Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Sunday Salon - New Books Today

Well, new to me at any rate. I've been out shopping - it still seems wrong that the shops are open on a Sunday, but every now and then I do go, despite feeling slightly guilty. Of course I had to go to the bookshop, have a cup of coffee and then just have a look at the books. Fatal, I came home with four.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. I'm reading this along with Danielle. I borrowed a copy from the library but I'll only have to keep renewing it and I'm enjoying it, so I bought it. The copy in the shop was slightly damaged - so I got a discount, can't be bad.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, because I enjoyed Half of a Yellow Sun (I wrote about it here). It was one of the 3 for 2 books and the marketing worked, because I then had to pick 2 more books.

I bought The Gathering by Anne Enright - the 2007 Booker Prize winner, because I've read mixed reveiws and wanted to see for myself.

And Owen Sheers' Resistance because it looks so interesting - a war story but this time an imagined history of what could have happened if D-Day had failed and the Nazis had invaded Britain.
And now I'm off to cook the dinner and hopefully read some more of Les Miserables in my new copy (I'm only up to page 164).

The Sunday Salon

This is my first post for the Sunday Salon and I feel very much “the new girl”. I’m the 99th member so there are many experienced members and I’m feeling quite shy. I’ve read the notes on what to do so here goes.

This morning I read a few pages of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. I’m not terrible impressed with it so far and I don’t think I’ll finish it as it’s a library book and someone else has reserved it and I have to return it next by Wednesday. I’m still in the “eating” part, which is in Italy. The first few chapters explain the background to Elizabeth Gilbert’s reasons for travelling and it is her depression and despair that I found hard going. Now she is in Italy it’s beginning to grab my attention and this morning I read her account of going to watch a football match between Lazio and Roma. Apparently Italian men go to a bakery after their team has lost a match and cheer themselves up by standing about leaning on their motorcycles, “talking about the game, looking macho as anything, and eating cream puffs.” I must remember to suggest this to my husband and son the next time their team, Manchester United, loses. Fortunately that’s not today because they beat Aston Villa 4 –0 yesterday. I hope the Italians will be eating cream puffs (and there will be no violence) on Tuesday when Manchester United are playing Roma in Rome.

What else am I reading? Yesterday I started to read Penelope Lively’s Consequences. I’ve yet to read one of her books and be disappointed and so far this is living up to my expectations. It starts in 1935 when two young people, Lorna and Matt meet quite by chance in St James’s Park in London. They come from very different backgrounds but are instantly attracted to each other and despite opposition from Lorna’s parents they get married. As the title indicates the predominant theme of this book is how events follow on from chance meetings and how our lives are changed because of the decisions we make. For some time now I’ve been interested in the Second World War period and from my reading of this book so far it sets the scene and captures the atmosphere of the pre-war and early war years. There is a nostalgic feel to the settings, looking back to how things were and how the war inevitably changed people’s lives and expectations.

This morning I’ve read some more. Lorna and Matt have had a daughter, Molly, the war began and Matt was called up. I won’t say too much as I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it. This book is just so good, I can’t praise it enough. It’s full of such quotable extracts, such as this in defining happiness Lorna realises that it is “another condition, of a different quality, a state of being that lifts you above ordinary existence, that pervades every moment, that confers immunity.”

Later in my reading this morning I came to the section when Molly having gone through university, takes a job as a librarian “because someone had left a copy of the Evening Standard in the tube” advertising the job and she thought why not? Thus setting in motion another train of events. But the bits that I particularly like in this section are the descriptions of the library and of books (I used to be a librarian). Here are just a few examples:

“Fiction is one strident lie – or rather, many competing lies; history is a long narrative of argument and reassessment; travel shouts of self-promotion; biography is just pushing a product. As for autobiography …”

“That is the function of books: they offer a point of view, they offer many conflicting points of view, they provoke thought, they provoke irritation and admiration and speculation. They take you out of yourself and put you down somewhere else from whence you never entirely return.”

“The surface repose of a library is a cynical deception.”

That’s all for now. More thoughts later on today.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

LibraryThing Early Reviewers Group

LibraryThing Early Reviewers

I've just added a new widget to the sidebar to the left but I'm putting it in this post as well because I like the image and I'm so pleased that there are now some books available to us in the UK. LibraryThing in conjunction with publishers provide advance copies of books, in exchange for reviews.

I didn't expect to be lucky enough to get a copy as there many more people applying for copies than are available. So I was so pleased when I had a message that I had snagged an Early Reviewers copy of Our Longest Days edited by Sandra Koa Wing - it arrived in the post yesterday.

It looks fascinating and fits in so well with my reading interests as it's full of extracts from diaries written during the Second World War. I'll be writing more about this book!

