Monday, June 30, 2014

The Kill - Emile Zola

A new translation by Brian Nelson.

'The Kill' is book two in Zola's Rougon-Macquart series and like 'The Fortune of the Rougons' is translated by Brian Nelson, my copy of the next one up ('Money') is translated by Valerie Minogue and I will admit I'm curious to see if I'll notice a difference, so far I'm a big fan of the Nelson translations. I did have one quibble with this book though and I'll get it out of the way now, it could have done with a Rougon Macquart family tree in it, 'The Fortune of the Rougons' has one which I referred to constantly whilst reading and there were times when I felt it would have been useful here as well.

'The Kill' moves the action from the Provencal town of Plassans to Paris at the start of the second empire, Eugene Rougon is safely ensconced somewhere senior in government and is prepared to do something for his brother Aristide on certain conditions. Eugene wants to keep a certain amount of distance between himself and his sibling to which end he suggests he changes his name. Aristide Rougon becomes Aristide Saccard, through his brothers good offices he finds himself an assistant surveying clerk, it's a modest position but one that will allow him access to extremely useful information.

After his initial disappointment over not being given a better job Aristide settles down to making the most of what's available to him, slowly he pieces together the scale of the second empires plans for Paris and starts to see how much money a clever speculator could make but what he doesn't have is the necessary start up cash. Just when you sense he's almost chewing the carpet with frustration his wife dies which paves the way for an advantageous second marriage. Aristide's sister Sidonie (I look forward to more of her in future books, she's a shadowy, grotesque, creature full of great potential) provides him with the perfect candidate - Renee is desperately in need of a husband, she's been raped and found herself pregnant, marriage is the only escape from total disgrace. Her aunt is happy to pay for a husband, and better yet Renee comes with a dowry of land in the heart of the areas being redeveloped. Aristide takes her. As Sidonie predicts the pregnancy ends in miscarriage but it's to late to do Renee any good, she's caught in her new husbands trap.

The key to Aristide's character is that along with his hunger for wealth and love of speculation there is a compulsion to scheme and cheat so that his swindles become ever more elaborate and unlikely to succeed. Initially all goes well for Aristide, the money pours in and it truly seems he has the golden touch but slowly he over reaches himself with increasingly expensive projects all based on credit and the threat of disaster constantly nipping at his heals.

For Renee a different sort of disaster beckons, encouraged by her husband to spend lavishly whilst he plunders her property she really has very little to do beyond being a wealthy mans accessory. A combination of boredom and curiosity drive her into an affair with her slightly younger stepson, an effeminate and depraved young man. By the laws of the day this is most definitely incest, to match the decadent and rotten flavour of the whole novel much of their affair is carried out on a bearskin rug in the fetid atmosphere of a hothouse. When Aristide eventually learns of the affair he shrugs it off, to him it's simply further leverage to hold over Renee and Maxime (his son).

Zola's disgust for the excesses of the empire are inescapable, everything is corrupted (if you could smell this book it would have the scent of a rotten peach) in the quest for money and sensation. Renee and Aristide live in almost unimaginable luxury - though  Zola gives us a faithful inventory of it - but none of it is based on any real foundation of wealth. Aristide is a spider at the centre of a web but  however monstrous the portrait he remains recognisable. Renee's moments if self awareness damn her more than all her transgressions do - all the more unforgivable because they seem to bring so little pleasure, and if Maxime is a true child of the empire - well no wonder it's doomed.

The clean moonlight world that Silvere and Miette marched off into in support of the Republic is utterly foreign to this vision of Paris where nature has been tamed into parks, (though there are echoes of the rankly overgrown Plassans graveyard in Renee's hothouse). There's also a lot that sounds familiar - it would be easy to find parallels with today's London for example, but I guess that's the nature of a classic; it captures and preserves some fundamental truth about human nature in such a way that it simply does not stale.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sunday Cake and a Life Changing Revelation...

Last weekend my mother persuaded me to go along to a Shotgun and Chelsea bun club day - it's designed to introduce women to the joys of shooting - in this case clays - and confirm the joy of cake. If you are a woman and fancy having a go with a shotgun in a friendly environment with plenty of room for total beginners it's a very good way to do it. Post shooting everyone convenes for tea (or coffee) and cake which is possibly the most competitive part of the day. I threw together some brownies at the last moment which went down well but didn't win the cake prize (that went to a gin infused fairy cake with a boozy elderflower and lime icing - how could it fail!) clearly I need to up my game.

