Saturday, 28 September 2013

Bowes Museum

Last Sunday we went to Bowes Museum, near Barnard Castle in County Durham. It has been one of my favourite places since I went there on a school trip as a child. The building is fabulous - a French chateau dropped into the beautiful countryside of Teesdale. It was established by John and Josephine Bowes as a purpose built museum to house their extensive collection of art and artifacts. It was first opened to the public in 1892.

The most famous piece, and the emblem of the museum is the Silver Swan, a clockwork automoton dating from 1773. John and Josephine first saw it at the Paris International Exhibition in 1867. Another fan of the swan, who saw it at the same exhibition, was Mark Twain. He wrote in The Innocents Abroad;
'I watched the Silver Swan, which had a living grace about his movement and a living intelligence in his eyes - watched him swimming about as comfortably and unconcernedly as it he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweller’s shop - watched him seize a silver fish from under the water and hold up his head and go through the customary and elaborate motions of swallowing it...'
We saw that exact same thing last Sunday, almost 150 years after Mark Twain did. The sophisticated 21st century audience still gave a round of applause when the swan swallowed the fish!

There is lots to see in the museum, but we had gone specifically to see two temporary exhibitions; Henry Poole & Co. Founder of Savile Row: The Art of Bespoke Tailoring and Wool Cloth, and Laura Ashley, Romantic Heroine.

Henry Poole & Co. was opened in 1806 and established Savile Row as the centre for bespoke tailoring in London.
Their customers included Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens and Edward VII. They have their customer ledgers from 1846, and some of them were on view, open at the pages of their famous clients. When Edward VII was Prince of Wales he asked Henry Poole & Co. to cut a short, blue evening coat for him. This garment is said to be the original dinner jacket (tuxedo in the US).
They hold Royal Warrants still, including the Royal Warrant for the Queen's State Livery.  The exhibition showed various styles of suits, and also explained the process of making a bespoke garment. There were fabric sample books available so we could feel the wonderful quality of the material used in these garments.

The Laura Ashley exhibition showed, in the company's 60th year, almost 100 examples of Laura Ashley dresses from the 60s and 70s.
There was very little about the company or Laura Ashley herself, the focus was entirely on the frocks. I absolutely loved the way this exhibition was staged. The dresses were packed together in two blocks, and the information about them was at floor level so there was no obstruction to viewing them. It was very simple and effective. What amazed me about the dresses was how much they harked back to earlier centuries. Some of them looked Regency, others looked like something Laura Ingalls would've worn on the prairie. Many of
them looked quite restrictive with high collars and tight sleeves. I was puzzled as to why, after women's fashion had become so much more free in the 60s, women would choose these styles again. I wouldn't particularly want to wear most of the dresses, but I did like the prints.

It had been 5 or 6 years since I last visited the Bowes Museum and I certainly won't be leaving it that long again. It's the kind of place where there is always something new to see, and things that have been there all the time that you never noticed before.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

The Murder Wall by Mari Hannah

The main character in this book is Kate Daniels, a Detective Chief Inspector with Northumbria Police.
A man is found murdered in an expensive flat in Newcastle, and the case becomes the first one in which Kate is Senior Investigating Officer. She is more than ready for the challenge, but she is also haunted by an unsolved murder earlier in the year. It affected her quite personally and she can't let go of it. It is very important to her to solve this new case, it seems like she has something to prove to herself.

Things get off to a bad start when she recognises the dead man. She should immediately disclose this fact, but she doesn't. It's a split second decision she makes to protect someone she cares about. It's a decision she regrets but events move quickly and there doesn't seem any way back from it. She sees connections between this murder and the unsolved one - but is she just seeing what she wants to see? Kate Daniels is a very capable police officer but her personal feelings are pulling her off course.

This is the first book in a series and as such there are a lot of characters to meet and get to know. I didn't feel out of my depth reading it though, I wasn't overloaded with information which I sometimes find happens with police procedurals (the fault of my concentration - not the genre). Kate Daniels is a very appealing character and I liked her. I liked that she is good at her job, and respected by her colleagues. We get to see some of her personal life, and it's going through a bit of messy phase, as most people's lives do at some point. But it's not so messy that the reader is left wondering how on earth she manages to hold down a responsible job.