Dante’s Florence Week 5 Part Two

Dante’s Exile from Florence

Dante entered politics in 1295 and in 1300 he became a Prior, one of the Governors of the City giving him great prestige. It was a dangerous time with fighting between the factions of Guelfs and Ghibellines. The Guelfs supported the Pope, opposing the Ghibellines who supported the Holy Roman Emperor. The political situation was very complicated and became more so when the Guelfs split into two opposing factions, known as the Whites and the Blacks. The Whites, including Dante, opposed the Pope wanting more control of their own affairs – Dante thought the Pope, Boniface VIII was corrupt and was too involved with temporal affairs. He wanted more independence for Florence and a split between the Church and the State. Dante attacked the Pope and the Church in The Divine Comedy, for example in Canto 19 Inferno he describes the punishment for simony, the crime of buying a position within the church and denounces Boniface as a simonist.

In 1302 Dante was accused of fraud and as he refused to pay the fine he was sentenced to death by burning and was banished from Florence. He was offered an amnesty in 1315, but the conditions were too humiliating for him to accept and he never returned to Florence. He refers to his exile in The Divine Comedy through a conversation in Canto 17 Paradiso XVII with his great-great grandfather Cacciaguida, with Cacciaguida forecasting Dante's exile from Florence:

“You will leave everything you love most dearly;
This is the arrow which is
loosed first
From the bow of exile.

You will learn how salt is the
Of other people’s bread, how hard the way
Going up and down other
people’s stairs.”

Dante spent 19 years in exile. He championed writing in the vernacular and in 1304 he published De Vulgari Eloquentia(On Eloquence in the vernacular). He started to write The Divine Comedy in 1306/7 and finished it just before his death in 1321 in Ravenna. During, 1315 – 1316 whilst he was the guest of Can Grande della Scala in Verona he wrote part of Purgatorio. Below is Maria Spartali Stillman's painting of Dante in Verona, showing Dante surrounded by a group of admiring women.

In 1317 he was offered a home by Guido Novello da Polenta in Ravenna, where he completed Purgatorio and began Paradiso. Can Grande was a patron of the arts and sheltered exiles, giving Dante his own apartments and treating him very well. Dante dedicated Paradiso to Can Grande in gratitude.

Dante died on 14 September 1321and was buried in the Church of San Francesco in Ravenna, where there is a shrine containing his sarcophagus and a votive lamp.

Despite requests from Florence to return his body to the city, Dante’s tomb in the church of Santa Croce is empty.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2007, Harper Perrenial 433 pages. Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction 2007.

This book is based on the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1967 –70 and I’m old enough to remember hearing about it at the time. Then I had little idea what it was all about – now I understand a bit more. Nigeria became a Republic in October 1960 and Half of a Yellow Sun begins in the early 1960s in Nsukka in the south eastern area where Ugwu becomes Odenigbo’s houseboy. The story centres on these two characters and Olanna, Odenigbo’s partner, her twin sister Kainene and her partner Richard. Odenigbo is a professor at the University and his house is the meeting place for academics who debate the political situation as it leads up to violence and the secession of Biafra as an independent state. The title of the book comes from the symbol on the Biafran flag, which was half of a yellow sun.

The novel moves forwards and backwards in time between the late and early1960s as the civil war proceeds. Focussing on the struggle between the north and the south, the Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa people, it brings home the horrors brought about by war, the ethnic, religious and racial divisions and the suffering that results. Ugwu at the start of the book is an ignorant young teenager from a poor village eager to learn but still steeped in the superstitions of his family – the old ways. By the end of the novel he has become a valued member of the family and is writing a history of his country. Richard, the white man in love with Kainene but not fully accepted into her world, is eager to be considered Biafran, but is still on the outside. He is in Nigeria studying African art – the Igbo-Ukwu roped pot - and is recruited into writing articles about the war for the outside world, but the story of the war is Ugwu’s to tell and not Richard’s. Olanna’s family is wealthy and even though they are Igbo, they cannot understand her relationship with Odenigbo who is committed to the Igbo cause and would prefer her to marry Madu, a major in the Biafran army. Once the war starts they are all drawn into the conflict, the situation spirals out of their control and they each react in differing ways.

The book explores the conflicts between nationalities, different cultures, different backgrounds and upbringing, between what is traditional and tribal and what is new. Although the violence and deprivations of the war are horrifying and form the dominant element in the story this is not just a war novel. It is also a novel about love and relationships, between parents and children as well as between men and women; about how people learn to adapt and cope with life.

I found the characters to be real, so much so that I could imagine I was there in the thick of things. I sympathised with Richard in his efforts to be accepted and suffered with Olanna when she was confronted with the horror of war and grieved over the plight of the refugees. It reminded me of Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, which I read about 10 years or so ago and Adichie writes of his novels in an article at the end of her book:

“Achebe’s war fiction then, humane and pragmatic as it is, becomes a paean to the possibilities that Biafra held. The stories have an emotional power that accumulates in an unobtrusive way and stuns the reader at the end; there are sentences in them that will always move me to tears.”

She writes of her own work:

“If fiction is indeed the soul of history, then I was equally committed to the fiction and the history, equally true to the spirit of the time as well as to my artistic vision of it.”

How well she has succeeded. Half of a Yellow Sun is an emotional book without being sentimental, factual without being boring, and I was completely absorbed in it to the end.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Easter at England's Eden

We spent the Easter holiday in Cornwall. Whilst many parts of Britain had snow over the Easter weekend it was sunny, but cold, at the Eden Project near St Austell. Actually we did see a very brief flurry of fine snow at one point on Saturday afternoon and it was very windy. We stayed with our son and his family at Carlyon Bay Hotel just outside St Austell overlooking the sea.

