Saturday, February 25, 2017

Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire - Carol Dyhouse

Despite what they say about judging books by their covers I was instantly smitten with this one - I haven't managed to determine if the image is lifted from a vintage romance or if it was created for this book, either way it's perfect.

Inside the cover is a survey of the history of women and popular objects of desire (from Byron to One Direction via the Duke of Wellington, Rudolph Valentino, Liberace, and David Cassidy - amongst others) which is both informative and exceptionally readable. 

As someone with a slightly guilty relationship with romance novels (out and proud love of Georgette Heyer, quite happy to admit to the occasional bonk buster in the Jilly Cooper mould, less comfortable owning up to a Mills and Boon habit in times of stress) I was initially particularly interested in Dyhouses take on written objects of desire.

Dyhouse however wouldn't let me get away with picking out a single strand like that, because of course that's not how it works. Musicians, actors, public figures of all sorts have always been objects of desire. I wonder after reading this which causes the most disquiet; very public and vocal expressions of desire such as Beatlemania, or the more private escape from reality that comes from burying yourself in a book (an activity that can't even be unwillingly shared) in the relative privacy of the home?

What is clear is that women's desires and fantasies are still viewed with suspicion and fear, otherwise why would romance as a genre still be so easily belittled? It's also interesting to see how an appetite for mass market romance is dismissed along class lines - as shop girl romances - as well as being categorised as particularly low brow (hence that vague feeling of guilt if I choose to spend an afternoon with a cup of tea and a Mills and Boon instead of doing something more worthy or productive. I feel no such guilt if I'm lucky enough to find an old Gainsborough film on television though).

There are interesting revelations - for instance, it had never occurred to me to wonder what men thought of Mr Darcy - it seems they're generally unimpressed (what they think of Lizzie Bennet isn't recorded). Having given it some thought it's not surprising, in many ways he's a blank canvas. I also found the discussion of rape fantasies particularly useful. It's a theme I've always been uncomfortable with whilst begrudgingly understanding the have your cake and eat it aspect of the thing. Again though, what I hadn't really considered is that because it's a fantasy, ultimately the woman imagining it stays in control - which is marginally less creepy.

It's tempting at this point to just keep on picking out things I found interesting, but it's a long, long, list. There's a lot to consider here, and it's a book that I can't recommend highly enough. 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Knitting again

Just after the sub zero temperatures have been swapped for an unseasonably balmy foray into double figures I've managed to finish knitting a hot water bottle cover (the sort of thing that people airily declare will be a nice quick project, and which actually took me a month).

On Boxing Day I bought a new rug in a sale, I didn't need a new rug, and more than that arguably didn'thave space for another rug - but it was love. So much love that I spent some time turning the rug pattern into a knitting pattern. It's the first time I've tried doing this and I can't say it was 100% successful, but it's an adequate work in progress.

I made up the pattern for the hot water bottle case too - with the same results. There are things I need to change if I'm to knit another one, but on the whole I'm pleased with it as a first attempt at designing something that's entirely my own. The important thing is that it kept the hot water in the bottle hot, stopped me from burning my feet (hot water bottles with decent covers are the best, and not at all the juggle between to hot and freezing that I remember from childhood), and felt nice against bare skin. As it's going to spend most of its life under a duvet it's flaws will be well hidden.
The original rug 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Norse Mythology - Neil Gaiman

I love the Norse myths and am always interested in a new telling of them, so I've been looking forward to seeing what Neil Gaiman would make of them ever since reading about this book sometime last year.

I must admit that I balked at paying for the physical book though (and find writing about an e version surprisingly hard - I normally have the physical book sat next to me when I'm doing this, staring at my phone isn't nearly as inspiring). It's full price is £20 (it's £16 in Waterstones, £13.60 on Amazon) which would be fine but to fill the 300 or so pages the type is both quite large, and widely spaced. It could easily be half the physical size, which would take up considerably less precious book shelf space (the main reason I'm not fond of Hardback books), and book making resources. I think this might only be the second time that I've chosen to buy an e version rather than a physical book, it's certainly the first time I've done it because the physical book has been so unappealing as an object.

