Friday, 29 April 2011

The Burning ~ Jane Casey

To Whom It May Concern:

Thank You.

I had great difficulty with Jane Casey's first novel, The Missing, so much difficulty, in fact, that I didn't finish it.  I'm not certain what it was about the book that I found so off putting.  Perhaps it was the theme, but I've read books about missing children before.  Perhaps the plot or the characters just didn't grab my attention.  For whatever reason it didn't strike a chord with me and as a consequence I wouldn't have picked up her second novel, The Burning, if it hadn't been for the fact that I read several very complementary reviews out there in the blogging world.

And, I'm very glad that I did, because if this book is anything to go by, Casey is going to be one of those writers who improves with successive volumes and in DC Maeve Kerrigan, she has a character who will definitely be worth knowing over a long period of time.

Maeve is part of an elite murder squad investigating a series of murders, each of which has ended with the victim's body being set fire to following a brutal beating.  When Rebecca Haworth's body is found in apparently similar circumstances the first thought is that she is victim number five.  However, as evidence is gathered and forensic reports are studied an element of doubt begins to grow and the team has to face the possibility that they may have a copy cat killer at work.  Already under extreme pressure from the press and public to make progress in identifying and catching the killer they have named 'The Burning Man', the police have to decide whether to go public with their fears or carry on the investigation as if there were only one killer while keeping an open mind on the question of Rebecca's attacker.  It falls to Maeve to follow up the possibility that there may be something in Rebecca's past that has led to an old enemy taking advantage of the publicity surrounding the serial killings to rid themselves  of her unwelcome presence.  Key to Maeve's enquiry is Louise North, Rebecca's roommate when they were students and, for the most part, the story is told alternately from Maeve and Louise's point of view.

The picture that Maeve builds up of Rebecca is very different from that which the world in general saw and the further she delves into the young woman's past (and present) the more the DC questions the apparently close relationship that Louise claims the two had continued to share.  Certainly something happened in their last shared term at Oxford that has cast a shadow over their friendship and as the investigation continues it begins to look as if finding out what that was might provide the key to identifying Rebecca's killer.

Casey's development of the characters of these two very different women is probably the best thing in the novel and it is Maeve who will take me back to her next book, which it seems will also feature the young policewoman.  I'm less sure of her ability to handle plot.  She sets herself up with a very complex premise, because the hunt for the serial killer has to continue and in many ways her narrative choices signal the resolution of that story as the climax of the book, which it is not.  I'm also slightly concerned that she may feel that she has a good thing going in the two different first person narrative voices and it may become a pattern.  And you all know my feeling about pattern.  It gets its effect when you break it.  Stick to it too rigidly and you become straitjacketed by it.  Nevertheless, this seems to me to be a far better book than The Missing and I am very much looking forward to the appearance of The Reckoning later in the year.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Middleton's Macbeth.

I spent an interesting evening on Monday listening to Michael Boyd, the Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, talk about his new production of Macbeth.  I haven't yet seen this on stage but what he had to say has certainly whetted my appetite for a play that I wouldn't say is normally one of my favourites.  I have only ever seen it brought off successfully once and then in the very small and intimate space of 'The Other Place'.  For me it's a play that doesn't work in the vast regions of a thousand seater theatre.

Aside: I should ask myself seriously at some point why that is.  After all it was written for The Globe which probably took an audience of three thousand. But that's a discussion for another day.  

To come back to Boyd's production.  What has me particularly intrigued is that apparently he is only playing the Shakespeare text and that is a very bold move indeed.

You do realise, don't you, that Macbeth as we know it (I am trying very hard to avoid the Star Trek joke here, especially with Patrick Stewart in the company this season) is only partially by Shakespeare.  What we have is almost certainly a version for the stage cut and embellished by Thomas Middleton.  If you decide to play only the Shakespearian bits then you lose not only the Porter, but also the Witches and Hecate too.  For some people I know that means the very bits that wake them up.

These passages are, however, parts of the Folio text that can be very hard to bring off.  Antony Sher and Greg Doran in their book Woza Shakespeare make the point that in a society that has no real concept of witches in a way which has an immediate, daily impact, it is almost impossible to invest the characters with the terror that they would have inspired in an audience that believed implicitly in the potency of such figures.  Too often, in the modern British theatre, they simply get the production off to a bad start by being laughed at.  The Porter normally fares better because by that stage in the play you're desperate for anything that offers a bit of light relief.  But, how do you give him the relevance that he had at the time?  His speech is a bit like Koko's 'little list' in The Mikado.  If you want it to have the effect it had when it was first produced, you have to update the references.  Most productions would change the script at this point, although I've never before come across a director bold enough to cut the scene completely.

