Castaway Books

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I sometimes torture myself by imagining I’m on a desert island and can only take ten books with me. I look around at the walls of book-shelves  in the sitting room and bedroom and spare room, and wonder how to whittle them down to the ten most treasured books I wouldn’t want to be without.

As in the BBC radio programme, no Shakespeare or the Bible allowed, though I’d be sad to let the Bible go – not for religious reasons – but for the sheer poetry of the prose and the beauty of so much of the writing, for some of the stories embedded in the teachings… like the story of Ruth for example, or the Song of Solomon… and the Beatitudes, and ringing phrases like: ‘I am as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal if I have not charity’ .. or the exquisite words of Psalms like 139, which ends with: ‘…’if I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall thy hand find me, and thy right hand shall hold me’.

But having surrendered the Bible what would I take? Bernadine Evaristo, this year’s Booker prize-winner, says she hates Jane Austen and Virginia Wolfe… but while l’d agree about Virginia, as an afficionado who used to read Jane Austen’s six novels once a year, I’d have to disagree with her findings on Jane. (Real Austen fans are called Janeites. I once wrote a piece for an anthology of raves about Jane Austen, and attending the book launch party was somewhat bemused to find myself among some fans wearing long Regency dresses, and sporting shawls and fans)

Which of the six would I take? No contest. In my younger days, I’d have plumped for ‘Pride and Prejudice’… or ‘Persuasion.’ But now I’d go for ‘Mansfield Park’ which I used to think was the dullest of her books. Now it’s my favourite. I love the picture of Georgian country life, the amateur theatricals with all the tensions and emotional turmoil, and the irritating, contradictory and sparkling array of people, especially the two villains, who’re the most attractive characters in the book. But most of all, I love that picture of elegant English country life in my favourite period of history before the Industrial Revolution, when squalor and hardship and smoking factory chimneys had not altered forever a peaceful pastoral society.  (Even if they didn’t have good dentists).

To balance that picture of aristocratic country life I’d take Thomas Hardy’s ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’, my favourite of all his books, crammed with authentic country lore and farming custom, just slightly later in time that Austen’s novel.

And to round off this wallowing in homesickness for another time and place while on that desert island, I’d take George Eliot’s tome, ‘Middlemarch’, a great book described by the despised Virginia as  ‘the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels for grown-up people.’

It’s a huge canvas describing with acute psychological insight many typical characters of both town and country in early Victorian England. For me, it’s a picture not just about English town life of that period, but a profound study of character, both shallow and profound, of good and evil in the shape of materialism, and of the compromises demanded by society. So, nostalgia and homesickness sorted – there’s several more choices to go.

Top of the list would be Barbara Tuchman’s splendid history, ‘The Guns of August’, an account of the first ten days of WW1, but fleshed out with vivid and witty accounts of how Europe got to that point, and an analysis of the main protagonists… fascinating history, accurate psychology, and telling insights, all delivered with wit and humour, so that often I find myself chuckling as we traverse the terrible terrain of one of the great turning points in the history of Europe.

I would have to take ‘The Snow Leopard’ with me, by Peter Matthiesson. It’s the story of his journey into the remotest regions of the Himalayas on his search for the then almost never seen and legendary snow leopard. It’s a many layered tale with deep spiritual undertones, and read like all these other books, many, many times.

Getting a bit panicky now, with only three more choices to go. I think I’ll reach for Truman Capote’s story of love and war, ‘The Grass Harp’. It’s told with deceptive simplicity, the characters utterly loveable, and gloriously eccentric as despair drives them to desperate measures. They are the odd ones out, who finally step outside the norms of society to assert their individuality, and when they say what they feel, they slice through the hypocrisies and cruelty of narrow-minded small-town officialdom.

I love diaries and have a huge collection of them, ranging across time, from seventeenth century Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn in Charles 11 reign, to Georgian Parson Woodford and Parson Gilbert White, Victorian Francis Kilvert, through to the two world wars, to the randy diaries of Alan Clark, the notorious womaniser and politician, and the delicious, hilariously funny fictional diaries of Adrian Mole, my favourite being ‘Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass- Destruction.

I toyed with the last of the Bloomsberry’s, Frances Partridge’s  ‘A Pacifist’s War’, her diary filled with details of an idyllic life in the beautiful country house where the painter Carrington lived with writer Lytton Strachey before his death and her suicide. Her war years are peopled with a stream of intriguing/incestuous Bloomsberry illuminati who came and feasted with Ralph Partridge and Frances while dwelling on their moral high-ground as conscientious objectors.

