Sunday, 28 November 2010

The Bell

Having come to Iris Murdoch two years ago, I have become convinced that she truly is, as so many critics argue, one of the greatest British writers of all time. I can still feel Christmas morning 2008, when I woke in my mother's house, padded downstairs to fetch a coffee and a warm mince pie, then returned to my bed and curled up under my duvet to resume The Sea, The Sea where I had unwillingly left it the night before, about halfway through. It was Christmas morning, for heavens sake - I heard the rest of the family stir and one by one go downstairs. Bits of broken conversation, laughter and smells of cooking mingled and drifted up to my room, but I ignored them and stayed with Murdoch. I simply couldn't put the book down, and only finally, reluctantly, even sulkily, did so when my mother came and knocked on my door to tell me that everyone was waiting for me so that we could open the presents. The Sea, The Sea remains one of my favourite books.

And so I have come at last to The Bell, one of the most popular of Murdoch's psychological studies of human behaviour. Here we find a group of social misfits - though largely, it must be said, no more 'misfitting' than any of us - holed up in a religious community awaiting the arrival of a new bell at the Abbey nearby. The opening sets the score, and is one of Murdoch's most brilliant:

"Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason."

Thus, are characters drawn with such a deft pen. And it is the characters who matter in Murdoch's novels. Ordinary situations are made extraordinary by the doings of ordinary people - momentary lapses of sanity, bad decision making and misreading of others motives create, for the characters in Murdoch's world, outlandish situations. In The Bell, I think I audibly groaned when Dora hatches her plan for the medieval bell that Toby has found at the bottom of the lake. I just wanted to shake her - don't be so stupid, surely you can see that this is going to go horribly wrong...? But of course, she goes ahead with it anyway, and of course, it all goes horribly wrong.

I love the way Dora's personality is cleverly revealed through her lack of belief in her own decisions. Frequently, she decides she will refuse to do something, and the next paragraph begins with her doing just that thing. Likewise, we are told early on that Toby has recently discovered and enjoyed the word 'rebarbative', and the word turns up regularly when Toby is the central character. Such simple techniques, so cleverly handled, are what raises Murdoch above her peers.

What really makes Murdoch stand out, though, is, of course, her brilliant understanding and encapsulation of the deep psychological motives, often unknown to ourselves, that govern our movements. A character - here, Michael, for example - may examine himself thoroughly, and believe that he has read a situation accurately, only to discover later that in fact he never had any idea what others were thinking or feeling and he has misjudged the whole scenario fatally.

Despite the academic depths of Murdoch's books, I am always surprised by how overtly readable they are. The Bell is funny, cringeworthy, pacey in its latter half (my only criticism would be that it takes a little while to really get going), intriguing, warm, and, at the end of the day, simply tells a good story.

For me, The Sea, The Sea is still Murdoch's best, but I have many more to go, having read only four so far, and The Bell, being comparatively short, is a pretty good place to start if you are unsure as to whether or not Murdoch is for you.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Ministry of Stories

In 2002. the writer that is demi-god Dave Eggers (who would despise me for calling him that, but he is, so nur) started a children's creative writing space in San Francisco. It was named after its location, 826 Valencia. Over the past 8 years, its success has led to 'franchise' projects in cities all over the states, each with its own themed shop - The San Fran branch has a Pirate shop, the Brooklyn branch a Superhero store, the Seattle set-up a Space Travel Suppy Company etc. Famous and not-so-famous authors hold writing workshops at the Centres, teachers offer one-to-one tuition, field trips and school trips are organised...

Last year, Roddy Doyle, inspired by Eggers' success, set up his own Fighting Words project in Ireland, and I am utterly delighted to read in The Guardian today that Nick Hornby is now fronting the first English equivalent, to be called, in a nod, one presumes, to Harry Potter rather than post-war Britain's penchant for creating Ministries for Everything, the Ministry of Stories. (The name concerns me slightly, as I can't help feeling that older children will be put off by something so obviously childish - where an 18 year old might feel fine saying they were off to 826 Valencia, will they really be so happy to say they're visiting the Ministry of Stories? A minor point perhaps, but not irrelevant.)

Anyway, as an English teacher, I could not be more excited about this. I have prayed for years that the 826 projects would extend as far as Britain, and now, my wish has come true. It only remains for a branch to open in the North of England, and my non-working hours will be filled.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Golden Age of Illustration

The Edwardians have been described as a generation of young men and women who refused to grow up. Theirs was the era of Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, stories which have come to define the dreamlike lives of many upper class boys and girls in the years preceeding the First World War. The Fabian idyll of the Belle Epoch could not have been ended more cruelly, but while it lasted, this was a time to embrace childhood and the imagination.

Between 1880 and 1930, some of the greatest artists in the world turned their considerable talents to illustrating children's books. Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and The Water Babies were inevitably popular choices, but many artists also looked to Fairy Tales for inspiration. I have collected here a small selection of my personal favourites by artists whose work you will be more than a little familiar with - and perhaps a few to whom this is your first introduction. Explore them further, I urge you. I grew up with many of these pictures, and they still have the power to make my heart beat faster in wonder.