I have to say that this has me really itching to see this production.  However, I do have a caveat.  Will it hold together now?  I suspect, and of course I have no way of knowing, that we have lost a good deal of what Shakespeare actually wrote when he first put quill to parchment over Macbeth.  Think how short it is compared to the other tragedies.  I've seen an almost uncut version played without an interval in little over two and a half hours.  Try doing that with Othello or Hamlet.  We only have the Folio version of Macbeth.  There are no Quartos published before the 'official' 1623 First Folio.  In other words, we don't have the original Shakespeare Macbeth, only the version 'prepared' by Middleton for a stage that expected a play to be around the two hour mark.  Now, Middleton knew his job.  He has given us a script that works.  He was, after all, a damn good playwright himself.  But if you start to adapt an adaptation are you going to be left with a text that has an inner coherence?

Well, time will tell.  I'm seeing the production within the next couple of weeks and you can be sure I will have something to say about it.  I hope it will be good.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Freedom, Not Escapism

Long ago and far away, in another blogging life, I used to contribute a discussion piece to the Sunday Salon on a fairly regular basis and very often what I wrote about would be sparked by the topic the author, Jeanette Winterson had raised in her column in the previous day's Times.  

I'm sure I'm not the only one who regrets the passing of the Times Saturday Book Supplement.  It was full of interesting reviews and debates and, coupled with The Guardian's Review Section, it ensured that you could catch up, over each weekend, with whatever had been going on in the book world during the previous seven days.  But it was Winterson's pieces I always looked forward to the most.  As an author she is someone whose works I have never particularly enjoyed, but as a thinker about the literary world and about what it means to be a reader I thought she was second to none.  So, it was with real pleasure that I picked up the collection of articles from Books and Company that I bought in Oxford a couple of weeks ago and found that the first of the pieces is one by Winterson, A roof of one's own.

In this essay Winterson talks about the way in which she 'made' books for herself as a child to replace those she could not buy.  Her technique was not exactly orthodox, but then neither was her childhood.  Whereas you or I would probably have bought ourselves a notebook and scribbled away in the privacy of our bedroom, the strictures laid down by Winterson's mother meant that was not an option open to her.  Instead she would memorise passages from the books she was allowed to borrow from the library and then copy the lines down on roofing slates from the old Accrington Stanley football ground.  Lacking any chalk with which to scribe, she used instead the stones that lay about the derelict buildings.

Of course the eighteenth and nineteenth century classics she was allowed to borrow were long and the slates not really adequate for the purpose and so inevitably major parts of the works would get paraphrased in Winterson's own words.  But, what she was aiming for was not a boiled down Reader's Digest style abridgement.

It was not the story I wanted, I wanted those moments of intensity that change a narrative into a poem.  I wanted to feel its heartbeat against my own.

Those couple of sentences brought me up short.  Especially that clause it was not the story I wanted, because when I think about my own reading, of late it has only been the story I've wanted.  My disquiet was only enhanced when I moved on to the next paragraph where Winterson talks about freeing herself from within the books as she copied them out.

Freedom, not escapism.  Time with a book is not time away from the real world.  A book is its own world, unique, entire.  A place we choose to visit, and although we cannot stay there, something of the book stays with us, perhaps vividly, perhaps out of conscious memory altogether, until years later we find it again, forgotten in a pocket, like a shell from a beach.

Freedom, the chance to enlarge mind and spirit beyond the confines of everyday.

Yes, exactly!  That is exactly what books used to do for me and yet of late, if I am honest, I know that  I have been reading in a very different way; I have, for the most part, been reading simply to escape.  

Now, I don't think there is anything wrong with a bit of escapism.  Goodness knows, during the winter we've just been through there were days when a book that took you away from the feet deep drifts of snow covering the surrounding district was the only way you could get 'out' of the house.  But, when I think back and try and remember the last time I read a book that gave me a feeling of having freed something of myself, of having expanded my mind and spirit, of having asked me to really engage with it, I'm hard pressed to recall anything.

Part of me would like to argue that there must have been a reason for this, that my mind must have needed a time of lying fallow and I think there is possibly some truth in that.  But I also think that it is very possible to simply become lazy in our reading habits and ask for nothing that demands more than a cursory, glancing attention.  A time of essential fallow can morph only too easily into a period where we simply allow the weeds to grow.  

So, with Winterson at my side, I am going to go weeding.  That doesn't mean that I am going to give up completely on my plot driven crime fiction but I am going to make sure that it isn't any more than fifty percent of what I read and I am only going to read the best, rather than whatever happens to come my way.  If it becomes clear that I have something in my hands that has little more than plot to recommend it then back to the library it goes.