With this in mind I went home and pulled baking books off the shelf for a good browse and some inspiration. My current favourite is Fiona Cairns 'Seasonal Baking', I've liked all her books so far but 'Seasonal Baking' is easily the best in my opinion, I also like Fiona herself who I've occasionally accosted in Waitrose (she's local) where she's been unfailingly polite. I've not been baking as much as I'd like recently, there just haven't been reasons or excuses too and one person can't decently live on cake alone which is basically what happens if there's nobody on hand to share with. Today though I had two excuses; a friend coming for lunch (I baked a cake I knew she wouldn't touch though so that doesn't really count) and I'm off up to my dad's next week for a while so I have ingredients which want using up before I go.

In the end the cake that best fitted what I had on hand (and which happens to be the kind of cake I love even of my sultana and raisin hating friend does not) was the earl grey, cardamom, and orange loaf - and this is where the life changing bit comes in. All my adult life I've thought of myself as someone who does not like earl grey tea. Turns out I was wrong. After bravely trying a left over cup I'm now forced to re-evaluate myself, I am not the same woman who got out of bed this morning, bergamot is no longer my enemy and I feel immeasurably more middle class.

So good things about this recipe - it let me break out the earl grey someone gave me and finally discover I like it, I got to use the ground cardamom I found in the international supermarket down the road (which is infinitely preferable to me than having to pod and grind it to an acceptable consistency and makes many of the Scandilicious recipes far more appealing), it's a fruit cake which is just a good thing however I look at it, and no sickly icing. There are no bad things. It's definitely a summer fruit cake - good and light with lots of juicy fruit rather than dense, damp, and wintery (I like both sorts) and is just as good with a cup of tea on a summer's afternoon as the recipe suggests.

Take 150g of unsalted butter, 180g of light muscovado sugar, 260g of mixed dried fruit, and 100ml of freshly brewed earl grey (or other tea) place in a small saucepan and bring to just below boiling point. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool to about room temperature. Toast 60g of nuts (recipe says pecan, I had hazelnuts that needed using so used them) for about 5 mins or until done. De seed 15-20 cardamom pods, grind in a mortar and pestle until fine and then sieve to remove any bits of husk (or buy a pre ground pack and never be put off by the faff again - I figured about a 1/4 teaspoon was about right). Heat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4 and line a loaf tin. Measure out 200g of self raising flour, 1/2 a teaspoon of salt, and provide yourself with the finely grated zest and juice of an orange and lemon. Stir into the cooled tea and fruit mix then finally add 1 lightly beaten egg and the nuts. Mix until just combined then cook for 50-55 mins or until a skewer comes out clean.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Byssus - Jen Hadfield

Back in my student days, so basically pre amazon, I worked in one of those discount bookshops which specialised in publishers over runs and slightly damaged books. With the exception of The Works which was never really the same kind of thing those shops don't seem to exist anymore which is a shame. The shop I worked in had what I now realise was a really impressive poetry section - hundreds of slim volumes that inevitably got in a hopeless mess, so one day I decided I was going to sort them out. It took hours but eventually everything was alphabetised and perfect. Perfect that is until the next day, putting new stock away we realised that somebody had come in and reorganised the whole lot according to some system that clearly had a logic but one that baffled us. I was not pleased.

Years down the line I have some sympathy for that mystery book fiddler, it seems more likely that what they did came from a passion for poetry rather than a desire to annoy booksellers (it could have been both) which is somehow encouraging. At school I dutifully studied the Romantics (well suited to my 17 year old self) and at university I read quite a lot of Victorian poetry for background to the Victorian art I was studying. I have a slight acquaintance with some 20th century poets, and in theory I'm aware of how big a part of popular culture poets and their work have been - but it's somehow hard to realise that it's something that people make a living out of - that it's their actual profession (this is coming from an avid radio 4 listener).

I'm attracted to poetry for the same reason I love short stories and novellas, there's something positively intoxicating about an idea or an image distilled down into a handful of lines and a good poem (a good short poem) is the ultimate expression of that. I was attracted to Jen Hadfield's work when I heard she lived in Shetland and that 'Byssus' deals first and foremost with what it takes to find and forge a home (there was a radio 4 programme about her a couple of months ago which I thought was particularly good on dialect).