The Eden Project was first opened in 2001 and we’ve been meaning to go there ever since then. Their website says, “Eden is all about man's relationship with and dependence upon plants. Much of our food, our clothes, our shelter and our medicines come from the plant world. Without plants there would be no oxygen for us to breathe, no life on earth.”

It has been constructed in what was a clay pit and the view is most impressive as you approach the deep, steep-sided, flat-bottomed bowl containing the hugh domes. They are the biggest greenhouses in the world, called Biomes. From the entrance in the Visitor Centre we walked down towards the Biomes looking first at the Outdoor Biome following the winding path down the hillside passing areas planted with crops, and daffodils and spring bulbs. As it was Easter there was an Easter Egg hunt to follow with clues hidden throughout the site. We tried to follow the trail, but the clues were too hard for us adults, let alone the children, although we did solve a few. There is a giant bee, the magical land of Myth and Folklore, and a willow maze looking bare at this time of year.

As it is Eden I wasn’t surprised to find Eve there, but she wasn’t quite what I expected. She is a large reclining statue, her face made up of small mosaic mirrors and moss is just beginning to grow on her body. Eventually she will all be covered in moss – a green woman. I didn’t see Adam.

There is a grotesque piece of artwork – the WEEE Man, a reminder that the Project is an educational charity aiming to show the need for environmental awareness and sustainability. WEEE Man is a three-tonne, seven-metre tall robotic figure, made up of old washing machines, computer mice, TVs and a vast array of other electrical goods. WEEE stands for Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment. The sculpture is made up of the amount the average UK citizen will throw away in their lifetime – really horrific.

The Rainforest Biome is my favourite. It covers an area of 15,590 square metres (1.55 hectares), is 55 metres high, 100 metres wide and 200 metres long and it’s high enough to hold the Tower of London or eleven double-decker buses piled on top of one another. As we went in people were rapidly taking off coats and jumpers because of the heat. It is truly most impressive and it’s steamy, hot and humid. You can see what it is like living in Malaysia,

West Africa and South America as you walk through and up the biome passing waterfalls and tropical plants. I saw the biggest, smelliest flower in the world, the Titum Arum, although it had gone beyond its best, as it had flowered. By the time I took this photo my camera had steamed up!

The Mediterranean Biome was much cooler, but surprised me as there were displays of plants and scenes from South Africa and California, not just the Med.

As it is spring and in England, the main displays were of spring bulbs, being mainly tulips – such beautiful colours. I thought the best part of this section was the display of the Rites of Dionysus.

Dionysus was the Greek God of wine and its intoxicating power. I think these statues illustrate nature in its wild, untamed state, clearly capturing the frenzy induced by the music and wine. I liked the stark contrast between the displays of flowers and these sculptures standing on the bare earth.

There was an Ice Skating Rink, a “Simply Delicious Marquee” where the children decorated cupcakes, and a storytelling tent where we were entertained by the "Spice Man", with his tales of sailing the seas and the uses of spices in days gone by.

Then there is the “Core” shaped like a sunflower, which houses exhibitions, paintings and an enormous nutcracker.

The children had goes at turning the wheel of this massive metal structure. As the handle is turned a big steel ball is raised up to the top of the machine, where it is tipped down a chute, spiralling down to a hammer at the bottom, which then strikes the nut. It was mesmerising to watch.

The centrepiece of the Core is a giant 70 tonne granite sculpture of a seed made of silver-grey Cornish granite estimated to be 300 million years old.

Called “Seed” it was carved out of a boulder extracted from the De Lank Quarry, in Cornwall. There are 1,800 nodes on its surface in Fibonacci spirals, representing the extraordinary growth pattern found in sunflowers, pinecones and daisies. The Seed is four metres in height and three metres wide at its widest point. I wasn’t sure that I liked it – it’s so strange seeing a seed so large and solid; somehow it looked too sterile, but the age of the granite is awesome!

The Eden Project is a remarkable experience, well worth a visit. If we lived nearer I would like to go more often, spending just a few hours each visit rather than a whole day, which was exhausting, but most enjoyable and educational. I can't believe that I didn't buy any books from the Visitor Centre - that must be a first. There are a number of books listed on the Eden Project website, so I'll browse through these to see which ones I would like.

Cover-Up - Booking Through Thursday

This week’s Booking Through Thursday question comes from Julie, who asks:
While acknowledging that we can’t judge books by their covers, how much does the design of a book affect your reading enjoyment? Hardcover vs. softcover? Trade paperback vs. mass market paperback? Font? Illustrations? Etc.?

I’d like to think that I don’t judge a book by its cover, but I’d be kidding myself. Once I’ve read a book its cover no longer has any influence over whether I enjoyed reading it or not. Once I’ve opened it I tend not to notice the cover. If I know what I’m looking for eg a specific title, or a book by a particular author then the cover doesn’t affect me at all. But it’s a different story when it comes to books I haven’t heard about before and then do find that I am repelled by some covers, indifferent to others and attracted by some. I don’t like those covers where you only see part of the body of, usually a woman, as though she has no head, or feet. I don’t like covers like those on modern publications of Jane Austen’s novels or ones with photos from the film or TV adaptations of a book, or chick lit covers.

