Thursday, 29 December 2011

A good book is the best of friends...

... the same today and forever.

Martin Tupper (1810-89) wrote this in an essay 'On Reading' in 1838 - I've got it from my fantastic new Christmas present of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. I am LOVING this book, its so browsable and read-aloud-able.

I actually think he's wrong in that
a) real people and good friends are WAY better than books (except maybe in the middle of the night when it is a bit anti-social to phone someone if you just want some company or to pass the time)
b) good friends change over time and growing up together is part of what makes for a good friend and a good friendship
c) books change over time - some of the classics I read as a teenager are completely different now.

This Christmas I've re-remembered how many great (real) friends I've got, and I'm thankful for them. I'll be trying to spend more time with them next year - and more time with the shelf-bound 'friends' too.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

She was a woman in a crowd, surrounded but alone

The Report by Jessica Francis Kane is a superb, heartbreaking, human read. It's a fiction-based-on-fact retelling of the 1943 disaster at the Bethnal Green tube station/bomb shelter. 173 people died on the stairs into the shelter, crushed to death in the crowd on a night when no bombs were dropped on London.

Although we know from the blurb (or general historical knowledge) about what happened that night, the structure of the book allows the story of the alert, the rush, the crush and the aftermath to develop in parallel with our growing understanding about how it happened and the cumulative stories of individuals and their individual actions which contributed for good or ill. The author presents each of them as rounded individuals, and the magistrate appointed to investigate and write the report takes a similar approach. 

We hear from the warden who put a brighter light bulb onto the stairs, the various council bureaucrats who hadn't approved funding for a handrail, the police man who chose to stop a group of small boys for playing with torches rather than hurrying to his post at the shelter entrance, the clerk transfixed by the green soles of a girl's shoes, a harassed mother hurrying to the shelter with her daughters.  The result was a human report, put together with ceremony and sympathy, and written to explain, understand and heal. 


There's a whole separate strand about telling the truth. The magistrate did not apportion blame - and chose to omit a crucial detail about how the crush started because he was worried about tensions in the community. The Government also refused to provide information about whether new guns had been fired that night (which might have sounded like bombs landing and exacerbated the crush), and sought to suppress the report, because it was worried about morale in the community. In the individual case of the magistrate and told through a sympathetic point of view the decision to suppress information seems sensitive, decent and constructive - but a similarly motivated approach by the Government seems patriarchal, patronising and obstructive. Interesting.

I read this book because two reviews - by Rachel at booksnob and Darlene at roses over a cottage door - both posts are well worth a read, as is this article. I loved this book, and am about to start to press it on everyone I know.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Autumn sunshine

Autumn is my favourite month. I love the back-to-school excitement of a new year, new pens, a clean new book. I love the colours of the leaves and the sense of the season spreading through the city's streets and pavements. Most of all though, I love the days when the air is cold, the sky is a darker blue than summer and the heat of the sun on your back is coming from a lower angle. Autumn sunlight is a different colour from summer sun, and it catches things looking different.

"There is a harmony
In autumn, and a lustre in its sky,
Which through the summer is not heard or seen,
As if it could not be, as if it had not been!"

- Percy Bysshe Shelley

Ten books I've bought but not yet read

Here goes

  1. The Leopard - not my usual thing, but recommended by a book group friend who said it's stayed with her for weeks since she read it. 
  2. The Odd Women - bought because of an intriguing review, and because Darlene is about to start reading it.
  3. Perfect Lives - my book group choice for December.
  4. To the North - I've been looking for it for ages because I loved The Last September so much, and have read most of her other stuff. This review prompted me to look again, and I'm really looking forward to it. 

Friday, 11 November 2011

Two for tea

This week's weekword is 'tea' - and it sparked two thoughts for me

Firstly - the lovely Orla Kiely designed fair trade tea dress from peopletree (not cheap, but move fast when there's a sale on and there's some lovely stuff...)

Orla Kiely Tea Dress

And secondly - what a regionalism 'tea' is. To me, it's my evening meal at home - also known as dinner if I'm being a bit formal and eating out, or supper if it's really late (or a second tea!!). Being brought up a Mancunian means that I eat my dinner at lunchtime (!), and a mid-afternoon cuppa and snack is a cup of tea, not 'tea'. What a source of discussion in my tipsy undergrad days...

Weekword this week came from the Gift Shed - follow the link to see some gorgeous photos and get a list of other participants.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Revved up...

Rev is back on telly - I cannot say enough about how great this programme is. Warm, funny, affectionate, hopefully not too realistic. Ralph Fiennes as the Bishop of London, Olivia Colman as the long-suffering and brilliantly funny Alex. Watch it, tape it, iplayer it, whatever. 

