Category Archives: Books & reading

The Tale of a 19th-Century Stuttgart Pickpocket

I thoroughly enjoy reading historical newspapers, especially those of the nineteenth century in Britain, their eclecticism and taste for the bizarre providing endless entertainment as well as insights into how differently people lived – and journalists wrote – back then.

The following report appeared in the Aberystwyth Observer on Saturday, 13 October 1860, in a section on page 3 titled “Miscellaneous general news, home, foreign and colonial”. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of this apocryphal sounding tale, but the story and the manner of its telling amused me a great deal. If you’re interested, you can access the whole edition here; this and many, many more 19th and early 20th century newspapers can be browsed or searched through the National Library of Wales’s excellent Welsh Newspapers Online resource.

A COOL PICKPOCKET. — The pickpockets of London and Paris have long enjoyed the reputation of being the most adroit in Europe; but, if we may believe the statement of a M. Charles W—-, Stuttgardt can fully rival those cities. That gentleman was walking in the Koenigstrasse, looking at the shops, when he was accosted by an obsequious little man, who offered his services to show him the lions of the capital, but the other refused the offer. The officious personage, however, was not offended, but politely asked him what o’clock it was. The other answered that he did not know, as his watch had stopped, and continued his walk towards the Museum of Natural History, which he entered. He had not been there many minutes before the same person came up to him with the air of an old acquaintance, and offered him a pinch of snuff. This M. W—- declined, saying he was no snuff-taker, and walked away; but some minutes after, having a presentiment of something being wrong, he felt for his snuff-box, but instead of it found a scrap of paper in his pocket, on which was written,

“As you are no snuff-taker, you do not require a box.”

He thought the logic of his unknown acquaintance rather impertinent, and resolved to bear his loss like a philosopher; but what was his amazement when, a moment after, he discovered that his watch had also disappeared, and in his other pocket was another note, in the following words:

“As your watch does not tell the hour, it would be better at the watchmaker’s than in your pocket.”

It is hardly necessary to say that he never heard any further tidings of the two articles.

What I especially like is the stark contrast between the earthy, yet measured and certainly creepy “voice” of the pickpocket contrasting with the quite pompous, condescending and almost trite tone of the rest of the report: the latter is clearly not the sole preserve of today’s Daily Mail!

I’d love to know the provenance of this story and how widely it was known and published elsewhere. A quick Google search yields the same story in the Fayetteville Observer (North Carolina, 1860 – link opens PDF of the relevant edition) and the Hawke’s Bay Herald (New Zealand, 1861), so that suggests quite a geographical spread. Within Wales, it also appeared in the Monmouthshire Merlin in 1862 (edition of 4 October), so it seems to have been doing the rounds for a couple of years at least.

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Week 3 – final edits and the aesthetics of space

You may remember that I posted last July about a writing project I’d decided to take on. Well, just six months on, week 3 of this year saw me doing the final edits on the print-ready PDF of the whole thing before it went to press a few days ago – yay! It’s hard to believe how fast it’s all gone, the sheer volume of work and effort that were involved, the amount I’ve learned and the new skills and responsibilities it’s brought. I can’t wait until it finally comes out – I think the publication date is in March (watch this space…).

Any writing project brings with it serious considerations about use of space. In the academic writing I did in the distant past, word counts and style sheets were the all-important units of measurement. Writing for the commercial educational sector brings further constraints, most significantly the need to plan content for each page of each chapter in detail before you’ve even started, and the need for your units to fit onto the page format of the final product. For the first publication of this kind I did, I didn’t really know in advance what kind of space per page was going to be available and this led to much agonizing cutting of material in the latter editing stages (and given that this then had a knock-on effect for the solutions section and the glossary, it was all the more of a headache as a result). For another project, where limited space was a major and deliberate feature, the template I was given to insert content into was so detailed that it more or less automatically generated a WYSIWYG final format and I could see immediately where I needed to economize. This latest project has been somewhere in between these two extremes. While the document template took into account page size/layout and roughly managed things like font size and spacing for the different types and functions of text on any given page, there was still a lot of guesswork regarding how much space various other essential non-textual elements might take up.

