Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Marie, an Early Reviewer for LibraryThing, has started a weekly online get-together of LT book bloggers at her web site, The Boston Bibliophile. She says, "anyone is welcome to participate but the idea is to catch up with each other on what's new in our LT libraries- new books, books just finished, thoughts, anything like that." To participate, simply write a post in your blog, then go to her entry Tuesday Thingers and leave her a comment containing the link to your post.
This week's topic is: Discussion groups. Do you belong to any (besides Early Reviewers)? Approximately how many? Are there any in particular that you participate in more avidly? How often do you check?
First a little bit about LibraryThing and me. I’ve been adding our books (that’s mine and my husband’s) to LT for a while now. It’s very time-consuming but most rewarding, coming across old favourites I haven’t read for years. I’ve been doing in sections and I think most of the fiction is on there now and I’m working through the non-fiction.
Books have always been part of my life as long as I can remember. It was my father who suggested I could be a librarian and I can’t think why I hadn’t thought of it myself. I went to Manchester Library School at what was then Manchester Polytechnic (now part of Manchester University) and worked for a while for Manchester Public Libraries. I haven’t worked in a library since I left to start a family, although I did have a spell in a bookshop working as a cataloguer, in pre-computerised cataloguing days. When I found LT at first I thought I wouldn’t use it – after all I used to be a cataloguer. But I soon realised its benefits and signed up.
I have looked at the Discussion groups but have only joined the Early Reviewers group. I have had one book to review – Our Longest Days, which I wrote about in my last post. There are only a few books available through Early Reviewers for UK members, so I was really pleased I got a book at all. I do hope some more will come my way.
I suppose I check LT about once a week, more if I’m adding books. It all takes time. I’ve found that writing a blog and reading other people’s blogs is also more time-consuming than I’d realised and it all cuts into reading time.
Sunday, May 18, 2008
Mass Observation is a social research organisation, founded in 1937, with the aim of creating an "anthropology of ourselves" - a study of the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain. The information was gathered in various ways, including a team of paid observers and a national volunteer panel of writers. People were interviewed on a number of topics and filled in monthly ‘directives’ on themes such as jokes, eating habits, money and marriage. In August 1939, with war approaching, the organisation asked its panel to keep diaries to record their daily lives and selections from fifteen of these diaries are included in Our Longest Days. They make fascinating reading.
From Sandra Koa Wing’s introduction:
“It is worth noting, however, that the diarists did not represent a true cross-section of British society during the war. Although they came from a variety of backgrounds, and from different regions, most of them were middle-class, well-read and articulate. They tended to be people with a natural capacity for observing – and for recording what they observed. Moreover, on the whole their political leanings tended towards left of centre; several were pacifists or conscientious objectors.”
Because they are personal accounts there is that sense of being actually there during the air raids, hearing Churchill’s speeches, reading the newspaper reports, experiencing the grief at the number of casualties and deaths and the terrible devastation of the war, the food and clothes rationing and the excitement of D-Day. There is also the hopelessness of the defeats during the first years of the war, the weariness as it went on and on, the yearning for peace and then the excitement, the anticipation and the anti-climax of VE Day and VJ Day.
The main events of each year are summarised before the diary entries for that year, which I found very useful as a quick guide to set the diaries in the context of world events. I began to feel as though I knew the people who wrote the diaries, so the brief biographies are the end were also interesting as there were brief details about what happened to them after the war. There are also a number of photographs, an excellent index and a selection of further reading of Mass Observation publications and other histories of Britain in the Second World War together with a list of related websites.
I think one of my favourites is Muriel Green, who was 19 when the war began. She became a land girl and moved around the country. On her 21st birthday she was working as an under-gardener at Huntley Manor in Gloucester. She wrote:
“I shan’t forget my 21st birthday. Apart from getting two greetings telegrams and achieving the first bath for nearly a month it has been the last word in flat. Totally depressing in fact.” Life wasn’t all depressing for Muriel and she is one person who kept mainly optimistic and in October 1944 she reflected: “It seemed strange to think that the war had been on over five years and how little different it was for us in spite of the ravages of war and what some had gone through. … Of course it will never be the same again, but there are many families with far greater losses than our petty grumbles.”Muriel’s family was among the lucky ones. Not so Kenneth Redmond’s whose brother Tom was killed in action. His entry on 11 November 1944 reads:
“This day only means Remembrance of Tom – War and its horrors, Peace and the best of life that it can bring – all these things will mean to me Tom. I get very morbid when I think of it.”
Herbert Brush was 70 in 1939. He was living in south London, a keen gardener, art lover, reader and writer of verse. He wrote diary entries from September 1940 to March 1951 and I particularly liked the personal details he included. He couldn’t buy any razor blades in June 1942 and at the same time he was wondering how accurate the reports of the numbers of casualties reported by the Germans and Russians were, thinking of how pleasant it was “to read about so many Nazis being slaughtered” and noting the number of different pronunciations of ‘Nazi’.
“Churchill says ‘Nazzi’, others say ‘Nartzi’, or ‘Nertzi’ of ‘Nassie’. I like Churchill’s best as he puts a snarl into the word.”My dad must have liked Churchill’s best too as that is how he said it.
Margaret Forster is quoted on the front cover: “I relished all these diaries”. Me too. An excellent book.
Saturday, May 17, 2008
The rain that was forecast again for today didn't arrive this morning and this is what I saw looking out of the window. The cattle are back in the field opposite. I took the first photo through the window and you may be able to see a ghost in the hedge - that's my reflection.
So I opened the window to get a better view and the bullock nearest the hedge spotted me. Here he is posing for the camera.
The rest of the cattle didn't like the photoshoot and took off up the field.
The rain is here now, so it's just as well we got some gardening in first and managed to shred the branches D had chopped off the pussy willow earlier in the week. It had got huge and was hanging over our neighbours' roof. Shredding is a very satisfying job using a small woodchipper or hogger (as D calls it), although it's a bit noisy.
Friday, May 16, 2008
This is the first time I've done a Friday Fill-In
- There is absolutely NO way you can get me to eat fish eyeballs as shown on Gordon Ramsay’s “The F Word”!
- Planning a holiday reminds me that summer is almost here!
- I cannot live without my books.
- Painting and quilting are two things I'd like to try.
- When life hands you lemons make lemon meringue pie and lemon cheesecake.
- Christmas Day with my family, opening presents, and eating Christmas dinner is my favourite childhood memory.
- And as for the weekend, tonight I'm looking forward to going out for a meal, tomorrow my plans include gardening if the weather is fine and cooking and Sunday, I want to relax, write my blog and read!
Thursday, May 15, 2008
Hint: It's not the sort of book I usually read - you should know, Paul.
This week's BTT question is Manual Labor Redux
Following up last week’s question about reading writing/grammar guides, this week, we’re expanding the question….
Scenario: You’ve just bought some complicated gadget home . . . do you read the accompanying documentation? Or not?
Do you ever read manuals?
Anything at all?
I don't like manuals, usually I can't understand them anyway. I haven't read the ones for my phone or camera and I just use them - or I ask my husband, who also never, ever reads instructions.
I can't think of any How-to books right now that I've read; years ago I tried some of the "Teach Yourself" books but they never helped me learn much.
I do like to read Self-help guides, but never do any of the things they suggest.
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
These books have little, if anything in common, other than the fact that they are all recent acquisitions. Every now and then I decide not to buy any more books and then along come some that I just can’t resist. They all look so enticing I want to read them all at once. As that’s not possible I thought I do quick summaries of each one (from information on the book covers) to help me decide which one to read next.