Monday, 7 November 2011

We deal in lead, friend

Each year, my book group chooses a book from the Booker shortlist - we pick before the winner is announced, and with an eye to an interesting read rather than trying to pre-empt the judges.

This year, we went for The Sister's Brothers. It was refreshingly different from our normal reads in its focus on a relationship between men, a masculine point of view and a male author, and most of the group found it readable and enjoyable. 

Those people who'd been brought up watching westerns 'on a Saturday afternoon, while your mum did the ironing and you were pairing socks' enjoyed it much more than others (and maybe it says something about the target audience that most of the quotes on the back cover are from authors of other westerns). We had a good debate about whether the book had 'literary merit' in its innovative characters and black comedy. Although I quite enjoyed Eli's narrative, with its emphatically partial view of the world, I'm not convinced it should have made the Booker shortlist. 

I've already read and loved Jamrach's Menagerie, and quite enjoyed Snowdrops (though again, great story not sure it had the lasting impact that I'd expect from a Booker candidate). I normally try to read the whole shortlist - any suggestions for what next?

Quote is Steve McQueen in the Magnificent Seven (1960)

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Our necessities never equal our wants

said Benjamin Franklin, apparently. It speaks to me at the moment, as does Oscar Romero's admonition to us to "aspire not to have more, but to be more".

I think lots of people might argue this is a feature of modern, capitalist, aspirational society and part of how we got our economy into such a state. I don't necessarily disagree - and I don't want to lose the moral challenge to an assumption that consuming more will make me/things 'better'. I used to have the postcard above on my bedroom door as a teenager, it's now framed and shortly to go on the wall of my grown-up house.

But I do also think that wanting more than we have (and more than we think we can get) has been a powerful force for change, and often for making things better, easier, fairer.

I read constantly...

"... in cars, walking the dog, lying in bed with my legs resting up against the wall, yoga-style. At any given time, I am in the middle of several books at once, my place marked by whatever scrap of paper happens to be close by, whether it's my latest credit card bill or one of my daughter's crayon drawings. My bookshelves are three books deep, and piles of books spread and teeter on every open surface of my home. If reading has always been a journey of imagination, a means of escape, it has also been, perhaps at least as importantly, a way of absorbing the intricate complexities of life and experience."

Now, minus the dog, yoga and daughter, this speaks deeply to me. I find it hard to face cleaning my teeth without something to read as I do it. I'm only about 40 pages into Reading Women by Stephanie Staal, but so far I'm really enjoying getting to know the author. Thanks to Litlove for putting me onto it...

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Commuters ahoy!

When did you last miss your stop because of reading, and what was the book? It is years since I've missed a stop, but this morning I did that terrible thing of realising we'd arrived, leaping from my seat, stumbling through everyone else to arrive at the doors just as they closed. No chance of pretending anything other than the truth, and I'd lost my rare-as-something-very-rare seat! Had to smile, chuckle, do body language to symbolise 'what a fool I am' and then poke my nose back into the kindle which was the root cause of it all. Gah. 

And the book? I'm reading the Crimson Petal and the White, was expecting a bit of light historical fiction, and in fact its the most porn-esque book I think I've ever read but with a blindingly brilliant narrative voice. I just love the way the narrator addresses the reader directly, switches to narrate a character's thoughts, surmises what the reader should be thinking and then switches back to ticking us off, telling us to pay attention, telling us it's about to get good...

Other reads over the weekend - Chris Mullin 'A very British coup' had me chortling at the descriptions of how the civil service works (especially Private Offices, Permanent Secretaries and No.10) but the plot seemed thin and dated, compared to Yes Minister and/or Thick of It. And I whipped my way through Love Virtually by Daniel Glattauer, an epistolary novel via email, which really made the most of the anonymity of email, and the way that we construct personalities from the tone and language of the emails we receive from people...

Friday, 21 October 2011

Always remember you're unique - just like everyone else

There's nothing like commuting by tube to help you get through books at a bit of pace. Even when it's crammed, a shortish person can always find space to open a paperback and make yourself enough mental space to escape from the madness.
I've whipped my way through The Wisdom of Crowds (a slightly dated book about how and when markets work, and how market-type approaches could be applied to other decisions) and Them (Jon Ronson doing his Louis-Theroux-esque thing with a range of extremists - and bringing out their common fight against a 'New World Order'). 

Good, interesting, easy reads - engaged my brain a bit and gave me a few anecdotes to tell at work, but they aren't keepers. I picked them out of someone else's 'for the charity shop' pile - and they aren't long for my shelves.

