Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel

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

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

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

A Good Hanging by Ian Rankin

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.

I see on Ian Rankin's website that he has written the final Rebus book Exit Music. Another book to add to the book mountain.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Sunday Salon – Travels in the Scriptorium

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

What's On Page 123?

Actually I’ve done this before, but I’ve been tagged by Angela for the page 123 meme and I’m going to do it again – it’s easy.

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

Spring - Booking Through Thursday

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

A - Z Favourites

Simon at Stuck in a Book has come up with a great idea A - Z Favourites. The idea is to pick a favourite author for each letter of the alphabet, and the accompanying novel. This set me thinking and although it’s practically impossible for me to decide who my favourite authors are I decided to make it a bit easier and only considered books I’ve read in the last few years. This means leaving out favourite authors such as Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Wilkie Collins, and Charles Dickens. (There’s the start of another list.)

CUNNINGHAM, Michael – The Hours
ELIOT, GEORGE -Middlemarch

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

McEWAN, IAN -Atonement
NARAYAN, R K – The Painter of Signs
OLSSON, LINDA – Astrid and Veronika

PULLMAN, PHILIP – His Dark Materials
QUINDLEN, ANNA – Blessings (the only book I’ve read recently/ever by an author whose name begins with ‘Q’)
REEVE, PHILIP – Here Lies Arthur
SANSOM, C J – Revelation

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

The Sunday Salon - this week's books

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!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Just The Right Book II

Today "just the right book" (see here) is Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel.

I wish I could write like she does!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

After Work Cookbook

After Work, by W H Smith, published by Octopus Publishing Group Ltd 1999.

I’ve had this book a few years and have made several of the recipes. As the title suggests all the recipes are for making quick meals from fresh ingredients plus some storecupboard items. Each recipe is illustrated with a photograph. Some dishes need more preparation than others, but none of them are difficult to make – just what you need at the end of a busy day.

There’s a good mix of recipes divided into sections:

· ‘light bites’ – sandwiches, salads and soups
· ‘international flavours’ – a selection from around the world – pasta, stir-fry, curry, chow mein etc
· ‘quick fish dishes’ – fish cakes, fish casserole etc
· ‘’meat and poultry for dinner’ – family meals and special occasions
· ‘sweet endings’ – using fruit and chocolate eg double chocolate brownies

Today I made Two-Tomato Mozzarella Salad, one of my favourite recipes from this book. Really all you do is put it all together and eat it. It only takes a few minutes to prepare.

For 4 people you need:

· 500g fresh plum tomatoes sliced – or as many as you like
· chopped oregano
· 375g mozzarella cheese sliced – or use as much or you like - buffalo mozzarella is the nicest
· 12 sun-dried tomatoes preserved in oil and cut into strips. I don’t cut them up unless they are very large – again you can use as many as you want
· fresh basil leaves
· salt and pepper – I use rock or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the dressing, whisk the following ingredients together in a small bowl or put in a screw top jar and shake well to combine:

· 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
· 3 tablespoons oil from the sun-dried tomatoes
· 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
· ¼ garlic clove crushed - I usually use a whole clove
· pinch of sugar

1. Arrange the plum tomato slices in a single layer on a large plate and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste together with the oregano.
2. Arrange the slices of mozzarella on top of the sliced tomatoes and tuck in the sun-dried tomatoes between them.
3. Scatter the basil leaves over the top and drizzle on the dressing.

Sometimes we just have this with maybe some crusty bread. Today we added some Parma ham, pasta shells with green pesto and asparagus tips – simply delicious.

Also posted on Soup's On! blog.

Just the Right Book?

I still can’t decide which book to read next. I’ve picked up The Sixth Wife, by Suzannah Dunn but it seems wrong somehow; another time might be better for that book. I’ve read three of the short stories in Ian Rankin’s A Good Hanging – they’re OK but not riveting. I don’t fancy Dante’s Descent into Hell (Inferno) today – I want something more cheerful, and not historical. They’re not the right books just now.

I had to go to the dentist yesterday as a filling had come out. Fortunately he was able to replace the filling and I didn’t have to have an injection, which I really dislike – I have a needle phobia, I think. Anyway to reward myself I went to the library for a mooch. I had only just got passed the returns desk when I saw The Maytrees by Annie Dillard on a display stand. I’d read somewhere that this is a good book and as I’ve read several of her books, particularly Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I hoped this would be just the right book.

Then I saw Going into a Dark House by Jane Gardam on another display stand and thought that might be the right book. This is a collection of short stories, maybe as good as The Sidmouth Letters and Old Filth. But maybe not just the right book yet – I’m not really in the mood for short stories.

Further into the library and I came upon the autobiography/biography section, where I picked up two books by Joan Bakewell. Now I like Joan Bakewell, so I had a look at both of them. The Centre of the Bed is about her life from her childhood in Stockport, growing up during the war, life at Cambridge University and with the BBC as a radio and television broadcaster – called “the thinking man’s crumpet”, no less. Stockport is near where I was born and that was enough for me to borrow this book, that and the description on the book cover that said she “provides a fascinating record of the changes in British society and culture over the last seventy years.” That should be good.

