Monday, 8 November 2010

Colouring around the facts

I was going through my back catalogue of posts, trying to spark an idea (having started out writing two posts this evening and failing to put my thoughts across coherently) when I discovered a post that I'd mistakenly left languishing as a draft back in 2008.

It does, however, say much which I still believe, so I thought I'd allow it to find it's audience after so long a wait in the wings. I've just spruced it up a bit - the wings can be an awfully dusty place ....

It should be no secret to those that have read this blog in the past to be told that I have always been fascinated by learning how a life was lived long ago. I have been hungry, ever since childhood, to know the most trivial or mundane details and perhaps this is why fiction seems to me to be such a suitable medium for capturing a life. I remember at the age of about eleven getting lost within the pages of 'Legacy' by Susan Kay - a wonderful narrative of Elizabeth I's life that wove the power of her status with the vulnerability of her personal life expertly and created a rich and broad tapestry whose focus seemed to shift with every new reading.

It can be hard for a straight biographer to do the same. Not unless you are Leon Edel or Martin Gilbert and intent on capturing for posterity every movement your subject makes (Henry James and Winston Churchill respectively) will you be able to devote the kind of microscopic attention to detail in a work of fact. The why and wherefore this is demanded as part of the package can drag the work down to the point of dullness. And if Winston Churchill was dull, then I'll take up smoking. This is where fiction allows a greater freedom.

A friend of mine, having read 'Regeneration' by Pat Barker, suggested that the true art of biographical fiction was the ability to 'paint around' the facts. This sums up, for me, the essence of what biographical fiction should be doing, and what - at its best - it does do. Many novels spring to mind which have biography at their hearts, but the ones which stand out to me as 'painting around' their central characters with the finest tools can be narrowed down to a select group.
2004 was, as David Lodge put it, 'the year of Henry James'. Three novels came out within months of each other, and it is 'Author, Author' by Lodge and 'The Master' by Colm Toibin that will always stand out for me, not least because of the way they managed to capture the essence of the man within their stories, although in very different ways.
These novels focus on the almost the same period of time; Lodge taking James' theatre career as the central theme, whilst Toibin uses the feelings of failure that arose from this unsuccessful period of James' life as his starting point. In one, James feels absolutely at the top of his game, ready to conquer the world, only to have his hopes dashed, and a friend (George du Maurier) appear to be much popular than he ever could be. In the other, James is in a world of depression, struggling to cope with the mere fact of his failure, but it is also a darker look at James' sexuality too. Both novels show a certain part of Henry James that perhaps isn't as well known as the figure of an extremely loquacious man that has been made so famous today. I think they are both fantastic - although only one was shortlisted the Booker prize - so perhaps my judgement isn't as sound as I'd like to believe.

In a biography the smaller details that the novels seek to address are sometimes cast aside to make room for larger events. 'Daphne' by Justine Picardie is just such a novel that seeks to throw the magnifying glass on smaller events that go into making a much larger one (in this case the writing of her biography on Branwell Bronte). You all know my enthusiasm for that novel, and I feel the need to borrow from Dovegreyreader, who wrote this (back in 2008) 'It's certainly hard to temper enthusiasm and not plunge overboard without a lifebelt when a book touches your heart.'
'Daphne' is certainly a novel that seeks to 'paint around' the general idea of one writing a book. Justine weaves so many threads into her novel, of deceit, jealousy, passion (both human and for literature), despair, obsession, madness, loss, failure. I could go on. I won't. We are allowed to view a side to Daphne that the public world would never see. A side aware of her own failures in her writing and in her personal life. Something that both Lodge and Toibin (Toibin to a greater extent) wrote about in their portrayals of James.

The point I am trying, inexpertly, to make, is that the genre of fiction is, by it's very essence, a natural way to present a life that has it's roots in reality. The books talked about above are ranked among my favourites, and that is because they are what I sought when younger - they fulfil the fascination I have for filling in the gaps, where the truth is just that little bit dusty.

Poem of the week

An Arundel Tomb

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd -
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor's sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly, they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

Phillip Larkin

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Oxford Thinking

One of the pleasures of working for Oxford University is the access it gives those that work for it to intellectual stimulation. I've not been a student for some years, but I can still get a boost of learning whenever the mood takes me. There are always talks and lectures going on, and since the notices come through my office to display, I can take my pick.

