed for Christmas by Cleveland Amory, borrowed from the public library, should make a good pre-holiday read.
  • I’m keen to get hold of The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa, which comes out in November.
  • My husband gave me a copy of Tom Cox’s The Good, the Bad and the Furry for my birthday.
  • I have Jason Hazeley’s The Fireside Grown-Up Guide to the Cat and Thomas McNamee’s The Inner Life of Cats on my Kindle.
  • It’s not particularly geared towards cat lovers (see Eleanor’s review), but it is called My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci and is also on my Kindle.
  • I have copies of Cats in May by Doreen Tovey plus a couple of anthologies of cat-related writing picked up in Hay-on-Wye.
Advertisements

Last-Minute Booker Prize Predictions

The Man Booker Prize 2017 will be announced this evening (roughly 22:00 GMT, in my memory). Ever since the shortlist announcement I’ve felt that George Saunders is a shoo-in for Lincoln in the Bardo. I think he will win, and should. However, I’ve still only read four out of the six on the shortlist, so my predictions are not entirely based on personal knowledge of the books. I can’t say I’m hugely enthused about trying Auster or Hamid, but I’d be more likely to do so if either won.

The two from the shortlist that I own + the annual bookmark, picked up from the public library.

Here, in what I predict is their descending order of likelihood to win, are the six shortlisted titles, with a pithy three words on why each one would take the prize:

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders – Something actually novel.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid – Timely re: refugees.

Autumn by Ali Smith – Timely re: Brexit.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster – Great American Novel.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley – Gorgeous, talented debut.

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund – Haunting, underrated debut.


What have you managed to read from the Booker shortlist? How do your predictions match up against mine?

Hungerford Literary Festival: Simon Fenwick on Joan Leigh Fermor

Birthday book haul.

I had a pleasant birthday weekend: a five-mile country walk with some foraging of sloes, reading in the armchair with the cat, catching up with Poldark on DVD, and a three-course Italian feast my husband made from a River Café cookbook (plus a homemade Sachertorte). And I got 11 secondhand books for my birthday, if you were wondering!

We also attended a couple of Hungerford Literary Festival events. This year the theme was “Journeys,” so all of the featured books and authors were broadly travel-related Alas, the talk we were meant to attend on Saturday by Sunday Times writer Jonathan Dean, based on I Must Belong Somewhere, his memoir about researching his family’s European history, was cancelled due to insufficient ticket sales – we felt so sorry for the poor author!

However, on Sunday my husband saw Nick Hunt speak about his recent travelogue on famous European winds such as the mistral, and I saw Simon Fenwick in conversation with journalist Elinor Goodman about his new biography of Joan Leigh Fermor, the wife of celebrated travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor (whom Fenwick and Goodman consistently called Paddy).

Fenwick considers Joan an enigmatic figure; although she could be quite a bitch, she also brought out the best in certain people, including Paddy. From a wealthy Yorkshire wool merchant family, she met golden writers like John Betjeman at bohemian parties. Although she was a fairly successful photographer – there will be a major exhibition of her work in London next year – she cast herself in a supporting role, as was traditional for the time: she would say that her career was all about helping Paddy in his, financially as well as morally. (I could just imagine what a novel about her would be called: The Travel Writer’s Wife.)

Although Fenwick believes Joan is a worthy biographical subject in her own right, her relationship with Paddy dominated the talk. When the couple met in Egypt in 1944, he was famous for having kidnapped a Nazi general, a stunt of debatable military benefit though it was certainly great for publicity. Women flocked to the handsome Paddy: he was carrying on two affairs at this time, and his one lover got pregnant and had an abortion.