And, if anyone at the Times should be reading this (well, you can always hope!) I want my Saturday Book Supplement back please.  More especially I want Jeanette Winterson's column back.  I've clearly suffered without a regular kick in the behind to keep me up to the mark.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Anyone For Tennis

I don't know if you remember, but earlier this year I blogged about an idea that had been mooted by the Institute of Fine Arts situated on Campus that they would run a book discussion group in conjunction with this summer's exhibition on tennis in art.  They were running into difficulties because there aren't that many books that feature tennis to any great extent.  Indeed, even when I put out a call for suggestions the blogging world found itself pushed for ideas.

Well, earlier this week I was contacted about the final selections and this is the list that the people organising the event have come up with.

Double Fault, Lionel Shriver
A Room with a View, E M Forster, (romance between Lucy and Cecil)
Period Piece, Gwen Raverat
Love Among the Chickens, P G Wodehouse, (Chapter XIII. Tea and Tennis)

As you can see, the connections between the game and the narrative in most of the books are as tentative as the texts I came up with, so there obviously really is a gap in the market out there just waiting to be filled by someone other than Lionel Shriver.  Nevertheless, I've signed up to participate because I want to encourage the Institute's attempt to reach out to a wider audience.  I think the basic idea of linking exhibitions with other art forms is a really good one and who knows what possibilities there may be in relation to future exhibitions.  

So, I will try and whip some enthusiasm for Double Fault, difficult as I know I'll find it.  I have real problems with Shriver's written style.  It doesn't matter how good or otherwise her work may be, the surface structure just gets in between me and it.  Forster, of course, is never any hardship and this particular book a wonderful summer read.  And, I suspect that the same will be true of the Wodehouse.  I don't know the chosen book, but doubtless it will be good for a wry smile at the very least and if it has to do with tea then it's bound to be a winner where I'm concerned.  I think the Raverat is a memoir.  I must check.  If that's the case then I will be very interested in it because I know she and her husband were good friends of the Woolfs and I enjoy anything to do with Bloomsbury.

What with this and the Summer School June to September is going to be a busy reading period, but then how does that make it different from any other period in my life?  What I will find interesting about this project is to see what the dynamics of the group will be like.  I've never been involved in an ad-hoc coming together like this before.  All the book groups I've belonged to have been made up of people who, for the most part, already knew each other.  There is the potential here for a certain amount of fireworks as people jostle for position.  It could work very well or it could be a recipe for disaster.  I shall just have to wait and see.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Roseanna ~ Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo

I haven't been particularly successful with Scandinavian Crime Fiction over the past few months. I certainly haven't come across any writer whose works I have wanted to explore past the first sampling. At first I was inclined to put this down to poor translation, but as the numbers mounted I began to think that there must be something in the Scandinavian approach to the genre which just didn't work for me. However, several friends had urged me not to give up until I had tried the Martin Beck series by the husband and wife team, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo and last week I finally managed to get hold of the first novel in the sequence of ten, Roseanna.  The preface to my copy stresses the importance of reading the books in order as they were, apparently, conceived of as one long narrative in ten chapters. I have, therefore, just completed chapter one and surprisingly, I think I shall be going back for chapter two. Surprisingly, because there are many of the same features in the Beck novel that made the other Scandinavian books so disappointing, however, there is also something else about it which takes it out of the ordinary and makes this a series worth coming back to.

The body of a young woman is dredged up out of a lake and it is clear on closer inspection that she has been murdered. However, there have been no reports of missing persons who might fit her description and there is no evidence as to how her body came to be in the lake in the first place. Martin Beck thought by some to be the country's most capable examining officer, is called in to help his colleagues discover who the woman is, where she comes from, how she got into the lake and of course most importantly who put her there. There is no quick and easy solution to the mystery and one of the things which is most characteristic of the book is the way in which it stresses the daily grind of police work; the hours spent pouring over reports or shivering through surveillance duties are spelled out in meticulous detail. Even when the police feel certain that they have identified the culprit there is no immediate confrontation. Martin Beck and his fellow officers still have to spend weeks constructing a situation that they can only hope will lead to his giving himself away. And when the case reaches its resolution there is no sense of triumph, simply of a job completed.

