All Posts By Catherine Oughtibridge

Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose

The Grump bought me this book as my birthday present last year. If you’re head over heels in love with writing, it’s a source of great joy, but for anyone who thinks they would be a better person if they only just read a wider and actually grasped what it was they were reading, then I think this book is also a star.

It’s filled with examples and extracts that land a punch. I scribbled down names of books I’m hungry for more of, and it comes with a suggested reading list in the back.

But for a book with such a general balance of different sorts of story, there was one whole chapter which seemed out-of-place. It was about this guy called Chekhov. Some strange Russian chap whose name floated meaninglessly through my brain.

Francine Prose whittled on about reading Chekhov, teaching Chekhov and falling more and more in love with Chekhov. She talked about reading Chekhov on the bus – and I think if you can read a book on a bus it’s got to be pretty absorbing.

So, when passing through Oxfam, this slender 99p book, A Russian Love Affair by Anton Chekhov, jumped out at me, I thought – why not. After all, Francine Prose knows how to write a good book and she thinks reading this 119 pages is worth my time.

Turns out she was right. I love Chekhov. He uses beautiful sentences like: ‘On the table was a watermelon’, in the middle of a scene of adultery. He’s on my list to Father Christmas.

As a side note. The book is part of a series of books by Penguin called ‘Great Loves’. Oxfam had, past tense, a few. One of these other slim volumes was by a name I recognised but not due to his literary prowess, but the notoriety of his antics in the bedroom. Of Mistresses, Tigeresses and Other Conquests by Giacomo Casanova is sadly only a few extracts from the longer 14 volumes of memoirs.

Another Christmas wish.

Books by Philippa Gregory

The Little House

Gosh.

I picked this book up from a charity shop, purely on the name ‘Philippa Gregory’. It’s not historical fiction, which is what I normally associate with Philippa Gregory. Instead it’s the story of a seemingly normal woman, living a seemingly normal life in a little house.

After leaving it on the bookshelf for a few weeks, maybe months, I picked it up. Buying books, and then leaving them to mature before I actually open them is normal for me.

I opened the book for the first time mid-morning on an ordinary day. It wasn’t with intention to actually read the book, but as part of an investigation into how the books clustered on my shelves were written. My obsession with writing often leads me to investigate how a certain author writes. On this particular instance, I wanted to see if Philippa Gregory was writing in first or third person.

What a mistake.

Open book midway through, read a paragraph. And then I’m not entirely sure what happened. Hours passed. My legs went numb. I closed the book, shocked.

Quite honestly, I think it’s the best Philippa Gregory book I’ve read. I have no idea what happens in the first third. I’m much too scared to find out.

The Lady of the Rivers

It’s no The Little House, but unlike The Little House I can imagine myself able to reread it  without fearing for my emotional stability.

Character driven, and you couldn’t help but love Jacquetta. Despite the hints of magic and the high relations and influences of a royal court she seemed so incredibly normal. You want to be her friend. The plot was more subtle, there was no great race for a conclusion, and really there is no true conclusion, but the continual plod of history. This, surprisingly, didn’t feel like a bad thing.

The Kingmaker’s Daughter

The Kingmaker’s Daughter, however, was more traditionally structured: it had a clear beginning, middle and end. Anne certainly developed as a character as she grew older and got bashed through history, but there was something tragic about her. I was angry when I turned the final page (I might have sworn loudly), and it got me thinking that sometimes there’s something nice about happy endings. Sometimes I like a likable character and a happy ending.

A happy ending allows you to have closure and finality with a book. Maybe it isn’t as powerful. I don’t know I have as much residual emotion from books that just end happily.

Thinking about The Kingmaker’s Daughter makes me feel a little angry.

It’s party how real the characters feel. I can see myself in both, but whilst you like Jacquetta, I fear  Anne incorporates more of my natural manipulativeness and tendency to hold a grudge. Anne and I hold our feeling close.

Then there’s The Little House. Just thinking about The Little House makes me feel truly horrified and hollow.

That burst of emotion, that comes with the final kick of the last page, tends to stick around. I recall being stunned and not able to think straight when I finished the Little House. I recall feeling like my soul had been twisted and that I wasn’t quite real when I finished The God of Small Things – another stunning book.

Both The Lady of the River and The Kingmaker’s Daughter were recommended to me by The Midget.

The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood

Marian edits surveys. She makes sure that the questions result useful answers. Meanwhile she deals with the questions of love, marriage and babies.

As Margaret Atwood’s first novel,  published in 1969, it doesn’t feel as dated as I feel it ought to.

Whilst this book wasn’t as gripping, or as horrifying as The Handmaid’s Tale, which is the only other Margaret Atwood book I’ve read, it subtly got to me. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, it makes you question your own beliefs and values, but I think it was somehow more personal. It felt written for confused 20-something women.

It seems right that I should read The Edible Woman before embarking on survey work as part of my life’s monotonous 9-5 routine. In all honesty I’m quite intrigued by the challenge, but I can see how on repeat it could easily become deliriously dull.

