Monday, April 28, 2014

Serendipity

I was browsing through the poetry section in a little Waterstones at the weekend (as you do) when I picked up 'A Poet's Guide To Britain' . Opening it at random I found myself looking at John Betjeman's 'Shetland 1973' (the year and place I come from) and Jen Hadfield's Blashey-Wadder. Jen Hadfield is a poet I was absolutely unaware of 3 weeks ago (because like many people I'm woefully ignorant of contemporary poetry) but who's name I've kept coming across ever since, she won the T. S. Elliot prize for poetry in 2008 and is resident in Shetland. There was a brilliant episode of The Echo Chamber on radio 4 a couple of weeks ago about Hadfield which is where I heard about her first and has got me really interested in her work - I don't always listen to it and but for the chance hearing of a dialect word on a trailer would probably have missed this episode (it's on at that time of a Sunday afternoon when I can't put off domestic chores any longer). That Shetland is a small place and she my stepmother knows her makes me feel like I've really missed a trick here.

I bought the book - I rather felt I had to. It accompanied a BBC series which I also managed to totally miss (on BBC4 I think which I do watch quite a bit of but generally find - as I am tonight - that it's a programme about mushrooms or some such) presented by Owen Sheers (who is another contemporary poet I know nothing about but who has a very impressive CV - is it just me or is there something deeply encouraging about the number of people out in the world who's job description is poet?). Anyway I'm guessing it was a really good programme, the book is certainly charming.

I've been reading a fair amount of poetry recently, mostly odds and ends found in anthologies, and specifically looking for poems which conjure strong images for me. This is the time of year that I feel particularly homesick for the north of Scotland, I miss the sea and the light, theoretically I miss the dark in the winter too but not in quite the same way, it really is enough to just read about that. Finding a poem - preferably a shortish one - that captures some element of what I miss, which can be copied down and carried around talisman fashion, and which can be mulled over in the dull corners I work in (wine doesn't appreciate direct sunlight even if wine merchants do) is not the worst way to deal with the frustration of being stuck inside on a glorious spring day.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Painted Veil - W Somerset Maugham

Many years ago I tried to read 'The Moon and Sixpence' and failed, I hated it, and ever since then I've viewed Maugham with a deep prejudice. I was not therefore particularly enthusiastic when  'The Painted Veil' turned up as the latest read for my postal book group and I can't say that I approached it with an open mind so it came as a real surprise to find that I loved it. I'm guessing that the plot is fairly well known given the several film versions, at least one radio adaptation I'm sure I listened to part of, and that it's been considered a classic for any number of the years since 1925 when it was first published but there will be a brief synopsis anyway...

Kitty Garstin is a pretty and  spoilt socialite who didn't make the most of her matrimonial opportunities, at the age of 25 with an 18 year old sister who has just managed to make a very eligible match she accepts a proposal from Walter Fane and goes out to Hong Kong with him. Walter is morbidly sensitive, intelligent, honourable, very much in love with Kitty, and not at all the man to capture her heart or imagination. As the book opens he's basically catching her in flagrante (it's not as salacious as it sounds) with Charles Townsend an Assistant Colonial Secretary. Kitty's lover is as vain and selfish as she is so when it all blows up on them he has no hesitation in dumping her in it. Walter gives Kitty a choice, if  Charles will divorce his wife and promise to marry Kitty he'll allow her to divorce him, otherwise Walter can divorce her naming Charles as co-respondent and in the process creating the sort of scandal which would ruin his career and her reputation, or she can go with him to a cholera ridden city which means likely death. Walter knows exactly the kind of man Charles is, Kitty finds out the hard way when he basically sends her off to die with a cheery wave.

Initially Kitty isn't an attractive character but a combination of falling in love for the first time (with Charles) being exposed to death and poverty, and losing the adoration of her husband does a lot to build her character. What doesn't kill her makes her stronger. Perhaps the biggest revelation for Kitty is that there is nobody in the world who cares if she lives or dies, second is that here Walter isn't just valued for his work he's seen almost as a saint. The balance of their relationship changes again and then quite shockingly Walter dies.

