chestnut book blog

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Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I was saddened last night to learn of the death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Many better obituaries than I could write are being published, a selection of which are below. However, what I would say, is that the world has never looked quite the same for me since finishing Love in the Time of Cholera and that is the mark of a truly great novelist in my opinion.

BBC tribute to Marquez

The Guardian’s tribute to Marquez

The Huffington Post’s tribute to Marquez


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Christmas Reading Reviews

Over my Christmas holiday (14 blissful days off although a while ago now!) I read quite a few books and I thought I’d share my thoughts on them with you now in a big collective review.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

As you may already know, I’m a bit fan of Gilbert’s style in books like Committed and The First American Man, but this was the first novel of hers that I had read. I really enjoyed it. I thought it was immaculately researched. I can’t say botanics and mosses in particular is something that particular interests me, but Gilbert manages to enthuse me almost against my will! I particularly admired two things about this books; the descriptions of the dinner table discussions and the exploration of the tragic misunderstandings and miscommunications between the heroine, Alma and her sister. The ending is also brilliant, but I won’t say anymore about that in case I spoil it! This is not a perfect book. Aspects of it made me cringe slightly, such as the relationship between Alma and her husband; it felt flawed and false somehow. However, it is an interesting and enjoyable read. It is also one of the most original novels of 2013 because of the research, the spotlight on a female scientist and the many themes it explores. I would definitely recommend you give it a go!

The Emily of New Moon trilogy by L.M Montgomery

The Anne of Green Gables series was one of my favourite childhood books. I’m not quite sure how the Emily of New Moon series passed me by when I was smaller, but it did. I put that right this Christmas as I read all three books back to back. It was charming, but it didn’t quite hold the same magic Anne did for me. I’m not quite sure why, because in some ways this series is more accomplished and was the author’s favourite. Perhaps it was just because some of the characters felt like pale copies of my favourites, Marilla, Matthew, Diana and Anne herself.  I also found Emily’s involvement with the much older ‘Jarback’ Priest uncomfortable and some of the attitudes to women felt less progressive than in Anne somehow. All that said though, it was still lovely and no fan of Anne should miss it.

Mary Berry, The Autobiography: Recipe for Life

Mary Berry, Recipe for Life

Mary Berry, Recipe for Life

Oh how I love Mary Berry! Elegant, kind, successful, inspiring and her recipes never fail! This is her autobiography, but it also peppered with her favourite recipes which is perfect. I don’t read autobiographies that much but when I do, I usually really enjoy the insight into someone else’s life. Mary has led a fascinating one. This was a joy to read and I enjoyed getting to know her better. This was probably my favourite book I read over Christmas.

Stoner by John Williams

This book intrigued me. Quite slight and forgotten in the author’s life time, it is now enjoying a renaissance thanks to Ian McEwan’s patronage. It is exceedingly well-written and an accomplished meditation on a disappointed life. In some ways, it was a sad read, but I took hope from the fact that Stoner, despite his failed marriage and career, did once experience true love and intellectual inspiration. I am glad I have read Stoner; it certainly makes you think, but whether I would recommend it to friends?…I am unsure.

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The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

Whilst I wait for Gilbert’s new The Signature of all Things to land on my door-mat (see Cornflower’s brilliant review), I thought I’d catch up with her previous books. I’ve already read Eat Pray Love and Committed. In both, I loved her style and turn of phrase. I read Committed just before I got married in late 2009 and found it thought-provoking, challenging and eye-opening. In a way, it helped me order my own rather confused thoughts and opinions about marriage and for that reason, it holds a special place on my bookshelves.

I was slightly more ambivalent about Eat Pray Love . People from Yorkshire usually take pride in being blessed with a highly developed strain of what we call ‘common-sense’. My mother would probably disagree that I have this trait myself, but I beg to differ (sorry Mum!), because it certainly kicked in as I read Eat, Pray, Love. Running away to East Asia to ‘find yourself’ is something that I think is a little self-indulgent and my Yorkshire common sense was more than a little uncomfortable with it. However, I put that aside and found a well-written, thoughtful and fascinating book.