I’d like to say that I judge a book by its content alone but I don’t like books that are printed in either a very small or a very large font. I don’t like it when there are large sections printed in italics, or a smaller font – the copy of Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner that I read was like that and I had to flip through the pages to see how much minute font I had to endure. I like the feel of a book in my hands, so smooth, clean paper is a bonus, but I'll still enjoy a book that's printed on cheap paper that's been suffering from too much sun and is falling to pieces.

I don’t mind hardback or paperback, although I get a bit irritated by both if they’re hard to hold open when I’m reading, or if they’re so tightly bound that you can’t see the words in the centre without practically forcing the book open. I'm not keen on those paperbacks that have covers that bend open once I’ve started to read the book. I don’t know the difference between a trade paperback and a mass-market paperback at all, so I can’t comment on that.

It looks as though there’s a lot that I don’t like when I think about it, but if I’m enjoying the content then its format doesn’t really bother me - I just love reading. I like the cover to indicate something about the content of the book and even when it doesn’t I do like scenes like this one on The Magician's Assistant. I must write about this book soon, I finished reading it weeks ago. Part of it is set in Nebraska, but not in a house like the one shown on this cover.

As for illustrations if I’m reading non-fiction then any illustrations - photos, sketches, maps amd plans are a must and I love seeing them – usually I look at them before reading any of the book. A novel is different, as I like to form my own pictures of the characters from the descriptions. But I do like to have maps and plans of the locations. Recently I've read some books set in places I don't know and I have to stop reading to look up the area such as Nigeria when I was reading Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I'll be writing about this book soon - it's an amazing and absorbing book.

C J Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series of books are excellent in this respect – and in all others as well. I find it easier to visualise where the action takes place from studying the maps at the beginning of the books. His latest book is out now and I had a late Christmas present yesterday when Revelation was delivered to my door. Thanks D.

Here is the map
and here is a photo this beautiful, big, hardback copy that is shouting READ ME NOW!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Dante's The Divine Comedy

Dante finished writing The Divine Comedy in 1321 shortly before his death. The subject of the final talk in my course on Dante’s Florence was The Divine Comedy, its sources, structure, an introduction to some of its characters, concluding with Dante’s legacy in art.

I don’t think that I’ve ever had such a long introduction to a literary work and I’m eager now to actually read The Divine Comedy. My copy is the Oxford World’s Classics publication. It is 741 pages long, including several introductory essays with plans and maps, and copious notes. I also have the much shorter The Descent Into Hell translated by Dorothy L Sayers. This is only 130 pages and contains extracts from the Inferno (the first part of The Divine Comedy).

Dante’s first title for this was ‘The Vision’. He wrote it in Italian, not Latin, so that it was accessible for everyone. It was recited and is basically a sermon, a sacred poem. He changed the title to ‘comedy’, which in the ancient tradition was a story, beginning as tragedy and moving to a happy ending. Boccaccio added ‘Divine’ to the title in the 14th century. It’s an epic, allegorical poem – and also an historical chronicle of Dante’s time packed with information on topics such as politics, theology, geography, the arts, and love.

It depicts three regions of the dead – Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise, a journey through the spiritual realms. There are 100 cantos, written in third rhyme – terza rima, invented by Dante, ie the first and third lines rhyme, with the second line indicating the next rhyme. This is an aid to memory and also helps to move the narrative forward. It’s packed with imagery, with multiple meanings and although it includes contemporary characters it’s amazingly modern. Florence is depicted as hell, with the Pope, Boniface VIII and clerics condemned because of the corrupt state of the church, although Dante describes meeting Christian theological thinkers in Paradise.

Dante used many sources, including the Bible, Greek mythology, Roman history, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Livy, legends, miracle and medieval morality plays and his own stories. The poem begins with an exciting episode at the gates to the underworld in a dark, confusing wood, symbolising doubt, sin and the sterility of the soul. Dante, the narrator, has lost the path and is guided by Virgil through Hell and Purgatory to Paradise, where he meets his beloved Beatrice, who guides him through Heaven. Paradiso is the place of perfect harmony ordained by God. Dante followed the Ptolemaic system of the Cosmos in which Earth is the centre of the universe. He placed Hell at the centre of the Earth, underneath Jerusalem, reached through nine different circles, containing sinners suffering terrible punishments and torture. Purgatory was somewhere in the southern hemisphere, ascending up to Paradise located in Heaven above the Earth.

There are about 600 characters in the whole poem, 250 from the classical era, 80 from the Bible and 250 from Dante’s own time. Dante admired Virgil, his guide through Hell and Purgatory. He describes him as “that fount of splendour”, symbolising human reason and wisdom. Amongst the many characters are Brunetto Latini, Dante’s mentor who took an active role in politics and the art of oratory, is found in Hell because of the sin of sodomy, which was considered as violence against nature; and Farinata degli Uberti, the leader of the Ghybelline party, also found in Hell as punishment for heresy because he was an Epicurean believing that the soul died with the body. He rises from the burning tomb of heretics to speak to Dante. The first mention of Florence is from Ciacco, guilty of the sin of gluttony, when he refers the bloodshed between the citizens of “the divided city”.

