Monday, 29 December 2008

End of year round up

I have stolen (gasp) a meme from Simon - here goes!

- How many books read in 2008?
So far 83, although I have a sneaking suspicion I've not updated my spreadsheet recently ...

- Fiction/Non-Fiction ratio?
70 fiction/ 13 non fiction - which surprises me!

- Male/Female authors?
39 women/26 men

Favourite book read?
Well, that's answered in the post below this one, so I won't repeat myself!

Least favourite?
I think 'The Ressurectionist' by James Bradley and 'Mauve' by Simon Garfield. The former very grisly and not helped by a first person narrative, the second just interminably dull.

Oldest read?
I think it must be 'The Elephant Man' by Frederick Treves, but I can't lay my hands on it at this moment to tell you the publish date. It's leather bound though, and I picked it up in Blackwell's second hand department.

Quite a few this year, including 'Daphne', 'Becoming Queen', 'The Tales of Beedle the Bard' and others!

Longest book title?
'Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders' by Giles Brandreth - surprisingly good.

Shortest title?
'March' - Geraldine Brooks

How many re-reads?
Absolutely none - which was my aim this year, and shall continue to be so, until I read all the books I possess (Which at current reckonings of one a week will take me roughly eight years ....)

Most books read by one author this year?
Daphne du Maurier leads the field with six, closely followed by Agathe Christie with five and a tie between Justine Picardie and Philippa Gregory with three each.

Any in translation?
'Lovely green eyes' by Arnost Lustig

And how many of this year's books were from the library?
Seven, although I do have three waiting to be read that need to go back soon enough!

So, there we are .... I wonder how similar my answers will be next year?!

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Top reads of 2008

It's really been an interesting year, book wise, and I think a quite important year too. I've read some things that have really changed my reading tastes, and I started this blog, which introduced me to some really interesting people, not to mention the reads that have been variously recommended.

I was going to do a top ten, but instead I seem to have come up with a baker's dozen ... so in reverse order, here they are!

13. Perfume - Patrick Suskind: A gem of a novel that is quietly twisted. Totally powerful and haunting.

12. March - Geraldine Brookes: I'd never really thought about what happened to Father in Little Women ... this opened my eyes and allowed me to see the dark side of the well known tale. Does the man who went away come back to his family the same? Cleverly worked and well written.

11. Ekaterinberg - Helen Rappaport: Introduced to me by Lynne, I sadly missed Helen's talk at Dartington, but I loved the book. Clever mixing of biography and history, neither being overdone. Haunting reconstruction of the final moments of the Romanovs that stayed with me for days.

10. I am Madame X - Gioia Diliberto: I've always loved the portrait, and the fictionalised account of how it came to be, and who the woman was had me hooked. Loved it - and it was even better to be reading the book at the same time as seeing the actual painting in the Metropolitan museum in New York.

9. The Diary of a Provincial Lady - E.M. Delafield: Combination of Simon raving about the book and Justine raving about the new Virago cover, made me grab this book and I loved every minute of it.

8. The King's General - Daphne du Maurier: I think this might just replace 'Rebecca' as my favourite du Maurier. I adored this other view of Menabilly, and thought the main characters full of the mystery and ability than du Maurier seasons her characters with.

7. England's Mistress - Kate Williams: The little I'd known about Emma Hamilton all came from Vivien Leigh's film, so it was great to put a little more flesh on that illusion. I fell in love with her, and her portraits by George Romney. I think I'd like to have known Emma had I lived when she did.

6. The Behaviour of Moths - Poppy Adams: Another recommendation from Lynne, and it was great to read, if haunting. Well written, and a beautiful cover too!

5. Mrs Miniver - Jan Struther: I was so glad I finally got to read this, and it proved to be just as wonderful as I expected, even if it was nothing like the film. Lots of little gems, and one that can be picked up whenever I need a little common sense.

4. The Spare Room - Helen Garner: I saw this on both Susan Hill's and Lynne's blogs, and rushed out to pick it up in the hopes it would be on the Booker long list. It wasn't, but that didn't stop me reading it in about a day and being moved to tears - which doesn't happen very often when I'm reading! Wonderful writing on a sad and powerful subject.

3. Ferney - James Long: A Lynne/Dartington recommendation. When I heard about the story line I thought that this would be a must read, and I was right. I was enchanted by it.

2. Human Traces - Sebastian Faulks: I read this fairly early on in the year, but it stayed with me, and actually induced a mild case of reader's block, as it was impossible to find anything as awe inspiring as this. Epic in it's nature, yet intensely personal as well - I was simply wowed.

1. Daphne - Justine Picardie: This has to be my top read for so many reasons, but mainly because just the simple act of going to a literary festival event of which I knew nothing made so many other things happen. I adore the triple narrative and the dark places the novel has in it. I love the fact that Justine has turned the missing Honresfeld manuscript into a literary hunt for her readers. Mostly I love how well the genre of biography has been turned into fiction.

So ... there we are, and those last five were quite hard to put into order. I hope that next year brings me some equally stellar reads!

In the meantime, all that remains is to wish a Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Poem of the Week

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

Not exactly a poem, but it is my favourite carol.

I will get around to posting about my top reads of 2008, but today I am taking seven children (I feel like Maria von Trapp) to the pantomime. Oh yes I am! Also it's my sister's birthday, so it's a very busy day!

So, if I don't speak to you all before - have a very merry Christmas!