Yesterday I found myself in the English faculty listening to a distinguished American lecturer discuss the theme of property in Richard II. i have to admit I felt a little out of place, amongst the various Oxford students, all armed with notepads and looks of serious intent, but once that had worn off, I settled back into the practise of listening and learning. Besides - if the conversations I overheard beforehand were anything to go by, Oxford students definitely don't spend all their time pontificating on their various subjects. there was a particularly intense conversation going on behind me about the timeline of origin of the words 'Aubergine' and 'Eggplant'.

Another thing I love about this job is the access it gives me to the tutors. Once a term there is an MCR/SCR symposium, where a graduate and a fellow of the college talk about their work and interests. Now, this can be hit and miss. An interesting subject does not necessarily translate into an interesting talk, should the minutiae become all encompassing. This is rare, however, and the evenings are generally eye opening.

Blogging has also started to make an appearance, and Somerville has recently seen two new enthusiastic bloggers creep out of the woodwork. The new Principal - Dr Alice Prochaska - has started commenting on the new role she has been thrust in to, with all its various duties, whilst History tutor, Dr Natalia Nowakowska, has created a blog that not only looks at her research work, but which also talks about Oxford life from the view of an academic.

I've created a little Oxford haven on the left side of my blog, where I will be putting the various blogs and places of interest that I come across. At this time of great upheaval in the higher education sector, I think it's important to show people every aspect of the world they may want to enter. It's not all about beautiful architecture and overwhelming work. There's a very human aspect too.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Delivery for Miss W!

Goodness only knows why I'm buying books this close to Christmas (and don't all roll your eyes, it'll be here before you know it!), but I couldn't resist grabbing hold of Kate Morton's new novel 'The Distant Hours', the minute I knew about it. (Actually, I saw a poster in the tunnel on the way to the V&A, so that trip really did come up trumps, in all sorts of ways).

The trouble with buying books off the internet is that one can rarely tell how big they are. And let me tell you that Kate Morton's new book is BIG. I doubt it will even fit in my handbag, which is saying a lot!

I'm looking forward to it though - it has a very Manderlay looking gate on the front cover and has mystery stamped right through it's core. I can't wait - my wrists might have other ideas though!

A little trip to the V&A

It was Friday last week that I escaped the clutches of work and headed up to London to hear Justine Picardie talk about her new book on Coco Chanel.

I arrived in plenty of time to go and see the Diaghilev and the Ballet Russe exhibition - something I was particularly excited about, not least because of Chanel's connection with him. (Can you imagine Chanel being employed as a costume designer for stage and screen? Neither could I - but it's hardly surprising that she should have had such a string to her bow). It's an amazing exhibition, so full of interesting details and the chance to see costumes up close. How people ever managed to dance in some of them I don't know, but they are a testament to a bygone age of opulence. It's still going on, and I'd encourage you to go if you get the chance.

Justine's talk was a feast for the eyes as well as the ears, as she interspersed her words with pictures. There are so many pictures of Chanel, and Justine's book makes full use of them. What better way to make a person come alive again than by presenting the reader with images?
Chanel was (and is) a fascinating woman, her life so full of mystery and misdirection. There are times reading the book that one cannot help but feel frustrated at what we don't know, but at times the hidden truth makes for exciting reading. I'm fairly sure that the mystery surrounding Chanel's involvement in World War Two and her relationship with a German officer (possibly a double agent) will never be fully explained, but it's certainly fun supposing about it all.

I asked Justine if, after all the time spent with Chanel, she felt she knew her. Justine answered with a distinct affirmative. I, however, am not so sure. It may just be the mirror images of the woman which are so famous skewing my judgement, but somehow I think the only person she showed her true face to was Boy Capel, and after his death she sought to bury that part in a riot of fabric. I may be wrong, and anyway - it doesn't detract from the wonder of the woman who will always be know by three small words: Chanel No 5.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Eight Bloggers walk into a pub ....

It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but in actually fact eight bloggers did walk into a pub (Far From the Madding Crowd in Oxford to be precise) and had an enjoyable few hours merrily chatting.

I'd been unable to attend the previous bloggers meet up in May, so was quite excited about this one, particularly as it gave me a chance to show off my lovely home town. (Not quite devoid of tourists now, but about as close as we'll ever get!).

The afternoon started off with a small group of us meeting in Blackwells, and then pottering about Oxford. We spent an hour in the lovely Ashmolean, before heading off the quirky Albion Beatnik bookshop, and a quick trip into Somerville college.

After that we headed off to the pub and were joined by a few more bloggers. Sadly quite a few people discovered they couldn't make it, but I still think a good time was had by all who did turn up, and it was lovely to be able to put faces to the words.