What really blew me away about this book is how Maugham kept wrong footing me, the way things work out makes sense, they're believable, human, have an element of hope, but are not happy endings in the traditional sense. The film version from 2006 changes things somewhat (or so I gather from the plot summery on Wikipedia) and has Kitty fall in love with Walter. She never gets further than a profound pity in the book which was hard on this reader. I liked Walter, Maugham does I think attempt to make him unsympathetic - he keeps pointing out that people don't like him and that he's somehow unattractive, but it's not enough. I wanted Kitty to - not fall in love with him, but to no longer be bored by him, or at least not to feel so much sympathy for him myself, but then it wouldn't have been such a powerful read so what do I know.

Ann Bridge's Peking Picnic which I didn't really like (both are set in China and involve adultery) is an interesting companion read to this - I don't think the Bridge comes out particularly well from the comparison - Maugham's characters are so much more believable and this book just generally better in every way, but it does give some context and in some ways Bridge's Laura Leroy is very like Charles wife Dorothy, had I read 'The Painted Veil' first I might have enjoyed 'Peking Picnic' more.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Death On The Cherwell - Mavis Doriel Hay

As a fan of Persephone books, Dorothy L. Sayers, and golden age British crime 'Death on the Cherwell' was always going to sound like a winner to me - published in the same year as Sayers 'Gaudy Night' (1935), and set in the fictional Persephone College (apparently based on St Hilda's which Hay attended between 1913 and 1916 - it wasn't until 1920 that Oxford awarded women degrees, Cambridge somewhat later) there's a lot here I was bound to enjoy. I hadn't realised that 'Death on the Cherwell' was contemporary with 'Gaudy Night' until I read Stephen Booth's excellent introduction, comparisons between the two are interesting, I'm inclined to say that in some ways 'Death on the Cherwell' has aged rather better.

I was 13 when I first read 'Gaudy Night' (I can still remember retiring to bed with it one very wet weekend) and it made me fall in love with both the idea of Oxford and the possibility of higher education. Reading it again a couple of years ago I still think it's a brilliant description of academic life and harriet Vane remains a character I'm deeply attached too, but Sayers increasing infatuation with her detective, an underlying snobbery, and occasional mentions of eugenics were all distractions that reminded me of the books vintage and Sayers own shortcomings. 'Death on the Cherwell' isn't as ambitious in it's scope but there's not much in it that needs explanation, excuse, or apology.

Four students gather together on a boat house roof late one January afternoon with the object of forming a secret society dedicated to cursing the bursar. Disconcertingly for them just as they're about to swear an oath the dead body of the bursar floats past in her canoe, odder yet she's clearly drowned so what's she doing under the thwarts of the canoe... The police are called in but the girls are anxious to do their own investigating, they're also anxious to protect their own. Fortunately the Scotland yard man is both intelligent and sympathetic and without much trouble the students tell all they know and the mystery is quickly unravelled. It's a sad story with an interesting twist at the end which makes this stand out from the standard murder mystery. Apart from that Hay is also rather good on undergraduates - as she observes on page one "Undergraduates, especially those in their first year , are not, of course, quite sane or quite adult. It is sometimes considered that they are not quite human. Emerging excitedly from the ignominious status of schoolgirl or schoolboy, and as yet unsteadied by the ballast of responsibility which, later on, a livelihood- earning career will provide, they enter the university like beings born again...". I live on the edge of a campus, it's a description I recognise. Hay definitely likes her undergraduates though (as do I for that matter, they make good neighbours) the group here are nice young women caught in that moment between childhood and adult life when everything is possible.