Right next to that book was The View from Here: Life at Seventy, which promises to be “an exhilarating, funny and always thought-provoking take on the human condition that most of us dread and yet count ourselves lucky to achieve: old age.”

I’m not as old as that yet, but I hope to get there, so it’s best to be prepared. This may be Just The Right Book.

Then again, maybe now is the right time for The Needle in the Blood, by Sarah Bower - it's been sitting on my bookshelves for months now ...?

Vocabulary - Booking Through Thursday

Suggested by Nithin:
I’ve always wondered what other people do when they come across a word/phrase that they’ve never heard before. I mean, do they jot it down on paper so they can look it up later, or do they stop reading to look it up on the dictionary/google it or do they just continue reading and forget about the word?

A short answer today -it varies depending upon what I’m reading. If I come across a word I don’t know sometimes I try to think what it means by the context, especially if I’m engrossed in the book and it would spoil it if I stopped to get the dictionary out. I may try to remember the word and look it up later to check I’ve understood it properly. Other times I jot it down and look it up later, or if words keep cropping up that I don’t know I’ll get the dictionary out and have it handy for reference.

Sometimes I think I know just what a word means, but if you ask me for a definition I’ll become a bit vague and say I’ll have to look it up.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders by Gyles Brandreth (published in the USA as Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance), John Murray Publishers Ltd, 2008, 355 pages).

I suppose you could call this book an “historical whodunit”. It’s set in 1889 - 1890, fin-de-si├Ęcle London and Paris and the mystery begins with Oscar Wilde finding the naked body of Billy Wood, a 16 year old boy in the candle-lit room in a small terraced house in Westminster, close to the Houses of Parliament. Billy’s throat has been cut and he is laid out as though on a funeral bier, surrounded by candles, with the smell of incense still in the air. It’s a combination of fiction and fact, with both real and imaginary characters. Wilde with the help of his friends Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Sherard sets out to solve the crime. Sherard (the great grandson of William Wordsworth) who wrote poems, novels, biographies (including five of Oscar Wilde) and social studies is the narrator.

The story reads quickly (so quickly that I didn’t want to stop to make notes as I read) and is full of colourful characters such as Gerard Bellotti, who runs an “informal luncheon club for gentlemen”. Bellotti is
“grossly corpulent” giving the impression of “a toad that sits and blinks, yet never moves” wearing “an orange checked suit that would have done credit to the first comedian at Collins’ Music Hall and on the top of his onion-shaped head of oily hair, which was tightly curled and dyed the colour of henna, he sported a battered straw boater.”

Wilde is a fan of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories so much so that as the mystery is unravelled he picks up clues in the manner of Holmes, observing and deducing, exclaiming when questioned by Conan Doyle “Come, Arthur, this is elementary stuff … Holmes is where my heart is.” I think it is this combination of fact and fiction that I enjoyed most in reading the book. I knew little about Wilde or Doyle and nothing about Sherard before reading it, but I think I learned a lot about all three people, about their characters, their views on life and love, and their works, as well as about the society in which they lived.

According to The Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries website the book is peppered through with quotes from Wilde, or Brandreth’s versions of Wilde’s words, together with Brandreth’s own inventions. I couldn’t tell which was which, as I’ve only read Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and seen a TV production of The Importance of Being Ernest, but it all seemed perfectly in character to me. I found the details of Wilde’s love for his wife Constance particularly interesting in contrast to his trial for gross indecency in 1895. In fact I came away from the book really liking Wilde and wanting to read more about him and by him. Fortunately the biographical notes at the end of the book give more details of works by and about Wilde, Conan Doyle and Sherard.

I didn’t find the mystery too difficult to work out, with lots of clues throughout the book, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment. On the contrary it made it all the more pleasurable. The next book in the series, Oscar Wilde and the Ring of Death, is due out in the UK in May and in the USA, called Oscar Wilde and the Game of Murder, in September. Apparently there are seven more in the pipeline. That should mean I end up knowing an awful lot more about Oscar Wilde!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Revelation by C J Sansom

I know who the murderer is – I’ve finished Revelation!

I haven’t written anything on this blog since Saturday, partly because we’ve been staying with our son and his family and partly because I just had to finish reading Revelation. It’s the fourth book in the Matthew Shardlake series. The first three are Dissolution set in 1537, Dark Fire set in 1540 and Sovereign set in 1541. I think they all stand alone but I like to read books in sequence. It’s been a year since I read the third book and Revelation was well worth the wait. It’s a long book full of intrigue, mystery and murder. (At 546 pages long it qualifies for the Chunkster Challenge.)

Revelation is set a few years later than Sovereign; the action takes place during March and April 1543. Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth queen, has been beheaded and he has asked Catherine Parr to be his wife. She, understandably, is somewhat reluctant, fearful of what that may lead to, not to mention her involvement with Sir Thomas Seymour. This is a time of the struggle for power between religious reformers and reactionaries. Thomas Cranmer is still the Archbishop of Canterbury, despite opposition from Bishop Gardiner and Bishop Bonner, who was pursuing religious radicals, looking for heretics. The reformers are preaching that the Apocalypse was coming, inducing “salvation panic”, with people craving certainty that they are among those whom God has pre-ordained to be saved. Parliament is passing legislation to prevent the working classes and women from reading the new English Bible Thomas Cromwell (executed in 1540) had introduced. It’s a time of change and uncertainty.