The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

In the last week or so, I’ve hoovered up The Last American Man. This was written before either Eat, Pray, Love and Committed and so I was unsure what to expect, but was hopeful that I would find Gilbert’s trademark clear-eyed warmth…which I did, in buckets. The Last American Man is the story of Eustace Conway and his chosen life. He opted out of twentieth and twenty-first American society to go back to ‘the frontier’. From early childhood, he studied Native American crafts and lore and left home to live in the forest when still a teenager. Gilbert then chronicles his life, views and activities across thirty or forty years.

The thought uppermost in my mind as I read The Last American Man was, ‘would I be brave enough to open up my life to a writer as Eustace Conway did to Elizabeth Gilbert?’ The answer, I suspect, is no. This is because I do not live an extreme life that merits writing about, but also because the honest scrutiny would be unbearable to me. Eustace’s character is stripped bare, a complete dissection, with each layer of skin and muscle carefully peeled back and pinned. All his bad decisions, irrationality and, at times, un-likeability, are honestly recorded alongside his admirable achievement and strengths. Eustace Conway has nowhere to hide – it feels like Gilbert caught his entire being and pressed into the pages of this book, with the prism of her prose guiding the eye. This book, about a flawed but fascinating man, is in its own way a masterpiece, but not without fault, just like its subject. Gilbert is also quick to draw comparisons between Conway’s life and the development of America, the cult of the individual and the continuing importance of ‘the frontier’ to the American psyche. I found that fascinating as I looked at a similar topic for my Masters dissertation, but those points are perhaps not for everyone!

I won’t say much more, as this book should be one you approach without knowing too much about what will happen I think. What I will say  though is that if you are interested in Gilbert’s development as a writer and interested in searingly good character studies, you can’t afford to miss this early book.

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A Private History of Happiness No. 1

I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness this week as I have been reading A Private History of Happiness by George Myerson. What makes me happy and why? How do I feel when I am perfectly happy? Is it when I have those occasional heart-flutter moments or is it the deep, calm peaceful feeling I have when snuggled up with a good book on a cold evening or when eating with friends? Or all of those things?

A Private History of Happiness is a collection of ninety-nine short written extracts from many different people in many different times. These extracts are accompanied by a short analysis from Myerson that draws out the nub of the happiness in each section. They are loosely themed in the cycle of a day, from early morning to evening. This works well as it echoes that fact that so many of these observations of happiness are about the small, mundane details of nature and nurture. This book is not only heart-warming but also, as Myerson points out in the introduction, shows us that over the centuries, human happiness is a thread that unites us:

As these people from many ways of life wrote down their experiences, there was an inner core that said, “This was a moment when I was glad to be alive.” Reading their words now, even centuries later, we can feel immediately how their happiness filled passing moments, creating occasions that needed to be recorded.

This book made me feel happier and more peaceful just reading it so if that is not a recommendation, I don’t know what is! I also read it all in one go as I was enjoying it so much, but if anything, it is more suited to reading a small bit each night before going to bed I think. The joy of savouring a beloved book just before bedtime is actually one of the extracts appropriately!

George Myerson commenting on an extract from George Ridpath, historian and vicar, writing in his diary, December 13th, 1755.

For George Ridpath, it was a real treat to settle down with a good book on a wintery evening, his sermon done for another week, his thought free to wander as he drifted towards sleep. It was the perfect end to the day and also the best of ways to welcome the night.

Interestingly, one of the other extracts that appealed to me most was one of the oldest:

Ptolemy, astronomer, making a note in the margin of his book. Alexandria, Second Century BC

I know that I am mortal by nature and ephemeral, but when I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies, I no longer touch earth with my feet. I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia.

Isn’t that beautiful? It sums up more elegantly than I ever could exactly how I feel when I take the time to look properly at the stars. The feeling of being pleasantly small and insignificant, but also in the presence of something much greater.

I find reading blogs makes me happy and I definitely gravitate to ones that make me feel peaceful and contented. I thought, because winter can often be a difficult time, I would write about experiences and things that make me happy here as a little mini-series, in the hope that it also makes you think about happiness through the dark winter nights.