Hay doesn't really examine university life in the way that Sayers does, but curiously both express distaste for the journalistic habit of referring to women students as undergraduettes (I'm not surprised it seems to have really irritated the educated women of the day), and she also makes the point that Cambridge doesn't yet offer proper degrees for women, which puts it at a distinct disadvantage to Oxford. I enjoyed 'The Santa Klaus Murder' which the BL bought out last Christmas, but this book is much more, it really does make me regret that Hay only wrote 3 books and correspondingly pleased that she's back in print. It's light entertainment but almost everything about it is delightful (the one exception is an overly excitable foreign student) and as a piece of golden age detective fiction it feels very fresh.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Beware of Pity - Stefan Zweig - translated by Anthea Bell

I'm slowly overcoming my prejudices about translated fiction - the most powerful being that it's in some way inauthentic reading something filtered through a translator - and predictably finding a whole world of excitement. The purchase of 'Beware of Pity' was inspired by a combination of seeing 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' (excellent) and visiting the Kibworth Bookshop. It seems rude to enter an independent bookshop (especially a good one) and not buy something to support it in some way. Despite being the approximate size of a small cupboard (I only exaggerate a bit) they had a far better selection of Zweig than my local Waterstones (which is also on the bijou side). Had the film not been so good the book would probably have sat about unread for - well it could have been years - but as it is I'm delighted I got that push to get on with it.

This copy opens with a quote from later in the book - "There are two kinds of pity, One, the weak-minded, sentimental sort, is really just the heart's impatience to rid itself as quickly as possible of the painful experience of being moved by another person's suffering. It is not a case of real sympathy, of feeling with the sufferer, but a way of defending yourself against someone else's pain. The other kind, the only one that counts, is unsentimental but creative. It knows its own mind, and is determined to stand by the suffering too, to the last of its strength and even beyond."  which pretty much sums up what it's about. It's set in the summer of 1914 and Zweig adds a short note for the English reader about the nature of the Austro-Hungarian army and an officers life within it, they were very much a separate caste educated from the very beginning to think of themselves in a certain way and with their own moral code.

This is the story of one captain Hoffmiller - a highly decorated war hero who shares his tale with our 'author' over dinner one night. As a young lieutenant stationed in a country garrison town he manages to get himself invited to dinner and a dance in the local castle. He makes a terrible faux pas when he asks the daughter of the house to dance, not realising she's lame - she promptly has hysterics and the poor young man runs away. To make amends he sends flowers the next day and from that point an intense friendship with the household springs up. For Hoffmiller who is well aware that he's an ordinary sort of man there are the twin attractions of being made much of for the first time, and in return feeling that in bestowing his time and pity on Edith and her father he's giving them something they value.

Pity in fact carries him away to the point of indiscretion, after a conversation with Edith's doctor he promises her father, and in turn he promises Edith that a cure is just around the corner. It isn't, but through that conversation that he can only half remember he inextricably binds himself to the family, the knot is tied even tighter when he begs the doctor not to reveal the truth but to allow Edith to hope that she can be cured. Inevitably Edith falls in love with Hoffmiller, and when he realise it, it horrifies him that the object of his pity could physically desire him but he doesn't have the strength to be honest. Torn between fear of being mocked by his brother officers and chaffing at the responsibility he's taken on for the Kekesfalva's  Hoffmiller ends up in a hell of a mess.

As Zweig makes clear pity is a dangerous emotion for all involved, it breeds resentment in relationships. Hoffmiller is manipulated into giving more than he's willing too and at the same time has to face his own, understandable, cowardice. For Edith who wants love pity is a wholly unacceptable substitute, but in turn one that she's prepared to manipulate to try and get what she wants. Disaster is inevitable. It's a brilliant book, pinning down something fundamentally true - it really is a masterpiece and I'm so glad I've read it.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Roaring Girl

I've been to the theatre for what feels like the first time in an age, which is a shame because it's something I love doing. The problem isn't so much opportunity as cost - we went to Stratford last night where the average ticket price without concessions hovers around £30, throw in petrol, parking, and programmes (forget having an ice cream) and that adds up to a lot of books. There are no discounts for those of us who occupy the squeezed middle, and whilst I'm not looking for sympathy because I can't afford to see as much early seventeenth century drama as I might like, it's not very motivating to know you're working harder than ever but can afford less than ever.