Remember Me by Melvyn Bragg. This is the latest book from Melvyn Bragg based on his own life. I enjoyed the others - The Soldier's Return, A Son of War and Crossing the Lines - so much that I couldn’t wait for this book to come out in paperback.
“A passionate but ultimately tragic love affair starts when two students – on French, one English – meet at university at the beginning of the sixties. From its tentative, unpromising early stages, the relationship develops into a life-changing one, whose profound impact continues to reverberate forty years later.”
The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart – bought in the Library Sale for 10p. I read and loved Mary Stewart’s trilogy of Arthur/Merlin books many years ago. The first two are The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills.
“The Last Enchantment is a richly woven story peopled by princes and soldiers, grave-robbers and goldsmiths, innkeepers and peasants and witches …”As it's so long since I first read ths book I expect it will be like reading a new book.
Never On These Shores by Stephen R Pastore. Lisa Roe at the Online Publicist sent me this to review. Have a look at her site; she has a number of books available fo review. This is a “what if” book –
what if in 1942 “the Nazis had landed in Mexico and invaded the United States through Texas. The Japanese have conquered Canada and have captured and occupied most of the west coast from Seattle to the outskirts of Los Angeles.”In a way this fits in with my current reading of books about the Second World War.
Admit One: a Journey Into Film by Emmett James, a review book also from Lisa. This book follows British born actor Emmett James on his numerous adventures
“as he jumps from forgery to pornography to crashing the Academy Awards under the alias of a nominated writer. All the while, the films that inspired each tale contextualize this humorous collection of stories. The narrator provides a unique insight into the fascinating industry of film, eventually himself stumbling into the biggest box-office grossing movie of all time.”Discussion about films attracted me to this book.
Down To a Sunless Sea by Mathias B Freese, a review book from the author. This collection of short stories
“plunges the reader into uncomfortable situations and into the minds of troubled characters. Each selection is a different reading experience – poetic, journalistic, nostalgic, wryly humorous, and even macabre.”This sounds so different and quite challenging.
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, a bookshop buy.
“Set in the turbulent times of twelfth-century England when civil war, famine, religious strife and battles over royal succession tore lives and families apart, The Pillars of the Earth tells the story of the building of a magnificent cathedral.”Historical fiction and family drama combined makes this very attractive to me.
Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman. I saw this in the bookshop at the same time. I bought it as Joanna had suggested it when I wrote about Garden Spells, another magical book. I was also influenced by the name of one of the main characters – “Sally Owens”, as that was the name of my Great Aunt, who I thought was magical. It says on the back cover that this book
“blends together the mundane and the mysterious, the familiar and fantastic”.It promises to be good.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. From the same bookshop buying spree. I remember reading good things about this book on several blogs and it was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005. There is very little information about this book on its cover so I looked on Wikipedia which summarises it :
"Gilead is the fictional autobiography of the Reverend John Ames, an elderly congregationalist pastor in the small, secluded town of Gilead, Iowa who knows that he is dying of a heart condition."From the back cover:
“A visionary work of dazzling originality”.I’m prepared to be dazzled.
Engleby by Sebastian Faulks, the final bookshop buy.
“This is the story of Mike Engleby, a working-class boy who wins a place at an esteemed English university. But with the disappearance of Jennifer, the undergraduate Engleby admires from afar, the story turns into a mystery of gripping power."This sounds promising - a murder mystery set in a university and a "creepy central character".
Can Any Mother Help Me? By Jenna Bailey. This is a bargain buy from newbooks. It’s about a group of women and their magazine – the Cooperative Correspondence Club (CCC) which lasted 55 years.
“They wrote articles about the things that mattered most to them – children, work, love, politics – and commented on each other’s work."The magazines are part of the Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex, which also is the source for Our Longest Days - diary entries from ordinary people during the Second World War. The CCC began in 1935, so the war years are also covered in this book. I’ve already read a little of it and I may start it properly when I’ve finished reading Our Longest Days.
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, bought in the Library Sale for 40p. I’ve been wondering about this book for some time whenever I saw it in the bookshops, but the title put me off for some inexplicable reason. But at 40p I thought why not? There are many quotes both on the back cover and inside singing its praises:
“The history of Love has perfect pitch and does its dance of time between contemporary New York and the wanderings of the Jews with unsentimental but heartbreaking grace [Krauss] also happens to write like an angel.” Simon Schama, Guardian.He does make it sound very good.
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Here are the rules:
· Link to the person that tagged you
· Post the rules somewhere in your meme
· Write the six random things
· Tag six people in your post
· Let the tagees know they’ve been chosen by leaving a comment on their blog
· Let the tagger know your entry is posted
So here goes:
1.I wake up most mornings with the dawn chorus. The birdsong is just tremendous these days, it's like an orchestra tuning up outside the bedroom window at about 4.00am. I usually doze off again but am awake before 6.00am again most days.
2.As a child I was scared of dogs. I wouldn’t go anywhere where there was a dog if I could help it. Visiting friends and relatives with dogs was a nightmare; I wouldn’t go in the house if a dog came rushing to the door or be in the same room if the dog was loose. I was just terrified – they were so big and boisterous with ferocious-looking teeth and deafening barks. No matter how much my parents and the dogs’ owners tried to reassure me that the dogs wouldn’t hurt me I didn’t believe them. This continued as I grew older and I would cross the road if I saw a dog ahead of me on the same side.
My mother said she thought my fear stemmed from the time I was a baby and a barking dog jumped up to my pram. I think it also comes from the dog my grandfather kept tied up by his chair. I was scared of him as well as of his dog. He had a big bristly moustache and was very gruff and it seemed as though he barked himself when he spoke. My fear persisted, although I was able to control it better as I became older, until our son was five and started school. Both he and my husband wanted a dog and I ran out of excuses not to get one – and I didn’t want my son to have the same phobia. So we got a Golden Retriever. She was a beautiful dog and helped me overcome my fears, so much so that a few years later we got another dog as well.
3.My first job was a Saturday job in a grocery when I was still at school. The owners, Mr and Mrs Davies, lived above the shop and kept a large Alsatian dog in the backyard. I used to wait for my friend to arrive to go in with her, as I was still scared of dogs. It was a very busy shop, especially in the morning. I used to sell the fancy cakes and bread. The chocolate cup cakes and cream cakes were my favourites. I used to like serving the cooked meats, but was a bit nervous of the meat slicer. When it was quiet, before closing time I had to stock up the bags of sugar, which were kept behind the freezer – there was just enough room to squeeze in and stock the shelves. I earned 12/6 each Saturday. Mrs Davies was very old-fashioned and used to ask if I was “walking out” with a boy (I was).
4.I love natural yoghurt. I make my own and have some with my breakfast every day. The best yoghurt I've ever eaten was in Greece, but the Greek yoghurt I buy here just isn't the same. My homemade yoghurt is nearly as good, though. I make it in a yoghurt maker and then strain it.
5.I don’t have a head for heights and get dizzy just climbing a ladder. It’s really difficult getting down again. This is not too bad as I don't climb ladders very often (I've never been able to get up into our loft because of this) but it's a real handicap coming down spiral staircases in castles and church towers, which I do like to explore.
6.I was in a car accident when I was 17. I smashed my head against the windscreen, had cuts all over my face and a few in my legs.but fortunately I only needed a few stitches in my forehead, chin and neck and have only slight scars, but three of my front teeth were broken and I had to have them crowned. I also bit right through my tongue which was very painful.
I've seen this on many blogs recently, but if you haven't done it and would like to, please consider yourself tagged.