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Black Diamonds: The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty

I vividly remember the first time I went down a mine. I am claustrophobic and it felt like hell on earth to me, descending in the lift into Stygian gloom. When I was down there, the back-breaking low tunnels, the smell of dust and damp and the unexpected heat all took me by surprise and I was thankful that neither myself or my ancestors had to endure that (to my knowledge anyway). I was particularly moved by the plight of the pit ponies, the hardy little beasts stuck down in that nightmare through no choice of their own. I didn’t see at the time that their human masters often had no choice about going down the mine either.

Black Diamonds  by Catherine Bailey is the story of both mining in the early twentieth century and the story of the downfall of a family that owned mines. I picked this book up as  (if you’ve read this blog for a while you know of my love of stately homes and their stories) it centred around one of the biggest unknown stately homes in the UK. I can’t quite remember where or how I heard of Wentworth Woodhouse, but it has one of the longest frontages of any stately home and yet is virtually forgotten. Wentworth was bought in 1999 for £1.5m which, this book claims, was cheaper per yard than a council house in nearby Rotherham. How did it come to that?

Wentworth Woodhouse

Wentworth Woodhouse, courtesy of Wikicommons and Jeff Pearson

The fortunes of this great house and the family that lived there were tied to the South Yorkshire coal fields. With the backdrop of the depression, the General Strike and World War II, they didn’t stand a chance. The coal mines were nationalised in 1946 and despite that fact that the Fitzwilliams were generally recognised as the best of private employers, there was, and could be, very little objection to that given the general circumstances of appalling private safety records, exploitation and hardship for mining communities. What the Fitzwilliams and local people objected to alike though was the near destruction of Wentworth House by open cast mining. After WWII, Britain was desperate for coal and, although Earl Fitzwilliam had already opened up most of his estate for mining, the government of the time set their sights on the park and gardens as well. One of those most moving passages in the book describes when the diggers moved in:

The brutes of contractors rushed in, two days before they were due to start, mowing down shrubs, trees and specimen Rhododendrons of every kind, to say nothing of miles of every sort and kind of daffodils – things we had collected for years and the overburden is to be put 50 ft high in the gardens up to the gallery window. It is absolute vandalism, as the coal could have been got far better from below…they just would not listen – 10 ft of the spire of the church has already gone, and I should think the house is bound to crack. It is utterly heartbreaking. Letter from Maud Fitzwilliam to Lucia, Viscountess Galway.

Luckily, the house did not crack, but the park and gardens were ruined and the family looked out on slag heaps piled high against their windows. It was convincingly proved that the coal mined in this way was not good quality and, as Lady Maud said, there were alternatives that would not have been so spiteful. The Labour government of the day appeared to have turned the quest for a national resource into a punishment of the privileged. I think anyone with any sense would deplore the wanton destruction of beauty and  feel distress watching years of work put into someone’s home being ripped up. I read this with a very bitter taste in my mouth and I don’t think there is any better symbol of the violence of this activity than the fact it snapped the church tower.

In the book, there is a picture of what open cast mining looked like at Wentworth, but here is a modern picture so you can imagine how hurt the earth looks and what kind of destruction is involved.

Open cast mining

Open Cast Mining, courtesy of Wikicommons and James Allan

I found Black Diamonds very interesting. It filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge about coal mining in the twentieth century and the people associated with it. It was also the story of a fascinating family and home. My only criticisms were that I felt the beginning and ending were matched a bit too conveniently. The author had set this book up as a story of the secrets of an aristocratic family and the lengths they went to keep them and she was determined to stick to that line. I felt that theory didn’t entirely fit by the end of the books and it was actually more about a compelling snapshot of the end of the great country houses and the tragedy of coal mining and the Fitzwilliams (and others whose lives they touched). I also felt that the subtitle, ‘The rise and fall of an English dynasty’ was not entirely correct as there was little about the rise, more about the fall.  However, that did not diminish my enjoyment of it and so if you are interested in learning a bit more about this period, Yorkshire mining and how British society changed forever, this is for you!

