Saturday, September 29, 2007

Stratford and Twelfth Night at The Courtyard Theatre

D and I have been away for a few days. We went to Stratford to see Twelfth Night at The Courtyard Theatre. Although we have stayed in Stratford several times over the last 10 years and watched several plays performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company we had never been to The Courtyard Theatre before. We were quite surprised that it was some distance away from the main theatre and in what looks like a large rusty metal box. Fortunately the inside is nothing like the outside and the auditorium is impressive, seating over 1,000 people, with the audience seated around three sides of the stage. We were in the stalls and had a really good view of all the action on the stage.

On previous visits to Stratford it has been crowded with tourists and we’ve never visited Shakespeare’s birthplace. We didn’t make it this time either, but when we walked up to The Courtyard theatre in the morning before the matinee we followed the signs to Holy Trinity Church where Shakespeare was baptised in 1564, where he worshipped and where he is buried. Holy Trinity Church is a beautiful church dating back to the 13th century, set in a lovely, peaceful position by the River Avon. Perhaps next time we’ll manage to visit Shakespeare’s Birthplace and the Shakespeare Centre.

We stayed at the Alveston Manor Hotel. We’ve stayed here before, as it is just a few minutes walk from the River Avon and the RSC Theatre and also because the original timber-framed house is a beautiful Tudor building, full of atmosphere – leaded Elizabethan windows, panelled walls lined with paintings of Shakespeare and characters from the plays and photographs of old playbills. It is set in gardens with an ancient Cedar Tree under which, it is rumoured, the first performance of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' was given.

Twelfth Night

We went to the matinee performance. The theatre was full and as we waited for the play to start we overheard from the seats behind us: “Well Mother, this is going to be different. I’m hoping a lot of this will pass you by.”

At the end of the performance we overheard a conversation from a couple following behind us as we walked away from the theatre: “I thought Feste and Malvolio were the best.” “Oh no” came the friend’s reply “I didn’t like Feste at all – far too modern and the microphone!” Her friend: “I didn’t like Sir Toby, a woman doesn’t have enough stature to play a man.” The cross-dressing was not to everyone’s liking, although I think the teenage element of the audience found it hilarious.

This was the second performance of Twelfth Night that we’ve seen by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. The first time was in the RSC theatre, now closed because a new auditorium is being built (due to be completed in 2010). That was a traditional performance, complete with Feste, the fool dressed in motley, playing a lute, an Elizabethan set and was very colourful and funny. This performance was different. The setting was black; nearly all the actors were dressed in black Edwardian costumes and not a box-tree in sight. Feste was a dissolute musician in evening dress, playing a grand piano, and using a microphone into which he drawled at the opening of the play “Twelfth Night … or What you Will …” and the scene was set. On came Viola, shipwrecked, barefoot and in a nightdress and shawl, and obviously a man.

The play continued – Viola, believing her twin brother, Sebastian has drowned in the wreck “disguised” as a boy, Cesario, goes to the court of the Count Orsino, who is besotted with unrequited love of the Lady Olivia, who repels his wooing as she is in mourning for her dead brother. Everything is topsy-turvy in this play and this performance certainly demonstrated that, with Sir Toby Belch (Olivia’s uncle), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (a foolish foppish knight) and Fabian (a servant) all played by women, giving a pantomime performance and reminding me somewhat of the hobbits in Lord of The Rings – small in size but yet full grown and different from adult men. I could suspend my disbelief to enjoy their performance, even though I found it a bit bizarre, but I’m sorry to say that I found the performance of Viola/Cesario (Chris New) was just not convincing – even though I know that originally women’s roles were played by boys, there was no way that I could conceive he was a woman disguised as a boy, nor that Olivia could possibly find such an effeminate young man attractive, let alone fall in love with him and this grated and irritated me throughout the play.

I did like Feste (James Clyde); his foolery, his bored condescension and his singing were superb. I also liked Olivia (Justine Mitchell) and her housekeeper Maria (Siobhan Redmond) who both gave spirited and convincing performances. Malvolio (John Lithgow) was magnificent in his portrayal of the ridiculous steward driven into seeming madness, wearing cross-gartered yellow stockings and smiling grotesquely. The grand piano had to stand in for the box-tree, so that this was where the tipsy Sir Toby (Marjorie Yates in tweeds) and the others hid to watch Malvolio find the letter written to fool him into believing Olivia loves him and it worked quite well, as the actors popped up and down commenting on and sniggering at Malvolio’s conceit and self importance.

Twelfth Night relies on the use of language and wit and is essentially a comedy about deception and disguise, about illusion and reality, about what is sane and what is rational and above all about love, the irrationality and unruliness of love.
Like the lady behind me I thought Feste and Malvolio were the best and I’d add Maria and Olivia as well – they were all excellent and made the play one that I enjoyed and will remember.

An added bonus was that whilst in Stratford I bought a hardback copy of Peter Ackroyd's Shakespeare: the Biography for the bargain price of £3.35.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Lewis Carroll, Photography and Memories of Childhood


I’m reading Lewis Carroll: a biography by Morton N Cohen. Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, two of my favourite books from childhood, was the pseudonym for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832 – 1898), a Victorian mathematics don at Oxford University.