The Roaring Girl was written by Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton in 1612 in response to the real life Mary Frith. Court records hold various accounts of Mary's, also known as Moll Cutpurse, exploits. She was known to dress as a man to go drinking and was picked up on various occasions for theft though she might also have been a criminal informer as well. She was certainly notorious in her own lifetime - hence the play, and thanks to Middleton and Dekker is an interesting footnote in history.

'The Roaring Girl' isn't the best play ever written - see here for a synopsis - but it is fascinating. The real Moll is lost to history but she may not have been as interesting as Dekker and Middleton's version. This Moll is a personality, she has all the swagger and confidence of someone who knows they own the streets, and of someone utterly comfortable in their own body and identity. She's one of the few characters in the play not motivated by sex (or love). Love (or sex) would be a distraction that might diminish her independence. This Moll is a truly independent character, she's also brash, intelligent, transgressive, notorious, and altogether unique.

I don't agree with  The Telegraph when their critic says this doesn't come off as a jolly romp. Last night's audience seemed fairly convinced that it did. We also liked the Victorian setting, Moll is essentially shown as a contemporary character - which in many ways she is, and that works better against a late Victorian setting than it could in Jacobean costume. It means the cast can break out into very much more modern song and dance numbers (bare with, it works even if it sounds off putting) in a way that makes some sort of sense (and is a lot of fun, we were delighted by how much fun this was to watch). The Victorian scenery is an effective prompt to remind the audience of how women were treated, and still makes Moll's cross dressing feel shocking - her Victorian boys outfits are both more and less revealing than seventeenth century doublet and hose would be, and in keeping with her independent spirit she doesn't feel bound to any particular time.

The end result was that we left feeling so inspired that we both declared we'd happily watch it again (rare) and have decided to go and see Arden of Faversham in a couple of weeks time (expense be damned).

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Emily's Quest - L. M. Montgomery

I read the first two books from the Emily series earlier this year (here and here) then with great self control managed to hold back on the last one until now. I really enjoyed the Anne of Green Gables series as a child and it's been a pleasure reacquainting myself with Montgomery again as an adult. I assume this series is meant for younger readers though my local waterstones and I are a little unsure, they have the books in both adult and children's sections - not that it matters, good books are universal.

On the down side, and probably something that wouldn't have bothered me in the least when I was 12, Montgomery is a little bit to ecstatic about nature - there are far to many references to sparkling fairy brews and enchanted anything's for my current taste so a little bit of effort was required to accommodate that. The effort is more than rewarded by the pleasure I got from the lush descriptions of Prince Edward Island, she makes me want to be there, and also feel like I am there. Montgomery has her characters discuss the idea of a specifically Canadian literature in both 'Emily Climbs' and a little bit here as well, she sees it through by keeping Emily at new Moon farm and on her island. I am a sucker for an island location, and all the things that people care about in life happen in small places as well as large.

'Emily Climbs' finished with Emily, Teddy, Ilse, and Perry finishing high school and setting off in different directions, Teddy and Ilse are headed for Montreal to carry on their studies, Perry is a clerk in a solicitors office and well on his way to a dazzling career. It's only Emily who has chosen to stay at home where she intends to pursue her dreams to be a writer. At first all goes well for her, she misses her friends but her stories are being accepted and she's beginning to make a reasonable living for herself. What remains unresolved are her feelings for Teddy Kent whose letters are becoming colder and more remote, still they are young, there are other distractions for Emily, and surely all the time in the world, meanwhile there are novels to be written.

Emily's first novel is the child of her heart and soul, but it's rejected by the first three publishers she sends it to, finally she hands it to her old friend Dean Priest who tells her it's no good, it's a turning point for Emily who burns her manuscript, suffers a horrible accident, and gives up on her dream. After her recuperation, cut off from her friends and her muse she finally agrees to marry Dean.

The relationship between Dean and Emily has been troubling me from the first book, Dean decided Emily was the girl for him when she was 12, 7 years later his patience pays off - his single-mindedness on the subject was hard to stomach whilst Emily was so young (though there's no hint of impropriety) but what's worrying now is his jealous nature. He has developed a habit of belittling Emily's writing because he resents the time and attention it takes from him. He lies when he tells her the book is no good, it's controlling behaviour that hints at the possibility of something more abusive in a time when marriage would be utterly binding.