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Hollywood glamour comes to BBC one

It's over for another year, and has proved to be a controversial one this time around. I'm not really sure if the right person won, but in the end it was too close to call, and I'm very happy for all of the finalists.

Yes, I am talking about Strictly, and Tom's showdance was an absolute joy to watch ... here it is just for you!

Tom's Showdance

*I'm not entirely sure how to embed youtube, so hopefully the link will take you where I want it to!

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Mrs Miniver

I remember the first time I saw the film Mrs Miniver. It was Easter, the family were staying with Granny, and she had been talking about the village choir in one scene of the film, so we put it on.

I've loved the film ever since I first saw it - the understated nature of it, and the strength that all the characters have. The fact that it's a war film made when the outcome was not known or expected is one of the bravest things about it, and all through it the shining presence of Greer Garson carries one through even the darkest of scenes.

I had no idea until a few years ago that there was a book of the same name, and it was only a few months ago that I chanced to find it in a second hand shop.

Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther is a collection of small pieces that appeared in the Court page of The Times before the war. Other than the names of the characters, these pieces have nothing whatever to do with the film that Hollywood produced and which gave hope to millions of people trapped in a horrific war. The articles give snapshots of a life of wife and home-maker, a woman who loves her husband and children dearly and who sees the world for it's possibilities. She stores up anecdotes from her day, so that she can present her husband with a 'pocketful of pebbles' in the evening. The articles are small, but as a remark on life, and the general things one finds beautiful, they are perfectly formed.

Jan Struther, their creator, was seen by her legions of fans as a Mrs Miniver in the flesh. Happily married and with three children of her own, the articles were assumed to be autobiographical, however, the truth was rather more prosaic than that, and one that she strove to hide from the public.
Married to Antony Maxtone Graham, she was at first very much in love with her husband, but this soon dwindled into a comfortable, if boring, relationship. When, in 1939 she met Jewish refugee 'Dolf' Placzek and began a love affair with him that lasted the whole war, and beyond. During the war, whilst her husband was fighting (and became a prisoner of war), Jan moved to America with her two younger children and committed herself to extensive lecture tours.
In 1947, after trying one last time to do 'the right thing' and save her marriage, she and Tony were divorced and Jan married Dolf shortly after. (Ironically, at the same time, the 'other' Mrs Miniver - Greer Garson - was also divorcing her husband, the 11 year junior Richard Ney, who had played her son in the film.)

Jan Struther's life was never completely happy. Reading The Real Mrs Miniver by Ysenda Maxtone Graham (Jan's granddaughter), it becomes clear that Jan's life was full of highs and lows. Growing up knowing her parents didn't love each other seems to have had a profound effect on the way she dealt with her own problems later on in life. To be merely happy was not enough, and she had to throw herself into each occupation, which inevitably led to exhaustion and dissatisfaction. She was never able to recapture the essence of what she had written in the Mrs Miniver articles.

She died at the age of 52, but left a lasting legacy in the form of a woman to whom common sense added to the spice of life. I don't particularly care if Jan's Mrs Miniver and the Hollywood version are not cast from the exact same mould: they both, in their different ways, have a lot to say about the world, and manage to lift the spirits.

I love both incarnations!

Monday, 15 December 2008

Journey through the mind of Rebecca West

As many of you know I did a Masters in Life Writing not too long ago*. The first module of the course focused on Autobiography, and we had - well, I will be polite and call him odd - an odd choice for tutor. Has anyone heard of an author called Geoff Dyer?

Probably not, and I'm sure that those that have will probably be scratching their heads trying to figure out what he has to do with the medium of life writing. I'll answer the question for you: not a lot, as it turns out. However, he did put the book I am about to write about on the reading list, and for that I thank him.

Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is one of those books that probably gets left on the shelf by most people. It's huge for a start - thicker than Harry Potter 5 (which is no mean feat) and with a type face that is rather small, the book charts - through 1,150 pages - one woman's journey through what was then Yugoslavia.

Now I have a confession: I never finished it. And I wrote my end of semester essay on it. Err - oops?
Now I intend to put right my wrong, and take you all along for the ride! We will travel through Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, visit old cities, get an eye witness account of the shooting of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and much more. To help us (because sometimes Ms West can be a trifle confusing) we have Robert D. Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts, which is a snip at just 280 pages!

Surprisingly, I'm quite looking forward to this, and I shall return within the week with a little biography of Rebecca West, so that we all know who we are dealing with. Must go and dig out my notes!

*Actually, it's been over a year since I finished, but let's not quibble

Poem of the Week

A poem for Advent

Journey of the Magi

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

T.S. Eliot


There are times when I really hate books.

Don't worry - this doesn't happen very often, but I'm having a moment today when I wish I lived in an old country house, with someone employed to look after my books for me.

I decided to sort my books out - not put them in alphabetical order (impossible, seeing as how lots of them only fit certain shelves), but at least have them grouped, so as to make them easier to find. This, I'm sure, would be helped if I could have an extra bookcase, so they aren't double stacked, but I have to make do with what I have.

I am now very dusty and hot, and I'm not sure if the streaming eyes and nose are due to my cold, or the whirlwind of dust that has accumulated around my head. So far, I've taken every classic and VMC off their respective shelves, piled them onto the floor, and pulled other books off other shelves to make room for them.

So in the spare room, I now have all my hardback books, classics, VMC's and some historical biography.

Now the question remains what to do with all the rest. One bookcase needs to be filled (the third is chock full of anything and everything and is damn well going to stay that way). Do I put all the books that I have read at the bottom so they can't be seen, and double stack from the bottom up, or do I do a proper alphabetical sort, regardless of genre, size or if it's been read? This is why I don't sort out my books - it's far too stressful!

