Monday, 28 February 2011

Bad Intentions ~ Karin Fossum

Alex, (Philip) Reilly and Jon are camping out on the banks of Dead Water Lake.  They all have something on their conscience, something in which they were involved together nine months earlier, something that has affected each in a very different way.  Alex has become more determined than ever to keep the situation and those concerned completely under his control; Reilly has retreated further into a world dulled by the use of narcotics; Jon - Jon has found no way of coping and as a consequence has been admitted to Ladegarden Psychiatric Hospital following a nervous breakdown.  The trip to the lake is Jon's first venture back into the world and it quickly becomes apparent that his reluctance to go away with his friends is well founded.  When the three of them go out on the Lake that night only two return.

This is the first of Fossum's Insepctor Sejer novels that I've read and was kindly sent to me by NetGalley.  Normally, I prefer to read a crime series in order and I'm feeling the lack of any pre-knowledge of how Fossum works acutely in writing this review.  In many respects this novel is very different from the books in this genre that I would normally read and I don't know to what extent that is true of all the author's work, or whether this book stands out as an exception in her own work.  There is also the further complication that I am, of course, reading it in translation and some of the features that stand out may be as a result of that further physical distancing from the writer's intentions.  

And distancing is one of the first things that I was  aware of with this novel, my distance as a reader from most of the characters and most especially from the two detectives Sejer and Skarre.  This is certainly not what I would expect from a British or American crime writer, who for the most part will centre the narrative around the thoughts and the actions of their investigators and make each novel the opportunity to develop their on-going characters.  Here, the only character to whom I became anywhere near attached was Reilly.  The detectives remained almost anonymous, although this could, of course, be a feature of this book alone; it may be that I ought to know them well enough by now from earlier novels in the series.

The other aspect of the book which I found different was how sparse it seemed.  There are no sub-plots, no red herrings, it concentrates on telling the story of the crime these three have committed and its disastrous consequences to the exclusion of anything else.  As crime novels in English get thicker and thicker, with two or sometimes three investigations running parallel to each other, it seemed strange to sit down and read this book in a single sitting.

However, these differences do not make this in any way a less satisfying read.  The main effect of the unexpected point of view is that there is a tendency to sympathise, or at least to understand, the perspective of the accused and in this case, at least, that is no bad thing.  By the end of the book, one person will bear the responsibility for a series of preventable deaths, but nevertheless it is difficult to feel that what you are looking at is a harden criminal.  Coming hot on a succession of Val McDermid's serial killers this is something of a relief.  Perhaps not all baddies are psychopaths after all.  It is also a lot easier to keep up with the twists and turns of the plot.  In fact, I'm tempted to ask what twists and turns?  If you've tried to get your mind round something like the latest C J Sansom, for example, this is also a comfort.  Drawing up plot analyses was something I thought I'd put behind me when I finished my PhD, but with some crime fiction it's really the only way to keep track of what's going on.

All in all then this is a well-written book, with a clear, well organised plot and some interesting, if perhaps underdeveloped, characters.  Certainly, I enjoyed it enough to go back in the series in order to discover to what extent it is typical of Fossum's work and I would be more than happy to pick up her next novel to see where her writing takes her.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

The Essay

First, an apology to those of you I haven't got round to visiting this week. As some of you know, I don't always have the best of health and there are times when I just have to sit back and let life go on around me. In the past I have let this put a stop to my blogging, but this time round I don't want that to happen. I may occasionally have to go silent for a time, but I will eventually come back.

Down time does give me the opportunity to do some thinking about how I want to spend my up time, especially my reading hours and one of the forms I know I want to revisit is the essay. Perhaps thirty years ago I read a great many collections of essays, especially those put together from the work of arts journalists. I read everything published by Bernard Levin, for example, a journalist who had such a following that when he wrote in praise of a show or an exhibition it would turn its fortunes over night, as the RSC discovered when he waxed lyrical about their superb adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby. Somehow, however, I've let the habit slip and until the last couple of weeks there have been almost no essays on my shelves at all.

The essay is a difficult genre both to compose and to appreciate, I think. By its very nature it has to be thought in a concentrated form, a distillation of many hours of deliberation. Whatever argument the writer is putting forth, it has to be set out clearly and in a concise manner, it has to make its point at the first attempt. There is no option of setting out your thesis in an opening introduction and then returning to expand on your meaning a couple of chapters down the line; you have to get it right the first time.

Likewise, as a reader you have to hit the ground running. You don't have the luxury of easing your way into a writer's style, of gradually coming to understand their point of view. Although you do, at least, have the option of returning to a difficult passage, an essay generally demands a level of concentration greater than the average novel, a commitment to follow absolutely every turn of the author's mind.

And this, I think, is the reason I have let my essay reading fall by the wayside. Concentrated thinking hasn't been my strong point over the past few years and it is a habit, which once you let it fall into disuse, takes some retrieving. Now, however, I would like to do something about this, even if it only a promise to myself to read at least one essay a week, and so, as a way of breaking myself in slowly, I've been gathering a number of books which are primarily essays about reading. If I can't read about books, what can I do?

Anne Fadiman has been on my shelves all along. I love her work and return to it often. However, someone mentioned Michael Dirda on a blog and his work looks ideal. Classics for Pleasure and Book by Book, I found easily enough and yesterday Bound to Please finally arrived. Carolyn Heilbrun was also recommended and I've managed to pick up good cheap copies of The Last Gift of Time and Hamlet's Mother and other Women on line. I was lucky enough to be given a copy of Sarah Bakewell's essays about Montaigne, How to Live. And finally, and quite by chance, last weekend I picked up second hand collections by Doris Lessing and Nadine Gordimer, although the latter seem to be political rather than literary.

So, I can't say that I don't have enough to go at, can I, and the next thing I need to decide is how I'm going to structure my reading. And so, two questions: have any of you tackled an essay reading project and, if so, how did you go about it and are there any other collections of literary essays I might look out for? All suggestions most gratefully received.