In the end the marriage doesn't take place (forgive the spoiler) and we can hope again that Emily and Teddy sort out their differences because they're clearly meant to be together. I hope it's not to much of a spoiler to say that the book will end happily, because before that happens Montgomery throws in all sorts of obstacles, the path of true love won't run smoothly. For the adult reader this is a light and enjoyable book with something to say about the choices women have to make regarding career, love, and family life. Montgomery doesn't say you can't have it all but I think she's clear that compromises have to be made for relationships to work and that sometimes ambition isn't compatible with domestic bliss. For younger readers it's basically the same and that's the beauty of a really good book. I think this is a great series, in its way it's quietly subversive - really how often are girls told in fiction that a career might actually be enough by itself? Love is desirable but it's not the only thing.
 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Dark Horse - Rumer Godden

I managed to mark the start of spring with a nasty cold, it was bad enough to keep me sofa bound for a couple of days which if I'm entirely honest I quite enjoyed despite the runny nose and throat that felt like it had been sandpapered - this had a lot to do with the unexpected arrival of a parcel from Virago books. In it were a brace of Rumer Godden's - 'An Episode of Sparrows' and 'The Dark Horse' which looked like just the thing to cheer up someone feeling distinctly under the weather.

Both are part of Virago's series for children/young adults which they launched a year ago. I haven't read the earlier Godden's from this series which looked like they were intended for really quite young children but the first thing to say about these two is how gorgeous the covers are. They are exquisite, the sort of books that you have to pick up. I started with 'The Dark Horse' (nuns and racehorses turned out to be an irresistible combination) which brings me to the second thing I have to say - I have no clear idea of what makes a children's book. In this case I'm taking Virago's word for it but there's no child protagonist or anything else to make it obvious to me. My own reading career went from mostly Enid Blyton to the likes of Georgette Heyer, Agatha Christie, and Terry Pratchett none of which are unsuitable for 13 year olds but are all just as likely aimed at 30 year olds. In short I missed out on that middle faze which is probably why the idea of 'young adult' fiction baffles me a bit.

'The Dark Horse' is apparently based on a true story, Dark Invader is a classic looking racehorse picked up in Ireland by a spoilt young owner and taken over to England, he performs well in his first race but disappoints after that and is consequently sold to an Indian owner and shipped out to Calcutta where he becomes a favourite with the crowd and turns around his fortunes, then just before the biggest race of the season he disappears. He's found in the nick of time taking sanctuary with some nuns but the question remains - will he be ready to race?

Godden (who I missed out on as a teenager, but have been delighted to discover as an adult) uses her horse tale to explore a number of other issues. Written in 1981 but set in the 1930's 'The Dark Horse' mostly deals with issues of redemption and prejudice. Dark Invader's new owner is a Mr Leventine, he may be Jewish, he's definitely an outsider despite his impressive wealth, it seems it's not easy to buy your way into Calcutta society. His trainer is John Quillan a young man of excellent family who gave up a promising career in the army when he married a Eurasian woman. This marriage has  estranged him from his family, also bars him from Calcutta society, lays quite a stigma on the couples many children, and has generally made John extremely sensitive. Mr Leventine also imports Dark Invader's 'lad' an over the hill jockey by the name of Ted Mullins who has lost his licence to race, lost his wife to influenza, and has a drink problem to boot. Finally there are the nuns, sisters of poverty who do their best to help Calcutta's many poor headed up by the enigmatic sister Morag who is determined to do what she can to help the needy. Add to all that wonderfully evocative descriptions of Calcutta and its racing scene and then wonder at how it's all packed into a couple of hundred pages.

In the end all the characters who need redemption find it - Leventine who has always been generous in his way learns the satisfaction of charity, Mullins finds a purpose he lost when his wife died, and Quillan - who's marriage is happy despite what it cost him - finds people who will accepts his family despite their mixed race heritage. The nuns also get what they need (after observing that god helps those who help themselves).