Now for the content - the bit that really matters. There's a short but really good general introduction, a   brief introduction to the 3 major players (Odin, Thor, and Loki), the stories, and then a comprehensive glossary. Without being dumbed down it's also a version which would be suitable for children - it's all good.

The introduction touches on the things that I personally find so appealing about Norse mythology; firstly that these "are the myths of a chilly place, with long, long winter nights, and endless summer days, myths of a people who did not entirely trust or even like their gods, although they respected and feared them". These are gods that seem to have come first from Germany, then travelled to Scandinavia, before spreading south and west through Shetland, Orkney, Ireland and northern England (Leicester was a Viking city, I wonder who they worshipped here). The Norse Gods also seem particularly fallible, prone to getting drunk and making mistakes - even Odin, despite his hard won wisdom, hasn't the vision to see he's sowing the seeds of his own destruction. And then there's Ragnarok - the end of the gods rather than the end of the world. Is it still yet to happen or has it already happened? It's the assumption of a new beginning after Ragnarok that makes the cycle so intriguing to me.

What I hadn't realised is how much of this myth cycle has been lost, Gaiman suggests that what we have left is the equivalent of only having the the deeds of Theseus and Hercules from the Greek and Roman cycles. There are goddesses aplenty for example, whom we have names and attributes for, but whose stories are lost. There are other figures such as Angrboda, the mother of Loki's monstrous  children who remains shadowy, a character just begging to be fleshed out (Gaiman draws specific attention to her in the introduction, I can hope that he'll write her a story some day).

The source material for this telling was (a collection of different translations of) Snorri Sturluson's 'Prose Edda' and the 'Poetic Edda' with a bit of picking and choosing as to which tales to include and what to leave out. The result hangs together well, doesn't get bogged down in repetition or detail, and is family friendly. The relative lack of characterisation is in keeping with the original sources, and also I think, the spirit of story telling. There are embellishments here, touches of humour and observations - but crucially there's an explicit invitation to the reader to tell these stories, and in the process make them their own.

I've read enough versions of these stories now to find them old friends (wearing new clothes each time), and value this collection for being admirably clear and concise, as well as being a simple pleasure to read. I'll buy a copy when it comes out in paperback and be pleased to have it in my library.

Monday, February 13, 2017

After Supper Ghost Stories - Jerome K. Jerome

I have a cold at the moment, and although I know it (probably) won't kill me I always feel like it might. The result was that I spent the weekend feeling utterly miserable (I'll spare you a list of symptoms) and not doing any of the writing I had intended. What I did manage was to finally finish 'After Supper Ghost Stories', so that at least was something.

I read 'Three Men in a Boat' sometime in my teens, swiftly followed by 'Three Men on the Bummel', and what might well have been 'On the Stage and Off' (it was a slightly mouldy copy found in an old box of books and general jumble very many summers ago) and enjoyed all three enough to retain a fondness for Jerome K. Jerome. It was certainly enough to make me look forward to this book with keen anticipation- and the first part more than lived up to those expectations.

The first part contains the after super ghost stories of the title, and makes roughly a third of the book. It's. Christmas Eve, because that's when the best Victorian ghost stories were told, they take care to tick of all the cliches, everyone telling them is very drunk, and perhaps especially as someone who has been subjected to many hours of youthful tuneless carol singers, I found them very, very, funny. Read out loud to an audience funny - and happily the audience agreed with me.

The rest of the book contains half a dozen essays on various subjects, all of which are amusing, but none of which came close to the After Dinner bit for me. They're well chosen pieces, some of seem almost eerily prescient (as in 'Clocks' where he says 'Truth and fact are old fashioned and out of date, my friends, fit only for the full and vulgar to live by. Appearance, not reality, is what the clever dog grasps at in these clever days.' It goes on like this for another page, every word feeling like it could have been written specifically for our own current affairs. I read all of this out to a different audience and got them to guess when it was written, or who it might be talking about. Nobody got it right, it was somewhat depressing to realise how little changes.

The problem for me though was this; when Jerome sets out to be funny he's hard to beat, but when he's making a wider point some of the sparkle is lost. That said, whilst the After Supper ghost stories are an absolute comic classic (more than worth the price of this beautifully produced book on their own - and it's a very pretty book) the rest of the essays are well worth reading. Their combination of humour, observation, and opinion has plenty to offer, and have given me a rather more rounded view of Jerome K. Jerome as a writer.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Uprooted - Naomi Novik

I picked this on up in Waterstones - it was book of the month or something, and the promise of a re worked fairy tale lured me in. Unusually I read it in a fairly timely fashion, and ended up slightly surprised by how very much I loved it.