I decided on something more uplifting. Inspiring integrity was what I was looking for. Should I take Alanbrooke’s war-time diaries, or Cadogan’s account of appeasement and diplomacy before and during the war, or Klemperer’s diary chronicling the terror of the Nazis, and his worry about the fate of his beloved cat? It finally had to be put down when Jews were no longer allowed to keep pets. Klemperer, a distinguished university professor, ended up in the bombing of Dresden which allowed his wife and he to disappear in the chaos, the only positive thing I’ve heard about that raid.

No… I finally settled on the two volumes of John Colville’s diaries. He was Churchill’s private secretary during the war, and the parade of kings, queens, statesmen and generals, society ladies and foreign diplomates makes absorbing reading, quite apart from the affectionate and admiring portrait of the great man himself.

Throughout the cliff-edge years of war, Churchill is revealed as an irascible but brilliant, kind, intelligent and chivalrous aristocrat in the best sense of those words, without a trace of snobbery or small mindedness. Perhaps too original and spontaneous to be described in conventional terms as a gentleman, he emerges as a magnificent human being who poured his huge stores of energy, humanity and vision into his country and the struggle against one of the greatest tyrannies in history.

The last and tenth book is a tantalising choice, trying to choose between two of my favourite diaries. ‘Mrs Milburn’s Diary’ is written by a woman with no literary talent, but an abiding love for her only son, who was captured before Dunkirk and endured POW camp for the rest of the war. Her letters sent via the Red Cross, and his to her were usually months old by the time they reached their destination, so she began writing a diary chronicling life in his home and family and community.

It’s a prosaic day to day telling about the price of woollen vests going up, the annoying man at Matins every week who coughs all the way through and ruins the service, the evacuees who stay briefly, the long cold nights sitting in their primitive underground air raid shelter in the garden – doubly important to them-  as they lived in the country outside Coventry, and lost many friends in the catastrophic bombing raid which destroyed that city. It’s an insight into a way of life now gone… when, even during the war, she picked primroses every spring in the woods, packing them up in damp cotton wool and sending them to friends in the city.

She records the routines of church going, weekly shopping, Mother’s Union meetings, working for the WVS (Women’s Voluntary Service) dealing with the erratic gardener, the feckless land girls, a chaste glass of sherry shared with old friends. The annual rhythms of the seasons’ rituals celebrate a slice of civilisation which had its own small satisfactions, sorrows and minor victories.

Or, do I go for ‘Burning,’ a diary of a year living in the Blue Mountains in Australia? Kate Llewellyn is a poet, and her book is crammed with exquisite metaphors and similes, quirky people, precious moments of beauty, meditations on history, recipes, travels and gardening. I read it often, not just for the drama of human tragedy and pain which also takes place during that year, but for the sheer beauty of the writing.

As CS Lewis observed, ‘we do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties’. He also suggested that someone who only reads a book once is ‘unliterary’, whatever that means! But I certainly agree with him on both counts when he says “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”

So I can’t decide between these two life stories – regularly ‘savoured’, and will beg my invisible and sadistic inner voice to let me have them both… to have whittled down my choices to eleven from hundreds of books is no mean feat, which meant leaving out precious favourites like Leigh-Fermor’s ‘A Time of Gifts’, his vivid description of European civilisation before the Nazis destroyed it

As I mulled over this imaginary exercise, and visualised myself roaming a tropical paradise, alone like Robinson Crusoe, I realised that by choosing a handful of books to be my companions in this solitary life, I wasn’t using any carbon footprint, and many of the books were recycled – bought from second-hand bookshops around the world via the internet, or acquired from op-shops and the like.

Many of them of them too, like Capote’s ‘The Grass Harp’, I’ve owned since the sixties, and are worn from regular loving re-readings when I savoured every aspect of the writing and the human condition. In a book on educating children read in the seventies, I found a wonderful thought, that literature is the logbook of human experience, and that’s how it seems to me too.

For this solitary island existence, Christopher Morley, an American writer, gave me words that seem particularly apt: ‘when you get a new book, you get a new life –love and friendship and humour and ships at sea at night -… all heaven and earth in a book.’