Them: Adventures with Extremists by Jon…        The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are…

And I've just made a start on Chris Mullin's A Very British Coup - more anon.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

A bit of a dud

I finished A dud avocado today. 
The Dud Avocado.indd

It's really not great - there's not much of a plot, the lead character (Sally Jay Gorce) is pretty sketchy, and (a few images aside) the writing didn't stand out to me. The book's introduction suggests that Sally Jay's attitude to adult/Parisian life can be compared to Holden Caulfield's distrust of everything phoney - but for me the comparison doesn't stand up given the wasteland of difference in quality. 

A physically attractive book - but I wish I'd saved my dosh on this one... am I missing something?

Saturday, 15 October 2011

The Tortoise and the Hare

The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth…

I posted back in July about this year's set of gorgeous Virago Modern Classics - lovely hardbacks, bound in lovely printed fabrics. I read Molly Keane's 'Good Behaviour' during September, and have just finished Elizabeth Jenkins' 'The Tortoise and the Hare'.

The Tortoise and the Hare is a brilliant book. It's sharp and incisive about relationships and about the different expectations that men and women have of themselves and each other. And its full of plot, details, character, time and location - I'm sure it's a book I'll come back to again soon. 

The various characters each illustrate different approaches to their relationships - Imogen is a wealthy, attractive but aging woman who has based her confidence, pride and self-image on being attractive to men, her husband Evelyn is a successful and attractive barrister, older than his wife and with a complex set of expectations about her role. Blanche is the neighbour whose developing relationship with Evelyn disturbs and destroys the marriage - although to be fair, I find myself wondering about how good a partnership it could ever have been given Evelyn's patronising, disrespectful and often distant behaviour which limited Imogen's scope to think and act in her own right.

The book's architecture creates echos - Gavin (son of Imogen and Evelyn) follows his father's lead as the next generation treat some women with disdain while forming strong bonds with their peers; Imogen's relationship with a doctor friend (Paul Nugent) is based on their natural sympathies and excludes Paul's wife, paralleling the impact of Blanche's friendship with Evelyn; Zenobia is an extreme example of a beautiful and self-centred woman who expects to be adored for her looks.

Hilary Mantel's introduction explains her appreciation of the "close attention to the negotiations between men and women, and women and women" and recognises that although our way of life has changed enormously since the 1950s, many women will see aspects of themselves in both Blanche and Imogen. Carmen Callil's postscript argues the case for seeing Imogen as the tortoise - who will end up happy. For me, on my first reading, I saw Blanche as the tortoise with her slow but inevitably growing influence and relationship with Evelyn - but I'm hopeful that future readings might let me feel more optimistic for Imogen's future life.

I'd heartily recommend it as a good read. 

Monday, 12 September 2011

50 books - and then some

This is my fourth year of a fifty-book challenge - and for reasons that are mysterious to me, I'm well ahead of the pace. Normally I've managed 50-55 books, including last year an emergency pride-saving push over Christmas.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

No-one expects the French inquisition

On holiday in the Tarn last week, 29C kept me sitting in the shade from the moment I came in from the morning's baguette-foraging until about 4pm. While the others played by the pool, I kept my pale skin safe and my geeky brain entertained with some local history.

This area of the south-west of France was full of the Cathar heresy during C13 and into C14, people who rejected the Catholic church and opted instead to be 'good Christians'. I really enjoyed The Perfect Heresy, which sets the early C13 sieges and massacres in the context of wider history - the state of the Catholic church and competing popes setting up across Europe; rival powers with claims on the land (including the English King, the local Count of Foix and the tiny kingdom of France) and changes in society and technology. It's a compelling and vivid read, showing us how human the individuals were. And the descriptions of medieval sieges and burnings were truly horrendous.

And then I read Montaillou, which is a classic. Emmanuel La Roy Ladurie drew on the detailed records of the C14 Inquisition's interviews and interrogations of the population of this tiny village. It's a magnificent work of scholarship, with astounding levels of detail about the most minor aspects of life. My gripe is that it's a dated book - it reads like an academic study, taking different aspects of life thematically and marshalling the evidence for each section. I think a more modern history would have invested more focus in the stories of the families - it could still have kept different chapters to focus on different aspects of rural medieval life but would have been more plot and character-driven and so a more engaging read.

Both books came from Daunts - I love the way they arrange history and fiction by country, with the travel books. I'm not into the Dan Brown-type stuff on Cathars etc, and didn't manage to find any 'quality' fiction to read while there, so I'd welcome any other suggestions of books to read - whether about the area or more fiction set in medieval Europe.

Reading in the right place

There's very little beats a holiday read set in the same place that you're actually reading it. I enjoyed some Cathar history last week near Lavaur - and then came back to see that the Guardian's got writers to suggest books for ten holiday breaks.