Arthur Rackham (1867 - 1939) is probably the best known children's story illustrator of the time - maybe of all time. His Art Nouveau style never patronised, and his use of muted colours instilled a twilight realism into every image. Below is a scene from Cinderella (or Aschenputtel) and below that, from The Goose Girl:

These next two are from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, and exhibit a dangerous beauty all of their own:

Over the Atlantic, Jessie Willcox Smith (1863 - 1935) was creating similarly dark illustrations, in which many of her heroines seem to cower and shy away from the fairy folk that approach them, as seen here in Cinderella and Snow White:

Kate Greenaway (1846 - 1901) had, of course, been drawing for children for a long time by the 1880s, and her pictures provide a sharp contrast to the threat that seems to lurk inside the pictures of Rackham and Smith. Greenaway was all about spring and meadows and flowers and washed out pastels. Here she shows tea parties and picnics in benign settings:

Likewise, Mabel Lucie Attwell (1879 - 1964) developed a twee style that is instantly recognisable as her own, but she was not averse to tackling some of Anderson's darker stories, such as The Ugly Duckling:

Even Edward Burne Jones (1833 - 1898), arguably the most talented of the Pre-Raphaelites, sourced ideas from Fairy Tales, using his trademark rich colours to imbue weight and depth to the stories he illustrated. This is taken from a series of pictures of Sleeping Beauty:

Edmund Dulac (1882 - 1953) is, for me, the most alluring of children's illustrators. His pictures from the Snow Queen have adorned my walls all my life, and he is part of the reason this is my favourite Fairy Tale. There is a loneliness, a haunting aspect, to his characters that really touches a nerve in me. Can you make out the Snow Queen herself in this first image?

And this, from the Little Mermaid, demonstrates again Dulac's simultaneous coldness and warmth:

Kay Nielsen's (1886 - 1957) work is more stylised, as shown in this illustration for The Tin Soldier: is that of Wilhelmina Drupsteen (1880 - 1966). These two come from Snow White:

All of these artists influenced the way children's books were illustrated for decades to come, and in no work is this more evident than that of twin sisters Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone (1928 - 1979 and 1998 respectively). I have shelves of books from my own childhood that have been lovingly brought to life by these two exceptional artists. Their prescision is phenomenal, and their use of light... well, you only have to look at these few examples to understand. This first is from The Princess and The Pea. Look at her dripping skirt!

The above illustration for The Little Match Girl is, to me, so flawless that even without knowledge of the story, it can break hearts. The truly beautiful can do that, I think.

And this, from The Frog Prince, pulls together flavours of the medieval and the Roaring Twenties in one single image that seems to even smell of wet trees and damp rock.

All of this is not to say that there are not stupendous children's illustrators at work today, for there truly are. But I think the era from which all the above pictures come is known as The Golden Age of Illustration for a reason...

Monday, 15 November 2010

Dark Matter

I have just moved into a Grade II listed cottage, built in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, held up with beams from ships that sailed with the Mary Rose. No wall is straight, no doorway high enough for a man to pass through without stooping, no window large enough to let in more than a teaspoon of light. Pear tree branches scrape at the glass at night, wind howls down the chimney and through gaps in the ancient doors and windows, and the floorboards creak and groan continuously.

And so, alone in my cottage, I decided to read a ghost story.

Dark Matter is the tale of a doomed arctic expedition which results in one man, alone with his diary and a pack of huskies, living in perpetual night at the northern end of Svalbard (Spitsbergen at the time). He sees things in the snow and on the rocks, but more significantly, he feels things - horror, fear, malevolence, the things that make the hair on the back of your neck stand up without tangible explanation.

Michelle Paver writes well, though with a fondness for simple sentences that I found slightly childish (she is best known for her children's series beginning with Wolf Boy, after all). It is a book about place, which those of you who read ...Lamp - and Book regularly will know is my particular love, and it is indeed even about the very place I most dream of visiting one day.

Dark Matter is atmospheric, characters are well-drawn and likable enough where they need to be, though I might also suggest a little bland, and it is suggestively creepy enough to count as a ghost story. But did it do what ghost stories should do above all else, and scare me? Did I dread turning the light out at night? Did I see things in the corner of my eye, and fear what might be standing outside my bedroom door when I opened it? No.

I could make some suggestions as to why not - primarily, for me, it is too definite in its adamancy that what Jack experiences is a 'real' ghost, and way too simplistic in its reveal of the reason for the haunting. Far more interesting, surely, is the potential ambiguity that comes of the psychological trauma of being alone in 24 hour darkness in a landscape so brutal? The idea that even Jack could not be sure that what he saw was real, rather than a trick of his mind, would have made this more powerful. In all ghost stories, it is the not-knowing that is the most frightening aspect.

Although it is not being marketed as a children's book, I would recommend this to teenagers rather than adult connoisseurs of the genre. It is short, and enjoyable from the point of view of someone for whom experiencing first-hand this landscape and the Aurora Borealis is the number one dream, but is most certainly not terrifying. Not even to a young woman reading it alone in a 400 year old cottage in the Peak District...

