Saturday, 28 April 2012

The Hothouse by the East River by Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark Reading WeekThis is the first book by Muriel Spark I have read, and I did so to join in with Muriel Spark Reading Week hosted by Simon at Stuck In A Book and Harriet Devine. The first thing I have to say about it is that it was strange. It was like a puzzle, I wasn't sure what was real and what wasn't or which characters were telling the truth and which weren't.

Elsa and Paul are a couple in late middle-age living in an apartment which overlooks the East River in New York. At first it appears that Elsa is mentally ill and that Paul is caring for her. But as the story progressed I wondered if it was in fact Paul who was ill. Elsa treats Paul quite cruelly, he is insecure and she plays on this, feeding him lies and making him doubt himself. I wondered why he didn't leave her, but they seemed locked together. Their relationship is intense and others get drawn into their orbit and into the  strangeness, including both their analysts, one of whom ends up working for them as their butler!

They have two grown up children, Pierre and Katrina, both of whom are financially dependent on them, but don't really like them. This is Paul and Pierre;

In the summer of 1944, he is telling his son, life was more vivid than it is now. Everything was more distinct. The hours of the day lasted longer. One lived excitedly and dangerously. There was a war on.
Pierre looks ahead at the painting on the wall opposite and wonders if the annual allowance that his mothers gives him on the condition that he keeps on good terms with his father is worth it.

Paul and Elsa met during the war when they both worked in England for a government department which dealt with propaganda and psychological warfare. It is this period of their lives that they keep returning to. Elsa meets a shoe salesman who she says is a German named Helmut Kiel, who they worked with in the war. Paul becomes paranoid and believes that Kiel intends him harm. Then other people from the war start turning up.

I really don't know how to describe this book. I haven't even mentioned the strangest thing of all, which is that Elsa's shadow always faces a different way to everyone else's! I think that the puzzle gets resolved in the end, but even the resolution leaves questions. The copy I borrowed from the library is 168 pages and I think this is just long enough - I couldn't have stood strangeness much longer. I may be making it sound as though I didn't enjoy it, which isn't the case. I did enjoy it, I'm just not quite sure why.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Everybody Was So Young: Gerald and Sara Murphy, A Lost Generation Love Story by Amanda Vaill

This is the story of Gerald and Sara Murphy, an American couple who married in 1916, moved to France and became part of a group of artists and writers who became known as the Lost Generation. Their friends included Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Dorothy Parker and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

Both Gerald and Sara were born into well-to-do families, Sara's was more old money, while Gerald's father was a self-made man. Both their families were quite domineering, with definite expectations for their offspring. Gerald and Sara seemed to find freedom in their marriage. By the standards of the time neither of them were young when they married (Sara was 32), they suddenly began to live the life they wanted to. It was as if they both stepped out into the sunshine and began to play.

Gerald gave up his position in his father's business, they moved to Paris as it was cheaper to live there, and he began to paint. His first teacher was Natalia Goncharova, who worked with Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes. This opened up a whole new world to them;

......they had been caught in what Gerald later called "a sort of movement," the group of artists and musicians and amateurs and hangers-on that clustered around the Ballet Russes. "You knew everyone in it," said Gerald, "and you were expected to go to the rehearsals, and they wanted your opinion and they discussed it with you."

They decided to settle in the south of France, and it was there they entertained writers and artists such as Fitzgerald and Picasso. Over the years the friendships waxed and waned, but the Murphys seem to have been steadfast friends, offering counsel and, on occasion, financial aid. Sara seems to have been particularly well loved, Gerald was a complex character and more difficult to get to know well.

I began this book expecting to be dazzled and fascinated by the Murphy's glamorous life, and indeed I was. But this book is about more than their famous friends. It also describes a long, close marriage and how it endures. The Murphys had to face terrible tragedies, which depleted them, but somehow they carried on.

I really enjoyed this book, and I want to read more about this period. I am on the look-out for good biographies of Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Reading challenges 2012

I'm feeling quite confident with my reading challenges this year. I've read 2 of my books for the Back to the Classics challenge at Sarah Reads Too Much. These were Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope , and Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald.

I've signed up for Carl's Once Upon A Time challenge, which I'm very excited about. I decided to do Quest the Third, which is reading five books which fit the categories and a group readalong of A Midsummer Night's Dream. This fits nicely with the Classics challenge where I have picked Dream for my classic play. Another crossover is Arabian Nights which fits both lists. I'm halfway through Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire. I have to admit that I'm not loving it, which is a shame, as I really enjoyed Wicked. The Last Battle and The Hobbit I was planning to read with Billy, though as we're working our way through Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire at the moment, I'm not sure we'll get to them before the end of June.

I'm also slowing making my way through Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie for a readalong I read about on The Literary Stew. And I've also signed up for Muriel Spark Reading Week. I'm not being too ambitious with that one, I'm only planning to read one book - The Hothouse by the East River.

At the beginning of the year I decided to set myself a very informal challenge of trying to read more books by Hilary Mantel. I bought three of her books from The Book People at the bargain price of £7.99. I've read A Place of Greater Safety which I thought was really good. I've only managed one of the six re-reads I wanted to do this year - This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Homes. So I've got some catching up to do there.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Stop What You're Doing and Read This!

This is a book of essay extolling the virtues of reading. They are by writers, publishers and scientists writing about their personal experiences with books, of their beliefs about the benefits of reading, and of the scientific evidence about what the act of reading does to our brains. The introduction says that;

This year (2011) we learnt that there are many thousands of children across Britain who cannot read competently, that there are thousands who leave primary school unable to put together basic sentences. One in three teenagers reads only two books a year, or fewer, and one in six children rarely reads books outside of the classroom. Many parents do not read stories to their children, and many homes do not have books in them. Stories, and poems, for these thousands of children, are not a source of enchantment or excitement. Books are associated with school, or worse - they are associated with acute feelings of shame and frustration.

I think my favourite essay was the first one, Library Life by Zadie Smith. She writes about the importance of her local library to her reading life and her education. At a time when they are under threat she emphasises the lifeline that libraries are;

It has always been, and always will be, very difficult to explain to people with money what it means not to have money. If education matters to you, well, why wouldn't you be willing to pay for them if you value them? They are the kind of people who believe value can only be measured in money.

The overwhelming majority of books I read as a child came from the library, and I'm sure that being able to browse there, without anybody telling me what I should or shouldn't read, engendered the passionate love of books and reading that's such a joy to me now, and will be to the end of my life.

The other essay which I really enjoyed was The Reading Revolution by Jane Davis. Her biography at the front of the book says that she is 'the Founder/Director of The Reader Organisation, a national charity bringing about a reading revolution by making it possible for people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities to enjoy literature in a direct, personal way.'

The Reader Organisation has established groups where people meet and read together - out loud, and discuss the book or poem as it is being read. People interrupt with comments about the work itself, or with any personal feelings that the reading might've brought up. It seems to be a very, very informal and free flowing way of reading together. Groups have been established in schools, prisons, nursing homes, in hospitals, with psychiatric patients. I thought this essay was fascinating and I really admire Jane Davis, who saw a need and did something about it. She writes;

We must reposition literature in settings - such as workplaces, mental-health services, demential care homes, looked after children services - where its profound worth will be seen for what it really is: the holder of human value, human meaning, and yes, even the secrets of the universe.