Another thing I really liked about it is how Mari Hannah portrays the North East. I think that often it is portrayed as a hard, gritty place, but there is so much more to it. I particularly liked this bit;

The air was fresh as she ran down her street and out on to the main road, turning left a few minutes later, skirting the edge of Jesmond Dene, a Victorian park covering actres of woodland, presented to the city in the late nineteenth century by local philanthropist, Lord Armstrong. Had it been daylight she would've taken in the beauty of this hidden gem: the network of paths and bridges, the waterfall, the mill, all enclosed within a deep narrow valley. The fabulous scenery drew locals and tourists in droves - five minutes and yet a world away from a thriving party city.

The next in the series is Settled Blood and I look forward to reading it and learning more about Kate Daniels and her colleagues.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

When the fair comes to town

Every September a fairground appears right outside our front door. We live close to what was the village green, though a middle sized town grew up around it during the twentieth century. Last weekend bunting appeared on the lamposts and trees, on Wednesday the car park was closed off and the bigger fairground rides started arriving. By the time Billy came out of school on Friday afternoon most of it was in place, including the huge marquee which houses the charity raffles and tombolas, the craft stalls and the flower and produce show.

Billy looks forward to this weekend all year. I suppose eventually he'll become jaded, but at 9 years old it is magical for him. I think he feels quite proprietorial about it as he watches it grow over a few days.  We always enter the handicrafts competition, and this year I've put some carrots that I've grown in my garden into the novice class at the horticultural show.

At 7.30 this morning, two and half hours before anything actually opened, Billy and I were wandering around the rides.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

RIP8main200As I was reading Beyond Black I was thinking 'How can I be enjoying this?' It is such dark subject matter, sometimes relentlessy grim and yet I really, really enjoyed it. Part of it is Hilary Mantel's wonderful writing, of which I was already a fan and also because it's interspersed with little bits of humour which sneak up and lift the mood.

The main character is Alison, who works as a medium on the showbiz circuit in south-east England. She is a warm character, very professional and very gifted. Her past is almost unimaginably horrific. Her childhood was spent with her prostitute mother and the string of low-life men who used their house as a meeting place. She was sold and abused and witness to constant violence. It is difficult to imagine a more destructive and chaotic background. Somehow she has come through it, though not without damage. Her spirit guide is Morris, one of the men who hung around her mother. He's a disgusting character, malevolent and cruel and self-pitying. Then the rest of the men troop along in spirit;

"Morris said, 'Have you seen MacArthur, he's a mate of mine and Keef Capstick, he is a mate of Keef's too. Have you seen MacArthur, he is a mate of mine and he wears a knitted weskit. Have you seen MacArthur, he has only one eye, have you seen him, he has one earlobe ripped off, a sailor ripped it off in a fracas, that's what he tells people. How did he lose his eye? Well that's another story. He blames that on a sailor too, but round here we know he's lying.' And Morris gave a dirty laugh."

Into Alison's life comes Colette. Alison employs her as a live-in assistant and she takes care of the financial side of the business. A disappointed woman, verging on bitter, Colette struggles to fit in the world of mediums and spiritualism. Alison's life is complicated, there are layers and layers to it, whereas Colette seems to be a very literal and surface person. Perhaps Alison feels that having Colette in her life will anchor her. However chaos creeps closer and closer and in the end it is only Alison who can deal with it.

Surprisingly I didn't find this a spooky book (and I am very easily spooked!) It's full of spirits and ghosts and manifestations but they're dealt with in such a matter of fact way that they seem perfectly normal. The mediums are businesswomen, some are more gifted than others, but they're all looking for new business ideas or new marketing schemes. They're family to each other out on the fringes of society. Colette is on the fringes of society too, mainly due to her somewhat abrasive personality, but she desperately wants to be conventional. Conventional is something Alison and her friends have no experience of, and no desire for.

I mentioned that I had just finished this book in the comments of another blog and it was suggested that I read Mantel's memoir Giving Up The Ghost, as it is quite illuminating regarding Beyond Black. I've ordered it at the library and can't wait to read it.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

R.I.P. Challenge

I am going to try to complete the R.I.P. Challenge which is hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings. As the nights draw in, Carl encourages us to add some spooky, or mysterious, or deliciously gothic reading material to our usual fare. I signed up for it last year, but didn't finish. I've been more organised with my reading this year, so I've high hopes of completing.

The four books I have chosen are;

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel
Alison Hart, a medium by trade, tours the dormitory towns of London's orbital road with her flint-hearted sidekick Colette, passing on messages from dead ancestors. But behind her plump, smiling persona is a desperate woman: the next life holds terrors that she must conceal from her clients, and her own waking hours are plagued by the spirits of men from her past. They infiltrate her house, her body and her soul, and the more she tries to be rid of them, the stronger and nastier they become...

