Climbing the Bookshelves … and the A team

My film and book obsession continues – off early today to see the first local showing of the A team. Why indulge in this remake of a perfectly respectable 80s tv series? Well, I thought it was funny back then, (I’ll admit to remembering the 80s and nothing else) the CGI was really impressive (I’m told that containers are really easy to fake) and the actor playing Face is gorgeous! (Which may explain the presence of some of the women in the cinema). As a contribution to cinema history, well, perhaps not great, but enjoyable nonetheless.  Best line? “You still use a PEN?!” Probably the best line – not easy to hear others above the explosions…

A book which was a bit of a disappointment? Climbing the Bookshelves – An Autobiography by Shirley Williams. I had looked forward to reading this book as I have been to talks by this lady when I lived in Suffolk, and have looked at at least one of her other books. I have always admired her as a politician with principles, who hasn’t always followed the party line, but has been realistic in her analysis of situations. Her other great selling point for me has been the fact that she is the daughter of Vera Brittain, whose Testament of Youth and other books probably inspired me to work that bit harder to get into Cambridge. Herself a flawed heroine, I’ve read many books about her and by her great friend, Wilfred Holtby, including “The Crowded Street” recently reprinted in their usual elegant fashion by Persephone books. So I was eager to read about the life of Shirley Williams.

However, this is very much a political biography. There is an account of Williams’ early life, including her evacuation to America, but it was quite distant and I felt cheated of detail in terms of her relationship with her parents, her journeys in wartime and her education. The information is there, but rather brief and not very sympathetically written given that it is her own life she is recalling, not that of a friend. Similarly, her nearest and dearest are also not fleshed out, beyond comments as to academic progress and a brief outline of  marriage and or illness. No one person stands out, not even Williams  herself, as someone with an emotional life. I can respect her privacy and the pain of some events she describes, including her mother’s decline and death, but Williams is not a writer of people.

So, a political autobiography? I would admit to not having a detailed knowledge of 20th century politics, but I like to think I have a bit of a grasp of who was whom. I can only think that I needed a better one before tackling this book. I got my Roys and Rogers hopelessly muddled, as well as the myriad of other males who Williams variously praises and discusses. I believe that  my main problem was  Williams straying from a linear narrative as to events and indeed the progress of the political parties. So she will leap, chronologically speaking, to descriptions of a particular person’s career and outlook on politics in the middle of a section on a particular event. I did get confused about which constituencies  she worked in, stood for and eventually won or lost in the digressions about whoever was leader of whichever party she was mentioning. She was good at describing the commitment of party workers, but not could at firmly stating what was achieved. She was good at attempting to explain the Kosovo situation, and the very last section of the book was more assured.

So this is a fair book, an interesting book, but not really what I was expecting. It probably was my lack of concentration and background knowledge that made wading through the bulk of political memoir difficult. There are some very interesting sections of this book, but overall it is not an easy read. If you are looking for an insider’s view of twentieth century politics it is probably a good read, but it does not really reveal Shirley Williams as a person. So, a good book but a bit disappointing.

Choc – lit …and popcorn moments

The dearth of posts recently has happened for a reason …too many cinema visits! Well, two actually. Last week with assorted (grown up) children to see Toy Story 3.  Very good, probably better than No. 2. And I wasn’t the only one in tears at the end! Overall, a good film if you like animated stuff. And my second visit to the cinema inside a week was to see…Karate Kid! Yes, rather predictable, but with some funny moments. And Jackie Chan was well worth watching, even if you are not a fan of martial arts films. I have banned children’s nurse daughter from seeing it on the basis of her being tempted to diagnose injuries throughout…Happy Birthday, by the way.

And the book that just makes you want to go and eat chocolate, and the expensive type at that? Chocolate Wishes by Trisha Ashley is not great literature – simply a quick read aimed at the female of the species with a predictable outcome. Having said that, Ashley doesn’t give herself the easiest time juggling white witchcraft, dysfunctional families and a chocolate making business. The other ingredient is a vicar with romance on his mind…well, what else in an English village. This is definitely a guilty pleasure book which doesn’t actually make you put weight on, unless you succumb to the search for the perfect chocolate feast. It will not win any awards and its literary merit is negligible, but who said that every book we read has to be a worthy struggle? After all, I am the person for whom a very knowing friend bought a mug inscribed “Chocolate is for Life, not just for Easter.” So this book does tick boxes, presenting a picture of life in an atypical village with atypical characters, but also throwing in a few wry comments about a young woman’s interests, passions and her painful realisation that her parents are always going to let her down.  So read, enjoy, and go easy on the chocolate!