Sunday, May 11, 2008
This week I’ve been reading more of Our Longest Days: a People’s History of the Second World War by the Writers of Mass Observation. It’s composed of diary entries from a number of people of their personal observations, thoughts, and hopes. The one criticism I have of it is that I’m finding it difficult to remember the details of each person. Their first entry is annotated in the margin with their name, age, occupation and location. After that there is just the name, so I have to flick to the end of the book where there are brief biographies for each person. But I am gradually getting used to each person. This morning I was reading about April 1941 with the declaration of war on Yugoslavia and Greece. In Eastern Europe, Hungary, Rumania and Bulgaria were effectively Nazi puppet states. Maggie Blunt, a writer living alone with her beloved cats in a cottage in Slough, wrote on 21 April 1941,
“Are we really going to lose this war? The Nazis sweep from triumph to triumph making no mistakes while we make all the mistakes. … God alone knows what we shall be called upon to endure these next few years but as others wiser than I have said, it is not what one endures but how one endures it that counts. There were bad raids again on London last week. Planes overhead again tonight. The horror of the sound has become dulled by familiarity and resignation.”
It seems strange to say I’m enjoying reading this, but I am. It is an amazing insight into how ordinary people felt about the war. I remember hearing the stories my mother told about her wartime experiences and thinking how terrible it must have been, yet at the same time how much fun they managed to have despite the circumstances.
I also picked up at the library a week or so ago London War Notes 1939 – 1945 by Mollie Panter-Downes (I read about this first on Danielle’s blog). I’ve just started to read this in conjunction with Our Longest Days. Together these books throw so much light on those years. Mollie Panter-Downes covered the war from England for the New Yorker. The letters are witty, humorous and full of poignancy. I can’t decide whether to read until I’ve caught up with Our Longest Days, or to just stick to one book and then read the other one.
I’ve also got Wartime Britain 1939 – 1945 by Juliet Gardiner (recommended by Litlove). I’ve only dipped into this so far and looked at the photographs. It’s a long, detailed book with many endnotes and an extensive bibliography. In the foreword it states that is about the pervasiveness of the war and how it affected people’s lives. So that’s up next too.
One last book for today is The Ration Book Diet by Mike Brown, Carol Harris and C J Jackson. This uses the wartime diet as a model and includes sixty recipes, some taken straight from cookery books of the time, with only minor adjustments, but most are new dishes created using the ingredients that were available during the war. From the introduction:
“When VE-Day finally came in May 1945, Britain was a very different place from the country it had been in 1939. Six years of war had taken their toll on the fabric of the nation. In many cases the effects were far-reaching in terms of Britain’s social, economic and demographic characteristics. But if there was one good thing to have come out of the war then it was food rationing: the war left us healthier as a nation than we had ever been before or have been since."This is a lovely book and I’ll be writing more about it at a later date.
It’s a glorious day here, hot and sunny, with no breeze. I’m not sure I really like this weather; it makes me feel drained and languid. I shan’t be reading much more today as the family are coming over this afternoon and the garden calls. We’ll be getting the paddling pool out for the children, although my son and husband will be firmly indoors from 3.00pm onwards watching their team Manchester United play the last game of the Premier League against Wigan. The championship hangs on this match. See my son's post here for a more informed view.
Saturday, May 10, 2008
The Maytrees by Annie Dillard, published by Hesperus Press Limited 2007, 185 pages
Impenetrable in parts, lyrical in others, describing the love between Toby and Lou Maytrees in such a detached fashion that I never felt close to or really understood any of the characters, this book was not easy to read. I understood the words, but put in sentences and paragraphs there were pages where I felt that somehow the meaning had eluded me. I re-read sentences and pages but still came away feeling puzzled. Thinking back now after I’ve finished reading this book once I’ve got past the awkwardness of the parts that puzzled me and tried to analyse what it is about, I think that it’s about love, and about ageing and dying. I was rather disappointed in this book, having read and enjoyed Pilgrim at Tinker Creek some years ago and reading the acclaim it received I expected it to be a fantastic book: the Washington Post quote on the back cover is ‘full of the kind of pleasures one looks for in fiction’. I can’t truthfully say that I found them.
The setting is beautiful, on the beach near Provincetown, Cape Cod in the 1940s. But this is no overdeveloped beach full of tourists; it’s a wilderness of scrub and dunes jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean. After 14 years of marriage Maytree left both Lou, his son Petie and his dune shack for Deary Hightoe. Twenty years later he and Deary returned to Provincetown when Deary was dying. Lou then looks after both him and Deary. Deary starts out as a free spirit, sleeping in the dunes swaddled in a canvas sail, but living with Maytree in Maine she becomes weighed down with possessions and “stuff”. The most moving part of the book for me is the description of Deary’s death, which took place over eight weeks.
The characters seem unable to express their feelings or thoughts to each other. Maybe it’s because Lou is such a self-sufficient personality; when Maytree left her, “She did not whine or voice grief or anger.” Maybe it’s because the book covers a period of over twenty years with little information about what has taken place during those years. There is love in there – love of the land, the sea and nature. Human love too in the form of agape, in Lou’s selfless care of both Deary and Maytree.
Maytree ponders on the nature of love after Deary’s death:
“Of course everyone had tended Deary. Was that tending love genetically or socially determined convention? The idea of love as irresistible passion died hard in Maytree long after he knew better. Was he ‘in love’ with Deary all those years? No, but he never dreamed of shipping his iced-over oars. … Still less was Lou in love with Deary. Nor was noble Pete. Then what guides will - reason? The darling of dead Greeks, that guarantor of the science he loved? Surely reason never trafficked in a man’s love life. Science rinsed love’s every scent from its hands. Maytree had been sensible of no particular sentiment except the natural wish to help Deary find comfort. That steady wish for her comfort on which he had acted for years and Lou and Pete had acted for eight weeks - was love?(pages 160-161)
Wishing and doing, within the realm of the possible, was willing; love was an act of will.”
Love is not seen as a matter of emotion, but a “wilful focus of attention”; it is not like “love’s first feeling of cliff-jumping”. This is not a book about passion in the bodice-ripping, erotic sense. It’s about lasting love: “The feeling of love is so crucial to our species it is excessive, like labor pain. Lasting love is an act of will.” (pages 111-112)
Still I came away from the book feeling a cool detachment from it and not sorry that I'd finished it.
Friday, May 09, 2008
My copy of The Chrysalids by John Wyndham is the Penguin Books edition published in 1955. This is the second book I've read in the Once Upon a Time Challenge.
As this is science fiction and I’d read The Kraken Wakes, about an alien invasion of Earth and I know that The Day of the Triffids (which I haven’t read) is about grotesque animal eating plants, I was expecting The Chrysalids to be about monster insects hatching out of pupae. It isn’t.
It’s a post-apocalyptic novel set in an imaginary Labrador. The people have vague recollections of the “Old People” who lived before the Tribulation (maybe a nuclear war), which they believe God sent to punish the population for their sins. The society they live in now is strictly governed by a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, one of the few books that survived the Tribulation. Anything that deviates from the Norm had to be rooted out and destroyed or sent to the Fringes. This applied to people, animals and plants. David Strorm has grown up in a house where the walls are covered in texts such as,
“THE NORM IS THE WILL OF GOD”, “THE DEVIL IS THE FATHER OF DEVIATION” and “WATCH THOU FOR THE MUTANT!”
So when he realises that his friend Sophie has six toes he is worried, and with reason. Sophie is not the only deviant from the Norm, David himself and a group of other young people have telepathic powers and can tune in to each other’s thoughts. When they realise that Petra, David’s little sister is developing even stronger telepathic abilities, David and Petra and his friends flee to the Fringes, where they expect to find fearsome mutations, but hope to find sanctuary. Petra’s long-range telepathy puts them in touch with a woman in Sealand, on the other side of the world, who promises to rescue them.