I've been carrying 'Byssus' around with me for weeks now, reading and rereading bits in both concentrated bursts and odd moments which has made it a companion read for the last 3 Peirene books I've read. All of them have demanded real effort from me as a reader (there have been corresponding rewards) but with 'Byssus' it has at least been possible to read things over and over again and find new things every time. Honestly I feel like I want someone to teach me this book, I want to be in a classroom arguing over what it might mean, and what it does mean to each person there. As it is - just me and the book - I find myself delighting over particular images and quietly in awe of how certain poems have been put together. The use of dialect words (there is a glossary at the back) anchors the collection to a specific place and they're just frequent enough to occasionally trip the reader up, but not so much as to seriously get in the way. In my case it meant enjoying the sound and feel of an unfamiliar of half forgotten word and then going back to properly test it and consider it's place in the poem. The arrangement of the words on the page does the same thing - forcing me to spend proper time on piecing out how they fit together.

In the end the only insight I feel I have to share is that reading this, and I'm still reading it, has been essentially rewarding - exciting even, but I'm stuck when it comes to writing about reading it. If I ever sort them out more thought may follow. Byssus, by the way, turns out to be the fibrous stuff that mussels use to anchor themselves to their surroundings.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Blue Room - Hanne Orstavik

Translated by Deborah Dawkin.

Thanks to Leicester book festival we got to hear Meike Ziervogel talk about Peirene Press and her own writing on Thursday night, she was absolutely inspiring and I came away with a lot to consider both in terms of how I think about translated fiction and my own family history. Basically it was a great night and if you get the chance to hear this woman speak don't pass it up.

I read the press release for 'The Blue Room' which argues that it comes from the same place in the female psyche as 'Fifty Shades of Grey' so decided some homework was in order. I've not read Fifty Shades beyond a few pages which made me feel like I'd really rather not but I know it was born out of fan fiction, so I went looking for fan fiction. It's a weird world out there but at least it's free, you can find short stuff, and you can cover a fairly wide range if fantasies quite quickly. Nothing I found was well written which is interesting in terms of the whole self publishing market, but that's a debate for another time. I'm guessing a lot of what I read was written by girls in their late teens or early twenties and a desire to be submissive certainly seems to be popular.

Hanne Orstavik's book is a world away from what I found online though - for a start it's extremely well written and crucially it isn't playing out a fantasy. The bare bones of the plot are this; Johanne, a student in her early twenties wakes up on the day she's planned to leave for America with her boyfriend to find herself trapped in her room. We spend the day in Johanne's mind whilst she reflects on the events which have lead up to this day. Johanne lives with her mother in a tiny Oslo flat, she has a room, the blue room if the title, but her mother sleeps behind a curtain in the sitting room. Their domestic life seems to have no boundaries - as evidenced by several conversations whilst one or other of them uses the toilet. That lack of physical boundaries carries through into every aspect of their relationship - or so it would seem from Johanne's narration.

Strictly speaking she's not a reliable narrator, but as we spend the duration of the novel in her head she's not precisely unreliable either; if she's telling lies she's telling them to herself. Initially the suspicion has to be that this mother daughter relationship is abusive, the devoutly Christian Johanne is given to breaking into disturbingly graphic fantasies of rape and violence which the reader feels have to come from somewhere. We're also left to wonder what has happened to her father and brother, the brother is apparently studying in America but there is no mention of what happened to the father at all. Towards the end of the book though early certainties fall apart.

Johanne says she's chosen to stay with her mother to save money, she has a future all mapped out, university followed by practice as a psychiatrist in an office to be built on her grandmothers land in space she still intends to share with her mother. It's easy to assume that the mother won't let go of the daughter but how much does the daughter want independence, and for that matter does her mother unambiguously want her there? Johanne's carefully laid plans experience a convulsion when she meets Ivar and starts a sexual relationship with him (or at least I assume she does and that this isn't more fantasy). Almost immediately he suggests they go to America together for 6 weeks, the day she's locked into her room is only two weeks into the relationship and later it seems that Johanne hadn't told Ivar that she intended to meet him on the way to the airport.

It's a slippery book, Johanne isn't the easiest character to warm to, and in the end you have to question her view point. Her mother is portrayed as steadily more sinister, her clothing becomes more provocative and we're encouraged to think she's having an affair with a married man, but maybe this too is one of Johanne's fantasies. Arguably it's quite responsible of a mother to try and prevent her daughter leaving the country mid term with a man she's only known for two weeks, but it's equally likely that Johanne had no intention of leaving - that what she's actually doing is manipulating her mother into keeping her close.