The Fry Chronicles

And lo, the wind of Christmas blew in its annual drift of celebrity autobiographies. Obviously, Danny Dyer's was top of my list of must-reads, but it was Monsieur Fry's that ended up in my bag. And actually, I rather wish it hadn't been.

I love Stephen Fry as much as the next man, woman, child or endangered species does, but I found The Fry Chronicles cloying. It's not really, as it purports, about his time at Cambridge - this takes up a fairly miniscule amount of the book. The majority is concerned instead with, as Fry himself is at pains to stress in every other line, his enormous good fortune in finding highly paid work that he loved doing.

There is noticeably little about Hugh Laurie, for which there are many possible explanations: Fry didn't feel comfortable writing about him; Laurie didn't want anything but a few vague mentions; Laurie's American agents or lawyers didn't want anything but a few vague mentions; that's all to come in the next installment... I don't know, and, I realised as I read, that increasingly, I don't really care.

The problem I had with The Fry Chronicles is rather post-modern and is concerned with the set-up, which follows this pattern: Stephen tells us a story about how such-and-such a wonderful person (namedrop, namedrop) offered him a writing / acting / advertising job which paid an embarrasingly large sum of money with which he bought another house / car / computer, then proceeds to spend 4 pages whining about how none of this made him happy, and how he feels guilty that he still suffered from depression, and how he knows I, as his loyal reader, will HATE him whining about this, but how he still feels he must do it because that is his nature and after all, I'm reading the book because I am interested in his nature, aren't I?

Well, yes, Stephen, I suppose I am, but I am also interested in what that nature has to say about things outside of his own personal story. The parts where, for example, he uses Ben Elton's success as a springboard to give insightful commentary on the place of the arts in Thatcher's Britain, and suchlike, is far and away superior to whinging, self-indulgent moaning. His views on Rik Mayall, Alexei Sayle, class and alternative comedy are riveting and informative, particularly for one, like me, who was just old enough (in my early teens) to appreciate the rise of that scene. Now, that's not to say I wasn't expecting whinging, self-indulgent moaning, because of course I was, and I was expecting Stephen to apologise for it too, which he does at great length, but so much of it could have been edited out without taking away any of the sense. Stephen suffers from depression and feels guilty about it. We know this. He's told us before and he tells us again here. But once, twice is enough to get the measure of a man. Continuously telling us, and the measure begins to diminish.

I still love him, of course I do, and I still froth at the mouth for new QIs, but this book, unlike Moab is my Washpot, did not increase the fondness at all.

The Hopkins Manuscript

This isn't my usual kind of book, and I have no idea why I chose it; I was just strangely drawn, I suppose. After all, I bought it from the Persephone shop, so it's not like I just fancied a Persephone and this is all my local Waterstones had... Anyway, buy it I did, and what a happy accident it was.

The Hopkins Manuscript is a 1930s Sci-Fi novel, and tells of an impact between our Earth and its moon. It is, however, so refreshingly different in style to the fast-paced, action-packed, thriller-esque Science Fiction we are offered by today's cinematic experience as to belong to a different genre almost entirely; our hero, for it is written in first person, is an unlikeable middle aged rural chicken breeder, pompous, self-important, and rude. One of the small percentage of people to survive the collision, he sets about the day to day tasks of rebuilding 'normal life', but he and others are scuppered in their desire to simply continue a simple and peaceful existence by the larger machinations of warmongering government.

This book has haunted me since I read it. I cannot look at the moon anymore without thinking of The Hopkins Manuscript. The larger portion of the story is taken up with the build-up to the collision, with the moon's increasingly bulbous monthly appearance in the sky as it nears Earth described in such vivid terms that one does become surrounded by the creepy vacuous winds that accompany its approach, and one starts to see the otherworldly light in which Earth becomes bathed as its monstrous satellite begins to fill the night sky. There is a feeling of helplessness, of the natural horror of the impending destructive power of something so utterly beyond human power to halt.

Despite his selfishness and judgemental attitude, Hopkins becomes a trustworthy ally to us as readers, and dare I say it, we do, I think, warm to him. He is the right guide for a book which shows us the very smallness of our quotidian lives within the bigger picture; The Hopkins Manuscript is a 9/11 novel, in the sense that it makes you consider the life you will have lived in the event of a world-altering catastrophe. It is also, of course, a book still haunted by WW1 and living in the shadow of an approaching WW2 (it was written in 1939), and allegories are not hard to find. It is interesting that the final threat comes from the Islamic world, which adds a prescient nature to the novel, although better informed historians than I may well point instead to inevitability.

This is an alarming and powerful novel, both gentley prosaic and wildly terrifying, and I recommend it unreservedly even if you would never normally go near Science Fiction. It fits perfectly into the Persephone canon, and as both wonderful storytelling and historically significant document, is hard to beat.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Life On Air

I doubt there are many people who don't think Attenborough is God. Certainly, I think he's as close as we'll ever get to a higher being. On the environment and conservation, he makes more sense than virtually anyone else. For entertainment value, his programmes simply cannot be beaten. In light of this, Life On Air could be considered disappointing, simply because it is not the greatest book I have ever read - indeed, it's not even the greatest autobiography I've ever read. It is a little dry, a little "this happened, then this happened..." and there is a distinct sense of restraint that permeates the pages. However, it does do what it says on the tin, and it is most definitely not without many merits.