I definitely fancy Egypt, Spain and Italy - for holidays and from the one-line summaries of suggested books...

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Getting back into the game

I've not posted anything in ages, though I have been skulking round plenty of other blogs and adding the odd comment (or planning to, which I'll try to catch up on this weekend). No real reason, other than sunshine and real world fun.

Anyway, I'm starting back again with a couple of fancy adverts I saw and thought others might fancy too.

Firstly, Virago Modern Classics have some new books out in gorgeous fabric-wrapped hardcover. I've not heard of most of them before, but I bought quite a few of the last lot based on attractiveness and a quick browse - and discovered some books and authors that I really really enjoyed. So I'm definitely going to look out for these and read a few pages.
Secondly, special deals on Persephone (see below) - buy three books and choose a free volume of short stories between now and the end of the month. Woo. Methinks my mum's birthday present's pretty much wrapped up now.

Summer Reading Offer

Dear Persephone Reader,

‘This funny, intelligent, deceptively low-key collection is long overdue’ wrote the Guardian last Saturday about the new audiobook version of our short story collection Good Evening, Mrs Craven read by Lucy Scott.

So we thought we would give a boost to some of our other short story collections that do not get so much attention.

If you buy three Persephone books as normal we will send you, completely free of charge, a copy of one of the following collections: Tell It to a Stranger (No. 15)The Montana Stories (No. 25)Minnie’s Room (No. 34)Tea with Mr Rochester (No. 44)The Casino (No. 48)The Woman Novelist and Other Stories (No. 64) or The Closed Door and Other Stories (No. 74).

Just write in the Additional Information box (below Shipping Information) which book you would like. Please note: this offer is valid from July 7th-31st and can only be used once.

Some people are unaccountably reluctant to read short stories. This is their chance to overcome that reluctance for ever!
Best wishes
from all at Persephone Books

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Ten bookmarks (or bookmark substitutes)

How do you mark your place in a book? I'm a sucker for bookmarks and buy 'proper' ones all the time - but when it comes down to it, and I have to stop reading in order to sleep, eat or actually start work, they're never to hand.

So I use all sorts of flat(ish) things:



And because I then normally leave my within-reach bookmark to live within the book, it almost becomes part of the book, tied into my memory of when I read it and what else was going on at the time.

How do you mark your place? Do you dog-ear?

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Someone At A Distance

I bought Someone At A Distance as the third of my latest Persephone '3 for a bit cheaper' deal. I was already committed to Round About A Pound and Few Eggs, and I'd really enjoyed They Were Sisters

I started the book a couple of weeks ago and finished it on my first day in Hay - and it didn't disappoint. A quick plot summary from Amazon: "Apparently a 'fairly ordinary tale about the destruction of a happy marriage,' Nina Bawden wrote in her Preface, yet 'it makes compulsive reading' in its description of an 'ordinary' family, husband commuting up to town, wife at home ('Ellen was that unfashionable creature, a happy housewife'). Disaster strikes when a young French woman visits (the scenes back in France are most beautifully described, with touches of Balzac or Maupassant) and calculatingly seduces the husband. He abandons everything for her; then there is no going back."

I loved the characterisation of the North family, and the way that Dorothy Whipple captures their happiness and relationships while also showing us their tics and flaws. And I found Louise loathsome but captivating - from the first moment we see her we know she's not a nice piece of work. Her seduction of Avery - and the end of his marriage to Ellen - is slow and specific, with key moments described in detail through one or both character's views. Although we know through the omniscient narration that Louise is playing a careful game and shifting her aims as she works out her options, as a reader I felt that there was no escape as each incident seemed to lead inexorably to the next. And maybe that is how Avery explained it to himself at first, because none of the individual actions/situations on their own were inexcusable - and many were inappropriate only because of the cumulative impact.

The book left me thinking about three quite different things.
1) Early on, the narrator compares Louise to Madame Bovary in her social ambitions and as I went on reading the book I found that echoes and parallels kept coming to mind. I've not been able to find any reviews on line which explore this properly with quotes and more sharp comparisons - but it sounds like an essay question just waiting to be set!

2) The book ends 'right' with Ellen back on her feet with a new home, kids happy and secure, and Avery and Louise miserable in each others' company. I found myself wondering about Ellen's final reaction - her sense of pleasure and pride that Avery misses her and is so evidently upset. I wondered about whether they would ever find a way to be together again, and whether I would think that a good or bad thing...

