Midweek Mishmash

I’m just back from seeing my first student of the term, a charming young French woman who wanted a bit of help with her English. Is it wrong of me that I preferred her errors of idiom to the correct expressions? Her statement that something had ‘completed to convince her’ gave me pause for thought. It wasn’t really the case that she had ‘finally’ been convinced, because in the context that seemed to imply a mental struggle, and that wasn’t it. No, it was like something had been the ‘last straw’ but that was no good either, because it is only used pejoratively. In the end we just left it that she had been convinced, as we don’t really have a phrase that implies conviction occurring at the end of a process of accumulated impressions. Then she delighted me by saying about another topic that ‘this interested her, being European peoples.’ I think she meant ‘as a European citizen’ but it sounded so sweet, being peoples of Europe, that I was very loathe to correct her.

Anyway, I am wittering on as I am in the middle of three large books and have nothing left over to review. Things have been so busy lately. I’m back at the bookstore again after the Christmas break, propping up the counter with Ms Thrifty as we attempt to withstand the chill of the store. We were both dressed like Michelin men last Monday and still we were hopping up and down to keep warm by the end of the shift. Then I’ve been catching up with a lot of friends, with more sociable engagements to come. I don’t know how anybody gets anything done at all if they have people coming round or social calls to pay on a regular basis. It’s fun but it all takes up so much time.

Still, I can tell you what I am in the middle of reading. I’m three-quarters of the way through The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, which I’m loving. She is such an amazing writer. You feel so safe in her hands, and the story unfolds in front of you, perfectly realised in a way that only narrative could achieve. That’s for my real life book club and I’m looking forward to discussing it. Then I am only a fifth of the way through a big biography of Agatha Christie. I’ve read biographies of Christie before, but I am still waiting for the one that explains her character in a way I can actually visualise. She seems to have been a complex but ultimately elusive person, tucked away behind a shield of charm and good manners. At the moment she is in her late teens and attracting a lot of suitors; she was clearly a fun-loving, bright and jolly girl, sweet and pretty and easy-going, artistic but totally unschooled. Yet only a year or two later, she’d be writing her first detective story, and then six or seven years later, she’d be staging disappearances and claiming nervous amnesia. Evidently the disaster that was her first marriage has a lot to do with all this. I’ll be interested to see how the author, Laura Thompson in this case, deals with the transition.

Then I have literally just begun George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. This is a chunkster, isn’t it? I said I’d read more 19th century literature last year and although I began well, I didn’t exactly follow through. And ahead of me is another large book, The Selected Works of T. S, Spivet by Reif Larsen, the pick for the Slaves of Golconda book group this month. I have to admit, this book is scaring me. It’s the outsize format for one thing; it is about the size and weight of one of those hefty instruction manuals for performance cars. I feel very reluctant to pick it up. Then the text is strewn with diagrams and pictures and long side notes in the margins that sort of makes me fear for the quality of the writing in the main text. This is pure prejudice and not sensible at all, and probably enhanced by reading someone like Sarah Waters, who does the straight novel and does it brilliantly, no tricks needed. Is anyone else reading this yet from the Slaves? A word of encouragement would be a marvellous thing. And at this rate, I can see that February will be the month of the novella!


31 thoughts on “Midweek Mishmash

  1. Good luck! I enjoyed the Waters and I still don’t know whether I think it’s all psychologically driven or if there is a supernatural element – it seemed to tread a very fine line.

    • Bookboxed – as you will by now know, I really enjoyed this book too. And I agree with you about the fine line – but we’ll talk more about that when I do my comments for the review. But delighted to share your feelings for this one.

  2. Of course I can relate to the first part. Faux amis are a problem when a French tries to speak English. Finally is a classic one. I can hear my high school teacher correcting me.
    And complete/compléter is another one.
    don’t you have the same problem when you learn French?

    • Oh my goodness, yes! I spent years struggling over when to say justement and pourtant and tandis que (which I really liked but could never seem to work into a sentence). There is a reason why I don’t write posts in French! 🙂

  3. My two cents on English as a foreign language: when I lived in Germany, people would sometimes giggle at something I said and say “That was so cute how you said that! Say it again.” It made me feel like a monkey. I would refuse to repeat it and make them tell me the correct syntax, pronunciation, or whatever. Of course, I am probably more obnoxious about these things than most people.
    I love Sarah Waters. She IS an amazing writer. Fingersmith and Affinity are my favorites. I also liked in The Little Stranger, as Bookboxed pointed out, that the book is very much open to interpretation.
    Re: the Agatha Christie bio: I have a hard time explaining my own behavior to myself sometimes; what a talent that is to be able to work out a person’s motives or feelings based only on notes, letters, books and conjecture. There is so much that one can’t ever really confirm., as you pointed out in your post yesterday on Jung and Spielrein and the exact nature of their relationship. I just finished Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens last week which addressed Dickens’ relationship with Ellen Ternan. She did a good job of surmising what might have happened, but no one really knows.