At heart popular rape and submission fantasies are a repudiation of responsibility; a desire to have your cake and eat it. When E. M. Hull wrote 'The Sheik' in 1919 rape meant her heroine could have exotic sex outside of marriage without being judged for it, I'm inclined to wonder if the continued popularity of rape fantasies, or fantasies about submissive sexual roles give tacit permission not to enjoy sex.  Either way there seems to be a reluctance to take responsibility either for pleasure or the lack of it when all you're doing is what you're told. Orstavik takes that to another level, Johanne's submission forces someone else to make her decisions for her, in this case it's her mother whose prepared to do that in a cycle that traps them both.

This is quite a dark book but it's undoubtedly one of my favourite Peirene titles, it genuinely does hold up a mirror to a part of the female psyche it's not always pleasant to explore honestly. I'm not sure I agree with Meike when she says it analyses the struggle if women to seperate from their mothers though, I read it more as the struggle some daughters make not to be separated.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Year at Otter Farm - Mark Diacono

The best thing about amazon, the thing I'd really miss, and the one thing which has probably done everyone in the book trade a favour (or at least no harm) is the advance notice of upcoming books. I spend a fair amount of time looking for new titles - especially from favourite food writers - and then quietly looking forward to publication with an ever growing sense of anticipation. That was most certainly the case with 'A Year At Otter Farm', I've been a fan of Diacono's writing ever since the River Cottage Veg handbook came out in 2009 (I can't praise that series enough) and also really liked 'A Taste of the Unexpected'  in 2010 which covered more of the unusual things that Diacono grows at Otter farm and what to do with them once you have them.

Part of the anticipation attached to 'A Year at Otter Farm' was to see what would be new about it, or at least how it would expand on the excellent books Diacono has already written - the rest of the anticipation was all about the simple pleasure of looking forward to a book by an author whose writing I enjoy. I haven't been disappointed in either score.

First things first - it's a lovely book to look at; the pictures are glorious, they don't cover every recipe but they do show livestock and plants in a way that really sells the pleasures of small holding. I'm particularly taken with some winsome looking sheep (not at all how my dad's looked, his always had a fairly disdainful come-on-then-if -you-think-your-hard-enough thing going on - quite often from half way down some ridiculous cliff from where they required rescue) and there's a particularly beady eyed cockerel who's a thing of beauty as well. Apart from looking good having pictures of the live animal is a useful reminder that meat does in fact start out as a living animal and if you're going to eat it you should want it to have had a decent life first. (Not that the core market for this book will need that reminder.)

The substance of the book is part memoir, part manifesto, part growing guide, and part cookbook all arranged by season. Something I really like about the styling here is that the recipe pages have coloured borders so they're easy to flip to - details like that always make me happy. I've looked at the recipes, bookmarked a few for use (particularly later in the year), and am really pleased to find quite a few cocktails and alcoholic infusions included. Having (responsible) fun with drinks is basically how I make my living and something I'm always happy to read about. Over all though it's the manifesto/memoir part of the book that's really sucked me in and that I've spent most time with.

I don't have a garden of my own anymore though I do have the use of one at weekends. Not being in it much has limited my planting ambitions, and seriously limited my ability to make use of what's been grown but it's better than nothing. Meanwhile I have a daydream where I win the lottery (or similar) and buy one of those huge Victorian walled gardens - ideally one with a gardeners house built into one wall - and plant it full of amazing things. A book like this absolutely feeds that fantasy, not least by adding hitherto undreamed of possibilities into the mix. Most intriguing to me is the concept of a forest garden, quickly followed by the perennial garden. The forest garden apparently mimics woodland, mainly using perennials which starts at a subterranean level carrying on up through ground cover, shrubs, and trees all linked together by climbers and planted to maximise mutual benefit. It sounds like a beautifully low input system. The perennial garden basically takes that concept and downsizes it to allotment or garden size losing the tree canopy. I'm not in a position to nurture a veg patch but I could (and to some extent do) have a garden which concentrates on things which are useful as well as beautiful. Smallholding isn't easy but the possibility of having some small part of the dream - well that's attractive.