3) Nina Bawden's preface to the Persephone edition suggests that although the book was written and set after the Second World War, the overall tone has a sense of nostalgia which might better place the book in the prewar period. I've been wondering about whether that's true - or whether it's just that the big changes of post-war England had much less impact on wealthy country-dwellers. And I was very struck by how much has changed since the 50s in terms of women's lives - we don't have maids any more and we do expect to work - and often to have a career, with all the associated increases in independence and in hard work because we're still expected to keep house and home together.

There are some great reviews around, including on the Persephone Forum and from the Persephone Reading Weekend (Tuulenhaiven and BookGirl). I also thought that Carol Wallace's review picked on something important about how we feel about unpleasant characters when an author/narrator lets us see inside their worlds too. 

Friday, 3 June 2011

How to save your spine

No, not a post about posture while reading. Yes, a post about how to look after the spine of a paperback book - my university boyfriend taught me, and I'm now passing on the word. It only takes about a minute, and I don't think I've broken any spines since I learnt about it.

Get hold of your paperback - you need to do this before you read the book. Find a table or similar hard surface, and stand the book on its spine.

Take the front and back covers, one in each hand, and open them out onto the table. Leave all the pages still standing up. Use your thumb nails to smooth down the right-angled crease between the cover (now flat on the table) and the pages (still standing up). I think this works best if you do both sides at once. 

Pick up 10-15 pages from the front and back of the book and open them onto the table, leaving the rest of the pages still standing up. Repeat the thumbnail manoever, running both thumbs down the crease between the pages that you've opened and the rest which are still standing up.

Keep on doing this - taking 10-15 pages from each end, opening them, and running your thumbnails down to make sure they'll stay open - until you get to the middle.

Close the book again, smile, and start to read from p1. 

Any other tips for looking after books? Or for saving your spine while reading in stupid positions?

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Leaving Hay while the sun shines

And finally today the sun came out. Hay is glorious in the sunshine, and the countryside is beautiful under a big blue bowl of sky with fat fluffy white clouds.

My last couple of days involved fewer talks and more Sally. Yesterday I saw Orlando Figes talking about the Crimean war, including his take on how Russia's view of a 'near-abroad' coloured and still colours its self image and foreign policy.

Then off to the countryside to see Sally, Mr Sally and the small humans and animals. And back to Hay for Barry Cryer and Colin Sell - astoundingly old fashioned in format but done with bags of style and really funny. I particularly enjoyed a very up-to-the-minute version of 'Birds do it, bees do it...'.

And this morning Jim al Khalili blew my mind talking about Arabic Science. I studied the European C17 scientific revolution at Uni and knew we had learnt a huge amount from Arabic scholars who took up the baton when Europe went into the Dark Ages. The talk got my brain buzzing - fascinating content and delivered with humour, insight, perspective. This - with Adam Nicholson on King James Bible - is my Hay highlight.

My last Hay session was Roy Foster talking about Yeats and his inheritances. In essence, Yeats was one of a number of people to collect, anthologise and publish semi-forgotten and overlooked Irish stories and writers. He then went on to explicitly align himself with their work at the same time as creating new forms and new approaches himself. Made me long to reread my 6th form Yeats and to think again about writers of the time -including Le Fanu - with the benefit of wider context about ideas of vampires, evil fairies, and heaven and he'll being part of our world.

I've had a fantastic time in Hay, only wish I'd been able to see more because there are soooo many events I'd have liked to attend. I'm looking forward to getting home to a hot shower and comfy bed, to tidying up my blogging and seeing what other people saw, thought etc. And I'm really looking forward to next year...

Monday, 30 May 2011

Hay brained

Sunday turned out cold and windy, also pretty intellectual, starting with Meghnad Desai talking about India's formation as a multi-national nation. Interesting enough, but it's not really my thing.
Paul Nurse, Nobel prize-winner and President of the Royal Society talked about the differences between Milton and Darwin's view of creation. I found the presentation dry and hard work, but it really came to life as he started to define and champion scientific method and the importance of hypotheses which can be tested and refuted. The first question was long, convoluted and boring beyond belief but things picked up from there, with Prof Nurse respectfully disagreeing with a series of religious questions and arguing against 'Just So' stories which purport to explain a phenomenon without proper evidence.
My most stimulating session was Dambisa Mayo on the Prospect platform. She's a Zambian economist and argues that aid is fundamentally wrong and inhibits African development. I didn't agree with everything and there were several moments when I found her analysis simplistic or felt she was drawing false oppositions. But she had a different and provocative view, argued fluently. It was really stimulating to follow her argument and think at the same time about whether I agreed or not, why, what I'd want to query or challenge. A fantastic session.

