Thursday, 29 March 2012

Further Thoughts About the Antarctic

Texted my younger daughter to tell her I am now reading my ninth book about the Antarctic. (I've passed  on the first two to her, and she has read both).

Today I picked up a tenth from the library, although I haven't started reading it yet.  The public library is still open! AND it has a free book-finding service from the other local branch libraries.  When I wanted a book which was not available in these parts, the library sourced it for me, over 200 miles away, and the cost was only £2.50.  Libraries are simply fantastic.  I've always loved being in a library.

Trying to analyse why I like this subject so much.  Reasons I have come up with so far: it is all about building huts, dens and camps, and improvising wildly.  (They make an alarm clock out of a candle, a piece of string and a gramophone, and they make a cooker out of seal blubber and an old biscuit tin).  This is the sort of world a fifties child like myself grew up in.  Particularly if you had brothers.  Camping, making dens, building fires and the like. 

Another reason is that it takes me completely away from my humdrum life and my work problems.  Compared to the treks Scott's men undertook, all the crises at work pale into complete insignificance.

And finally, although these books are all about men and mostly by men,  there is absolutely NO SEX.  None whatsoever.  So they CAN take their minds off it and do without, so it would seem.

The Enemy Within

I have been a bit too overcontrolled about hygiene for the last three years. 

Successfully shielded myself from external germs, totally, apparently. 

Something had to get me, though, something was determined to undermine my pride and punish me.

So something has brought me down, and it is not an external germ, it has come from within.

I have Shingles, a virus which originates with Chicken Pox, and lies dormant in the body for years until a weakened immune system lowers the gate and it charges out, inflaming the nerve endings and roaring, "Ha! Got you!"

And to absolutely cap it all, the locality of the blisters and irritation is my left eye.  So I have not been able to work, and yet have not been able to rest at home with lots of lovely books, either.  (Even this blog post is really taboo, I shouldn't be doing it).

This is the supreme punishment for someone who loves to read.  To be stuck at home not feeling well, but not able to sink into the distant worlds of the imagination, either.

Truly, this is retribution.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

"A Week in December" by Sebastian Faulks

Three years ago I wrote a blistering criticism of Faulks' "Engleby".  I posted it on a private blog, so could SF have read it?  Who knows.  My central criticism of "Engleby" was that it was formulaic.  To write a novel, I surmised, you just think of an event and work backwards.

Now whether Faulks ever knew of my criticism or not, he certainly answered it.  This book thinks of a non-event and works forwards.

The non-event is a terrorist attack on the London Underground.  The book takes you two-thirds of the way before revealing that the attack target is not the tube, but then the ending is different anyway.

The working forwards is in the title.  The week works as a time device unfolding a series of characters,each of whom is moving towards the end of the week and the non-event referred to above.

I didn't much enjoy "Engleby" because in that book the main character is a deeply repellant person.  Not everyone in "W I D" is repellant, only the bankers.  Faulks certainly nails the bankers and their role in the world financial crisis.  He has some witty faux banks to offer: "Lemon Brothers", "Bare Stern", "Goldbag" and "Moregain Sucks".  These are cleverly done.

Other characters are actually sympathetic, notably the impoverished lawer (I know, an oxymoron), Gabriel Northwood.  I was particularly intrigued by the failed novelist, R. Tranter.  Is this SF's alter ego, I wonder?

The book certainly crystallises a view of London during the late noughties, after the world banking crisis, and encapsulates many of its problems - psychotic drug use by neglected rich kids, the parallel world of the internet, and yummy mummies all get a look in.  It is enjoyable to recognize these pictures of life as we know it.

The book is let down by the author's inability to resist the opportunity to lecture.  He lectures (as in Engleby) on the failures of the education system.  If it were really as bad as he satirises, no one would read his books.  They would only read the £1 offerings that top the best-seller listings around World Book Day.

He lectures on the religion of Islam. After taking time and a sympathetic approach to get inside the head of a would-be suicide bomber, he then uses Gabriel's visit to his psychotic brother in a mental hospital to draw parallels between paranoid schizoprhenia and the origin of the prophet's teachings of Islam.

Finally, the ending is a damp squib.  It's interesting how many writers fail to deliver a resounding ending, after painstakingly building up a convincing world view.

Sharp and unforeseeable plot twists, and a satisfying ending, as exemplified by the works of Dickens, mark out the truly great from the work of the merely talented writer.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Alan Bennett "The History Boys"

I've seen the film twice, and the stage play once.  I bought the DVD in Sainsbury's about a year ago, and have never yet watched it.  I rarely get complete control of the remote, but this weekend Hubby has gone North.  Yesterday he watched Leeds play and today he is taking his mother out for lunch.  As he has never acknowledged Mother's Day in his own mother's case in all the 33 years I have known him, I was pleased with the plan, and did not utter about being left here on my own.  Actually, it has been a blessing. I am suffering from an acute eye infection, and feeling very sorry for myself.  I would rather wallow in self pity alone.

So, out of the drawer came the DVD, and I fast-forwarded to the private tutorial between old fat cultured English teacher and sensitive, loner, Jewish boy.

Each time I have seen the full production, I have wanted to dwell on this section and enjoy it in more depth, but because it is just part of a fast-moving whole, have never felt that I really got it.