The written word survives e-books, the internet, texting and all the other apparent advantages of technology. It has been with us from the earliest times, when the Sumerian civilisation evolved writing around 3,000 BC, and the first literature was created by a Sumerian author a thousand years later. Books and words may be the one blessing and means of communication that survive in the aeons to come.

Books will always be the ‘log-book of human experience’, and can hand on the riches of our civilisation to generations still unborn. And for the present, they can be a comfort, a companion and a treasure. They inform and educate, amuse, console, entertain and inspire. They are indispensable and irreplaceable. They make life on a desert island bearable!

Food for Threadbare gourmets

We’re living dairy free at the moment for various reasons, and I discovered to my delight that it’s perfectly possible to make a decent white sauce using olive oil instead of butter.

So using the juices from a roasted chicken from the night before, I made a rechauffe… fried some chopped bacon and mushrooms, made the sauce, and stirred a bouillon cube and the chopped cooked chicken, bacon and mushrooms into it. Flavoured the mix with salt, pepper and nutmeg, and served it on rice.

To cheer up the plain boiled rice, I fried a grated courgette in olive oil and garlic, plenty of salt and pepper and stirred it into the rice. We ate it all with green beans and didn’t miss the cream or milk at all!

27 Comments

Filed under books, cookery/recipes, culture, history, life/style, love, spiritual, Uncategorized

27 responses to “Castaway Books

  1. Brenda Wilkinson

    Lovely choices. I often re-read Mrs Milburn’s Diary. Three came Home by Agnes Keith would be on my list along with A Fine Romance by Susan Branch.
    Thank you for sharing.

    Kind regards
    Brenda

    Liked by 2 people

    • Dear Brenda, good to hear from you…
      How interesting that you know and enjoy Mrs Milburn too, I’ve never come across anyone else who’s heard of her!.
      Must keep my eye out in op-shops etc for the other two books you mention!
      Best wishes, Valerie

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    • Brenda, I too loved Three Came Home the book & the wonderful film with Claudette Colbert. And also- one of my favorite books is “A Fine Romance” – but by Cynthia Propper Seton, a late delightful American writer. Judith

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  2. I’m not sure how I’d choose. But something tells me I’d have something by Nevil Shute and something else by Max Hastings.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Know what you mean about Max Hastings, I have several of his authoritative histories and would find it hard to choose between him or Anthony Beevor!
      Co-incidentally, I’ve just finished re-reading five of Nevil Shute’s books, including On the Beach, A Town Like Alice, No Highway, and The Chequer Board.
      Love your blog, and would have liked to leave a comment on your latest, but could find nowhere to do so…
      Yorkshire is one of my favourite places. I roamed the dales and moors as a girl, and lived in Richmond, which ‘James Herriot ‘described as the most beautiful town in England. My brother was christened in the parish church, where Thompson, the famous Mouseman, made many items, leaving his carved signature mouse on them, and we had the christening party at the Kings Head Hotel, in the room where Lizst gave a concert.

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      • So many wonderful books, it’s very hard to choose. A Shute gets dusted off every couple of years or so, simply because it’s like catching up with an old friend. ‘In the Wet’, ‘Pied Piper’ and ‘Ruined City’ are other favourites.
        Thank you so much for liking A Bit About Britain! Some older posts/pages have comments disabled, but all the latest ones are open – http://bitaboutbritain.com/blog-2/ – and receiving comments. If you get stuck, please drop me a note through the contact page and I’ll see if I can figure out the problem! All the best, Mike.

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  3. Thank you for writing this lovely contemplation of the 10 books for life on a desert island. I took notes on your intriguing ponderings & choices, some unknown to me. I too would choose both Middlemarch & Far from the Madding Crowd, & also War & Peace, & hoping I could count as one book, Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” (seven volumes). These two lengthy immortal works would help me endure a long exile. I think I would take either Emma or P&P by Jane Austen, & definitely Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, then E. M. Forster’s Passage to India, The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux, Dubliners by James Joyce, & if I could be permitted to tie them together & call them one volume, I’d take Patrick Leigh Fermor’s magnificent remembrances of his walk across Europe in the ’30s, “A Time of Gifts” & “Between the Woods & the Water”. If I couldn’t do that, I’d take Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast”, his remembrance of his years in Paris after WWI. These well loved & reread books should keep me sane for a some time out there alone. I too would weep for my books left behind.

