Sunday, 28 October 2012

The 'Alberta' Trilogy

I can't even remember how I came across these little gems, but as winter spreads her frosty cloak over the north of England once more, I turn to comfort reads: for me, these are snowy reads, cold reads, Northern and Eastern European reads.  Alberta and Jacob, Alberta and Freedom and Alberta Alone are a trilogy of loosely veiled autobiographical novels by Cora Sandel, and follow the life of the eponymous heroine from her native Norway to Paris and back again through the late Edwardian period.  Alberta is not easy to like - perhaps she reminds me too much of myself, the girl with a thousand dreams who sits around waiting for life to happen to her instead of setting out to happen to life. But then, I think that part of Alberta's popularity (the books are essential reading for all young woemn in Scandinavia, I believe) stems from the dichotomy of her striking individuality and her role as an everygirl.  Like so many of us, she is simultaneously extraordinary and utterly unremarkable.

Only the former, though, is true of the books themselves.  Even in translation, Sandel's beautiful turn of phrase melts across every icy page, and her descriptions of the tiny, isolated village in which Alberta is brought up and from which she longs to escape are breathtakingly realised.  You will snuggle ever deeper into your duvet as you read of Alberta's constant sneaking into the kitchen for forbidden cups of coffee around which to warm her frozen fingers, and the glacial tragedy that befalls her parents in the second book will have you hugging your hot water bottle tighter and tighter.

If the sudden change in temperature this weekend has left you craving something fittingly literary, allow me to nudge you gently in the direction of these fabulous Norwegian classics.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

What Every Woman Should Know

This is a delightful book, found amongst the magazines in WHSmiths, stuffed full of articles and images from The Daily Mail in the 1930s. It has 'household hints' (such as how to repair a suede golf jacket that has ripped at the shoulder); recipes ('What You Can Do With Salmon'), fashion tips ('How I Spend My Dress Allowance') and beauty pointers, all given with the tone of a slightly impatient school nurse. As amusing - and possibly even useful - as some of these hints are, it is without doubt the images for which one buys What Every Woman Should Know, and they really are stunning. The pages are thick and shiny, and I have a feeling lots of these photos are going to end up on my walls; the section on hats is to die for.

As my banner (and the fact that I was given a gramophone for my birthday recently) might indicate, I am a bit of a retro queen, and the 1930s, that Mitford heyday, is one of my favourite eras. If you, too, are fascinated by the daily glamour of the period in which our modern world began, this is an absolute must.

The Snow Child

When I was little, I had a book called Fairytales from around the World. The only one I can still clearly remember was about a childless couple who build a snow girl, and the girl comes to life and is a daughter to them. I think she fell in love, though with whom I do not know, and I know she melted at the end when she jumped over a bonfire. I am fairly sure she was called Snowflake in this version, and the story itself may well have been eponymous.

The only other thing I recall about it was the main illustration, which, in my head at least, was by Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone, and was exquisite.

When I discovered, a mere few weeks ago, that a new young author had written a novel based on this Russian fairytale, and that this book apparently created a living winter landscape in which to place the snow girl, I knew I had to read it.

Eowyn Ivey has, sensibly, moved the setting of her story to the Alaska she knows so well, and sets it in the 1920s, when the railroad was just beginning to creep across the American wilderness, but when most frontier areas were still isolated and people depended very much on the land for survival.

The Snow Child is beautifully written ("Words lay like granite boulders in her lap and when at last she spoke, each one was heavy and burdensome and all she could manage.") and is undoubtedly a novel of place. As with Wuthering Heights or Susan Fletcher's Corrag (its name changed in paperback first to the somewhat embarrassing Witch Light and then to the even worse The Highland Witch), the environment is as much a character as are the people. The Snow Child is wild and cold and lonely; the plot is sparse and padded with great snowdrifts of description which never feel overwrought, but which create a sense of calm and silence, just as snowfall itself does. I read it with the narrative voice of Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone rattling through my head, though in terms of accent I know that's deeply inaccurate.

My only criticism would be that I did not become as emotionally involved as I was expecting or would have liked. The characters are all well-drawn and likeable, but I never felt any strong connection to them. This may be because spring is in the air, and this is a winter story - perhaps I would have invested more had I been glancing up at my window expecting to see snow. It is, however, a beautifully bound and presented book (in hardback at least) and I was proud to be seen in public reading it.