Really, Alan Bennett is a genius.  To pack all that into a few minutes and to package the whole thing up and sell it as mass entertainment is nothing short of full-blown mind-altering brilliance.

The boy actor, stiff and mannered while reciting the poem, liquid with sentience as he absorbs the teacher's guidance, is masterfully directed.

The fat old man, who dismisses Hardy's life in two words., "saddish" but "appreciated", leads in the true sense, educating the youngster into the history of the plebs on the battlefield, (hitherto un-named, now for the first time given a memorial), the link forward to the First World War and Rupert Brooke, and finally, the magic of a communicated thought coming down the ages, like a hand reaching out of time, to touch you on the shoulder.


Wednesday, 14 March 2012

A Fun Five Minutes

At lunchtime yesterday I went into the Amnesty International Bookshop on Mill Road, Cambridge.  Normally I try to resist the temptation, although it is  a mere three minute walk from my office.  I could probably buy up half the shop if I went in there every day.

Once I get in there, a feeling of intense excitement comes over me, similar to that which I feel on entering a large library.

All the books are beautifully categorised and each category is alphabetically ordered, so that it is easy to find a book one wishes to buy.

The till lady recognised me, and remembered that two years ago I asked to be notified when any book by Barbara Pym came into stock.

She pointed to a pile of Barbara Pym books which had just been donated, and were still sitting in a pile waiting to be shelved.  Since I made the request, I have bought almost all of her books, from various sources, but there was still one left I had not read, so of course I had to have it.  Next she showed me a biography of Barbara unknown to me, so I bought that as well, although it was a rather poor quality paper back.

We tried to remember the title of an edition of Barbara Pym's letters and diaries,  both of us failed.  We chatted about our reading habits, the relative pleasures of second-hand versus new books, and what might be the merits of the Kindle.  We agreed that, although all books look the same in the Kindle, and there is no pleasure in holding and looking at it, yet it has advantages.  Notably the free down-load of many classics and other out-of-copyright books.  I mentioned that a friend had downloaded some Dickens material which is unavailable outside academic libraries.

Via our use of libraries, we got on to the subject of HG Wells.  (I am currently reading David Lodge's recent and partly imaginary biography, on loan from my local library). "The man was obsessed with sex," was my verdict.  We were unanimous in our disparagement of HG.  She summed him up as "an unpleasant old goat!" which I thought completely apt.  Leading on from this train of thought, I spotted what is probably the only novel by Rebecca West which I have not read, so naturally that was also added to my purchases.

About to leave the shop, highly pleased with my haul, I suddenly remembered what I had come in for.  Ordnance Survey maps for my holidays this year.  Needless to say, there were none suitable for my planned journeys.  But I went out of the shop with a pile of books and a feeling of warmth, well-being, and the pleasure of having communed with a fellow book-addict.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

This is an almost perfect book.  Actually, I can think of not one thing to criticize, and much to praise highly, so perhaps it IS a perfect book.

Elizabeth von Arnim led a very interesting life.  She was born in Australia, and was Katherine Mansfield's cousin.  She married a German Count, and wrote her most famous book, "Elizabeth and her German Garden" (1898) about their castle in Prussia.  I have read that book, and could appreciate its charm, but frankly, it IS mostly about gardening, and I am not a gardening fan.

This book came along much later in her life (1922).  She had by this time lost the German castle to debts, been widowed, had an affair with HG Wells (more of him in a post soon), and married a second time, this time the elder brother of the philosopher Bertrand Russell.  Her second husband was by all accounts mad, and the marriage scarcely lasted three years. 

So this book was the fruit of much experience.  Whereas her idyllic life as a Countess, young wife and mother in the "German Garden" was only faintly touched with darker shadows (the husband was referred to as "The Man of Wrath"), this book  represents an escape from husbands altogether.

Two unhappily married wives decide to rent a castle in Italy for a month's holiday.  This was an astonishingly radical idea for 1922.  Neither had any income of her own, but each had a small "nest egg" which they decided to supplement by advertising for two more tenants to share the rent. 

One of these, an elderly widow, is not a very nice person.  In fact, she starts off as decidedly unpleasant.  She provides a balancing act to the other, a young  aristocrat of superlative beauty, who merely wishes to escape from "grabbers" (men of any age, who, on encountering her, fall in love with her and become perfect nuisances).

All four are transformed and re-born under the magical and benign influence of the extraordinary castle and its remote setting, in the perfect climate of the Italian Riviera in April.  (It is thought that the book is based on the author's experience of staying at Portofino, indeed a wonderful location).

The old lady mellows and develops charm, the young beauty reviews her life, and decides that it has been rather shallow up to now, and she must do something with it.  The two wives are reconciled with their rather awful husbands, who both show up at the castle during the month.

The whole book is written with the most beautiful sense of humour. Almost everything described in it, except the scenery, is screened by an amused authorial irony.  Husbands of every description, the problems of beauty, loneliness, the Italian language, aging, selfishness (as exhibited by the two sub-tenants) are all pointed out as objects of wit with the very lightest touch imaginable.  On top of that, some really original insights into aspects of the female condition, which would not become mainstream until many decades later, are slipped in here and there as throwaway lines. 

A book to savour and enjoy,  although nothing much happens.  At the end, they all go home again.