Other people mentioned are members of the ancient Donati family (Dante’s wife was Gemma Donati) – Dante’s friend Foresi Donati, Corso Donati, a thief being changed into a serpent and Piccarda Donati his sister, “a pearl on a white forehead”, who had belonged to the Order of Poor Clares and was forced to marry to forge a political alliance; the violent tempered Agenti who opposed Dante’s recall from exile; Gianni Schicchi (the source of Puccini’s opera – including the beautiful aria “O mio babbino caro”); and Count Ugolino, the tyrant who had switched allegiance and was left to starve in Pisa’s Tower of Famine – he was said to have eaten his sons and grandsons and for punishment in Hell was forced to chew on the head of Archbishop Ruggieri.

The Divine Comedy has been read and copied ever since with commentaries coming very quickly after Dante’s death. The first biography of Dante was written in about 1351 by Giovanni Boccaccio, based on oral history from Dante’s contemporaries. The poem was seen as a difficult, obscure work, gothic and heavy going in 14th century England, but Chaucer mentioned it in the Monk’s Tale in his Canterbury Tales. English translations were made from 1802 onwards by Henry Boyd and Henry Cary (promoted by Coleridge). It influenced amongst others John Milton, Shelley and Byron, Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

There are many examples of Dante’s legacy in art – here are just a few:

Giotto’s Last Judgment, in the Arena Chapel in Padua.
Frescos in the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella showing the tiered compartments of Hell and Cerberus the monster three throats, wings and the body of a beast guarding Hell and the Elect – Saints and Cardinals rising up from their tombs.
The Last Judgment of Fra Angelico.

The painting of the Madonna in Majesty by the Siennese painter Martini.
Botticelli’s scenes of Inferno commissioned to illustrate The Divine Comedy by the Medicis – 92 survive and are in the Vatican Library.

Drawn in pen and ink he intended to colour them all. The one shown below is of the City of Dis, the lower part of Hell, with winged monsters, and the Circle of Deceivers. Dante is shown in red and Virgil in blue.

Frescoes of the Last Judgment in Orvietto Cathedral in 1500 reflecting the doom and gloom of the times fearing the end of the world with images of the damned, a mass of contorted bodies, by Signorelli, a master of human anatomy – the Resurrection of the flesh showing skeletons and bodies emerging from their tombs.
Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.
Gustave Dore’s illustrations of The Divine Comedy.

William Blake’s watercolour paintings of Inferno

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s translation of La Vita Nuova in 1848.
Christina Rossetti’s studies of Dante – she saw him as a figure of romance.
Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix 1863 – his portrait of Lizzie Siddell in a trance-like state. The white poppy because she was thought to have been poisoned with opium and the sundial pointing to 9 relating to the meeting of Dante and Beatrice when he was 9 years old. This is one of my favourite paintings.

Rodin’s Gates of Hell and The Thinker, also The Kiss, depicting Francesca de Rimini whom Dante meets in Canto 5 of the Inferno. Francesca had fallen in love with Paulo, her husband's younger brother. The legend goes that they were killed by Giovanni, her husband.

There are many, many more - see this Wikipedia link.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Oh No, Not Another Challenge!

I really cannot resist this challenge - mainly because I like the title and the picture in the banner. The promise of a good story will always tempt me to open a book and start reading.

This is Carl's Once Upon a Time Challenge. It began on Friday, March 21st and runs to Friday, June 20th: Midsummer Night’s Eve. Joining this challenge means you are participating but not committing yourself to any specific number of books. I'm aiming to complete "Quest the First "
which is to read at least 5 books that fit somewhere within the Once Upon a Time II criteria of fantasy, or folklore, or fairy tales, or mythology…or your five books might be a combination from the four genres.
These books are on my to-be-read list already and fit into these categories:
  1. Dante’s Descent into Hell, translated by Dorothy L Sayers
  2. The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
  3. The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake
  4. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  5. Star Wars by George Lucas
  6. Helen of Troy by Margaret George
I was intrigued to read in this Wiki link that Dante's The Divine Comedy is categorised as Bangsian fantasy. I had never heard of this but according to Wikipedia it is named after John Kendrick Bangs, whose novels deal with the afterlives of various famous people. Whilst I do intend to read The Divine Comedy I doubt that I'll finish it all before 20 June, so the short version by Dorothy L Sayers seems a good choice for this challenge.

The other books are a mixture of science fiction, fantasy and mythology and I've owned them all for a while. Like other unread books I was keen to read them when I bought them. It is time to open them soon. I have actually read the Gormenghast books before, when I was at college, when I borrowed them from the library, but I haven't read the copies that I own, which are wrapped in sellaphane!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The End - Booking Through Thursday

This week's question is:

You’ve just reached the end of a book . . . what do you do now? Savor and muse over the book? Dive right into the next one? Go take the dog for a walk, the kids to the park, before even thinking about the next book you’re going to read? What?