It is this attention to the realistic detail which most clearly characterises the novel and which to some extent separates it from many of the other Scandinavian crime fiction I've read which, with the exception perhaps of Larsson, has been fairly short on detail. However, that isn't why I think I enjoyed this more than the works of other writers, in fact, coupled with the narrative voice evoked, it could have been fatal.  Because, as in so many other instances I still found the narrative voice worked to keep me at a distance. As a reader you are never more than an observer of the reported events that comprise a narrative, but it is up to the author just how close an observer you are allowed to be. Scandinavian fiction always seems to want to keep me at arms length. I often feel as if I am reading an official police report rather than a narrative intended to involve and entertain me. When I add that to the way in which the attention to realism seems to flatten out the arc of the narrative structure, which would normally serve to add shape to the otherwise random events of everyday life, what I end up with is something that feels closer to fact than to fiction.

At least it would be if it wasn't for one thing and that is the rather wry sense of humour that permeates the writing and even makes its way through the translation. And it is this feeling that neither Martin Beck or the writers are taking themselves too seriously which eventually won me over to the book and which will take me back to the other novels. That and the fact that as someone who is particularly involved in the study of narrative organisation I am very interested to see how the writers manage to make good their claim that the series is one complete narrative, presumably with a narrative arc of its own, distinct and separate from those of the individual stories. That is an extremely difficult thing to bring off, for technical reasons I won't go into here. If they manage it I shall be very impressed indeed.

As a footnote, when I was in Blackwell's last weekend, I noted a relatively recent book about Scandinavian Crime Fiction, called simply, Scandinavian Crime Fiction, it is by Paula Arvas and Andrew and looked very interesting indeed. Perhaps at some point in the future I shall have to treat myself to a copy.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Summer School ~ 2011

Every year I look longingly at the adverts for Summer Schools, especially those which involve a study of some aspect of the literary world.  And, every year I force my gaze away from those same adverts for one simple reason - the cost.  A week at a Summer School at one of the UK's universities can set you back anything between £400 and £800 and that's before you factor in accommodation, board and transport.  Even if I didn't live on a very fixed income there is no way that I could even begin to think about splashing out that amount of money.

Well, last year, I decided to do something about it.  It seemed to me that if I felt this way there must be others with the same desires and the same problems meeting them.  I began by canvasing members of my U3A group to see what interest I could gather there and before I knew it I had a group of a dozen other avid readers who were all keen to see if we couldn't put something together for a little less in the way of financial layout.

What I eventually devised was a week in which we met on three afternoons, the Monday, Wednesday and Friday, to discuss three separate, but linked, books.  We met in a different person's house on each occasion and someone different led each discussion.  That way no one was asked to take on too much of the burden of hosting or of preparation.  We all dropped 50p into a saucer on the way out every time we meet to cover the cost of tea and biscuits and as a consequence the week set us back by the grand sum of £1.50 a head.  It was a roaring success.  We started on the Monday with Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, moved on to Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone and finished up the week with Andrew Taylor's The American Boy.  By the Friday meeting we were so involved with the books and with our comparison of the treatment of crime in the nineteenth century that I had to force people to leave so that Jen could have her home back.

Needless to say, we are repeating the experience this year and running a music equivalent as well and the time has come for me to put together lists of possible literary trios so that this year's group can decide what they would like to read.  I'm going to follow the same pattern as last summer when I offered five sets of three books and asked people to rank them one to five in order of preference.  I then totalled the marks for each set and the one with the lowest score was chosen.  In fact, it was a very close run thing last year and four of the trios pushed each other hard.  That makes it easier this time round because I can retain the three losers on the list.  There was one set that no one was interested in, so that will have to be replaced and I need a final group to fill in for those we actually read last year.

Choosing the books is more than half the fun.  There are some criteria I have to abide by.  Everything has to be easily and cheaply available and we don't want anything too heavyweight.  This is supposed to be fun, after all. Other than that, the literary world is my oyster.  This is where I've got to.

Groves of Academe

The Secret History ~ Donna Tart
Gaudy Night ~ Dorothy L Sayers
Nice Work ~ David Lodge

Then and Now

Ghostwalk ~ Rebecca Stott
A Secret Alchemy ~ Emma Darwin
The House on the Strand ~ Daphne du Maurier

The Regeneration Trilogy

Regeneration ~ Pat Barker
The Eye in the Door ~ Pat Barker
The Ghost Road ~ Pat Barker

221B Baker Street and Beyond

The Hound of the Baskervilles ~ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Final Solution ~ Michael Chabon
Arthur and George ~ Julian Barnes

Authoboigraphical Fiction

The Master ~ Colm Toibin
The Hours ~ Michael Cunningham
Girl in a Blue Dress ~ Gaynor Arnold

The first three are the runners up from last year.  The first and third speak for themselves.  The second comprises three books that all work in two different time periods.  The first new group is one I've put together from books that have something to do with either Sherlock Holmes or his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the second (for which I desperately need to find a better title!) is made up of books that fictionalise aspects of a writer's life.