I think this is a great book for younger and older readers alike. It doesn't have that element of quite dark, often violent, sexuality that can make some of Godden's other books so disturbing, and that along with the happy endings and moral certainties are perhaps what marks it out as a children's book but it truly does cross over. 



Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Kitchen Aid

It's been a while since I last posted about a kitchen item but I'm still inspired by Lindsey Bareham's trifle bowl so here we are again... My Kitchen Aid (which was an unexpectedly generous and very much appreciated birthday present) is easily the most expensive single item in my kitchen. For all the Le Creuset I've acquired I don't think I've spent as much on it as that one item would cost to replace, and though I've undoubtedly spent more on books over the years there are at least a lot of them. If I ever to have to replace the fridge or oven that were already in place when I bought this flat (the oven might need replacing quite soon, but fingers crossed it will carry on for a bit longer) the chances are that I'll buy the cheapest thing that fits in the space and that might well come to less than that one highly decorative food mixer.

Generally I really dislike spending serious money on something that won't last longer than I will (I would infinitely rather spend a thousand pounds on a picture than on a computer - and in the very unlikely event that I find myself with £1000 in hand that's exactly what I would do) but when the Kitchen Aid arrived in my life I was ready to do it. I think they're beautiful as well as functional, I'd wanted one for a very long time, and damn it I felt like I deserved it. In short it was a weak spot, but the tipping point was when I burnt out my 3rd or 4th hand blender (roughly one every 2 years) and decided it had to be something more robust.

It could have been a Kenwood but I have a prejudice against them - not really the Kenwood's fault, the kitchens I worked in as a girl all had knackered ones that were forever breaking down but they were domestic machines being used industrially so that's not really a reflection on the Kenwood's ability, more importantly I just don't find them as pretty. It could have been another hand blender - which would have been cheap and probably sensible, however looking at a hand blender has never given me a thrill of pride or made me feel that one of life's small goals has been achieved. (My mother always said she didn't feel truly grown up until she got her first Kenwood chef).

It qualifies to be mentioned here because it has had a very specific influence on how I cook. One of the, lets call it endearing, traits of a Kitchen Aid is that it needs a regular work out, if it doesn't get them the oil inside it starts to separate and leak (not desirable). Ironically since I got it I'm less inclined to bake cakes, I still make them, just not the cake a week of a few years ago. Nor do I whip a whole lot of stuff in it either - though when I do it's nice to be able to multi task around the kitchen rather than stand over those egg whites or whatever. What I have done though is experiment with more breads and that is a change. Any recipe that warns 'this is quite a wet dough' - which applies to a lot of sweeter bread and buns is much less icky in a food mixer. Chucking everything in the bowl and letting the machine do the initial hard work but still getting the hands on element when you knock back your dough or shape it is the best of both worlds.

It is a functional machine, it is rather nice to be able to put things in it and then turn your back on them for a bit, it does make some things much easier, and it is a thing of beauty if you're that way inclined. I can't really claim it's necessary, or even that it does the job better than anything else can but I love it - it's my pride and joy, and it's very much part of my kitchen.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Dead Lake - Hamid Ismailov

It's a while since I've read a Peirenne book but I have a small pile of them and the possibility of getting to hear Meike Ziervogel speak at The Leicester Book Festival (if I can arrange the evening off from work. I had better be able to arrange the evening off work. Pity any poor customer who asks me a question if I can't arrange the evening off work...) so I'm motivated to read them in a timely fashion. There are likely all sorts of bookish things happening in Leicester that I'm unaware of, but there aren't many that I am aware of - the Leicester Book Festival is being organised from a (very good) small independent bookshop in the village of Kibworth, well outside of the city. When the odd chance does arise to do something bookish locally (other than read) I don't want to miss out.

