Thursday, 30 April 2009

Poem of the week

This lovely poem by Wislawa Szymborska, was posted in the comments of Justine Picardie's blog and I felt the need to share the joy.

"In Praise of My Sister."

My sister does not write poems
and it's unlikely she'll suddenly start writing poems.
She takes after her mother, who did not write poems,
and after her father, who also did not write poems.
Under my sister's roof I feel safe:
nothing would move my sister's husband to write poems.
And although it sounds like a poem by Adam Macedonski,
none of my relatives is engaged in the writing of poems.

In my sister's desk there are no old poems
nor any new ones in her handbag.
And when my sister invites me to dinner,
I know she has no intention of reading me poems.
She makes superb soups without half trying,
and her coffee does not spill on manuscripts.

In many families no one writes poems,
but when they do, it's seldom just one person.
Sometimes poetry flows in cascades of generations, which sets up fearsome eddies in family relations.

My sister cultivates a decent spoken prose,
her entire literary output is on vacation postcards
that promise the same thing every year:
that when she returns,
she'll tell us, everything,

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Poem of the Week

In honour of it being St George's day and Shakespeare's birthday, here is a speech from Henry V, which manages to combine the both!

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call'd fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Strange twists in reading fate

Can it be simple coincidence, or are higher forces at work? Did I start reading David Starkey's 'Henry' today simply because I wanted something vastly different from 'A Thousand Splendid Suns', or did I inherently know that on this day in 1509, Henry VII died, therefore handing the crown to his younger son who went on to shape history like no other king before him?

I heard David Starkey speak on his new book just before Easter at the Oxford Literary festival, and it's safe to say he's a captivating speaker; quite different from his television persona, in that he goes off at a tangent all the time, but the story he's telling is still there. In this case, it's the story of that first part of Henry's life, when he was simply the 'spare' and therefore brought up accordingly. How much, Starkey asks, did this upbringing contribute to the way he acted later in life?

It's truly Henry VIII season at the moment - Hampton Court, The British Library and many others are having exhibitions to coincide with the 500th anniversary of his accession to the throne, and it's so interesting to read a biography of Henry that (in this part at any rate) doesn't focus on the thing that makes him so famous in this century - his marriages. I'm looking forward to seeing how Henry grew up, in the shadow of his brother and surrounded by the women of the court .... what made Henry was his first fifteen years, and I don't know about the rest of you, but my first fifteen years were pretty mediocre, and if I'd been forced to rule from that age, I doubt I'd have made a good job of it!

I shall report back in later to tell you how he's doing - Henry's report card if you will!

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Books are like busses

It's strange - you read nothing worth talking about and sharing for weeks, and then two books come along at once that make you rush out to tell the world. I have had such an experience, and so I am here to tell you about two books that are highly original, and might make you see life from a slightly different perspective.

Firstly there is 'A Thousand Splendid Suns' by Khaled Hosseini who also wrote 'The Kite Runner'. This is isn't something I would've picked up, were it not my April bookclub choice. I've seen 'The Kite Runner' and was in no way inspired to read the book, and when his second novel came along, I wasn't rushing to the bookstore. I'm ever so glad whoever voted for it, as it's totally beautiful.

The book spans the decades between the sixties and 2003 and traces the many shifts in politics and life in Kabul through the eyes of two very different women, Mariam and Laila, who are connected at first only through the fact that they are married to the same man.
It's a powerful story, beautifully and simply told. Life is not dressed up to resemble anything fine or wonderful - people make mistakes, die before their time, wallow in grief and end up in abusive relationships. It was so interesting to read a novel on that side of the fence, especially through the eyes of women. It's a magical book, and it led me on to the second bus (book).

This was 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist' by Mohsin Hamid. It's written in the style of the dialogues philosophers of old once wrote to express their religious beliefs. One voice, telling a story and commenting on the unseen listener's reactions. A man, Pakistani by birth and upbringing, has come to America to go to Princeton. He tells the story of how he rises in the ranks of American society, but once the September 11th attacks happen he begins to become disollusioned with his adopted country. There is a poetic sense to the way he tells his tale, and there is a distinctive flavour to his words. Normally when I read, I only ever hear my voice telling the story, even if there are different dialects, like in 'Wuthering Heights'. This time, there was a definite lilt to the words, and it was almost as if I were sitting in the Lahore cafe with the man, being told the story myself.

Both books are intensely interesting and offer views on subjects that are constantly before our eyes nowadays, but which we have ceased to truly look at because of the constant stream of information. I want to read more, so I might move on to 'The Kite Runner'!

In other news, as you know I have a penchant for marking the anniversary of births and deaths of my favourite authors, and today is one such moment -- twenty years ago Daphne du Maurier, author of some of my favourite novels, died at the age of 82.

Thursday, 9 April 2009


Happy Easter everyone! I hope you've all got lovely things planned - day trips, reading marathons, anything really to make use of these few lovely days we have off. I myself am going to Somerset, and will be tramping the countryside with eleven children, ten adults and three dogs - think of me when you are curled up in an arm chair with that extra thick book you've been saving for this holiday!
Hopefully I will get some reading done too - I know I'll get some buying done, as there's a particularly wonderful second hand bookshop in my grandmother's village. Anyone like to take a bet on how many books I'll buy?

Posting will hopefully resume normal service when I return - the first month of the new job is over, so hopefully I will have more time!

Happy Easter everyone!