Excellent Women…and post watershed tv

Following my previous post about coffee morning antics, I thought I would mention two very alternative views of the church of England. The first is “Rev.” on BBC 2 (and therefore iplayer). This series, part written by its leading actor, the lovely Tom Hollander, fondly remembered in this house for “The Cambridge Spies”, began high in fruity language and innuendo but now seems to have settled into its more realistic stride.  I just like the truthful depiction of the normal confusion which reigns in the vicarage, with the doorbell going and the undrinkable coffee (sorry everyone that knows me…). My clergy spy has never worked quite so inner city, but the situations that Adam finds himself in are not so far from daily experience. Not sure that the long suffering wife is so accurate, but, there, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

The other view of Anglican life is far away from the days of women bishops, even women priests. Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym is a picture of an excellent woman, Mildred, a clergy daughter with a fondness for the vicar in  post war London. Her settled existence of helping with jumble sales and doing good works is rudely interrupted by the arrival of a new couple to share her house and herincreasing involvement with their exotic lives and friends.The arrival of  an attractive widow in the parish means romantic entanglements get even more complicated. All is resolved in the end, but not without some tense moments for all concerned.

This is not a novel to be read for  earth shattering events, of which there are none, but more the funny and fascinating descriptions of people and buildings caught up in a landscape affected by war, shortages and acceptance, but also staging their own demonstrations that they exist and matter. Anthropology, obsessions with killing birds, the influence of strong religion on the previously unquestioning soul all mean that life is so painfully revealed, yet kindly treated. This is a bit of a novel of manners rather than plot, but none the worse for that. After all, quite a few people are mildly interested in every single  word that a certain Miss Austen wrote…

So, two very different views of life in the vicarage…

The Captive Queen…and dvds!

I have been known to excite cries of despair in book groups. Not because I have some some daft ideas – that much is self evident- but if all else fails I contribute the immortal phrase “We could always watch it on dvd”.

In the course of life I have to go to coffee mornings. Mainly charity events, they sometimes seem to require military style planning in order to achieve the right balance of stalls, helpers and my favourite  job…what to do with the left over books. On Saturday I floated round one such event, waiting to supplement any stalls where the holder ‘had to go and powder her/his nose’. But I did espy a dvd that I had almost bought recently from a certain interweb site… “The Lion in Winter”, the film of the meeting of Henry II and his warring family. I snapped this prize item up, as I have been reading the book of the film, which also contains much more, The Captive Queen – A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir.

I would not usually review a hardback book here, but it is possible to borrow a copy from a library, or find it on offer somewhere. Either way, I think if you are only going to read one straight historical novel this year or month, it ought to be this one.

Telling the story of Eleanor’s life from her first fateful meeting with Henry, it is a story that deals with empire building, the differences in the various land holding that Henry and Eleanor achieved, but also the love story of a remarkable woman for her powerful husband and her much loved children. It is a sad book in some respects; the loss of children struck a particular cord with me but did not mean that the book was unreadable. Rather its recounting of the survival of a woman’s spirit in the face of so many challenges is what transforms this book from history to a fascinating read. It is not essential to know a great deal of history to appreciate this book; it stands alone as a novel of place as well as personality.  Eleanor was no saint in that her track record with men showed that it was not only the male rulers who could play a political game with their relationships, but Henry’s immense drive for power meant that literally no attractive woman was ignored, to say the least. Eleanor’s actions against Henry are justified in this novel by the standards of both the times and the unique nature of their position, as well as her devotion to her many children. She becomes such a real person by the end of the novel that her long life seems to encompass many of our own issues; priorities, difficult decisions, life changing love.

