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...