Sunday, 29 May 2011


When God Spoke English was amazing this morning - told as a story full of context and characters, with constant reference to historical artefacts and quirky details. I like a speaker who knows his/her stuff and has a sense of humour - we had Sir Robert Cecil compared to Mandelson and someone else compared to Prescott as a Northern tough guy. Nice ending compared sections of the 1611 Bible against C17, C18, C19 and C20 versions. Even the questions were incisive and informative. I was completely absorbed all the way through and can't wait to read the book.

Second session was 'Cold Places' with Sue Flood (a nature photographer) showing pictures and talking about her work and career. Beautiful images.

And then the first half of Man U- Barca, followed by Sandi Toksvig and Sue Perkins. Glad we didn't stay to see Man U get beaten, and Sandi and Sue were funny but not amazing. Finally, beer and wine then a tiddly toddle back down to our field.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Hay Day

Our Yurt is brilliant - and even more so once made up with sheet, pillows and duvet. Wind and rainproof, which was good last night, and nice and close to the wood-fired pizza place.

My first Hay event was Simon Russell Beale and the Archbish. I felt a bit hard done by that the discussion was opened by someone from SPCK and then focussed on faith in Shakespeare's works. But it was actually quite interesting, if not very structured - a tour of the plays looking at soliloquy, guilt, change etc. 'Questions' were mostly self-important showings off with a query barely tacked on the end.

Then an hour on the grass with some Welsh cider and the last 100 pages of Someone at a Distance before double-physics in the shape of Prof John Barrow on universes. It's the second time I've gone for an eminent mathematician/physicist talking about big ideas. I'm not going to do it again - I don't know enough to be able to follow the abstract ideas, and they aren't populist enough to ground it all in imperfect analogies.

Lastly, Victor Gregg and 'Rifleman' was amazing. He's 94, born at the end of WW1, served in WW2 and saw an awful lot, then got caught up in espionage during the cold war. He was compelling, wry, heartfelt and considered - a fantastic session. I rushed off to buy the book and get it signed, and am really enjoying it so far.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Hi ho, hi ho

It's off to Hay we go. Rain and sun at once, wellies and factor 30 in the boot.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Hay - things I'm going to need

So it's time to start packing for Hay. Apart from clothes, toothbrush and shampoo, I'm going to be taking:

1) Duvet and pillows - a duvet feels so luxurious on an airbed, and so much more fun than sleeping bags. Has anyone ever tried a double sleeping bag? I think I'd feel confined and too close to each other - plus I always need to be able to stick a foot out to cool down...

2) Wellies - my first week in Hay it rained torrentially all day every day. I'd taken trainers and a pair of sandals. Wellies and welly socks transformed me from a being-brave-Brit into snug-as-a-bug-bookworm.

3) Suncream galore - because I'm both ginger and hopeful!

4) Book money - although to be honest, in previous years I've got lots of ideas for books I want to read, but saved buying them until later. Also food money because I'm quite up for all the fancy local organic sourced blah blah blah - as well no doubt stopping by the curry shop and chip shop at some stage.

5) A bag of books to donate to Oxfam - they've got a special raffle going, and I'm wondering if this is the moment to finally commit to getting rid of some of the duplicate books that the Man and I brought together when we first moved in. Obviously it'll be his copies that go ;-)

6) Plastic wine glasses - who cares about other picnic stuff, as long as we can drink red wine from a plastic glass while looking out at the sunset with aforementioned bag of chips.

7) CDs for the car, because it's a long way to Wales.

8) Wind up radio - because even on hols I don't want to miss out on the Today programme.

9) Birthday presents for the man - it's his birthday while we're away, and so I've got to make sure we take presents not only from me, but also from our respective mums. Both of whom delegated purchasing and wrapping to me - but did at least write the gift tags in their own handwriting.

10) Chargers for phone and laptop - I love that all the cafes let you charge up, and that our camping field has an electric tent for hairdryers, straighteners (yes, really. Mostly for teenagers I think) and also for phones. How on earth did we cope in the olden days?

Anyone else off to Hay? What are you taking? What've I forgotten?

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Irma Voth by Miriam Toews

Irma Voth is a nineteen year old Mennonite woman in Mexico. She's estranged from her family and her narco husband has left her. Then a film crew arrives and shakes things up even more. There are good summaries of the story here and here.

I thought this was going to be a plot-driven book about a reclusive community and the disruption and attraction of outsiders with a different way of life. It's not - it's character and language that makes the book special.

4 down, 6 to go

Just over a month ago I posted a list of 10 books on my 'to read' list. I've now read four of them:
mail (1280×960)
And I've also read Irma Voth, reread American Wife (we did have a great book group discussion - lots to say about it, and a big discussion about compromise in relationships) and I've almost finished Major Pettigrew's Last Stand.

mail (1280×960)
Quite a varied month's reading - with prize winners and big classics as well as a book blurbed as 'the perfect holiday read'. Round about a Pound a Week is the oldest of the books (first published 1913), and the next oldest in this stack is American Wife (2008).