The Murder Wall by Mari Hannah
Eleven months after discovering a brutal double murder in a sleepy Northumbrian village, Detective Chief Inspector Kate Daniels is still haunted by her failure to solve the case. Then the brutal killing of a man on Newcastle's Quayside gives Daniels her first case as Senior Investigating Officer and another chance to get it right.
When Daniels recognises the corpse but fails to disclose the fact, her personal life suddenly swerves into her professional life. But, much worse, she is now being watched.
As Daniels steps closer to finding a killer, a killer is only a breath away from claiming his next victim.

The Radleys by Matt Haig
Life with the Radleys: Radio 4, dinner parties with the Bishopthorpe neighbours and self-denial. Loads of self-denial. But all hell is about to break loose. When teenage daughter Clara gets attacked on the way home from a party, she and her brother Rowan finally discover why they can't sleep, can't eat a Thai salad without fear of asphyxiation and can't go outside unless they're smothered in Factor 50.
With a visit from their lethally louche uncle Will and an increasingly suspicious police force, life in Bishopthorpe is about to change. Drastically.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
When historian Diana Bishop finds an alchemical manuscript in the Bodleian Library, it's an unwelcome intrusion of magic into her carefully ordered life. Though Diana is a witch of impeccable lineage, the violent death of her parents while she was still a child convinced her that human fear is more potent then any witchcraft.
Now Diana has unwittingly exposed herself to a world she's kept at bay for years; one of powerful witches, creative, destructive daemons and long-lived vampires. Sensing the significance of Diana's discovery, the creatures gather in Oxford, among them the enigmatic Matthew Clairmont, a vampire geneticist.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Between Two Thorns by Emma Newman

I love the premise for this novel. Beneath the cities of Bath, London and Oxford there are mirror cities
which exist in the Nether. This is the world between our 'real' world, and the land of Fae. It is a 'Fae-touched society'. Its inhabitants are ruled by the Fae, and once they reach adulthood rarely, if ever, enter our world (which they call Mundanus).
The heroine of the book, Cathy, is a member of one of the most prominent families in Aquae Sulis, which is the mirror city of Bath. She is stifled by her life there, the social rules and etiquette are of the Regency era and it is impossible for a woman to have independence. So she has run away into Mundanus and has spent three years at university in Manchester. However she has been discovered.
At the same time strange events are taking place in Aquae Sulis. One of their most important citizens has gone missing. There are a group of people called the Arbiters whose job it is to police between the Nether and Mundanus. An Arbiter named Max has to find this man, the Master of Ceremonies. Max's sidekick is a stone gargoyle come to life, which I think is a most wonderful thing.
This is a perfectly imagined world. It is pretty and also threatening. I was completely caught up in it. This is the first in a trilogy and I believe the second book has just been published. I can't wait to read it.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

I had heard wonderful things about this book and couldn't wait to start reading. I absolutely was not
disappointed. I raced through it and couldn't wait to get back to it whenever I had to put it down.

In February 1910 Ursula Todd is born. There is a terrible snowstorm, the doctor can't get through and Ursula dies. Then the story resets - it's February 1910 again, Ursula is born, this time the doctor does get through and Ursula lives. And so it goes on through the novel. Ursula's life is reset each time she dies and she gets a chance to do things differently.

She doesn't know that this is happening to her, though when she's a child she does have a sense that there is something different about her. The family's maid, Bridget, says that she has the second sight. Throughout her life (lives) she has premonitions which she can't explain. Some of the things which happen to her are small and personal, other times her life is impacted by great global events. There was one period in Ursula's life which was so bad that I was longing for her to die, which is an unusual feeling to have about the heroine of a book.

I loved this book. I haven't read much by Kate Atkinson (though I am really enjoying Case Histories on tv) and will be searching out more books by her.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Amanda and the Eleven Million Mile High Dancer by Carol Hill

This is a book which I first read when I was in my late teens and I absolutely loved it. I have read it since, but not for a long time.

It is the story of Amanda Jaworski, a brilliant physicist who is an astronaut at NASA. Amanda is a free spirit. She pays attention to her instincts, hunches and 'feelings', which unnerves her military superiors. She has a messy private life, being in love with two men, which also unnerves her superiors. At the beginning of the story Amanda is preparing to command the first manned mission to Mars. But strange phenomena are occurring; a red choking mist which appears around the space centre, Amanda is hearing voices which no-one else can hear, and her colleague Hooper has come back from a mission having seen some unknown thing which has sent him mad.