In this post I’m concentrating on Charles’s keen interest in photography. This developed from his early drawings and sketches illustrating verses and short stories he wrote in the family magazines and booklets. By the time he was 24 in 1856 photography had become an absorbing pastime for him, encouraged by his uncle and fellow students at Oxford. He bought a camera, the necessary chemicals and the extensive and cumbersome equipment needed to take photographs. It was very different from photography today, when all you need is a small digital camera that goes easily in a pocket or handbag (unless you’re a professional photographer, or very keen amateur) and the results can be instantly seen.

He arranged his photographs in albums, all indexed and listed in registers. He took landscapes, architecture, drawings and sculptures – but his main interest was in portraits of people, his family, friends and Oxford colleagues. Photography gave Charles entry to the Oxford social world through his portraits, mainly of small children. He introduced himself to Alfred Tennyson, as a result of simply arriving uninvited when Tennyson was visiting friends in Coniston and proposing to take photographs of his children.

His main focus was the Liddell children. Henry Liddell was the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, where Charles had become Mathematical Lecturer in 1855. The Liddell family included Alice and her older sister Lorina. Charles was a great favourite with the Liddell family and the stories he told to them and in particular to Alice were later published as Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. He became well known as a portrait photographer and took many photographs of friends’ families, enjoying the theatricality of dressing up, using props and composing scenes for his set pieces. He was particularly interested in the composition of his photographs for proportion and balance, and examined other photographers’ work at the Exhibition of he British Artists in London in 1857 “… chiefly for the arrangement of hands to help in grouping of photographs.”

Photography in the 1850s was a complicated and intricate business. You needed a darkroom to prepare the “plate” – film didn’t come into use until the 1880s – by pouring a gummy solution of collodion onto a glass plate. This had to be carefully prepared so that it wasn’t smudged or spoiled by dust particles and then carried to the camera. Once the plate had been exposed you then had to rush back to the darkroom to develop it and then it had to be fixed, varnished and allowed to dry.

For outdoor photography all the equipment, including a darkroom tent and water for rinsing the plate when there was no fresh water available, had to be transported to the countryside. There was so much equipment that Charles had to hire a porter and a carriage or horse-drawn van to carry it all. It was a major expedition and not surprisingly Charles didn't take many landscape photographs.

Photography is no longer such a difficult process, so much so that we take it for granted. My grandchildren are used to instant digital photographs and have no idea of what it was like when I was a child, anymore than I had any idea of what photography was like when my parents were children, let alone in the 1850s. My dad had a Kodak Box Brownie camera and I remember waiting for what seemed like ages for our black and white holiday photos to arrive back from the chemists. You had to be careful with loading the film not to expose it and had to remember to wind it on between photos. Later we had colour film and then the excitement of Polaroid cameras when you could hold the print in your hand as it developed – instant photographs!

This has sent me on a trip down memory lane and here are some photos taken on the Box Brownie. I was about three in the photos on the beach. I think it's amusing to see what my Dad wore on the beach - a jacket and with his trousers rolled up for paddling.

I'm perhaps a bit older in the photo with my Mum, looking at lots of sandpies. We used to go to New Brighton in the summer, so I think these photos were taken there.



Here I am in the garden at home looking very fed up at having to pose in front of the raspberry bushes for the photo. The last photo is of me and my Taid (Welsh for grandfather) - my mum's dad. Granny and Taid came to live with us when I was 6.





Sunday, September 23, 2007

Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott - R.I.P. Challenge II


On the cover Iain Pears describes Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott as “a compelling contemporary love story and a fascinating historical investigation. “ I’ll add to this that it is a tale of the supernatural concerning two mysteries – one from the present day and one from the 17th century, where the past and the present are seen to overlap.

As indicated by the title the book is haunted by ghosts. It’s also full of alchemy, mysterious figures, quantum physics and animal liberation campaigns. All of which make a potent mixture. This is the second book I’ve read recently with alchemy as a theme – see The Season of the Witch, here.

It is set in Cambridge, following the death of Elizabeth Vogelsang, a reclusive historian, found floating in the river that runs through her orchard, clutching an antique glass prism in one hand. Was it suicide, or was she murdered? Cameron, her son a neuroscientist, asks Lydia Brooke (formerly they were lovers) to finish writing his mother’s book about the 17th century and Isaac Newton’s involvement with alchemy. Lydia moves into Elizabeth’s house – a strange house full of light moving upon the walls, flickering, appearing and disappearing for no apparent reason. Lydia explains:

“Light that looks like water – as if it’s reflected off a bowl of water. Rainbows that appear in little stubs that stretch out till they disappear, really slowly. I’ve tried photographing them but my camera doesn’t seem to be good enough to catch them.”

The book moves in time between the present day and the future as well as the past. Life is seen as a palimpsest, layers of time overlapping and interweaving. It’s narrated by Lydia, who finds herself heading back into a relationship with Cameron, as she looks back on the events that lead up to a court case and into a series of mysterious deaths in the 17th century. At first I found it somewhat puzzling and fragmentary – who was being addressed and who is on trial, how did the animal liberation campaign fit in, what was Newton’s involvement, who was responsible for the deaths and how or if they were connected to the present day?

The image of ground elder with its tenacious roots joining a “great network of root systems underground” indicates the connections that will be revealed as the story unfolds, once Lydia starts digging into the past. The paranormal is added to the mix through Elizabeth’s friend Dilys Kite, a psychic, who reminded me of Hilary Mantel’s character Alison in Beyond Black, who Lydia consults in an attempt to find out more about the past than is revealed in written sources. The interconnection theme is continued in the theories of quantum physics, with the mystery of how particles of light and energy, and time and space are intricately entangled.