What I really love about this book is how unbelievably easy it is to lose hours at a time in it; it's a page turner - which isn't necessarily what you expect from a cookbook - but then it's so much more than that. I find it thoroughly exciting that people are out there doing new and interesting things on the small holding/crofting/farming front; that it isn't all big business supplying supermarkets at terrifyingly low margins. We take cheap, industrially produced food for granted but I don't believe it's sustainable - or particularly desirable. There's to much waste and not enough understanding of how food arrives on the plate, not enough variety and not enough consideration for the wider environment, to many air miles and to much plastic packaging. (Can you tell this is a bit of a hobby horse for me.) Any book that makes people think about that a little bit more, which I feel this one does, and which provides inspiration and instruction for growing and cooking has to be a good thing, that it's also entertaining and engaging is a massive bonus.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Traditional Food in Yorkshire - Peter Brears

This has not been a great week work wise - due to some oversights far above the shop floor my own particular challenge is to find a home for 5 tonnes of wine before more turns up. More is always turning up, a lot more is turning up over the next few days. I have 7 cardboard inflicted cuts on my hands all in places guaranteed not to heal well and to sting like mad every time I wash my hands. Boxes of wine are dirty, I wash my hands a lot. There are also the cuts from where various bits of metal have attempted(with a  fair degree of success) to take their pound of flesh. Everything hurts, it's been hot, and frankly I'm grumpy.

Limping towards my flat tonight my eye was caught by what looked like a parcel in the doorway (hard to tell from a distance as the automatic light is currently promoting a mysterious atmosphere by only turning on after I've fumbled in the gloom with my keys and actually got into my flat) it was a parcel. A totally unexpected parcel from Prospect books and it contained a copy of Peter Brears 'Traditional Food in Yorkshire' it made my day. The aches and pains remain but the grumpiness has largely gone because a) I have a new book which always cheers me up, and b) I fell in love with Brears' 'Cooking and Dining in Medieval England' - which was a little bit unexpected.

'Traditional Food In Yorkshire' is about far more than just food, it's the life and food of the working people of Yorkshire between roughly 1800 and 1920 - a time of significant change in working patterns and life style. The chapters break down into farmworkers from different areas, the fisherfolk of the Northwest coast, West Riding coal miners, spinners and weavers, and workers in towns. There are chapters on the normal foody things arranged by ingredients and also for traditional feasts, celebrations, and general high days and holidays. The whole is illustrated by Brears; it looks like every aspect of working class life is covered in beautifully constructed cross sections of buildings and then there are the details of kitchen equipment - they're wonderful.

I've only browsed through this book so far (I've not been home that long) but it's something I'm so excited by that I couldn't wait to share it. Also the recipe for Surprise Potatoes sounds brilliant.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Au Reservoir - Guy Fraser-Sampson

One of the perks of blogging is that the longer you do it the more likely you are to be offered books to review. Sometimes they do not (to be kind) sound like the sort of book I would ever want to read (but it's still nice to be asked) sometimes they are books I've been getting quietly excited about and I feel like it's my birthday, and sometimes they're books that I'm a little bit on the fence about.  'Au Reservoir' falls into that last category - but there is always the chance that these are books which will turn out to be particularly rewarding, and they're hard to say no to for just that reason. Also I don't have much practice at saying no to books - it doesn't come naturally.

The dilemma with this book is that I like Guy Fraser-Sampson, I really like his publicity lady (she's charming) and I love Mapp and Lucia but I have a deep and abiding prejudice against books which re-hash other authors creations - or at least the creations that I already know and love. It's quite a bit of baggage to bring to a book that I finally picked up because I wanted something light that I could read quickly as an antidote to a really hellish work week (it was only Wednesday, that's how bad a week it's shaping up into). 

Guy Fraser-Sampson has written 3 (I think it's 3) sequels to Benson's originals and I guess they also take in the Tom Holt titles which I read back in the '80's and can now hardly remember 'Au Reservoir' is the last of his 3, and without giving to much away (there is the clue of the title) likely to be his final word on the matter. It is some time after the war, rationing is still in place but otherwise it all seems a bit of a distant memory - nevertheless the Tilling residents are aging, Lucia is even considering admitting to being 40 after at least 2 decades of firmly remaining in her 30's and Elizabeth Mapp-Flint is determined to have one last tilt at her enemy.