There is a surreal element to this book which I love. Amanda has a cat, Schrodinger, who spends twenty three hours out of twenty four so soundly asleep that most people think he's dead. When he's awake he draws perfectly accurate pictures of Amanda's feet. At one point Amanda becomes Mary Shelley. Ten thousand Native Americans disappear and then reappear in the basement of the Pentagon.

Amanda goes on her mission - but she doesn't go to Mars. She goes to rescue Schrodinger who has been kidnapped. She finds herself in a place where robot armies fight for the future of the Earth (it was published in the mid 80s and does have a bit of a Cold War feel about it), and the second half of the book is taken up with Amanda trying to stay alive and get Schrodinger back.

There is a marvelous cast of supporting characters. My favourite is Eberly, a Texas sheriff. Eberly doesn't know much about science but he knows things aren't right;

Eberly knew he didn't like it. In fact Eberly was one hundred percent totally dissatisfied with the way things were going. It was getting too hot, the wind was getting peculiar, the Indians were going up and not down, girls were going up in rockets, geniuses were making mothers out of robots, and the very air seemed seeded with something altogether disturbing. He didn't know when exactly it had started happening, but he was beginning to get scared. Eberly never'd been scared before.

There's a lot going on in this book and some of it goes over my head. I much prefer the first half of the book to the second half with the robot wars and I think I've felt the same each time I've read it. The main theme of the book is that technology will only take us so far, and we need love to take us the rest of the way.

I can see why I loved this book so much as a teenager, and though I don't love it quite so much now, I still think it's a very good read.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Bishop Auckland

We visited Bishop Auckland a couple of weeks ago. The annual Food Festival was on and we had a wonderful time visiting the stalls and tasting all kinds of delicious food. The Festival extended right along the Market Square and up into the grounds of the castle (the castle is the official residence of the Bishop of Durham.

As we were leaving I noticed a second hand bookshop, Bondgate Books,  just opening it's doors. I went in and discovered these three books to bring home with me.

The Little World of Don Camillo by Giovanni Guareschi
I have heard this dramatised on Radio 4, but didn't realise that it was adaped from a novel.

The Foolish Immortals by Paul Gallico
I've been wanting to read something by Paul Gallico for some time. I hadn't heard of this particular book, but thought I'd give it a try.

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin
A book I'd vaguely heard of, but know little about. Apparently the author wrote it when she was only 16.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Nancy: The Story of Lady Astor by Adrian Fort

This is a fascinating book about a fascinating woman. I knew of Nancy Astor of course, she was the
first woman MP to take her seat in the House of Commons, but I didn't know anything of her life beyond this. I had assumed that she had always been rich, but in fact her childhood had periods where her parents struggled for money. She was born into the Langhorne family of Virginia, who had been wealthy, but the Civil War wrecked their fortunes. Nancy's father, Chillie Langhorne, had to virtually start from scratch. He was eventually very successful, but there were some hard times along the way.

There were also times of struggle in Nancy's adult life. There was an early, unhappy marriage to a man who turned out to be a drinker. She also suffered from periods of ill health which no doctor seemed to be able to effectively diagnose or treat.

There were consolations however. In order to recover from the aftermath of her first marriage she came to England where she met and married Waldorf Astor. Waldorf's father gave them Cliveden as a wedding gift. These were good years;

For this was the Edwardian Age, and the surroundings in which Waldorf and Nancy lived contained the quintessence of that era: opulence; hedonism; sunlit summers; long days and nights of fashion and society. Peace reigned at home and in the Empire, trade was good and life inexpensive, as Britain, at the apex of her military and financial power, benignly ruled a quarter of the world. Underlying all was an almost palpable sense of satisfaction that the state of the country was, if not perfect, then as near to that as God could make it.

Waldorf became MP for Plymouth, but he was forced to give this up when his father (who had been raised to the peerage) died, and Waldorf inherited his title. Nancy put herself forward and was duly elected to the same Plymouth seat.

She was a very tough character, but some of the opposition she faced as the only woman MP in the House of Commons daunted even her. She was ignored, talked over, physically barred from reaching her place on the benches. The male MPs would loudly discuss subjects designed to embarrass her. She found it distressing, but soldiered on.