The setting is brought to life through Stott’s beautiful descriptions of Cambridge, invoking the smells of the mediaeval fair, the colours along the River Cam and the landscape of the Fens. Colour and light play a large part in the book; a description I particularly like is this of the river:

“Reflected colours ran from the brightly painted barges into the water. Greens – so many greens all around us: the silver-green of the underside of the willow trees, the emerald of the grass along the bank, the mottled grey-brown-greens of the scrubland on the common over the other side. Virginia Woolf had described the riverbanks as being on fire on either side of the Cam, but there was no such fire here now. Or at least not yet. There was red – rowan berries, rose hips, pyracanthas – but the red sat against the astonishing palette of autumn green like the sparks of a newly lit fire, like drops of crimson blood in the hedgerows.”

A book to read and savour on many different levels.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Crow Lake by Mary Lawson

Crow Lake is one of those books that stick in my mind long after I’d finished reading it. I borrowed it from the library and wish I’d bought it, as it’s a book I’d like to re-read in the future. I read it quickly and didn’t make many notes, which means that I was too engrossed in my reading to jot down points of interest. In fact I just wanted to read on and on and was sorry when I finished it.

It tells the story of a family of four children living at Crow Lake in the north of Canada in an isolated house miles away from any town, with just a few other families in the vicinity. The narrator is Kate Morrison and the story unfolds as she looks back on her life, triggered by an invitation to her nephew’s 18th birthday party. When she was seven her parents were killed in a car crash, leaving her, her baby sister and two teenage brothers, orphaned. The trauma of their parents’ death affects the children in different ways and as Kate looks back on the events that followed she begins to see that not everything was as it seemed to her at the time.

Things that struck me as I read this book were thoughts about the nature of memories; the difficulties of understanding other people and feeling empathy; the relationship between character and destiny; and the concepts of free will and choice as opposed to being carried along by fate.

Kate has bottled up her memories thinking she has put the past behind her. But it’s not that easy, because years later when she received the invitation and saw her brother Matt’s handwriting she realised it was all still there, simmering away at the back of her mind:

“… I got the same old ache, centred more or less mid-chest, a heavy, dull pain, like mourning. In all those years it hadn’t lessened a bit.”

From that point on, she goes back over the chain of events that had led to the tragedy linking her family with the Pye family who lived about a mile from the Morrisons and were their nearest neighbours and to Kate’s alienation from her family and Crow Lake.

The book focuses on Kate’s relationship with her brother Matt, in particular, but there are also wonderful descriptions of her baby sister Bo, with her independent defiant attitude and her oldest brother Luke, who sacrifices his career to look after his sisters. In addition the complex relationship Kate has with Dan Crane and his parents reflects the difficulties she has in coming to terms with herself and her family. Combine these memorable characters with the beautiful descriptions of Crow Lake and its ponds and the result is a memorable and lyrical novel.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Booking Through Thursday - Sunshine and Roses




Sunshine and Roses

The reverse of last week’s question:

Imagine that everything is going just swimmingly. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and all’s right with the world. You’re practically bouncing from health and have money in your pocket. The kids are playing and laughing, the puppy is chewing in the cutest possible manner on an officially-sanctioned chew toy, and in between moments of laughter for pure joy, you pick up a book to read . . .

What is it?


This is quite difficult to answer, but I think that I'd read a book I've not read before, probably by an author I like, such as Margaret Atwood. A couple of books that I would like to read again are Karen Armstrong's memoir The Spiral Staircase and M Scott Peck's In Search of Stones. Both are books that I read with anticipation and they lived up to my expectations. Both are personal accounts of the authors' beliefs and spiritual journeys.

The funny thing is that although I've got piles of unread books sometimes I can't find the right one to read next and end up starting a few and feeling that they're just not quite right. Then I pick up a book in a bookshop or the library and it's the right one for that moment. The book I'm currently reading, Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson is a beautiful, but sad book (so far) and it's just right at the moment, but if I was feeling sad myself it would probably make me feel worse.

Some books are hard to read because they're so moving and I thought of Hannah's Gift by Maria Housden when I first read this question, because it's a book that I just couldn't read if I was depressed. It's the story of a mother's three year old daughter's illness and death and it is heartbreaking. It made me cry and I just had to stop reading it; I picked it up later because I felt I had to know the end.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Footballers' books - to read or not to read?

D finished reading David Beckham's autobiography My Side yesterday and wondered if I'd like to read it too. He's also read Paul McGrath's Back from the Brink and next on his list is Peter Schmeichel's The Autobiography.

He thinks I'd prefer McGrath's book. From the covers I think I'd rather read Scheimeichel's - he looks much happier.

My knowledge of football is a bit limited but having lived with Manchester United supporters all my life through my dad, husband and son I must have absorbed something. And, of course, there were the glorious footballing years when my son played football from age 11 to his going to university and D and I were there on the touchline every weekend during the season, cheering him on. My feet were frozen, the middle of my back was aching from the cold striking up from the ground - they played whatever the weather, but I wouldn't have missed any of it. I only remember one match that was called off because the ground was too frozen. I did enjoy it, even when parents occasionally had to be warned by the referee that they would be sent off if they didn't stop arguing - great fun. The best thing about it of course was seeing my son play. somehow I can't quite summon up as much enthusiasm for football on TV.