(Obviously, there can be more than one answer, here–a book with a cliff-hanger is going to engender different reactions than a serene, stand-alone, but you get the idea!)

I can't generalise here. It really all depends upon so many things. Sometimes the book I've just finished was so good that anything else is an anti-climax and I don't want or can't decide which book to read next, even though I have a long to-be-read list and piles of unread books. So then I pause and wait for the right book to appear.

I read on impulse sometimes. It may be a book I've picked up at the library, or a book recommended on someone's blog, or a friend has lent me. Sometimes it depends upon my frame of mind, and a book might or might not be right one just then. Sometimes I know just what to read and dive straight into it. Usually I have more than one book on the go anyway, so there's no decision to make and I carry on reading that and pick and choose another book to start.

If it's a book that's part of a series, then I'm impatient to get to the next one. I recently read the first two of Olivia Manning's books in The Balkan Trilogy, but didn't have the third. It's about two months ago that I finished the second and I was eager to read the third, but the library and bookshops didn't have it. So I ordered the complete trilogy in one volume. At last it arrived yesterday, but I'm not diving into the third book just yet - the time isn't right.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Robert Frost

The Celebrate the Author Challenge is designed to "celebrate" author birthdays. My author for March is Robert Frost who was born on 26 March 1874 in San Francisco. He moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts and apart from three years when he lived in England, he spent the rest of his life in New England.

I have a small collection of Frost’s poems. It’s illustrated by American, English and French painters of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There is a short introduction, which states, “The simple language, the vernacular style and the near-whimsy of some of the earlier poems tend to mask the fact that Frost’s poetry is deeper and tougher than it seems.”

Before I read any of this collection I knew just a few of his poems, such as The Road Not Taken, which ends:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that made all the difference.

To me this poem is about the choices we have to make in life. You look as far ahead as you can, trying to see what lies ahead if you make a certain choice, but you can’t know how things will turn out. There’s no way of changing back to the other choice once you’ve decided – the choice you make changes things forever.

I also like Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

This is seemingly such a simple poem with its easy rhyming scheme. The repetition of the rhyme in the final verse is hypnotic:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

There is a mystery as well - who is the traveller? His horse knows there is something different, if not odd about the wood. It’s a silent and somewhat spooky place on the “darkest night of the year”. There is a sense of loneliness and isolation of the traveller, where is he going and what has he promised?

Frost’s poems are not all about rural idylls; Out, Out is a powerful poem that tells of the brutal realities of life. The title refers to the brevity of life from Macbeth: “Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more." So there’s a hint right from the start that this is a tragic story. The scene is set – a noisy buzz saw against the backdrop of mountains in Vermont snarling and rattling, impersonal making dust as the wood is sawn. A young boy is cutting the wood, looking forward to his supper when he cuts his hand. It was as if the saw was alive as it

“Leaped out of his hand, or seemed to leap -
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!”

The poem reflects the callousness of the family towards life, but also the practicalities of getting on with life as the boy dies:

“No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little - less – nothing!- and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the dead, turned to their affairs.

The boy’s hysteria and sorrow comes over through the rhythm and structure of the poem, with lines varying between 10 and 11 syllables creating an uneasy tension. It seems the tragedy could have been avoided, as the boy’s work could have ended half an hour earlier, adding to the pathos and highlighting the fragility of life.

I still haven’t read all the poems in this little book. I find that I have to read just one or two at a time, and then come back to them. The beauty of poetry is the way that so much meaning is condensed into such few words.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Daniel Isn’t Talking by Marti Leimbach

We discussed Daniel Isn’t Talking last Wednesday evening at the book group. One of the others summed up my feelings when she said, “I was rather under whelmed by it”. I had very mixed feelings whilst reading. I was intrigued to know more about autism, and the book certainly made me a lot more knowledgeable, but I thought that some of the characters were two-dimensional and unconvincing.

Daniel is autistic, but at first Stephen his British father refuses to accept that there is anything wrong with him, whilst his American mother, Melanie, struggles to find out what is wrong with him and the best way of looking after him and helping him to talk, play and become as “normal” as possible.

I found it quite a disturbing read not just because of the difficulties and cruelties that autism carries with it, but also because of the way such illnesses are dealt with in our society. There is seemingly a stigma, autism is something that is not generally understood, and the causes are unknown, although there are various ideas circulating (eg the MMR vaccination). The book deals with loyalties, families and ways of coping with illness, health and ways of healing and there are many angry assaults on the education system and its ways of dealing with children who are different in one way or another. Daniel has an older sister, Emily, who is a happy, healthy, cheerful child with “a mop of blonde curls billowing around her face, smiling eyes, aquamarine.” Stephen insists she goes to a pre-school, whilst Melanie wants to keep her at home. Emily is not interested in school and wants to play, looking at children in the playground as though they are in prison. Stephen has his way and Emily goes to the pre-school and finds that what she likes best is going home.