There is a lot more in this book than I can cover here. Nancy Astor was such a complex character and lived in such interesting times. I can thoroughly recommend this book.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Stardust by Neil Gaiman - Part 1

I'm taking part in the Stardust readalong hosted by Carl from Stainless Steel Droppings. Carl has posted
some questions about the first five chapters of the book.

1. We have spent a little time with Tristan and even less time with the star. What are your initial thoughts/impressions of our two protagonists?

Tristan seems to be a nice boy, a typical teenager. He's naive and he mistakes infatuation for real love, which is a common teenage error. He is ready for adventure and when the opportunity arises he jumps into it wholeheartedly. I like him. The star is harder to describe. She's frosty and bad tempered but we can hardly blame her for that, given that she's been knocked out of the sky and is now chained to a boy who only wants to impress another girl. She's feisty, and I like that.

2. There are some very interesting potential villains introduced in the first half of the book. Do any of them particularly stand out to you? If so, why or why not?

I like the portrayal of Ditchwater Sal. She's a little villain compared to the Lilim, or the Stormhold brothers, but she's so mean. There isn't really a good thing to say about her.

3. In Chapter Three, just after the section with the brothers in Stormhold, Neil Gaiman gives us a description of Faerie that includes "each land that has been forced off the map by explorers and the brave going out and proving it wasn't there......" What imaginary lands do you then hope are part of Faerie?

I don't so much hope for imaginary lands as I wish for a layer of magic in our own world. I love stories where the magical exists in the world as we know it, such as Ben Aaronovitch's Peter Grant series, or an alternate history such as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

4. We do not get to spend a great deal of time in the market but while there we are given a number of interesting descriptions of the wares being bartered and sold. Which, if any, of them caught your eye, either as items you would like to possess or ones you would most like to avoid?

I think I'd like a coat of twilight.

5. If you have read much of Gaiman's work, particularly his short fiction, then you have come across some rather graphic and disturbing portrayals of sex. Gaiman offers up something very different in the way of a sex scene early on in Stardust. What are your feelings of the scene either in general or as a contrast to other Gaiman-penned scenes involving sex?

This is only the second Neil Gaiman book I have read so I can't really compare. When reading Stardust I was thinking it would be a good book to read to my 9 year old son - until I reached that scene. Then I thought it probably wasn't.

6. I suspect Neil Gaiman is influenced by a number of fairy and folk tales in Stardust. Are there any elements of the story that made a particular impression and/or reminded you of other fairy stories you have read or are familiar with?

Stormhold made me think of Gormenghast. It's so long since I read Gormenghast trilogy that I'm afraid I can't come up with any specific reasons why it made me think of it.

7. And finally, which of the many side characters introduced have caught your eye and why? Or what else about the story thus far is of interest to you?

The little hairy man who helps Tristan is my favourite. He seems to be an entirely good and kind character.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan

This is a book which has been on my TBR shelf for a very long time. I read and enjoyed The Joy Luck Club many years ago, so I don't really know why it's taken me so long to get to this one.

Bibi Chen is a San Francisco socialite who dies in mysterious circumstances. Her spirit lingers on however, hovering around her friends, not only able to listen in on conversations but also sometimes to hear their innermost thoughts. This makes her a very useful, if judgmental, narrator.

Bibi had been going to act as a tour guide for a group of her friends on a trip to Burma. The friends decide to go anyway (not least because there is no insurance to cover cancelling the trip), with one of them saying, "May Bibi join us in spirit". Which of course she does.

Without Bibi's strict itinerary the trip begins to fall apart. The tourists' preconceived ideas hit up against the reality. They are not happy with their hotel;

The Glorious View Villa was, in fact, the best hotel in the whole of the Naxi Autonomous Region, but for a group used to staying at a chain no worse that the Four Seasons, "best" should have been thought of as a restricted comparative term, not a fixed standard of excellence.

The trip is one cultural misunderstanding after another, a situation not helped by inept tour guides. The political unrest in Burma simmers underneath events, but the tourists are largely unaware of it. It culminates in their being kidnapped by a group of ethnic Karen people who think they recognise one of the tourists as the 'Younger White Brother' come to rescue them from the persecution they suffer from the government.