I'm looking forward to the next meetup - whenever it might be. We might even be brave and head a bit further north .....

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Any excuse for a party

I have many artistic friends and relations. Somehow I seem drawn to writers, painters, actors, poets and musicians, and they all have varying degrees of success in devoting their lives to their art in this increasingly commercial and money driven world.

I have just returned from a party, designed to celebrate the second anniversary of the creation of a business called 'Lovely Giftbags'. Run by two lovely sisters , Emily and Camilla, it is a mecca of bright colours, fabrics, quaint cooking items (cupcake holders with feet, anyone?), fairy prints (as designed by fellow artist Emily Brady), board games and many other things to put in the said giftbags (which are lovely ...). Part of the celebration was also the decision for both sisters to devote their whole time to the business. Goodbye cruel world of employment! The Fraser sisters are striking out on their own!

It was a beautifully sunny day, and the enticing wares were set up in the garden and various rooms of their house. Friends and acquaintances from fairs came along and browsed (and bought) whilst consuming quantities of pink fizz, and some very delicious cake. The cash register pinged merrily, as people found at least one thing to catch their eye (or it would have done, if there had been a cash register) and a fairly prosperous birthday seemed on the cards.

Have I intrigued you all? Do you wish you knew these enterprising women, so you could have been able to sample the wares on display? Well, never fear - because they have a website! Lovely Giftbags can be found here, and amongst the many pages of things for sale, they also have a page to let you know where you can see them in brightly coloured person!

I'm so glad that the party was a success, and I can only hope their are many years ahead of them. I can't think of anything more lovely!

Thursday, 16 September 2010

New book smell ....

It's a rare thing for me to pre order a book so that I can be assured of delivery the day it's released. In fact, I've only done it once before, for a certain world saving wizard.

The book that arrived at my place of work this lunchtime is about as removed from that previous order as it's probably possible to be; for today I have received into my possession Justine Picardie's new book 'Coco Chanel: The Legend and the life'.

Obviously I have not finished reading the book (I'm on page 40, but work is too busy to allow for gratuitous book reading ....), but here's a few things I've already noticed.

Firstly, the cover ....

It's actually a little less distinctive than this ... there's a certain smoky quality to the image that perhaps reflects the mystery around which Mademoiselle is surrounded. Of course this is just the dust jacket, and if you're anything like me, you'll be wondering how different the base cover is.

Opening the cover, in order to remove the jacket, you are first presented with a plethora of mirror images of Chanel, on her famous staircase where she watched the models parading her fashions. Life the flap and a pure white cover is revealed, with a shadowy Karl Lagerfeld sketch of Chanel. Further surprises await you on the back cover, but I don't want to spoil the pleasure completely.

As for the contents themselves .... it would be fair to say they draw you in from the first. Who else admits to the guilty pleasure of picking up a biography, thumbing through the pictures, then putting back on the shelf? You can't do that with Justine's book. There are photographs, designs, motifs, dotted throughout - almost as if you are being led on a hunt, and these are the clues to help you.

In a way, that is reflective of the woman herself; and mirrors, with their reflections, are another theme that run through the first few pages. Who are we seeing? Which version of childhood are we going to believe? There's so much mystery, but in a way that's what made her name, and helped her to keep it.

I'm enthralled already, and it's only just begun. Who knows what surprises lay ahead?

Monday, 13 September 2010

Every picture tells a story

A while ago, Stuck-in-a-book wroteb a post about how picture could sum up the act of reading, and challeged other bloggers to do the same.

I have to say I was stumped, and after a few days of wracking mybrains, i gave up.

This morning, however, on my walk to work, I was thinking of the mirror I had bought over the weekend, and suddenly an idea popped into my head.

This is what reading means to me ... being able to have a whole different world reflected back at you, even whilst the general stuff of life surrounds you. It's magical - just like a mirror.

Monday, 6 September 2010

The September Issue

I don't know: you go on holiday, read 12 books in 14 days, come home and find you have no desire to pick anything up, and when you do you can't focus on it. What's that about? Did I actually find my limit whilst out in Greece? Have I discovered the outer limit of one's capacity to take in words, and consequesntly fried my brain?

I do hope not. I have to read The House of the Spirits for book club, which is next week.

In the meantime, I will try and ease myself gently back into the world of reading and catch up on the blogs of people I have missed. Reading is a career, and at times it's hard to juggle with the rest of one's life. This is one of those times - but I've got things to look forward to - just as with work. There's a wealth of treats on my shelves waiting for me to get my act together!