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  4. OOh, oh, oh, what a lovely list of irresistible books – yes. so many I would have chosen too, if there’d been more scope!
    For more thirties nostalgia, I’d love to take ‘I Capture the Castle’ by Dodie Smith… and yes. Leigh-Fermor, though I loved ‘A Time…’ more than the sequel… re ‘Out of Africa’, I pondered ‘Flame Trees of Thika’ by Elspeth Huxley, but ran out of choices…
    Hemingway’s ‘Moveable Feast’ I loved when I was young but went off it when I read how many of the people mentioned in it, felt that events were fictionalised or distorted, and that the people were too…and yes, War and Peace was hard to leave behind…
    What an impressive reading list, never been brave enough to tackle Proust or James Joyce… or Henry James after a few tries, either!
    Isn’t it lovely talking about books, as well as reading them !

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  5. Liz

    Gosh, only ten books? Torture indeed! But what a lovely selection, Valerie. If I were ‘forced’ to take your list I’d be very happy. And as for my own list? I’m not sure I can bring myself to think about it lol!

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  6. Juliet

    You’ve certainly got some of my favourites in there, Valerie, and I’m reminded to return to ‘MiddleMarch’ some time , to appreciate it anew. Thank you for the prompts, and enjoy your desert island.

    Valerie

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  7. Good to see you Juliet… would love to know your favourites…yes, sometimes the forest feels like a desert island, and that is a lovely thing – peace, solitude, and time !!!

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  8. For my tastes, your selection is a bit shy on fantasy!

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  9. What a horrible thing to have to do–choose only 10 books for forever! May I never have to make such a decision. Perhaps I could have 10 Kindles/e-readers that recharge from the sun or some renewable resource. 🙂 Love to you both.

    janet

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  10. Books and words may be the one blessing and means of communication that survive in the eons to come.

    I do agree with you. I do love your selection of books but would like to add two more authors that I adore. Diana Gabaldon–The Outlander Series (I love each book . Although, I am watching the movies on Stars they fall so short of the amazing writing of Diana.)

    Then there is Octavia Randolph and her delightful series of The Circle of Ceridwen Saga.

    Two wonderful writers.

    Then there are your books, My Dear and Wonderous Friend, The Sound of Water, and Chasing Dragons. I read them when we first found each other through our blogs. I have them stored on my kindle.

    Thank you so much for this blog post. I do agree with you…books and words are what will be passed on to those coming behind us–a legacy of lives.

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  11. Interesting choices Valerie, I haven’t ever tortured myself in this way, though a few ideas came up just while I was reading – I doubt I’d be able to narrow it down though!

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  12. YIKES!! Only 10 books. I am now in panic mode. Without books, we lose of place in history and do not have a compass for creating our narrative. I am grateful for those who took the time out of their busy days to write, beginning with the ancient artwork on a wall. Now, I must get busy and figure out what 10 books I will take with me on a desert island. Here’s a thought, if we are both on the same island, we’ll have 20 books. And if we ask for others to join us…well we will have a full library. Who said that “no man is an island….?” Hugs coming your way…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Rebecca,
      lovely to read your comment… you made me laugh …yes, panic it would be wouldn’t it… it was an interesting exercise, in which I had to examine the emotional, intellectual and spiritual elements of each choice in order to fill my needs in the isolation of a desert island !
      I like your idea of living on a deserted island that wouldn’t be deserted, but crammed with friends and books!!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Dear Valerie,

    What a choice to make. I look at my bookshelves that Himself has said on more than one occasion need to be replaced with built-in ones. (You may tell him my cheap shelves remain. 😉 )
    A few years back, at my daughter-in-law’s urging I read “Far from the Madding Crowd” crowd for the first time. What a wonderfully engaging read.
    At any rate, I enjoyed your post, as always and love the photo you shared.
    So many books, so little time.
    Shalom and loving hugs to you and Himself,

    Rochelle

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Rochelle, yes indeed, so many books, so little time ( we are indebted to much maligned Cecil Rhodes in this revisionist age for that quotes aren’t we … ‘so much to do, so little time’)
      Yes, I’ve read ‘Far from the Madding… many times.. have you seen the films of it – the first one with Julie Christie and Alan Bates is the best, but they’re made another a few years ago with a fresh batch of interesting actors…Have you read Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Hardy’s others… I love the Woodlanders especially…
      Love from Himself, and me… Valerie

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