I have got a copy of Weir’s biography of Eleanor, the research for which apparently inspired her desire to write historical novels generally as a way of filling in the gaps left by the hard facts which remain. I would like to read it sometime soon in order to compare and contrast it with the fictional work. Weir does claim to have been inspired by the film “The Lion in Winter” so I’m not too far off the mark in wanting to watch the dvd…

Oh, and for those Phillippa Gregory fans out there, I have just started her “The White Queen” so watch this space…

Shadow of the Wind…Spain, Scotland and tourism

I’ve never been to Spain. Italy, France, even Germany but never Spain.  We tend to take holidays – when possible – in Sunny (!) Scotland. The weather has actually been pretty good, certainly drier than Wales, whenever we’ve been there. And as for the temperature, well I suppose that nigh on 2 years North of the Wall may have acclimatised me a little. By the way, did you notice my Wall picture at the top of this blog? Just up the road from Hadrian’s finest, and everyone wonders why there’s a picture of a bomb site on my blog. Tch!

Anyway, back to the book. And Spain. Except that part of me wonders whether Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, is a good advert for Spanish tourism. Set in post war Barcelona, it tells the story of a boy, missing his mother, who is taken to a Library where he picks probably the last surviving copy of a book by the mysterious Julian Carfax.  He becomes entranced by the novel, and it is through ensuring its survival that the rest of the novel unfolds. He encounters people who want the book, but also those who know the author and the effects that his life has had, and continues to have. Death, humour, adventure and gothic horror ensue. There is a truly comic tramp who comes good, an evil police/intelligence man, a transvestite watchmaker, some struggling fathers, as well as mysterious pursuit and tragedy. There are brave and accepting women giving help, romance and loyalty.

It took me a while to get into this book, I admit, but I found it was worth the effort. Its gothic, relentless narrative is lightened by subplots which do resolve themselves as well as contributing to the overall story. There was some confusing elements, such as the fact that many of the male characters rejoice in 3 names, some of them nearly overlapping. Stylistically there are a few wobbly points, mainly associated with alternative narrators, but the whole is very satisfactory.

A book club I attended gave this book the overall thumbs up, especially those with some knowledge of Spain. The attitudes to women  expressed in the novel caused some controversy, as did its setting post civil as well as world war, but generally it was accepted as fascinating, involving book, worth pressing on with if the beginning seems a bit slow. I look forward to reading the associated book, The Angel’s Game, as soon as possible.

Sacred Hearts….and fruits!

At long last it’s harvest time- it may well be over a 2 week period in the Parish Church… no doubt details will follow…but in our garden we are busy harvesting blackcurrants, gooseberries and new potatoes. Last week HM was asked to pick red currants – which he eventually did – except that this week we seem to have black currants. Same bush? Or under ripe? The gooseberries were definitely done, but they bite. Gloves will have to be issued. The potatoes were excellent, but what happened to the strawberries? The mysteries deepen…

Meanwhile, a book which combines a thorough knowledge of things natural with an enclosed community. Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant is a novel set in a convent in the Italian city of Ferrara in 1570. This sounds as if it could be limited, but within the convent is all human life. Politics, jealousies, ecstasies, all in a community of females each with their own story. Seen as a viable alternative to marriage, many of the women in the enclosed order of nuns are educated and maintain their wealthy status. Encouraged to make generous dowries, families of high status retain an influence on the pecking order of the nuns, for whom religious conviction is at the very least variable. In some ways the old order is breaking down; there are stirrings of reform from afar, but in the meantime the nuns continue their pattern of life undisturbed as they prepare for and perform at the festival.

Into this fixed regime is introduced a novice who violently objects to her incarceration. Serafina brings a great endowment of money and intelligence, and the promise of a uniquely wonderful singing voice. The infirmary sister, Zuana , is charged with reconciling the novice to her fate, and introduces the girl to her astounding knowledge of medical herbs and spices. Zuana gained her knowledge from her physician father, but is only allowed to practise medicine in the confines of the all female society.  As both women fight to assert themselves and in Serafina’s case, escape the convent, the pressures of the forces of religion, politics and sheer humanity carry the narrative forward.