The focus is, as the title suggests, on the television side of Attenborough's life. There are brief insights into his personal life and the animals he has kept at home (a whole tribe of bush babies at one stage), but it is very much about what happened in the office, as it were. This, however, gives us a very interesting insight into the early days of television, and into BBC production values. On his new position as Controller of BBC2 in 1965, Attenborough says:

"...we were not in the business of producing carbon copies of programmes that were already being shown on other networks. Nor would we accept mindless programmes... We would present single gigantic productions that occupied an entire evening on subjects of particular importance that needed examination in depth... Following this came stylish serials based on novels such as Henry James, Sartre, Tolstoy... Music?...analyses of difficult modern works using scores with notes that animated as the music sounded so taht even viewers who were not accustomed to raeding musical scores could follow the structure of the music."

It sounds like dream television to me, but I'll not depress myself considering where it all went wrong.

Life On Air is absolutely an enjoyable read - how could it not be? Look at the author! It is written in Attenborough's distinctive voice, and is full of humourous anecdotes, history, archeology, zoology... The hardback is rammed with colour photos, an aspect lacking in the paperback. If this man holds any interest for you whatsoever, Life On Air is a must read - just don't expect it to be as groundbreaking as his tv programmes.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Literary Lego

Well, it's one way of getting kids into the classics... Where's Virginia Woolf?

Sunday, 29 August 2010

The Siege

Helen Dunmore is a prolific writer, though I have never been drawn to her books. This may have something to do with the covers, which I find singularly banal, or with the fact that the regularity with which she produces new books subconsciously suggests to me that they can't be of a very high quality. Nevertheless, The Siege has been sitting in my To Be Read pile for some time - I can't remember when or why I bought it - and I decided to give it a go.

I know little about the 1941 siege of Leningrad, save that during one of the worst winters known even in northern Russia, German troops surrounded the city and through a series of Blitz-style bombing raids and an almost total blockade which prevented any food or medicine getting through, starved millions of citizens to death. In a letter reproduced at the beginning of this novel, it is made clear that Hitler had no intention of taking over the city - he instead "decided to have Leningrad wiped from the face of the earth." Against this backdrop, then, Dunmore has set a love story.

Or at least, that is the skeleton of narrative over which the flesh of the novel takes shape. But this, for me, is not a love story. The two central characters, Anna and Andrei, meet, fall in love instantly, and then must survive this hellish winter, yes. But The Siege is not a narrative-based novel. It is a descriptive account of a factual event. Fictional characters simply enable the event to be brought to chilling life, and this is the great strength of this book. Dunmore's attention to detail is crucial in showing us how crumbs of bread and broth made of shoe leather become lifelines, and how food, or the lack of it, becomes obsession. This is not a novel one can curl up with and live inside; this is an educational ride through a dark historical chapter.

The style is stilted, giving it the impression of being in translation, and as such, does in fact feel authentically Russian. The characters are neither particularly likeable nor unlikeable; they are vehicles through which a story that must be told, is told.

I wouldn't say I had enjoyed The Siege, but I feel a better informed human being for having read it. And my desire to visit St Petersburg, as it is now (again) called, is all the greater. It is most certainly not a holiday read, or even a summer read, but I think it's an important book, and does deserve the attention it still garners.

Monday, 23 August 2010

The Help

I had started reading Villette while I was travelling, but I'm afraid that after 120 pages, I had to give up. Maybe the story of a lonely Victorian governess in dark, rain-sodden France just wasn't working for me as I reclined on a sun-lounger in 42 degree heat in Andalucia, or maybe it was that the style was so over-wrought and almost sycophantic; whatever the reason, I just couldn't get into it, and have left it sitting woefully in a villa in Spain.

When I returned, then, I was bookless. Currently not-reading. The first thing I did was go through my ever-increasing bought-but-not-yet-read (the 'yet' is crucial) pile, but nothing grabbed me. My head was all over the place and anywhere but here, and I would read 3 pages of something and put it down in frustration, unable to connect with the written word. Grrrr.... Then I picked up The Help. And it turns out it was exactly what I needed.

Now, this is not a great work of literature, a life-changing novel; it is not the new To Kill a Mockingbird. Had it been written and published in 1964, it most certainly would have been both of those things. But context is an important aspect in the making of a classic, and while I loved this book (and I am far from alone there), I think it is important to wade through the praises heaped on it, and to consider it as simply an exciting story filled with wonderful characters, well-written and easy to digest. It is a reminder of the way things were - although I am aware that similar communities do still exist around the globe - and looks at the Civil Rights Movement from a new perspective; from, in fact, an entirely female perspective. This gives the story a unique spin because, as Minny and Aibileen discuss at one point in the novel, women can exact a far more ruthless revenge than men can; their ability to work slowly, chipping away at the foundations of a life they intend to destroy is a far more effective and frightening method than a one-off violent act. The women in The Help are both each other's support and each other's worst possible enemies - the way the League ladies treat Marilyn Monroe-alike Miss Celia is as appalling and as prejudiced as the way they treat their maids. But she is from the wrong side of the tracks, and in Jackson, Mississippi, only Miss Hilly Holbrook's side matters.