As a side note, The Handmaid’s Tale is horrifying, but certainly worth a read.

Bought in a charity shop after enjoying The Handmaids Tale also by Margaret Atwood.

 

Review: The Agincourt Bride by Joanna Hickson

Historical fiction telling the tale of Catherine de Valois who became the Henry V’s Queen of England

I liked this book. I curled up in bed and read it one evening until my eye lids were droopy, and then the following morning until the end. That’s a pretty good recommendation for a book.

It’s the first I’ve read like that in a while, but I don’t know whether that reflects my life, or the gripping storytelling. While I thoroughly enjoyed it, the book was weak in plot. If I was the editor, I’d have sat down and asked why a couple of scenes were in there. What was their purpose? I would have queried who was the protagonist, was it Catherine the princess, or her maid?

But maybe that’s my paranoia about the weaknesses of my own storytelling speaking.

 

Recommended to me by The Midget.

Books by Barbara Kingsolver

Prodigal Summer

Read during my own prodigal summer.

I loved the way that science as entwined within the stories of this book. I loved that the characters were strong women. I loved the descriptions of the forest and farming, which unlike some books didn’t seem to come in clumps, but were part of the story itself. I loved the grumpy old man and the mad old lady. I hated the frayed, unresolved ending.

I discovered this book in a youth hostel in Madrid and read it on the plane journey home.

The Lacuna

After enjoying Prodigal Summer, I picked up The Lacuna from a charity shop.

 

That Man

On our journey thus far we have encountered a number of men (and a woman) that we have labelled as ‘That Man’. ‘That Man’ is a term of endearment that we have coined, describing an individual that has helped us, two rather ditsy British girls, in our hours of need so far on our trip.

They are:

  1. The woman at the first petrol station we used in France (the first ever in the continent). We shared no common language. The petrol went in the tank, but our credit card was refused on the first go. We were rather hysterical, after a rather challenging few hours of learning to drive on the wrong side of the road. Despite her lack of English, and our lack of French, she smiled at us, and beckoned to us to try again. It worked! She grinned at us, wiped her head in mock relief and sent us on our way, with a full tank of fuel.
  2. The Italian men who gave us directions to a hotel in Turin. After getting lost in the one way systems of Turin, and had been driving around for five hours, we were exhausted and desperate. After Betty, also verging on hysterics, virtually begged them for directions, the kind gentleman told me to her to ‘calm down’ (In English!) and gave us directions to our hotel.
  3. The man at the hotel in Turin. We were absolutely exhausted when we stumbled into the hotel. It was late. He gave us a nice room, and hot water for drinks. TWICE. What a legend.
  4. The paramedic men in Rome, who kindly took our picture in front of St. Peter’s Basilica.
  5. The police man in Rome who explained to us how to get home after the trains stopped running for the night.
  6. The local ‘Italian Stallion’ for driving us around the bella Italian countryside in his open top car and bringing us fruit and yoghurts!

P.s. [From Kate because Betty missed out]

The volleyball team playing on the beach at Terracina. All of them.

 

[written by both of us collaboratively, like our shared wardrobe]

 

 

Red polka-dot knickers

Imagine you are my mother. You go to America for a week to be educated. You arrive home, exhausted but happy. Its been a long flight and you’re not used to being away from your family. You walk through the front door, through the hallway and into the kitchen. You walk across to the sink. You’re thirsty. Yet something is different.  The walls have changed colour. You turn around.

Your daughter stands, giggling with a video camera in her hand.

You see the kitchen wall.

Polka dot knickers mural
Never bland.

 

Changing Clocks

Outside, in the half-dark that is early morning, I de-iced the car to take the Mother to work.* She helped, finding the de-icer and doing most of the work. I started the engine.

As I pulled out onto the main road, the Mother looked angrily at the dashboard.

“The clock hasn’t gone forward.” The tone of her voice made it clear she was accusing my car of somehow being faulty.

“He’s an old car.” I said, “Bertie doesn’t know he’s got the wrong time.”

She appeared distressed by this idea. Clearly her daughter was driving an inefficient car. She explained that her iPad doesn’t have to be told that the time needs changing. I explained that Bertie was more like the oven than an iPad, and just like the Father had to change the clock on the oven, I would have to change the clock on the dashboard.

“Or you could do it?”

“How?” Car maintenance and clock changing are not normally areas the Mother takes responsibility for.

“If you press the  ‘H’ button…” unfortunately, the Mother’s sight isn’t everything it used to be, “…the top button.”

And, with a single click of the ‘H’ button the time was corrected. Bertie has a simple clock. The numbers loop in one direction. There’s a button for hours and a button for minutes and you press them until the clock reads the right number.

It’s amazing how much of an impact technology is having on what is considered normal. The Mother needing to be told how to change a clock reminds me of the Grandmother not recognising the save button icon as a floppy-disc (she calls it the TV button). And whilst these little hiccups are sweet and make me smile, the frustration was palpable.

*Somehow I then managed to become sun-burnt by lunchtime.