Saturday, 31 October 2009

The comfort of reading

It's been an emotional week. I've decided it's time to move out of the parental home - I moved back in when finishing my MA back in 2007, and I suddenly feel like it's the right time. I've been to look at quite a few places, and found a couple I liked. One in particular was great, apart from the fact I would be sharing with three guys. Now; don't get me wrong - there's nothing wrong with guys per se (and these were all lovely, tidy and old enough not to behave like idiots all the time) but it's not something I've ever done. Lots of soul searching was required.

Today, I finally made up my mind that this was the right move, and emailed them to say so. A couple of hours ago I had an email back saying that the girl that was moving out had changed her mind for the time being. So it's back to the drawing board. Heigh ho, these things happen, and at least I've not signed the contract or am all packed up and ready to go!

Throughout this week, I have been reading a lot to take my mind off things, and have been luxuriating in the wonder that is Susan Hill. 'Howards End is on the Landing' has made it to my house and has been making its presence felt.

The cover is enough to comfort, let alone what can be found inside.

So - what does this book have to tell you? Firstly, it's a tremendous explanation as to why Susan Hill disappeared from the web over a year ago. I noticed around June last year that the link to the left of this post that had led to Susan's blog, now led to nothing. I hoped it was a glitch but nothing ever surfaced.
Susan had, apparently, gone on a search for a book, and although she'd not found it, she did discover an awful lot of books she had either not read at all, or not read in a very long time. If there's one thing I can relate to, it's that! My shelves are crammed with books I've bought, but not read.

We are taken on a tour, not only of Susans' house, but also her life, peppered as it is with encounters with some of the best known names of the twentieth century. It's a charming book, full of recommendations that are made with fervour and a keen insight. I found myself almost able to understand her dislike of Austen (Susan, I'm a Janeite and I hate 'Mansfield Park' and 'Northanger Abbey'!!), and discovered a hunger to get back into Grahame Green, Thomas Hardy, Dickens, and all those other classics that are languishing on my shelves. I've been introduced to a lot of authors I've never heard of (and even found myself whilst up in London last weekend pondering whether I should buy a book she had passionately talked about ... I put it back. If Susan has taught me anything, it is that one should read the books one has!)

Simon and I are going to hear her talk later in November, so I'm sure this book will pop up another time. I could relate to the subject matter, and Susan, so much, that it almost makes me want to rush up to her at the event and proclaim affinity (as well as a passion for 'The Lady of Shallot'). This would probably end up being my equivalent of her experience with Edith Sitwell. Not a good plan!

Anyway, it's a lovely little book, with plenty to make one think. At the end, she lists the 40 books that she would choose if she could only have have 40 to last her the rest of her life. The fact that 'Learning to Dance' by Michael Mayne is listed twice is perhaps testament to the fact that she really cannot live without that book. (Only it's actually a misprint ... but like she says, it gives her room to tinker with the list!).

Susan Hill's copy of 'Howards End' is on the landing .... where is yours? (Mine is in the spare bedroom!

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Turned on to Brecht


So sorry - that was the sound my mind made last night as Fiona Shaw blew it away with the sheer force of her performance.

So Bertolt Brecht - what do people think of him? I know what I thought before last night - heavy going, hard to get to grips with in a modern era. Boring. Why then, you would be entitled to ask, did I want to go and see 'Mother Courage and her Children'? Quite simply because it was Fiona Shaw in the title role, and Deborah Warner directing her (who has also directed her in 'Medea' (which I tragically missed) and the film of 'The Last September', which I adore.). I could put up with anything with that combination.

From the moment I sat down in my seat, however - which had members of the cast roaming around, and stage hands doing various things with ropes and other stuff - I knew I was in for a treat. Then it started. A few minutes into the first scene and Fiona Shaw rises from the depths of the stage, on top of her wagon, accompanied by a band. Duke Special to be precise. Actually - type Fiona Shaw into Youtube right now, and the first five entries or so are videos of her jamming with said band after the show in the foyer of the National. The band are fantastic, and there is something weirdly right about wanting to get up and dance around as Fiona Shaw flings herself across the stage.

Anyway - back to Mother Courage. I never knew Brecht could be funny, but he is, and in an oddly resonant way for the world today. Yes, he's writing about a war in Germany in the mid 1600s, but he could just as easily be writing for the war that's going on now. This production hits you full in the face with the brutality of war, there are explosions, and bursts of fire, and Mother Courage's wagon grows and shrinks as her business succeeds and fails (at one point there is a satellite dish strapped to it).

Fiona Shaw is hardly ever off stage. Even if she's not speaking, she's always doing something - plucking a chicken and making a right mess, being one of the most memorable pieces of business. The supporting cast are fantastic - Harry Melling plays her youngest son Swiss Cheese, and if the name rings a bell, it will be because you have seen him play Dudley Dursley. Not an obvious choice, one might think, but somebody get him more parts fast, because the guy is astonishingly good. Forget the golden Potter trio, Harry Melling might be the one to watch!

The thing about the play is that it is so blatantly opportunistic. Mother Courage changes sides with alarming ease (and loses a child in the process) but I never blamed her for it. That is what war is like, and if you're trying to make a living from an army, you're always going to end up with the winning side. Does Mother Courage win? the play ends abruptly. With all her children gone, and left to trail after a battered company, with her wagon at it's most broken and only herself to pull it, you'd be inclined to think she doesn't.

