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!!