Death and the Dancing Footman – Ngaio Marsh

Part of the Ngaio Marsh million, one hundred thousand copies of each of ten books by Marsh published by Penguin Books in July 1949, this is one of the three books included that had not been published by Penguin prior to this collection. I have reviewed one of the other titles included, ‘Enter a Murderer’, back in August 2018 as part of the ‘first Penguin crime set‘ which were all first published by Penguin in August 1938. As I explained at the time:

New Zealand’s Ngaio Marsh was considered in her time to be one of the ‘Queens of Crime’ along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham and is best known for her detective stories featuring Roderick Alleyn of the London Metropolitan Police. 

This is another of those Chief Detective Inspector Alleyn crime mysteries. As a general rule most crime novels of the 1930’s and 1940’s clock in at about 200 to 225 pages but this one is surprisingly long for the period at 315 pages in the Penguin edition and I have to say that it is a very slow starter with scene setting and character introductions meaning that it doesn’t really get going until around page 70. If I hadn’t been convinced of Marsh’s ability to spin a tale I might have given up before then but it is well worth hanging on in there. The story is a twist on the ‘locked room’ type of crime novel in that the victim and the murderer are from the fixed group of people we have been introduced to, in this case because the grand country house that they are all in is surrounded by impassable snowdrifts and even the phone lines are down so they can have no contact with the outside world. That it is established early on in the novel that Alleyn is taking a break in the nearest village to where the murder takes place allows Marsh to bring him in even though he is clearly out of his jurisdiction but he is the only policeman anyone can get hold of.

The premise of the story is that Jonathan Royal, the owner of Highfold, decides to give a house party and for his own amusement chooses a group of people who all, for one reason or another, have an antagonistic feeling regarding at least one of the other guests. It is implied that he is hoping for some sort of reconciliation in one or more of the disagreements but will be quite happy if this doesn’t happen and is confident in his ability as a host to at least hold the group together. It will be a sort of unscripted play and with this in mind he has also invited a neutral player. Aubrey Mandrake is an avant garde, if not surrealist playwright who knows none of the other guests, Royal has backed some of his plays and has now invited him to be the audience in his own experimental theatre. Due to the animosity between the guests each has has a reason for, if not murder, then at least wishing harm to another and all these various hostilities are explained right at the start of the book as Jonathan Royal brings Mandrake into his confidence as to what he has planned. The complicated relationships between the other seven guests and the need to go into detail about them is one of the reasons for the slow start and it is only later as the interactions unfold that you realise that you actually need all that information in order to keep track of the various goings on.

Much to my surprise I got the murderer right, well before the denouement, although not all the finer detail as to how it was done, or rather how the alibi was done. Alleyn of course regarded the solution as trivial and he had largely wrapped up the case in his mind within a couple of hours of arriving at Highfold, his problem was proving it especially without access to his usual fellow policemen. All in all an excellent read for a dull and rainy July weekend and I do like a good detective story as a means of giving your brain a workout.

As an aside, I did like that characters in this book are clearly readers of detective fiction, in particular Dorothy L Sayers’ very popular Lord Peter Wimsey tales. On page 206 of this edition they reference Busman’s Honeymoon which I reviewed in September 2020.

“Could Hart have set a second booby trap.” “Do you mean could he have done something with that frightful weapon that would make it fall on …? Is that what you mean?”
“Yes. I can’t get any further, though. I can’t think of anything”
“A ‘Busman’s Honeymoonish’ sort of contraption? But there are no hanging flower-pots at Highfold”

Death and the Dancing Footman was first published in 1942 although mine is the first Penguin edition from 1949. Busman’s Honeymoon had come out just five years earlier in 1937 but had clearly been a major seller if Marsh could so easily drop in a reference to it. There is a slight nod to the plot of Busman’s Honeymoon in the solution to this case although the hint taken from the murder method in that book in the quote above is also a diversion from the actual method in this one so it was clearly a much loved book by Marsh.

Kindred – Rebecca Wragg Sykes

Subtitled ‘Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art’ this book gives a comprehensive overview of not just what we know about Neanderthals but also how we got to this level of knowledge where such a book covering those topics and many more could be written. A superb piece of research that has deservedly been one of the science highlights of the last year, it only came out in the summer of last year and has yet to appear in paperback but my copy is already the seventh impression of the hardback which suggests excellent sales. The real surprise, to me at least, is just how much our knowledge of Neanderthals has advanced in the last two decades due to much better archaeological techniques which more accurately map the various strata of a dig and the positioning of thousands of objects but also from the DNA analysis that is now possible.