Obviously I expected to like the book or I wouldn't have bought it, the fairy tale aspect was going to be a winner, and once upon a time I read a fair amount of fantasy fiction (at the Terry Prattchet, Neil Gaimen, Robert Rankin, Douglas Adams end of the scale) though not for a few years. Still, I didn't necessarily expect a book I couldn't put down but that's what I got.

The set up was fun, there's a dragon, but he's not actually a dragon - instead he's a wizard called the Dragon, and although he does take a village maiden its only for ten years, and then he gives her back (though at that point she no longer feels at home back in her village). The book opens in a choosing year, everybody assumes that the Dragon will choose beautiful and grave Kasia - so we know that won't happen. Instead he gets stuck with messy and chaotic Agnieszka, neither are very happy about it.

It has to be Agnieszka because she has magic, something she's slow to accept, but with an enchanted evil wood to be fought on the doorstep, threats to Kazia, a handsome prince who isn't quite as charming as he might be, and a growing relationship with the Dragon, she has to get on with it. It's not a perfect book; a little bit to much is crammed in, the final quarter is slightly rushed, very involved, and maybe takes itself a bit seriously, and Agnieszka is bit luckier with her magical choices than one might reasonably expect - but none of that mattered.

What did work was the relationship between Agnieszka and Kasia, and Agnieszka and the Dragon - which could have been creepy but isn't. The Wood is satisfyingly horrifying, the set up where traditional fairy tale tropes are upended is fun, and I stayed up far to late to just read a few more pages 2 nights in a row (which was enough to finish it).

I've struggled since I finished this one (before Christmas) to find a book to pull me in in quite the same way (it's a Magic of its own when a book does that). I have a couple of similar impulse buys which have been sitting around for far to long, so maybe the plan for the weekend should be to shelve what I feel I ought to be reading and dig them out.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

New Year, Old Habits

I've never been good at New Years resolutions, or resolutions of any type really - I don't find that thinking about doing a thing, or changing something, helps me get any further forward with it. Nevertheless hints of spring in the air (that would be 3 snowdrops, 2 crocuses, and a park full of frisky squirrels) always make me think I should pull myself together and have a good clear out and tidy.

I've been in my flat just over 12 years now, and as a natural gatherer of stuff I feel in desperate need of more space. I only buy things I love, but I fall in love a lot. I've just taken a quarter of an hour out of writing this post to continue the search for a pitcher with a fox for a handle that I saw somewhere before Christmas - I'm not even in my kitchen and there are 5 jugs on the windowsill in front of me, all different, all delightful, and more or less all useful. The decluttering thing does not work for me - all of the things in my home fill me with delight (well, maybe not the hoover, and definitely not the ironing board, but neither are surplus to requirement).

To be fair (and hoping not to sound like a crazy hoarder) it's easy enough not to buy another jug, however charming it might be, just as it was a simple matter to curb a (very expensive) le creuset habit when it became clear I really didn't need another piece however pretty it might be. I miss the anticipation involved in saving and waiting for a discount to kick in, before I could finally get the coveted item, and given how prices continue to rise I'm glad I bought it when I did, but enough is enough.

Books are a different matter. I probably have as many, maybe more, books than I'll ever read, they're taking over every bit of space, but I still can't resist the lure of another (and another, and another). I've had a half hearted think about a bit of a cull over the last few weeks but I know it's not going anywhere. I had a big clear out a couple of years ago where I got rid of all the obvious things, and since then I've been quite good at passing on the occasional books I don't want to keep. They are becoming a problem though - I'm feeling slightly overwhelmed by the number I want to read Right Now, with the result that I've hit a total slump and am reading very little.

The other half of that is that books are my default comfort purchase, they have been since I could first get through a Famous Five on my own and dad would let me choose a new book each week when we went into town. That's a long time ago now, but the excitement of picking a book has never diminished, it's about more than reading because the library experience is totally different. I don't really think having more books than I might ever read is a problem either, at least it isn't normally, it's just good to know they're there to welcome me if I want them.