Most significantly, this publication was to have lots of full-colour pictures, ranging from thumbnails to double-page spreads, and these in fact accounted for many of these unknown quantities regarding space. The necessity for me to think of the illustration aspect at all times really added a further major layer of planning to the whole project and one that proved at least as complex as the generation of text “content” – and this, I think, was the biggest eye-opener of the whole experience. In many instances I could just indicate where I wanted a photo of what, and someone else would later have the task of sourcing suitable images, but I was also given a list of stock photo sites I could use to source particular images if I wished to do so. I think this combination of perceived freedoms gave me a bit too much ill-founded confidence at first: it was tempting to think the world was my oyster and that I would find a photo of anything I damn well wanted via the powerful search engines each stock photo provider offered, or that writing “please insert photo of x here” would be the end of the matter. Wrong. Big fat wrong.

It was only when I was part of the way through the project that I started actively trying to select my own choice of images for inclusion, having decided that since I do have ideas about what sorts of photos I like and what I don’t, I might as well exercise this choice. And it was at this point that my naivety became blatantly obvious – no, you cannot simply find a picture of this or that brand, this or that paid tourist attraction, or this or that celebrity on stock photo sites, or at least not for any kind of commercial use. This set me into a spiral of despair at first as it necessitated rethinking a number of activities I had planned to base around just these kinds of pictures. Ultimately, though, it led to me having simply to think rather more creatively about how to adapt to the constraints I’d discovered, and although the frustration at not finding a picture of this or that did continue to the end, I think it’s true to say that rather more good ideas were born of this restriction than were nipped in the bud by it. [Insert pithy quote about adversity and creativity here :)]

Needless to say, it was quite something to receive the “semi-final” PDF version of the final document, all typeset, in full colour and with all the photos, for detailed proofreading and final tweaks. What needed to be changed at this stage wasn’t generated so much by mistakes – almost all of these had been nit-pickingly spotted and eradicated earlier – or by the desire to reformulate something more impressively / simply / effectively, but rather by aesthetics and more immediate, measurable considerations of space and spacing. This sentence needed to be shortened so that it didn’t run on to a second line or have such an awkward line break, or that item should be deleted or moved so that there was enough space for the picture / map / diagram; here something needed to be moved up or across a bit, while there some colour-coded items needed to be swapped around so that the overall impression was better balanced visually. It was quite a different kind of scrutiny and editing dictated by often very different considerations from what would govern a purely text-based entity, but I have to say that I enjoyed this challenge a great deal.

So now my work is done, and I can breathe a big sigh of relief. Thanks to all those who suffered and stoically put up with my periodic moaning, groaning and gnashing of teeth during this whole project. You know who you are.

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A new project takes shape

As my Facebook friends already know, I was contacted a couple of months ago by an educational publisher I have worked with several times before. The material I have produced for them previously has all been to do with self-study language learning at different levels and in different modes/formats, but this time they asked me if I’d be interested in producing a more “fact-based” book. Both the topic and the type of content* they were looking for immediately appealed to me, but I didn’t immediately say yes: this kind of project obviously brings a lot of extra work with it and when you have a steady full-time job that more than fills your days a lot of the time, you don’t necessarily hold your hand out for more. On the other hand, I do know from past experience that this kind of writing keeps you on your toes in a different way, sharpens your mind and brings out a lot of new and differently packaged material that in turn stimulates the production of creative teaching materials – in other words, it’s a valuable form of re-investment.

While I was still in the fairly static phase of mulling these things over, I semi-casually mentioned the matter on Facebook and was immediately bowled over by how enthusiastic everyone else was about this kind of project. Those working in academic research reminded me of the hoops you have to jump through just to get an article published, let alone a book, while others who are in various branches of the teaching profession were also fired up by the idea of reaching a wider audience beyond the familiar class/student profile. Ultimately I was convinced that this was an opportunity that I needed to grab, and I’m very grateful to everyone who helped me take that decision.

Now, several weeks later, I’m several steps further on – they asked for some sample content based on the basic outline I’d been given, which I provided, and they were pleased with that, saying that I could certainly actually use most of it in the finished product and that the contract was mine if I wanted it. I said yes.

My first submission deadline is tomorrow – a detailed chapter-by-chapter, page-by-page(!) breakdown of the content I plan to include. I’ve been working on it solidly the last couple of days and it’s now FINISHED. It’s all subject to change, of course, depending on the feedback I get from the project manager and the person who’s been assigned as my editor, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they’ll like the basic outline…

* I’m being intentionally vague here as I’m under contractual obligation not to divulge details (sorry!)