Patrick Leigh Fermor. By Δημήτρης Παπαδήμος (Ιωάννης Δ.Παπαδήμος) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
Though they didn’t marry until 1968, by which time they were settled in their home in Kardamyli, Greece, Joan and Paddy were an item for all the intervening years. Theirs was an open relationship, though; they even shared a lover, Alan Pryce-Jones. (Hoping I heard this correctly and am not just making a wild claim!) “NO GUILT” was one of Paddy’s mottoes. The travel writer’s life entailed long separations: Fenwick estimates that during the 1950s, Paddy didn’t stay put anywhere for more than two months at a time, but Joan served as “his psychological home.” Perhaps this practicality explains why the Fermors never had children: Paddy was simply hardly ever home. Or perhaps Joan was infertile, given that Paddy and Joan’s previous husband, John Rayner, both impregnated other women.

Joan was known as a wonderful cook and entertainer. In Greece they had a rotating cast of guests, and people would frequently just turn up uninvited. From afar the house looks like an ancient monastery, Fenwick said, though it’s now surrounded by modern buildings. Much of it is one huge room that serves as library, living room and dining room, with a corridor leading to the outside. In Joan’s time there were cats galore. Fenwick remembers the strong smell of jasmine the first time he walked through the archway into the courtyard.

The Fermors’ Greek villa. By Rodolph at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
Fenwick’s route into this project was somewhat unusual: he’s an archivist by trade and has spent decades of his life reading other people’s letters. He was invited to archive the papers in Fermor’s writing studio after the author’s death in 2011. The material was in chaotic files, but eventually he organized some 19 boxes of records to send back to the UK; they are now held in the National Library of Scotland. He wrote an article for the Times Literary Supplement about the experience, and from there one thing led to another. He never met either Paddy or Joan, who died in 2003, while Fermor’s biographer, Artemis Cooper, did meet him.

Although Fenwick did not wish to comment on another biographer’s work, he noted that in comparison to Cooper’s his is perhaps a bit of a new view on Paddy, a “not wholly heroic but fascinating” figure, flawed “on a grand scale.” Fenwick was impressed by “his pure energy – in his writing and in everything he did.” While Paddy must have been exhausting to live with, Fenwick believes he and Joan recognized in each other a similar approach to life.

As a speaker Fenwick wasn’t particularly engaging: even with a microphone he seemed to mutter, and left awkward gaps before answering. Is it fair that his dull manner made me wonder whether his book would be worth reading? Not all authors can be charismatic in person, I’m sure; I would definitely struggle with public speaking if I ever had to go on a book tour. But I do wish he had perhaps read a section from his book so I could have gotten a sense of the style. I think Joan’s life is interesting enough that I will still read her biography someday, but perhaps only after I’ve read more of Paddy’s travel books and the Cooper biography, which I own in paperback.


Have you attended any literary events recently? Does an author’s personality influence your opinion of their books?

Blog Tour & Giveaway: The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities

I’m delighted to be kicking off the blog tour for The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities: A Yearbook of Forgotten Words by Paul Anthony Jones, which will be published in the UK by Elliott & Thompson on Thursday, October 19th.

I started reading these delightful daily doses of etymology last week, and plan to keep the book at my bedside for the whole of the year to come. By happy coincidence, today is also my birthday, so (if I may so flatter myself) in joint honor of the occasion plus the book’s impending publication, Elliott & Thompson have kindly offered a giveaway copy to one UK-based reader.

Enjoy today’s entry, and leave a comment if you’d like to be in the running for the giveaway. I will choose the winner at random at the end of Saturday the 21st and notify them via e-mail.

 

 

14 October

Parthian (adj.) describing or akin to a shot fired while in retreat

The Battle of Hastings was fought on 14 October 1066. Exhausted and depleted from fighting the Battle of Stamford Bridge just nineteen days earlier, the English King Harold’s forces were eventually overcome by those of the invading Norman King William when they began to implement an ingenious and effective tactic. Reportedly, William’s troops pretended to flee from the battle in panic, and as their English attackers pursued them, the Normans suddenly turned back and resumed fighting.

The Normans and their allies, observing that they could not overcome an enemy which was so numerous and so solidly drawn up, without severe losses, retreated, simulating flight as a trick . . . Suddenly the Normans reined in their horses, intercepted and surrounded [the English] and killed them to the last man.