Although aimed at the interested amateur Sykes makes some assumptions regarding the knowledge of the reader in the terminology she uses. For example ‘analysing the calculus’ is not explained for well over a hundred pages from when it is first used. When it is defined it turns out to mean studying the teeth, or more specifically the residues built up on the teeth of the fossil remains rather than the obviously wrong, but entertaining until proved otherwise, that Neanderthals had somehow grasped differential mathematics. The complexity of various rock knapping techniques and how this helps define groups of Neanderthals who must therefore have interacted with each other is very well explained although I would have liked more diagrams to illustrate this to make the differences clearer. The last time I read a book on this subject was definitely over two decades ago so a vast amount of information in this book was new to me and as it is 380 pages long there is a huge quantity to take in.

It is very well written, and whilst the necessary vocabulary did sometimes have me checking on Google to make sure I understood this was a relatively rare occurrence as for the most part terms are explained as they are needed, with the obvious exception of calculus, however a small glossary at the back along with the detailed index would have been useful. Sykes can’t resist the occasional pun either such as ‘harvest the data’ when referring to gathering evidence of plant eating and this lightens the tone of what could have been in a lesser writers hands quite a dry study making it very readable and engaging.

The opening chapter deals with the slow growth of knowledge about Neanderthals from when they were first discovered just over 160 years ago and then through the book we are introduced to the 99 sites that remains have been discovered at right across not only Europe, which was their heartland but the ones in the near and far east which I had never heard about, there is a useful map on the front end papers which shows this spread. As you would expect from such an all encompassing subtitle Sykes attempts to not just document the artefacts found but also place them into context of the living, breathing people that used them. Just how would such a chipped rock be used? Were they making personal adornments? What can the spread of hearths (areas where a fire was lit rather than necessarily anything physically built) within a cave complex tell us about the size of the population using the shelter or the timescales that a place was used? How did they co-exist not just with each other within clan groups but with other clans and even Homo Sapiens when they appeared on the scene moving into Europe from their African homelands hundreds of thousands of years later? All of this and more is covered, it is definitely a book that will repay rereading in a few months to fully take in the sheer mass of information.

According to her introduction Sykes completed the book in June 2020 and hints at several, as yet unpublished, studies that she has clearly had access to meaning that this truly is as up to date as it was possible to be. But with the indicated speed of advances, especially in DNA analysis, either a revised and updated version or even a second volume must be a possibility in a few years time. Even the fact that she completed the book during lock down for the coronavirus pandemic becomes significant, we still don’t know why Neanderthals disappeared, was there perhaps a contagion brought by Homo Sapiens that further weakened the existing population, struggling as it was with climatic changes 40 thousand years ago as the continent swung from glaciation to warmer temperatures and back again. Of course they never truly went away, DNA analysis proves this, modern humans, at least outside those of African descent, have a small percentage of Neanderthal DNA and knowing this the story of this ‘lost’ people gains even more relevance today.

The one criticism that I do have is the unnecessary fanciful opening sections to each chapter in either prose or verse, lasting between a half and a full page of text, they add nothing to the rest of the work but fortunately can be easily skipped as they are in italic. Clearly influenced by Jean Auel and her very good Earth’s Children series of novels set in the time of the Neanderthals, I started off reading these chapter preambles but after chapter five just left them out.

Three Letters from The Andes – Patrick Leigh Fermor

In 1971 Patrick Leigh Fermor, already by then a respected travel writer, but still six years before he published his best known work ‘A Time of Gifts’, went with five friends to the Andes in Peru. This book consists of three long letters to his wife although he never actually posted the third one as he didn’t finish it until he was on his way home. The expedition was part of a trip organised by his fellow members of the Andean Society in London using privately chartered aircraft to get to and from Peru from London and Fermor’s friends were intent on exploring and scaling the peaks of a relatively unknown part of the Andes mountain range. If all this sounds expensive then it probably was but Fermor and his colleagues could certainly afford it, most of the party were highly experienced climbers:

  • Robin Fedden – Leader of this expedition, Deputy Director-General of Historic Buildings for The National Trust, a writer and diplomat
  • Renee Fedden – Robin’s wife and co leader of the expedition
  • Carl Natar – Ex world ski champion and London manager of famous jewellers Cartier for three decades
  • Andre Choremi – Lawyer and social anthropologist

Along with them were a couple of non climbers

  • Andrew Cavendish – 11th Duke of Devonshire and a keen amateur botanist looking for rare plants to grow at his stately home Chatsworth House in Derbyshire
  • Patrick Fermor – travel writer, just along to spend six weeks with his friends and explore the area with them.