Wyndham’s story still has relevance today, with its central theme of intolerance of anyone or anything that does not conform to what is considered to be “normal”. Intolerance based on what a group of people “know” to be the truth is always scary, especially when they persecute others who believe or think differently. The question of identity is also explored - what it is to be an individual and also part of society. His characters are real people, the story is compelling, and I had to read on to find out what happened as the tension built.
The title, I suppose, comes from the analogy with the evolution of insects from grubs to the adult stage. The people of Labrador are stuck in the chrysalis stage; they have not evolved and do not want to change. David and his friends are changing however and moving towards a more advanced stage of humanity. As the woman from Sealand tells them:
The essential quality of life is living; the essential quality of living is change; change is evolution; and we are part of it.It’s a book I should like to re-read, now that I know the story. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Thursday, May 08, 2008
This week's Booking Through Thursday's question is:
Writing guides, grammar books, punctuation how-tos . . . do you read them? Not read them? How many writing books, grammar books, dictionaries–if any–do you have in your library?
My English teacher at school, Miss Orr, would be pleased and amazed if she could read this now - I like books on grammar and punctuation! I love dictionaries and writing guides.
I regularly use The Chambers Dictionary, which boldy says on its cover "the largest, bestselling and most comprehensive single-volume English dictionary" and also "the richest range of English language from Shakespeare to the present day". It's more than a dictionary as it also has lists in the back - first names, phrases and quotations in Latin and Greek and modern foreigh languages, books of the Bible, plays of Shakespeare, chemical elements and so on and so forth. It's the meaning that I'm looking for because you have to have some idea of how a word is spelled to look it up. I do use on-line dictionaries but really prefer my "real" dictionary, somehow it's more satisfying. I just opened it now to check the word "labour" (that's how I would spell it not "labor" - I'm not too bothered about spelling) to see if my idea of using writing guides etc is covered by that word. "Labour" means, among other definitions "physical or mental toil; work, especially when done for money, or other gain, pain, a task requiring hard work". So no, using these books is not all laborious for me.
I also have The Oxford Library of English Usage which I really ought to read more than I do. It's a box set of 3 volumes - Grammar, Spelling and A Dictionary of Modern Usage. I bought the set some years ago when I realised that my memory of English Grammar from school was fading fast (sorry Miss Orr).
More recently I bought Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss, which I think makes grammar so much more interesting. I love her examples and the wrong use of the apostraphe in "its/it's" infuriates me, although not quite as as much as it does her:
"No matter if you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing, "Good food at it's best", you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave."My typing is not always up to much and I cringe when I see I've typed "it's" instead of its".
I'm really good at reading writing guides in hope of improving my writing or to give me inspiration to actually write something creative, but I never do what they say. I have a few books on Creative Writing - my favourite is Dorothea Brande's Becoming a Writer. I'm encouraged by her analysis of the difficulties of writing, her practical approach to the business of writing and this sentence in particular strikes a chord:
"Writing calls on unused muscles and invloves solitude and immobility."
Although not a writing guide in the usual sense I also love Margaret Atwood's Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. She writes about what is a writer and how she became one; the drawbacks of being a female writer; and asks question such as, "For whom does the writer write?" and "Is there a self-identity for the writer that combines responsibility with artistic integrity? If there is, where might it be?" She quotes many other author, enticing me to read yet more and more books.
Wednesday, May 07, 2008
I seem to have been reading Eat, Pray, Love a very long time. That is because I only read short sections each morning. I’d read quite a lot about the book on a number of blogs and some people loved it and others didn’t and for a while I resisted reading it. Then a few months ago I found it sitting on the shelf in my local library and thought I’d have a look at it. At first I found Elizabeth Gilbert’s style irritating, so chatty and verbose, but after I’d got beyond the sorry details of her marriage, divorce and disastrous relationship with the next man, and she took herself off to Italy I began to relax and enjoy the book. I’m glad I finally did read this book as in the end I found it very entertaining.
She travelled to Italy (Eat), India (Pray) and Indonesia (Love) spending four months in each place, searching for pleasure in Italy, mainly through food, God in India at an ashram, and balance in Indonesia.
I’ve written a bit about her time in Italy here and this was my favourite section of the book. Whatever Elizabeth Gilbert does it seems as though she throws herself into it 100% - so in Italy she put on weight, eating pizza and gelato. Well not just those two Italian basics, but loads of delicious sounding food. It made me feel happy just reading about her happiness in eating soft-boiled eggs, asparagus, olives, goat’s cheese and salmon, followed by a fresh peach. By the end of her stay in Italy I wasn’t surprised that none of the clothes she brought with her fitted - I found the same after two weeks! Needless to say I enjoyed reading “Eat” and it made me want to visit Italy again.
On to India, where it was back to intense, emotional experiences; much soul-searching and naval- gazing too. (I also wrote a bit about this section here.)I have practised Yoga so I was looking forward to reading of her time in an ashram, but soon decided that I’m glad I was never tempted to spend time in one myself. Elizabeth Gilbert was hoping for “a dazzling encounter with God, maybe some blue lightning or a prophetic vision”, but for a while this eluded her. I was amused when I read that she wrote that she’d been talking too much, not just at the ashram but all her life, so she decided she didn’t want “to waste the greatest spiritual opportunity of her life by being all social and chatty the whole time.” She was going to become known as “That Quiet Girl”! Her hopes were dashed when she was asked to be “Key Hostess", looking after people coming to the ashram on retreat.
But it was during these retreats that she had her “dazzling encounter” with God. Elizabeth writes about God as though she’s writing to a penfriend or is talking to a friend at the end of a telephone. She also writes about it in abstract terms – she “stepped through time“ and “entered the void”; she
“was the void … the void was God, which means that I was inside God. But not in a gross, physical way – not like I was Liz Gilbert stuck inside a chunk of God’s thigh muscle. I was just part of God. In addition to being God. I was both a tiny piece of the universe and exactly the same size as the universe.” (p209)
My interpretation of this is that Elizabeth was experiencing a state of “oneness”, where she was not aware of the limits of her own being. She says that it wasn’t hallucinogenic or exiting or euphoric, even though she states "it was heaven"; maybe she is saying that she slowed down and experienced calm and tranquillity, a sort of blend of Christianity and Buddhism perhaps. At the beginning of the book Elizabeth writes that she is "culturally, though not theologically" a Christian, which goes some way to explaining her experience of "being God". She explains her position thus:
“… while I do love that great teacher of peace who was called Jesus, and while I do reserve the right to ask myself in certain trying situations what indeed He would do, I can’t swallow that one fixed rule of Christianity insisting that Christ is the only path to God. Strictly speaking then, I cannot call myself a Christian. Most of the Christians I know accept my feelings on this with grace and open-mindedness.”(p14)
In the final section of the book she travelled on to Bali in Indonesia where she had first met Ketut, the medicine man, who resembles Yoda from Star Wars. I have to admire Elizabeth Gilbert’s confidence in travelling alone without even any idea of where she is going to live, and what she is going to do. She arrived in Bali not knowing Ketut’s address or even the name of his village and when she did find it at first he did not recognise her. Life in Bali is very different from her time in India, much more relaxed and Ketut’s methods of meditation were much less intense than those at the ashram.
Along the way she also made friends with Wayan, a poverty stricken woman healer and spent the mornings with her “laughing and eating”, the afternoons with Ketut “talking and drinking coffee” and the evenings relaxing in her garden, either by herself or with another friend, Yudhi who came over and played his guitar. She decided to raise money from friends in America to buy Wayan a house and this nearly ended in disaster when Wayan kept finding more and more difficulties with purchasing land and said she needed more money. Fortunately Elizabeth had met a charming Brazilian man, with whom she fell in love and he explained that that is the way of life for people there – to try to get the most money they can out of visitors.