That’s the political and religious scene in which Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer, finds himself when the murder of his old friend Roger Elliard, brings him back to the attention of Archbishop Cranmer. He is working on the case of Adam Kite, a teenage boy, who is imprisoned in the Bedlam hospital for the insane, helped by Guy Malton (previously a monk and now licensed as a doctor). Adam is a ‘self-hater’ fearing that he is ‘unworthy of God’s love’. The question is, is he mad or possessed by the devil? Then more bodies are found and Matthew along with his assistant Barak joins forces with Gregory Harsnet, the London coroner is trying to find out who is committing the horrific murders.

I’m not going to say any more about the plot. I was completely convinced of the reality presented in the book, the setting is clearly described (there are maps of the main scenes, north of the River Thames and of Westminster) and the characters are just so alive. I felt as though I was there, a spectator to everything that went on.

I particularly liked the information in the book on such topics as the state of medicine at the time, the treatment of various illnesses, how knowledge of human anatomy was discovered through post-mortems, challenging previously held beliefs. Mental illness for example was thought by some to be caused by an imbalance of humours in the brain but others were coming to think it was caused by physical disorders, such as tumours, in the brain and yet others thought it was possession by the devil, which must be driven out. There was the threat that religious-obsessives would be considered as heretics and condemned to be burned at the stake. (I found it interesting that the treatment of mental illness in the 17th century in read about in The Verneys was not much different from that in the 16th – see my post on The Verneys here.) I was fascinated by the idea of teeth set in wooden dentures, but squeamish at how the teeth were obtained and I was intrigued by the use of drugs, such as dwale (deadly nightshade) as an anaesthetic.

Another topic that fascinated me was the question of the religious beliefs of the fundamentalists. Just as Christian fundamentalists today seen signs of the end of the world, people in Tudor England were convinced that the Apocalypse was coming upon them. The Puritans were convinced of the literal truth of the Book of Revelation, accepting the violent destruction of those who were not ‘saved’ without a qualm. It is of course, as the title indicates, the prophecies in the Book of Revelation that fuel the murders. Guy, next to Matthew my favourite character in the Shardlake series, looks on these subjects more compassionately. Talking of the contemporary scene he says that men have been

“Thrown into a world, where the Bible is interpreted as literal facts, its symbols and metaphors forgotten, and fanatics react with equanimity to the blood and cruelty of Revelation. Have you ever thought what a God would be like who actually ordained and executed the cruelty that is in that book? A holocaust of mankind. Yet so many of these Bible-men accept the idea without a second thought.”

How do I rate this book? The plot had me turning the pages to see what happens next and find out who committed the murders, there was enough commentary on the political, religious and social scene for me to grasp what it was like living in Tudor England together with information on the location of the action that did not detract from the action but enhanced it, well-defined and believable characters and a fluent, readable style with a good balance between dialogue and description.

In a less analytical mode I’d say, “I loved it, loved it, loved it!”

It’s hard to settle down now to another book, even though I’ve plenty lined up waiting to be read. It’s like that sometimes when I’ve just finished a really good book. I’m still reading Eat, Pray, Love, but I like to have more than one book on the go. I’m behind with reading Les Miserables, so I might get back to that, but as Revelation ends with the news that Henry VIII finally married Catherine Parr in July 1543 I’m really tempted to read Suzannah Dunn’s The Sixth Wife to carry on reading more about Catherine Parr.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Happy Birthday BooksPlease!

Today my blog is one year old.

Actually I set up the blog in July 2006 but I think of that as its conception because I didn’t write another thing until 12 April 2007, when I left work. Then I wrote: “I've been meaning to write more, both in this blog and in other writing, but somehow there's always something else to do. Well, now I have time during the day and I will write.”

From a slow start I've been writing ever since – not every day but on average I write about 5 posts a week. But without help from my husband I'd never have got started and he's always there to help with the technical stuff. I've enjoyed writing not only about the books I've been reading but also and the places I've visited. I really look forward to writing although the downside is that I actually read fewer books now than I did before I left work. The photo is the first one I put on the blog and I still haven't read all these books! I've still got three of them I haven't even started. It's just so tempting reading about books other bloggers are enthusing over that I'm easily sidetracked. But I do mean to read Falling Angels, The Sixth Wife and After the Victorians before long.

Blogging is addictive - I love writing the blog, I love reading other people’s blogs (I must expand my list on the sidebar because I read many more than are listed), and I love joining the challenges and linking up with other bloggers. It’s been a good year.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Do You Want To Know the End?

I’m reading C J Sansom’s book Revelation. Don’t worry there are no spoilers here!

This is the fourth in the Matthew Shardlake series and he’s working on the case of a teenage boy held in the Bedlam Hospital for the insane (or is he possessed?) and also investigating a series of brutal murders. The murderer is using a chapter in the Book of Revelation as the pattern for the killings.