Anyway, now that I've had my rant, I'd best get back to it all. Actually, I've just had a disconcerting thought - Christmas is coming, and I know I've got at least two books coming through that - I'm going to have to go through this again in two weeks time!

Speaking of Christmas - if you could only have one book as a present (and buying for yourself doesn't count) what would be at the top of your list?

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Advent and other festive things

For the first time in my life I've not got an advent calendar. When I was young, I had the traditional picture one, and then I moved onto chocolate (which my parents weren't unduly happy about, and in later years made me feel slightly guilty).

So this year I've decided to do something different - I decided to read a book.
'The Christmas Mystery' by Jostein Gaarder is perfect as a pseudo advent calendar, because it's split up into twenty four chapters, and tells the story of Christmas, albeit from a slightly different angle. I've read it before, but this time, only reading a chapter a night, I've found it more magical and more real. It's definitely a good Christmas read.

Another thing that spells Christmas to me (and I'm wondering how many times I can get that word in this post) is the festive film. There are many different sorts of Christmas film, but to me the best ones are either in black and white, or have a lot of singing in them.

'White Christmas' - the epitome of class and joy. What more could one want than Bing Crosby crooning with Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen Dancing with Danny Kaye?

'It's a Wonderful Life' - Man oh man - this film! What good acting can do to change the way we look at things. James Stewart is a wonder!

'In the Good Old Summertime' - er, yes, I know the title seems a little odd, but in actual fact the final part of this is all winter wonderland, and has Judy Garland singing.

'Meet me in St Louis' - Oh Judy, Judy, Judy - singer of the most perfect Christmas ballad ever. You just have to play the first few chords for me to start bawling my eyes out.

'The Lion in Winter' - the PERFECT family movie for the festive period. You think your family has problems at this time of year? Watch this, and be staggered - Henry II had much bigger arguments than anyone else could ever imagine!

'The Muppet Christmas Carol' - 'Oh, there goes Mr Humbug, there goes Mr Grim, if they gave a prize for being mean, the winner would be him' - Muppets, Dickens and Christmas, how fantastic!

There's so many more: 'Little Women', 'Desk Set', 'Home Alone', 'Love Actually', 'Miracle of 34th Street', I could go on and on, but I won't bore you all.

Does anyone else have an absolute must see film for this season? Also, who else has a cold? I'm coughing and sneezing like my life depends on it!

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Thankful for Theatre

Quite a lot of the time I wish that I had been born fifty or sixty years ago. This may seem strange, but when you consider that my parents have seen people like Laurence Olivier in the flesh, it's not so hard to understand why I feel a bit left out!

So when I head that Kenneth Branagh (my all time Shakespeare idol) was kicking off a Donmar season in London with Ivanov, I went all weak at the knees and begged my father for tickets. Strangely the only day dad could get them was on his birthday, so he kinda ended up paying for his own birthday evening out!

I love Chekhov - The Cherry Orchard being by favourite, until last week that is. Never mind that I was at the back of the theatre, and there was tall people in front of me, none of that mattered, because the moment Branagh walked onto the stage, he owned every inch of it, and took my breath away countless times.
Two parts in particular were awe inspiring - at one point Branagh breaks down and falls to the floor, but instead of just collapsing in a heap, he did it in stages, from dropping his head onto his chest, bowing, going on to his knees, sitting down and finally lying on the floor. The control it took to do, and keep the audience spell bound was the work of genius.
The other part was right at the end, when Ivanov has his final breakdown. Branagh has a speech which gets faster and faster, going more and more out of control as it progresses, until he is told to shut up, where upon he slows right down to a word a second, and then almost falls backwards. I'd tell you all to go and see it, but it's finished - sob!

Of course I went and stood by the stage door, and got a few signatures - Gina Mckee was very nice (and very tall), whilst I made an arse out of myself in front of Tom Hiddleston (mixed up Miss Austen Regrets and Lost in Austen, oh the shame) and he was very kind too. Absolute thrill to meet Kevin McNally (pirate Gibbs in Pirates of the Caribbean), who then went and sat at the next table to where my parents were sitting waiting for me, so they got to talk to him too.

I would say it was a thrill to meet Kenneth Branagh, but he didn't come out of the stage door. Apparently Wydham's theatre has 15 exits, so it's anyone's guess how he slid off into the night!

I got tickets for Twelfth Night (Derek Jacobi) and Madame de Sade (Judi Dench) whilst I was there too, so I was a very happy bunny.

I am so thankful for living this close to London that I can whizz back and forth to see such things. And I can only hope that people I know in 50 or 60 years are as jealous of who I've seen now, as I am of who my father has seen!

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Poem of the Week

Essential Beauty

In frames as large as rooms that face all ways
And block the ends of streets with giant loaves,
Screen graves with custard, cover slums with praise
Of motor-oil and cuts of salmon, shine
Perpetually these sharply-pictured groves
Of how life should be. High above the gutter
A silver knife sinks into golden butter,
A glass of milk stands in a meadow, and
Well-balanced families, in fine
Midsummer weather, owe their smiles, their cars,
Even their youth, to that small cube each hand
Stretches towards. These, and the deep armchairs
Aligned to cups at bedtime, radiant bars
(Gas or electric), quarter-profile cats
By slippers on warm mats,
Reflect none of the rained-on streets and squares

They dominate outdoors. Rather, they rise
Serenely to proclaim pure crust, pure foam,
Pure coldness to our live imperfect eyes
That stare beyond this world, where nothing's made
As new or washed quite clean, seeking the home
All such inhabit. There, dark raftered pubs
Are filled with white-clothed ones from tennis-clubs,
And the boy puking his heart out in the Gents
Just missed them, as the pensioner paid
A halfpenny more for Granny Graveclothes' Tea
To taste old age, and dying smokers sense
Walking towards them through some dappled park
As if on water that unfocused she
No match lit up, nor drag ever brought near,
Who now stands newly clear,
Smiling, and recognising, and going dark.