I thought this was a really good story. It taught me more about Burma (this is the name Tan chooses to use, rather than Myanmar) which is a country I know very little about. It is a difficult book to classify, some of it is lighthearted and even comic, while other parts dealing with persecution and the political situation are quite dark. I like Bibi as a narrator - becoming exasperated at what her friends are doing, but being powerless to intervene.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

This novel is set in the early part of the twentieth century and is the story of Stevens, butler to Lord Darlington. It takes the form of his reminisces as he takes a driving holiday in the south west of England. This seems to be the first holiday he has had in years, if at all, and the freedom from responsibility he has for a few days allows his mind to wander.
Darlington Hall is the scene of much political intrigue in the years leading up to the Second World War. Lord Darlington is at the centre of pro-German sentiment in political circles. This pro-German sentiment becomes pro-Nazi sentiment. Stevens is aware of this but sees his role as so clearly defined that he is unable to form any opinion about what is happening. His role is to serve Lord Darlington and to his mind this means absolute obedience. This way of thinking seems to have stunted Steven's capacity for independant thought at all, and his devotion to his employer leaves no space for other relationships. His friendship with the housekeeper, Miss Kenton, is a long episode of misunderstandings and repressed feelings.
I thought this was a lovely book. The characters are full of depth and we see both their merits and their faults. Lord Darlington could very easily be portrayed as a monster, but we see him as a naive and misguided man who is hidebound by class prejudices and manipulated by people much cleverer than him. Stevens is a character who I wanted to shake out of his complacency, but at the same time I felt tremendous sympathy for him. His domineering father was very influential in his life and probably that's where the seeds of his unquestioning loyalty lay.
It is a lovely, thoughtful book and I really enjoyed reading it. I think I will return to it in the future because I think it is so layered that new aspects of it would emerge with a re-read.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

This is a book I feel I ought to have read before now, because it's such a classic. I have seen the wonderful film, so the story is familiar to me. It is the story of the Joad family who are forced to leave their Oklahoma farm and join the exodus to California during the Depression in the 1930s.
At first I thought I was going to struggle with it because I found it so upsetting. The unfairness of it all and the way big businesses just rode roughshod over the tenant farmers with no thought for their lives, or their history on the land, or what was going to happen to them and whether they would survive.

Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves. Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshipped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling. If a bank or finance company owned the land, the owner man said The Bank - or the Company - needs - wants - insists - must have - as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them.

The Joads bravely set off for California, the younger ones are excited, the older ones face the future with more trepidation. Their journey brings them into contact with others like them. They meet a man who is returning from California, he tells them there is no work, and that his children died of starvation there. But they don't want to believe him. They, like everyone else who has been driven off their land, are desperate. They have to believe there is work for them in California. They meet with kindness - usually from people as poor as themselves - and they also meet with people who are willing to trade on their vulnerability  to make a quick profit. The authorities biggest fear is that these desperate people will unite and therefore become powerful so they are harried and constantly moved on.

Of course when they get to California there is very little work and so many people that wages are driven down to below subsistence level. Some people are willing to work for food to avoid starvation. It is hard for people to keep their dignity under these circumstances but Ma Joad is determined to keep her family together and for them to keep their self respect.

The introduction (by Robert De Mott) to the Penguin edition I borrowed from the library is very interesting. Apparently Steinbeck travelled extensively in California during the Depression and saw the deprivation at first hand. So although the book is fiction it is rooted in actual events.

I ended up loving the book, though it did make me upset and angry. I think that although it is set 80 years ago, some of it is quite pertinent to today.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead, by Paula Byrne

This book is about Evelyn Waugh's life in relation to the inspiration for, and the writing of Brideshead Revisited. It's a long time since I read Brideshead but I still found this book completely fascinating. In the Preface Paula Byrne writes;

I set out to write this book because I believed that Evelyn Waugh had been persistently misrepresented as a snob and a curmudgeonly misanthrope. I did not recognise Waugh in the popular caricature of him..........I kept coming back to his relationship with a single family: the Lygons of Madresfield. I came to the conclusion that his feelings about them provided a key that could unlock the door into Waugh's inner world.

Evelyn Waugh met Hugh Lygon when they were both students at Oxford. Hugh came from an entirely different background to Evelyn's, the Lygons live in 'a heady cocktail of aristocracy, eccentricity and piety'. He was one of the seven children of William Lygon, the seventh Earl Beauchamp. The family had several homes but the children's favourite was Madresfield Court in Worcestershire. The Lygon family became the models for the Flytes and Hugh was Sebastian.

It was the era of the 'bright young things' and Waugh threw himself wholeheartedly into the drinking and the parties and the fun. Paula Byrne shows how, as something of an outsider, he was ideally place to chronicle those times. He was part of it, yet slightly removed from it. It was a heady time and there were casualties, there was alcoholism and drug addiction. Waugh chronicled this as well.