The letters were not intended for publication, and it took twenty years before they were, after what Fermor describes as a general tidy up but not much. That these were originally just letters leads to the main criticism levelled at the book in that it is not as polished as his other works and it feels more like an old boys outing with irrelevant chit chat coming to the fore. Well yes, these are letters to his wife who knew most, if not all, the other people involved and recording the conversations between them is entirely right in that context. I quite like the chattiness of the style and I raced through the book, reading it in just two sessions, as I found it quite difficult to put down once I had started reading. It is full of beautiful descriptive passages as he tries to convey the beauty of the surroundings. To illustrate this I’m just going to open the book at random and quote whatever I find.

The mountains draw back of either side of an airy lift and fall of savannah. As our caravan picked its way over the edge and headed downhill, orange-flowered organ-cactus and myrtle and tamarisk rose up and the air began to smell of spice. There was a blazing sky of very pale blue.

From the second letter

You could almost be there, in just three short sentences Fermor has captured his environs perfectly and as I said this is literally a random sample, not a passage I had picked out in advance, opening the book anywhere will show his talent to take the reader with him which would be displayed fully in his masterpiece of travel writing, ‘A Time for Gifts’. After the climbing expedition the friends head off to Lake Titicaca where they end up in a terrible hotel and the sections covering their always exasperating dealings with the manager and the chef who appears to be incapable of even boiling an egg successfully are very funny. A sudden announcement that there is actually hot water for a change will have the group dive for the showers only for the water to turn icy cold just as they were starting to enjoy finally getting clean. You have to wonder if the manager was incompetent or simply didn’t care about the people staying there. It was only when Andrew in frustration at yet another rock hard egg for breakfast threw it across the dining room did conditions start to improve.

As usual with Fermor the book is thoroughly entertaining and I definitely recommend it.

Little Tales of Misogyny – Patricia Highsmith

After a huge book last week, Dune at 556 pages, it’s time for something a lot shorter and amazingly seventeen of Patricia Highsmith’s short stories fit into this little book of just 90 pages. Although aware of her name I have to admit that I’d never read anything by her before picking up this volume printed as part of the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of Penguin Books in 1995.

Well for such a short book the death rate was incredibly high, the main question you face when you start each short story is who is going to die and how? That Highsmith manages to keep this to herself until usually the last few lines is a tribute to her storytelling ability and the variety of the situations she places her characters in. What I must point out is that the title is somewhat misleading as both men and women come out badly throughout the book and you wouldn’t want to spend any social time with any of them. The first story has this as it’s opening line

A young man asked a father for his daughter’s hand and received it, in a box – her left hand.

The Hand by Patricia Highsmith

Having had that idea a lesser writer would have made the arrival of the hand the punchline to the tale, but no, Highsmith opens with it and then tells the story of what happened next. The book is full of twists, you can rarely guess how a story will turn out, the longest one, at ten pages, is a case in point. ‘The Breeder’ starts out as a simple tale of a newly married young couple who want children but are having problems conceiving; that it turns into a darkly comic tale and a descent into madness could not be anticipated from the homely beginning. Indeed some form of madness or at least a compulsive mania is the basis to several of the plots and Highsmith is clearly a master of the short story genre and some of these are very short. ‘The Hand’ is just two and a half pages long as is ‘The Coquette’ but both manage to tell a full story, you don’t even notice how short they are, there is just so much going on.

This taster of Highsmith has made me want to read more. Along with numerous short stories she wrote twenty two novels, the first of which, Strangers on a Train, was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1951 film although the adaptation strays significantly from the book. She also wrote the much better known novel ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ and its four sequels which continue to follow the exploits of serial killer Tom Ripley, the first three of which have also been made into films.

Dune – Frank Herbert

Where to begin writing about this strange, amazing and above all weighty science fiction classic, my copy is 556 pages excluding the appendices, it was also the joint winner of the 1966 Hugo award and the first ever winner of the Nebular Award for Best Novel in the same year, these two awards are considered the pinnacle of Science Fiction. The breadth of Herbert’s achievement in writing this complex masterpiece is so impressive and I knew I needed to read it before the new films finally come out, after all this copy has been sitting on my shelves for a decade now so this would be the push I needed to open it at last and what a way for a book to start.

So many questions are raised right at the beginning and some, like the identity of the Princess Irulan and her significance, are not answered until almost the very end of the novel, despite extracts from her various works appearing throughout the book. These extracts provided convenient stopping points whilst reading as despite its length there are only three chapters and the sheer number of characters and the complexity of their interactions mean that you really need to stop and assimilate what you have read far more often than that.