I wonder how many of the books that are currently sold as literary fiction will still be read in 100 years time?

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Catharsis is a brilliant concept for bookish teenagers

I remember being taught about catharsis. I was in Year 9, and we had just finished reading Macbeth (literally - all the way through to sixth form my teachers chose to have us read books aloud in class). Looking back, I think catharsis was an offering to those of us who'd been getting bored, reading ahead during class or at home, and generally getting itchy about the waste of time. It  was one of the first technical literary terms I learnt, and for about six months I used it all the time, about telly, books, films and even rows with my brothers.

At the time, I thought about catharsis in terms of getting things in the open and enjoying big angsty emotions and the chance to work them through. I liked, and expected to feel better because I actively enjoyed the emotions and the validation of them being displayed and provoked through literature. 

I'm more grownup these days, and less into big displays of emotion - so for me catharsis is now less about refreshing and topping up my emotional stocks, but more about cleansing, sorting and emptying out. I expect to feel more tired and looser in my body, and to feel better because I've emptied out some stress, frustration or whatever. It's not something I go actively looking for most of the time - but there are some books, and some music that I know will do it for me. 

Sally posted on 'catharsis' because it resonates with her at the moment. I'm hoping she's feeling emptier soon.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Hay - 2 weeks to go

So with two weeks to go

- there's now an 'official' Hay blogger - Horatio Clare. I'm loving the energy of his early blog posts - a bit longer posts than a lot of blogs I read, but full of beans and a not-usual viewpoint so I'll be keeping an eye on what he's got to say. I'm also going to try to post myself during the festival, but it'll be power-point and wi-fi dependent so no promises.

- I've somehow managed to end up with tickets for two things on Saturday night. Sandi Toksvig and Sue Perkins being hilarious, or the Champions League final and the hope of double glory for Man U. I want us to do one, The Man favours the other - we both want to do the same thing (whichever that might be). Let negotiations commence.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

One Book, Two Book, Three Book, Four... and Five!

I've picked this up via CristinaVerity and Darlene - who in turn took it from Simon (who's illustrated his post with lovely photos). I'd love to know what other people's five books are - pop a link in the comments if you've done this one...

The book I'm currently reading

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

- Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. It's taken me more than a week, and I put most of that down to the fact it's a physically big and hardback book, so it's a bigger deal to cart in and out of work and it's harder to find a comfy position to read it in bed. I'm enjoying it a fair bit - the complicated characters, the echoes and themes that resonate. But with 70 pages to go, I've not yet clocked why it's the next/latest Great American Novel. 

The last book I finished

Annabel: A Novel by Kathleen Winter

- Annabel, and I posted a brief review here.

The next book I want to read

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

- The Finkler Question - I've read the rest of the Booker shortlist, and think I'm good and ready for the winner now. I hope it's good, because I enjoyed Long Song and Room but found the others a bit meh, really. 

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

- I'm also going to be rereading American Wife in the next week or so - having pressed it on my book group girls, I want to make sure I'm really well prepped with some good questions and thoughts to prompt the chat. 

Thursday, 5 May 2011

So what initially attracted you to these cheap seats to see two mega-famous actors on stage?

Slightly late post about the Children's Hour which Kate and I saw on Monday night at the Comedy Theatre.
The Children's Hour tickets
What attracted me? Well - I think the title says it all. It's not a play I'd heard of and the asking price for tickets was around £60. But two things sealed the deal:
a) the chance to see the astoundingly attractive Keira Knightley (best role ever - probably Bend it Like Beckham) and Elizabeth Moss (most famous as Mad Men's Peggy, but will always think of her as Zoe Bartlet) and
b) Kate's discovery of cheaper seats with restricted view. Turns out the restricted view was barely anything - especially given my tolerance for £5 seats at the ROH. 

So we settled in for the show. And it's true the play is a bit clunky in places. It's also true the American accents went alarmingly wrong at times, deforming into posh Brit or bizarrely mangled vowels. But  I really enjoyed it.