Thursday, 24 February 2011

A Hal By Any Other Name

Much to my surprise, I found myself having a good old grump this morning at my dear friend, Thomas C Foster.  However, you won't be surprised to hear that it was his chapter When in Doubt, It's from Shakespeare, that was causing the grumping.  There are a couple of factual inaccuracies in there and that really annoys me.  I'm sure none of us is perfect when it comes to making sure that our blogs are 100 percent accurate and completely free from typos.  But then we aren't asking someone to pay for the pleasure of reading our words of wisdom, nor have we set ourselves up as some sort of authority. In a published work of non-fiction such inaccuracies worry me because they automatically call into question all those facts I didn't know before I started reading and have happily been assuming to be true. For the record, it was Prokofiev who composed the ballet Romeo and Juliet and not even a newly pious Prince Hal is hard-hearted enough to hang Sir John Falstaff (nor foolish enough, I would imagine the audience would have lynched him). Rather the old knight made a finer end, and went away an it had been any christom child.  It is Bardolph who is condemned to death for robbing a church while the army is in France.  

Having said that, the main point that Foster is making in this section remains valid, namely that it is not unusual to find a more recent text reworking or in some way referencing a Shakespeare play and that recognising the relationship will often lead to a greater appreciation of the referencing work.  

One of the examples he gives is Athol Fugard's play Master Harold... and the Boys, making the point that the young man, Master Harold, is a modern day equivalent of Prince Hal, loafing around with the black workers when he ought to be readying himself to take over his father's business.  Eventually 'Hally', like Hal, is forced to take not only a position of responsibility but also a political disregard for those whose company he has previously enjoyed.

I have to admit that when I saw this play at The National Theatre in London, I didn't make the connection. However, in my defence, the performance I saw was so memorable in other ways that I think I can be forgiven. I must have seen it in the early eighties and the play (which was initially banned in South Africa) had caused a stir among right wing groups because it questioned apartheid.  About half an hour in two members of the audience (I'm doing my best to be polite here!) stood up and made their objections to black actors appearing on an English stage, in a play which had the audacity to suggest that black people might have the same rights as white, very clearly heard.  Everyone else, actors, audience, staff, froze......for a moment, just a moment, and then the audience members closest to the protestors stood up and without a word formed a ring around them and made it impossible for them to do anything other than walk out of the theatre.  The 'guard of honour' then came back, sat down and the play continued as if nothing untoward had happened.  It was English sang-froid (if that isn't some sort of linguistic disjunct) at its very best, but you will understand that it did mean that I had things on my mind that afternoon other than looking for Shakespearian parallels. 

I've always enjoyed Fugard's work, The Road to Mecca is my favourite, and so I'm sorry if I haven't done Master Harold full justice.  I shall have to go back and re-read it, although, of course, that won't be as potent as actually seeing it on stage.  One thing I will be looking out for is any way in which it makes me re-assess the Henry IV plays because I think these Shakespearian referencings can often prompt new insights into the original works as well, but that is the subject of another post altogether.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

My Life in Books

Well, not exactly mine, but the lives of the twenty guests who will be interviewed by Anne Robinson over the next fortnight as part of the BBC's run up to World Book Night on March 5th.  This is not a television household.  The radio wakes me up in the morning and goes off when I finally put the light out at night.  I do, however, make an exception for programmes that discuss books and the prospect of this every weekday evening for a fortnight, is tempting indeed.

If there's one thing I love as much as I do reading it is discussing what I've been reading with other likeminded people.  Hence the three book groups to which I belong, not to mention being part of the blogging world.  So, a programme where two guests each brings along five of their favourite books to talk about has to be my idea of heaven.  In fact you can tell how much I'm willing to put up with to listen to a book discussion if I say that two of the three people involved in the first of these programmes are among the broadcasters I would normally go furthest to avoid and yet I still watched it and still enjoyed it.

The format is very simple.  Anne Robinson invites two readers to choose books that mark particular points in their lives and explain why they have been important to them.  It could become extremely formulaic and lifeless and indeed after the first five minutes, especially when Robinson kept jumping in to try and move the proceedings along, I was worried that it wasn't going to work.  However, the two guests, writer P D James and radio presenter, Richard Bacon, suddenly started to interact with each other, ignoring whatever time constraints there may have been, and the programme immediately took off. I hope by the time the second in the series airs this evening Robinson will have relaxed a little and learned to let the discussion flow more easily.  I'm not certain, though, that she does relaxed and it might be necessary for the guests to take over every evening.

Whatever the faults it is just so nice to have a programme that takes reading as a lifelong obsession seriously and I hope that it will be such a success that the BBC will have to think about giving it a regular spot in the schedules rather than just a short term project.  Maybe we should all write and demand a second series.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Some Things Just Never Change

Having discovered during my research on Andrew Marvell that corrupt politicians are not the prerogative of the twenty-first century (OK, so that wasn't really that much of a surprise)  I came across this passage, last night, while reading Daniel Deronda, which shows that the publishing world hasn't changed that much either.

One of the shop-windows he paused before was that of a second-hand book-shop, where, on a narrow table outside, the literature of the ages was represented in judicious mixture, from the immortal verse of Homer to the mortal prose of the railway novel.

Airport novels eat your hearts out.  There is clearly nothing new under the sun.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Andrew Marvell ~ Poet or Politician

You might be forgiven for thinking that there is precious little reading going on in the SCR at the moment, I certainly feel as if that is the case.  I don't seem to be writing much about books and the tbr pile is simply growing by the day.  However, in my defence I do have three quite substantial projects on the go.  My Wednesday evening book group is reading Daniel Deronda for the first week in March and I have to lead the discussion.  Not only is this a substantial read in its own right, but I'm also having to do quite a lot of background reading both on Eliot's own religious position and on the general reception of Jews in England in the period when the novel is set.  I'm thoroughly enjoying the work, but it is taking time.

