Comfort reads, while we’re away

This blog post is written by Hope who works in our Central Lending Library.

“I miss the library. I miss asking you whether you liked your book when you bring it back and being told it was great. I miss the people who tell me it was a load of rubbish. I miss seeing you pick up that reservation you’ve been waiting weeks for. I miss the ordinariness, the comforting familiarity of life as we knew it, before this.

In The Cazalet Chronicles, Polly – one of three girl cousins – describes the Second World War as boring and frightening at once. I struggled to get my head round this. If you are frightened, how can you be bored, I thought.

I get it now.

Yet even when we’re closed, there are still books, and while it’s always exciting to encounter a new voice, a new author, but during the worst times in my own life, I find myself reaching for well-thumbed old Penguins which I have read several times before, the stories which are old friends, familiar – when nothing else is, books which will hold your hand, and get you through.

Everyone has their own, the stories which you can escape into, knowing they will provide comfort, while not remembering every little detail, so you still find things to surprise you – doorways and alleys you didn’t see when first you visited the book.

For me, these are my comfort reads. The books I choose to get lost in, time and again.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
The Mortmaim family live in a beautiful old castle, which is falling down around them. Told in diary form by fifteen year old Cassandra, the novel is at once cosy and whimsical. A love story and a coming of age novel, with hints of the Jane Austen novels, which Cassandra and her sister Rose are so obsessed with, only truer somehow.

Written during World War Two, when Dodie Smith was living in America, it is a nostalgic book, a glimpse back at an idealised time, but not too idealised. The Mortmains have no money, and have experienced their share of loss, and the girls make terrible mistakes in their tentative, enthusiastic forays into love.

I came late to I Capture the Castle, after hearing it cited for years as a comfort read. Now, I feel unable to keep away. The world of Cassandra and Rose, and their ramshackle castle with the moat, is endlessly compelling, funny, sad, and true to how girls feel on the brink of growing up. 

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
Recently I saw a post on Twitter suggesting that Black Swan Green should replace Catcher in the Rye, as the coming of age novel. While lots of people love Catcher, I found it didn’t speak to me, while I found Black Swan Green – the story of a thirteen year old with a stammer, growing up in a normal, but possibly haunted, English backwater – immensely compelling and true to the things we all think and feel when we’re kids. The story has a ghost, a bully, a dangerous older cousin, and a fascinating old lady who once knew a young composer who wrote an opus called Cloud Atlas.

David Mitchell fans will know how his novels overlap, tantalising readers who know what happens in earlier and later novels. 

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
Linda Radlett, is young, giddy, and obsessed by the idea of love. Narrated by her cousin, Fanny, daughter of ‘The Bolter,’ this novel is a biting satire of a world of debutantes and aristocrats, but also a tender, sweet portrait of a girl lost in the midst on the twentieth century. Travelling through the Spanish Civil War, Occupied France and a long-gone England, this book is beautifully romantic, terribly sad and weirdly comforting.

I first read this aged twelve, and didn’t understand a lot of it. Revisiting it in my late teens, and then in my thirties, I realised how I love this novel, and the catty wonderful author who wrote it, herself one of six girls whose lives were all touched by the events of the twentieth century, some more tragically than others.
This title is available as an ebook and audiobook

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
When my Dad first read me this, I cowered under the covers, terrified by the chained convict who jumps out at Pip in the lonely graveyard. As an adult I know that there were far worse monsters in the book than the convict Magwitch.

This novel contains the fabled Miss Havisham, and her ward Estella, shut away in the cobwebby Satis House. It’s a book which will break your heart – especially when Pip turns his back on Old Joe, who bought him up (this scene always gets me) – but it’s also an excellent gothic adventure through late Georgian and early Victorian London.

Published in 1861, during the age of industrialisation and scientific progress, the novel looks back on the early 1800s, a time of superstition, ghosts glimpsed through the mists of the fens, convict ships with loud fog horns, and that sense of life and adventure which comes from being on the brink of something about to happen.
This title is available as an ebook and audiobook.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
It might seem weird to recommend a novel about a plague, and call it a comfort read, especially now, but Station Eleven in which 99.9% of us die of flu, is weirdly hopeful. While Mandel doesn’t shy away from darkness and horror, the cutting between before and after the pandemic is incredible in the way it introduces us to characters, making us love them, hate them, root for them, curse at them, and hope they make it from the before into the after.

Twenty years after the plague a theatre group and orchestra tour the wastes of Canada in a caravan pulled by horses. Their slogan, taken from Star Trek is ‘Survival is Insufficient.’ On the way, they encounter a sinister prophet, and his cult.

It’s a book about what survives, and how art, and love and music matter, perhaps more so, even when everything is bleak. It’s catty, and clever and kind, and offers an excellent take down of people who say ‘Everything Happens for a Reason,’ showing the full poison of this point of view.”
This title is available as an ebook and audiobook.