I 'm going to give these books a go at least, if only to see what they're like.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Library Books



At the weekend Danielle posted a Library Meme. What do you have checked out from the library? So here's my list. The photo above is of the latest books I borrowed a few days ago.
  • Darkmans by Nicola Barker, shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I've started this one, but so far I've not found it too riveting, but then I'm only up to page 24. It's so long and so, so heavy (in weight, that is), not for reading in bed. I'm not going to finish this before the Booker Prize is announced.

  • The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad. A friend recommended this a while ago.

  • The Daphne Du Maurier Companion edited by Helen Taylor. This has interviews with her family, essays by contemporary authors and a long-lost short story by Du Maurier. I've read the short story "And His Letters Grew Colder" - it's sad.

  • Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson. I found this in the "1st Novel Collection" and sat down in the library to start reading. There are some comfy chairs, which are spread around the library, which are ideal for browsing whilst you decide what to borrow. This looks very good. It set in Sweden, where Veronika, a young writer arrives seeking stillness and solitude. She is observed by her elderly, reclusive neighbour, Astrid. Eventually they become friends and confide their secrets.

I've also got these books on loan:

  • Lewis Carroll by Cohen Morton. I'm currently reading about a chapter a day of this. I've just got up to Chapter 5 'The Alice Books', which is about the writing and publication of the books in the 1860s.

  • Crow Lake by Mary Lawson -I've finished this one and enjoyed it very much. I'll write about it soon.

  • Four Letters of Love by Niall Williams, because I enjoyed As it is in Heaven.

  • Generals Die in Bed: a novel from the trenches by Charles Yale Harrison. I borrowed this because I'm interested in reading a novel about the Western Front. It's short book, so it shouldn't take too long to read.

  • The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood, one of my favourite authors.

  • The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl. I ploughed my way through his Poe Shadow, which was interesting although parts were a bit tedious. This another quite long book - but not as long as Darkmans.

  • Digital Photography for Seniors in Easy Steps by Nick Vandome - I need some help. My photos are a bit hit and miss.

  • Ancestors of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. I read her Mists of Avalon a few years ago. This is about the fall of Atlantis and the origins of Stonehenge.

  • Ghostwalk by Rachel Stott. I've finished this - another good book, which I'm going to post about.

  • Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. Ann recommended this. I've read it many years ago and enjoyed it then, so when I saw it in the library I picked it up.

  • Emerson's Essays. This is an Everyman's Library edition first published in 1906. I found it in the Reserve Stock (where they keep books that supposedly aren't borrowed very much. This book was last checked out in July 2005). Stefanie's posts on Emerson led me to this book.

Fortunately, unless someone else has reserved it you can renew a book 6 times on-line before you have to take it back in and if it has been reserved and you haven't finished it you can reserve it at no charge! Wonderful. I'd never get through this lot in 3 weeks.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

TV dramatisation of Cranford by Mrs Gaskell


Coming up on the BBC this autumn is Cranford by Mrs Gaskell, starring Dame Judi Dench and a whole host of stars, including Dame Eileen Atkins, Julia McKenzie, Barbara Flynn, Julia Sawalha and Imelda Staunton. Set in the fictional town of Cranford, a small Cheshire town based on Knutsford (where Mrs Gaskell grew up), the 5 part drama was filmed on location in various places including Lacock Village in Wiltshire (as the setting for Cranford), the Ashridge Estate, Hertfordshire in the Chilterns (also used in the Harry Potter films)and the Buckinghamshire village of West Wycombe owned by the National Trust.

Cranford is based on three of Elizabeth Gaskell's works, Cranford, My Lady Ludlow and Mr Harrison's Confessions and I see from Amazon that The Cranford Chronicles is to be published on 4 October to tie-in with the TV series.


The National Trust Autumn Magazine has an article "The Dame Game" about the filming at the NT locations, with some great photos of the actors and the settings. At the moment the Summer Magazine is available to look at on-line, so I expect that eventually the Autumn Magazine will be too.

The Gaskell Web has lots of information on Elizabeth Gaskell plus photographs of present day Knutsford as well as prints of Knutsford Past, with connections to her life and works. These photos are of St John's Parish Church, where Elizabeth married Rev William Gaskell in 1832 and of the Old Vicarage.










I read Cranford at school and haven't looked at it since, so I'll be able to watch the series without many preconceived ideas about the characters and the story, although as I used to live near Knutsford, no doubt I'll be comparing Lacock to my memories of Knutsford. It's to be broadcast on BBC1 this autumn - I can't find a precise date on the television listings yet. One to look out for.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Nice Matters


Nan gave me the Nice Matters Award back in August. I’m sorry it’s taken so long to write about it, Nan, but I’ve been thinking about posting about it since then. Nice Matters can be thought of in different ways – “nice” things, or the significance and importance of being “nice”.

The dictionary definition of “nice” includes “agreeable, delightful, respectable, good in any way, something done with great care and exactness, accurate, and good-natured.” So I’ll disregard and indeed ignore one of my English teachers at school who told us not to use the word “nice” as she thought it was a neutral word and didn’t signify much at all. The concept of “Niceness” is good and it does indeed matter.

I am honoured, Nan – thank you. I don’t know Nan personally but judging from her blog I think that she is a thoroughly nice person.