Then, my Wednesday Shakespeare Group is just about to move on to The Taming of the Shrew and the first of the three sessions is always the most difficult to prepare for as I like to look not only at the major sources for the play but also at the various editions that are available.  In the case of The Shrew, of course, this means reading and comparing the Folio text with the three Quartos of The Taming of A Shrew which were published before the First Folio in 1623 and then taking on board all the arguments as to which, if either, is the original play.  Again, this is fascinating, but it takes time.

Finally, I was suddenly asked to give a talk to our History Group about the seventeenth century poet, Andrew Marvell, on the somewhat shaky grounds that we have now reached that period in our study of English History and I am the literary one.  

Now if push comes to shove, I can talk about any Shakespeare play for an hour or so off the top of my head, and this isn't the first time that I've read Daniel Deronda, but the sum total of my knowledge about Andrew Marvell prior to this request was the first line of the poem To His Coy Mistress.  So, believe me, there has been a great deal of reading going on in the SCR but it's mostly been aimed at finding out more about this remarkable man, who was far better know in his own time as a politician and a writer of tracts designed specifically to get up the noses of the great and the good than he was as a poet.

Marvell was born in Yorkshire in 1621 and the family very soon moved to Hull, a city with which he was associated for the rest of his life.  His father was an Anglican Minister and from what I can discover Marvell himself was solid in that faith throughout his life.  Certainly, he was voluble orally and in writing against both the Catholics and the Episcopalians, and towards the end of his life this would set him at odds with all the major players in the political arena as Charles II moved further and further towards the Catholic church and those who wished to see the power in the hands of the Bishops fought the monarch in the House of Commons.

He was a very well-educated man, attending Cambridge University from before his thirteenth birthday, and using the chance to travel as governor to a young nobleman to learn Dutch, French, Spanish and Italian.  His knowledge of languages was to become well known and he was employed as tutor to a number of well connected teenagers including, for a time, the nephew of a friend of Oliver Cromwell who was intended as husband for Cromwell's youngest daughter.  When he moved into politics as MP for Hull, he was often given secretarial roles that required him to interpret and translate documents for visiting dignitaries and was part of a delegation to Russia when Parliament was trying to renegotiate trading deals that had been cancelled when Charles I was beheaded.  Obviously Tzar Alexis didn't want his own subjects getting any regicidal ideas.

Looking at his time in Parliament you do tend to get the feeling that things were pretty much the same then as they are now.  The Borough of Hull paid Marvell 6s 8d for every day that the House sat as well as expenses and the occasional barrel of ale.  Oh that word expenses.  We all know what that can mean after the scandals of the last year about the monies claimed by our current crop of MPs.  And what about those barrels of ale?  I suppose we can only be glad they weren't Duck Houses! (With apologies to my non UK readers who may not quite understand that last comment.)  However, Marvell did speak out in the Commons against a bill designed to allow MPs to accept public office, a means of bribing politicians to vote in ways favourable to those who held the real power.  In fact, my overall impression of Marvell is that he was his own man.  He had his own ideas of what was right and wrong and he supported whichever grouping he thought was most likely to bring about the effects he thought desirable.  This has led to people looking at him as something of a turncoat, but I think you could rely on him if you relied on him to be true to himself.

And all this time he was writing, but not primarily the poems for which we now remember him.  The works that brought him most notice were the poems and the tracts which either feted or poured scorn on the major players in English government.  His final great piece was An Account of the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government which opens:

There has now for diverse Years, a design been carried on, to change the Lawfull Government of England into an Absolute Tyrrany, and to convert the established Protestant Religion into down-right Popery

and goes on to trace the conspiracy back to Charles II himself.  A real example of how to win friends and influence people!

Marvell died of the tertian ague (which probably means some form of malarial type illness) in 1678, but even then was hardly able to avoid controversy when his housekeeper claimed to have been secretly married to him and consequently to have rights over his estate.  His poems were published after his death, but for a long time the more political writings were overlooked.  It was really the essay written by T S Eliot for the tercentennial volume of his works, published in 1921, that brought Marvell back to general notice and led to a reassessment of his writings, both poetical and political. 

So, you see there has been some reading going on in the SCR and now I just have to hope that I can satisfy my colleagues when I give the longer version of this paper on Monday.  Fingers crossed.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Recalling Shakespeare

On Monday I went to see a dear friend who is in the process of moving house.  It's a difficult situation because she has lived in the same rather isolated cottage for the past sixty-three years and she is a hoarder.  As you might imagine, given the length of time she's been in her home, she is having to move because of health problems and she is going into much smaller accommodation.  It isn't easy for her, either emotionally or physically.  

I went over on Monday specifically because she wanted me to  have her collection of programmes from the theatre visits she'd made to Stratford over the years to use with the Shakespeare groups I teach.  While I'd seen many of the same productions myself, I don't have the space to be a hoarder and so I haven't kept any but the more recent programmes myself.  I've often regretted this, but a small house is a small house and that's all there is to it.

As you might imagine, I've had the most wonderful time over the past few days going through these programmes and recalling some of the marvellous productions I've had the privilege of seeing since I first started going to Stratford in the early 1960s. They include, for example, the programme for the very first professional Shakespeare I saw, Peter Hall's 1962 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream with Judi Dench as Titania, Diana Rigg as Helena and, I notice, the novelist, Margaret Drabble, tucked away among the fairies.  I knew she had wanted to be an actress, but I hadn't realised I'd been there to see her early attempts.

It is, though, the even earlier programmes that really make you catch your breath and turn green with envy. Here, for example, is the 1959 production of Othello with Sam Wanamaker as Iago and Paul Robeson as The Moor.  What wouldn't I have given to see that.  Or the Cymbeline from two years earlier with Peggy Ashcroft as Imogen and, hidden deep among the Lords, Ladies, Servants and Guards, an as yet unheard of, Eileen Atkins.  And what about a production of Dr Faustus just after the war, in 1947, with Robert Harris as the eponymous scholar and Paul Scofield as the evil Mephistophilis? 