It’s a book full of angst. One poignant scene that remains with me after reading the book is the scene in the supermarket where Daniel is having a tantrum, screaming, trying to hurl himself out of the trolley, grabbing biscuits when Melanie meets a woman who understands, is sympathetic and helpful. The other customers are watching, imagining, so Melanie thinks, that she is merely indulging a spoilt child. Next time I’m out shopping surrounded by screaming children I’ll remember this scene!

Melanie is paranoid in her antagonism towards special schools. The people who visited Melanie trying to enlist him at a school are described as “a horrible pair who came by with their clipboards and their raincoats, looking more like spies than anybody who should be near children. They regarded Daniel as one might a wild animal, admiring him from a safe distance as we did the tiger who paced his enclosure.” Well, this is a novel, but my experience is far from that (my daughter-in-law is a special needs teacher).

This book is a quick, easy read, although the subject is far from easy, and is good at portraying a mother desperately trying to help her autistic child. However, some of the other characters (Stephen, his parents, Veena, the cleaner and Larry, Melanie’s brother) come over as wooden stereotypes and I found the sub-plot of, the alternative play therapist, Andy as Melanie’s lover unconvincing. The blurb on the back cover says it’s “Powerful and moving, and also surprisingly funny. A love story in every sense.” Yes, it is powerful and moving, and also sad, but I didn’t find any humour and the love story that came over to me is that of a mother for her child.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Sunday Reading

It’s wild wet and windy outside, so I’ve decided today is a day for reading, not gardening. I’ve started to read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and so far it’s looking good, although I’ve not got very far into it. I really like Monseigneur Bienvenue and this quote seems apt after my gardening post yesterday:

“ … he dug his garden or read or wrote, and for him both kinds of work bore the same name; both he called gardening. 'The spirit is a garden,’ he said.”

Danielle at A Work in Progress is reading this too, aiming to finish it in about two months. This means reading about 200 pages a week. I’ll have to see if I can manage that.

I think I’m going to give up on reading Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, even though I’ve read nearly half the book. It’s wordy and I’m getting bored with Lily Bart and her liking for luxury and her mixed up life, trying to find a husband who can afford to keep her in the custom she longs for. It’s not often I abandon a book and I may give it another go, but not today. I’m not in the mood for it; I think that’s my problem with it rather than the writing.

I’ve got some good books to look forward to; at least I hope they are. I had a trip to the library on Friday and picked up The Shipping News, by Annie Proulx (a Pulitzer Prize winner), Consequences by Penelope Lively (I’ve yet to read a book by her that I haven’t liked) and Giving Up the Ghost: A Memoir by Hilary Mantel, which I read about on Table Talk’s blog. I’ve dipped into this and it looks intriguing. I like the openness and candour in her writing:

“So now I come to write a memoir I argue with myself over every word. Is my writing clear: or is it deceptively clear? I tell myself, just say how you came to sell a house with a ghost in it. But this story can only be told once and I need to get it right. Why does the act of writing generate so much anxiety? Margaret Atwood says, “The written word is so much like evidence – like something that can be used against you.” I used to think that autobiography was a form of weakness, and perhaps I still do. But I also think that, if you’re weak, it’s childish to pretend to be strong.”

I’ll be settling down this afternoon to a session with Les Miserables.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Our Cottage Garden

This is what I would like our garden to look like.

This book, The Cottage Gardener’s Companion, paints an idyllic picture of the typical English Cottage Garden:

“… where there is a feeling of freedom and exuberance, leisure and opportunity to potter, to water, to contemplate. … Flowers, vegetables and fruit are mingled together in the epitome of the cottage garden, where bounty may be gathered at every season. The cottage gardener makes salads, apple jelly, herbal medicine, plum and damson jam from her garden; there is even something in midwinter when parsnips and turnips, brussels sprouts and leeks come into their own.”

Oh, if only that were so. This cottage garden has some of those things. There are fruit trees - a cherry tree, with bitter morello cherries that the birds love. I make pies and cherry sauce, if I can pick them before the birds eat them. There are two little espalier apple trees, which last summer produced a lot of fruit (more pies and crumble) and there is a plum tree that produced so much that it was rotting on the tree before I could pick them all.

There are some flowers – the primroses are doing really well, so well that I've put a photo of some of them on the blog header. There is a climbing rose that seems to be dying, maybe because of my efforts at pruning, despite reading “Pruning” in the Garden Guides series and any other books on pruning that I can find. I’m doing something wrong, but what I don’t know. I’ve managed to plant and grow a lovely camellia - that had an abundance of flowers last year and a fuchsia that was quite tall and spindly, but it did have some flowers. The other plant that does well, however I mangle it with my pruning is a potentilla, covered in yellow flowers for most of last summer. And the aubretia spreads itself all over the wall in the front garden whatever I do to it – it’s just starting to flower now.

We have a rambling honeysuckle growing up the fence, mingling in with a berberis, which has shiny red berries later in the year, privet and a rampant Russian vine, which threatens to swamp everything. There are violets and aquilegia which self-seed and appear in different places in the garden. There are other plants as well, shrubs and bushes that I occasionally prune back and trees – a flowering cherry tree, a pussy willow and a couple of conifers.