Hilly is an almost cartoonish villainess. She is a southern belle Cruella deVille - the description of her final visit to Miss Skeeter, hair akimbo and clothes hanging out, reminds me of nothing less than Cruella's defeat at the end of 101 Dalmations. And yet Hilly's defeat is a long way from total - we know, as readers, that she will pick herself up and continue to treat the black members of her community in the same way she always has. We know this because we know people like her still exist. And we know, more worryingly, that though there may be only a few as awful as Hilly Holbrook, there are many, many Elizabeth Leefolts: the friend who is too weak to do anything, too scared to speak up, too preoccupied to form an opinion of her own. These people - the ones who sit by - are the majority, and are just as damaging.

Kathryn Stockett uses key events in the struggle for Civil Rights as pegs on which to hang her story, and this is a useful and effective technique. We can place the fictional characters in the real, historical world. We can dress them accurately, we can feel the wide outside swirling around them, even as Jackson seems caught in a web of time, unable to free itself and move forward. Miss Skeeter's desire to be free of this claustrophobic society is brought to a simple, easy head when she hears Dylan for the first time on the radio and realises that elsewhere in the United States, the times are indeed a-changing.

The three narrators have endearing voices, and we warm to each of them immediately they open their mouths. Stockett's use of dialectical phrase is just right - Aibileen's words ring true and honest, not foreign enough that we struggle to understand her, but with an accent that places her exactly.

This novel is an ideal easy-read, without being vacuous and forgettable. It does nothing new or daring within itself - indeed, it is almost a novel-by-numbers; questions are set up one after the other that ensure we stay with the book till the end: what happened to Constantine? Did Minny really do to that pie what we fear she did? What is the matter with Miss Celia? What did Stuart's ex-fiancee do? We care, we really do want to know the answers to these questions - and that is Stockett's skill. Her talent lies in her creaton of wholly believable characters, in whom, within mere pages, we are entirely invested.

There is a short epilogue-of-sorts, in which Stockett delivers a mini-autobiography. The fact that she has written from some personal experience, in this case, adds to the book. It authenticates the stories of Aibileen, Minny and Miss Skeeter. I know that there must be snippets of real events in here - some incidents must be founded in reality. I can't help but wonder if the pie story is one of them. And I can't help but hope it is, hope that some white lady, somewhere, really did get her just desserts...

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Writers on fire!

It's not cool to smoke, kids. Except that sometimes it absolutely, irrevocably is. Check out these authors and their wicked addictions:

July - a month in reading

As the end of term approached, all grey matter began to seep out of my ears... reading became less important to me than travelling. But I don't have a travel blog (though I do have a travel notebook) so I kinda fell off the edge of the blogging universe for a bit. However, I return now, a nutty colour (not pistachio - maybe walnut shell?) from a Thelma-and-Louise* style tour of southern Spain, head filled with Moorish architecture and tummy stuffed with paella. And what of reading during this time?

How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall
This has been well-blogged about, so I shan't dwell. It was my first by this author, whom I know has had a lot of praise heaped on her. She has a very clear, crisp style, and an authoritative tone, and whilst I enjoyed this book, it felt a little experimental to me. A bit Rick Wakeman: a bit 'I do this because I can'. The shift in gear as one is jolted from one narrator to another can be hard to adjust to, as it is not simply a change in voice, but in tense and person. Interestingly, the story I thought would be most intriguing turned out, for me, to be the least gripping (that of Annette and the Bestia), whilst my favourite character was not even one of the four narrators - Danny, Suzie's dead twin brother, stole my heart.

It is an existential novel, one that requires attention and thought, and the questions it raises are simultaneously tiny and huge - why does Giorgio paint bottles? Is there more to the thread that links these people's lives than the tenuous one apparent - and what does this mean for the threads that link all our lives? (This could become a little 6 Steps from Kevin Bacon...)

How to Paint a Dead Man is essentially a book full of, and about, subtext; what is below the surface and between the lines. It is about the nuance of relationships, and the traffic between life and death. It is about the subtleties of shade, the position of art in life and life in art. It is not a curl-up and live-in kind of book, but it teased my brain, and woke me up. I look forward to trying some of Hall's other novels.

The Passage by Justin Cronin
Yes, I fell for the hype and the beautiful packaging. And I really fancied something that wouldn't tax me too much, although I hadn't bargained on it weighing quite so much and nearly spraining my wrist. So, weighty in volume if not content. I do not tend to read horror or sci-fi, let me state that up front. Both genres, for me, work better in film-form. I've read the modern classics - Interview With The Vampire, Neuromancer, and cinematically, I'm not averse to a bit of neck-biting or zombie action. But reading The Passage was a bit left of my usual centre.