Now, here's where you come in.  Are there any obvious contenders for those last two groups that I've missed?  I don't want to put one of the Mary Russell books into the Sherlock Holmes set.  I know the people who will be participating and I don't think it would work.  But, are there other re-imaginings of Holmes' adventures?  And what about other books that fictionalise authors?  I would have loved to include the new David Lodge, A Man of Parts,  which is about H G Wells, but it's still only in hardback.  Any suggestions will be gratefully received before I have to finalise the list at the end of the week.

Friday, 15 April 2011

The Poison Tree ~ Erin Kelly

Given how long I've had to wait to reach the top of the reservation list for Erin Kelly's debut novel, The Poison Tree, I was hoping that I was in for a good read at the very least and quietly praying that I wasn't in for a major disappointment.  The reviews that I (and clearly all the other library borrowers) had read were excellent and the fact that no one seemed to be giving up on it after a day or so boded well too.  But, you know what it's like.  You get yourself all worked up about a book and then for some reason it just doesn't live up to all the hype.

Well, not in this case.

The Poison Tree is a psychological thriller more in the style of Barbara Vane than the crime fiction which makes up the bulk of my relaxation reading.  So, perhaps I'm not the best person to judge its worth, not enough experience in the field.  But I think this is probably the best crafted book I've read so far this year and certainly one that I would recommend without hesitation.

Karen is coming to the end of her degree course at Queen Charlotte's College in London where she is expected to take an outstanding first and move on to one of the many academic opportunities that are being offered to her. (It is 1997, exceptional students were still being fought over rather than having to fight to get themselves noticed!)  During her time in London, working class Karen has shared a house and life style with three much more well-heeled and extremely orthodox colleagues and has definitely missed out on the rather more 'dissolute' activities you might expect a student to have indulged in.  As their time at University draws to a close, however, the other members of the household and Karen's decidedly upperclass boyfriend all make it clear that relationships which may have been acceptable in the world of study are not going to continue beyond graduation and, at a loose end for companionship, Karen bumps into Biba, a drama student in the same College.  Her life will never be the same again.

Biba lives in a derelict old Highgate house with her brother Rex and a stream of extremely unorthodox lodgers and, as a result, of this chance encounter, Karen's final summer as a student is spent experiencing many of the features of a more typical student existence that she has previously missed out on.  While she becomes Rex's lover in a physical sense, it is the relationship between herself and Biba that is far more important to her and her feelings for the young actress grow until they border on the obsessive.

And then something happens.  Something that results in Rex spending the next ten years in prison, while Karen, giving up any notion of an academic career is left to bring up baby Alice on her own.

I'm not giving anything away by saying this because one of the features of the book that I like the most is the integral manner in which Kelly interweaves the present with the past.  We know from the beginning, as we wait for Rex's release, what he has been imprison for and we know too that there is a question as to the veracity of the verdict.  What we are not certain about is the reason that verdict is being called into question and it is that which slowly Kelly reveals to us in a way which keeps you guessing without ever making you feel as if you have been fed false information or misdirected in any way whatsoever.

Kelly clearly has a remarkable gift for plotting, but she is also excellent at drawing character.  There are some wonderful yet thoroughly believable creations amongst the lodgers who inhabit the house in Highgate, but she is also brilliant in her portrayal of the main characters.  In particular the portrait of Biba, one of the most selfish and self-centred people I've ever encountered in literature, rings completely true.  Her final appearance might have seemed unlikely at least in a less able writer's hands but here it was note perfect.  I could happily have rung the woman's neck with my own hands.

Erin Kelly is going to join that short list of writers whose books I automatically read as soon as I can get hold of them.  She has a second novel, The Sick Rose, coming out in June and I'm off right this minute to harass the library because they don't have it on pre-order.  I may even have to talk to the bank manager and buy my own copy.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011


My apologies for a very brief post today.   As you will have gathered, I had a wonderful day in Oxford on Sunday, but as usual such delights have to be paid for and it will be a couple of days longer before I'm back functioning at anything like normal.  This does, however, give me the opportunity to point those of you who practise yoga in the direction of the blog my own yoga teacher has recently established.


I've been working with this particular teacher for about five years now and she is really very good indeed.  Her blog offers suggestions for sequences of poses as well as links to other sites where she has found ideas that she thinks her students will enjoy.   I hope you enjoy them too.