Arrakis is a desert planet, hence its other name of Dune, and it is populated by the Fremen, a people who are supremely adapted to the conditions both by natural adaption and technology such as their clothes that preserve and recycle all moisture from their bodies. There are many dangers to the desert besides the heat though, the desert of Dune is populated by giant sandworms capable of swallowing whole vehicles and even aircraft that trespass into their domain. It is also the only source of melange, better known as spice, which is a drug which extends life and expands mental powers especially amongst those who have been trained to exploit it such as the pilots of starships, who need it to foresee dangers, and the Bene Gesserit, but more of them later. This drug is so coveted amongst the Great Houses that rule the interplanetary systems that control of Arrakis is seen as one of the great prizes and as the novel starts the House of Atreides is set to take over from the House of Harkonnen as fief rulers under the Emperor although it is also clear that this is in someway a trap. The Duke Leto Atreides arrives on Arrakis with his Bene Gesserit concubine Lady Jessica and son Paul along with his retinue and a well equipped military right at the start of the book and the sense of danger is clear but the source of the danger is not. The various Houses are clearly based of the power structure in medieval Europe with their own armies and rule over their domains although subject to the overall power of the Emperor, right I sort of understand the structure here, a solid enough base in history to take a story set far in the future and then you hit the Bene Gesserit.

The Bene Gesserit form a sisterhood that because of their powers are much sought after as advisers and consorts to the powerful planetary rulers, who little realise the control that these women have gained over the whole empire over the millennia and that their true allegiance is to the sisterhood. Only females can survive the rituals involved in attaining full awareness as a Reverend Mother but they have been searching, and selective breeding, for a male that would gain the ultimate power of time perception and mental control over themselves and others for centuries. This quasi-religious, and political grouping adds another layer and complexity to the story. The other group that you follow through the book are the Fremen who live away from the protected settlement where off worlders can exist out in the desert. These are clearly based on the Bedouin and some words and concepts from from the Muslim faith are used in association with them, specifically jihad, or holy war, which here refers to their fight back against the controlling Houses imposed upon them. It may seem that I am providing a lot of spoilers but everything mentioned above is all laid out within the first few pages of the book and the story develops from there, it really is a well grounded world that Herbert creates and sets his characters off into.

My copy is from the Gollancz 50th Anniversary set from 2011 which also included Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes, The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, Eric by Terry Pratchett, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, Hyperion by Dan Simmons, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells and The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. For their 50th anniversary, Gollancz put the call out for readers to vote on what they considered to be the top ten books to come out of the publishing company in the past 50 years. When the results were in, Gollancz announced the winners and published them in iconic retro covers reminiscent of the classic covers that first drew me to more adult science fiction. I discovered science fiction well before I hit my teens and worked my way through the child and what would now be called the young adult sections at my local library pretty rapidly but upstairs, above the children’s section of the library in the adult science fiction area I found whole shelves of hardback books all bound in yellow covers with no pictures on the cover just text in a bold standard font and they called to me…

These were the books that marked a transition from works aimed at young readers to those for adults and although I never read Dune at the time, even for a precocious young teenager this book was daunting, this was where I first came across the title and now I’ve finally read it. It’s only taken just over forty years to get there but it was well worth the wait as I doubt I would have got as much out of the book if I had tackled it in the mid 1970’s when I first picked it up and then put it back on the library shelf. If you haven’t read it, don’t take as long to get round to it as I did, now I just have to wait for the much delayed first film from Denis Villeneuve and hope that this adaptation has finally managed to capture the breadth and depth of the original novel.

The Dutch Riveter : Edition 9 – Edited by West Camel

I picked this up from my local bookshop the other week and have been thoroughly entertained by this selection from modern Dutch writing and amazingly it’s free. This is volume 9 and was launched on the 17th March 2021 via an online event from the British Library. I’d never heard of The Riveter until Megan, the bookshop owner, suggested I might like to read it as she had had some copies dropped off at the shop a few days ago.

The Riveter is a free magazine devoted to riveting European literature in English. The idea is to make international writing popular and accessible to readers everywhere and to celebrate excellent translation and great books from the rest of Europe.

The Riveter was launched in 2017 by the European Literature Network. Professionally edited and published by a small dedicated team, it attracts support from a wide range of publishers, authors, translators, critics, academics – and readers. It has achieved acclaim with its special issues on Polish, Russian, Nordic, Baltic, Swiss, Queer, German, Romanian and Dutch literature in English.

From the website of the publisher

It is mainly available online, follow the link in the citation above, but apparently print copies of the Dutch and Romanian versions are readily available in the UK and as I have greatly enjoyed this very professionally produced little volume, 120 pages, I will definitely be looking out for more as I prefer to read an actual book rather than on a screen. I’ll just pick out a few highlights for me:

Someone Who Means It, by Maartje Wortel. Translated by Sarah Welling and Margie Franzen. This short story, which was first printed in 2015, is appearing for the first time in English translation. It’s eleven pages long so represents almost ten percent of the total book but it’s worth the dominance of space it takes up. It’s a story of love and loss, jealousy and passion beautifully told and definitely makes me want to read more by Maartje.

