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.