The piece de resistance, however, has to be the 1951 programme for Henry IV Pt I.  The cast list reads like a theatrical who's who of the period; Harry Andrews as King Henry, Anthony Quayle as Falstaff, Michael Redgrave as Hotspur, Hugh Griffiths as Owen Glendower and, of course, Richard Burton as Prince Hal.  I am not old enough to remember Burton as anything other than a film actor.  How I wish I could have seen that production.  The Henry IVs are among my favourite plays anyway, but with a cast like that.......

I'm so sorry for my friend that she has had to give away programmes that are reminders of so many happy memories, but I know she is pleased that they are going to be put to good use and when I talk to her about the memories they have recalled for me as well, we are at least going to have food for hours and hours of theatrical discussion.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

The House at Sea's End - Elly Griffiths

The House at Sea's End is the third of Elly Griffiths' crime novels about forensic archeologist, Ruth Galloway. I love Ruth, she is everything a female crime hero 'shouldn't' be, forty, single, overweight and, in this book, the mother of newly born Kate, who promises to be every bit as much of a character as Ruth is.

This time Ruth is called in to examine a burial uncovered by her team beneath a rockfall on an isolated Norfolk beach. As she excavates the bones it becomes apparent that she has not one, but six victims of what appears to be a war-time execution. Inevitably, the police are called in and DCI Nelson is forced to consider the possibility that not only were there war crimes committed in this very small and now rapidly vanishing village seventy years ago, but that there might also still be someone alive who is prepared to kill to make sure that the truth is never revealed.

The theme of war crimes is explored further through the visit of Ruth's old friend of Bosnian extraction, Tatjana. Tatjana is still trying to come to terms with the loss of her own child and his grandparents and in exploring that story Ruth learns more about her own feelings on having become a mother and what Kate's presence is going to mean in her life. The two narrative are woven together very well and complement each other rather than feeling contrived as might so easily be the case.

But then that wouldn't happen with a writer of Griffiths talent, would it? With every novel she becomes more and more adept. Her plots stand up, her characters are wonderful creations and completely real, and above all she has the most original narrative voice I've encountered in years. Writing in third person present tense Griffiths' narrator stands slightly back from the action and offers a wry commentary on everything that is going on. The temptation is to think that it is in some way Ruth's voice, but the narrator is there when she isn't. Whoever it is, I'm rather glad they aren't always around to observe some of my follies. Here is Ruth coming home to Kate and to her friend, Shona, who has been looking after her.

Ruth looks at Shona, who is still holding Kate and looking pleased with herself.

'We've been up for ages,' she says. 'I got Kate dressed and gave her a bottle. We've been playing.'

Of the two, Kate looks the better for the experience. She is bright-eyed and bursting with energy. Shona has, in fact, dressed her in pyjamas and a jumper that is two sizes too big but she is overcoming these sartorial disadvantages with aplomb. She takes Ruth's phone and bites it, experimentally. Shona on the other hand, looks pale and bleary-eyed, her hair is unbrushed and her skirt is on inside out. But she is obviously pleased with herself for having survived the night. Pg 192

And she turns the English language superbly.

'Can I get you a drink?' asks Hastings, shrugging off his coat. 'Tea? Coffee? Something stronger? Keep out the cold?'

'I'm driving.' says Nelson. 'Coffee would be grand.'

Ruth would love 'something stronger' but she feels sure that Nelson would disapprove. Not only will she be driving later but she is also going to be operating a heavy baby. 'Coffee would be lovely,' she says. Pg 69

It is wonderful to watch a writer grow, as Griffiths is doing, book by book in the mastery of her craft. I can't recommend her books too highly, but, as I so often find myself saying, if you haven't read the first two you really ought to go back to the beginning. Once you've read one you're going to want to read the others anyway so save yourself the trouble and begin at the beginning.


Sunday, 13 February 2011

Is There a Comic in the House?

"My problem," I declared to the friend with whom I was lunching yesterday, "is that I was born without the laughter gene."

We were reflecting on the David Lodge lecture to which we had both been on Wednesday and discussing the next speaker in the series, whose name I genuinely can't remember because it is someone of whom I have never heard. The main reason I haven't heard of him is because he is a stand up comedian and I'm afraid I have yet to find a stand up comic who makes me laugh. Everyone around me can be rolling in the aisles but I will just sit there looking bemused. Television sit-com is just as bad. There will be gales of laughter coming from the studio audience (OK, no real indication, I know but someone must find them funny or surely they wouldn't go on making them) while I sit shaking my head in amazement.

Perhaps it is to do with the fact that laughter these days seems so often to revolve around making fun of someone else's misfortune in a way which is frequently, or so it appears to me, to be needlessly cruel. We condemn then playground bully who makes fun of the lonely child who somehow fails to fit in, but it's acceptable if the bully is being paid vast sums of money to humiliate others in a wider public forum.

Anyway, I had decided that I didn't do laughter and that I must be the worst sort of social misfit - and then I read the next segment of Susan Hill's Howards End is on the Landing; the chapter in which she discusses what makes her laugh. Back they came flooding, all those occasions when I've laughed so hard that I cried. Wodehouse never fails whether it be Jeeves or Lord Emsworth, and she also mentions someone who in my mind is one of the great comic writers of all times, Gerald Durrell.

Hill talks of probably Durrell's most famous book, My Family and Other Animals, and I would rank that high up amongst my favourites as well, but for me the really funny books are those which detail his travels in search of rare animals for his conservation programme: Beasts in the Belfry, Catch Me a Colubus and above all The Bafut Beagles. For some reason I read the last of those in a hotel room in Paris and much to the distress of the other guests I was still chuckling as I went down to breakfast. Ah, these mad English!