Philip Larkin

Life has gone crazy, so I have hardly had the time to write up things. If I had the time, this is what I would talk about:

-Kenneth Branagh
-Mrs Miniver

I'll get there eventually, sit tight!!

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Waiting for a Wuther

Over on Justine's blog, there's been talk of what best to read to banish the darkness that winter brings.

She suggested Wuthering Heights, which led to a discussion of whether there was a right time of year to read the book. Some books are like that. The best time to read A Christmas Carol is ...? Easter? Hmm - somehow I think the clue is in the name.

Anyway, it set me thinking about what I've been reading this year, and although I made a rule not to read anything I'd read before - I think this might be the exception. If nothing else, reading it before Christmas will help me to be more thankful for the relative sanity of my relations. I don't have family members wanting to kill each other that's for sure.

The problem is I CAN'T start reading it yet. The weather has just been too nice for mid November. All mild and sunny with barely a wuther in sight. I said to Justine that the last time I tried to read it in Oxford I failed, because the dreaming city just isn't wild enough. However, it's supposed to snow on Sunday, so maybe I'll be able to read it them.

On a rather more frivolous note, who do you think would be the perfect person to play Heathcliffe .... personally I would like Alan Rickman, but he might be a bit too old. Maybe Richard Armitage would be better. Any thoughts??

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Something's gotta give ...

... and something has.

I'm not going to comment on John Sargeant after this post anymore. There's got to be a line drawn at some point, and I think tonight is the point. But I can't let him go without saying something about the way he's left.

It's all over the news, all over the blogs; John Sargeant has quit Stirctly.

I have to say that I am quite shocked, and I've just watched the hour long It Takes Two special and should imagine that the entire viewing public has spontaneously combusted, either at James' comments, or Johns'!

These are my thoughts:
- John wasn't a particularly good dancer. I wished during the early weeks he'd stop smirking like the cat who had got the cream.
- John seems to be a bit arrogant, and many of his answers tonight were trite and glib.
- James' statement that John's decision was the worst thing that could have happened was overstated, but I agree with him. Actually Kate Garraway managed to say exactly what James had said, only much more eloquently.
- My own, honest, opinion on John's departure is that it was the easy way out. He's been talking all along about the rules of the game and how the judges don't seem to know them, but if he was abiding by the rules, he would have stayed until he was voted out. And if that meant he won the entire competition, then so be it. I wouldn't have liked it, but I would have dealt with it.

I really hope Kristina is invited back for another series. She's a fantastic dancer, and makes a valuable contribution to the show. I also think John's behaviour towards her on I.T.T. when she was visibly upset was a bit off - he didn't seem to mind that much (in public at least) that his partner was in tears beside him. Having said that, however, he does remind me of my father in that respect!

I've also been really shocked by the comments on the BBC forum. Claudia's been getting a lot of stick, and there are a lot of people demanding the money back that they spent on voting for him. That's just silly - would they have asked for the money back if John had been voted out properly?

Anyway, enough is enough. No more talking about John any more. There are six fantastic dancers all competing for the final now, and there's barely anything to choose between them. Time to focus on those that are still in.

Romantic gestures

I'm in a mood to be swept off my feet. Trouble is there seems to be a dearth of men willing to complete this task, and therefore I have to turn to fiction.

But who do I choose to romance me? I mean of all the wonderfully written heroes; if they were all lined up in front of me - well I don't think I could decide!

So it's time for celebrity character death match!

Would Darcy manage to outshine Captain Wentworth?
Who of the Middlemarch crowd of men manage to woo me?
Would Heathcliffe romance me, or would he just be hopelessly mean?

There's tonnes of fantastic men waiting to leap out of a book and into my arms! Who would you most like for your other half?

Poem of the Week

Tennyson was made poet laureate on this date in 1850, so here is a poem from him.

Love and Death

What time the mighty moon was gathering light
Love paced the thymy plots of Paradise,
And all about him roll’d his lustrous eyes;
When, turning round a cassia, full in view,
Death, walking all alone beneath a yew,
And talking to himself, first met his sight.
‘You must begone,’ said Death, ‘these walks are mine.’
Love wept and spread his sheeny vans for flight;
Yet ere he parted said, ‘This hour is thine:
Thou art the shadow of life, and as the tree
Stands in the sun and shadows all beneath,
So in the light of great eternity
Life eminent creates the shade of death.
The shadow passeth when the tree shall fall,
But I shall reign for ever over all.’

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Oh dear ...!

I've been meaning to post lots about books, movies, theatre, weather - loads in fact. However, all I can think is Cherie Lunghi has been voted out of Strictly, and for another week the public has been stubborn enough to keep John Sargeant in.

I'll get over it, but right this minute I feel like standing on the top of St Pauls with a megaphone and asking 'WHAT WERE YOU THINKING BRITAIN!'