I loved the clever use of punctuation - or rather, the clever absence of it - when Faina speaks; there are no speechmarks, so that her words blend into the description and she seems physically, on the page, to be a part of the landscape to which she belongs. It is also possible that I have learned how to gut a fish - maybe even a swan - from this earthy novel!

In summary - as a first novel, it is certainly an accomplishment, and though it perhaps lacks a certain weight, I would recommend it as a snuggly bedtime book. With animal innards.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

The Sense of an Ending

This was literally pushed into my hand by a colleague I barely know, who said, "I think you'll love this," and left it with me. Initially, I sighed, as I have an ever-growing pile of books to read already, and really didn't need another. However, I took the wee thing home and placed it on top of the pile by my bed.

It so happened that I was, shortly after, heading for two days in London to see War Horse and knew that I would finish my current read on the train. I therefore wanted something light to pack, so in went The Sense of an Ending. (Yes, this might be where a Kindle comes in useful, but I will always and forever argue the other side - in this instance, not having a Kindle meant I read a book I might not have done otherwise and would therefore have missed out on.)

It is short. It is also probably worthy of the Booker, though I am no judge of judgements; it's good. It's a good book. Let me clarify 'good' - it's enjoyable, clever, re-readable, quotable. You sense a 'however', however... and the 'however' is that I simply don't have very strong feelings about it. If you were to ask me about it in six months time, I doubt I would be able to tell you very much at all, except the 'sense' that it has left me with. Ah. Perhaps therein lies its genius...

It is a book of slow reveals. When I started it, I'll be honest and say I had little to no idea what it was actually about. Essentially, then, it is about a man, retired, remembering a particular time in his life, and then being left a surprising bequest that begins to change his understanding of past events. We learn as Tony, our protangonist - or rather, not protagonist, for, as he would argue, he has never actually made anything happen, but simply allowed life to happen to him - learns, so there is no dramatic irony, no sense of superiority for the reader.

Tony, however - another however - does not do himself justice. He compares his own way of approaching life disfavourably to that of the philosophical thinkings of his friend Adrian, and yet this is a deeply philosophical work. It is as much a treatise on time and memory as it is a story, and equally a lesson for us all in the need for kindness, even when kindness might be the last emotion we feel.

There is much in the first half of the novella that reminds me of The History Boys; some sections even feel like lost scenes from that play, such are the questions posed and answers given in school lessons. It also reminded me - or at least, the characters reminded me - of some of the works of Iris Murdoch, particularly The Black Prince and The Sea The Sea, though without the vastness of the mistakes made by the protagonists ( and her characters really are that, in the truest sense of the word) in those books. More simply put? One Day for the educated older members of the reading public, perhaps.

The Sense of an Ending is a worthy book, an enjoyable book, an easy yet thoughtful book; it is a good book, and leaves one with...well, the sense that one has read and understood it.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Marx my words...

Groucho understood books and readers:

“I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.”

"From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Someday, I intend reading it."

“Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read.”

2011 in books

Rule 1: Never apologise for blogging absences. Check.
Rule 2: Come back with something fast and jaunty.

So here it is. Lulu's fast and jaunty trip through books read over the past year, in order, with six-words-or-fewer reviews:

Cloud Atlas. Beguiling. What they say is true.
Florence and Giles. Fabulous narrative voice. KS4 love it!
Room. A present. Not my thing.
Prisoner of the Inquisition*. Disappointing.
Out of Shadows*. Powerful; political; really for kids?
The Bride's Farewell*. Thomas Hardy for teenagers. Gorgeous.
White Crow*. Typical Sedgwick - doesn't quite work.
The Tiger's Wife. Recommending it to everyone.
The Edge of Physics. Understood most of it, happily.
The Chymical Wedding. A bit Iris Murdoch.
Just a Man. I had my reasons...
Miss Ranskill Comes Home. It's Persephone, though not my favourite.
The Stranger's Child. Thought I'd love it. Didn't.
Dusty Answer. Evocative, claustrophobic, 1930s bildungsroman.
Le Grand Meaulnes. See above. But French.
The Parasites. Continuing my du Maurier reading list.
Picnic at Hanging Rock. Film better.
Bleak House. Lived inside it. For long time.
Infinite Variety: Marchesa Casasti. Where's she been all my life?
Ice Road. Couldn't quite get into it.
Alberta and Jacob. Wonderful.
The Journals of Robert Falcon Scott. Yes, I cried when Oates left...
Pure. Enjoyable and easy.
Gillespie and I. Cop-out court verdict.

*read for Carnegie Shadowing Group at school