So, it all ended happily as Elizabeth sailed
“to this pretty little tropical island with my Brazilian lover. Which is – I admit it!- an almost ludicrously fairy-tale ending to this story, like the page out of a housewife’s dream. … Yet what keeps me from dissolving right now into a complete fairy-tale shimmer is this solid truth, a truth which has veritably built my bones over the last few years – I was not rescued by a prince: I was the administrator of my own rescue.” (p 344)
I found an on-line video of Elizabeth Gilbert talking about this book at http://www.learnoutloud.com/Free-Audio-Video/Social-Sciences/Cultural-Criticism/Authors@Google-Elizabeth-Gilbert/25150
Sunday, May 04, 2008
I'm late coming to the Sunday Salon today, because just as I was finishing writing this post we had a power cut, which lasted nearly four hours and when it came back on I found that I hadn't saved all of it!
Last Sunday the heavy rain that had been forecast held off for our walk among the bluebells, in fact it was a warm sunny afternoon and there were still lots of bluebells in the woods. It’s been a mixed week weather wise – we’ve had sunshine and torrential rain, coming down like stair rods as my father used to say. But it has meant that everything in the garden is growing like mad. I love this time of year when the leaves are still small enough to see the branches. We have two small apple trees and a cherry tree which have now blossomed – promise of fruit later in the year.
On the reading front for some of the week I’ve been in the company of Dalziel and Pascoe, but mostly Pascoe as the book is The Death of Dalziel by Reginald Hill. Because I watched the BBC series before I read any Dalziel books in my mind I see Warren Clarke as Dalziel and Colin Buchanan as Pascoe. It’s a complicated plot with all the sub-plots intricately interwoven. The characters are so believable and the mystery so absorbing that I just had to read it through to the end. It was a while ago that I watched this on TV so, even though I knew what the outcome was I couldn’t remember the details. What I don’t remember from the TV are the episodes describing what is going on inside Dalziel as he lies in hospital unconscious (he was caught in the blast of a hugh Semtex explosion).
This is a nice example. Dalziel is
“floating uneasily above Mid-Yorkshire. His unease derives not from his ability to defy gravity, which seems quite natural, but his fear that someone below might mistake him for a zeppelin and shoot him down.”Because he is Dalziel he breaks wind and his
“... relief is hugh and more than physical.
‘Dead men don’t fart!’ he cries triumphantly.
… Dalziel breaks wind again, this time with such force he gets lift-off and accelerates into the bright blue yonder like a Cape Canaveral rocket. Soon the startled starling is nothing more than a distant mote, high above which an overweight, middle-aged detective superintendent at last realises the Peter Pan fantasy of his early childhood and laughs with sheer delight as he tumbles and soars between the scudding clouds of a Mid-Yorkshire sky.”
In complete contrast I’m in the middle of The Maytrees by Annie Dillard. Some years ago I read and thoroughly enjoyed Pilgrim at Tinker Creek which won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1975. In that book I was fascinated by the detail and description of the natural world that Dillard saw at the Creek and I expected her novel would much in the same vein. But for me it is too sparsely written, too economical. The Maytrees is about a couple, Toby and Lou who marry and have a son Petie, living out their seemingly non-eventful lives at Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod. After 14 years of marriage Maytree just ups and leaves with Deary Hightoe, which is as far as I have read. Part of me loves this book for the descriptions of the setting and characters, but part of me struggles with prose that seems so detached from emotion.
I always like to have more than one book on the go, so although I’m only progressing slowly with Les Miserables I’ve also started to read Our Longest Days, diary entries of people living during the Second World War. It’s fascinating reading about the war as it was experienced by the people left at home, enduring the bombing of Britain and the threat of invasion. I’m up to December 1940 - Herbert Brush, then aged 71 was living in London, described what he had done to make staying in the dugout more comfortable, with a paraffin stove, a curtain across the entrance and shields to keep the draught off the bunks on each side of the dugout:
“It is quite a comfortable place now, when one gets used to the cramped space and the inability to turn over without falling off the bunk, for folk of my size.” It’s a touching account of the war years full of personal hopes and fears.Finally I started to read John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids yesterday. So far I’m finding this an immensely satisfying book, easy to read, and full of suspense about a world where genetic variations are seen as Offences and Abominations that have to be rooted out and destroyed. Chillingly, when a baby is born it has to be inspected and if there is any deviation from what has been decided is normal, ie made in the image of God, even if there is the slightest blemish then it is taken away and never heard of again. My copy is an old second-hand Penguin book published in 1959 and I’m intrigued by the references on the cover to “what is unhappily known as ‘science fiction’, and again as writing that is “so unscientifically called Science Fiction”. I must look up the history of sci-fi writing.
Saturday, May 03, 2008
I took the test and found that I’m going to the first level of Hell–Limbo. The illustration below shows the different levels of hell, copied from the Oxford World Classics edition of The Divine Comedy. I've indicated the position of Limbo.
First Level of Hell - Limbo
Charon ushers you across the river Acheron, and you find yourself upon the brink of grief's abysmal valley. You are in Limbo, a place of sorrow without torment. You encounter a seven-walled castle, and within those walls you find rolling fresh meadows illuminated by the light of reason, whereabout many shades dwell. These are the virtuous pagans, the great philosophers and authors, unbaptised children, and others unfit to enter the kingdom of heaven. You share company with Caesar, Homer, Virgil, Socrates, and Aristotle. There is no punishment here, and the atmosphere is peaceful, yet sad.
Thursday, May 01, 2008
This week's BTT question:
Quick! It’s an emergency! You just got an urgent call about a family emergency and had to rush to the airport with barely time to grab your wallet and your passport. But now, you’re stuck at the airport with nothing to read. What do you do??
And, no, you did NOT have time to grab your bookbag, or the book next to your bed. You were . . . grocery shopping when you got the call and have nothing with you but your wallet and your passport (which you fortuitously brought with you in case they asked for ID in the ethnic food aisle). This is hypothetical, remember….
I rarely go anywhere without a book, so it's most likely that I'd have a book in the car. But if I didn't I'd buy one at the airport, or at least a magazine or newspaper, maybe a book of codewords or something.
I'd want to read something but I probably wouldn't be able to concentrate on anything as I'd be so nervous about catching the plane on time, worrying about the emergency and goodness knows what else ...
These are books that explore different aspects of Britain – things that interest me, landscape, places, history, architecture, writers, cookery, walking and so on. They’re books I own and enjoy looking at; some I’ve read and others I’ve only dipped into. They have all provided me with hours of delight. There are a number of books reflecting my fascination with history in its physical form – standing stones, castle, churches, stately homes – others my interest in Britain’s geography and topography. The book that triggered this list is A Reader’s Guide to Writers’ Britain by Sally Varlow, which I bought this week in the library book sale.
From bottom to top they are:
1. English Landscapes – photography by Rob Talbot, text by Robin Whiteman (1995). The English countryside in full colour, explored region by region from Penzance to Penrith, landmarks, local architecture, social and historical surveys, literary and artistic connections, geography and local customs. An amazing collection exploring the byways of England. A book to sit and pore over planning where to go.
2. Yesterday’s Britain published by the Reader’s Digest. Full of photographs this book covers the period 1900 – 1979 and is “the story of how we lived, worked an played” throughout the 20th century. It contains personal anecdotes, eyewitness accounts and intimate stories: a “family scrapbook of the nation”.