Friday, September 14, 2007

Outmoded Authors - Ivanhoe - Introduction



I've now started my choice for the Outmoded Authors Challenge as Dorothy's post on Scott's Waverley has encouraged me to start my reading of Ivanhoe. Currently I've been reading books for the R.I.P. Challenge and being a bit disappointed with Edgar Allen Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination had turned to modern books and Ivanhoe had slipped down my list of books to be read.

I've never read Scott before and didn't really know what to expect. So far Ivanhoe has had me chuckling. I'm delighted to find it so entertaining and thinking I wish I'd read this before. My copy was published by the Odhams Press Ltd in the 1930s and has this line drawing of Sir Walter Scott as a frontispiece. From the Foreword:

"Certainly there have been few more lovable, more unselfish figures than the lame Laird of Abbotsfield."

It continues promising a enthralling tale of the "triangular love drama of Ivanhoe, Rowena and Rebecca, the pomp and chivalry of the Lists and the adventures of Robin Hood, Friar Tuck, and the merry gangsters of Sherwood Forest."

So, a complete change of mood from Poe and modern fantasy novels.

Ivanhoe is set in the time of Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionheart (1157 - 1199), over 100 years after the Norman Conquest of England, when there was still opposition between the conquering Normans and the native Anglo-Saxons. Scott's introduction(dated 1830) to the novel (written in 1819) follows the foreword in which he explains why he has decided to write a novel based on English history instead of Scottish - he felt he was "likely to weary out the indulgence of his readers, but also greatly to limit his own power of affording them pleasure", as, "when men and horses, cattle, camels and dromedaries, have poached the spring into mud, it becomes loathsome to those who first drank of it with rapture." In other words he didn't want to bore his readers with more of the same and he fancied a change himself.

Scott called his novel Ivanhoe, as it has "an ancient English sound" and because it didn't convey anything at all about the nature of the story. A rhyme including the name had come to his mind "according three names of the manors forfeited by the ancestor of the celebrated Hampden, for striking the Black Prince a blow with his racket, when they quarrelled at tennis."

After the Introduction there is a "Dedicatory Epistle to the Rev Dr. Dryasdust, F.A.S.", which Scott uses to expand his reasons for writing an English historical romance and apologises in advance should the antiquarian think "that, by thus intermingling fiction with truth, I am polluting the well of history with modern inventions, and impressing upon the rising generation false ideas of the age in which I describe."

The novel eventually starts on page 29, where follows long and detailed descriptions of the location of the story; of the continuing hostility between the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons; and of the first two characters that we meet.

To some extent this reminded me of the rustic characters in Shakespeare's plays, provided for comic relief, but as I've only just got on to Chapter Two perhaps I shouldn't be too hasty in my views. Anyway, so far I'm finding this book refreshingly very different from the books I've read recently, although that's not to say that I haven't enjoyed those, because I have enormously. But it's a relief to find that I'm enjoying Ivanhoe, as I had thought it might be a bit dry. If I start to write in long, complicated sentences, with detailed descriptions I can blame it all on Scott.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

R.I.P.Challenge update


When I decided to join the R.I.P. II Challenge I thought I'd only read one book for Peril the First. The book I chose is Edgar Allen Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination. So far I've read a few of the stories. I've always found short stories to be a bit of a let-down and I've found some of these a bit too short to create an eerie, scary atmosphere. Admittedly they are written in a very formal and somewhat objective style, but I'm not getting that feeling of nervous tension I experienced when reading Season of the Witch, which I wrote about here.














I picked up Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott in the library, just on the strength of the cover and the title alone, usually an unwise basis for choosing a book. But I'm about halfway through and it's really good, a combination of mystery and historical investigation, with alchemy, Isaac Newton and a love story thrown in for good measure. It moves between the present and the 17th century.

So, I 've now decided to go on to Peril the First, which is to Read Four books of any length, from any subgenre of scary stories that you choose. In addition to Ghostwalk, I've just bought The Book of Air and Shadows, by Michael Gruber, which is described on the book cover as "a modern thriller that moves deftly between the 21st and 17th centuries", (I like the 17th century).

The fourth book is a book of faerie tales - Susanna Clarke's The Ladies of Grace Adieu and other stories, because I enjoyed her book Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

The little ginger cat in the photo is a bookmark that I'm fond of as it reminds me of our cat Lucy - her photo is somewhere over on the left.

Booking Through Thursday

Comfort Food

Okay . . . picture this (really) worst-case scenario: It’s cold and raining, your boyfriend/girlfriend has just dumped you, you’ve just been fired, the pile of unpaid bills is sky-high, your beloved pet has recently died, and you think you’re coming down with a cold. All you want to do (other than hiding under the covers) is to curl up with a good book, something warm and comforting that will make you feel better.

What do you read?

(Any bets on how quickly somebody says the Bible or some other religious text? A good choice, to be sure, but to be honest, I was thinking more along the lines of fiction…. Unless I laid it on a little strong in the string of catastrophes? Maybe I should have just stuck to catching a cold on a rainy day….)

If I'm feeling really miserable there is nothing that I could read that would make me feel better. I just wouldn't be able to concentrate on reading; if it was a cheerful or funny book that would make me feel worse and if it was a sad, tragic book that would just pile on the agony.