Thank you Hope.

 

Access library services from home

Many of us will be staying indoors over the coming months due to the current health crisis. Edinburgh Libraries provide a range of online services that you can access from home that can help keep you occupied and entertained during these difficult times.

Library2go provides a fantastic range of free ebooks, audiobooks, newspapers and magazines that you can use on your tablet, smart phone or computer. Sign in using your Edinburgh Libraries membership number and PIN. Forgotten your PIN? Use our PIN Reset service. Not a library member? Use our online Join the Library service.

Newspapers – get access to your daily newspaper without leaving the house. You can get 250 UK newspapers including the Edinburgh Evening news, The Scotsman, The Herald, Scottish Daily Mail, The Guardian and the Daily Record on our PressReader service.

eBooks – thousands of best-selling books for adults, teens and kids can be found on OverDrive. Read through the OverDrive website your computer or with their brilliant Libby app on a phone or tablet.

Audiobooks – listen to best-selling books with fantastic narrators on our OverDrive, RBdigital, BorrowBox and uLIBRARY sites.These four downloadable audiobook services give you a wide range of adult, teen and children’s titles to choose from.

Magazines –  hundreds of UK and worldwide magazines are available to read through RBdigital and PressReader. So whether you’re in to Hello!, Amateur Gardening, Good Housekeeping, Auto Express, TV Times, BBC Good Food or Amateur Photography we’ve got it covered.

Please pass on this information to anyone you think might benefit from these services who maybe aren’t already members of the library. Or consider helping a relative or friend get started.

There are clear instructions on how to use all these services available from https://yourlibrary.edinburgh.gov.uk. Any further questions please contact informationdigital@edinburgh.gov.uk or phone 0131 242 8047.

The house that Jack built

Capital Collections provides a window into Edinburgh Libraries’ Special Collections and gives the public opportunity to view photographs, illustrations and books in a manner that makes them much more accessible to a wider audience. The latest Capital Collections exhibition displays a digitised view of one such special book, ‘The house that Jack built’ brimming with gorgeous, colourful images by the celebrated artist Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886). This book, along with several others by the artist, was created with children in mind and its style became synonymous with Victorian children’s literature, a period considered the ‘golden age’ for this genre of books.

The House that Jack Built, front cover

Despite his relatively short life time, Caldecott’s work is considered to have been transformative in the nature of children’s books and illustration in the Victorian era with his influence still resonating today. Caldecott is considered part of the influential ‘nursery triumvirate’, along with Walter Crane and Kate Greenway. Following the popularity of these authors it became the norm for children’s books to be dominated by image over text.

The work showcased in this exhibition is the first in a collection of books originally published in 1878. The book tells the story of the goings on in and around a country house built by Jack with a myriad of delightful characters making appearances. His illustrations were exercised with a manner of humour and full of life, reflecting his own personality. His images, although often not predominantly meant to make a person laugh, are extremely entertaining and good fun. Stylistically, ‘The house that Jack built’ is written in the form of a cumulative tale. This is when a tale is told by repeating dialogue that builds up to allow the story to progress. As a cumulative tale it does not tell the story of Jack’s house, or even of Jack who built the house, but instead shows how the house is indirectly linked to other things and people, and through this method tells the story of “The man all tattered and torn” and the “Maiden all forlorn” as well as other smaller events, showing how these are interlinked. ‘The house that Jack built’ became a world renowned piece of work, referenced in both political satire and popular culture.

“This is the Cat,
That killed the Rat”
from ‘The house that Jack built’

The Capital Collections exhibition attempts to highlight the brilliance and vibrancy of Caldecott’s work. His ability to express true meaning and subtleties of thought through primarily image and minimal text is something of great admiration and ‘The house that Jack built’ is a perfect example of this. The delightful style and bright colourful images in this book are full of life and can be enjoyed by young and old alike, those with an interest in the history of children’s illustration and those who simply appreciate Caldecott’s artistic style. The exhibition’s accompanying text provides a little more detail into the message of the image and the artist in question, although the images are so detailed and charming that they can be enjoyed and admired just as they are.

Browse all the pages from this delightful Victorian illustrated children’s book on Capital Collections.

Desert Island Discs – Eamonn from the Digital Team

The latest library staff member to be banished to our desert island is Eamonn from the Digital Team.

We hand over to Eamonn to explain his choices –

1 Vol.4., Ethio jazz & Musique Instrumentale 1969-1974

I feel that nothing sounds quite like Ethiopian music. I suppose like many people, I became familiar with the country’s music through the fabled 30 volume CD series called Ethiopiques which focuses on a “golden” period of music in Ethiopia’s cultural history.