There’s a lot more to say about this book, which will have to wait for a later post. I’m about half way through the book and am wondering just who is the murderer – I’m picking up clues, but are they red herrings? I’m always tempted to turn to the end of the book and see who done it, but I don’t want to.

But this morning I couldn’t resist just a little peek. So just opening the book enough to see just a few words on the last page I read part of the last sentence – with my hand over the rest of the page –

Out there in a chapel in a palace, the King had finally married Catherine Parr.”

So no surprises there then!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Just a Glimpse of the Orient

On Monday D and I went for a walk with a friend alongside the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal. It was a beautiful, sunny day and we enjoyed these views. This is the start of our walk.

The Wendover Arm was first constructed in 1797, but as sections of it leaked it was "de-watered". From 1989 onwards it has been restored and this is what it looks like today.

Kingfishers can be seen along the canal, but we didn't see any on Monday. There were lots of other birds though, ducks, moorhens, coots and dabchicks (otherwise known as little grebes), busy diving and collecting nest material.

The ducks were in fine form, taking off a high speed and then landing with legs flailing before splash-down.

Further along the canal we saw a swan sitting on a large nest over on the other side.

The canal opens up into an area known as the Wides, with areas of grass and shrubs with a tiny island on the far side. Trees have invaded what was once open water and without management the canal would disappear in a few years.

Then came a surprise - a pair of mandarin ducks. I'd never seen these before; they looked very different from the other birds on the canal, but just so beautiful. The male has very distinctive chestnut brown and orange fan wings sticking up above his body, whilst the female is a duller brown with white spots. They were swimming together in and out of the trees. When I came home I looked them up in our bird books. Originally from China these ducks like streams and overgrown lakesides in broad leaved woodland and they nest in tree cavities. The canal is the perfect place for them.

Writing Challenge - Booking Through Thursday

This week's Booking Through Thursday question is another variation on the page 123 theme post I did yesterday! But it needs more thought!
Pick up the nearest book. (I’m sure you must have one nearby.)
Turn to page 123.
What is the first sentence on the page?
The last sentence on the page?
Now . . . connect them together….
(And no, you may not transcribe the entire page of the book–that’s cheating!)

Well, actually, the nearest books are a pile of unread books on the desk and because to answer this question I need to understand what has gone before page 123 I'm using the nearest book that I have read, which isn't in the pile (it's in another pile). It's The Secret Garden and I wrote about that too yesterday (see here) and I haven't put it back on the bookshelves yet.

The first sentence on page 123 is: Very soon afterwards a bell rang, and she rolled up her knitting.

The last sentence is: Colin was still frowning.

This is the scene in The Secret Garden the morning after Mary had met her cousin, Colin, whom she didn't even know existed. She had found him the night before when she had heard him crying. He believes himself to be an invalid and has been allowed to do just what he likes all his life. The "she" in the first sentence is Martha, Mary's maid. Martha and Colin's nurse are both astonished at Mary's effect on Colin and that he wants to see her. The nurse tells Martha that Mary has bewitched Colin and that he has demanded that she visit him again as he has been thinking about her all the morning. Mary goes to see him and tells him that Martha is terrified that she will lose her job because Mary has met Colin - his existence was being kept secret from Mary. Frowning, Colin orders Martha to be brought into his presence and is still frowning when Martha comes in shaking in her shoes in fear of what he will do and say.

He could easily fly into a tantrum, hates people to look at him and all the servants feared his rages. He has the power to dismiss them from his father's house.

Of course you'll have to turn the page over to read what happens next.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, first published in 1911, my copy is a Penguin paperback published in 1958, 254 pages.

For the Heart of a Child Challenge

I read The Secret Garden several times as a child and the story has stayed with me ever since. For years my picture of the ideal garden has been a walled garden, just like the secret garden. The story can be read on different levels. As a child it seemed to me to be a straight forward story of Mary Lennox, orphaned after her parents died of cholera in India. Up until the age of nine she had lived a cosseted life looked after by servants, in particular her Ayah, ignored by her parents. After their death she was sent to live at Misselthwaite Manor, on the bleak Yorkshire moors, with her uncle, who was a hunchback recluse, who took little interest in her. Soon after Mary’s arrival, her uncle went abroad leaving her again in the care of servants. These were very different from the servants in India and Mary struggled to adjust.

Soon after she discovers she is not the only child in the house, when she finds Colin, her cousin, a hypochondriac, unable to walk, who believes he won’t live to grow up. Both Mary and Colin are selfish children, hating both themselves and the adults in their lives. Both also hate the outdoors, but encouraged by Martha, her maid, Mary wanders in the gardens of the Manor house and comes across a walled garden, which apparently has no door. There seems no way to get inside it – until guided by a robin, she finds an old key buried in the earth. I loved the descriptions of the Yorkshire countryside, the garden and how under the influence of Martha and her younger brother Dickon and even the grumpy gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, Mary blossomed as the year progressed along with the garden.