    • Oh I promise you I would never say anything to rattle or upset a student. I didn’t give my student any sign at all of how I felt, and only corrected what I felt would lead to misunderstandings. When I spoke French I just hoped that people didn’t get so frustrated or confused by my mistakes that they gave up on me! As for the Christie, I didn’t express myself clearly there. What I meant was that I wanted a better idea of Agatha Christie’s personality. I’m not really talking about what happened exactly, or what motivated her . What I really want is to have an image in my mind of what she was like as a person, and I find her a bit elusive in biographies.

      • I know you wouldn’t make anyone feel bad, Litlove. If I could go back in time, I would be a little more relaxed about the whole thing; living abroad, learning not just a new language but a new culture too. But I was young and took things so seriously and personally then.

  4. Oh, I love the pictures of your books. The Agatha Christie biography looks fascinating. I must check it out. And I am so excited about Daniel Deronda! I am going to pull it off my book shelf before this weekend! : ) I sent you a long email earlier this afternoon. I hope you enjoy it.

    Oh… and I remember one of my problems in studying French and writing papers in French was that I tried to translate phrases from English word for word into French. That wasn’t always successful because often times those phrases didn’t exist in French. The vagaries–and fun–of learning another language!

    • Ali, I loved your email! One from me next week. I’ve not got far with the Eliot yet as another book muscled in ahead of her (typical!). But more on that when I write. Oh language learning! We all begin translating word for word, and the better you get, the more you realise that each language has its own internal web, and its own way of looking at things. I always found explanations really hard in French, because the way I justified my actions or thoughts in English never seemed to come across persuasively in French. I studied it for, what, 25 years? And by the end I felt I really had a good idea of what I didn’t know… but that was about the best that could be said! 🙂

  5. OKay, it’s not often you’re so unequivocal as you are about Sarah Waters, and unlike me you do not overuse the word ‘amazing,’ so I shall have to get hold of this book!

    I read (and wrote a brief blog post about) The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet back in 2009. I mostly enjoyed it, but as the post makes clear I was not entirely won over, and really disliked the ending. I’ll be most interested to hear how you find it, Litlove. Enjoy leaving the comfort zone of straight text – go on!

    • Di – I do recommend Waters. She is a really graceful stylist, and I’d love to know what you think of her. How about that – you read the Spivet! I’m really encouraged to hear your mostly positive review. I don’t mind controversy over endings – it’s the thought of a long slog that puts me off. But I shall tackle it with a more stalwart heart now!

  6. I’m afraid I need a little encouragement to get going on Spivet, too! It looks interesting and I bet I’ll enjoy it once I get into the story, but I keep looking at it and setting it next to me before bedtime and then picking up a book of essays or an entirely different novel that I’ve been sunk into, and it just hasn’t happened yet. I’ll check back to see what the other Slaves have to say! I think The Little Stranger is my favorite Sarah Waters book (and I have pretty much loved them all). A coworker and I were just talking about her and wondering if she is hard at work on another novel (and wishing she would hurry up!). I’ve not yet read Daniel Deronda, but I did see the movie and very much enjoyed it. And I’d like to read about Agatha Christie sometime, too. She does seem an intriguing woman. Enjoy your books and stay warm! Bookstores should be cozy, shouldn’t they? 🙂

    • Danielle – phew – thank you for the solidarity! I’m sure we’ll get into it, but it isn’t the easiest book to approach…. I remember you loving the Sarah Waters when you read it and I couldn’t agree with you more. I haven’t read Affinity by her yet, so I’m glad to have one more on the shelf! I do wish she’d write another, too. I saw the BBC adaptation of Daniel Deronda, but so long ago that I have forgotten it entirely (except I remember it opening with a young girl doing archery!). And how I wish our bookstore were a little warmer! Still never mind, we know now how to turn on the fan heater over the door, so we may do better on Monday!

  7. I read T S Spivet early, as it’s the book fromt he list I got you all to vote on I wanted to make sure I got it read. And I really, really enjoyed it…but I think it’s likely to be a Marmite book. I almost never say that, because reading is so subjective and no one book is ever universally well received, but I think you have to be into all the style elements to really enjoy this one, so let me give you some info so you can see if your interests match up with the book.

    You know about the footnotes and diagrams, right, so I’m a huge fan of fictional footnotes in novels (Terry Pratchett I ❤ you) and love illustrations/exploded diagrams. You need to be in the mood to spend a lot of time threading through those I think (it took me a few weeks to finish). I'm perfectly happy with a child narrator who doesn't sound like your typical child (and maybe sounds a bit adult, because it's convenient and allows an author to tell the story without impediment). And I'll stretch my definition of plausibility as far as I can, if I like the characters. There's a bit where a second story is introduced, as a character reads a draft novel written by his mother and the main story disappears into the background. Although I thought that would annoy me, the second story was about a female scientist and that won me right round. And there's a lot of open endedness about this book (that element was a mixed bag for me). There's a strange nostalgia for the old West, which almost did for my plausibility stretching, but most importantly I thought the emotional side was pitched just right for a book about a boy whose brother had died.

    Also YAY you're reading The Little Stranger. I am so looking forward hearing what you think of it and what you make of how everything wraps up.