The series highlights the time between the mid 1950s and 1974 where a huge wave of outstanding big bands and singers had emerged – sparking off a massive musical explosion, resulting in the production of hundreds of recordings. This was all brought to an end in 1974 during a revolution, which left the country in the hands of a military dictatorship that remained in power until 1991. With rigorous censorship and strict curfews, many musicians were imprisoned, forced to stop playing or escaped into exile.

I love the series – the attention to detail, from programming to design, to notes, to mastering – have defined this body of work which has become virtually the sole representation of an essential musical culture.

Many volumes are worthy of a Desert Island Disc or two but perhaps the best entry point is Vol. 4 – showcasing the man who invented ‘Ethio-jazz’, Mulatu Astatke and devoted to his blend of Abyssinian swing.

2 Life on Earth: Music from the 1979 BBC TV series / composed by Edward Williams

Life on Earth was a landmark television natural history series produced by the BBC and Sir David Attenborough which aired in the UK in January 1979. Surprisingly, for such an influential series, its soundtrack was privately pressed – only 100 copies were ever made and distributed by composer Edward Williams to members of his orchestra. Scarce copies languished in thrift shops for three decades before finally being resurrected (with Sir Dave’s blessing) in 2009.

What surprised me further still was how beautiful the music was – a Desert Island Disc session would not be complete without staring into the sea surrounded by the magical, ambient sounds of science, nature and music for jellyfish.

3 Philip Cohran and the Artistic Heritage Ensemble

Phil Cohran was my favourite jazz composer – his ensembles contained one of the most idiosyncratic takes on 60s avant jazz this side of Sun Ra (Cohran was once an early member of Ra’s arcane troupe). He wasn’t just a musician but an inventor of musical instruments – from customised violin-ukes to his most famous creation, his Frankiphone – an amplified thumb piano which rattled spookily around his ragged rhythm tracks. I’d hope with time that I would develop the patience and ingenuity to fashion my own desert island instrument – or at the very least I could always find a shell that made an interesting noise when blown into!

Book: Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec

I think this book would keep me occupied on the island – Perec’s output is extremely varied in form and style: sometimes bewilderingly so. From crossword puzzles and poetry to palindromes, autobiography and straight narrative – he did the lot and made a rule to never write the same thing twice. In his novel Void, he systematically avoids the letter ‘e’, for an entire novel! He did balance things out though – writing a short story after Void where the only vowel used was ‘e’ (easy peasy lemon squeezy… ok, so it’s harder than it sounds!).

Life maps the interconnecting lives of the residents of a fictitious apartment block in Paris with an unfolding structure that follows the logic of chess moves.

It was written according to a complicated writing plan (thankfully with ‘e’s included this time) and its 99 chapters can be read in any order. Guided by a 70-page index, a chronology, a checklist of 100 or more main stories, an apartment block elevation plan as a 10×10 grid of the building in which the action takes place and a profound interest in jigsaws. This book is the literary equivalent of a sudoku puzzle – one that you will keep returning to and worthy of being stranded with.

Luxury item: Tin of Vaseline (Aloe Vera) – no sense in having chapped lips in the sun!

LGBT history in the Art & Design Library

February is LGBT History Month and, in the Art & Design Library we’ve been looking at some of our books that explore this rich history and its amazing contribution to the visual arts. All are available for borrowing from the Art & Design Library.

A Queer History of Fashion: from the Closet to the Catwalk edited by Valerie Steele, published 2013.
From Christian Dior to Yves Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen, many of the greatest fashion designers of the past century have been gay. This book looks at the history of fashion through a queer lens, examining high fashion as a site of gay cultural production and exploring the aesthetic sensibilities and unconventional dress of LGBTQ people to demonstrate the centrality of gay culture to the creation of modern fashion.

Art & Queer Culture by Catherine Lord & Richard Meyer, published 2019.
Art & Queer Culture surveys artworks that have constructed, contested, or otherwise responded to alternative forms of sexuality. Rather than focusing exclusively on artists who self-identify as gay or lesbian, the book instead traces the shifting possibilities and constraints of sexual identity that have provided visual artists with a rich creative resource over the last 130 years

A Queer Little History of Art by Alex Pilcher published 2017.
The last century has seen a dramatic shift in gender and sexual identities for both men and women, reflected in a period of artistic experimentation as artists have sought to challenge social conventions and push the boundaries of what has been deemed acceptable. The result is a wealth of deeply emotive and powerful art intended to express a range of desires and experiences but also to question, criticise and provoke dialogue. This book showcases a selection of works which illustrate the breadth and depth of queer art from around the world.

Drawing difference: connections between gender and drawing by Marsha Meskimmon and Phil Sawdon, published 2016.
Drawing Difference’ analyses how both drawing and feminist discourse emphasise dialogue, matter and openness. It demonstrates how sexual difference, subjectivity and drawing are connected at an elemental level – and how drawing has played a vital role in the articulation of the material and conceptual dynamics of feminism.