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Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution

Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber found its way into my reading list because of the controversial Hilary Mantel lecture I attended a few months ago. When musing on which book she would recommend to the Duchess of Cambridge, Mantel chose Weber’s biography. ‘Marie Antoinette was a woman eaten alive by her frocks’ Mantel said and I knew I just had to read it.

Marie Antoinette, Queen of France

Marie Antoinette, Queen of France by Jean-Baptiste Gautier Dagoty 1775

It was published sometime ago in 2007 and yet is one of those books that will endure I think as it’s lessons are timeless. It is a hugely original biography and an outstanding piece of work. It tells the story of Marie Antoinette, the hated Austrian Queen of France from her childhood in Vienna to her execution in Paris, through the lens of her dresses. What she wore was one of the few things in her life that Marie Antoinette could control. She was completely constrained by her circumstances in the highly formal court of Versailles and Weber charts her rebellions; such as a refusal to wear a corset, her use of male riding clothes, her enormous hairstyle, the pouf, and her adoption of the unstructured dress, the gaulle. What she wore was also one of the few ways Marie Antoinette could be political in a patriarchal regime. However, it was this politicisation of her dress that Marie Antoinette got so wrong. The luxury and ostentation of her court dresses and hairstyles as befitting her royal status were resented by a starving public for the waste of money and even flour (used to powder her hair). Yet, when she turned to less formal styles like the gaulle, she was attacked for ruining the French silk industry. She could not win and at times, I felt huge sympathy for this tragic woman as I read the biography.

Marie Antoinette in a simple dress

Marie Antoinette en chemise (in her simple Gaulle) by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun 1783

However, at other times I also felt extreme frustration. The particular episode that completely eroded my sympathy for her was, in planning to escape from Paris at the beginning of the revolution, Marie Antoinette foiled her own escape in many ways. At that time, she was wearing the colours of the revolution, blue, white and red to try to show her sympathy for the cause. It was, of course, an expediency and as they planned to escape, the Queen ordered new dresses in the royal white, blacks, purples and yellows, anticipating wearing them abroad after an escape. This raises suspicions in a minor seamstress and her tip-off  was one of the factors in the failure of their escape. This speaks to me of extreme blindness and stupidity and putting narcissism and vanity above your and your family’s personal safety.

This biography shows both a vain and silly Queen, but also a doomed, sad woman, trapped in circumstances beyond her control and  struggling for freedom in the only way she knew how. It allows the reader to make up their own mind. It also shows the power and the danger of being a fashion-plate in the public eye. A warning that is very pertinent to the Duchess of Cambridge as Mantel suggested. My one tip with this biography is that I might have found it a little hard to follow if I didn’t know the basics of the history of the French Revolution. It concentrates on Marie Antoinette obviously and does not linger on explaining some of the important events and personalities like the Flour Wars and Robespierre which are crucial references. This means that, if you have not already, I would recommend reading a general history of the French Revolution first before reading this book so you have a more rounded background overview of the period.

Reading this book has meant I think a little more carefully about what my clothes choices say about me, even though I am far from the public eye!

p.s this video of Caroline Weber explaining some of the ideas behind this book is really interesting.

Giving up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel

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After seeing Hilary Mantel speak recently, I decided to find out a bit more about her by reading her memoir, Giving up the Ghost. Before this, I’d read snippets in the press about her ‘tragic medical history’ and ‘difficult childhood’. I don’t think those clichés do it anything like justice to be honest now I have read this book.

Giving up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel

Mantel does not pretend that Giving up the Ghost is an autobiography. She freely admits that she has left painful things out, skipped most of her teenage years and glossed over other events. However, what this book is is an extremely moving series of recollections where you, the reader, are plunged into Hilary’s point of view.This is brave because not only is it unflinching in its presentation of herself, but also means strange things that happen are not explained by Hilary the child at the time as she doesn’t understand them at the time and therefore they do not make sense to the reader until later either. This makes it a challenging read at times, but rewarding. I could see in this book the techniques she used to get into Thomas Cromwell’s skin later with Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. As always, Mantel’s love of words and skills with marshalling them into compelling sentences is present. She never enters the realms of self-pity which is part of this book’s charm, but her challenges brought tears to my eyes more than once.