There's also a need to buy something nice with the money I earn to make it feel like the whole effort of making a living is worth it - that it's for more than paying bills and scraping by (which is often how it feels). Books, relativley inexpensive and full of promise, are not the worst way to go. It also feels like one pleasure to many to give up - even if I do feel a bit overwhelmed. At least it's a better sort of overwhelmed than the news currently leaves me feeling, and at least it's a luxury I can afford.

Nevertheless, any advice on how to deal with a towering to be read pile (which doesn't involve a cull) would be listened to. 

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Molly Keane A Life - Sally Phipps

It's hard to explain precisely how much Molly Keane's books have come to mean to me, but (and despite having told these stories before) I'm going to try. As an undergraduate in the 1990's I started looking for women's writing and art, not contemporary material, but something which could show me a history of female creativity. The first book I bought with this in mind was a Virago edition of Molly Keane writing as M J Farrell, it was the start of a mild obsession with Virago which shows no sign of abating, and a genuine love for Keane's writing.

Just before graduation my grandfather had an unexpected nights stop over with me in Aberdeen. It was the last time I really got to speak to him before dementia started to set in, and almost the last time I saw him. I was reading a Molly Keane when he arrived, it turned out that he knew her, had danced with her at hunt balls, and told me that she'd stuck 'The English' in her books and how they hadn't realised it. He was English himself which made me wonder, it also had the effect of making those books much more personal. My grandfather was a committed hunting, shooting, fishing man, the sporting world Molly describes was his world too.

That's the background to why I was anticipating Sally Phipps' biography of her mother so much, and for anyone looking for a portrait of Anglo Irish society between the wars it's a gem, although I found that Molly herself remains elusive in this book (I see I'm not the only person to think this).

The first half of the book is the most successful, born in 1904, Molly's upbringing was distinctly Victorian, her parents seem to have been very wrapped up in each other with little in the way of outward affection for their children, Molly's mother (a well regarded poet in her own right) also seems to have inclined towards reclusiveness and melancholy - very much at odds with her sociable daughter who apparently craved love and approval.

It was a unionist household, and during the troubles the house was burnt down - which sounds like a surprisingly civilised process, or at least one lacking in personal malice. At any rate the family chose to buy the house next door with the compensation money, and that seems to have been the end of it. Meanwhile a Molly old enough to be out on the social scene is obsessed with hunting and social success. Her writing funded her social life, and her social life provided the background for her writing - done under a pseudonym because it wouldn't have helped her popularity.

It's a world of big houses, good manners, rigid social order, and where being entertaining is seen as a duty (and possibly a way of making up for having no money). The social order is slightly baffling - Molly's older sister falls in love with a hunting friend, but he's a notch lower in the social scale so her parents refuse their consent to the match. Sue accepts this and clears off to Oxford to get a degree and become a socialist - which her parents don't seem to mind at all, although Molly thought the man would have been better. It's also a mostly vanished world (are there odd survivals?) which makes it fascinating to read about.

The second half of the book is where the memoir approach proves a little bit disappointing. The chronology is a bit disjointed, I would have liked more about Molly's books, and the seemingly endless list of friends and acquaintances who all adored her are hard to distinguish (even worse when they all start to die).

The mentions of her involvement in the theatre are also a bit vague, it was clearly a big part of Keane's life and work, and I would have like more detail and analysis - the theatre world doesn't come to life in the way that the country house background does, nor is it clear how Molly reconciled the different parts of her life.

The key to why it isn't always a completely satisfactory book are in the hints that Phipps makes about occasional difficulties in her relationship with her mother, and in serious rows with friends and family where Molly has lashed out. The only time she really expands on this is when she explains how Molly conspired to stop her husband going to London during the war after his mother has been killed by a bomb. It's an unforgivable, if understandable, thing to do which has serious ramifications. That's the Molly who can be sensed in her novels, and I could wish she was rather more in evidence in this book.

Even with those caveats it's a book that's well worth reading, for anyone interested in the Anglo Irish it really is fascinating . It's also reminded me how very good a writer Keane was, and made me deeply curious about her plays - I can only hope that someone thinks to revive one of them, I'd love to see her work performed