'The Dead Lake' is described as a haunting tale about the environmental legacy of the Cold War which gave me a certain expectation of what I'd find in it but it was nowhere near as bleak as I expected. I've been googling images of the Kazakh steppe but no thumbnail image on a laptop is going to convey the scale of place that Ismailov describes - day 4 of a train journey through unchanging scenery, that's all but unimaginable to someone who's never been anywhere it's seriously possible to get lost in, the only thing I can think of to give it context is the sea. Anything could happen in a place that big.

Between 1949 and 1989 a total of 468 nuclear explosions took place at the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Sites both in the atmosphere and underground. It was a populated area even if the population was sparse, that activity has left a lasting legacy. Yerzhan is born in the way station of Kara-Shagan, a settlement of two house, his father is a mystery, his mother hasn't spoken since he was born. The two households are intimately linked with a child in each - Aisulu is the girl next door. This little island of humanity in the middle of the steppe provides the setting for a happy childhood for Yerzhan and Aisulu. Yerzhan is a musical prodigy secure in his world and his growing love for Aisulu, everything would be perfect if it wasn't for the forbidden 'zone' and the explosions that rock it with blinding lights and rushing winds.

Ismailov (translated by Andrew Bromfield) brings the Steppe vividly to life, icy winters when wolves are a real danger, scorching summers, swathes of wild flowers and all the small landmarks that allow the initiated to navigate this vast landscape - including deserted towns and nuclear testing facilities. When a bomb is detonated the families retreat indoors for a few days before returning to life as normal, at school the children hide beneath their desks, Yerzhan is blasĂ© about the explosions, but still lurking just under the surface there is a palpable fear of some half understood secret from the adult world.

In the end it seems that Yerzhan isn't destined to grow up, he remains trapped in a child's body as Aisulu continues to grow. All of this is explained to a chance met stranger on a train by a Yerzhan who is apparently 27 though he still looks 12. In the second part of the book the stranger try's to imagine the rest of Yerzhan's story as he sleeps, he also speculates as to whether it's all some sort of elaborate con. I think the reader has the choice of reading it all as a fairy tale or more literally as they wish. For myself I chose to read it quite literally, I was so caught up in the scenes Ismailov (and Bromfield) kept spreading before me that I paid scant attention to the metaphors beneath the images, but it's a short book and I can read it again when I want to untangle further meaning from it.

It's a book that begs discussion, I would love to know what others have made of it and found in it so will be searching avidly for other bloggers and reviewers opinions. Meanwhile it's also a reminder of what happens on the edges of our consciousness and civilisation in the places that are easy to forget about and ignore, and also a book that's well worth reading, even if only once.   

Monday, April 7, 2014

Elsewhere (Shiny New Books)

It's the launch of Shiny New Books today - I've only had a quick browse so far but it's looking good, there are a few books on there that I've been mulling over - the second opinions are all pushing me towards purchases, and I'm looking forward to exploring more over the next few days.

I've made my own small contribution in the form of a review of Andrew Taylor's 'Books That Changed The World'. It's one of those books that looks like a fun read for booklovers but, in my case at any rate, turned out to be much more. It's the sort of book that re-acquaints you with things already on your shelf (often unread) and generally gives you plenty to think about - but you can read all about it here.


Sunday, April 6, 2014

Diary of a Provincial Lady - E. M. Delafield

Today I overslept a bit, finally got up and attempted to make cinnamon buns prior to friends coming round - they might have turned out better if I'd not been so sleepy I poured cold milk straight onto the flour and yeast (it should be scalded then cooled, and I can now confirm that this does make a softer bun) but my friends were charmingly polite about them. I did manage to make a really good wholemeal loaf (for which credit belongs to the kitchen aid that did all the hard work) but forgot to offer it to friends who would probably have been grateful for a sandwich instead of an indifferent cinnamon bun - they were to polite to suggest it. Whilst the bread was rising I bumbled round the flat making neatish stacks of things, throwing away old newspapers, and getting rid of the worst of the dust - all in the hope I would give a vague impression of domestic competence. We talked about old acquaintances all of whom seem to have been very successful. After they left I gave in to a lurking cold and spent my afternoon on the sofa with the Provincial Lady and watching the boat race.