The whole experience is amazing. You're thrown into this messy world and never allowed a respite. If Fiona Shaw doesn't (and she's only off stage for about fifteen minutes out of a three hour production) the audience doesn't either. But however gruelling the content is, this production makes it

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Very little to distress or vex

I wasn't going to post on the new BBC adaptation of Emma for another week or so, but Simon has done so, and I got rather animated in my response to it, and the other comments, so I feel I must air my views on this latest bonnet and bodice fest.

I like Emma, although it's not my favourite Austen, but I don't think I've ever seen a truly satisfactory production. The BBC's 1972 version is terribly stuffy - Emma looks to be in her 30s (even though Doran Godwin was only 22), Mr Knightley is hopelessly old, and not remotely handsome, and it has that odd lighting quality that seems to be a feature of 70s television. The filmed version with Gwyneth Paltrow has two redeeming features: Jeremy Northam (be still my beating heart) as Mr Knightley and Sophie Thompson as Miss Bates. Stellar casting, both of them.

The new version of Jane Austen's classic started this Sunday, and I sank quite comfortably into the familar story. Interestingly, a good fifteen minutes were spent depiciting Miss Taylor's wedding to Mr Weston, when in the book the event is covered in the first three pages, so the movement into the actual story is considered in the frame of Emma's loss. After that, we are very swiftly catapulted into Emma's ridiculous matchmaking, with the inevitable problems that causes.

Casting is always an issue, and I think Romola Garai is good in the title role. She's very good in period drama (I loved her in Daniel Deronda and Vanity Fair ), but there was something lacking in her performance. Perhaps it was the slight modernity of the script, or some of her movements, but I felt jarred slightly. I am very much on the fence over Michael Gambon's performance as Mr Woodhouse. In my opinion, Gambon is a very forceful actor; one is always aware of his presence. In contrast, my view of Mr Woodhouse is rather peripheral. Just a fussy nuisance. Having said that, Gambon does have flashes of whiny genius, so perhaps there is hope.

The biggest casting decision, that seems to be dividing people all over the place is Jonny Lee Miller as Mr Knightley. Is he too young? Is he too handsome? Is he too modern? The answer to all three of these is possibly 'yes', but in actual fact Knightley was only 38, and Jonny is 37, so it's probably his slightly pretty boy looks that have got people's backs up. I have to say that the rapport he has with Emma is fantastic, if a little less brotherly than we are led to expect. It's only the first episode and he's already tearing a hole in Emma's judgement. I can't wait until the picnic (and ooh - Mrs Elton is played by Christina Cole, who played Caroline Bingley in Lost in Austen ... that should be fantastic to watch!).

I am reserving my complete judgement for a while. I like it, and think the main aspects work, but there is something I can't put my finger on that makes me think it's lacking in some way. Is it just that everyone is just a touch too modern to be properly Austenesque? I shall have to watch the second episode ... watch this space!

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Recap on holiday reading

When the weather is like the picture above (that's a view of St Mark's square from the Grand Canal, Venice, in the biggest rain storm I've ever seen) what's the best thing to do? Yes - read.
I think October must be my favourite month to immerse myself in literature. It's so wet, and dull. No late Autumn frosts to encourage you out on a good long stomp, just the tempting sofa on which to curl up.

I've already finished four books in the last week, and my appetite is simply craving more. Here are my favourites from the past few weeks ....

The Glassblowers of Murano by Marina Fiorata
This was one of my holiday reads - indeed in painted a better picture of Venice than the one I was witness to. I honestly think I would've have been drier if I had chosen to swim up the grand canal! Anyway - the book follows the fortune of an immensely talented glass maker, and his descendant who comes to Venice to change her life, and finds more than she ever expected. It's a cleverly woven tale, and the process of glassmaking - so important to Venetian life - is wonderfully depicted.

The Information Officer by Mark Mills
I think Mark Mills' writing style is wonderful. Clear cut, but with just enough mystery around the edges to leave you wondering. I had read 'The Savage Garden' and loved it for it's Italian setting and the way it drew you in. This novel - set on the bomb ravaged island of Malta during WWII - draws you in too, but makes you feel the danger heightened by wartime activities. There were times I could almost
feel the vibrations of the bombs falling. Mills is an author I would recommend to anyone, he has the universal touch.

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton
I think I'm a bit late coming to this particular party (but that's fashionable, right?), but I absolutely adored this book. I'm always on the look out for what my Father calls 'a ripping yarn', and I struck gold with this one. Spanning three generations, two of which are hunting for the answer to a young woman's heritage. It rattles along at a great pace, and takes some surprising turns in its quest for the answer. I love the fact that it uses fairy tales to help the plot along, and that the different voices telling the story don't drown each other out. I couldn't put it down - in fact I spent an entire evening in a pub finishing it (300 pages in 3 hours, not too bad going), which goes to prove how captivated I was.

Which leads me onto my next subject .... but that deserves a post of its own. I shall leave you with a view of Lake Garda after the weather had cheered up considerably!