3. British Isles: a Natural History by Alan Titchmarsh, accompanying the BBC1 series. Beginning in the mists of time, 3 billion years ago this book traces the evolution of Britain exploring everything from geology and geography to flora and fauna. It includes a section on Places to Visit, from Stone Age villages at Skara Brae, Orkney to the Centre for Alternative Technology, Powys, Wales. A beautifully illustrated and informative book.
4. Land of the Poets: Lake District, Photographs by David Lyons (1996). The English Lake District, that much visited area of Britain, is one of my favourite places. I’d love to live there, even though it rains and is often full of tourists. This book illustrates the drama and beauty of the countryside, the grandeur of the crags and hills, complimented with poetry inspired by the mountain streams and lakes. The anthology is mainly drawn from William Wordsworth and his near contemporaries, with photographs relating directly to the poems – The Langdale Pikes, Home at Grasmere, (Wordsworth), Helvellyn (Walter Scott) to name but a few.
5. Mountain: exploring Britain’s High Places by Griff Rhys Jones to accompany the BBC series. I was so impressed with Griff’s fitness as well as his great sense of humour as he climbed Snowdon and the other High Peaks in England, Scotland and Wales. These are such spectacular places, also rough and arduous climbs. Amazingly he had never done any climbing before! One third of Britain is covered in mountains – I didn’t know that before. There’s a bit of history in this book too.
6. Great British Menu, the book that accompanied the first series on BBC2, when 14 chefs competed to decide who should cook for the Queen at the celebration lunch marking Her Majesty’s 80th birthday. It contains recipes from the chefs representing the South East, the North, Wales, the South West, Northern Ireland, the Midlands and East Anglia, and Scotland – including Lancashire Hot Pot made with wild boar, Finnebroague Venison with Colcannon Pie and Wild Mushrooms (Northern Ireland) and Pan-Fried Cornish Lobster (South West). Delicious, mouth-watering recipes.
7. How We Built Britain by David Dimbleby, describing a journey through Britain and a thousand years of history seen through Britain’s buildings and the people who built them. This is more than the book of the TV series, immensely detailed, reflecting Dimbleby’s enthusiasm and delight in a hugh span of British history from 1066 to the modern day.
8. Sacred Britain: a guide to the sacred sites and pilgrim routes of England, Scotland and Wales by Martin Palmer and Nigel Palmer. This gives information about ancient stone circles and tombs, Christian and pre-Christian shrines, medieval synagogues, churches, cathedrals, holy wells and rivers, ancient yew trees and symbolic plants. It also describes 13 traditional pilgrimage routes eg the Canterbury Pilgrimage from Winchester to Canterbury (129 miles). Illustrated with colour photographs and coloured sketch plans of the routes.
9. A Reader’s Guide to Writers’ Britain by Sally Varlow (2000). This is a beautiful book containing maps and photographs, and giving a guide to places to visit linked with writers and books, from all parts of the British Isles. There’s an index of authors and places with anecdotes and fascinating facts. Hours of endless pleasure reading about where to visit.
10. In Search of Stones:a pilgrimage of faith, reason and discovery by M Scott Peck. Scott Peck’s account of the trip he and his wife took through the countryside of Wales, England and Scotland looking for ancient megalithic stones. It covers travel, history, archaeology, as well as Scott Peck’s meditations on spirituality and mysticism. Illustrated with drawings by Christopher Peck. I’ve read this book twice so far and have visited some of the sites he describes.
11. Mysterious Wales by Chris Barber looks at beautiful and magical places in Wales. It’s a guide to prehistoric megaliths, holy wells, magic trees, secret caves, lonely lakes, bottomless pools and sites associated with legends concerning King Arthur, Merlin and the Devil. Illustrated with photographs and drawings. Absolutely fascinating.
12. The Hidden Places of England edited by Joanna Billing is a travel guide to some of the less well known places of interest to visit (together with other less "hidden” places eg Stratford-upon-Avon, Bath and Oxford), with short descriptions accompanied by line drawings and coloured maps. It also has information about places to stay and eat, many in out-of-the way places. My edition was published in 1997 but it is still a useful book to find out about the history of villages and towns, churches, pubs, restaurants, cafes, tearooms, and numerous other attractions.
13. A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells: The Central Fells by A Wainwright. This is one in a series of the Wainwright walking guides to the Lakeland Fells, reproduced from the original handwritten pages and intricate pen and ink sketches of the routes and the landscape. Alfred Wainwright was born in 1907, fell in love with the Lake District and moved to Kendal in 1941. The guides describe the fell walks as they were in the 1950s and 1960s; the footpaths, cairns and other waymarks may not all be the same now and you do need to take an up-to-date map with you but, as the BBC series “Wainwright Walks” have shown, the routes are very much as Wainwright knew them.
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
In the first chapter of Hilary Mantel’s memoir she writes, “I hardly know how to write about myself. Any style you pick seems to unpick itself before a paragraph is done.” She then advises herself to trust the reader, to stop spoon-feeding and patronising and write in “the most direct and vigorous way that you can.” She worries that her writing isn’t clear, or that it is “deceptively clear”.
It comes across to me as being clear, honest and very moving. She’s not looking for sympathy but has written this memoir to take charge of her memories, her childhood and childlessness, feeling that it is necessary to write herself into being.
When I read Beyond Black a couple of years ago I was struck by the biographical information at the end of the book - that as a child she believed their house was haunted and that she was often very frightened. She expands on this in her memoir. From the age of 4 she believed that she had done something wrong and she was “beyond remedy and beyond redemption”. She thought it was because of her that her parents were not happy and that without her they would have had a chance in life. It didn’t get any better as her father left home and she was left to live with two younger brothers and their mother and her mother’s lover. Home was a place where secrets were kept and opinions were not voiced. Her experience of ghosts at the age of 7 was horrifying she felt as though something came inside her, “some formless, borderless evil”.
She wasn’t happy at school; and by the age of twelve she no longer believed in God and as she was at a convent this must have been difficult. She went to university to study law, and was married at 20, struggling to combat the prejudice against women prevailing in the early 1970s:
“It was assumed that marriage was the beginning of a woman’s affective life, and the end of the mental one. It was assumed that she neither could nor would exercise choice over whether to breed; poor silly creature, no sooner would her degree certificate be in her hand before she’d cast all that book-learning to the winds, and start swelling and simpering and knitting bootees. When you went for an interview, you would be asked, if you were not wearing a wedding ring, whether you were engaged; if you were engaged or married, you would be asked when you intended to ‘start your family’.”Oh yes, I remember that too!
Life got worse for Hilary as her health deteriorated and the doctors thinking depression was the cause prescribed anti-depressants, which in turn damaged her further. From being underweight she went from a size 10 up to size 20 and developed akathisia as a side effect of the drugs she was given. This condition looks and feels like madness and was the worst thing she had ever experienced, apart that is from the horror she had felt as a child of 7. As a result of the misdiagnosis of her condition (eventually it was diagnosed as endometriosis) she was unable to have children. She sees the children she never had as ghosts within her life; ghost children who never age, who never leave home. Ghosts in her definition are also
“the tags and rags of everyday life, information you acquire that you don’t know what to do with, knowledge that you can’t process; they’re cards thrown out of your card index, blots on the page. … It’s just the little dead, I say to myself, kicking up a fuss, demanding attention by the infantile methods that are the only ones available to them.”
I found it a remarkable memoir.
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
Review copy courtesy of the publishers Hodder and Stoughton. Paperback, 2008.
Garden Spells has a touch of magic to it and it's not just the sparkly glitter frosting on the book's cover. It’s a modern fairy tale/myth that captured my imagination right from the start. Maybe it’s because there is an enchanted garden, in flower all year round, with a magic apple tree at its centre. Maybe it’s because it has a warm, cosy “once upon a time” feel and I needed something completely different from other books I’ve read recently. Whatever it was this book, together with Hilary Mantel's Giving Up the Ghost (post on this book to follow), helped pull me out of the reading rut I’d experienced after the high point of reading C J Sansom’s Revelation.