Reading it now I can see it is full of symbolism using nature, the Bible and myths, that I never noticed as a child. The image of the garden is used as both paradise lost and paradise regained. As the garden is nurtured and begins to blossom so do Mary and Colin, through springtime and into summer, culminating in the autumn when both are brought to full health. Dickon is accompanied by a young fox, a lamb, a crow and tame squirrels, reminiscent of St. Francis of Assisi and plays his pipe to charm the animals, like Pan. His mother, Mrs. Sowerby, is a plain-speaking down-to-earth Yorkshire woman, full of common sense and wisdom, who through Dickon and Martha helps the children, feeding Mary and Colin with both her words and wholesome food. At times I thought the language becomes over sentimental and a bit syrupy(I never thought that as a child). But there are descriptions that still appeal to me, such as this description of the roses in the garden:

And the roses – the roses! Rising out of the grass, tangled round the sundial, wreathing the tree trunks, and hanging from their branches, climbing up the walls and spreading over them with long garlands falling in cascades – they came alive day by day, hour by hour. Fair, fresh leaves and buds – and buds- tiny at first, but swelling and working Magic until they burst and uncurled into cups of scent delicately spilling themselves over their brims and filling the garden air.

Above all it is the power of Magic that is invoked in this book. The magic of nature, that makes plants and people grow and develop, the magic of the power of positive thinking and prayer, of the healing power of the mind, and of laughter and love. Sometimes it seemed too simplistic and yet at the same time I was swept along with the sentiments and enjoying the experience of re-reading this book.

A Good Hanging - Page 123 Meme

I was tagged by Zetor for this meme - pick a book at least 123 pages long. Open that book to page 123.Find the fifth sentence and post the next three.

I picked this book by Ian Rankin, as it’s the next book I’ll be reading for the Celebrate the Author Challenge (it’s Rankin’s birthday in April). It’s a collection of twelve stories and this story, the 6th one in the book is the title story, “A Good Hanging”.

On page 123 the fifth complete sentence is:

A pencil lay on the typescript, evidence that Charles Collins was taking the critics’ view to heart himself and attempting to shorten the play as best he could.

The next three sentences are as follows:

Peter Collins’ room was much more to Rebus’s personal taste, although Holmes wrinkled his nose at the underwear underfoot, the contents of the hastily unpacked rucksack scattered over every surface. Beside the unmade bed, next to an overflowing ashtray, lay another copy of the play. Rebus flipped through it.

I've enjoyed the Rebus stories on TV, so I'm looking forward to reading the books.

If you haven't done this meme and would like to please consider yourself tagged.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Sunshine and Cats Please Today

The snow has gone, so I've put a sunny picture back in the header. The cattle aren't back in the fields yet - I took this picture last year, but it is a sunny morning here today.

This is a non-book post and I'm off out for a walk in the sunshine (hopefully it'll last for a while). Meanwhile, here is a picture of Lucy I took this morning. She's sitting on the post at the bottom of the stairs - one of her favourite spots.

Below her on the stair post is this rat. The one she had previously fell to pieces, but she's not interested in this one.

She prefers this stratching post,which she has had since she was a kitten.

Monday, April 07, 2008


Penelope Lively’s Consequences follows the lives of Lorna, her daughter, Molly and her granddaughter, Ruth. I like Penelope Lively’s style of writing, richly emotional but still taut and concise. Although I think that it is more than a love story I think this quote from the book jacket is not a bad summary:

“An enthralling examination of interweaving love and history, Consequences pinpoints the moments when three women in very different times find love.”

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 and move to a cottage in deepest Somerset. 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 although I wasn’t alive then it seems to me as though this book captures the atmosphere of that period. 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.

Lorna and Matt had a daughter, Molly, then 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. 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.”

The future is always the unknown: “ … you are always standing on the brink, in a place where you cannot see ahead, there is nothing certain except what lies behind. This should be terrifying, but somehow it is not.”

This message of hope pervades the book despite the tragedies and difficulties that happen. Life continues after the war, and the changes in society are reflected in the attitudes of people towards each other:

“This was a bizarre new society in which class barriers were not broken down but subtly eroded … You still placed a person by their voice … but other things mattered too. Confidence, efficiency, sang-froid; selfishness, greed, shirking.”

People no longer knew where they were and where they belonged: “This was a world divided into them and us, with many subtle and significant sub-divisions.”

Molly grew up in this society and having gone through university, took 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. In this section I particularly liked 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.”

Molly became a confident, determined and self-sufficient character, finding it exhilarating to cope with the challenges in life. For her work is the determining factor, being a wage earner. Molly refused to marry James, Ruth’s father and Ruth enjoyed the James’ presence in her life as “a sort of benevolent patron on the fringes of everyday existence.” For Molly, as she contemplated her life and the consequences of the choices she had made, Ruth’s “emphatic presence seemed to make sense of chance, of happenstance.”

Ruth was also an independent character, whose marriage to Peter failed and their children alternated between them in their two flats. She reflected:

“Every conception is fortuitous, every birth. That said, Ruth always saw her own existence as perhaps peculiarly accidental, spun from the odd conjunction of two people whose meeting was an unlikely chance. … Only now, in mid-life – for that was where she was, after all – did she see this background, and her very presence, as a distinctly precarious event. This put you in your place, somehow.”