First of all the negative impressions. There are a lot of explanations of things that have happened in previous books - Benson may also have done this, I can't quite remember, but it's a pet hate for me. I'm assuming that the major market for this book will be Benson fans (and Guy Fraser-Sampson fans) followed by people who like the look of it and then may go onto explore Benson. In my opinion none of them/us need so many explanations, personally I find them a distraction. Second up is the reason I've yet to find a book like this that I really love - my reading of the characters isn't quite the same as Guy's so the direction he takes them in doesn't always ring true for me (particularly in the case of Georgie Pillson) though as this is the last in a sequence I haven't read this is maybe a little unfair as I haven't followed the journey all the way through. Finally the charm for me in the original books was the relatively small scale of goings on - deadly war waged over a recipe or the revamping of an old dress, the scale of this book is rather more lavish involving Noel Coward, John Gielgud, a priceless roman coin, and Georgie being taken seriously by the artistic establishment thanks to the revamping of the royal opera house - I think I wanted less.

On the plus side Guy is very good on wine (and drink generally, I bet he mixes a truly good martini) it's a small detail but it's a real pleasure for me to see someone get it so right, he's also interesting on money (which I believe is his day job) how Lucia handles hers is ingenious. The book is an undoubted page turner and I absolutely understand why plenty of Benson fans have enjoyed it very much indeed. For myself I'm glad I said yes to a copy, reading it felt like time well enough spent and it certainly improved my mood enough to lower my blood pressure sufficiently to get through a series of doctors appointments today (on Tuesday I suspect I would have been in trouble) and for that alone I owe a considerable debt of thanks.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Mr Darwin's Gardener - Kristina Carlson

Translated from the Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah.

I spent most of last week working my way through two very short books and realising it's a long time since I've found myself reading anything so challenging. The other book is Jen Hadfield's latest collection of poems - 'Byssus'. I'm in the habit of reading books I find enjoyable, interesting, informative, sometimes provocative - but rarely ones that make me work this hard, but then Peirene books excel at making me work hard. The only downside is that most of my reading time is on the bus and during breaks at work where it's all to easy to get distracted. Ideally I would have read 'Mr Darwin's Gardener' somewhere quieter - it deserves the readers full attention.

Reading it alongside 'Byssus' was fortuitous though, both encourage a search for images and meaning, and both have their own ways of keeping the reader in line. In 'Mr Darwin's Gardener' it's the fractured narrative - it had me going back time and again to try and remember who was speaking and who they were. This is a whole village of voices and sometimes it feels like they're all speaking at once, each giving a little bit of insight into an interior life and all coming together in layers which are hard to untangle. Part of it is the business of living with others, along with all the attendant births, marriages, deaths and small scandals that make up community life but there's also the question of what to put your faith in.

Mr Darwin and his theories of evolution are a shadow over the village, we never meet him directly but he's there in the background as the villagers define what they put their faith in - god or science, though in the end you have to question if it really matters so very much. Regardless of belief when advent (or any celebration) comes:
 "There is hardly a moment to draw breath and one has to sweep snow off the steps, heat the house, do the laundry, starch, iron, darn, sweep, wax, polish dust, air, boil, crush, whisk, knead, roll, roast, ice, sew, go out for sugar, salt, flour, currants, cinnamon, almonds, soda, buttons, ribbons, candles; run to the shop and back, to the neighbour's, the church, the chicken coop, the shed, and back into the kitchen before a burning smell comes from the oven."
Put your faith into whatever you feel you must, one way or another life will carry on much the same.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

How to be Well Read - John Sutherland

I've said it before, and hope I'll get to say again how much I like John Sutherland's books. Ever since I discovered 'Can Jane Eyre be Happy' some time back 'in the '90's I've been a fan - though I remain slightly disappointed by the conclusion that Jane won't be happy despite mature reflection (and rereading the book as an adult rather than as a teenager) leading me to conclude that Rochester really isn't ideal husband material. A new Sutherland book has been the highlight of more than one Christmas although I normally end up feeling annoyed when inevitably there's no chance to sit down and enjoy it there and then, with that in mind I shamelessly asked the publisher for this copy letting nothing distract me from it at all (apart from lunch).

'How to be Well Read. A guide to 500 great novels and a handful of literary curiosities' doesn't disappoint, the admirably succinct preface briefly touches on what's happened to the study of English literature over the last 50 years which comprise Sutherland's career - basically it's more specific and technical than it used to be which widens the gap between the academic reader and the 'common' reader, he also makes the point that in an age of specialisation being well read is no longer an unqualified term of praise in academic circles. Nor is it possible to be well read (if your idea of being well read is to have read just about everything) there are far to many books for any one person, and just reading the classics doesn't cut it, or just literary fiction for that matter. Most appealing, especially in light of the recent dust up about the GCSE syllabus is Sutherland's opinion that literature is a library, not a curriculum or a canon.