Normal service will resume shortly, and apologies to anyone who has been voting for Mr S. and actually likes him!

Friday, 14 November 2008

Madness in the name of a good cause

There are some things that are unquestionably British.

- Bangers and Mash
- Pearly Kings and Queens
- Warm beer

But the thing that really proves out Britishness, no matter what? 'Celebrities' willing to make a complete fool of themselves all in the aid of charity.

Yes, it's Children in Need night, once more, and I for one am very excited. Where else am I going to get to see news readers attempt to sing and dance, Eastenders do their yearly prance, Tess Daly ACTUALLY dance instead of just lift her knee for Bruce to tap, and wonder of wonders - the first ten minutes of the Christmas Dr Who!!!!!

It's all in the name of a good cause too; which is British madness at its best!

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Poem of the Week

Break of Day in the Trenches

    The darkness crumbles away -
    It is the same old druid Time as ever.
    Only a live thing leaps my hand -
    A queer sardonic rat -
    As I pull the parapet's poppy
    To stick behind my ear.
    Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
    Your cosmopolitan sympathies
    (And God knows what antipathies).
    Now you have touched this English hand
    You will do the same to a German -
    Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
    To cross the sleeping green between.
    It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
    Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes
    Less chanced than you for life,
    Bonds to the whims of murder,
    Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
    The torn fields of France.
    What do you see in our eyes
    At the shrieking iron and flame
    Hurled through still heavens?
    What quaver - what heart aghast?
    Poppies whose roots are in man's veins
    Drop, and are ever dropping;
    But mine in my ear is safe,
    Just a little white with the dust.

Isaac Rosenberg

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Remembrance Sunday

They shall grow not old,
As we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them,
Nor the years contemn,
At the going down of the sun
And in the morning
We will remember them.
-- Laurence Binyon (1869-1943)

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Releasing the child within ...

Is there ever a 'right' time to read a particular book?

I know there's a long line of books that people say 'I should have waited to read this' or 'I was too young/old to appreciate it', but what I'm really wondering is if there are certain books that are reserved for a single time in one's life, and when that time is passed, whether we should just consign them to the highest, dusty, shelf of the bookcase.

The genre I am particularly thinking about in this case is children's literature. When you reach a certain age it seems so indulgent to read a child's book, and how many people have got criticism in some form for confessing to having read Harry Potter?

However, I think a little children's literature never did any harm, and with some, might even help to recapture those values that might have been mislaid.

Want to learn how to be tolerant? Read 'The Secret Garden' (which of course shows adults that they shouldn't be too judgemental or insular as well as children).

'A Little Princess' reminds us how to triumph over adversity (as does 'Little Women'), 'Black Beauty' helped a generation to understand the pain an animal went through for our gratification, '101 Dalmatians' is a beautiful tale of animals outwitting an evil human.

The point is that these books taught us so much when we were young, and even though we think we have learned the lessons, it never does any harm to revisit them.

What's your favourite children's book, and does it still resonate with you today?

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Poem of the Week

Here is a poem that sums up the mood of the day - at least part of it.

Hope by Emily Dickinson

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

I'm gearing up to a night of tension, and I'm very excited. Dad and I are watching the coverage, and I'm not going to bed until Obama is elected president.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Musings from a coffee shop

I decided to get out of the house and take advantage of free wifi in a coffee shop today.

I am supposed to be doing a couple of applications, but I can't settle to them. There's a feeling I just can't shake of being stood on a fault line waiting for the earthquake to knock me over.

Does anyone else feel like there is about to be a seismic shift? I know that most people don't want to write about politics on their blogs for fear of offending anyone, but I don't feel I can let this final weekend of the American election go by without marking it in some way.

I can't remember a time when the entire world was so involved with the outcome of one country's politics. I suppose after eight years of Bush, we are all willing people to make a change, and if we could vote, we would. Would we care, though, if the world wasn't in such a state as it is? If the economy was fine, and if we weren't at war, would this election carry as much weight as it does?

I'm planning on staying up to watch the coverage on BBC on Tuesday, and I'll use the first few boring hours to write a few bookish posts, which I am sadly behind on. But for today, I'd like to know what, if any, effect this election is having on you.

Friday, 31 October 2008

Chasing my tail

You know when dogs get really excited and they start chasing their tails in some vain hope that they might catch it? I sorta feel like a blogging equivalent of that.

Let me explain.

I have four books on the go at the moment, all of which require reading and a couple of which have actual relevance to what is going on in the world.

I'm getting really into 'Becoming Queen', but I feel like I should be putting it aside to read 'Testament of Youth' because it's the best write up of WW1, and with the 90th anniversary of the end of that terrible war upon us, it's an important read. However, Barack Obama with his 'Dreams from my Father' is very insistent on being picked up, because Tuesday might just be the day he comes to power, and if he doesn't, people are going to have to restrain me come January so I don't fly off and try my hand at assassination. But on top of all of these, Edith Wharton's ghost stories are jumping up and down in front of my eyes, declaring that I only have 34 minutes before Halloween finishes and I have to do something spookier than watch Daniel Craig kill lots of people ... what to do?

Well, here's a nice picture of an Autumn tree. I'm going back to chasing my tail!

Thursday, 30 October 2008


I've been putting this off too long in the hope that in by leaving it, I would become a grand wordsmith and write the best thoughts about this, my favourite book of year, and bask in the glory of all the comments that come my way declaring 'Well, by gosh, I am going out right this MINUTE to buy myself a copy!'