Monday, 11 April 2011

The Great Book Buying Expedition

So, yesterday morning I woke up feeling well enough to set out on a Great Book Buying Expedition because, as some of you know, I was recently the lucky recipient of an unexpected present of some book tokens. As real book buying for me always means travelling to one of two fairly distant places it can never be planned in advance, I have to take myself by surprise and just set out. If I know what I want and it's something that I think they are likely to have in, then I go to a small Shropshire town called Much Wenlock to my favourite independent shop, Wenlock Books. If you're ever in the area I can't recommend the shop too highly. Anna sells both new books and second hand volumes and is always only too glad to talk to you about her stock. If you're lucky she will also make you a cup of excellent tea as well. What more could anyone ask?

Yesterday, however, I needed to browse and I also felt well enough to get as far as Oxford and that is a combination which means just one thing - a day in Blackwells.

Some people, I know, find a bookshop that size intimidating and I can understand that. How can you hope to find something that is just right amongst all those books? How do you ever narrow down your choice? Panic ye not! I have the perfect answer - tea and buns. The tea and bun break is an essential part of any Great Book Buying Expedition. Actually, if you're going to be pedantic about things, several tea and bun breaks. Blackwells acknowledges this fact by having a cafe inside the shop, although normally there are so many people having tea and bun breaks that it is hard to find a seat. But don't let that worry you, there are plenty of other appropriate places where you can indulge within very easy walking distance.

So, your plan of campaign should go something like this. Arrive at your destination. First tea and bun break while you decide which sections of the bookshop you are going to prowl round and in what order. For me, yesterday, this was the literary criticism section, the fiction in translation and the history department.

Having made your initial selection you then go back to the shop and carry out a preliminary sweep, logging possible choices as you go. Note book and pencil is essential at this stage, although you will need to be prepared to defend yourself if challenged by concerned booksellers who think you are just noting down titles that you then intend to buy at half the price from the Internet. (You wouldn't do that, would you?) This reconnaissance can take anything from half an hour to half the day depended on the size of the bookshop and how many categories of book you are interested in. However long it takes, by the time you get to the end of it you will definitely need another tea and bun break. You might even need two buns if your exertions have left you really exhausted.

Over your second bun you then peruse and narrow down your lists and decide which books are going to be deemed to be serious contenders. Over your first bun you may have got the list down to a couple of dozen but it's over that second one that you do the really hard work and cull for all you are worth. They will want to close the bookshop at some point that evening.

Back to the book face then, this time for some serious browsing. I hope you haven't come in your best clothes, because this part of the proceedings inevitably means that you will end up sitting on the floor pouring over tables of contents, reading first chapters or chasing through indexes to see if your favourite writer is mentioned or if that essential piece of information is covered. This is hard work. When you have browsed your way through your short list you will justifiably be tired. You will need more tea and buns.

I recommend a real good strong Assam tea for this deliberation because this is where you have to make the final selection and your resolve will need fortifying. However much you want that book on Crime Fiction that's only available in hardback at £125 (I kid you not!) you can't have it, at least not if you have my bank manager, you can't. You have to be realistic and make decisions. You may even find you need a full cream tea to get you through this difficult and heartbreaking part of the operation.

Finally, at a point where the staff of both tea and book shops are ready to have you removed for loitering with intent, you pull out your purse (or in my case, book tokens) and you buy your books. These may or may not be the ones you decided on over your full cream tea. It's not unknown for all this hard work to be in vain and for me, at least, to completely change my mind the moment I get back inside the shop and buy something that just happens to cross my line of vision as I go through the door for that last momentous visit. But what does that matter? I've had the fun, I've had the tea and buns and I've finally got the books. What better way of spending a day?

What's that? I haven't said which books I actually bought? Sometimes I think that is the least important part of the whole expedition, but if you really want to know.

I rejected the fiction in translation because I've had so many bad experiences recently with poor transitions and I didn't have anyone with me who could vouch for the quality of what I was looking at. The history section was always little more than a preliminary scan for when I move on to study medieval literature next year and want some social and political context. The serious buying in that area won't happen until Autumn at the earliest. So, that left literary criticism and within that I found myself drawn back again and again to the essay section. I looked long and hard at the latest volume of Virginia Woolf's collected essays, but it was very expensive, and I also hankered after the new Zadie Smith collection, but that is coming out in paperback later this month and I am prepared to wait a little longer. So, what I finally came home with was a volume of Michael Chabon's essays in praise of reading and writing, Maps and Legends, and a collection edited by Susan Hill, The Best of Books and Company, which comprises a selection of the essays that originally appeared in the magazine of that name. I love nothing better than reading about other people's bookish loves. Both of them will give me hours of pleasure, accompanied, of course, by more tea and buns.