I would say that you need substantial stretches of time to spend in chunks with this book. It doesn't work if you just dip in and out. You have to take a deep breath and commit. I did, and it came up with the goods. It's well-written, and once the future-post-apocalyptic world comes in, I found myself really warming to the characters and actually caring about them - I came dangerously close to shedding a solitary tear when one particular character dies. The world of the book is well-constructed and believable, the action fast-paced and clearly, in places, written for the Big Screen, to which I have no doubt it will be coming soon. My only bugbear is...I'm not convinced that it's original enough to be getting all the praise it's had. It has elements for me of those terrifyingly bleak Children's Film Foundation films I was raised on in the seventies, things like Brother in the Land and The Weathermonger, in which a few surviving youngsters cross nuclear-attack ravaged Britain to find sanctuary on the Isle of Wight or somewhere. The Vampires - or Virals as they're called here (and that's another thing - hasn't that been done in 28 Days Later?) - are interesting: part Giger creation, part Aphex Twin video, they are potentially something new, but I don't know if that's enough to make this whole novel something new.

At the end of the day, you know whether you want to read this or not. Either it's your cup of Earl Grey, or it isn't. It is more literary than most in the genre, for sure, but that doesn't convince me that there's going to be thousands of discerning Persephone readers suddenly turning up in the horror section of Waterstones. An enjoyable, bloody romp, to sound like a Sun newspaper reviewer.

Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd
Dowd died in 2007 of Breast Cancer, leaving a legacy of brilliant YA novels keeping her name alive. This one deals with the troubles in Northern Ireland in the eighties, and is an intelligent and beautifully crafted story. For young people outside of Ireland, I would suggest a brief grounding in the history of the IRA and particularly Bobby Sands and the Hunger Strikers to be of help in understanding the plot - Dowd assumes knowledge, and does not patronise with background. It seems particularly poignant at the moment, with pockets of rioting flaring up again, and could be an important reminder for all of us of how complicated and violent life can be under extreme circumstances. There is a lesson here in the price one pays for nailing oneself to a cause, a lesson that a whole new generation might need to consider. Probably not one to go onto straight from Horrid Henry...

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
I was sitting in Costa Coffee in Manchester Waterstones' when I literally had, totally out of the blue, an overwhelming desire to read this book. I honestly do not know what inspired this desire, but there it was, like the urge for an ice-cold Coca-Cola, and so I acted on it. And I was not disappointed. What an extraordinary style of writing! It almost feels like an unfinished manuscript, and yet that is exactly right for the nature of the story. In the same way that Charlotte Bronte gave us landscape as character in Jane Eyre, so Rhys does in Wide Sargasso Sea, and the rip, the tearing, we feel as Bertha is taken from this Caribbean dreamland to Rochester's tower is tangible. Rhys teases us: the nature of madness is questioned, played with, and our only response, surely, can be that insanity is relative; relative to one's surroundings, to one's family, to one's acquaintances, to one's treatment. There is an edge of hysteria to the whole short novel, and yet an eerie calmness to the denouement.

For me, had I not known Jane Eyre well, it would have been a more difficult book, but loving Jane Eyre as I do (in the old-time debate, yes, I prefer it to Wuthering Heights), the deeper dimension offered here was rich and delicious. It's quite unlike anything I've read before, and it has stayed with me in ways I didn't think it would. I may never read Jane Eyre in the same light again.

Just Kids by Patti Smith
Horses is my favourite album of all time. That, combined with the beautiful photograph on the cover of this partial (it is solely about Smith's relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe) autobiography, meant I simply couldn't wait for it to come out in paperback.

Smith's love for Mapplethorpe is evident all the way through the book - every word she uses drips with adoration, sometimes worship, sometimes a cooler respect, but always with unadulterated love. It was, for me, however, educational in terms of Smith's own artistic intent. I was surprised, given that I've always sensed an undercurrent of violence to Horses, to find that Smith was/is so much of a hippy. I was fascinated also by the way she considers herself a poet who happens to have rock musicians playing alongside her; not that I didn't know she's a poet - I have books of her poetry - but that she seems to have genuinely accidentally become a rockstar. Her entire approach to her own career is intriguing, and does in fact, from about halfway through the book, become the dominant interest.

Despite my sometime lack of tolerance for all things hippy-dippy (astrology, witchcraft, meditation etc - I was brought up with it and rebelled at an early age), I find Smith an engaging as well as profoundly talented artist and person, as well as edgier than I suspect she thinks she is. Just Kids is an extremely interesting and insightful book, and a wonderful record of the oh-so-dirty glamour that surrounded the Chelsea Hotel and New York in the seventies. Pass me my CBGBs tee-shirt...

* Driving the roads of the high eastern Alpujarras in the Sierra Nevada very nearly resulted in a re-enactment of that film's ending. I even had my headscarf at the ready...

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Literary Thespians

Ever wondered what actors read on set?

Anna Karina gazes through her false eyelashes, the epitome of French literary chic.

Gregory Peck is in more thoughtful mood...

...while even power cuts can't keep Sophia Loren from her newspaper.

James Dean's choice of article to read aloud seems to have sent Liz Taylor to sleep.

She could learn a thing or two about reading posture from Charles Laughton... could Audrey Hepburn, who may find her feet start to ache after a while.