William of Poitiers, Gesta Guillelmi (c.1071)

The Normans weren’t the first to use such a tactic; fighters in ancient Parthia, a region of northeast Iran, were known to continue firing arrows at their enemies while retreating from the battlefield. The ploy proved so effective that the adjective Parthian ultimately came to be used of any shot or attack employed while in retreat, or in the dying moments of an engagement. In that sense, the word first appeared in English in the mid seventeenth century, but while the technique they employed remained familiar, the Parthians themselves did not. Ultimately, the word Parthian became corrupted, and steadily drifted closer to a much more familiar term – so that today this kind of last-minute attack or sally is typically known as a parting shot.

 

See below for details of where other reviews and features will be appearing soon.

Books I Acquired Just for the Title

Sometimes you know just from the title of a book – without even opening it or reading anything about it – that it’s one you have to have. Here’s a photo gallery of books I acquired on the strength of the title, whether:

 

Bookish necessities—

Humor titles I knew would ring true—

Phrases that made me want to find out more—

Intriguing titles, but even better subtitles—

Provocative—

Or just plain random—

And here’s a selection of books I want to read that are on my “Awesome Title” shelf on Goodreads:

  • I’m No Longer Troubled by the Extravagance by Rick Bursky
  • The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy
  • If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting by Anna Journey
  • Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio by Amara Lakhous
  • How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon
  • Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika
  • What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman
  • There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
  • The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac by Sharma Shields
  • Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta by Aglaja Veteranyi

 


What are some of the best book titles you’ve come across recently?

A Wood of One’s Own by Ruth Pavey

In 1999 Ruth Pavey bought four acres of Somerset scrubland at a land auction. It wasn’t exactly what she’d set out to acquire: it wasn’t a “pretty” field, and traffic was audible from it. But she was pleased to return to her family’s roots in the Somerset Levels area – this “silted place of slow waters, eels, reeds, drainage engineers, buttercups, church towers, quiet” that her father came from, and where she was born – and she fancied planting some trees.

There never was a master plan […] I wanted to open up enough room for trees that might live for centuries […] I also wanted to keep areas of wilderness for the creatures […] And I wanted it to be beautiful. Not immaculate, that was too much to hope for, but, in its own ragged, benign way, beautiful.

This pleasantly meandering memoir, Pavey’s first book, is an account of nearly two decades spent working alongside nature to restore some of her land to orchard and maintain the rest in good health. The first steps were clear: she had to deal with some fallen willows, find a water source and plan a temporary shelter. Rather than a shed, which would be taken as evidence of permanent residency, she resorted to a “Rollalong,” a mobile metal cabin she could heat just enough to survive nights spent on site. Before long, though, she bought a nearby cottage to serve as her base when she left her London teaching job behind on weekends.

Then came the hard work: after buying trees from nurseries and ordering apple varieties that would fruit quickly, Pavey had to plant it all and pick up enough knowledge about pruning, grafting, squirrel management, canker and so on to keep everything alive. There was always something new to learn, and plenty of surprises – such as the stray llama that visited her neighbor’s orchard. Local history weaves through this story, too: everything from the English Civil War to Cecil Sharp’s collecting of folk songs.

Britain has seen a recent flourishing of hybrid memoirs–nature books by the likes of Helen Macdonald, Mallachy Tallack and Clover Stroud. By comparison, Pavey is not as confiding about her personal life as you might expect. She reveals precious little about herself: she tells us that her mother died when she was young and she was mostly raised by an aunt; she hints at some failed love affairs; in the acknowledgments she mentions a son; from the jacket copy I know she’s the gardening correspondent for the Hampstead & Highgate Express. But that’s it. This really is all about the wood, and apart from serving as an apt Woolf reference the use of “one” in the title is in deliberate opposition to the confessional connotations of “my”.

Still, I think this book will appeal to readers of modern nature writers like Paul Evans and Mark Cocker – these two are Guardian Country Diarists, and Pavey develops the same healthy habit of sticking to one patch and lovingly monitoring its every development. I was also reminded of Peri McQuay’s memoir of building a home in the woods of Canada.