The Waverleys, considered by their neighbours as just a little bit weird, have lived in Bascom, North Carolina for generations. Ever since Sydney Waverley left home ten years previously Claire,her older sister has continued to live in the house, tend the garden and run a catering business using plants she has grown. She is kept busy, as
“all the locals knew that dishes made from the flowers that grew around the apple tree in the Waverley garden could affect the eater in curious ways. The biscuits with lilac jelly, the lavender tree cookies, and the tea cakes made with nasturtium mayonnaise the Ladies Aid ordered for their meetings once a month gave them the ability to keep secrets. The fried dandelion buds over marigold-petal rice, stuffed pumpkin blossoms and rose-hip soup ensured that your company would only notice the beauty of your home and never the flaws. Anise hyssop honey butter on toast, angelica candy, and cupcakes with crystallized pansies made children thoughtful. Honeysuckle wine served on the fourth of July gave you the ability to see in the dark. The nutty flavour of the dip made from hyacinth bulbs made you feel moody and think of the past, and the salads made with chicory and mint had you believing something good was about to happen, whether it was true or not.”
Claire is not the only Waverley with magic powers; her cousin, Evanelle gives people strange gifts, such as a rhinestone brooch, a ball of yarn, little packets of ketchup and tweezers, which they later find are just what they need. These magic powers have made Claire independent and her only contact with people is through her catering business. In addition, she is wary of becoming attached to anyone fearing that if she lets herself become emotionally involved she will get hurt and that they will leave her (her mother abandoned her and Sydney, leaving their grandmother to bring them up).
Even though it is essentially a comforting read there are serious issues within the story. Sydney returns to Bascom, with her five-year old daughter, Bay, leaving her partner, David in the dead of night, after suffering years of physical abuse. She has tried to leave him before, but he has always found her and forced her back. This time she is determined that he won’t find her. Their arrival throws Claire off balance, even though she welcomes them into the house. Sydney’s reappearance in Bascom sets ripples running through the neighbourhood, causing changes not just for Claire. Old friends are both pleased and horrified at her return.
There is also a newcomer to Bascom, Tyler Hughes, who has moved in to the house next door to Claire. He has seen her around and is immediately attracted to her, much to her discomfort and Claire’s comfortable life is thrown into disarray. The apple tree in the Waverley garden is a very temperamental tree and has a habit of throwing its apples at people from its branches. Eating one of these apples affects people in strange ways. So when Tyler eats an apple that the tree has tossed over into his yard he has the most amazing dream.
Garden Spells is a book to enjoy and read quickly, its romantic elements verging on chick-lit, reminding me of Sophie Kinsella’s books (which I also enjoy). I was also struck by the comparison (but not a strict parallel) with the Garden of Eden and the tree of knowledge of good and evil at its centre, with the serpent persuading Eve to tempt Adam to eat the apple …
The author's website has more information plus recipes of dishes using edible flowers mentioned in the book .
This book qualifies as my first read in the Once Upon a Time II Challenge.
Monday, April 28, 2008
Happy Birthday to Ian Rankin. My choice for the Celebrate the Author Challenge in April is A Good Hanging by Ian Rankin whose birthday is today 28 April.
A Good Hanging is a collection of twelve short stories featuring Inspector John Rebus, set in Edinburgh. All the stories are concise and I think convey the character of Rebus; he is cynical and analytical, a lone worker, who drinks and smokes too much. None of the stories pose complex mysteries and are seemingly easily solved by Rebus. I did enjoy the book but it is less satisfying for me than a full length novel. I have several other Rebus books in line including Black and Blue, which promises to be ‘a first-rate and gripping novel’, according to the Sunday Times.
First published in 1992 it’s one of the earlier Rebus books. The first story in this book is called “Playback”. Rebus is impressed by being able to phone your home phone “from the car-phone” to get “the answering machine to play back any messages.” You can tell from this that it’s rather different from current crime detection fiction. As the title indicates, solving the crime in this story hinges on phone messages. The police receive a phone call from the murderer confessing his crime. He panics and tries to flee, only to be caught as the police arrive on the scene of the crime. He then insists on his innocence. Rebus disentangles the puzzle even though this seems to be “the perfect murder”.
In “The Dean Curse” Rebus is reading Hammett’s novel “The Dain Curse”, which he tosses up into the air disgusted by how far-fetched and melodramatic that book was, piling on coincidence after coincidence “corpse following corpse like something off an assembly line”, when he receives a phone call with news of a car bomb that had just gone off in Edinburgh. He cannot believe it has happened. It seems as though this is the work of terrorists, the bomb having all the hallmarks of an IRA bomb and it had gone off seconds after the car had been stolen. It seems to Rebus as if the coincidences in the Hammett story have nothing on his case. But there is more to this case than at first meets the eye.
My favourite in the book is the title story “A Good Hanging” in which Rebus solves the crime through his knowledge of “Twelfth Night”. It’s set during the Edinburgh Festival period, when the city is full of young people, theatrical people. A Fringe group, comprising a number of students are staging a play called “Scenes from a Hanging” promising a live hanging on stage. The story starts with the discovery of a young man found hanging from the stage scaffold in Parliament Square. It appears to be suicide according to the note in his pocket “Pity it wasn’t Twelfth Night”. Rebus investigates and finds that all is not as it seems.
The other stories involve the discovery of a skeleton buried beneath a concrete floor, a Peeping Tom, and blackmailers. One story I particularly like is “Being Frank” about a tramp who overhears two men talking about a war that’s coming. He is well known for making up stories and informing the police of numerous conspiracies so they just laugh at him. But fearing the end of the world Frank confides in Rebus who eventually begins to suspect that this time Frank is not lying.
Sunday, April 27, 2008
It’s been a good reading week here. I started and finished Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel and Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen. It was with some relief that I finally finished Eat, Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Three very different books and I’m going to write separate posts on each of them. I’m behind with writing about these books – I just can’t keep up with my own reading. After doing the Page 123 meme on Friday I decided that I would read Travels in the Scriptorium next and I stuck to that even though Remember Me by Melvyn Bragg arrived on Saturday morning.
Yesterday was a beautiful day here and I sat for a while in the garden reading Paul Auster’s Travels In the Scriptorium. It’s a very short novel (130 pages) and I read it in one sitting. I found it to be an odd little tale about Mr Blank, an old man who wakes to find that he is alone in a room. He doesn’t know where he is, who he is or why he is in the almost empty room. At first it seems as this is the story about old age and memory, but as I read on I realised it is more than this. It’s metafiction, with a story, or rather stories within the story, posing a puzzle. Mr Blank spends his day looking at photos on the desk, reading an unfinished manuscript, thinking about his past and talking to the various people who visit him as the day progresses.
Travels in the Scriptorium is a slender book, written in beautiful but simple prose. I wasn’t sure what to expect, after all a scriptorium is a writing room in a monastery but having read it I think the clue to its contents is in the title.
If you’ve never read any of Auster’s books I suppose you could still enjoy this book, but you wouldn’t realise what it was all about and I wouldn’t recommend that you start with this book. If you like a novel to have everything explained and a complete ending with all the strands of the story neatly tied up then don’t read it either. I’ve only read two of Auster’s books – Oracle Night and The Book of Illusions and when I read that Anna, one of the characters in Travels had been married to David Zimmer light began to dawn – Zimmer is the main character in The Book of Illusions, but he wasn’t married to Anna. The title Travels in the Scriptorium is also the title of a film in The Book of Illusions, so obviously, I thought, these are not accidents – Auster is doing this on purpose. It turns out that all the characters in Travels are characters from his other books.