The details of the P.L.'s life are quite different from mine (not married, no children, don't have to worry about servants.) but generally we have a lot in common (a tendency to being ever so slightly over drawn, a partner who doesn't even need a copy of the times to fall asleep in his chair, never being quite as organised as I would like, and a feeling that in some direction I'm not trying quite hard enough). Not trying quite hard enough ought possibly to be capitalised and mostly concerns the books not read, the plays not seen, the exhibitions not visited - it's the uneasy sense of horizons narrowing, and the most disquieting thing about it is that most the time you don't notice it's happening because you get so bogged down in the day to day stuff - see above. (Horizons may be just fine, but a cold doesn't encourage a particularly positive outlook on life). 

I can't remember when I first found the Provincial Lady but it must be twenty years or more ago, my original copy has all but fallen apart so I'm very pleased to have the new Persephone edition, she always comforts me. At 40 I have heard of and read more of the authors the P.L. mentions but otherwise I don't think my reaction to her has changed at all. The afterword here has a faintly apologetic air (the ladies at Persephone are not provincial) which I don't really agree with. I've only read a couple of Delafield's other books (Thank Heaven Fasting and The Way Things Are) neither of which I thought as good as The Provincial Lady. I found myself particularly out of sympathy with Laura, the heroine of The Way Things Are who is a sort of precursor of the P.L. who's charm lies in her acceptance of her world and her ability to make the everyday amusing. I even like the phlegmatic Robert (he seems like a reliable man, the sort who might not declare his undying love, or even whole hearted support, but very much the sort who will get you to or from the train station on time along with other equally practical attributes). I even sympathise with the servant and school fees problems, my equivalent is a mortgage and a crazy china habit. The bottom line is that I love this book and everything about it, I think it's a work of genius. I'm guessing that most people reading this will also be fans but on the off chance that it's new to anybody - well just get a copy and read it. (Please).

  

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Things found on the shelves

At a rough guess I have something between 2500 - 3000 books, up until 2000 I had a reasonably good grasp on what I had and where each book might be, but at some point (that point was probably in 2010, or possibly at 2010 - who knows) I ran out of sufficient shelf space and also lost track of what exactly I had. I would love more shelves (a slightly bigger flat or house to put them in would be handy too) more shelves would mean better organisation (I like to think that's what would happen) and it might be easier to find things which would mostly be a bonus. On the other hand something that I've come to love are those times when I'm looking for something and come across a cache of books I'd forgotten I had, in some ways it's even more exciting than getting new books. I'd miss that with better organisation. I might not miss the increased possibility if buying the same book twice.

Occasionally, in a half hearted way, I think about a clear out, stare at things I haven't picked up for years, and wonder how much I need a shelf for poetry. This week, after probably about a decade of indifference I can't seem to read enough of the stuff. Maybe it's spring in the air. Because it's been so long there have been some discovery's. Turns out I did buy a collection of Donne at some point, no doubt influenced by Dorothy L. Sayers, it also turns out that I'm not anything like the fan that Sayers was. The Romantic poets that I loved as a teenager, especially Keats, don't resonate with me in the same way at the moment, and I daren't open my collection of Victorian poetry which was always more for local colour than emotional connection.

The nicest find though was a forgotten collected poems of Philip Larkin. I'd written in it 2004, 31, the nicest thing, from which I gather that it was a 31st birthday present, there is only one person who would have given it to me, it was and is a lovely present to have received. I'm also quite pleased to find I have Heaney's Beowulf which I was thinking of buying.


This rediscovered love for reading poetry is partly due to being in-between books and unsure of quite what I'm in the mood for next, normally it's short stories at a time like this, but poems provide an even quicker fix and I've found something else in them that I didn't expect. Because many of these books haven't been opened for the best part of a decade they're full of page markers and reminders of a somewhat younger self, it's a much kinder reminder of (relative) youth than a photograph which generally serves to highlight the acquisition of grey hairs, it certainly reinforces my idea of a collection of books being a form of self portrait.