I am now quite convinced that this very probably wont be happening, and am so going to content myself with trying to convey what it is that has so captivated me. I am well aware that there are others out there who have done this better than I will do, but here are my thoughts on a book that has truly touched my heart, brain and soul. Ladies and Gentleman, I give you Justine Picardie's 'Daphne'.

Books are funny things. Who knows what it is that is going to attract you and persuade you to read it? Recommendations are all well and good, but if you walk into a literary festival event just by chance then what is it that will make your mind up to buy and read that book? I went to Justine's event in April full of curiosity about Daphne du Maurier, but no intention of buying the book - having spent an awful lot at the festival already.
An hour later, however, I had a copy in my hands, having been so fired up by the conversation that had gone on, that I couldn't let the chance of reading this book pass me by another minute.
Fresh from a Masters in the art of biography, where I'd written an essay on the way fiction can sometimes be used as a way of presenting a portion of a person's life that a conventional biography might struggle with at times, I was understandably excited about this take of one strand of du Maurier's life.
My excitement was more than justified as I wove my way through the trials du Maurier suffered through 1957 and the way she tried to write herself out of the crisis her husband's breakdown had precipitated. If it were just a novel about du Maurier this would be a good book, what makes it great is the intricate threads that are woven through the tale of du Maurier's involvement with J.A. Symington, the mystery of various stolen Bronte manuscripts and how all these things reflect on one young woman, seemingly living the plot of 'Rebecca'.

With so many threads in her hand, one might think that it would be easy to let one or more slack, but each is taut wonderfully crafted. The real reason I love this book is because it draws you into the world of people that you might otherwise not have come into contact with, and whilst it gives a clear picture, there are still enough shadows around the edges to delve into at a later date - some of which are already being delved into by Justine herself, and one (the missing Honresfeld manuscript) which is a mystery she has handed on to her readers.

This is a book that really moved me when I read it. I've been to a few of Justine's talks about it, each of which has shaped the way I've looked both at it, and the woman it's centred around. And as first lines go - 'To begin. Where to begin? To begin at the beginning, wherever that might be.' - well, in my personal opinion, I feel like it's right up there with my two favourite books of all time - 'Pride and Prejudice' and 'I Capture the Castle'. And that's the highest praise I can bestow on anything I read.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Poem of the Week

'October' by Siegried Sassoon

Across the land a faint blue veil of mist
Seems hung; the woods wear yet arrayment sober
Till frost shall make them flame; silent and whist
The drooping cherry orchards of October
Like mournful pennons hang their shrivelling leaves
Russet and orange: all things now decay;
Long since ye garnered in your autumn sheaves,
And sad the robins pipe at set of day.

Now do ye dream of Spring when greening shaws
Confer with the shrewd breezes, and of slopes
Flower-kirtled, and of April, virgin guest;
Days that ye love, despite their windy flaws,
Since they are woven with all joys and hopes
Whereof ye nevermore shall be possessed.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Picture perfect

I got a bunch of flowers from a work mate today. Thought you'd all like to see!

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Poem of the Week

I've chosen something to cheer me up ... here we are.

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

And here's a sunset too ....

Distraction technique

I am SO sick of applying for jobs, so instead I will entertain myself (and hopefully others as well) by distracting myself with books.

I suddenly realised this week that I've been reading an awful lot of fiction over the past months, and my non fiction rate has slipped dramatically. This needs to be remedied, and so biography will be the theme for the next few weeks.

Accordingly, I have raided my shelves and also the library and have a stack that I intend to make my way through over the next weeks, coupled with some Edith Wharton fiction.

First up is 'The Real Mrs Miniver'. I have just finished 'Mrs Miniver', loved it in an entirely different way from loving the film, and find that Jan Stuther must be an interesting person to know about.
Similarly so is Dodie Smith, and so I've snatched the chance to read her biography, and might have to delve back into 'I Capture the Castle', which inspired me so much when I first read it.

Sneaking it's way to the top of the pile is 'Becoming Queen' by Kate Williams. I read 'England's Mistress' in one sitting in early February this year, and was captivated by the spirit that was Emma Hamilton - so different from the person played by Vivien Leigh in 'That Hamilton Woman'. I even found two coloured prints of Romney portraits in Oxford's print shop, which I really need to get framed! Anyway, bloggers like Random Jottings are waxing lyrical about it, and I have always been fascinated by the Victorian period and what led up to it, so am sure it will be a wonderful read.

Dovegreyreader's post on wartime literature, in the build up to the ninetieth anniversary of the ending of the great war, has persuaded me that I really ought to read 'Testament of Youth' by Vera Brittain.

Meanwhile, back in the fiction department, I have been inspired to read more of Edith Wharton's collection. It's been over two years since I finished my undergraduate disseration on Wharton and Henry James (entitled 'Transatlantic Contrasts: James, Wharton and the writing of displacement') and I think that it's now time to take these two up again. As an interesting side note, it was mentioned recently that Edith Wharton's very wealthy father had a most impressive library of seven to eight hundred books .... it goes to show how times have changed, doesn't it? How difficult to make distinctions between wealth, when nowadays a not very wealthy person (i.e. me) can have over 700 books before their 24th birthday.

Now though I'm going to write a letter. Seeing as how I'm such an advocate of this form of communication, I've been hopelessly lax in the last few months!

Saturday, 25 October 2008

I'm still here, really!

I know I haven't posted for a week, and I'm sorry.