As Hill says, what distinguishes authors such as Wodehouse and Durrell is their style. These are not writers out for a quick laugh, they are people who have something to say and say it with panache. You would want to read them whatever they were writing about simply because they know how to turn a beautiful sentence. I've spent this afternoon finding cheap copies of the volumes I remember best and in future when I worry about the state of my laughter gene I shall have somewhere to turn for reassurance.


Saturday, 12 February 2011

Reading Experience Database 1450 - 1945

As I'm sure most of you know, The Open University maintains a site which they call The Learning Space where you can access short on-line courses available to the general public without cost.  They can be in any subject, range across the various undergraduate levels and for the most part they are expected to take between one and twenty hours of study.  Whenever they add to these courses they publish the fact on their Open Learn page and I regularly check in on a Saturday morning to see if there's anything new that might appeal.  Well, this morning I hit pay dirt.  There had been not one, but four attractive courses posted during the week, all to do with the history of the reader.

The courses are all related to a database the OU maintains about which I previously knew nothing, the Reading Experience Database 1450 - 1945.  The site explains better than I could what its purpose is:

UK RED is an open-access database housed at The Open University containing over 30,000 easily searchable records documenting the history of reading in Britain from 1450 to 1945. Evidence of reading presented in RED is drawn from published and unpublished sources as diverse as diaries, commonplace books, memoirs, sociological surveys, and criminal court and prison records. In January 2010 the RED project received generous AHRC funding to develop an international digital network for researching the history of reading across borders, in collaboration with partners in Australia, Canada, The Netherlands, and New Zealand.

Each of the four new courses is designed to help the student understand the nature of the material stored on the databased and the potential for its use.

The first course, History of Reading: An introduction to reading in the past, consists of a series of essays, drawn from material referenced in the database, designed to illustrate aspects of reading in the UK during the period from 1450 to 1945.  It contains essays relating to, amongst others, Dickens, Austen, Pepys and Stevenson.

The second, History of Reading Tutorial 1: Finding evidence of reading in the past, is designed to help researchers search, browse and use the resource, exploring the types of evidence historians have uncovered about the history of reading. It has in it, for example, a unit about the way in which material has been drawn from diaries, letters and journals - some of my favourite type of reading.

The third and fourth courses are each illustrative of ways in which researchers might use the database to compile a substantial body of evidence either about the way in which a specific book has been received by readers over the ages or the reading habits of a particular individual.  History of Reading Tutorial 2: The reading and reception of literary texts - a case study of Robinson Crusoe, does just what it says on the tin, it looks at the history of the readers response to Defoe's novel,while  History of Reading Tutorial 3: Famous Writers and their Reading: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Vernon Lee explores the way in which the reading habits of a writer can then be seen to feed into their own writing.

I've only just begun to look at the first of these and have done little more than scratch the surface of what is actually available in RED itself.  I put in Ben Jonson and discovered that when Virginia Woolf was reading plays from this period she commented:

Tomorrow I go onto Ben Jonson, but I shan't like him as much as Marlowe.

Not exactly groundbreaking information, but it does show the potential.

I hope you enjoy playing with this as much as I know I'm going to.  The trouble is it's something else to take up my time when I ought to be doing the reading myself rather than exploring other people's reading habits.  Oh well!

Friday, 11 February 2011

The Hanging Wood ~ Martin Edwards

The Hanging Wood, Martin Edwards' fifth novel set in the Lake District featuring DCI Hannah Scarlett and historian Daniel Kind, was sent to me via NetGalley for pre-publication review.  And as I'm an avid follower of the series, I was more than grateful to have the opportunity to read it before anyone else in my equally enthusiastic library group can get their hands on it.  This probably makes me a very nasty person, but at least I am an honest one.  Which is more than can be said for most of the characters in this book - the honest bit, that is - a fair few of them come under the heading of very nasty indeed!

Hannah's cold case unit is brought in to examine the disappearance twenty years earlier of  fourteen year old Callum Hinds, when his sister, Orla, apparently commits suicide in the grain silo on their father's farm.  At the time it was assumed that Callum had been killed by their uncle, who was found hanging shortly afterwards.  However, no body has ever been found and conversations between Orla and Daniel shortly before her death raise the possibility that not only may Callum still be alive but also that there may be something suspicious about her own death.

But, (there is always a but in the best crime fiction) Orla and Callum are linked to a family grouping that is involved in bringing a great deal of wealth and business into the area.  Even better, the family is offering to sponsor a local police project.  Hannah is under strict instructions not to rock the boat with her investigation and to make sure that it is all wrapped up within the week.  Fortunately (well, maybe not fortunately, but you get the picture) there is another death, after which no one can hide from the fact that there was something very wrong with the conclusions reached two decades earlier and that there is a very live investigation needed now.

As usual, it is through the careful deliberations of Daniel, the son of Hannah's ex-boss, who brings his academic historians mind to bear on the evidence, that Hannah is handed the key that solves the mystery.  Working on a new book in the idyllic surroundings afforded by a residential library, Daniel has to hand the details of the family needed to shed light on what it was that Callum discovered twenty years earlier which meant he had to disappear.  When the past is clear, the present falls into place.

I really enjoy Edwards Lake District books.  While they may not have the same grittiness as those set in Liverpool, neither do they ever pretend that the Lake District is simply a chocolate box location.  The farm that provides much of the setting for this book is clearly a place where those who live struggle for survival; it is also a place where there is constant potential for danger, either accidental or premeditated.  In The Hanging Wood, this is set against the beauty of a residential library and yes, you read that correctly, a residential library.  Given that anyone reading this is likely to be a book fanatic can you imagine anything more idyllic: a library where you can go and stay and not have to go home in the evening.  I am still reeling with the joy of discovering that although the institution in Edwards' novel does not exist, it is based on a real place.  I promise you, I am going to stay there at some point, just as long, that is, as there are no cold cases that need solving in the vicinity.