In view of all this the title becomes somewhat tongue in cheek, this is not a list of books to tick off - rather it's an A to Z of books from across genres and time. It's also the product of a lifetimes accumulated knowledge and opinion. As an undergraduate (studying history of art) my favourite lecturers were the ones who threw in bits of centuries old scandal and gossip, it helped keep me awake (2 hours in a warm dark room watching slides didn't always make it easy regardless of how interesting the content of the lecture) bought the artist and their work back to life, and created a clubby sort of atmosphere - here was information that less informed viewers knew nothing of, but we had all the pleasure of walking around a gallery as insiders. The same naturally applies to literature and one of the things that make Sutherland's books so much fun to read is that he doesn't hold back on the anecdotes.

What makes this book so much fun is the breadth of material covered (and sometimes the juxtapositions of writers - so Doris Lessing's 'The Fifth Child' precedes 'Fifty Shades of Grey' which is part of the point of the book - if we can no longer hope to be thoroughly well read we can at least read widely. I never managed to read 'Fifty Shades of Grey' I browsed through it a few times in book shops but ended up so annoyed by it's general style that I got no further, I have made the effort to read some of sort of fan fiction that turned into fifty shades and find it troubling for the same reasons that Sutherland gives here. I haven't read Lessing either but I want to now.

It's a dip in and out of book but also a page turner, one synopsis leads to another and then another, you start by looking for books you love, then books you've heard of, and then books you've dismissed. Georgette Heyer's 'Devils Cub' is used to summarise the regency romance in a way that acknowledges both the failings of the genre and (again) how much fun it can be at its best. Sutherland says this is an attempt to think big and companionably, I think he succeeds, it's also a kind of companion to 2011's 'The Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives'. When I got it I assumed that book would be informative but did not expect to use it as often as I have for reference. 'How to be Well Read' will be the same but I'm also loving it for how provocative it is and for Sutherland's companionship (guidance?) through his part of the library, his enthusiasm is infectious.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Jane of Lantern Hill - L. M. Montgomery

Probably along with most women of my age I had the Anne of Green Gables books when I was a child, liked them very much and essentially forgot all about them as I grew up. I had no idea that L. M. Montgomery had been anything like as prolific as she clearly was, and even after reading 'The Blue Castle' a couple of years ago didn't think much more about her. 'The Blue Castle' is ostensibly an adult title, it's a pleasant book to while away a wet afternoon with, but the only difference I can really see between it and Montgomery's children's books is the age of the heroine, it didn't excite me in the way the Emily books did or 'Jane of Lantern Hill' has.

Unlike Emily and Anne, Jane isn't an orphan but her parents have separated, Jane lives with her mother and grandmother in Toronto under the impression that her mother is a widow, but actually her father is alive and well albeit a thousand miles across the country on Prince Edward Island. Jane's life is fairly bleak at the beginning of the book, her mother is beautiful and loving but far to week to stand up to the much stronger personality that is her own mother and Mrs Kennedy hates Jane. Jane is an awkward child and an unhappy one, an atmosphere of disapproval and thinly veiled hostility coupled with her grandmother's determination to control every aspect of her and her mother's life destroys any self confidence she has and makes a prison of the family home and then suddenly a letter arrives from her father demanding she be sent to him for the summer...

Initially Jane is unwilling, she doesn't want to be separated from the mother she adores and isn't keen to meet the father who seemingly abandoned her but she's bundled off anyway to make the best of it, when she does arrive she finds an aunt who she immediately distrusts and a father who's nothing like she feared. Father and daughter set off together, buy a house, and start to get to know each other. For Jane it's a revelation, she finally has a home, things to do, friends, acceptance, and almost total freedom - predictably she blossoms but it doesn't make everybody happy and this is the genius of Montgomery.

Jane is an eleven year old girl in a difficult but not unusual position, her parents may love her but to the dominant women on both sides of her family her existence is something of a nuisance - daughters can be like that. To grandmother Kennedy she's a reminder of the man who tried to take her beloved daughter away and more, in a really horrible confrontation grandmother tells granddaughter "Leave her alone. She is my daughter... no outsider shall ever come between us again... neither Andrew Stuart nor you nor anyone. And you will be good enough to remember that." Mrs Kennedy treats her daughter as a possession, choosing her cloths as she might dress a doll, reading her letters, and directing her social life in such a way as to limit contact between her and Jane. Jane, one feels, occupies the same sort of position a barely tolerated pet might in this household.