What struck me most was how this undertaking encourages the long view: “being finished, in the sense of being brought to a satisfactory conclusion, is not something that happens in a garden, an orchard or a wood, however well planned or cultivated,” she writes. It’s an ongoing project, and she avoids nostalgia and melodrama in planning for its future after she’s gone; “I am only there for a while, a twinkling. But [the trees and creatures] … will remain.” This would make a good Christmas present for the dedicated gardener in your life, not least because of the inclusion of Pavey’s lovely black-and-white line drawings.


A Wood of One’s Own was published on September 21st by Duckworth Overlook. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.

My rating:

Harvest Supper, Scrabble Tournament & Book Haul: A Great Trip to Bookbarn

I manage about an annual trip to Bookbarn International, one of my favorite secondhand bookshops in the UK. Apart from the stock in their newly opened Darwin Rare Books room and the 50-pence children’s books, everything in the shop is £1. I never fail to come out with a great stack of finds. Our trip on Thursday was extra special because we were going for the café’s Harvest Supper and Scrabble tournament, held as part of The Great Bath Feast.

We played one 45-minute game against another team of two, broke for an excellent vegetarian supper of squash, spinach and goat’s cheese pie with mashed potatoes and baby roast vegetables, then played a second match before dessert (vegan plum crumble with custard or gluten-free fig brownie with ice cream). Over the years my husband and I have become quite the Scrabble fiends, and together on one team I’m afraid we were unbeatable. Our bingo starting off Game #2 helped, but we worried we were at an overall advantage because the other boards each had three teams playing.

It was a special pleasure to meet William Pryor, the chairman of Bookbarn. Last year he spotted my blog posts about Bookbarn and offered me a copy of his memoir, The Survival of the Coolest, which I reviewed for Nudge. It’s a wonderful book about growing up a descendant of Charles Darwin but going off the rails and ending up addicted to heroin in his 20s:

This family of mine! On the one hand you have the royalty of science and Bloomsbury, on the other the fading world of the English landed gentry. … We had no religion but Darwin.

The months ran into each other as a blur of the chase for relief, the wheeling and dealing … One of the most striking aspects of hell is that it goes round and round; the same torments over and over again.

Mr. Pryor let me have a sneak peek at the Darwin room after the shop closed and kindly gave me a copy of his grandmother Gwen Raverat’s memoir, Period Piece. Over pudding we chatted about literary festivals, the Bookshop Band, his failed idea to return a portion of secondhand books’ resale value to the authors, and the latest Nobel Prize winner.


As to that book haul: I feel like I have fiction coming out of my ears, so with our hour of book browsing time I mainly focused on biographies and memoirs. Here are my finds:

 

Biographies and essays on writing biography:

Bereavement memoirs:

(Two of my purchases will go especially well as pairs with books I already own.)

Medical memoirs:

General memoirs (I was especially pleased to find the sequel to Cobwebs and Cream Teas, which I bought at Bookbarn last time and read early this year):

Plus two poetry books (one of them signed!):

And two novels I happened to grab on the way to the till:

My unexpected freebies. The Raverat is a lovely small-format hardback with gilt-edge pages and a maroon ribbon bookmark; on the right is our prize for winning the Scrabble tournament:

 

I’ve already had a peek inside a few of the books I bought and found some excellent passages. Leonard Woolf’s memoir opens with an extraordinary passage of almost biblical language about existence and non-existence; one of Marge Piercy’s poems struck me right away for its description of a Jewish holiday and the line “there is no justice we don’t make daily / like bread and love.”

My husband came away with three natural history books, and we also found a few children’s books to give to nieces and nephews.

Thanks to this book haul plus a trip to Book-Cycle in early September and some charity shopping last week, I’ve had to start a double stack on my biography/memoir shelves. There’s already a double stack on one of my unread fiction shelves. Next week is my birthday, so the book acquisitions are only likely to continue…