The book ends with her search the cottage in Somerset where Matt and Lorna lived. I loved the description of her journey to the cottage in such simple and direct language which perfectly conveys the scenery. Once she left the motorways and main roads she was into the countryside lanes:

“You burrowed into this landscape, she saw. The motorways rushed through it, and the A this and the B that, but as soon as you abandoned those dictatorial highways you had slipped off into another sphere. You were in the lanes, you were in narrow tunnels between high hedge banks, routes that also knew quite well what they were about and where they were going but that was their own immemorial business, and you were now in their domain. You went where they went and that was that.”

You feel as though you’ve travel through time and place in reading this book. Penelope Lively has a website with information about the other books she has written. I thought I’d read most of them but I see there are some I haven’t come across. More treasures to find and read!

Oh Yes - another Challenge - Soup's On!

This Challenge is hosted by Ex Libris (Sharon). It runs from April 1, 2008 to March 31, 2009. Sharon writes: All you have to do is select six cookbooks to read (enough to give an overview of the book) and make at least one of the recipes. These can be any cookbooks of your choice - brand new ones, old stand-bys that you can't live (or cook) without, or even heirlooms. You do not have to decide on the cookbooks ahead of time (unless you want to, of course).

I love cooking, that's my reason for joining this challenge. I'm always buying and looking at cookbooks, and watching TV cookery programmes. I've only written a couple of posts on cooking, so this is a great way to write more. I'm not sure yet which books I'll be writing about between now and the end of March next year but it could be these:

The Ration Book Diet by Mike Brown, Carol Harris and C J Jackson, because I bought it a few months ago, scan read it and thought oh yes I must cook some of these recipes, but haven't done so yet. It's full of information about the Second World War years in Britain, photos and cartoons from the Forties as well as beautiful modern photos.

The Good Food magazine 101 Meals For Two. This is a great little book and I've made a few of the recipes, but lots more to try out.

How To Eat by Nigella Lawson. She's one of my favourite TV cooks and I love this book, even though it has no photos.

Great British Menu from the first TV show of that name. Extravagant ingredients, but fantastic food.

After Work, a WHSmith publication. Another favourite book with quick recipes that work.

The Country Kitchen by Jocasta Innes. I've had this book for years; it's full of information about cooking with cream, butter, game - trussing and plucking a pheasant, making raised pies, terrines and galantines and preserving food. I haven't ventured much yet out of this book, but I'd love to have a go.

I'm looking forward to reading all the other reviews!

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Sunday Salon in the Snow

It's the Sunday Salon in the snow here today. The snow is melting now, but when I woke up this morning my world had turned white. So I've put a picture of the view from the window in the header. It's not a lot of snow, but enough to bother Lucy. She ventured outside and dashed back in.

She was at the top of the steps when I started to take the photo, but I wasn't quick enough to catch her.

This week I finished reading Consequences - more about that later - and I read The Secret Garden. I'm still reading Eat, Pray, Love. I thought I had to return it to the library because someone else had reserved it but when I took it back they let me renew it.

I'm now reading the Pray section and am really glad that I never decided to go to an Ashram. For some years I too practised Yoga. I was very keen and trained to be a teacher, so I'm very interested in this section of the book. Elizabeth Gilbert certainly had a hard time, adjusting to the ways of the Ashram and struggled with the meditation. The schedule sounds gruelling - the day begins at 3.00am and ends at 9.00pm. There are hours of meditation and contemplation;before breakfast there is an hour of meditation, twenty-minute chanting of the first morning hymn and then the Gurigita, an excerpt from a holy ancient Yogic scripture is chanted. This is 182 verses long in Sanscrit and takes an hour and half to perform. Elizabeth writes

"Over the few weeks that I've been here, my feelings about the Gurugita have shifted from simple dislike to solid dread. I've started skipping it and doing other things with my morning that I think are much better for my spiritual growth, like writing in my journal or taking a shower, or calling my sister back in Pennsylvania and seeing how her kids are doing."

This is one of the things I like about this book, she's down to earth and open about her feelings. It also gives a balanced view. When I taught Yoga I was rather shocked by some people's ideas and attitudes towards it. I was told by some Christians that by doing the Yoga postures you are worshipping "gods" or "evil spirits". I like what Elizabeth says:

"While some of these practices tend to look rather Hindu in their derivation, Yoga is not synonymous with Hinduism. True Yoga neither competes with nor precludes any other religion. You may use your Yoga - your disciplined practices of sacred union - to get closer to Krishna, Jesus, Mohammad, Budda or Yahweh."

Another quote:

"Yoga is about self-mastery and the dedicate effort to haul your attention away from your endless brooding over he past and your nonstop worrying about the future so that you can seek, instead, a place of eternal presence from which you may regard yourself and your surroundings with poise. Only from that point of even-mindedness will the true nature of the world (and yourself) be revealed to you."

Later today I'm hoping to read some more of Les Miserables but as I've started to read Revelation, C J Sansom's latest book, I may continue with that. I'd also like to start reading Oliver Twist because I was watching I'd Do Anything last night - the search for Nancy and Oliver for the West End show. I haven't read this and want to know how Dickens portrayed Nancy.

I don't think I'll manage all this but I'm always wanting to read more.

One last photo showing mysterious tracks round the bird feeder on the front lawn.