If you enjoy a good crime thriller along the lines of those written by Peter Robinson and Reginald Hill then I'm pretty sure you will enjoy Edwards.  As usual, I'm going to say that I think you should go back to the beginning and read the series in order, but if you are already acquainted with these books then this one will not disappoint.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

David Lodge ~ Author, Critic and Teacher

I've just come in from listening to David Lodge talk to our creative writing undergrads.  Unless you're an English graduate yourself, you're most likely to know of David as a novelist.  His campus trilogy, Changing Places, Small World and Nice Work led to frantic attempts on the part of local academics to try and pin just which of them had contributed to the works as models for particular characters and I know of at least one individual in a very senior role who read all three of them in preparation for her interview in the department so that she would have a flavour of what the university was like and the type of people she might possibly be working with.  David, of course, strenuously denies that Rummidge University is based in any way on the institution in which he taught for almost three decades or that there is any link at all between his characters and the people with whom he worked.  No one believes him for an instance!

Latterly, his novels have had a less academic background, although the most recent, Deaf Sentence, did return to the topic if somewhat indirectly.  Today, however, he came to talk to the students about his forthcoming book, A Man of Parts, which is published at the beginning of April.  Like his novel Author, Author, A Man of Parts is biographical fiction, in this instance concerning the novelist H G Wells, and I want to return in a later post to what he had to say about writing in this particular genre when I've had more time to think about it because, as those of you who are English graduates will appreciate, what he said was theoretically very sound but also very complex.

Because, David Lodge's other writing reflects his career as one of our major literary critics.  His work ranges from that very accessible set of essays, The Art of Fiction, to seminal texts such as Modern Criticism and Theory: a Reader and Consciousness and the Novel.  When David talks about fiction you are always aware that what he has to to say is underpinned by a depth of knowledge and understanding that leaves most other people gasping.  Our creative writing students may have been drinking in every word concerning the shaping of a mass of research into a novel, but those in the audience who study literature from a more theoretical standpoint were also busy taking notes and rapidly making links between what he was saying about the way the novel is now moving and the development of other strands of modern culture.

However, what wasn't mentioned by the person who introduced him, but which must by the end of the session have been apparent to everyone in the room, was the fact that David Lodge is simply the most brilliant teacher I have ever known.  As I said earlier, he taught at the University for a very long time and is still Emeritus Professor in the Department of English and even though I was a language student I used to sneak into the postgraduate seminars he held each week in his rather cramped office.  (Well, it was actually rather spacious for an office, but definitely cramped when all the students who wanted to attend piled in.)  Every week one of the postgrads would introduce a topic focussed on a particular text and then we would have a free-for-all discussion.  At the time I was already a teacher of some years standing, but had never worked at that level and I would watch him spellbound.  Everything I now know about running seminars be they for undergrads or more experienced students, I learned from observing David.  He has the most remarkable gift of making every one who contributes feel as if they have just made the very point that will elucidate the topic under discussion for the entire group.  He did exactly the same thing this afternoon in the question and answer session.  "What a good question....."  "Now that is a really interesting point...."  The students came out glowing.

So, perhaps the final thing that should be said about David Lodge is that as well as being an extremely gifted writer, critic and teacher he is also a very kind human being.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Felicia's Journey ~ William Trevor

It is to my great shame that I have to admit that I have never before read anything by William Trevor.  What is more, had this not been on the list for my Monday Book Group, I wouldn't have read Felicia's Journey, his 1994 Whitbread winning novel.  The loss has been mine.

It is hard to say anything about the book without spoiling it for those of you who have yet to read it, but I will try and give you a flavour of what it is about.  Eighteen year old Felicia has left her native Ireland to search in the English Midlands for her boyfriend, Johnny Lysaght.  No one in her home town approves of the relationship and she has travelled without any real knowledge of where she is going or how she is going to find Johnny once she arrives.  In the course of her search she encounters Mr Hilditch, a strange and lonely older man who befriends her for reasons of his own which, inevitably, the reader suspects from the first.  As we learn more about Hilditch's background and the reasons for his peculiar life style, so we become more and more concerned for what the outcome of their chance meeting might be.  At the end, despite the fact that Felicia appears to be in a very difficult situation indeed, it is possibly to argue that had events turned out as we anticipated, everything could have been so much worse.  What would in any other circumstances be a downbeat, if not tragic, ending has almost the feeling of victory, certainly of relief.

The greatness of this novel, however, lies not so much in the story that is told, but in the manner of the telling.  Trevor, is celebrated for his short story writing and there is much about this book that is reminiscent of the art of the short story writer.  Paramount is the emotional attachment that the author creates between the reader and the characters.  It is impossible not to react to each of them as if you actually had to have dealings with them yourself.  For example, at one point Felicia finds shelter with a group of religious fanatics who harass those they consider likely to hear their message with a vigour that is so real I wanted to pick the phone up as I read and demand that the police remove them from my doorstep NOW.  (You will be relieved to know that I restrained myself.)

In terms of the written style Trevor wastes not a single word and in half a sentence he can paint an entire picture.

Wouldn't you go up on the deck?

asks an anonymous women in the first couple of lines and immediately you know you're on the ferry coming from Ireland to England.  He doesn't need to tell you anything more.

Or you might get a more extended passage that conjures up an entire way of living.  The whole is too long to quote, but there is what amounts to an elegy on the homeless which begins:

Hidden away, the people of the streets drift into sleep induced by alcohol or agitated by despair, into dreams that carry them back to the lives that once were theirs.  They lie with their begging notices still beside them, with enough left of a bottle to ease the waking moment, with pavement cigarette butts to hand.

The power of the writing is in the placement of a single word, 'pavement cigarette butts'.  That word pavement tells an entire story with nothing else needing to be added.