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Holiday time!

I'm heading off to Greece for a couple of weeks, where I expect there will be a little of this:

And quite a lot of this:

I have been deliberating for the best part of a week on what reading matter to take. After all, the last time we went to Greece, I read ten books, so I want to ensure I have taken enough. Here's a list of what I'm planning on taking at this point in time (although it may well change before 10am tomorrow!)

1. Dumb Witness - Agatha Christie
2. The Sunday Philosophy Club - Alexander McCall Smith
3. The Serpent and the Moon - HRH Princess Michael of Kent
4. Collected poems of T.S. Eliot
5. The Gourmet - Muriel Barbery
6. Tom Holt omnibus
7. Mary Anne - Daphne du Maurier
8. The Diary of a Nobody - George and Weedon Grossmith
9. Up a tree in the park at night with a hedgehog - P. Robert Smith
10. Sacred Hearts - Sarah Dunant

Have a lovely fortnight - I look forward to regaling you of my adventures!

Kate Morton and the art of secrecy

Secrets, by their very nature, are hard to keep.

It therefore follows that secrets in novels are even harder to keep concealed from the reader. They (the secrets) are always wanting to be found out and it takes a skilled author to weave enough subplot and red herrings to keep the suspense alive.

One such modern author who is able to do this is Kate Morton, creator of 'The House at Riverton' and 'The Forgotten Garden'. Both novels concern themselves with secrets hidden for generations and move between the past and present with a deft ease that captures the reader and sweeps them along in the whirlwind of all that life can encompass.

They are intensely readable - both are doorstops of novels, but the pages are quickly turned. I had intended to take 'The House at Riverton' on holiday, but found myself too engrossed to go slowly, and it was a matter of two days before I found myself at the final pages.

Secrets are hard to keep, but at least the readability of Kate Morton's books are one secret I am able to share!

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Other people's thoughts

Once upon a time, people blogged in an entirely different format. This was called 'writing a diary' and is a custom that seems to have, almost entirely, died out.

Unlike those of us who choose to expose our thoughts to the censure of the world almost immediately after they have popped into our heads, these diarists wrote (mostly) for themselves and to remind themselves of their daily lives. Only occasionally did they have an eye on posterity.

So, with my interest in blogs, it is fairly safe to assume that I like diaries too - yet I very rarely read them. There's so many mundane musings to trawl through until you get to the entries that really capture the interest. What's needed is an anthology of the creme de la creme. And, thankfully, someone at Canongate books has obliged.

'The Assassin's Cloak' is an anthology of the world's greatest diarists. Split out into the days of year, each date has a handful of entries from writers that range from the likes of Peyps and Alan Bennett, to Peter Hall and Fanny Kemble. It is a rich store of life and offers some very different perspectives on the passing years.

Take today's date, for instance - July 22nd. Nestled amongst musings on the weather in 1873 and the roads in 1990, are these two interesting entries.

William L. Shirer (author of 'The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich') wrote in 1940 'Hitler has given Mussolini a birthday present. It's an anti-aircraft armoured train.'

In stark contrast, we find Andy Warhol commenting in 1986 'I've been watching this stuff on Fergie [Duchess of York] and I wonder why doesn't the Queen Mother get married again.'

It's a wonderful book to dip into now and again, when you're not quite sure what book to throw yourself into next, but are in need of a little literary sustenance. Why not try it here - comment with a date (birthday, or just something at random) and I'll pick out an entry that intrigues and enthralls!

I'm in love with a Wonderful guy

He he. This blog gets fed into my facebook page - how many people on there will see the heading and jump to conclusions!

So this wonderful guy - who is he? Ladies and Gents may I introduce you to Mr Wilkie Collins. Ah, I see I have company!

Victorian literature has always been a big part of my reading, but up until this year, I had mainly stuck to the likes of Dickens and Eliot. Then, on a visit to a friend, I was given a copy of The Moonstone and I was immediately pulled into the heady world of Victorian England, which was very different from any I had experienced thus far. I took it to New Zealand with me, where it so managed to engross me that I kept devouring it, even as the scenery whizzed by (although in my defence, there's only so many violet coloured mountains one can look at at any given time).

I returned to the sunny(!) reaches of England and promptly dived into The Woman in White. Here again I devoured and couldn't stop until the final page had been turned. Both novels are fantastically written, moving at a terrific speed, and use numerous narrators, thereby ensuing that as many sides of the story are seen and understood. The Moonstone, in particular, has been hailed as the first detective story, as the genre is known today, although I think The Woman in White is perhaps even more so. I've started Armadale now, and have so far been sunk into the world of stolen identity, revenge and shipwreck .... all in the first few pages.