And Clark Gable, while sitting comfortably, is perhaps a little obvious in his choice of material.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

The Glass Castle

There is very little I can say about this book, except that it is excellent. Simply put, it is the - not autobiography, it's not as dry as that - memoir of Jeannette Walls, whose parents drag their four children around the deserts of the western United States in a variety of clapped out cars, sleeping under the stars and scavenging in bins for food, all the time owning a perfectly good house in Phoenix in which they feel trapped and refuse to settle permanently. When they are small, this is an adventurous life that the kids love, but as they grow up, and as winters and sojourns with odd relatives - odd in every sense, and in some senses, utterly distasteful - get harder, life becomes increasingly unbearable for the siblings. But mum is an artist, dad an inventor (who never actually builds any of his inventions, though there are blueprints aplenty) and their philosophy of life sits uncomfortably with the modern world. The children are taught independence, astrophysics and how to identify the flammability of different strata of coal, all worthy subjects, but there comes a point where their health and wellbeing is being sacrificed for the selfishness of two adults who will not accept responsibility. There are heartbreaking moments - their father's alcoholism leads to his stealing shamelessly from the children what little they have, and the moment where, having not eaten in days, they discover their mother hiding a huge bar of chocolate under her blanket, will make tears spring into your eyes. But this is not a wallowing book, and is long long way from being a 'misery memoir'. These kids are tough. And they somehow, against all the odds, force themselves into becoming successful and - I hope - happy, grownups. Or three of them do. There is one sacrifice to their upbringing.

Walls has an engaging tone and her writing is sparing. Emotion does not run deep in her words: instead she allows the stories to tell themselves and for us to put our own feelings into them. The Glass Castle has an episodic quality reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird, in which chapters and incidents can stand alone, although if I were shelving it with an 'if you like this, you'll love...' tag, I'd put it next to Alexandra Fuller's Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight.

I found The Glass Castle almost impossible to put down - truly - and highly recommend it, particularly if, like me, you are currently so bogged down in other things that you need a book that will transport you with little effort on your part.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Wish Her Safe At Home

I'd never come across Wish Her safe At Home before, and I saw it lying on a table as I was on my way to pay for a few others I'd never come across before at Daunt Books in London. The cover pulled me towards it - I love a bit of vintage glamour, and the title was intriguing. I started reading John Carey's introduction, about how he had unsuccessfully championed it when it was longlisted for the Booker years ago, and so, always a fan of the underdog, I decided this needed reading. Oh, and it's about a middle aged woman going mad, so naturally, it appealed on that level too...

It is an uncomfortable book, let's get that straight from the get-go. It niggles at the reader, not least because there is the fear, I think, in all of us, that we sometimes skate on the slippery boundary between imagination and insanity. What makes Wish Her safe At Home stand out as a study of increasing madness is that it is written from the point of view of the person going mad. Rachel tells her story, oblivious herself to her increasing retreat from reality, and so we, reading between the lines, begin to cringe at what are clearly, to start with at least, minor social faux pas, but which become a full blown Baby Jane-style breakdown.

There comes a point when we realise that Rachel's internal monologue may no longer be quite so internal as she thinks - that she may in fact be saying aloud a lot of the things she believes she is thinking. Conversely, there are times when she claims to have said something, but we are not so sure that she actually did. And herein lies Stephen Benatar's genius. There is a scene in church, enough to make you want to read with your head beneath your bedcovers, so appallingly embarrassing is it, in which Rachel comments throughout the sermon, throwing in opinions and questions of her own, completely inappropriately. But how much of it is said aloud, and how much is merely Rachel reciting the witty retorts she wishes she had been brave enough to make, is impossible to work out. And this is where the fear factor comes in - we begin to question ourselves whether or not we really keep our internal monologues inside, or whether perhaps, occasionally, we let slip the odd comment not meant for other ears...and, once begun, how quickly might that soon might something we have created in our imaginations begin to spill over into our real lives, leaving us spinning in the no-man's-land between the tangible and the fantastical, with no way of reaching the frontline of either, and therefore never knowing what is actual and what is make-believe. In short, Rachel makes us wonder how close we are ourselves to insanity.

Wish Her Safe At Home took me a little while to get into - though once its secret is revealed, it becomes sickeningly compelling. Not much happens to start with. We become acquainted with Rachel as she inherits a house from a recently deceased Aunt and moves in, alone. She decorates, has the garden landscaped, and becomes good friends with the young gardener and his wife and new baby. And here, again, Benatar's genius rears its complicated head: to what extent are this couple genuine, we find ourselves asking, and how much is an attempt to take advantage of a lonely middle-aged (seemingly wealthy) woman, with no children to inherit her estate... They ask her to be godmother to their son, and our hackles rise. We are protective of Rachel and suspicious of the motives of others. Benatar manipulates our emotions with precision. Small incidents begin to worry us - did she really say that to the chemist? Is she starting to see things? Her confidence blossoms, which is at first wonderful...but then it starts to take her over and she becomes rude and bolshy, though also painfully hilarious. She contradicts herself. She had told us at the beginning that she was a plain child, but now is telling us that even her school teachers were jealous of her beauty... We daren't read on. But we must read on.