Saturday, 9 April 2011

U3A Monday Reading Group

You may have noticed that I've added a new tab at the top of the page for my Monday afternoon reading group and I thought you might like to know a bit about us and the type of book that we read.

As the tab says we meet under the auspices of the University of the Third Age, which you may know is a world wide organisation through which people who for the most part are either retired or semi-retired come together to self-educate. Branches vary in size. My local group is around the 200 mark, but there are others which are smaller and others that are as big as 1400 or 1500. The study groups available will depend on the interests of the individual branch members and the expertise within the group in terms of people who can lead the learning. In my case I belong to the history and music groups in addition to the reading group and I teach two Shakespeare classes as well as running a literature Summer School each year.

I belong to three different reading groups, but this is the one that most makes me think. Almost all of the members have been English teachers up to at least 'A' level standard and all of them are really really intelligent readers. I learn so much just from talking with them about the books we choose to read. I love our Monday afternoons and always come home with my mind buzzing with new ideas.

Our group was set up to read award winners and for the past three or four years that is what we have done, choosing from amongst the Booker, Pulitzer, Orange, Costa, Commonwealth and Dagger Lists. Given the amount of 'bashing' that goes on after any prize is awarded, it's interesting that in all that time there has only been one book that we have unanimously agreed should never have had a sniff at any award. I probably ought not to say what that was in case the author is reading. I've been caught out that way before.

Despite our having so few failures, at our last meeting we decided that we would like to spread our nets a little wider and acknowledge the fact that in many instances there have been other books on short lists that have been every bit as deserving of the award as the title that actually won. So, with that in mind, we have been studying the runners-up for the Booker and I suspect that this is a project that will keep us busy for the next couple of years, if not longer. May is a special meeting because we have specifically been asked to read Iris Murdoch's The Bell. As we take a break in August, for the moment we have just selected titles for June and July, Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop and Kazuo Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans. But before we break up for the summer we will decide what were going to read through the winter and I will post our choices here.

If you have any favourites that you know have run the Booker winners close and which you would like to recommend then we are always open to suggestions. What do you think we should read over the coming months? Or, if you are brave enough, are there any you think we should definitely avoid?


Thursday, 7 April 2011

How Much Bottom Space Do You Need?

Ah well, the hay fever season is here again and this is clearly going to be a bad year. So, until my little blue miracle pills begin to kick in, my posts may be a bit on the short side, as too much working with a screen tends to start my eyes watering with a vengeance. I did, however want to share with you the beautiful architectural designs that you can see to your left. These are going to be used as the basis for the Globe Theatre Company's new indoor theatre intended to mirror Blackfriars, the winter home of Shakespeare's Company from 1608 onwards.

The designs were discovered in Worcester College Oxford and probably date from around 1660. I was privileged to be at a seminar last week where Professor Andrew Gurr, the leading scholar in the study of Shakespeare's theatres, company and audiences, presented these to us and talked about what we could learn from them about the theatres of the time. One of the most interesting points he made was that these theatres were clearly designed for listening rather than seeing. As a result, the best seats in the house were those over the stage, on the stage itself, and in the side boxes; exactly the opposite of what you would expect today. In exploring this in greater detail in order to work out what the audience capacity would be, they have come to the interesting conclusion that if you were a Lord you were allowed 2' 6'' bottom space, if you were a Lady you got 2', but if you were like me, a mere pleb, then you had to squeeze yourself into a paltry 18". As someone I was telling yesterday remarked, "Just like travelling by plane then". There are somethings about human nature that simply never change.


Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The Whisperer ~ Donato Carrisi

Has anyone else read this? Because, if so, I would very much like a second opinion. I was asked to read it by a librarian friend who knows that I enjoy crime fiction. She herself was in two minds about it, and I think I can see why, but as I say, I would like to hear what others think.

The Whisperer is a first novel by an Italian writer, Donato Carrisi. Carrisi has written in the past for the cinema and you can certainly see a cinematic imagination at work in this book.

Basically, without giving too much away, the story centres around, Mila, a police woman who specialises in the rescue of abducted children. She is called in to help a dedicated and already established team following the disappearance of five young girls between the ages of eight and thirteen. A possible burial site has been identified and sure enough as the police begin to dig they also find remains. However, they are not the remains of complete corpses. All they find is a series of left arms. And they don't find five, they find six. Somewhere another girl has been abducted, but her disappearance has not been reported. Furthermore, forensic examination of the arms leads the team to believe that while the other five children are dead, the sixth may well be being kept alive. The race is on to identify that final child and to find her while there is still a chance of saving her life.