Herman Kock gets one of the subsections, with an extract from his latest book Finse Dagen (Finnish Days) and a review of the most recent one to be fully translated into English, The Ditch. I quite enjoyed the three page extract from Finnish Days and was pretty convinced I wanted to get a copy of The Ditch whilst reading Max Easterman’s largely positive two page review right up until the excoriating final paragraph

Sadly, as the story progresses, Herman Koch doesn’t manage to meld these various strands into a convincing whole: they just don’t hang together. The analytical insight he brings to Robert Walter’s jealousy is dissipated in the final third of the book. The old prejudices about Sylvia’s unnamed country are laid bare, but in the end, the resolution of the story, in which the significance of the ‘ditch’ becomes clear, doesn’t work for me: it is a dying fall, a whimper, which left me wondering: why?

Well that’s one book that needn’t make it to my to be read pile then.

On the other hand Dutch poetry has a huge amount going for it and is well represented here with a two page introduction, twelve pages of poems and a two page review of a poetry collection. Poetry has to be the hardest style of literature to translate for not only does the translator have to manage the words but the flow of the words has to be right. The choice of poems is well done with a good mix of serious and lighthearted works with for me two stand outs from each of those categories. The excellent ‘My Skin’ by Dean Bowen is crying out to be read aloud, this is performance poetry written down and you can’t help reading it out loud to appreciate the rhythm of the words. on the other hand ‘Pitying the Reader’ by Menno Wigman will make any dedicated reader chuckle as we have all been there. I’ll just include the start of the poem here so you can see what I mean.

A book? From cover to cover? I lack the strength.
Even poetry – just thinking about it –
exhausts me now. I’ve overdosed on poems,
stare blindly at the pages of my books.
For many months I’ve had a reader’s block,

I’ve grown allergic to the alphabet.

The articles by translators on their job and the problems and joys of translating were fascinating, there is so much crammed into this slim volume but now I need more, I will have to see if can get other volumes in the series.

The one criticism I have of this otherwise excellent publication is the choice of a grey font on a grey background for the majority of the pages, this is clearly done for aesthetic reasons rather than for the practical as it makes reading more than a few pages at a time very tiring.

The Flemish section which has a salmon pink background is not much better either.

I’m astigmatic so have enough problems distinguishing between letters without the heavily reduced contrast that this choice by an unthinking design team has come up with. It’s not enough to put me off reading but it is a problem and they really should drop the background shades to improve readability.

Professor Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities – Ian Stewart

After a series of novels, time for something factual and an exercise for the brain. Ian Stewart was Professor of Mathematics at The University of Warwick when he wrote this book in 2008 and still holds that title although now Emeritus since he retired. He has written numerous books on mathematics, several of which I own so this was chosen as the first one I picked off the shelf, he was also the third person to write the recreational mathematics column for the periodical Scientific American, taking the reins from 1991 to 2001. This column was started by Martin Gardner back in 1956 and he wrote it until the mid 1980’s and this was the true start of my love of mathematics so it has been a pleasure over the years to have sat in a few bars with Ian and discuss maths and also to enjoy his very readable books.

This book, along with it’s sequels Professor Stewart’s Hoard of Mathematical Treasures’ from 2009 and ‘Professor Stewart’s Casebook of Mathematical Mysteries’ from 2014, are an interesting mix of puzzles and mathematical history and are partly built upon notebooks that Ian started whilst still at school and more snippets that he has gathered over his long career of anything that looked fun or interesting in the field of mathematics. I had come across roughly half of the puzzles before and it’s surprising it was so few as I have lots of maths puzzle books but the 249 pages of puzzles and essays plus 60 pages of solutions and/or further further discussions on points raised contained a lot that was new to me. Of the essays I particularly liked his short summary of Fermat’s Last Theorem and how Andrew Wiles finally came to solve it centuries later. Ian demonstrates his skill as a good teacher in these essays, not simplistic, after all anyone picking this book up will have an interest in mathematics but not too complex either. The solution relies on a whole new branch of mathematics so he doesn’t try to explain how the solution works but instead explains why it is important and hints at the complexity involved. There are also essays on fractals, chaos theory, various famous mathematicians and numerous important conjectures and theorems spread throughout the book.