It's been a bit of a stressful week, mainly because I decided to resign from one part of my job. I have two jobs in Oxford Brookes University, and I've given up the admin role in Legal Services which was two days a week.

It's annoying that it's come along now, because in the current economic climate it would have been good to have another job to go to.

I've not read a lot this past week, so not a lot to report on that score. I've got a small note of panic going on in the back of my head, and I'm hoping it's not going to get too loud!

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Soaking in sequins

It's been going on for five weeks now, and I'm finally in a position to talk about the wonder that is ..... Strictly Come Dancing!

I've always been a fan of this most wonderful reality show. I've spent a large part of my childhood watching the musicals of the 40s, and I have always loved the elegance and sheer foot power that goes into the routines. Ever since Natasha Kaplinsky first strapped on her shoes, I've been loving watching the twirls and lifts, and in some cases, the car crash moments. Dance with a GMTV presenter anyone? No, didn't think so.

This year, the talent is amazing, and after this weekend's performances, here are the people I want to see right up until the very end.

First there is Cherie Lunghi - I cannot get enough of this woman, with her elegance and glamour, and if those wonderful lifts are anything to go by, then the next few weeks are going to be fantastic.

Austin and Tom are going to go far (and I'm so glad Tom got through this week, because that would've ruined his wedding!!). It's so funny to see their own competition within the actual show. As the men get voted out, it'll be interesting to find out if the sports competitor spirit comes to the fore.

And finally .... Jodie. Oh my goodness. After that stilted rumba last week, her American smooth was as graceful as a Fred and Ginger routine, and she looked fantastic.

And as for the sudden death tonight .... well, I don't agree with the the judges decision. To my (admittedly untrained) eye, Heather was off beat and lacking in any sense of performance. I'm sure she was just nervous, but Don's dance was so good, and I actually think it was better than his first try.

Still, the judges' opinion won't stop me watching, it's all my fantasies in one show, without having to do it myself (and I do know how to waltz (barely)). Long may it continue, and long may the sequins sparkle!

Friday, 17 October 2008

Myself when old

I have just found THE best picture to sum up what I might be like in fifty years time. When I have my library, and Victorian dress has come back in fashion. And if I were a man. Actually, skip that last. It's a fab painting!

The Bookworm, by Carl Spitzweg: ......... I can't stop giggling!

We Read to Know We Are Not Alone

That sentence has to be one of the best descriptions of why we read that I've ever heard. It's from the film 'Shadowlands' and if you've not seen it, then I advise you all to rush out and get a copy for it is the most beautiful portrait of the relationship between C.S. Lewis and Joy Gresham. Oxford doesn't come off to badly either.

Anyway, back to those words. They've set me thinking about the nature of reading and whether that sentence actually holds true when you set it against different genres.

Ok, so I know I read Jane Austen's works with a sense of wonder that it's not just me who has relationship difficulties, or an annoying mother, and that these things have passed down through the centuries. I read murder mysteries not because I've committed murder, but because the thrill they give me has thrilled others before me and I know that. Do I read anything by Douglass Adams because I'm supremely interested in science? Do I heck! I read them because they are funny.

So what does this sentence really mean? I suppose it might be better to say we WRITE to know we are not alone, because what else is a blog for except to share the wealth we have acquired and pass it on and infuse others with that sense of 'I MUST read that'.
It's an interesting puzzle, but one I do understand (despite the way I've expressed myself here).

Reading gives me the freedom to explore, to take a part of myself and let it grow through fiction. It amuses me (and worries me at the same time) how much I can relate to fictional characters. To quote another film (this time not quite so lofty, but none the less lovely for that: 'You've Got Mail', in fact) 'So much of what I see reminds me of what I've read in a book, when shouldn't it be the other way around?'

I read for the pleasure. I read for the experience. I read so that I can share with those who have read the same thing. I read with the confidence that there are others out there who have had the same, almost indescribable, feelings I have had.

I read to know I'm not alone. Do you?

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Poem of the week

With a sniffle and a cough, I give you 'The Common Cold'
by Ogden Nash

Go hang yourself, you old M.D,!
You shall not sneer at me.
Pick up your hat and stethoscope,
Go wash your mouth with laundry soap;
I contemplate a joy exquisite
In not paying you for your visit.
I did not call you to be told
My malady is a common cold.

By pounding brow and swollen lip;
By fever's hot and scaly grip;
By those two red redundant eyes
That weep like woeful April skies;
By racking snuffle, snort, and sniff;
By handkerchief after handkerchief;
This cold you wave away as naught
Is the damnedest cold man ever caught!

Give ear, you scientific fossil!
Here is the genuine Cold Colossal;
The Cold of which researchers dream,
The Perfect Cold, the Cold Supreme.
This honored system humbly holds
The Super-cold to end all colds;
The Cold Crusading for Democracy;
The Führer of the Streptococcracy.

Bacilli swarm within my portals
Such as were ne'er conceived by mortals,
But bred by scientists wise and hoary
In some Olympic laboratory;
Bacteria as large as mice,
With feet of fire and heads of ice
Who never interrupt for slumber
Their stamping elephantine rumba.

A common cold, gadzooks, forsooth!
Ah, yes. And Lincoln was jostled by Booth;
Don Juan was a budding gallant,
And Shakespeare's plays show signs of talent;
The Arctic winter is fairly coolish,
And your diagnosis is fairly foolish.
Oh what a derision history holds
For the man who belittled the Cold of Colds!

Atishooo! Hope you're all well!