I thought this was a fascinating book, and it has certainly made me want to read more of Waugh's work. Paula Byrne's latest book is a biography of Jane Austen and I would like to read that too.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Lanark by Alasdair Gray

This is the first book I have read for the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge. I bought it several years ago at a second-hand bookshop in Wigtown in Scotland, and it has been on my TBR shelf ever since.  I think I bought it because it seemed a quintessentially Scottish novel, a good choice to buy while on holiday in Scotland. But in truth I've felt a bit daunted by it, and now I've read it I feel I was right to be daunted.

It is 'A Life in 4 Books', and it begins with Book 3. So right from the start I'm confused. The main character, Lanark, arrives in the city of Unthank by train. He is the only person on the train, and he has no memory of how he got there, or of his life before the train. He is greeted at the station and it appears that there is a process, that everybody arrives at the city as he has done. The city has a post-apocalyptic feel to it;

The city did not seem a thriving place. Groups of adolescents or old men stood in occasional close mouths, but many closes were empty and unlit. The only shops not boarded up were small stores selling newspapers, sweets, cigarettes and contraceptives. After a while we came to a large square with tramcars clanging around it. The street lamps only lit the lowest storeys of the surrounding buildings but these looked very big and ornamental, and people sheltered between pillars on their facades. Some soot black statues were arranged round a central pillar whose top I couldn't see in the black sky. In spite of the wet a man stood on a high part of the pillar's pedestal and spoke to an angry crowd. We passed through the edge of the crowd and I saw the speaker was an anxiously smiling man with a clergyman's collar and bruised brow. His words were drowned by jeering.

Lanark finds a room to rent, and he is given regular money to live on. He meets people at a local cafe but they couldn't really be called friends. The atmosphere is grim and hopeless. People disappear without reason. There is a strange disease, dragonhide, which Lanark contracts. Its symptom is hard, black skin which spreads over the body, leaving the sufferer numb. His landlady, Mrs Fleck, says that the only cure is hard work. Idleness and hopelessness hasten its advance.

Lanark finds his way to the Institute, a hospital where he can be treated. While there he finds out about his life before his arrival in Unthank. This is the realist portion of the book. His name was Duncan Thaw, a working class boy in Glasgow who has a real talent for art. Through a bit of luck and the kindness of others he gets into art school. But Duncan is the kind of person who is never satisfied, and never accepts responsibility for his own actions.

Once out of the Institute and back in Unthank Lanark is much more proactive, he wants to change things and make things better. But somehow he never manages it. His life is always subject to the whims of other people and he is carried this way and that without ever seeming to get a grip on the situation. Just when he thinks he has understood something the whole political landscape changes and he is adrift again. He is always alone and there is no-one he can trust.

I think this book is about a great industrial city losing its industries, life without useful work, being at the mercy of planners and politicians and corporations. The nuclear threat hangs over this book (it was published in 1981), there are poisons in the air and on the land, and always the sense of doom.

Despite the fact that I'm not sure I fully understood this book, I did for the most part enjoy it. The language was easy to understand, where I struggled was with the ideas and I had the feeling that there were references and allusions which went over my head. I would definitely read more by Alasdair Gray. I felt that his book took me to places I wouldn't ordinarily have gone, and let me think about things I wouldn't ordinarily think about.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl

I hadn't heard of this novel before I saw it on the shelf at the library just before Christmas. I was about to start reading Great Expectations and thought I would continue the Dickens theme.

The story centres around Dickens unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and the search for clues as to how Dickens intended it to end. James Osgood, a partner in the firm that publishes Dickens work in America is particularly anxious to find it. His firm is in a parlous state and the scoop of discovering how Drood ends would secure its future.

He is not the only one searching however, other publishing firms are on the scent and some of them use very underhand methods. It also turns out that the significance of Drood isn't only literary - there are people who want it for their own nefarious reasons.

The action moves between India (where we see criminality associated with the opium trade), America and England in the months immediately following Dickens death. There are also flashbacks to Dickens second American tour. Osgood was one of his entourage and got to know the great man. These sections were my favourite part of the book. It appears that Dickens was treated like a rockstar on this tour;  huge lines of people wanting to buy tickets, touts selling tickets for exorbitant prices, Dickens being mobbed and his coat ending up in rags because fans kept grabbing for it.