It is in the puzzles though that Ian allows his wit to shine through, even if sometimes that is just a series of bad puns as in ‘The Shaggy Dog Story’ which is a fun rewriting of a really old puzzle that would be familiar to almost all readers of the book so he dresses it up to still make it fun and then in the solutions section introduces a variant of the puzzle which I hadn’t come across before. The puzzle involves the terms of a will where the eldest son is to have a half of his fathers dogs, the middle son a third and the youngest a ninth. Unfortunately when the father dies he has seventeen dogs so the division looks like it could be quite messy if the will is to be executed exactly. The solution is actually quite easy and I first saw this puzzle over forty years ago but I’d never seen the follow up question which can also be solved where the legacy of the first two sons remains the same but the third son gets a seventh of the dogs and the puzzle is reversed because you have to work out how many dogs the father had in order for there to be a solution with no dogs harmed. If you haven’t seen the original puzzle before I’ll put the answer at the end of this blog.

I’d recommend this book to anyone with an interest in maths, the essays are fascinating, the puzzles fun and you’re guaranteed to learn something new.

I also have both the subsequent books in this style and there is an interesting part to the introduction of the second book, I’ll reproduce it here.

Cabinet was published in 2008, and, as Christmas loomed it began to defy the law of gravity. Or perhaps to obey the law of levity. Anyway, by Boxing Day it had risen to number 16 in a well known national best seller list, and by late January it had peaked at number 6. A mathematics book was sharing company with Stephanie Meyer, Barack Obama, Jamie Oliver and Paul McKenna.

This was, of course, completely impossible, everyone knows that there aren’t that many people interested in mathematics.

Ian therefore unexpectedly received an email from the publisher wanting a sequel which did well, but not as well as the first hence the longer delay before the third book. The Casebook is easily the weakest of the three as too many puzzles are dressed up in cod Sherlock Holmes stories which frankly only serve to pad out the puzzle and it appears to have been remaindered as I didn’t know it existed until planning to write about the first two and got a brand new still shrink wrapped first edition copy for a third the original price seven years after it originally came out.

Dogs problem solution – You just need to borrow a dog from somebody else. This will mean you have 18 dogs, half of that is 9, a third is 6 and a ninth is 2. As 9 + 6 + 2 = 17 you can then give the borrowed dog back, Now try the follow up question…

A Room with a View – E M Forster

Originally published in 1908 this Edwardian romance and comedy of manners is nowadays regarded as one of the classics in English literature although probably not rated as highly as two of Forster’s other novels ‘Howards End’ and ‘A Passage to India’. I know I have read it before, probably around 1985 when the Merchant Ivory film adaptation came out, but to my genuine surprise I realised that I had completely forgotten the story line when I started reading it again this week. I chose this over the other two, that I also have on my shelves as a good friend of mine in Barcelona has just started reading a brand new Catalan translation along with two friends so I thought it would be fun to join in with the English original.

The novel is in two parts, the first of which is set entirely in Florence, Italy whilst the second part mainly takes place in England. We start with twenty year old Lucy Honeychurch and her much older cousin Charlotte Bartlett, who is acting as her chaperone, newly arrived at the Pensione Bertolini in Florence and bemoaning the fact that neither of them had been allocated a room with a view despite being assured when booking that they would each have a good view of the square and the river. We are then rapidly introduced to the other guests at the hotel as they discuss the situation leading up to Mr Emerson and his son George offering to swap rooms as they do have good views

“What I mean,” he continued, “is that you can have our rooms, and we’ll have yours. We’ll change.”

The better class of tourist was shocked at this, and sympathised with the new-comers. Miss Bartlett, in reply, opened her mouth as little as possible, and said “Thank you very much indeed; that is out of the question.”

“Why?” said the old man, with both fists on the table.

“Because it is quite out of the question, thank you.”

“You see, we don’t like to take—” began Lucy. Her cousin again repressed her.

“But why?” he persisted. “Women like looking at a view; men don’t.” And he thumped with his fists like a naughty child, and turned to his son, saying, “George, persuade them!”

And so within the first couple of pages we hit on the class difference between the Emerson’s and the other guests at the hotel as Lucy and Charlotte were shocked by the suggestion as it would leave the two women under a perceived obligation to two strange men, something that never occurs to either of the Emerson’s. It is this perceived total social unsuitability of these men to the rest of the group that provides the dynamic through the remainder of the book as various characters keep meeting them and recoil regarding their ‘common ways’. In fact a clergyman, Mr Beebe intercedes and convinces Charlotte that the exchange of rooms can be done without obligation so they both end up with a room with a view by the end of the first chapter. I don’t want to give away the plot but suffice to say that Lucy finds herself accidentally alone with George on more than one occasion whilst in Florence to the considerable embarrassment of her and the pleasure of him.