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My top 5 cookbooks

Today I’m taking inspiration from Ruth, whose post on this topic made me curious as to which cookery books I’d select from my largish collection as being my favourites. In the end the choice was quite simple – there really is only a handful of recipe books that I keep going back to again and again. So here are my five, with a brief bit of information about what makes each one  a firm favourite…

1. Good Housekeeping Cookery Book

50th Anniversary edition – published by Random House, 1998

If I had to pick just one cookery book to keep from here to eternity, I think this would be it. Unless I’m looking for something from a particular cuisine (e.g. Indian), this is invariably the place I look first for inspiration. It strikes – for me – exactly the right balance between traditional and modern, familiar and unfamiliar, manageable and challenging, healthy and tasty, text and pictures. It is mercifully free of both pretentiousness and over-simplification while including really helpful selections on buying, storing and preparing everyday foodstuffs as well as more unusual ingredients.

For me, the test of a good cookery book is whether most of the recipes are such that, if they were to appear in a magazine, you would cut them out and keep them. I can open this book at any page and immediately find something delicious.

As a result, it’s extremely difficult to pick out a favourite recipe or two, but the rabbit casserole with red wine and sherry and the filo pastries with feta and herb filling are certainly a couple that I’ve made quite often.

2. The Essential Vegetarian Cookbook

(German edition: Vegetarische Küche)

Originally published by Konemann UK, 1997

I’m not a vegetarian, but I eat a lot of food that is, plus I have several friends who don’t eat meat. Given that it’s not healthy to eat meat every day in any case, I get exasperated at people who either think it’s not a proper meal if it doesn’t contain meat, or whose world order disintegrates if it turns out that one of their dinner guests is vegetarian.

The back story to this recipe book is that M and I originally bought it as a gift for a friend who was finding it hard to find inspiring things to cook for his vegetarian partner and had developed an “awkward” tendency to diss vegetarian food. Sensing that a gentle nudge in the right direction was needed, we chose carefully, wanting to avoid anything that was too reminiscent of his “rabbit food and lentils” stereotype of vegetarian food and looking instead for something that fitted in with his own tastes.

This book ticked all the right boxes – modern, fresh ideas with plenty of Mediterranean influences as well as forays into Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines: exactly the kinds of things our friend loves to cook (and so do we, which is why we ended up buying a second copy of the book). There is also an excellent section on nutrition at the front of the book, which is well worth a read in itself and is certainly not restricted to vegetarians in its scope.

This being a very recent addition to the cookbook shelves, I haven’t actually made any of the recipes yet but have already pored over it for hours working up quite an appetite. I love the look (and the imagined flavour) of the hummus with beetroot, there’s a great-sounding carrot lasagne (yes, really!), and I can’t wait to try some of the savoury scones, muffins and polenta recipes.

3. 50 Great Curries of India by Camellia Panjabi

(German edition: Indische Currys)

originally published by Kyle Cathie, 2004

Funnily enough, this book was a gift from the friend mentioned above, and although I already possessed several Indian cookery books (including The Curry Cookbook, a throwback to my student days…), this one quickly became my favourite.

It’s an almost ritualistic book – each recipe is prefaced by an interesting explanation of any unusual features and about the part of India and/or cultural milieu the dish comes from, and Panjabi cuts no corners in the preparation of each: no ready-made spice mixes, purees or pastes are used, and whole spices form the starting point for almost all the recipes.

The detailed introduction is a real culinary eye-opener and adds considerably to this ritualistic feel, explaining – among other things – the philosophy of Indian cuisine, the impact that the method and order of preparing / adding your spices has on the flavour of the dish (dry-roasting, frying in oil, when to add liquid etc.), the importance of balancing ingredients such as ginger and garlic (the former raises blood pressure, while the latter lowers is), and different ways of using and combining ingredients.

My favourite recipes from this book are the lamb madras, chicken dopiaza, and aubergine curry. The most surprisingly delicious one has to be the watermelon curry, which I thought would be awful but actually works really well.

4. Backen! (= Baking!)

(only available in German, as far as I know)

published by Gräfe & Unzer, 2005

I don’t bake much as I find it quite scary, and the reason I find it scary is probably that I don’t bake much. Nevertheless, I thought it was important to have a good staple cookery book for baked goods so that I couldn’t use the lack of a suitable book as a further reason not to wield the hand-mixer. And this is the one I settled on.

Its 450-odd pages are jam-packed with recipes, usefully subdivided into common or garden cakes, cakes with fresh fruit, gateaux (Torten), muffins and pastries, biscuits and cookies, bread, pizza and savouries, with the odd but welcome addition of a final – and very detailed – section on coffee and tea. Most sections are further divided according to what kind of pastry, dough or cake mixture  (the word Teig covers all of these) forms the basis for the recipe – Rührteig, Mürbteig, Hefeteig, Blätterteig, Brandteig, Plunderteig, Sauerteig, Quark-Öl-Teig or whatever.