Not really mysterious - I think it was one of the two wood pigeons who regularly pay a visit.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Read More! Not Today!

Yesterday I thought I’d write about Consequences by Penelope Lively. Then I had a good idea (not!) – I'd write it as an expandable post, as I’ve seen this feature on other blogs. The idea is that you display a small amount of the post at the beginning and then users who want to read the rest of the post can click on a link like "Read More" to see the full text. I looked in Blogger Help and there is an article explaining how to do this.

Well, I can’t get it to work and I’ve wasted most of yesterday afternoon, and a big chunk out of today trying to get it to work and it just won’t. I’m getting quite frustrated with Blogger. It puts spaces in my posts where I don’t want them or moves paragraphs together when I want them apart. I write the post in Word first, but inserting photos in the post is a nightmare – it’s so difficult to make them go where I want them and then the spacing has gone wild again.

So the Consequence is that there is no post on Consequences today. Maybe another day.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Booking Through Thursday "Lit-Ra-Chur"

Today's question from Booking Through Thursday is:

When somebody mentions “literature,” what’s the first thing you think of? (Dickens? Tolstoy? Shakespeare?)
Do you read “literature” (however you define it) for pleasure? Or is it something that you read only when you must?

The first thing I think of is of course books and reading. I don’t think of any particular author or period or type of book – I just think books! A more considered thought is more complex. I may be reminded of school and English Literature lessons. These were a mixture of pain and pleasure. Pain because sometimes I got so bored with analysis of the texts that I came to dislike them, particularly Shakespeare; pleasure because I really loved the stories and the way they were written, I just wanted to read more and more. I suppose that is the measure of “literature”. I used to hate those questions such as “define literature, culture etc, etc”; over-analysis can kill a book.

I also think of a course I took on “Literature in the Modern World”, which covered the twentieth century before 1990 and considered what comprises the ‘canon’, the novel, poetry and drama and ‘literary theory’. It was Literature in English, not English Literature and opened up a whole new world of reading to me, including Terry Eagleton’s writings on literary theory. In considering what is meant by ‘fine writing’ he wrote, “Value-judgements would certainly seem to have a lot to do with what is judged literature and what isn’t …”. My thoughts are who is making the value-judgement and why should we take any notice anyway? My English teacher at school once told me I should be less sceptical - sorry, I still am.

I have A Dictionary of Literary Terms by Martin Gray (I bought this for the course). This defines literature as
“A vague, all-inclusive term for poetry, novels, drama, short stories, prose: anything written, in fact, with an apparently artistic purpose, rather than to merely communicate information; or anything written and examined as if it had an artistic purpose.’ Literature’ also an evaluative word: to say that a novel not is ‘not literature’ is to imply that it is badly written, or has for some other reason failed to achieve the status of art.”

We’re back to the value-judgement again and there is much disagreement over what is accepted as being worthy of being read.

Anyway, I do enjoy reading books by Dickens, Tolstoy, and the rest, just so long as I don’t have to subject them to minute analysis and literary criticism. I prefer to watch Shakespeare’s plays rather than read them, in fact I prefer to watch any drama rather than reading a play, because after all they were written to be performed.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett

I read this book way back in January. It’s the third book on the theme of illusion that I’ve read. I wrote about the other two The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster here and The Illusionist by Jennifer Johnston here. They’re all good reads, although quite different books in different styles.

The opening sentences of The Magician’s Assistant introduce the illusion: “Parsifal is dead. That is the end of the story” - it’s an illusion, because of course this is only the beginning of the story and Parsifal pervades the book. Parsifal was a magician and Sabine had been his assistant for twenty years. She and Parsifal had been married for less than a year when he died suddenly of an aneurysm, leaving her alone in their large house in Los Angeles, apart from a large white rabbit, called Rabbit, who was retired from the stage as he was too big to be pulled out of a hat. To her surprise she discovered that he wasn’t who she had believed him to be. He had told her he had left home when he was seventeen and that his family was dead. But his mother Kitty Fetters and sisters, Bertie and Kitty contacted her after his death. They knew he had become a magician as they had seen him on the Johnny Carson Show – indeed they watched a recording of it most nights, entranced by his fame. They had no idea of his life, that he was gay, or that he had married Sabine. When Kitty and Bertie visit Sabine and invite her back to their home in Alliance, Nebraska, the truth is gradually revealed.

Interspersed with the action are Sabine’s dream sequences with Phan, Parsifal’s lover. Sabine thinks of these as contact with Parsifal and Phan and learns about their lives at the same time as during the day she is learning about his past family life. There is an out-of-world feel to these sequences, calming Sabine’s turmoil and confusion, which I liked. There is a lot in this book about identity, what and who a person actually is; about how the world is in fact illusory; and the importance of family. Sabine’s family life as the only child of Jewish parents who adore her forms a contrast with Parsifal’s but even here all is not what it seems.