If it was just a rainy day and I feel a cold coming on that would be different. But I wouldn't go for "comfort reading". I'd want a book to interest me and take me out of myself, something I hadn't read before. There aren't many books that I actually do re-read as there are so many other books and life is too short to read all the books that catch my eye. I looked through the lists of books I've read in the last few years and there are some that I've marked "re-read" but only a few that have made it and those were ones that I hadn't read for some years and it was like reading new books, although I knew where they were going and it was the details of getting there that I'd forgotten. This means that I could more slowly and actually enjoy the writing.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

R.I.P. Challenge Tales of Mystery & Imagination


I found the unexpected when I started to read Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales. I was disappointed. They had built up I my mind as scary, creepy tales, partly as a result of my mother saying not to read her copy of Tales when I was a child. Of course I got it out of the bookcase when she wasn’t around and had a peek inside and was scared and put it back quickly before she caught me. I hadn’t looked at the book since.

The first one I read, William Wilson, just wasn’t scary at all. I didn’t find it mysterious, or very imaginative either. I read this a few days ago and on reflection it wasn’t as bad as I first thought. It’s about the nature of personality and how we can’t see or come to terms with our own nature.

If you don’t want to know the story then you’d better not read any further, but I did find it predictable and so there was no suspense or shivery feelings for me in this tale.

William Wilson, not his real name, meets another William Wilson, not his real name either, at school and becomes convinced that his namesake is making himself into a perfect imitation, which he detests and he left school to get away from him. Three years of “folly” follow and then at Eton during an evening of “debaucheries” when the wine flowed freely at a “party of the most dissolute students” he re-encounters his double. He continues in this vein whilst at Oxford University descending to yet greater depths of depravity, and then flees to Paris, Vienna, Berlin and Moscow in attempts to shake off the presence of his tormentor, all the time demanding, “Who is he? – whence came he? – and what are his objects?”

Finally in Rome, having “indulged more freely than usual in the excesses of the wine-table” he determines to confront him “Scoundrel! Impostor! Accursed villain! You shall not – you shall not dog me unto death! Follow me, or I will stab you where you stand!” They struggle – he stabs him. Then, and this is where I think the tale is so predictable and I had seen it coming from way back, he sees a large mirror and the reflection of his antagonist who whispers “In me didst thou exist – an in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.”

So I thought I’d try one I’d heard of and read The Fall of the House of Usher, having a vague memory of seeing an old black and white movie with Boris Karloff opening a huge, ancient door, covered in cobwebs and creaking loudly on its hinges, at the dead of night. I’ll write about what I made of this in another post.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Speaking of Love by Angela Young

I enjoy reading Angela Young’s blog Writing, Life and the Universe and so of course I just had to read her book, Speaking of Love. I found it a moving book, but never sentimental and as stated on the book cover it is:

“ … a novel about what happens when people who love each other don’t say so. It deals passionately and honestly with human breakdown. And it tells of our need for stories and how stories can help make sense of the random nature of life.”

This is a story told by three people – Iris, her daughter Vivie, and Matthew. It takes place over three days leading up to the story-telling festival where Iris is performing. Iris and Vivie are estranged and gradually the reason is revealed as all three characters tell their stories. As the book starts Matthew and his dad Dick are about to travel to the festival, Iris is already there and Vivie, living in London is having a crisis in her life, unbeknown to the others. Matthew and Vivie had been childhood friends, living next door to each other at the time when Iris first suffered a breakdown, which is later revealed to be schizophrenia.

This is also a book about story-telling, indeed the book is structured into separate tales which interlink and finally unite. Along with the stories of the three characters’ lives there are also the stories that Iris tells. These are reminiscent of folk and fairy tales. Appropriately, Iris treasures the book of fairy tales that had belonged to her mother. I must have read all the books of fairy tales in the junior library as a child - I loved them. So it was with nostalgia that I read Iris’s stories such as “Earth and Sea”, the story of the fisherman, his wife and Murmurina their daughter, “born with a fat fishtail that glistened where she should have had legs” and who “made ‘O’ shapes with her mouth when she should have had a voice”.

The story-telling motif also runs through Dick and Matthew’s journey to the festival. Dick has planned it to take place over three days, stopping over night at various places and using only the minor roads. I liked the comparison of travelling in this way as “darning” by going under and over the motorways and A roads.

The main theme is the effects that not communicating has on the people we love. Iris’s father is locked in his grief after the death of his wife and Iris believes he blames her for her mother’s death; Iris isolated by her illness can’t communicate her love to her daughter; Matthew, who learnt at the age of twelve that “if you say how you feel you lose control over what happens next” couldn’t tell Vivie he loves her; and Vivie knew that “you had to be on guard because you never knew when your own insides – or anyone else’s insides – might spill out.”

The book explores the difficulties and effects of living with someone with schizophrenia, burying frightening experiences and the way we lose control over events. Dick sums it up in his advice to Matthew:

“The real risk, it seems to me, lies in not talking about the things that matter the most. That’s what made Iris ill. What we don’t say doesn’t go away. It stays inside and after a while of not being spoken about it turns against us. … The things we don’t talk about fester and then they infect us. They eat away at us like a cancer.”

The book is full of beautiful descriptions – of trees, particularly the laburnum (the "story-telling tree") and gardens in East Anglia, of the mediaeval castle over looking the Bristol Channel and the festival performers and the landscape of England as Dick and Matthew travel across country, which brings the story alive.