I have a friend who is a very proficient baker, and she dislikes this book as it doesn’t have any pictures. “I want to see how it’ll look when it’s finished!” she protests. Given that the stuff I bake only rarely comes out looking as it’s supposed to, I hardly feel that I need see this as a disadvantage. While pretty pictures can be appetizing and nice to look at, there’s nothing I dislike more than cookery books where more than 50% of the entire book consists of pictures. This book contains 888 recipes, and that’s the reason why I bought it.

My occasional forays into baking have seen me make several of the savouries in this book – they’re fantastic for parties, picnics or feeding a crowd in other situations – and there’s a rather fabulous baked cherry ricotta cheesecake with an amarettini base and almond topping. Yum!

5. Farmhouse Kitchen

published by Yorkshire Television, 1975

This is a 1970s cookery book based on the Yorkshire TV series of the same name. It has a glorious naffness to it as a result, but also some hidden jewels that are priceless – please bear with me while I explain.

As the name suggests, the emphasis is on traditional cooking, and as I’m someone who’s interested in the history of food and its part in culture, that’s something I’m all for preserving. Many of the recipes are submitted by viewers from all over the country, so there is a lot in terms of regional variety. There are some pretty odd sounding concoctions in part (there is one recipe called “Love in disguise” which seems to be stuffed sheep’s hearts, and a “Thatched house pie” that requires “1 dressed pigeon”(??) as its main ingredient), including some of those inimitable 1970s attempts at crossover cuisine: sausages in sweet and sour sauce, anyone?

Many of the recipes still bear the signs of postwar thrift – using cheaper cuts of meat, making the most of leftovers, preserving food – and reveal skills and a standard of nutritional value many people struggle to keep up with today. It’s good to have a book like this in the house, to remind you of what home economics really is about.

Despite the oddness of some of the recipes, there are some really reliable ones for traditional favourites such as Yorkshire parkin, old-fashioned puddings (pineapple upside-down pudding – yay!) and a whole range of good, wholesome comfort food. I’m also determined to try some of the pickles and chutneys, maybe even the wine recipes.

The best thing about this book, though, is the fact that it belonged to my grandmother, and I kept it mainly because here and there in between the pages there are scraps of paper she’d scribbled her own recipe memos on (some of these pre-date the book, including one for home made “pietsa” (her spelling was actually very good, but pizza was simply not so common in Britain back then)), or newspaper cuttings, leaflets and so on. The value of the book itself only became apparent to me later.

Snippets from Grandma's cookery book

If you are interested in seeing what other people picked as their top 5 cookbooks, you can find out here.

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On not judging a book by its cover

Earlier this week, Richard Coles (@RevRichardColes) posted the following story on Twitter. I found it so striking that I asked if I could reproduce it here (he kindly said yes).

Talked to a woman tonight who grew up in tough town in north east of England and in her teens it all went horribly wrong … [O]ne day her teacher told her to stay after class and instead of the bollocking she was expecting he said ‘you think you’re nothing but you’re not’, and gave her a copy of ‘1984’. And then another book a week later and then another. Her friends’ lives stalled, one dying of a heroin overdose that could have killed her; but she went on to Cambridge and a PhD and is now a priest – because someone disagreed with her self-assessment as worthless and gave her a book.

This tale really speaks for itself, so I’m not going to distract from its value with a long commentary. What is clear, though, is not just the enduring power of books and reading as food for the soul, spirit or whatever you want to call it, but – more pointedly – how important it is to recognize and believe in people’s (often hidden) potential, and to act on your instincts in this area. I have no idea how many other pupils this teacher may have provided with books nor with what degree of  “success”, but somehow that pales into insignificance against the life-changing (or even life-saving) effect it clearly had on this one individual.

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Illiterature

Illiterature_bearbeitet-1Love it or (more often) hate it, poorly formulated and mindnumbingly trivial quizzes are an everyday feature of the Facebook world. This particular description of someone’s quiz result, I think, really takes the biscuit.

I just love the way it on the one hand purports to shed light on literary talent while suggesting that attention to grammatical correctness is as socially acceptable as B.O. Plus who the Dickenson is that author it mentions?

Whoever came up with this should be the very last person to be laughing about it, wright?

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Five more things…

My friend Kavey suggested a new Five Things meme in which you tell someone else what you associate with them, and ask them to elaborate. So, here are the things she came up with for me.