But the plant that grows really well in our garden is the bindweed – it gets everywhere. We have a good amount of ivy as well, growing up the fences and throttling whatever it can find. Just now it is beginning to pop up through the soil. I wish we could eradicate it completely!

I went out this morning to try to take control and did some pruning, whether I’ve killed more plants remains to be seen. I noticed that the daffodils and tulips are coming on nicely, the bluebells in the front garden are coming up well, and there is a new little holly that has planted itself in one of the borders. The rosemary bush looks strong and healthy; it grows vigorously and I always have to chop it back.

We like herbs and in the past have failed to grow basil – not enough sun here I suppose, even the basil I buy in a pot and keep on the kitchen windowsill doesn’t do very well! We had sage and mint in pots on the patio, but as they’ve got very straggly and thin we decided to start again and yesterday went to a garden centre where we bought some pots of thyme, sage, flat leaf parsley and mint. We also bought a rhubarb plant, as I do like it. I hope these will survive.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Playing Editor - Booking Through Thursday

Suggested by John :

How about a chance to play editor-in-chief? Fill in the blanks:

__________ would have been a much better book if ______________________.

I can’t limit this to just one book.

The Brothers Karamazov would have been a much better book if Dostoyevsky hadn’t been such a pessimist. Of course it wouldn’t have been so powerful and intense but it would have been a lot happier and more joyful.

War and Peace would have been a much better book if it weren’t so long. Tolstoy could have reduced the battle scenes, or better still left them out all together.

Ulysses would have been a much better book if Joyce could have organised his sentences so that they read coherently, instead of being a stream of consciousness monologue. (I shouldn’t really comment, as I haven’t read the book!)

This is of course written with tongue in cheek. I love The Brothers K, even though they have such long names and it took me ages to read it and War and Peace is one of my favourite books - I wish I'd could have written it! Ulysses is still a closed book.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

How to Cross the Road - Hanoi Style

Carla and I left work last year. Whilst I’ve stayed at home she’s been travelling the world– she’s been to New York, Niagara, Chicago, Flagstaff, Yosemite, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Cook Island, New Zealand, Australia (Great Barrier Reef etc), Tasmania, Whitesunday Islands, Bangkok, Koh Tao – diving in the Gulf of Thailand, Cambodia, to mention just a few places. I’m sure I missed out loads. I’ve been seeing the world through Carla’s eyes and her blog.

At present she’s in Hanoi and her latest entry is about the road crossings there. She says that the only reason you go for the crossings is that you stand out as less of a target ,,, the mantra to remember is "keep the same pace, never stop (it confuses the drivers) and always imagine a big white forcefield around you… “

I’m never going to complain again about the traffic here after seeing this.

Dante's Florence Week 5 Part One

By the end of the 13th century Florence was a bustling and prosperous city. We looked at a painting by Lord Leighton - Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna is carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence, 1853-1855. The Victorians had an intense interest in Dante. In this painting, which was bought by Queen Victoria, Cimabue’s painting of the Madonna, a hugh altarpiece is carried through the streets of Florence. Giotto, a pupil of Cimabue, is shown in white, with Dante on the far right.

In week 4 we had looked at the new city walls designed by Arnolfo Di Cambio. Di Cambio’s crowning achievement was, however, his design for a new cathedral. The old cathedral was considered to be too small and too coarse. As the population of the city increased the new cathedral was designed with a hugh interior space to accommodate the whole population. Dedicated to Santa Maria del Fiore, it was started in 1296 and took many years to complete. Old buildings were knocked down to make way for it, including the hospital and the old cathedral, dedicated to Santa Reparata.

It seems that Di Cambio originally planned a wooden dome, but this was replaced by Brunelleschi’s dome which was completed in 1436. We looked at a copy of his outline plan for the cathedral (the original of the drawing is in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo) and also at Poccetti’s drawing (c. 1587) of the façade of the Duomo, which shows the façade as it was before it was covered over in the 19th century by the current façade. This shows the mosaics, reliefs and statues designed by Di Cambio.

The illustration (copied from the course handout) is not very clear but does give an impression of what the façade was like. Only a few of the original sculptures have survived, including the ‘Madonna of the Glass Eyes’, the Annunciation to the Shepherds and a statue of Pope Boniface VIII, the luxury loving, warrior pope whom Dante opposed. these are now in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo.

I particularly like the story of Dante’s stone – the Sasso di Dante - where Dante is supposed to have sat and watched the cathedral being built. A plaque embedded in the wall of one of the houses opposite the cathedral was placed in memory of his special seat.

This was one of the places of pilgrimage during the 19th century for the nobility on the Grand Tour of Europe.

Under the shadow of a stately Pile,
The dome of Florence, pensive and alone,
Nor giving heed to aught that passed the while,
I stood, and gazed upon
a marble stone,
The laurelled Dante's favourite seat. …

From Wordsworth, Memorials of a tour in Italy, 1837 At Florence

Di Cambio also began the design of the Palazzo Vecchio, a very important building that housed the Priors, the governors of the city and is now the town hall and a museum. The crenulated Arnolfo Tower is characteristic of a fortified building. Uberti family buildings were demolished to make way for the Palazzo.

Dante's Exile in Week 5 Part Two