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Blenheim Palce

I went to Blenheim today for part of the Independent Literary festival (of which more later in the week).

The weather was a little odd though. After yesterdays sun, I was expecting more of the same, but I got up, opened the curtains .... and I couldn't see a thing! So as I got to Blenheim, this is what I could see ...

Errr - where's the house? I felt like Scarlett O'Hara as I ran up the drive (and run I did, because public transport on a Sunday is hopeless, and I was almost late!

Then, I had time between my events to walk around. I reasoned that two festival tickets meant I was more than qualified to go round the grounds without paying again, so off I went.

That's the lake. What do you mean you can't see the rolling hillside on the other side?

An hour or so later, however, I could finally see the palace.

And I finally spotted where the plinth was .... seriously, I thought I was going mad earlier in the day, because I couldn't find it. Was I getting confused with Windsor I wondered? No, turns out the mist was REALLY bad, because none of what is in this picture was available to be seen earlier in the day!

And there's the house again, taken from the train - beautiful weather!

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Brain meltdown at important moments

Is there ever a good time to open your mouth and say something so totally wrong that it quite takes away your standing as 'literary brain of the village' or some such title?

The answer to that is probably no, although I would imagine there are better times than others to open mouth before fully engaging brain, as Stuck in a Book shows on his last post.

I too, have had more than my fair share of brain freezes, although thankfully I can't remember most of them, and even more thankfully, friends from Uni don't read this blog, so can't post on the comments to remind me (and the world) of them.

However, in honour of Simon's escapade I will share two of my most embarrassing moments.

Firstly: Picture if you will a classroom. A level English, and me up front because I worship the ground my teacher walks on (we're good friends now actually, but that's beside the point). One day, during a routine class, she quotes a famous bit of Shakespeare, and asks what its from. My hand shoots up, and when asked for the answer, I say with COMPLETE assurance, because no way can I have got this wrong - 'All's Well That Ends Well'
Cue withering glance from favourite teacher, and the question goes to someone else. Turns out it was 'As You Like It' - which we'd JUST been talking about.

Secondly: Later in life (but not much) during first class in second semester of first year, our tutor decides to ask us why we've chosen to do this subject (English and American Literature) and forbids us to say 'uuuh, it's cos I like books'. I have my answer all prepared, and launch into long story about how on Christmas eve our family have a tradition of getting a book from the tree. 'Dad' I say blithely 'puts the tree under the books ...' and thus seal my fate in the eyes of this particular tutor that I am a blithering idiot and not worth the paper I write my essays on. He later (in third year) gives me thirds for every piece of work I do in an entire semester, which means I get a 2:2 instead of a 2:1. Bah!

I am sure there are other moments when my brain has failed me from appearing knowledgeable and University worthy, but like I said, I can't remember them ... and I rather hope it stays that way!

Friday, 10 October 2008

And when Love speaks, the voice of all the gods make heaven drowsy with the harmony.

I was thinking about those lines in books and plays that strike a chord with us, that make our hearts quicken, and cause those little moments of happiness. I have no idea why, but at this moment I'm in a hopelessly romantic mood ... no reason for this really. Anyway, are there certain lines that you read that just seem to sum up the notion of love and harmony for you? Or that you see, and think 'yes, that's a concept I want to hang on to'?

I'm not even sure what I'm driving at - I just feel like quoting Shakespeare. And who needs a proper reason for doing that?

Walking around the Actor's church in Covent Garden, there is a plaque to Vivien Leigh, with this epitaph on it:

"Now boast thee, death, in thy possession lies
A lass unparalleled."

It's from Antony and Cleopatra, and always manages to touch me when I see it.

'Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out 'Olivia!' O, You should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me!
- Twelfth Night

'Serve God, Love me, and mend'
Benedick - Much Ado About Nothing

'This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say, 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say, 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words,
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remembered.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England, now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
- Henry V

'The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo. You, that way: we, this way.'
- Love's Labours Lost

Trying to choose a favourite sonnet is like trying to choose which ice cream flavour to have, when every flavour in the world is offered. Here are a couple at random ....

What's in the brain that ink may character,
Which hath not figured to thee my true spirit,
What's new to speak, what now to register,
That may express my love, or thy dear merit?
Nothing sweet boy, but yet like prayers divine,
I must each day say o'er the very same,
Counting no old thing old, thou mine, I thine,
Even as when first I hallowed thy fair name.
So that eternal love in love's fresh case,
Weighs not the dust and injury of age,
Nor gives to necessary wrinkles place,
But makes antiquity for aye his page,
Finding the first conceit of love there bred,
Where time and outward form would show it dead.
- sonnet 108

Betwixt mine eye and heart a league is took,
And each doth good turns now unto the other,
When that mine eye is famished for a look,
Or heart in love with sighs himself doth smother;
With my love's picture then my eye doth feast,
And to the painted banquet bids my heart:
Another time mine eye is my heart's guest,
And in his thoughts of love doth share a part.
So either by thy picture or my love,
Thy self away, art present still with me,
For thou not farther than my thoughts canst move,
And I am still with them, and they with thee.
Or if they sleep, thy picture in my sight
Awakes my heart, to heart's and eye's delight.
- sonnet 47

I think I'll go to bed now. I've got quite a full weekend, what with selling books and going to Blenheim for a literary festival on Sunday, although Nicola Beauman of Persephone books has cancelled her talk, so I'll only be hearing Jane Austen's letters spoken aloud. Ample time to wander around the grounds though, and take a massive amount of pictures!!