1. (Foreign) Language and Literature

I’ve always loved language in general, and especially the way that the systems of different languages relate to one another. It makes for a complex puzzle of logic, with a degree of illogicality thrown in to keep it interesting. I have done languages not so much to increase my chance of communicating around the world, but more for this systematic / systemic approach and the window it gives you into different thought systems in different cultures.

Doing foreign literature was initially a necessary evil rather than a choice, but I did enjoy aspects of it. Favourite sorts of literature experienced include the Expressionist poetry and drama I did a course on during my BA, and the wonderfully named MA module “Sex, Lies and Manuscripts” in which we looked at medieval antifeminist (and protofeminist) literature from France, Italy and England.

I ended up doing a PhD on medieval German poetry. I’m not too sure how I feel about that at the moment – let’s say that it sometimes has something  albatross-like about it in both conversational and vocational terms – though the title “Dr” comes in handy occasionally.

The best move ever was to do A-level English literature. I cursed it at the time, but it taught me a lot more about my cultural heritage than anything else I have done (with the exception of O-level history).

2. Germany

Germany is where I have lived for the last almost 12 years.

Why? OK, I studied German, but that is only part of the story. There were family connections and school / orchestra exchanges that also influenced me positively when I was growing up, plus we had an excellent German teacher at school, ergo German outlasted French in my education.

Actually moving to Germany was not an entirely conscious choice. In 1997 my PhD scholarship was running out, and my supervisor suggested I go for a teaching job at one of our partner universities, Tübingen. Got the job, breathed a sigh of relief in financial terms, swallowed hard in emotional terms and told myself it was only for two years and that it might look good on my CV…

I’m not going to go into a “what I like / don’t like about Germany” excursus at this point. If anyone wants to know anything specific, you can ask me :)

3. Photography

I had very, very little interest in photography until May 2006. I was recovering from an icky bout of depression at the time and looking for new impetus creatively and socially, plus my then partner was into photography. I tagged along (I choose that expression deliberately) to one of the get-togethers organized by Kavey in London, armed with a point-and-shoot that my Dad had given me, to try to disguise the fact that I was a hanger-on. It was a daunting experience in the sense that I was still somewhat nervous around strangers and the technical talk went over my head at a million miles an hour, but everyone was so lovely and I suddenly found myself on an exciting treasure hunt, looking around for things to take pictures of and takng time to compose my shots. To cut a long story short, I was soon hooked. Here is one of the shots I took that day.

I pursue colour, detail and form in my photography, very much aesthetic goals rather than photojournalistic or purely technical ones. I like my pictures to look like the kind of paintings I like – abstract, expressionist, colourful. Occasionally purists will rail at me for boosting the colours beyond what looks natural. But hey, they are my pictures and they portray what I want to see / be seen.

4. Wales

I guess I’m one of those people who feels a greater attachment to where they are from if they are further away from it. I never felt particularly Welsh when I was living in Wales, but these days I sometimes feel very Welsh, depending on what is going on (be it a rugby match, exposure to some annoying Little Englanders, hearing a particular piece of music or whatever). Don’t ask me to define how this feels – it is neither static nor entirely definable.

It can be tough being a Welsh person in Germany. You find yourself sounding like a broken record when you tell someone for the nth time that no, Wales is not in England. Likely outcomes of this is that they think you are some nutty insular equivalent of a Bavarian separatist, you are a pedant, or you are indelibly marked down in their memory as That Exotic Welsh Person who is wheeled out on social occasions to provide quaint Celtic charm and required to give the Welsh angle on everything under the sun.

I wish I could speak Welsh better, as I said in a recent post here. For the first few years at school, we were subjected to a trendy, apparently antiauthoritarian approach to language teaching that omitted the grammar bit. Disastrous for me, as it meant I couldn’t extrapolate anything and didn’t have my beloved linguistic system to lean upon. The upshot of this was that I was far more resistent to speaking Welsh than to other languages.

5. Teaching

This is going to sound boastful, but I am proud to be a part of the fourth generation of teachers on both sides of my family, and the second generation of university teachers.

Having said that, until I was 26 the one thing I could say with any certainty that I most definitely did NOT want to do for a living was… guess what! The thought of having to be authoritative, knowledgeable and command people’s respect and attention was something I thought I simply didn’t have in me.