For a first novel there are many things about this book that mark Carrisi out as a writer to watch. The plotting is tight and the twists come at just the right moments and certainly surprise. But, while they are not signalled, they are still believable. This man knows a lot about human nature. Furthermore, the psychology on which the basic premise is founded is sound and this isn't surprising given that the author has a degree in law and has specialised in criminology and behavioural science. I don't want to talk about the direction his thinking actually takes because it would given too much away, but well known cases are quoted and unlikely as the underlying hypothesis might seem, when you start to think about it I'm afraid any disquiet as to its accuracy gives way to disquiet at the thought that there are humans out there who can behave like this.

I also thought that he managed his characters very well. I had clear pictures in my mind of each of them and of their relationships with each other. My only possible uncertainty was to do with the Police Chief, Roche. Accepting that he would have got as far as he has in the service asked me to be more cynical about the relationship between police and politics than I like to be. But then, I have to remember that this is Italy. It is a different system from the one I'm used to and therein lies the rub.

Because I do have some disquiet about this book and the further I read the more I began to wonder if it isn't down to the way in which it has been translated. To begin with, the actual lexical translation itself seems to me to be very uneven. One of the problems with English becoming such a universal language is that there are many different versions of English. We're probably all aware of the difference between British English and American English. Who was it said that we were two nations divided by a single language? There is the same degree of difference between other varieties as well and I think part of the problem here is that the translator hasn't decided which variety he is going to opt for. So, I will happily be reading along in British English only to suddenly come across a phrase that I have only ever heard from some of my Irish colleagues. All well and good if the character is Irish, but he isn't, he's Italian.

Or is he, because some of the names seem to have been 'translated' into English as well. Am I really supposed to think that there was a small Italian boy in a Catholic orphanage called Billy Moore? I don't think so, somehow.

But then, am I actually suppose to think that the book is set in Italy? I can't remember any direct references that would place the action that precisely. Is the translator going for a kind of universality, a one size fits all that would let any reader place the events in their own country? If so, it isn't going to work because there are aspects of the way in which the crime is solved that won't translate that neatly. And elements in the aftermath that not even I am cynical enough to think that the police would get away with in the UK.

I know I am always very wary of translations, so perhaps I am being unfair but the feeling I come away with from this book is that here is a writer of considerable potential who needs to have serious discussions with his publishers about the way any future books are prepared for the overseas market. I don't think this version does Carrisi justice. As it stands I found the story he had to tell really gripping. Next time it would be good if the narrative through which it found voice was gripping as well.


Sunday, 3 April 2011

Book Tokens

Totally unexpectedly, I was given some book tokens yesterday. They were a completely unnecessary thank you for a very minor service I'd done someone, but nevertheless very very welcome, because I love book tokens.

Not, every one does, you know?  I have three sets of god children, all in varying stages of growing up, and while the youngest are still at the stage where I wouldn't think of giving them a token, because anything that doesn't have wrapping paper that can be torn to shreds is a major disappointment, the other two groups have diametrically opposed views on the subject.  The eldest, a grouping of three, now all in their thirties, demand the real thing.  So what if I choose a book they already have?  It doesn't matter.  They want something I have gone out and chosen especially for them.  The youngest of these has a birthday just days away from my own and we think so alike about literature that on three occasions we have chosen exactly the same book for each other.  It can get complicated.

The middle group are both teenagers and for the last twelve years or so, they have been equally adamant about wanting tokens.  I don't think it's to do with them not trusting my judgement, they will often ask for advice about what to buy, they just like going round the bookshop for themselves and weighing up the options.

And I'm with them.  The thrill of being able to browse the shelves, knowing that you don't have to leave all those books behind, that you're in a position to take one or maybe even two, home with you without having to calculate whether or not you can really afford them, is wonderful.  Some of you will have heard this story before, so I apologise in advance, but I think it's worth the retelling.  Some years ago an ex-partner (and believe me, that ex is important) asked me what I wanted for Christmas and I said that I would love some book tokens so that I could go and browse round my favourite bookshop looking for books that I didn't even know existed but which I would want as soon as I saw them.  Well, Christmas morning came and we exchanged presents.  I gave him the individualised, custom-made barometer I'd commissioned after he had admired the maker's work at an exhibition we'd been to and he gave me.......

An Electric Toothbrush.

You see why the ex was important.

Well, no electric toothbrush this time.  This time I get the joy of deciding which bookshop I'm going to go to, browsing for a couple of hours, going off and having tea and cake while I think over what I've seen and then finally coming home clutching my wonderful and unexpected purchases.  Could life hold any greater pleasure?  Not from where I'm standing.