The opening sentence sums up Iris's story "I have come home, after a long and difficult journey." Everything after that is the story of how she got there. A book worth reading.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman - August Books Part Two

The trilogy is made up of Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Taken together the books form a grand epic, encompassing parallel universes and their inhabitants. It’s a fabulous story, featuring armoured bears who talk, witches, spectres, angels, and tiny hand sized creatures who fly on the backs of dragonflies.

I think of it as a modern myth, not just for children, but for all ages (although I wonder what age this would best suit – not for young children, I wouldn’t have thought). Karen Armstrong in her informative and most helpful book A Short History of Myth writes, “We are meaning-seeking creatures.” “ … mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality.” Concerning the novel and myth she writes:

“Yet the experience of reading a novel has certain qualities that remind us of the traditional apprehension of mythology. It can be seen as a form of meditation. Readers have to live with a novel for days or even weeks. It projects them into another world, parallel to but apart from their ordinary lives. They know perfectly well that this fictional realm is not ‘real’ and yet while they are reading it becomes compelling. A powerful novel becomes part of the backdrop of our lives long after we have laid the book aside.”

Yes, these books are exactly that. I read the books between July and August and they are all compelling reading, both in terms of storyline (with many parallel worlds) and in ideas. I am still contemplating the ideas and themes. My copy of Karen Armstrong’s book is in a Limited Signed Edition of Box Sets and includes an essay by Philip Pullman, which I had forgotten was there. In it he writes, “A myth is intoxicating, because it is something other than just a story.” How right he is and what a good description of his own trilogy.

I find it impossible to do justice to the plot in this post. I think the best thing is to read the books and look at Philip Pullman’s website. This is my brief and inadequate summary:

The main characters are Lyra and Will, who are from different worlds and the story is essentially about their journey into adolescence, from innocence into knowledge. “Dust”, seemingly similar to the idea of original sin, plays a large part in this. Once children reach adolescence Dust is then attracted to them, as they lose their innocence. The first book concerns the search for the source of Dust in Lyra’s world.

Will is introduced in the second book, The Subtle Knife. The action takes place in several universes and Will becomes the bearer of the Subtle Knife, which enables him to cut windows from one universe into a parallel one. In one of these worlds he meets Lyra and they join forces.

Daemons, representing the soul, feature in Lyra’s world where they are separate physical entities. A daemon takes the form of an animal or bird and in children can change form until the child becomes an adult. Then he or she assumes a form reflecting the person’s personality, for example a daemon in the form of dog reflects a faithful person, a cat an independent person, etc. In Will’s world (our world) the soul is an integral part of a person, and is invisible and non-physical.

The Amber Spyglass completes the trilogy, climaxing in a perilous journey through the Land of the Dead and the greatest war ever between the worlds and heaven, with the defeat of heaven and the death of “God” in the form of the Ancient of Days, who is not the Creator, but a demented and powerless being, whose form loosened and dissolved: “A mystery dissolving in mystery.”

The trilogy abounds with themes, alluding to Milton’s Paradise Lost in a retelling of the Creation and the Fall, where the “Authority” (the Ancient of Days) is a fallen angel and Lyra is seen as a second Eve. The relationship between the body and soul is evident through the concept of daemons, introduced in Northern Lights and this is developed throughout until it becomes explicit in The Amber Spyglass, particularly in the description of the passage through the Land of the Dead. Lyra has to leave her daemon behind and it’s at this point that it becomes evident that Will’s soul or daemon is also unable to travel with him. Lyra lives up to her name here (Orpheus in Greek mythology is able to charm beasts with his lyre), where she is able to win round the harpy “No-Name” and release human beings from the Land of the Dead.

The question of the nature of consciousness and when it becomes self-consciousness for example during adolescence is explored. Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, when they become self–conscious and aware of evil and sin. Dust which is invisible to the human eye is the physical representation of original sin. It is attracted to adults and is the means of conferring consciousness and wisdom. It seems to me to be based on the biblical account of God creating Man from dust and also on the concept of dust being dirty and thus sinful, but it is also the element that indicates a living being.

Of course, one thing that comes to mind in reading these books is the question of their relationship with Christianity. I’m not surprised to read that they have attracted much criticism as being anti-Christian. One of the characters is Mary Malone, an ex-nun who has lost her faith on her realisation that there “wasn’t any God at all … The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all.”

Philip Pullman’s view expressed in an interview in Surefish (Christian Aid) in November 2002 - (see here) is that he is telling a story. He is not Mary, she is a character in his book – he is somewhere between being an atheist and an agnostic.

Another enlightening interview was recorded between Pullman and Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2004 – see here.

Other interesting articles I found are an interview Telegraph in January 2002 and one on the BBC website dated March 2004.



Booking Through Thursday - Goldilocks

Goldilocks September 6, 2007

Today's Booking Through Thursday's question is a good one:

Okay, so the other day, a friend was commenting on my monthly reading list and asked when I found the time to read. In the ensuing discussion, she described herself as a “goldilocks” when it comes to reading–she needs to have everything juuuuuust right to be able to focus. This caught my attention because, first, I thought that was a charming way of describing the condition, but, two, while we’ve talked about our reading habits, this is an interesting wrinkle. I’d never really thought about it that way.

So, this is my question to you–are you a Goldilocks kind of reader?

Do you need the light just right, the background noise just so loud but not too loud, the chair just right, the distractions at a minimum?