And then I ended up in a full-time teaching job in Tübingen, as mentioned above, and to my great surprise loved it from day one. It was a combination of things: the students were around my age so there was a peer-group atmosphere that we all enjoyed rather than a scary hierarchical relationship. They seemed dedicated on the whole, and to my great surprise they seemed largely to appreciate what I did for them, even expressing enjoyment at times. I, meanwhile, was on a very steep learning curve in terms of both subject matter and teaching methods, but I loved the challenge and the feeling that I was imparting knowledge and skills in a subject area that really mattered.

Nowadays, of course, the students are younger (!) and the atmosphere in class perhaps not quite so matey, but I value the fact that students tend to comment on the positive, motivating atmosphere in my classes, and they seem to continue to enjoy what I do (within reason – there are boring bits that I still need to work on). It’s a hugely rewarding job for me.

What about you?

If you’d like to leave a comment on this post, I’ll be happy to nominate five things that I associate with you, which you can then expound upon in your own blog (or we can find some other solution, if you don’t have a blog :)). Also, if there are other things you associate with me more strongly than these things, I’d be intrigued to know and would be happy to comment on those.

Do please provide a link to your blog if you do your own version of these five things.

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Books

I was an avid reader as a child and teenager, but my eight years spent as a student and having to read stuff constantly for university largely – and sadly – put paid to the idea of reading for pleasure. However, a couple of years ago I was invited to join an English-language reading group here in Freiburg, set up by a friend together with a colleague of hers, and I’ve grown to love it.

We meet monthly to discuss a book, and the suggestions for books to read come from within the group. We’re fairly international, with three Americans, two Brits (one Scottish, one Welsh), a South African and three Germans (all with absolutely excellent English), and I think all of us come from a background where we have studied, taught and/or been engaged professionally in some other way with English literature.

Here are some brief comments on my six favourites out of the books we have read. NO spoilers here:

What I Loved – Siri Hustvedt

A wonderful tale about two families in New York. The head of one is an art historian, while the other father is an artist whose work has become a source of fascination for the former. The reader explores the interaction between these families over a period of 25 years, which covers triumphs and losses, struggles and success, and it is a wonderful intermingling of personal fate and ways of looking at and living with art.

The Lambs of London – Peter Ackroyd

This book explores the complex relationship between the famous literary siblings Charles and Mary Lamb and the well-known forger (of Shakespeare, among other things) William Henry Ireland. It is wonderfully evocative of 19th-century London and contains elements of a love story, deceit, social pressures derived from a factual background.

Headlong – Michael Frayn

Art history and criticism form the main basis for this book, too. A philosopher married to an art historian discovers some paintings in an old house and becomes convinced that he has discovered lost work by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It’s a wonderful detective story about determination, red herrings and someone who is willing to risk everything to prove the discovery of the century. A cast of amusing characters completes the picture.

On Beauty – Zadie Smith

I read Smith’s White Teeth a few years ago and remain convinced that it is the best portrayal of multicultural life in late 20th century Britain that I have read. On Beauty didn’t quite measure up in this sense, but it is a wonderful variant on the campus novel, focusing on a British academic and his American rival. Art history, literary and cultural theory provide the academic strand here (again!), but the interactions and (mis)understandings between the two families are the main source of interest. Since then I have read David Lodge’s Small World, which I found similar in some ways (academic milieu / rivalry, trans-Atlantic differences), though Smith’s take is more serious and intricate, while Lodge’s is more flippant.

Possession - A. S. Byatt

This has to be one of the best books I have ever read. It has an awful lot in common with the other books already mentioned, in that it is a literary mystery, this time spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, intertwining the story of Victorian poets and their 20th century scholars and biographers.  Social mores, academic rivalry and the notion of “possession” in the sense of relationships and academic criticism are explored in an extremely intricate work that I found utterly convincing.

Fingersmith - Sarah Waters

I have always loved Victorian novels, and this is a modern novel set in the Victorian age. The fate of a poor girl who has grown up among thieves and diverse other “dishonest” types becomes indelibly linked with that of a “poor little rich girl” who has ostensibly been shielded from all of the above. Needless to say, many things are not as they seem initially, and the narrative takes the form of an unusual love story that spans social gulfs, cruelty, fetishism and madness, and which takes numerous unexpected turns in the process. It really makes you wonder about the saying “be cruel to be kind” and its opposite.

In January we will be discussing Kazuo Ishiguru’s When We Were Orphans, which was my suggestion for our next book. We’ll have to wait and see how that goes down…

In the meantime, if any of you have read any of the books discussed here, or books by the same authors, I’d love to receive some feedback on whether you liked them.

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