Inevitably, Felicia's journey turns out to be more than a journey from one side of the Irish Sea to the other, but neither is it simply a journey from innocence to experience.  It could be argued that in some ways Felicia is as naive at the end of the book as she is at the beginning, or conversely you could argue that she had lost innocence before the book begins.  If pushed I would have to say that I think what she finds is a level of independence, a voice and a will of her own.  If you read her story you may feel that by the end she has lost just about everything except her life and yet I can't help feeling that she has found something that if not exactly what you would want for her is in someways at least a life of her own.

The power of the experience of reading this book has been such that it will be some time before I read another Trevor novel.  You cannot live a reading life at that level of intensity for very long.  But I most certainly will read other works of his and am only glad that because of my own previous folly I have his entire back list to work through.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Sunday Armchair Travelling

It is Sunday afternoon and as is fast becoming a habit I have been enjoying tea and scones while reading another chapter of Susan Hill's book, Howards End is on the Landing. Despite the fact that she claims to neither be a traveller nor to be particularly interested in travel writing Hill has all the recent greats in her collection, Bruce Chatwin, Colin Thubron and Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Like Hill, I am no traveller. I not only like my own routine, I actually need it for my medical well-being and travelling not only exhausts me it also separates me from the secret of my much needed sleep, my own bed. So, if I want to know anything of foreign parts I am reliant on the work of others, be that though the auspices of the BBC or through writers of the calibre that Hill describes.

I know Chatwin better through his novels than through his travel books. On the Black Hill, is the story of twin brothers who, like me, are not travellers. They are Welsh farmers whose existence revolves round the land on which they were born and through charting their lives Chatwin also manages to evoke the life of the country itself.

Colin Thubron I once had the privilege of hearing speak and have never forgotten that calm and gentle man talking of the hazards of journeying through China at a time when the regime in power still made it difficult for a foreigner to spend even a couple of days there let alone any extended visit. I bought a copy of his book, Behind the Wall, and took it back to share with the children I was teaching who were as fascinated as only children can be by the man who kept a collection of noses in jars. Speculation as to what you might do with a nose collection kept the classroom buzzing for weeks.

But, Leigh Fermor, just the mention of his name brought back a feeling of shame. Hill speaks of his book, A Time to Keep Silence, as:

hardly a travel book at all - or if it is, the travel is inwards, a spiritual journey. Some books are balm to the soul and solace to the weary mind, a cooling stream at the end of long and tiring days and 'A Time to Keep Silence' is assuredly one of them.

Some years ago now, a dear friend offered me Leigh Fermor's books at a period when balm to the soul was much needed and I failed to take him up on his suggestion. I could walk upstairs now and put my hand straight onto the copy he gave me of A Time of Gifts, but I have never so much as opened it. Hill says that Leigh Fermor is the doyen of the travel world and I can neither contest or confirm that view - as yet. Has anyone else read his works? And, if so, what do you think? Should I start with the volume I already have or are there better ways in?

And are there other travel writers to explore? Not, please Bill Bryson, who always seems to be laughing at someone. But any other writers of the calibre of Chatwin, Thubron and Leigh Fermor would be welcome suggestions.


Saturday, 5 February 2011

Faulks on Fiction: Yes, but what sort?

The BBC are celebrating 2011 as their Year of Books.  Quite why 2011 should be an important year for books I'm not sure.  In this house, every year is book year and we hadn't noticed that 2011 was more bookish than any other, but what ho, if the BBC wants to celebrate books we are more than happy to join them.

Rather ironically, given that there are demonstrations going on all over the country even as I write against the 400+ library closures coming about thanks to the government's funding cuts, the celebrations kick off this evening with the first in a series of programmes introduced by the author, Sebastian Faulks.  Faulks on Fiction will focus on four different character types in the English novel, starting with the hero and moving through discussions of the lover, the snob and the villain.

As is the BBC's wont, they have published an accompanying book and this morning I had an e-mail from one of our major book chains informing me that not only could I download the book itself for just slightly more than half price, but I could also claim four classics of English Literature free to go along with it.  Well, my kindle doesn't accept downloads from this particular company, but I thought if they were making this offer there was a fair chance Amazon was as well, so I nipped over to their site to see what was what.  

Amazon had the same offer, although it was rather more expensive.  They did, however, also claim to have a very much cheaper download of the Faulks without the accompanying novels and as I already have the other books concerned I eagerly clicked on the link,

only to find this:  yes, I was rather surprised too.  So, I went back to the original book + novel download and scrolled down the page.  The first part of the description was definitely about the Faulks but then I hit this:

Leanne inherits a halfshare in a former boarding school set in a remote part of Scotland. She gives up all that she knows to start her new life in the staff quarters of the school - then finds that the other owner, Adam, is a dominant male. His insistence on disciplining the erring female staff is at odds with Leanne's feminism and she's even more perturbed to find that she's aroused by watching the frequent punishments.
Setting this novel in a vast former boarding school gave me lots of scope for unusual castigatory settings. Miscreants are corrected in the staff rooms, classrooms and even the stables. The remoteness of the institute ensures that attractions build amongst the staff. The tension heightens when Adam, a first class advertising copywriter, starts to write copy for adult erotic toys - toys that, solely for the purposes of research, I forced myself to experiment with. These devilishly effective devices similarly take Adam's personal assistant, housekeeper, cook and other employees to their submissive depths and orgasmic heights.
Leanne initially tells herself that she'll have nothing to do with Adam's authoritative boundary-challenging sexuality, but her psyche and her libido have other plans.      

(Amazon website description (apparently) of Faulks on Fiction)

Well!  If that's what the BBC are intending to broadcast tonight all I can say is that there are going to be some very shocked viewers, either because of what they've seen or because of what they've missed!