So, yes - a new author to add to the ever burgeoning list of favourites. Watch out Mr Dickens, there's now a rival for my affections!

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Keeping the wolves from the door

I have always been a fan of historical fiction so it is a surprise that I didn't pick up 'Wolf Hall' as soon as it landed on a bookshelf and devour it instantly. I think, perhaps, it has to do with the fact I'm not overly fond of Hilary Mantel.

So - as someone gave me a book voucher for my birthday (in March), I decided to dip my toe into the Mantel waters (white paperback, if anyone is interested). And I was hooked.

Charting the meteoric rise to fame and power of Thomas Cromwell, from his humble beginnings being beaten up by his father in Putney, to chief counsellor and confidante of Henry VIII, it is a book that is on the epic scale.

It might perhaps not be to everyone's taste. The way in which it is written can be a stumbling block. An entire narrative written in the present second person (he has fallen) can make it tricky at times to discern what is happening. Even Mantel appears to trip over at times - particularly in a three way male conversation, when there is a sometimes a need to state who exactly is talking. 'He, Cromwell' interrupts the flow slightly.

With this minor niggle set aside however, it truly is a fascinating book. It traverses history that is well known to most people, but with a fresh insight of one of the key string pullers. Cromwell has always had a bit of a bad reputation, seeing as how he was so involved with the events that shaped English history; but the man we are presented with is so human, full of mystery, passion and knowledge, that one can't help but warm to the man that became Wolsey's successor. Mantel leaves us as Cromwell seems to be reaching the apex of his power, but we all know how the tale will finish.

Mantel is currently planning a second volume but has already said she will find it hard to write the final disastrous and bloody ending. I know I'll find it hard to read, although I am already filled with anticipation, for if the second volume is like the first, I'll be rushing through it at great speed!

Monday, 12 July 2010

Roll up, Roll up!

Before I have get back to the weighty issue of the books that have captured my attention recently, I would like to tell you about a Book Blogger meet up, organised by Stuck-in-a-Book.

Now, I missed the last one, seeing as I was watching Julie Andrews gliding about a stage and breaking my heart with her rendition of Funny Valentine. This time, I WILL be there - not least because it's being held in my lovely home time.

Hopefully we won't be emulating the above picture too much, although I'm sure there will be time for a little quiet reading in amongst the fervent discussions.

It's being held on 25th September (venue TBC), so if you're interested in joining in, email simondavidthomas @ - Bloggers of the world unite (or I suppose the UK, in the instance - unless anyone happens to be travelling) !

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Time and tide wait for no man

My goodness - has it really been over three months since I last wrote here? In my defence, I have to say that ever since I came back from New Zealand, it's been totally crazy busy at work, and I've just not felt the inclination to put my thoughts down. I've been reading - I doubt there will be a time when I ever give that up - but when it comes down to a choice between reading and writing, the former won hands down every time.

So, to ease me back into the swing of things, I shall post some photos of the past few months. It's been so lovely, weather wise, the past few months, that there have been quite a few outings!

So - firstly there is New Zealand - These are the mountains of Queenstown, looking suitably Lord of the Rings-y

Here is Mum and I drinking the best wine I've ever tasted!

And this was taken on top of the Franz Josef Glacier!
Back in the UK, I saw Julie Andrews on stage - she's the one in the middle (I was very far away!)
Simon introduced me to this marvel. I've been there three times, and love it!
And here we are, enjoying cake in the sunshine

The weather has been wonderful for the past month or so, and Somerville has been looking particularly beautiful.
And I bought myself the most fabulous 50s dress ever. Here I am testing the wonder that is a two layered petticoat.

Of course there has been much reading, and I have fallen in love with a couple of authors, but more on that later. I fancy a stroll down the river now ....

Friday, 19 March 2010

Judi Dench ... as Titania?

Yes, you did read that title right. Judi Dench is currently in Kingston upon Thames, playing the queen of the faeries in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

An unusual choice, given her age, but perhaps is explained by the fact she is directed by Sir Peter Hall, who directed her in the role forty years ago.

So there I was, at the Rose, sat on the floor (telling sad stories of the death of kings). To explain away the age 'problem', the play started with a mime of the actors getting ready and being visited by Elizabeth I, who takes an interest in the script and seemingly decides that the only person to play Titania is her.