The play is set in the thirties, built around two female friends and has an almost entirely female cast-list "When a troubled teenager starts to spin a web of deceit, all around her are soon caught up in it.  Karen Wright (Keira Knightley) and Martha Dobie (Elisabeth Moss) have worked for years to establish their all-girls boarding school, and now, with the school flourishing and Karen on the verge of marriage, their lives and loves finally appear secure. However, when malicious student Mary runs away from the school and seeks to avoid being sent back, she draws on hearsay, gossip, and her own imagination, to concoct a story that threatens the school, the marriage, and their entire futures. "

The plot was captivating - and Mary was spell-binding in her manipulation and bullying of the girls in her class. It made me think of 'We need to talk about Kevin' in the way that some adults saw straight through her lies and others were caught up - and Bryony Hannah was amazingly convincing as a young teenager, uncomfy in her skin but very confident in her own powers and with just an edge of vulnerability that left me twitching with anger at her and a slight worry that maybe there was something going on offstage that excused or explained her.

I also liked that it was a play full of women, and that the drama was driven by lies and their impact on a small community and on relationships - rather than by women bitching about each other and competing for men (or with men). 

There are several good reviews from when the play opened, including in the Independent, and the Stage. There's also some fairly trenchant critiques of the play itself as well as the performances. I'm really glad to have seen it - and them - for what I think was a fair price. 

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

April's reading round-up

I've not reviewed any of my reading this month - and I'm not motivated to write properly considered posts for any of the books. But here's a quick round-up:

8) Round about a Pound a Week - I first added it to my TBR list during Persephone Reading Weekend, then moved it up the list to make sure I've read it before Hay so that I can discuss with the lovely Sally. I'm about 150 pages in, finding the writing a bit dry but the content and argument shocking and provocative. Makes me think of Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier, and also of Polly Toynbee's Hard Work which I read when I first moved to London. 

7) Annabel - I thought this was superb. Again, it wasn't the first Orange longlister to leap out of the list and entice me, but after picking up and putting down a copy on several different bookshop trips (in part captivated by the astounding cover photo and a serendipitous link to something I'd read on Jezebel about androgynous models), I decided to give it a go. The story is of a child born in 1970s Labrador, his childhood and adolescence as a boy and young man (Wayne) living on the edge of the wilderness, and his move to the big city and attempt to live as his true self - both Wayne and Annabel.

This is really a book about human relationships - Treadway and Jacinta (Wayne's parents) have an unusually good relationship that turns over time; Thomasina (Jacinta's friend/neighbour) projects her longing for her dead husband and daughter; Wayne's relationship with Wally - and the awful echo that both of their dreams are damaged/delayed by shards of glass wielded by judgemental bullies. I was struck at the end of the book by the depth of characters and the focus on understanding who, how and why they are as they are - and the range of characterisation which accepts multiple identities and/or ambiguity.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Don't knock the weather; nine-tenths of the people couldn't start a conversation if it didn't change once in a while.

Well, I thought this was a funny quote by Kin Hubbard - and a good start for a weather-related post.

It's been a gorgeous 10 days or so of sun and warmth, the tomato plant on my windowsill is measurably taller each evening and the last few days have been proper summer - I'm wearing my summer dresses and factor 30 sunscreen. Temperature in the high 20s and it is absolutely perfect for weekend breakfast outside, then lying on the grass in the shade of the washing and looking up at a deep blue sky. This is my idea of a perfect August day, and it's only April.

And then to make it even better, driving home this afternoon an amazing thunderstorm broke out. From the clouds on either side and in front of us, shocking blue/white forks flicked down, some really jagged, some almost vertical. They were so brief I barely saw them - the sight and after glow on my eyeballs felt like when you touch a hot pan and your hand jumps away before you've registered the heat. When it finally came, the thunder rolled, growled and banged on. And on. And on. One flash seemed to trigger 4 or 5 seconds of noise, and I could really imagine the air banging back against itself, then chunks of air banging back together, then rearranging themselves and then bigger lumps of air rumbling as they finally settled into place. 

Then the rain arrived, fat warm drops with that pungent smell of dust and hot concrete. Everything is cooling down and clearing up for another day's sunshine tomorrow. What joy it is to live in London this year!

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Facing up to a difficult decision

Have you ever faced a decision that's tough not just because it's complicated, but because all of the options could be great? 

I've got that at the moment at work - and although I know I should be happy to have so many good things available to me, in fact I'm feeling physically sick about having to make a choice. It doesn't help that I'm then also feeling bad about not just being happy. 

I've tried pros and cons, I've had coffee with a trusted friend, I've taken advice, perspective (and a bit of coaching) from my boss and several other senior people I trust. Some people helped me identify more options, some people helped me get clearer about what matters. I was advised to plump for one option (but not tell anyone) and see whether my guts felt it was right or not. I got taught to use BRAINS (benefits, risks, alternatives, instinct, could you do nothing, and then smile about whatever decision you end up taking) to make a decision. 

I'm fairly sure that most of the outcomes will be good. And still I'm sweating it. Have you ever faced this kind of thing? What would you do?