Part two has a sudden shift in location and time, clearly many weeks, if not months have passed and a new character is introduced, Cecil Vyse. We are also at the home of Mrs Honeychurch, Lucy’s mother in the fictional village of Summer Street in Surrey. Slowly various characters that made up the guests at the Pensione Bertolini also appear in the village either accidentally or deliberately and the tensions between the group are reproduced only this time with the added complication of Cecil who has become Lucy’s fiance or her ‘fiasco’ according to her brother Freddy and never a truer word was said in jest. The problems caused by various unseemly, at least to the mores of the time, acts or words by the assorted people and again unfortunate meetings and misunderstandings carry us through a thoroughly satisfying final chapter. I greatly enjoyed the book and the interplay between the characters and although many of the things they regard as shocking or unsuitable would not be so nowadays the fact that Forster is gently poking fun at them is always clear.

The edition that I currently own is from a set of six Penguin Classics designed in 2008 by Bill Amberg, the London based leather work studio, each book comes in a sturdy box with a belly band indicating which book is inside. The book itself is fully bound in a soft brown leather with a hole punched right through the cover and all the pages in the top left corner where a leather book mark is attached with the titles and author embossed in it. The only thing marking the cover itself is the Penguin Books logo at the base of the spine. It is also incredibly difficult to photograph accurately, the photos below are as close as I could get, with the bookmark being the closest to the actual colour of the leather. The leather cover overlaps the pages by a significant amount making it a yapp binding where over time and repeated reading the leather will fold over to totally encase the book. Each book was published in a limited edition of 1000 and priced at £50 per volume.

For the Penguin Classics leather binding I have chosen a vegetable tanned, buffalo calf. I should stress that all the skins were taken from ‘fallen animals’ – i.e. they died from natural causes – and were sourced from India’s premium calf tannery. They use traditional methods in a totally ecological process, where the water used is recycled after filtering through reed beds. This creates leather that improves with every use, the grain and sheen brightening continually over time.

Bill Amberg

Leaflet included with the book

Chekhov: A Life in Letters – edited by Gordon McVay

Rather than produce a standard biography, Gordon McVay has translated and edited a selection of letters from Anton Chekhov which give a wide view of his interests and career development from starting medical school in Moscow in 1879 through to his final letter in June 1904 written the day of his heart attack which would ultimately prove fatal four days later. There are extensive notes that put the letters into context and this has proved to be an excellent use of the material as Chekhov is a lively letter writer and travelled extensively so his correspondence is full of detailed descriptions of his experiences both good and bad. My copy is the Folio Society 1994 edition bound in black buckram and embossed with Chekhov’s signature across both covers. The book is currently available as a Penguin Classics edition. To give a feel for the letters I’ll selected a few extracts and will add them between paragraphs in this blog.

23 December 1888

That this represents just a tiny fraction of Chekhov’s letters is proven by the regular mention in the notes of a thirty volume Soviet edition and even that is not complete because it can only include those letters that were kept by the recipients. The Soviet edition is also censored to remove things they didn’t feel appropriate, such as his dalliance with a Japanese woman on his trip to Sakhalin, and anything judged not politically sound. The edition I have has 365 pages dedicated to the letters along with a useful 22 page introduction and an excellent index which made going back to find things I wanted to refer to very easy. That the Soviet edition is censored is actually quite appropriate as Chekhov complains many times about what the censors in his own time had done to his stories and plays, some of which he regarded as particularly badly damaged so that the sense of the play is lost.

In Siberia on his way to the island of Sakhalin 1890

In 1890 Chekhov travelled to the penal colony of Sakhalin to survey the conditions and interview prisoners for what he explains in various letters is a payback to medicine. It eventually took him three years to write up his findings to appear in ten parts in one of the serious journals and then more work to produce a somewhat longer book. Presumably he wrote letters from his months on Sakhalin but none of them are included in this collection however there are quite a few describing his massive journey by horse drawn carriages and river boats right across Russia as Sakhalin is as far east as it is possible to go and he started in Moscow. The extract above highlights that even then Siberia was a place of exile for people that had offended the state in someway but his observation that now they can say what they like as where else would they be sent is to the point. On Sakhalin he was only allowed to interview a small number of the political prisoners but he still produced a comprehensive report and oddly his health, which was never very good appeared to improve during his time away from Moscow and St Petersburg. Although he was a doctor he seemed to have a blind spot regarding his own tuberculosis which he suffered from for decades, describing many occasions of ‘blood spitting’ although he was never formally diagnosed until 1897.

4 July 1888

The letters are also often quite humorous which lightens the tone overall against some of the more serious pieces or times when things are just plain going wrong like his descriptions of the disastrous first performance of The Seagull in 1896 or when his health issues cause significant problems which was quite often. One of the more interesting features is the continuation of his career as a doctor even as his fame as a playwright and story writer grew dramatically. As can be seen below this devotion to medicine had serious implications in his ability to write of travel to oversee productions of plays and talk to his various publishers. By the early 1890’s he had purchased an estate in Melikhovo and become the local doctor in preference to renting a home in Moscow which he had done since arriving there to study as a doctor.