This production of AMND is perhaps the finest I have ever seen (including film versions). All the actors were wonderfully cast (the Mechanicals all had broad brummie accents, which suited them perfectly). Bottom was wonderful, with superb comic timing, and just the right amount of seriousness to make him completely ridiculous. The way he created expression with the Asses' head was a joy to watch, and had me in stitches more than once.

The lovers were very good too - particularly in the later scenes when everything is going wrong and they are near killing each other. And Oberon, as the engineer of all this mayhem was cool and collected, barely taking any notice of Puck's gambolling.

In short, this worked so well, that I wish more directors would take the chance on casting older actresses for these seeming 'young' roles. After all, the Bristol Old Vic is currently staging a geriatric version of Romeo and Juliet, which sounds wonderful!

I've just time to give my apologies for not being around the past few weeks (internet has come to the house, I've just not had time to post!), and now, fair people of the blogosphere, I am off to the other side of the world, to hunt for Hobbits and Lions named Aslan .... in short, I am off to New Zealand.
I will post extensively when I get back, and will no doubt have many pictures to share with you all.

Now all I have to worry about is whether I'm taking too many books!

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Literature in Translation

I'm afraid I'm going to be a bit of a shadow figure for the next couple of weeks. I've just moved house and won't be able to get fixed up to the Internet until at least 11th March. I'm currently writing this is an Oxford pub, and whilst I have no objections to this, I doubt if the bar man would be too happy if I became a resident reviewer at one of his tables .... although, I don't know, I could become a tourist attraction.

Watch this space .....

Anyway, boring you about my Internet, or lack thereof, is not the point of this post. I intend to talk to you about a beautiful novel that I have just finished.

This is 'The Elegance of the Hedgehog' by Muriel Barbery, and has been translated from the French. I don't normally read literature in translation - there's far too much originally written in English that I have to make my way through, that I just don't have the time. This however, is a secret gem. Quietly unassuming, and at the beginning a bit hard going (as if trying to prove a point), it blossoms into a beautiful piece of writing that captures the imagination and the heart.

The plot revolves around two central characters - Renee, the concierge to an expensive block of apartments, who struggles to hide her true, intellectual, self behind an uneducated stereotype, and Paloma - a twelve year old resident, who is a genius, determined to kill herself but not before having some profound thoughts. These two unlikely compatriots are brought together and enrich each others lives, whilst also changing their views of the world around them.

I have been converted to translated literature through this book. I didn't think it was possible to love something so much, and be so heartbroken at the way it turned out as I was. I was so sure I knew what the denouement would entail, and when the total reverse happened, I was truly shocked. It's a wonderful book, and if you haven't read it, you really should go in search. It's elegance is truly mesmerising.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Moving towards A.S. Byatt

Tonight is my last night in the family home - I finally move out tomorrow, after months of just talking about it!

I'd probably be a lot more excited, had I not been laid low by a stonking cold (and cough) and if I'd done an iota of packing. C'est la vie - I'm not moving very far, just up the road in fact, so that should be a blessing when it comes to carting my things.

So, to commemorate this last night, I thought I'd take you on a tour of my favourite book of the year, so far .... even though I read most of it in 2009.

I've struggled with A.S. Byatt in the past - I always stop at the same place when reading 'Possession', and I've not been able to settle into anything else of hers. Also, I went right off her personally when I read her comments about Harry Potter readers 'Ms Rowling's magic world has no place for the numinous. It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip.' Bah humbug.
Happily, this did not put me off picking up 'The Children's Book' , and just as well, because it is a revelation to me. Starting out in 1895 and sweeping right through to the end of world war one, it is a portrait of half a dozen free thinking families whose lives all intertwine. At it's root is an adherence to Fabianism and artistry, so that the reader becomes familiar with the inner workings of the Victoria and Albert Museum, pot making and the writing of fairy tales. A.S. Byatt is adept at turning her writing to other forms and so manages to weave these tales as well as the rest of her novel.

Nothing I was expecting to happen actually does so, and those characters I was so interested in at the beginning shift, so that their importance is lessened later, much like the lives of any normal family.

This is a book that will stay with one, the richness of it only fully being appreciated the longer you think about it. And I love the cover - what more do you need!

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Zuleika Dobson

There are a great many books that have been written that use Oxford as a centrepiece. Colin Dexter is the most obvious choice and in latter years Philip Pullman's trilogy have shown us the Oxford that is known and the one that lives just beyond reach in that other world.

