Saturday, 26 June 2010
Books to read when your heart (for whatever reason) feels heavy, or scalded, or broken are very different from reading books that are about that. Those, I find anyway, are not helpful. When you are tottering on the verge of weeping into your pillow at night, every night, I want a book that absorbs me to the point that I simply cannot think of anything else. Distraction is the key. Not too heavy, not too sad, not too many plots to follow. I don't want too much brash honesty and truths, what I'm after is a shifting canvas. Lawrence Durrell and The Alexandrian Quartet is about as perfect as it gets. Consistently voted as one of the best novels of all times, by people, I assume, who KNOW about such literary things, it is a masterpeice of deceptions and shifting ground. Justine, Balthazar, Clea and Mountolive make up the four books. I first read these when I was an angst ridden teenager (skipping bits, I'm sure) then I forgot about them. They found a home on the top shelf and stayed there for years. Later, in my thirties, my heart was broken (a man) and I took myself off for a solitary weekend by the sea in France. For some reason (directed I suspect from my guiding reading angel) I slung two of these in a bag. They absorbed me so that I didn't think of the man for a full half hour of the time. (And anyone who has been through that particular heartache will appreciate just how long thirty minutes can be...) They are set in Egypt and centre around Justine. What was she? A spy? A thwarted woman in love? A sex crazed frustrated wife? All of those things and maybe none of them. The book presents one story told by four different perspectives . Lost in a world of intrigue and sand, wealth and poverty, the all pervading palm print that is put on walls to evade the evil eye - hidden truths and lies come alive. Smallpox, gout, amputation, terrible uncured sexual diseases, heat, love and lust are played out against the backdrop of Alexandria. Nothing is as it seems. Once you have tasted that world, you can drink deeply and settle down to losing yourself completely to it.
I was intriuged to discover that they play bibliomancy in the books, and I have done so ever since. Just as accurate as the I Ching and a lot more fun. I am heartbroken this weekend (not a man, but a beloved dog) and so, I made some mint tea and started to read again...
Thursday, 24 June 2010
After a staggeringly wonderful reading weekend at Tilton House (more of which later) it seemed rude not to wander down the track for a tour of the sublime next door neighbour of Charleston with the magical garden. Of course, it was hard not to resent the other guests which seemed to be wandering through my garden, but with a willing spirit I tried my best... the foxgloves, the roses, the wild strawberries, the lavender, the apple orchards, the pond, the waterlillies, the mosaics, the statues seemed to be from an age that I longed to be in. Even the tour of the house with its casual boho decor, the careless sheaves of old magazines and books, the narrow beds adn the unheated bathrooms didn't distract from the longing to live there. I even had a slight spooky moment in Clive's boudoir (do men have boudoirs? - no matter) where I thought I saw from the corner of my eye, just for a nano second the outline of a portly smiling man... Vanessa's glasses were on the table (I read somewhere amongst the many, many books of the Bloomsbury lot that she started the day with strong coffee, an orange, and a cigarette which I find endearing) and her enduring art fills the small farmhouse that was rented to her and her family for more generations than she could possibly have imagined.
In the shop the books on all things Bloomsbury are seductively prolific. There was one amongst them that I had read the previous year - Mrs Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light that had stayed with me... Virginia and Vanessa were, so they thought, both blessed and cursed by the servant question. Some remained 'loyal' and others 'turned against them'. The life and conditions of their servants were probably no better or no worse than others of the time, but it made me realise that much as I longed to live in that house and take tea with Lytton and Carrington, Clive and Vanessa, waving at Angelica playing by the pond and watching the sun set over the haystacks whist discussing high art and sketching famous profiles, I would no doubt feel guilty about the scullery maid washing up in the chipped enamal sink with cold water. I sighed, stole a strawberry and went home to wash up in my warm kitchen with copious amounts of hot water.
Saturday, 12 June 2010
I knew I had on my shelves Carnivale by Michelle Lovric, and it was she who was giving the talk. So, I was pre-disposed to adore it. But - I found myself drifting off... (not helped by a slight fit of giggles whan she was talking about the 'Column of Infamy' that is hidden in the depths of a museum that she feels should be brought to light, which made me nudge Mr B and do a bad Frankie Howerd impersonation of 'Infamy, Infamy, they've all got it Infamy') it made me realise that Venice almost doesn't need any more stories. The whole place is a story. Layers upon layers of the most wonderful and vainglorious of histories superimposed on the stones. From the incomparable Venetian Queen of storytelling - Jan Morris, to the enormous ego of Erica Jong, they've all had their say on the enchanted city.
We finished our Ventian evening at Polpo in Beak Street where amongst the cicheti of taleggio, asparagus and prosciutto, the glasses of wine, the sound of the rain against the window and the chatter we could almost persuade ourselves we were back on the lagoon.
What to keep?
Thursday, 10 June 2010
This is a glorious book. A collection of short stories that were originally published in The Strand magazine (defunct long before I had ever glimpsed it) It’s a true delight. It’s that rare thing, a book that can be appreciated by children, but has been written for adults.