This book has the slightly camp quality that so often accompanies the artistic portrayal of a woman breaking down. It references A Streetcar Named Desire, Miss Jean Brodie, Miss Havisham... one could easily add the Beales of Grey Gardens and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane to the list. What is both sad and beautiful is that Rachel herself identifies with these characters. She sees them as heroines, pioneers, romantic peers. It is heartbreaking that at the end, she is delighted, rather than devastated, to be able to quote Blanche Dubois with reference to her own situation: "I depend upon the kindness of strangers," she says, happily, and promptly replaces her bonnet and turns her face from reality for good.

Monday, 7 June 2010

London bookshops

A recent jaunt to England's fair capital found me spending a fortune in two wonderful bookshops. The first, Persephone, will be familiar to many already.

It was a real joy to spend half an hour wandering amongst the piles and boxes of titles so familiar to me from the catalogue and magazine, and I found it interesting that I came away with not only one title I had wanted for ages (The Journal of Katherine Mansfield) but also one I'd never really considered before (RC Sherriff's The Hopkins Manuscript). I could easily have purchased ten books on the spot, but with my TBR pile growing faster than I am able to read them, I forced myself to leave it at two. I did, however, also buy a Persephone bag, which now swings rakishly from my bike handlebars, and I very nearly bought a notebook too - imagine, the classic Persephone design, filled with one's own scrawlings! But again, I have a box full of as-yet-virgin notebooks, and couldn't justify another.

Two Persephone books I wanted are currently being re-printed, so the aim is to get the two I bought read so that I can make a guilt-free return visit in the summer.

The shop itself is lovely, achieving the perfect balance between modern-vintage (think Cath Kidston without the garish flowers) and Dickensian curiosity shop. Of course, the books themselves are the stars, and I can never seem to quite get over the beauty of the dove grey and ivory design: to see them piled in such quantities rather than sitting sadly isolated amongst less considered paperbacks was a joy, even a little overwhelming. Clara and Nicola carried on the business of the company in the back half of the shop, and the whole place had an idyllic air of industry teamed with relaxation; despite the pouring rain outside, a beautiful browse.

After coffee and a few minutes admiring my purchases (seriously, is anything more beautiful than a brand new Persephone?), I headed into Marylebone (ostensibly for shoes) and fell into Daunt Books.

What a treat! The very first shelf inside the door displayed The Letters of Sylvia Beach, which I have looked for unsuccessfully in several other establishments, so I knew I was in for a little taste of heaven here. This was followed with the discovery of Dreamers of a New Day by Sheila Rowbotham, about women who pioneered social change during the 1890-1920 period. I must have typed another 10 titles into my phone as I wandered round this unique bookshop, and came away with Stephen Benatar's Wish Her Safe At Home, Chris Cleave's Little Bee and the autobiographical The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls.

In theory, Daunt is a travel bookshop, but it is, as its own publicity states, so much more than that. The Travel section itself houses not only guides and language books, but also fiction from or set in the country or area, and I could have spent hours - days, even - just moving round the world, browsing titles.

After this, I had planned on visiting Lutyens and Rubenstein in Notting Hill (which had been closed the day before when I had been in the vicinity), but having already bought so many beautiful new books, I couldn't risk it, and am saving that delight till my next trip Londonwards.

And to think, up here I have only Waterstones...

Sunday, 23 May 2010

A Most Unnecessary Post

I feel it must look as though I've either stopped reading or have taken to reading things too embarrassing to admit to, and though I try to avoid those "sorry I haven't posted in a while" posts, I can't really excuse this one on any other grounds. This blog isn't supposed to be a diary, and it also isn't supposed to have a particular theme, or genre of book that's written about, but the fact is that whilst my reading time, as noted previously, has diminished somewhat due to exam and coursework essay marking, the books I've been reading are probably not going to find much of an audience here. I began House of Leaves, having been given it as a present, but it's text-book size and shape and I just can't carry it around with me, so I've relegated it to the 'summer holiday' pile. I've just read Everything: A Book About Manic Street Preachers, which is a truly great rock biog (in which my old fanzine is mentioned, heartwarmingly), but it's 11 years out of date and unless you're really into the Manics, not of great interest. And if you are into the Manics, you probably read it 11 years ago... So now I'm just grabbing things off my shelves, thing that are easy-to-read and small enough to fit in my bag. I've read half The Virgin Suicides in the garden today, which fitted perfectly as the weather has made everything look like Sofia Coppola's beautiful film version, and almost made me wish I was blonde again. That finished, I think I may head into Elaine Feinstein's biography of Ted Hughes, about which I will make a detailed and 'proper' comment. There, as I said; a most unnecessary post.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Wherever I lay my book...

Its exam time, and my teaching workload is so enormous that by the time I crawl - often literally - into bed and open my book, I manage little more than a paragraph before my head is drooping... so I grab reading time wherever and whenever I can at the moment. Five minutes at the end of lunchtime, ten with a cup of tea when I get home... Where and when do you snatch those precious reading moments in a hectic day?

Do you curl up under the duvet...

...or risk dropping your book in the water?

Do you prefer, like Greta Garbo, to be alone...

...or are you more comfortable surrounded by your friends...

... or your family?

Do you like reading outdoors...

...or would you rather be inside..?

Do you usually succeed, against all the odds, in finding a few golden minutes for reading?

And do you even care where you are, so long as you're comfy and you've got a book?