There is another novel that has the backdrop of Oxford, and that is Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm. It tells the story of a young woman (not strictly beautiful 'Her eyes were a trifle large ... The mouth was a mere replica of Cupid's bow ... she had no waist to speak of') who manages to capture the hearts of the entire host of undergraduates. Zuleika inspire affection in all but one, The Duke, and seeing this she instantly falls in love. However, the Duke realises this, declares his love and is promptly rejected by his amour. This causes him to declare he will throw himself in the river for love of her.
Now - this is all very well, one man dying for love, and you'd hope the woman being 'honoured' in such a way would immediately recant, or persuade him to change his mind. Not Zuleika. She sees it as the highest compliment, and The Duke accidentally manages to incite all the undergraduates to drowning with him. Thus ends Zuleika's brief spell in Oxford, and what does she feel at this this calamity? Remorse? Sadness? The need to sequester herself in a nunnery? None of these, I am afraid, rather an overwhelming desire to go to Cambridge ....... oh dear.

It has been a long running conversation over on Justine Picardie's blog about who would be the best person to play this inscrutable Miss Dobson should the book ever be filmed. I've been casting my mind over this problem, and feel that the following people would be great.

Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis: If this film had been done in the 40s, then these two wonderful actresses could have swept off with any number of undergraduates they chose. Bette Davis would probably been harder hearted at the mass drowning.

Helena Bonham-Carter: Can't you just see her inspiring adoration everywhere she went? It's also a very eccentric role, which she would do to perfection.

Carey Mulligan - although perhaps to conventionally beautiful

Anna Maxwell-Martin

Anne-Marie Duff

There was a general thought that Lily Cole could do it very well, but personally I think she is too frail, a quality Zuleika definitely doesn't have! It's an interesting book, mad in places, but I love it. Has anyone else out there read it, and if so - who do you think could play the fascinating Zuleika?

Tuesday, 5 January 2010


It's unlikely I'll be snowed in tomorrow, although I'm sure walking to work will take longer. Not least because I'll have to stop and take pictures! Here are a couple of the last time it snowed heavily.

If I were to be snowed in, however, I think I'd just stay in bed, nursing the slight sniffle I have, reading. I currently have Pat Barker's 'Life Class', Jean Plaidy's 'Prince of Darkness' and P.L. Travers' 'Mary Poppins' on the go, and I'm thinking it might be a good time to start a Hardy or Dickens too. I have to say I like this start to 2010!

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Review of 2009

I really should have done this before the year changed, but I ran out of time, and therefore the first few days of 2010 see me thinking of the past year and the things I have read.

My change of job back in March and catapult into full time work meant that my reading time was cut dramatically. In 2008 I was able to read at least 87 books, whilst 2009 only saw a total of 47. Never mind - I can't complain about it too much, seeing as the main reason for the difference is a job I love!

So - what books fell into my waiting hands and proved themselves to be the ones that will stick with me for some time?

In no particular order (other than the alphabetical lay out of my records) here are my top ten.

1. The Secret Scripture - Sebastian Barry: It's taken me a while to read this one, having bought it in 2008, during my Booker madness, that never actually led anywhere! I'd tried 'A Long Long Way' and couldn't get into it, and was therefore wary of starting this. A friend spoke of it so highly during one meeting that I went home and started it immediately. And I was lost. It's a beautiful novel, told by two people who seem to hold half a puzzle each and only in tying the two together, can the full picture be seen. As I read, I kept thinking about the reliability of the narrator, and how it could be reconciled, and then I got to the denouement, and all such thoughts flitted out of my head and I was left simply moved and marvelling at the ability of this writer.

2. Captivated - Piers Dudgeon: I've been unable to find the right words to talk about this book, although I have tried a couple of times to write a full length blog piece. I think because it's focus on J.M. Barrie and his influence on the Llewellyn Davies boys and the Du Maurier family as a whole is quite disturbing, and takes so much away from the age old myth of Peter Pan, that I am loath to write about it, lest I destroy too many childhood memories. It's worth reading though, for this other view of a writer who is so tied to the English imagination. It stays with you, as does the final line, a quote from D.H. Lawrence: 'J.M. Barrie has a fatal touch for those he loves. They die.'

3. The Last Queen - C.W. Gortner: Whilst much attention has been given to Katherine of Aragon
and the failure of her marriage in historical fiction, her siblings have been relegated to the sidelines. This novel follows the fortunes of Juana, Katherine's elder sister, who became Queen of Castille and was thought mad for much of her life. It is an excellent portrayal of those times, depicting the danger a queen can fall to, when ruled by men.