On the other side aunt Irene is an equally implacable enemy. ten years older than Jane's father she has been in the habit if regarding him as her own particular property. She didn't approve of his marriage having another girl in mind for her brother and Jane is a threat to the status quo. Father and daughter are a complete unit, Jane takes on the role of housekeeper and becomes a sort of little wife. A stepmother would be most unwelcome to Jane because a stepmother almost certainly wouldn't want her around - all her new found happiness and purpose would disappear, and it's a far harder job for Irene to persuade Andrew he might need a wife when his domestic needs are being looked after by a capable daughter who is both uncritical and undemanding.

Families are complicated things especially when they start to disintegrate, it's easy for a child to fall between the gaps in the dynamics of adult relationships and interesting to read a book written from a child's point of view that acknowledges the antipathy that can exist towards them in this sort of situation. I can believe in Jane and her family, the women all ring true - her father perhaps less so, but then it's not necessarily such an interesting relationship to explore. I believe in Jane's domesticity too, I think it's a natural (and feminine) reaction from a child who's always had a place to live but never really had a home. Montgomery nails a lot of the insecurities that a child - specifically a daughter - feels when their parents separate how ambiguous their position can become and how vulnerable they are. The ending is interesting too, it's a happy one but also practical - Jane's parents are reunited but not to run off to Prince Edward Island to live the carefree summer life Jane and her father have shared. Instead they will be living mostly in Toronto where he's found a job - it's a compromise that amongst other things acknowledges Jane's mothers life and the responsibilities.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Arden of Faversham

It's a month since I saw this (how's that for organisation...) which I find mildly shocking - how time flies and all that. After not making it over to Stratford for a couple of years this was the second trip in a month, among other things it makes me realise how much I've missed going to the theatre and exhibitions. It's the travel costs which have really done for me, and whilst I'm happy enough wondering around an exhibition on my own I really want to share a performance with someone. The theatre simply isn't as enjoyable without the post performance conversation, never mind the moments during the performance that need to be shared and we're all so busy at the moment...

Anyways, the first play was 'The Roaring Girl' which kicked off a season of plays featuring strong female protagonists - it's brilliant, not so much the play itself which is perhaps a little bit patchy, but the roaring girl herself - her combination of swagger and independence set her apart form the majority of female roles (ever) and is, I assume, absolutely unique for the time she was written. What the RSC have chosen to do with the play makes the very best of it as well (go and see it!). 'Arden of Faversham' feels more traditional (both plays are based on real women), Alice is dissatisfied with her husband Arden, he's a prosperous business man who's just acquired a whole lot of what had been common land, so in many ways life is good for her - plenty of money and status - but not much fulfilment. Alice also has a lover - Mosby, she also lives in a time and place where the only way out of marriage is death so Arden has to go.

Arden turns out not to be a very likable character, his actions over the former common ground are dispossessing people and one of them is pissed off enough to curse him - he really doesn't have a way with women. That he's not very likable helps the audience sympathise a little with Alice whilst she does her best to recruit would be assassins - it turns out not to be very easy to dispose of your husband (news of which should come as a relief to husbands generally). Eventually her efforts succeed and Arden is killed, his body dumped on the cursed plot of land but retribution swiftly follows. Alice seems to feel genuine repentance over the murder which in a way is disappointing; it would have been much better for her if she'd realised earlier that she might regret her actions, and maybe more interesting for the audience if she hadn't felt much remorse.

More disturbing than the murder (from my point of view) is the way the Alice and Mosby use Mosby's sister Susan as bait in their plans. Susan is essentially Mosby's property to dispose of as he sees fit. There are two men interested in her, the extremely creepy Clarke who has a way with poisons, and Michael - Arden's servant - who is swayed between loyalty to his master and passion for Susan. He's rather more appealing than Clarke who Susan clearly wants nothing to do with and we had half an expectation that she might not mind Michael as a husband. Actually she's  not interested in him either but between them the actions of her brother and would be lover are enough to see her condemned as part of their plot. That Susan has absolutely no control over her destiny at all is for me the biggest tragedy of the play.