And that, perhaps, shows the problem with the book. My reading of Dunant’s other excellent books such as In the Company of the Courtesan conveys her ability to establish character and setting quickly and deeply. I could emphasize with the two main characters   very speedily; the girl’s determination to escape, the older woman’s frustration in her limited abilities to treat and cure. The story is simple, but gets drawn out perhaps beyond its natural length. If a novel has a natural rhythm, this one struggles to maintain it. The reader seems to be continually ahead of the narrative, and perhaps wishes the characters would catch up. But having said that, the colour, detail and depth of the writing meant that I was more than willing to finish the book.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. It was a weightier achievement than Dunant’s previous work, and reflected a great depth of research and description. I felt for the characters and understood their motivations against the restrictive female community. I suspect it would appeal to women more than men, but would be a challenging and interesting choice for a bookclub. It introduces many issues of religion, corruption, gender and historical context. I would recommend it, with a warning that it is not a quick or easy read, but an enjoyable one.

Remarkable Book

My second book review is Tracy Chevalier – Remarkable Creatures.

On one level I had been looking forward to this book, about Mary Anning’s successful fossil hunting, for some time. On another level I had been disappointed in Chevalier’s Burning Bright about William Blake. It is a difficult balance to write the story of a famous historical character from the view point of a contemporary without getting mired in the story of that person, which is what happened in my view in Burning Bright. However, despite the sometimes painfully honest picture of Elizabeth Philpot, the focus remained clear in Remarkable Creatures. The novel was a successful depiction of the surprisingly emotional search for fossils.

The real remarkable creatures of the book are the two women, blocked variously by their gender, class and the religious constraints of the time from receiving the full accolades of the scientific world. For it becomes not just a matter of spotting the first examples of extinct creatures which throw the creationist clergy into confusion, but of recovering the bones, arranging them in an accurate way, and receiving the monetary reward. Various sharp practices of displaying the fossils inappropriately and refusing to give Mary the credit she was due leave the modern reader speechless, while the emotional upheaval that the female characters undergo seem deeply unfair.

This novel has a clear pair of narrative voices and even the non scientific reader with a limited knowledge of fossils can be impressed with this book. It is not just a woman’s book, but a deeply enjoyable and satisfying read for anyone with even a passing historical interest. The clothing, the lifestyles, and the limitations faced by the women are faithfully examined, and this is a book to be enjoyed and relished.

First Words

Hello World,

And if you’re a reader of books of many types, I hope there will be something of interest.

For various reasons, at the moment I spend a lot of time reading books. From libraries, bookshops, charity shops, borrowed and found. There are some historical murder mysteries, Persephone books, series of books, books by specific authors, recommended and reviewed books, even those on offer that I couldn’t refuse!

I belong to two book groups and a writing group. I hope to produce at least two book posts a week, but who knows. To start off with I’ll be mentioning books that I’ve read in the recent past, and wonder where it will lead.

A little about me. I read Law at Cambridge in the dark ages and I more recently completed an OU MA in English Literature. I am at home because of family circumstances at the moment, but have worked as a lawyer and supply teacher.

I’ve called this blog “Northern Reader” as I moved to the North of England as a result of my husband’s work in the summer of 2008. Is the lifestyle here more encouraging to reading? Possibly, we shall see.

The first book is “The House of Orphans” by Helen Dunmore.

I had not previously read any of Dunmore’s books, though the beginning of “The Siege” has been used as an example  of amazing writing of place. Not being a great traveller, I cannot conclusively say that the sense of place in Dunmore’s description of Finland is correct, but others have said that her evocation of all enveloping forest is accurate. The trees are at once confining and invested with personality, and produce different reactions in the various characters in the book.The Doctor sees them as part of his home, his memories and future.  His wife saw them as threatening. The book describes the progress of Eva, taken into the House of Orphans when her dissident father dies. This is an age of political unrest, suspicion of neighbours,  unwarranted arrests and loyalties.

It is a book of the sacrifice of love, and it has been criticised for its inconclusive ending. I do not think it is aimed to solve or describe a closely bound plot. It is more about a journey, from childhood to the reality of adulthood, of adult emotions replacing childhood confusions, from the physical settings affecting lifestyles and choices. The most moving section, I believe, is the recounting of the Doctor taking Eva to catch her train to her new/old life in the city.  He is desperate to capture the experience of each moment, knowing that this could well be the last time that he sees her. He facilitates her leaving, but cannot bear that she is going. It is a book of innocence, yet also the deliberate betrayal of those who interfere, who are frightened of being ignored.

This is a book that I wondered whether I would enjoy, but which had to be experienced. A worthwhile read.

I hope to post about another book soon. Thank you for reading this far!