4. Letters from Constance - Mary Hocking: This VMC is the tale of two women's lives, told through the letters of Constance, who sees herself as a failure when compared to her high powered friend, with the perfect house and perfect family. Of course, it all falls apart, but the way in which the novel progresses through the letters of a single person is a great way to carry a novel.

5. Howards End is on the Landing - Susan Hill: I've already written about this one, but it deserves another mention, even though I know it's divided the book loving public in half. I just feel it delivers on every single level, from the wonderful cover, right through to the satisfaction gained from reading it. In a world gone mad from consumerism, it certainly seems to have left its mark, as people (including Simon from stuck-in-a-book) have declared their intentions of reading only those things they already have, and limiting their book buying output. I think the reason I love it so much, if because, I can see myself in it. Both who I am now, and who I hope to become is weaved into those pages.

6. A Thousand Splendid Suns - Khaled Hosseini: I saw 'The Kite Runner' and wasn't very impressed, so I probably would have never picked this up if it weren't for book club. I loved it. Perhaps because it was the feminine perspective, or perhaps because it felt like it had a wider scope. If I didn't have so many books unread, I'd go and read it again. Perhaps I will!

7. The Rose of Sebastopol - Katharine McMahon: This is a tale of two Victorian women, set against the backdrop of the Crimean war. The era has always fascinated me, but I know little of it, aside from the usual Florence Nightingale links. This book goes beyond that and manages to combine the strength of the age with the frailty of those in love. It reads like a mystery as well as a saga that might not have been far from the minds of those writing in the actual era.

8. Never Let me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro: I've had an on/off love affair with Ishiguro for many years. I adored 'The Remains of the Day' and didn't get 'When we Were Orphans', although I think I may have been to young to understand it. This was another book club read, and whilst the unusual subject matter took a little getting used to, it's an intruiging novel, which casts many questions once it's read. I'm looking forward to the film due out later this year, staring Carey Mulligan.

9. Madame Depardieu and the Beautiful Strangers - Antonia Quirke: This book is mad. Part memoir, part film review, part extended gush about various male actors, it is a study of a woman (Antonia Quirke) who has spent her life watching film and being absorbed by them. What struck me was how much I indentified it, having spent quite a bit of my childhood watching old films and wishing I was as witty as Katharine Hepburn, and had Cary Grant promising me love forever. It's a great way to write about ones' life - film being such a big part of it nowadays. It's the perfect book to cheer those winter days and give inspiration for the odd holiday romance ....

10. Flush - Virgina Woolf: There ought to be more books about the pets of famous people, although Virginia Woolf is probably the only writer who can do the style justice. I bought this in the Persephone edition, so it has the wonderful grey binding, and gorgeous purple end papers, which add such a lot to the experience of reading. The book itself is fascinating in the way it tells the familiar story through the eyes of a dog so devoted to his mistress, and so distrustful of the man who would be his master.

So - that's my year in terms of books, and it's been hard to make one or two decisions. I've got some interesting reads planned for this year, although whether I get to them remains to be seen! Happy new year everyone, may 2010 be the year of the book for you all!

Poem (and poet) of the week


When Andrew T. Lamar calls you his Valentine,
something is up.
When he looks at you without undressing
you with his eyes: overreact.
That’s not normal for Andrew T. Lamar.
When he calls you late at night
and says he’s “doing econ,”
always check that’s not a girl’s name.
When he says “I’m hungry, too bad you’re not here,”
he never means that he likes your cooking.
When he asks what you’re wearing
never answer “boy shorts and a string of pearls.”
He’ll imagine you pulling a tray of cookies
out of the oven wearing only that,
and an apron,
and probably a pair of heels.
He’ll never ask you to stay over,
usually he has to get up early for church;
right after he breaks about four of the commandments
just by watching you smile.

I don't get many chances to introduce brand new work to the blogosphere, but this is probably one of those few times when I can. Stephanie Leal, creator of this body of work called Metrophobia, honed her craft in UEA, at the same time as I was attempting (and failing) to hone mine in Biography. American by birth, she came to Norwich and there the fresh, biting, East wind found her and breathed its keen sense of timing and wit into her already sharp mind.

I have always had trouble with poetry, and my ability to wrap my mind around the meaning, but I do love Steph's poetry - the way she plays with form, ideas and words all combine to make a truly great anthology. So, go seek her out, and - if you're lucky - I might even give you another poem one day.