Or can you open a book at any time and dip right in, whether it’s for twenty seconds, while waiting for the kettle to boil, or indefinitely, like while waiting interminably at the hospital–as long as the book is open in front of your nose, you’re happy to read?


I'm most definitely not a Goldilocks reader. I read wherever I can - yes, when I'm waiting for the kettle to boil and certainly whilst waiting at the hospital, unless it's an appointment that I'm really worried about and then I can't concentrate - but I'll try. The only time I really can't read is when I'm too ill either to hold a book or to concentrate on the words - that's most frustrating.

Times and places I've read include:
  • Waiting for the lift in the tower block building where I used to work - I could snatch a few minutes there.
  • Whilst cooking - whilst waiting for the timer to go off for the next stage in a recipe.
  • Whilst knitting, if the book will stay open on my knee - that's one example of where it does have to be just the right book.
  • When waiting in the car whilst my husband is in a DIY shop - he can spend as long in there as I can in a library or bookshop, I have no objections about that.
  • Break times at work - a job where we had to take individual breaks - that was really good as I could stretch a few extra minutes if I was lucky.
  • During the adverts on TV, and sometimes during a programme if it's not too hard to follow.
  • In bed.
  • On a plane journey, at the airport, railway station, bus stop.
  • In the garden of course, preferably in a hammock, but that's not a definite requirement, any old chair will do, or the on grass.
  • In a cafe or tearoom (but not a restaurant - that would be too unsociable).
  • Walking round the house (I used to get told off as a child for doing this - I'd jump down the first three steps to the turn of the stairs and amble down the rest).

I keep a book in the car and take one in my handbag ready for that unexpected time when there just might be an opportunity to read. I can't actually read whilst travelling in a car or bus as it makes me feel sick, but other journeys are great for reading.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Season of Mists ...

The year is on the turn and autunm is on its way. Here is the view from the front of the house early this morning

and a close up view of the cattle in the mist.



We've had the most fruit ever from the apple and plum trees in the back garden, so it really is a "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!"

I love autumn.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

August's Books Part One

Books read in August

The Crooked House – Agatha Christie
Made in Heaven – Adele Geras
The Secret History – Donna Tartt
The Amber Spyglass – Philip Pullman
Season of the Witch – Natasha Mostert

I started August reading The Crooked House by Agatha Christie, which I had borrowed from the library. It’s been a long time since I’d read any of Agatha Christie’s books and I felt like reading something quick and easy after some of the long books I’ve read this year. This is a short book and an easy read, but enjoyable because I didn’t have to think too much and I guessed the murderer’s identity. Sometimes that’s annoying but in this instance I found it satisfying to spot the clues along the way – and be right.

Agatha Christie described this as "one of my best." Neither Miss Marple nor Hercule Poirot feature in the book and as my current knowledge of Christie's books are from the TV programmes I found this a refreshing change. That's not to say I dislike Miss Marple and Poirot - on the contrary I avidly read and enjoyed many of the books featuring these two characters and love both Joan Hickson's and David Suchet's performances and the productions as a whole.

Aristide, the head of the Leonides family has been murdered with a fatal barbiturate injection. It seemed that they were one big happy family living in a sprawling, ramshackle mansion, but things are not what they seem. His young widow, fifty years his junior, is the obvious suspect. But the murderer has reckoned without the tenacity of Charles Hayward, fiancĂ© of Sophia, the late millionaire’s granddaughter.

Next up was Adele Geras’s Made in Heaven. It’s a story that pulls you along – even though I could see where it was heading and the ending was no surprise. The main themes of the book are marriage and divorce and relationships. A traditional wedding is being planned between Zannah and Adrian. The story opens with the lunch that has been arranged so that Zannah’s parents can meet Adrian’s mother and stepfather. Zannah wants a perfect, elaborate and very expensive wedding, to make up for her first wedding in a Registry Office, which ended in divorce. She knows exactly what she wants – the dress, flowers, church, reception and so on. The first problem that arises is the strange behaviour of Joss, Zannah's mother, on meeting Adrian’s parents and everything goes downhill from then on, from her relationship with Adrian and Cal, her ex-husband to that of Adrian with Isis, Zannah’s daughter. Obviously there is a secret that will eventually surface and cause complications all round.

The characters are believable and the analysis of their relationships is good, so much so that I found some of the characters exasperating. The descriptions of the wedding preparations, the homes and garden, the beautiful dress materials, the sumptuous, delicious food bring the book to life, although I found it intriguing that one of the locations is Altrincham. I used to live near Altrincham and went to school there, but apart from the name I didn't recognise it in this book - but then that wasn't important in terms of the plot. However, I did get quite excited when "Altrincham" was mentioned as I've never come across it in fiction before and wanted more detail.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt, The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman and Season of the Witch by Natasha Mostert are much longer books.

I found all of them to be satisfying and excellent books. I’ve already written about Season of the Witch here. The Amber Spyglass is the final book in Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials and I’ll write a separate post about all three books.

Donna Tartt’s Secret History is a contrast to the other books. The story is narrated by a boy who leaves California to attend a college in New England and becomes involved with a group of students studying ancient Greek. From the back cover:

“Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and for ever.”

There is a death recounted in the prologue. The book then goes back in time and the mystery unfolds. I found it just a bit too long and drawn out in parts and wanted to wind it up before it actually finished, but taken as a whole the tension and pace of the book was maintained.