I did find the novel a bit convoluted, and I wasn't sure why so much of it was set in India. But I thought the parts about Dickens American tour were wonderful, and gave a real feel and flavour of the time.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

This is one of my favourite novels by Charles Dickens and I never tire of it. It is the story of Pip and how he comes into a fortune from an unknown benefactor. We follow him from his early life under the care of his tyrannical sister and her gentle husband to his life as a moneyed young gentleman in London.

Probably the most famous character in the book is Miss Havisham. Jilted on her wedding day she sits, years later, in the rags of her bridal gown while mice devour her wedding breakfast which still sits upon the table. She is not a comic character like many of Dickens' grotesques, it is difficult to feel sorry for her because she is so imperious and fierce. She's like a spider unknowingly caught in its own web.

My favourite character in Great Expectations is Wemmick, the chief clerk at the firm of solicitors which dispenses Pip's money. Taciturn and professional to a fault when in the office, at home he is a kind and sensible man, and a good friend to Pip. His home in Walworth is one of my favourite homes in literature. It is a tiny cottage which Wemmick shares with his father and it is embellished with all kinds of novelties (such as a moat!) which Wemmick constructs in his spare time. It is a happy, homely place and Pip is made welcome there.

I think that each part of Great Expectations is perfectly weighted. There is just enough comedy, just enough mystery, just enough peril. Another reason I like this book is that it is lacking is simpering women. I love Dickens, but if I could change one thing about his books it would be to get rid of the weak, simpering girls. Miss Havisham might be mad, Estella might be cold as ice, but at least they don't simper. And Biddy seems like a sensible sort of woman.

This is a book I will return to again and again.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

It's more than twenty years since I last read Wuthering Heights and I found on re-reading it that my feelings about it have changed. There will be some spoilers ahead for those who haven't read the book.

My main surprise was that I had completely forgotten how early in the book Cathy dies. The whole of the second half is without her. The story is grimmer than I remembered, unremittingly grim in fact, nothing good ever seems to happen. Also, in my mind Heathcliffe was one of the triumvirate of great romantic heroes, along with Mr Darcy and Rochester. Actually he is a man that any sensible woman would go to great lengths to avoid.

What I had remembered correctly is how powerful Emily Bronte's writing is. In the front of the Penguin Popular Classic edition that I have, there is a 'Biographical Notice' by Charlotte Bronte. In it she describes finding a volume of verse by Emily;

I looked it over, and something more than surprise seized me - a deep conviction that these were not common effusions, nor at all like the poetry women generally write. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear, they also had a peculiar music - wild, melancholy, and elevating.

I can't say that I felt particularly elevated after reading Wuthering Heights, but I certainly think that the words 'wild' and 'melancholy' could be applied to it. Charlotte also describes Emily as 'not a person of demonstrative character' and I find it quite moving that this quiet person poured out all this forceful emotion, anger and passion into her poetry and her novel.

There are passages which really pull at the heartstrings. I was particularly affected by the scene in which young Linton is left in the care of his father, Heathcliff. We know that Heathcliff only wants him  to exact revenge, and that the poor child will have a terrible life. Nelly Dean accompanies the frightened little boy to Wuthering Heights:

Having no excuse for lingering longer I slipped out, while Linton was engaged in timidly rebuffing the advances of a friendly sheep-dog. But he was too much on the alert to be cheated: as I closed the door, I heard a cry, and a frantic repetition of the words:
'Don't leave me! I'll not stay here! I'll not stay here!'

I'm not sure that this is a book I'll go back to. Jane Eyre I could read over and over again, but not this one. It's too unrelenting and raw to be a really enjoyable read for me.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

The Seven Dials Mystery by Agatha Christie

For this mystery we're back at a house we've visited before, Chimneys. Lady Ellen 'Bundle' Brent and
 her father Lord Caterham are no longer living there, they have rented it to the industrialist Sir Oswald Coote. The Cootes are having a house party (one at which the guests seem better known to each other than to the Cootes) and a guest is found dead in his bed.

Bundle Brent returns to the house, she is a friend of all the guests at the house party, and she decides to investigate. There's no Poirot in this one, but there is Superintendent Battle, who Bundle goes to see for information and advice. I like Superintendent Battle;

What I'll do for you, Lady Ellen, is this. I'll just give you one little hint. And I'm doing it because I never have thought much of the motto 'Safety First'. In my opinion all the people who spend their lives avoiding being run over by buses had much better be run over and put safely out of the way. They're no good.

Another person who was at the house party is killed, and Bundle and her friends are getting drawn into a very dark game.

I always enjoy reading an Agatha Christie novel. I missed Poirot slightly in this one, but a good read all the same.