The manuscript story is unfinished and Mr Blank is disgusted. He is told that a man named Trause is the author. Here is a hint I thought to the puzzle, as Trause is an anagram of Auster as well as being a character in Oracle Night, a character who is also an author. So, this book is about writing, about words and characters and the nature of authorship. As the narrator says of the characters
“the paradox is that we, the figments of another mind, will outlive the mind that made us, for once we are thrown into the world, we continue to exist for ever, and our stories go on being told, even after we are dead.”I think that it is not just the characters that continue to exist but also the authors – we can still read their words and explore what was in their minds through their books. Our interpretation may not be what the author intended (I read somewhere that the reader writes the text), but still I am fascinated by reading what (for example) Jane Austen wrote two centuries ago and what Paul Auster wrote two years ago.
I’m still thinking about Travels. If you’re a fan of Auster then you’ll read it. But is it a great book, a good book or just a book? Just for the fact that it entertained me and made me think I’m going to say it is a good book – but not a great book. I may re-read it sometime when I’ve read a few more of his novels.
This morning I’ve read some more of Les Miserables and have now finished Part One. It’s difficult to know what to write about this novel – it’s long, (nearly ten time longer than Travels), long-winded but compelling me to read on. I remember seeing a TV version some years ago and vaguely know the story. I remember in particular watching with horror after Fantine, desperate for money had sold her two front teeth. My reaction was just the same on reading about it.There’s a whole host of characters and the novel covers a broad sweep of French history in the 19th century. It’s the story of Jean Valjean the ex-prisoner who transformed himself into the respected Mayor Monsieur Madeleine and then is revealed as Valjean by the end of Part One. Part Two opens at Waterloo. I’m tempted to see the musical at the Queen’s Theatre this summer if I can get tickets.
That's all for now as later we're meeting some of the family and going on a bluebell walk. Heavy rain is forecast for today but so far there's no sign of it - I hope it keeps fine for this afternoon.
Friday, April 25, 2008
All you have to do is:
1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.
Well, I’m not going to stick completely to the rules because the nearest book, would you believe, is Ian Rankin’s A Good Hanging, which is the book that was nearest to me last time. It’s on the desk as I’ve started to write about it. So the next nearest book is one I haven’t started but have been meaning to read ever since I bought it. It’s Paul Auster’s Travels in the Scriptorium, a short book, but fortunately it has 130 pages.
On page 123 the sixth, seventh and eighth sentences are:
“Once he got you out of the room, he was planning to kill you.
Ah. I figured as much.”
I’ll have to read the book now.
I didn’t tag anybody last time but now I’m tagging, that's if they want to do it - Melody, Paula, Stephanie, Lisa and Alison
Thursday, April 24, 2008
For this week's Booking through Thursday Deb writes:
"Well, here where I live, Spring is sprung–weeks early, even. Our lilac bush looks like it will have flowers by this time next week instead of in the middle of May as usual. The dogwood trees, the magnolia trees–all the flowering trees are flowering. The daffodils and crocuses are, if anything, starting to fade. It may only be April 24th but it is very definitely Spring and, allergies notwithstanding, I’m happy to welcome the change of season. What I want to know, is:
Do your reading habits change in the Spring? Do you read gardening books? Even if you don’t have a garden? More light fiction than during the Winter? Less? Travel books? Light paperbacks you can stick in a knapsack?
Or do you pretty much read the same kinds of things in the Spring as you do the rest of the year?"
Spring is here too; everywhere is looking much greener, the trees are sprouting leaves, the primroses are still flowering, the daffodils are past their best but the tulips are still standing proudly. We're going for a walk through the bluebell woods on Sunday so I hope they're still in bloom.I'm wondering if I've got hay fever, or is it just a cold.
As for reading I don't really change my reading habits. Maybe I'm out in the garden more - the grass has to be mown and the weeds dug out - I'm not a natural gardener. I do consult my gardening books each year to try to see what I should be doing in the garden, for help with pruning and how to stop the slugs and snails from making their homes in the plants. Now I think about it I do like gardening books; they're so full of beautiful photos of lovely well-kept gardens and then I wonder what I'm not doing because our garden doesn't look the same. Of course I do know the answer - I haven't got green fingers, although I suspect that it's really because I don't spend as much time gardening as I do reading. And that's not going to change.
I also like to read about places we're thinking of visiting or planning a holiday, so yes travel books are on the menu, but I find the internet can be better for looking up places than books. I don't think my reading habits change much with the seasons. Light (as in weight) paperbacks are always good, whatever the season to pop into a bag or leave in the car just in case there's an opportunity to read.
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
FRANKLIN, ARIANA – Mistress of the Art of Death
GAARDER, JOSTEIN – The Solitaire Mystery
HARDY, Thomas – The Woodlanders
ISHIGURO, KAZUO - Remains of the Day
JAMES, P D – Original Sin
KINGSOLVER, BARBARA – The Poisonwood Bible
LIVELY, PENELOPE – The Photograph
TOLSTOY, LEO – War and Peace
U – none
VICKERS, SALLEY – Instances of the Number 3
WOOLF, VIRGINIA – Mrs Dalloway
X - none
YOUNG, ANGELA – Speaking of Love
ZAFON, CARL RUIZ – The Shadow of the Wind (the only book I’ve read recently/ever by an author whose name begins with Z)
Saturday, April 19, 2008
I was away from the Salon last Sunday, but I did lots of reading - although it wasn't my usual choice of book - to my granddaughter, mainly Dora books, which she loves, oh yes and Peppa Pig.
It's been a mixed week for reading. On Tuesday I finished reading C J Sansom's Revelation, a marvellous book, possibly the best in his Shardlake series. I wrote about it here. After that every book I picked up seemed a bit flat and I struggled to come up with another book to read. I'm still reading Eat, Pray,Love. It seems as though I've been reading it for ever as I'm only reading a few pages a day, probably not the best way to read it. So far I have mixed feelings about this book. This morning it made me smile though. Elizabeth Gilbert is now in Bali with Ketut,the elderley medicine man who she hopes will teach her to find God through Balinese meditation. She has spent months in India studying Yoga - intense and heart searching - and now Ketut tells her
" ...Yoga too hard. ... To meditate only you must smile. Smile with face, smile with mind, and good energy will come to you and clean away dirty energy."
It took me until Friday to decide that Hilary Mantel's Giving Up the Ghost was the right book for my frame of mind; it's a complete contrast to Revelation. I think that when I've read one book that makes me 'live' in the story I need something completely different, so I've moved from historical mystery to present day memoir. In Hilary Mantel's book she looks back over her life, so different from mine and from Elizabeth Gilbert's too. This is one of the things I like about reading - the access that it gives into other people's lives, thoughts and experiences. Some would say that it's not real life and you should get out and live life rather than read about it. As for me I'd rather read about Hilary Mantel's experiences with her family, school teachers and doctors than live them and I'd much rather read about life in an ashram in India than go there myself, but it's good to know about these things.
I read yesterday that Melvyn Bragg has published a new book - Remember Me .... You can read a review of the book at the Times Online where there is a link to to Melvyn Bragg's talk about Remember Me ... at The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival.
This is the fourth novel about Joe, now grown up, based on Melvyn Bragg's own life. The first three, The Soldier's Return, Son of War and Crossing the Lines, tell the story of Joe from age 6 when his father returns at the end of the Second World War up the time he left home to go to Oxford University. As well as beng good stories these books bring to life what it was like living in the post war period. I'm looking forward to reading Remember Me ... with eager anticipation.I hope everyone has a good day today - keep smiling!