After Parsifal’s death Sabine is lost, lonely and inconsolable and it is through Parsifal’s family and in particular through Kitty his sister, who she sees as a representation of him that she begins to cope with her loss. The scenes in Alliance form a complete contrast to life in LA, where everything seems perfect. None of the Kitty’s family has had life easy, they all have problems. I found the sequences with Kitty’s sons some of the most realistic in the book; the two teenagers came to life for me. If I have a criticism of the book it is of the ending. It all seems a bit too tidy, a bit “arranged”. But I did enjoy it – it’s a moving story about love, and grief and family.

Reading Notes for April

I’ve been sorting out my books – the fiction, that is. I had arranged it an a-z author order, but it had got rather out of hand as I haven’t got enough bookcases. They are double shelved and because it’s a bit difficult to get to the back whenever I bought a new book I’d tried to slot it in to the right place but it had all got higgledy-piggledy. So, I decided to separate the books I haven’t read yet and put them in a separate bookcase. I really shouldn’t buy any more books for a while, now I can actually see how many unread books I own. I'm planning to restrict my reading in April to these books - well that's my aim, but as I really like to read what I want when I want, this could all be changed.

The books listed below are all books that fit into various reading Challenges. For the Celebrate the Author Challenge I'm going to choose a book by Ian Rankin, whose birthday it is on 28 April, – I have four to choose from:

The Black Book
The Hanging Garden
Resurrection Men
A Good Hanging and Other Stories

For the Chunkster Challenge I’ve just started to read C J Sansom’s Revolution. It’s 546 pages long, so it easily meets the criteria of being 450 pages. I’ve only had this book a few days, but I’m bringing it forward over other to-be-read books, as I’m an avid fan of Sansom’s books.

For the Heart of the Child Challenge I’m reading The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson-Burnett. I still have the copy I had as a child, now yellowing and a bit battered, but still in one piece. In the description at the front of the book the editor writes: “Girls like it most, and between the ages of nine and fourteen – and, be warned, keep your copy carefully. You will want to go back and read it over and over again.”

I’m also reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. I suppose could add this in to the Chunkster Challenge, as it’s 1200 pages without counting the appendices. There’s a blog Introducing the Parisian Underworld where we can discuss the book and there’s no time limit on this!

For the Once Upon a Time Challenge I'd like to get on with reading Dante’s The Divine Comedy or at least The Descent into Hell.

Then there is Our Longest Days, real diaries from the Second World War period, that I’m itching to read. I have started that too.

It will be a miracle if I actually stick to any reading plan, but at least these books are all ones I already own. Now if I could stop myself going to the library and borrowing more books that would be good, but yesterday I returned two books and borrowed yet another one – at least it was only one.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

I’ve now finished the “Eat” section of this book, or in other words the section in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book about her stay in Italy. The book is growing on me, or maybe I’m becoming accustomed to her style of writing. I’ve already written about her comments on how Italians cheer themselves up after their football team has lost a match by eating cream puffs, but there a couple of other things caught my attention in this section.

The first is a reference to Dante – I’ve written several posts on Dante’s The Divine Comedy and Florence. Elizabeth goes to an Italian class to help her learn the language. She explains how for centuries there was no “Italian” language - Italians wrote and spoke in different local dialects – and it was only in the 16th century that a gathering of intellectuals decided that the official Italian language (in its written form at least) was the language used by Dante; the language in which he had published The Divine comedy in 1321; the language spoken by his fellow Florentines.

The other most interesting discovery I made in reading “Eat” is about the Augusteum – a big round ruin near the Ara Pacis, the Altar to Peace. I didn’t know its name before, nor its history. I first visited Rome in 1992. I had been doing an Open University course on Roman History and wanted to see various sites, including the Roman Forum, the Coliseum and the Ara Pacis. This large round ruin intrigued me; it’s such a contrast to the Ara Pacis, which is an enormous, gleaming white marble altar, showing the Emperor Augustus’ triumphal entry into Rome, consecrated in 9BC. The Museo dell'Ara Pacis website gives the history of the altar and details of its renovation.

The entrance to the ruin was gated and locked and all we could see were some wild cats – there are lots in Rome - and a lady who had come with some food for the cats. It looked a really mysterious and forbidding place and I wanted to know its history.

Elizabeth Gilbert explains that this is the Augusteum, which was originally a mausoleum built by the Emperor Augustus to house his remains and those of his family. It fell into ruins after the fall of the Roman Empire and his ashes were stolen. By the 12th century it had been turned into a fortress for the Colonna family, then later became a vineyard, a Renaissance garden, a bullring in the 18th century, a fireworks depository, then a concert hall. In the 1930s Mussolini restored it to its classical foundations and intended it to house his remains.

Elizabeth Gilbert doesn’t mention the Ara Pacis, but says that the Augusteum “is one of the quietest and loneliest place in Rome, buried deep in the ground. The city has grown up around it over centuries. (One inch a year is the general rule of thumb for the accumulation of time’s debris.) Traffic above the monument spins in a hectic circle, and nobody ever goes down there – from what I can tell – except to use the place as a public bathroom. But the building still exists, holding its Roman ground with dignity, waiting for its next incarnation.”

Yes, it was lonely went we went there (and it did smell, too). Both the Augusteum and the Ara Pacis were very quiet and with very few people around. We went back to Rome in 2003 and again both sites were very quiet, we were the only people there – a treat in such a crowded, busy city.