I e-mailed Amazon and asked them what was going on.  In fact, feeling rather indignant, I asked them if someone wasn't playing a particularly childish joke.  They assured me that this was not the case, that it was a genuine error and that the matter would be corrected, but I've just been over there now and the site is still as it was this morning.

So, what are we in for this evening?  I was actually going to record the programme and watch it tomorrow, but I'm not sure I can stand the suspense.  I may have to watch it as it is transmitted.  On the other hand if I have an hour of Lingering Lessons before I go to bed who knows what damage it will do to my beauty sleep.  The story will continue.......

Friday, 4 February 2011

Devouring Notions

I'm still busy picking up tips on how to read better, or perhaps more precisely, how to give more thought to what is going on in the mind of the author with whose work I'm trying to engage. Today I have been learning that extremely useful life skill that not all vampires actually have pointed teeth and painful looking brow ridges. Oh no! Sometimes they are as normal looking as you and me. (Well me, anyway, my not being able to speak definitively for who might be reading this blog.)

Foster makes the point that there are ways of devouring an individual's life spirit other than draining them of their blood. What is more, the non-vampiric predator is often far more lethal precisely because their intentions are not immediately apparent. He calls on a number of texts I have to admit to not having read to support his claim but what came to mind immediately was the passage in Margaret Forster's Keeping the World Away that I quoted a couple of weeks ago where one of the characters says of Gwen John that she drained whoever she was with by the emotional demands she made on them without giving anything back in return. That surely is a sort of vampirism and one that makes me realise that I've actually come across a few blood suckers in disguise myself over the years.

Then there are those characters who assume that everyone is at their beck and call and that the whole world exists simply to do their bidding. My favourite would have to be Jane Austen's Lady Catherine de Burgh who would still be happily draining the life out of all and sundry had she not had the misfortune to run into Miss Elizabeth Bennett.

And there in lies an important distinction. When characters like these meet their Waterloo the outcome is comedy or at least a feeling on the part of the reader of a kind of triumph. When they have their way and we have to watch helplessly while a good person is destroyed as a result of their devilment, when an Iago brings an Othello to his untimely doom, then what we have is tragedy.

Give me a vampire I can recognise every time.


Wednesday, 2 February 2011

A Lesson in Secrets ~ Jacqueline Winspear

Every now and then you come across a new author whose future works you know you are going to want to read the moment they become available.  That was the case in 2003 when I read the first of Jacqueline Winspear's novels about the eponymous Maisie Dobbs.  Maisie, having survived the hospitals of the First World War where she was nursing, has returned to England, completed her Cambridge degree and set herself up as a private detective.  Her methods of detection are unusual in the extent to which they rely on an understanding of human nature as much as on other more tangible evidence.  And, as a result, she and the police with whom she comes into contact don't always see eye to eye.  Nevertheless, Maisie has a clear up rate that would be the envy of any police force and what is more, she also manages to help her friends find their way though the most difficult of circumstances.  In fact one of the major attractions of this series for me is watching the way that Maisie grows in confidence in dealing with the social world into which she has moved, having started life as a maid of all work in the home of one of the English aristocracy.

I was, then, extremely pleased to be given the opportunity by NetGalley to read the eighth Maisie Dobbs novel, A Lesson in Secrets, prior to publication and spent last weekend immersed in the Cambridge of 1932 where Maisie finds herself at the behest of the Secret Service conducting covert surveillance into the activities of the staff and students in an independent college dedicated to encouraging peace amongst the citizens of various European countries.  While the Government is concerned that there may be problems with people entering the country under false pretences, it is not long before Maisie becomes far more concerned with the extreme political allegiances of some of her colleagues and their influence upon the students with whom they are associated.  As usual, it is Maisie who has the more accurate grasp of the situation.

Inevitably, matters are complicated when the College Principal, a man whose writings are said to have caused a mutiny in the ranks of both the British and German armies during the First World War, is murdered and Maisie becomes embroiled in the investigation even though specifically warned off it by the powers that be.  One of the things I really like about Maisie is that she is always prepared to tell said powers that be when she thinks they are wrong, even if she does know that she is still going to have to play along with them in the end.

Eventually, of course, the murderer is found and the real danger at the heart of the College revealed.  Revealed, but still not acknowledged by the leaders of the Secret Service.  There is clearly scope for taking the matter further in future episodes.

As well as putting together a tidily thought out plot, Winspear also explores a number of issues that were pertinent at that period.  She brings to the fore the failure of the British Establishment to recognise the threat posed by Hitler at a time when it might still have been possible to do something to stop him and hints at the possibility that it is a fear of the rise of the lower classes that fuels this failure.  Too many people in power in the UK, I believe, thought that Hitler had the right idea when it came to keeping certain types of individuals in their places.  She also explores the post war growth of racketeering and of extortion that was the plague of those trying to set up their own businesses in a world that had seen a tremendous slump in trade and a dramatic rise in unemployment.  And, perhaps most interesting of all to me, she has her characters look back on the treaty signed at the end of the Great War and foretell the disaster that was to come as a result of the demands made upon Germany.  There were moments when I noted as I read "this could be Winifred Holtby", thinking of that writer's journalism on this subject rather than her fiction.  She too was aware of the catastrophe that awaited Europe as a result of the short-sightedness of the Treaty of Versailles, a catastrophe it would have been possible to avoid but which by this stage was already inevitable.  As one of Winspear's characters says:

we do not pay enough attention to the 1914 we had become a reflection of history when we embarked upon what could be considered another European Thirty Years War.

Now there's an interesting thought, one conflict stretching from 1914 right through to 1945.  It is, I think, a perspective that has some merit.

This is the excellent novel that I've come to expect from Jacqueline Winspear and I recommend it heartily.  My only caveat, if you are a new Maisie Dobbs reader, is that you shouldn't think about starting here.  I do think you need to read this series in order.  However, if that is the case, then how lucky can you get.  You still have all eight to read and delight in.  I envy you.