The other thing that struck me about this book was the well-trodden but true tale of education allowing Mantel opportunities denied to her parents. This always strikes a chord with me as my own circumstances were similar. This is one of those books that will stay with me I think because it gives such a sense of a person and a life whilst still retaining some secrets; the twinkle in her eye I witnessed in person is very much in evidence here and that is wonderful and inspiring given what she has been through.

Hawthorne: A life

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It is extremely hot here today so before I melt into a steaming puddle on the floor, I thought I’d get a quick post in! I think I’ve alluded to the fact I am doing a Masters in English Literature with the Open University before. I am about a third of the way into my dissertation at the moment and the deadline in early January – so in November and December it is unlikely that I will be thinking of little else! The main theme of my Masters has been intertextuality; the subtle and not so subtle links between texts. So far it has shown me that very little is truly original, but in a wonderful stepping stones kind of a way.

My dissertation is focussing on the links between The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I had heard of a fascinating anecdote about a random link between these two authors  which I felt I had to pursue! I think it is quite well-known that one of Hawthorne’s ancestors was one of the judges in the Salem witch trials – the only one never to repent in fact. What is less well-known is that one of Atwood’s ancestress was one of the witches! Margaret Webster is one of the dedicatee of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and was convicted as a witch. However, at the point of hanging, wonderfully, her rope broke and she was let free. Unfortunately she returned to her home, the scene of her persecution (just as Hester in The Scarlet Letter does), and was lynched a short time afterwards. I think little snippets of coincidences and anecdotes are a brilliant starting point for deeper investigations.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Hawthorne: A life by Brenda Wineapple

In the course of my research for this work, I have just finished Brenda Wineapple’s biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne, called Hawthorne: A life. It was surprisingly difficult to get hold of a well-regarded biography of Hawthorne in the UK so came to my rescue. The book itself has lots of useful information in for my dissertation so is worth its weight in gold to me for that alone. A portrait of a man who is quite difficult to like emerged – someone who was as much of a contradiction and ambiguity as his books.  For a general reader, I probably would not recommend it however – it is not an example of a great biography due to a slightly awkward writing style. I also found it quite confusing in places. It may be that this was because Wineapple assumes the reader has background knowledge in which I was lacking, but I couldn’t entirely put my finger on exactly what it was. Having said that, it is the only modern, impartial biography I could find (unless anyone reading this has any suggestions?) and so if you are interested in finding out more about Hawthorne, it is certainly well-researched.

Dickens’ Gad’s Hill

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My life is being completely dominated by Olympic fever at the moment so it is difficult to write about anything else (especially after such a wonderful weekend of medal after medal for Team GB!). However, I am going to try! After a trip to the Olympic Park to see Hockey on Saturday (still sporting my patriotic nails and shoes!), we went to a rare opening of Gad’s Hill on Sunday. Gad’s Hill Place was Charles Dickens’ beloved house in the country and the place he died.

Gad's Hill Place

Gad’s Hill Place

 It was a very handsome house in its day and it is now a slightly eccentric school building. A particular highlight was seeing Dickens’ desk and chair – like the famous engraving, it seemed as if it was just waiting for him to return.
Dickens' desk

Dickens’ desk

Earlier this year, I read Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography of Dickens as I knew relatively little about him. I’d really recommend it as a very readable introduction to Dickens’ life. A picture of a complicated character emerged – not always terribly likeable, but certainly interesting. That book was very useful background for this visit as it helped me appreciate my visit to Gad’s Hill properly I think, knowing how important it was to him. A plaque on the wall outside his study was particularly poignant I thought.

Gad's Hill Place plaque

Gad’s Hill Place plaque

Dickens was proud of the house’s Shakespeare connections – Gad’s Hill is the site of Sir John Falstaff’s historic robbery and this leads me nicely onto my Shakespeare challenge for the remainder of the year… I mentioned in a previous post (here) that I was going to read one new (to me) Shakespeare play per month as there were significant gaps in my knowledge I feel I need to rectify. I am going to start with the history plays and so stay tuned for some more Falstaff in September!