16 July 1892

By the mid 1890’s however he had started travelling extensively in Europe and correspondence from various Italian, French and German cities amongst other countries he passed through bring a different outlook to the letters, some places he loved others he was glad to see the back of. There is also a lot of letters to women throughout the book some of which he probably came close to marrying but in fact he was a confirmed bachelor until just three years before he died when he finally married an actress he had come to know from her performances in his plays. Oddly his letters to women, even the ones he was particularly close to, are rarely romantic and quite often have some slight barb to them. The ones to his future wife, Olga, are mainly about her performances rather than anything else even though they actually lived almost 1000 miles apart most of their married lives as she was in Moscow and he was in Yalta to get a better climate for his tuberculosis. Chekhov was much happier on his own, hence his long time avoidance of marriage and indeed living apart suited him well.

13 June 1890

The letters are great fun to read and show much more of Chekhov’s character than would be found in a biography. I don’t think I could cope with the full thirty volumes, even assuming they were available in English, but this selection made an excellent way to pass a few evenings this week.

Silas Marner – George Eliot

I’ve made a few attempts at reading Middlemarch and have failed miserably each time but do feel there must be something to George Eliot to explain her popularity so when on I came across the following ‘recommendation’

George Eliot, Silas Marner (1861) : Like MiddlemarchSilas Marner is exquisitely written and ecstatically boring. Unlike Middlemarch, it is quite short.

I felt I had to make a go of it and I have a 1944 first Penguin Books edition on the shelves, so Silas Marner here we come…

Like several of her contemporaries Mary Anne Evans used a male pseudonym for her novels although unlike the Bronte sisters for example this was not how she was first published as she used her own name for her earlier translations, nevertheless it is as George Eliot that she is best known. She took the male name to avoid being pigeonholed as a romantic writer which would have undoubtedly have been the case in mid Victorian England and she wanted to write far more serious novels. Having finished, and enjoyed Silas Marner I have to say that the above quote that prompted me to pick up the book is extremely unfair. Yes there are some dull parts, especially when the ladies are getting ready for the new years party and seem to spend far too long discussing, and admiring each others dresses but even that had some interest in how they would prepare for a social gathering with outfits sent on in advance so they didn’t have to carry them in the carriage or on horseback.

Whilst the book is specifically split into two parts in reality it more properly falls into three each fifteen to sixteen years apart. The first short section deals with Marner as a young man brought up in a strict religious community in an un-named norther city, where he is falsely accused of stealing the church funds and expelled from chapel. He also loses the love of his life due to his apparent crime to the man that framed him and Marner duly leaves the city to start a new life on the edge of the fictional small village of Raveloe in Warwickshire. All this happens in a flashback during the first chapter of the book to provide some background to his character and why he is such a loner as the rest of Part One deals with his life fifteen years after he came to Raveloe. This is a part of the country well known to George Eliot as she was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire and whilst the book is set in the early years of the nineteenth century and she was born in 1819 this would still be a familiar territory for her to set the novel in and one of the features of the book is the descriptions of the lives of the various social strata within the village. Marner earns his living as a weaver, in fact the full title of the book is Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe and from this skill he is able to amass quite a substantial sum over the fifteen years he had lived there and was respected for his skill but took no part in village life other than that which was necessary for his trade working at his loom all available hours day in day out. This solitude coupled with his bulging eyes which were rather short sighted, his bent back from hours at the loom and his occasional cataleptic fits which left him motionless for up to an hour at a time when they struck him made him an object of fear amongst the village children and his non-appearance at church a concern for the adults.

There is a parallel tale to that of Marner within the book and that is of the local squire, or more specifically his dissolute sons, the eldest of which had made an unwise secret marriage to an opium addicted poor woman and fathered a daughter whilst the other was of generally bad character thinking nothing of bullying his way around the local populace and wasting money of drink and gambling. Initially it seems that there is no link between the two tales but the two are destined to become entangled with both tragic and happy results. Part two is set sixteen years after part one but the various loose story strands have got no nearer to resolution but everything is about to change and oddly it is the improved draining of the fields that is going to be the catalyst. It is the clever interleaving of the two facets of social life in the village that make the book so enjoyable even whilst I sometimes struggled with the written out dialect when the poorer people are talking amongst themselves. The characters are all believable and the interplay between the gentry (such as they are in such a backwater), the poor and those who see themselves as in between such as the parson, the doctor, the innkeeper and the farrier is very well done.

I felt drawn in to this portrait of rustic middle English life from two centuries ago, maybe it’s time to have another go at Middlemarch…