    • Jodie, this was magnificent, thank you! I am quite happy to read precocious child narrators, and I love interpolated stories, and don’t think I would mind nostalgia for the old West, so all those elements sit well with me. The threading through of the diagrams and things will stretch my patience a little, but as you so rightly say, it’s a question of preparing one’s mood for that sort of thing. Not beyond me! Oh and never forget that you offered us a wide choice and we voted for this one, so you are by no means to feel responsible! It sounds like exactly the sort of novel that suits a book group down to the ground!

  8. I feel about the Bolaño I’m reading like you about the Spivet. And there are a few drawings in it as well…
    Unlike others I think it is an easy read. If you are familiar with avantgarde writing etc. you know what the characters are talking about. The other thing is whether you are interested in what they are talking about and on far over 700 pages… And so for a change I have decided to give myself a break and not finish it.
    I don’t know how you did it, working in a cold place… That’s the thing that gets to me the most. Anything below 23° and I’m miserable.
    I’m looking forward to my first Sarah Waters novel. Maybe this year.

    • Caroline – well sometimes that just has to happen, doesn’t it? So many books to read, one has to drop the axe occasionally. Oh dear, the bookshop is certainly below 23 degrees! We would find that tropical (and not a problem!). And do try Sarah Waters at some point. I hope very much that you would like her.

  9. I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying The Little Stranger. It’s been on my shelf for several years now but still haven’t got to it yet. And I admit, I haven’t read any Sarah Waters before. So this may be a good intro for me then. A note on the ‘variations’ of English expressions, the beginning anecdote you mention. In recent years, I’ve grown to accept the fluidity of language as well as the diverse (which before would be labelled ‘incorrect’) ways of how people express themselves. What is ‘standard’ English has become such an elusive term nowadays. Having said that, I admit too that I constantly wrestle with what’s proper and what’s not. You don’t know how many times I check the words and expressions I use before posting… or even commenting. Why, English is a second language for me. 😉

    • Arti – you are amazing! I would never have known that English was your second language. As I was saying to Emma further up in the comments, there is a reason why I don’t write in French! I shudder to think what kind of mess I would make of it. 😉 But you’re right, there are huge variations in the way people express themselves. In fact, when I was living in France, I always found two topics sparked a lively conversation – issues about idiomatic use of language and issues about cooking! You could pretty much guarantee that the assembled company would agree on neither. It made me feel so much better to think that even French people couldn’t agree on the ‘right’ way to say something. 🙂

  10. I’m like Doctordi, when you say you love something, it immediately goes on my “be on the look-out for this one” list. And the Agatha Christie biography! What a cover! It’s just so…so…well, so her!

    • Grad – it IS, isn’t it? I confess I loved the cover – shallow as a teaspoon, me! I’d love to know what you think of Sarah Waters. She has a lovely classical style and I find her very engaging. It’s always a gamble, but I do think you’d like her.

  11. It’s quite a coincidence (or perhaps not…), but I’ve finally picked up The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet after intending to read it for over a year now. I may have to join the Slaves of Golconda this month. Daniel Deronda is also on my list, but I don’t know how soon I’ll get to it.

    • How about that! Please do join the Slaves – it’s wonderful when we can get a good discussion going and have several reviews to read! As for the Daniel Deronda, it looks really good but I can see it will take me a long time to read. But that can be nice in it’s way too.

  12. I read that biography of Agatha Christie and wasn’t entirely impressed… But it was my first Agatha Christie biography (I’d never even heard of the disappearance beforehand) and I don’t read a lot of biographies in general, so I’m not sure if it was the book or the form that grated. It was interesting to learn more about her life though, and I’m interested to hear how you find it and how it compares to other biographies!

    • Catie – it’s quite a strange biography, in that it’s more like a story about Agatha Christie’s life, with lots of imagined and reconstructed bits. The author relies very heavily on the Mary Westmacott novels to provide support for her claims about Christie which strikes me as a touch dangerous because they are fiction after all, so perhaps not entirely reliable. Other biographies I’ve read have been more factual. I’ve read Christie’s own Autobiography, which I remember loving, but she is very close about certain topics and barely mentions her disappearance. I’ve also read Jared Cade’s biography which focuses on the disappearance and is a bit sensationalised. So far, they have all had drawbacks. If I find a perfect one, I’ll let you know! 😉

  13. Your student sounds like she was fun. I like Eurpean peoples too 🙂 I look forward to hearing what you think of Daniel Deronda since I plan to read a George Eliot book this year and haven’t decided which one yet. I don’t mind a chunkster if it’s a good story. I am about halfway through T.S. Spivet. You really have to be in the mood as Jodie said and take the book for what it is and enjoy the diagrams. It is not fast reading though. I’m finding it enjoyable for the most part.

    • Stefanie – well this is also encouraging about the Spivet. I can see it’s the sort of book that requires a particular sort of attitude. Well that’s okay – I can do that! I will definitely let you know how the George Eliot goes. I’ve only read Middlemarch (which I really loved), and I do hope it is a similar sort of novel, but we shall see. So glad you liked my student – I thought she was a sweetie!

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