Queer British Art 1861-1967 edited by Clare Barlow, published 2017.
With a focus just on British queer art, this book has sections on ambivalent sexualities and gender experimentation amongst the Pre-Raphaelites; the science of sexology’s impact on portraiture; queer domesticities in Bloomsbury and beyond; eroticism in the artist’s studio and relationships between artists and models; gender play and sexuality in British surrealism; and love and lust in sixties Soho.

We’ve many more biographies and analyses of works by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender+ identified artists. From Diane Arbus and Francis Bacon to Keith Haring, Gilbert & George and David Hockney, we’ve got them covered. Drop into the Art & Design Library for more information.

Desert Island Discs – Eleonora from Central Lending Library

Eleonora has been with the library for a few years now, working in the busy Lending department. She is also part of the imaginative team who run our Childrens’ Art Club. The thriving art club runs every second Wednesday and program a wide and varied selection of arts activities for their members.

We unfortunately had a to and fro of emails, as we were unable to provide Eleonora’s original choice of Music, so today we have no Metallica, listened to so much the cassettes were destroyed or, Faith No More which reminded Eleonora of studying for her art degree in Bologna.

Desert Island Discs

1
John Grant  –  Pale Green Ghosts
Eleonora says:

“amazing album I used listened all the time when I moved in Scotland, is perfect for any kind of mood”

2
Eleonora would like “anything by Ella Fitzgerald” so we suggest Ella Fitzgerald   –  At The Opera House 

3
and she also asked for anything by Creedance Clearwater Revival, so we offer The Best of Creedence Clearwater Revival

Book(s): The Name of the Rose and American Psycho …as we had a bit of difficulty fulfilling Eleonora’s music choices we have allowed both of her requests…

Eleonora said,

“I would like if I can chose two books, they are very important for me”

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco I just love the book and the movie as well, I got this book in my father’s “personal library” at home, when I started to read, I did not stop for hours. It reminds me my father and my house in south Italy.

 

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis – it was one of the books for my art degree. This book just drove me nuts, if I can say so. Brilliant book.

 

Luxury item: One of my father pipes, because sometimes I like to sit and smoke next to the window, look outside and get lost in my thoughts. 

A Day in a Child’s Life

Tucked away backstage, in a room in Central Library, is a copy of Kate Greenaway’s A Day in a Child’s Life. It’s an illustrated children’s song book with page after page of quaint colour wood engravings from the 19th century (the book was first published in 1881).

‘A Day in a Child’s Life’, an illustrated children’s song book

The pictures are quintessentially delicate and gentle. They skip along, lightly, gracefully; and every child that Kate Greenaway drew – and she drew many all through the book –  she drew them in historical costume, historical costume for the time, that is. The costumes date from decades before, from the early 19th century and Regency-era.

Playtime, an illustrated page from ‘A Day in a Child’s Life’

Kate Greenaway’s mother owned a millinery shop in Islington and the shop later developed into a ladies’ outfitters. Kate Greenaway, not unsurprisingly, learnt to sew, and she began to make the costumes for her child models to wear. Her illustrations were such a success that Liberty’s, the London department store, even introduced a line of children’s clothing based on them.

Behind the millinery shop was a garden, which as a child Kate Greenaway spent many hours in, and her pictures, as well as featuring children, feature flowers. Flowers drawn with thought and detail, picked and placed like a florist might for the best composition. Slim-leaved daffodils look particularly tall and upright beside a line of standing children, hands behind their backs; and in another illustration, big-faced sunflowers stand like shining suns to either side of a child (who has a head of golden curls) and is just about to wake up…  There was big public interest in flowers in Victorian times, floral dictionaries were enjoying a boom, and a few years later, in 1884, Kate Greenaway’s own The Language of Flowers became very popular.

Introductory image for ‘A Day in a Child’s Life’, an illustrated children’s song book

In terms of its production, A Day in a Child’s Life, was at the forefront of Victorian printing. It was engraved and printed by Edmund Evans, (who printed books by other illustration greats including Walter Crane and Randolph Caldecott). He was pre-eminent in his work, pushing forward printing technologies by using a woodblock technique known as chromoxylography, and printing toy books and picture books that filled the floors of Victorian nurseries. It was also Edmund Evans’ nephew, Miles Birket Foster, who wrote the music for the song book.

Kate Greenaway, who has given her name to our own contemporary illustration award, the Kate Greenaway Medal, has been an influential figure in illustration. The artist and critic John Ruskin wrote of her:

“The fairyland that she creates for you is not beyond the sky nor beneath sea, but near you, even at your own doors. She does but show you how to see it”.

They were friends, John Ruskin and Kate Greenaway, and their correspondence with each other lasted until Ruskin’s death in 1900.

Do have a look on our Capital Collections exhibition to browse over more of these wonderful pictures.