The book has the flavour of the wise cracking, fast moving New York in the forties and fifties. If it were a film it would undoubtedly star Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. It’s glamorous and very funny.
The turning upside down of the standard fairy tale is an absolute delight, and has the added advantage of feeling subversive, too. It also very cleverly avoids being at all whimsical or knowing.
Portly Kings and knights rub shoulders with magicians and knight, Queens keep a firm Royal hand on the gold, and princesses frolic with unsuitable suitors. A dragon called Pongo that lives in a supersized dog kennel made me long to own this exotic creature, especially as he would obligingly start a fire if you were feeling chilly. The illustrations are a joy, I would thoroughly recommend this for some uplifting and enchanting reading.
Second hand on Amazon it seems a bargain to me for a fiver. A keeper – I think. What about you?
Stylishly dressed in a black and white long Nehru tunic, wide legged black pants and an enormous silver necklace she looked the part of the grand dame of letters. With her silver hair and walking stick it was hard to believe that she was 93.
I’d read her book the month before, indeed galloped through the large volume (at one point reading it in bed I let the large volume slip through my fingers and thought for a moment that I’d broken my nose, so large and heavy is it.) And the contents stayed with me for weeks. It’s searingly honest and touches on subjects that made me think rather uncomfortably about things that we all tend to push to the back of our mind. Death, aging, past lovers, and friends lost. That sounds gloomy. But it isn’t. Hers is a sparkling clear voice of wisdom in a wilderness of clamouring. Her life as an editor, where she seems to have practically edited everyone who is anyone of modern contemporary literature is a list of superstars. And her dealing with such fragile and monstrous (sometimes) egos is touching and revealing.
She said when being interviewed by the master of ceremonies himself – the urbane and witty Damian Barr, that one of the good things about growing older is that she doesn’t remember if she’d read a book before or not – so that she has the absolute delight of reading an old favourite as if for the first time.
She was in conversation for over half an hour and held an audience of over 200 enraptured. Her talk of Jean Rhys, Molly Keane, her delight on moving into sheltered accommodation, her love of books made you feel that you had just made a new friend.
Perhaps the most moving part of the evening was when she told of her anguish at realising that she had room for only (!) 300 books in her new home. Her nephew spent three days with her, holding up books for her to decide to keep or chuck. These were not ‘just’ books to her. They were her life. And every single one was a treasured friend that represented a massive part of her life.
The personal stories she recounted in her clear voice were a privilege to hear, and when questions were being taken from the floor, for some reason I shrank from asking anything. I think I felt that the best present I could give her was not to pry any more, but to let her enjoy her applause.
I know, I know, what a fool.
A keeper, I would imagine....
This is how Michael in Saturday Island by Hugh Brooke, addresses his much loved ship wreck companion, Aggie.
It’s a Heineman Adventure book that sold for two shillings and sixpence in 1935
“My teeth are false, my hair are few.
My age is over sixty two.
Please pass the salad dressing, do,
Said Mrs Douglas Crosbie”
I thought I would re-read my bookshelves, prior to a much needed cull. Keepers or charity shop? Please help me decide. Most of the books are beloved old friends, some are new, and some are waiting to be tasted. Some need to GO.
I am convinced that one day I will be found buried under the toppling pile of books on my bedside table, but tant pis, there are worse ways to go. I blame it on my mother. She was a true bibliophile, teaching me to read when I was four, begging me with tears in her eyes that “It would be so much fun!” She was right. It was.
Some of her books I inherited (apart from the Dickens which she adored and I had, and have, an aversion to) So, I thought I’d start with some of her old friends.
Pearl S Buck has gone out of fashion, and yet she was a prolific and popular author, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. I adored her books when I was younger as they did that thing that novels should do: Immerse you in another world, a world of which to start with you know nothing but soon becomes a familiar setting with a wealth of detail that stays ingrained for years to come. Buck’s world was China. And in her books the art of transporting one to a time and place that you have never visited is enthralling. She wrote an epic and rich novel combining the broad brush stroke with a fine eye for detail.
I now know the gruesome facts of foot binding (the toes were broken with the big toe pointing up towards the ankle and the other toes crunched underneath) with acrobats and kite flyers performing to provide a distraction from the bloody business. Of concubines swallowing opium and hurling themselves down wells, of thin fish gruel for breakfast, of embroidered silk, of peony planting, of the dangers of bandits and childbirth, the temptation of teahouses and the vast empire that was old China. The glee that I felt when I pounced on these exotic details when I was young didn’t lessen as I re-read them later in life. And who couldn’t love a delicate, trembling hair ornament in the shape of a jade moth?
In The Pavilion of Women, Madame Wu is the head. She rules her estates, her children, her servants and her husband with an icy detachment, and decides, when she is 40, she has done enough and deserves some’ me time’. So, she buys a country girl for her husband as a concubine (to lessen the disappointment of having her peerless presence in his bed) and retires from his courtyard to another to study her books, plant her orchids and contemplate life. This, of course, doesn’t happen.
The unthinkable happens. She falls in love. With a foreign priest that she has employed to teach one of her sons to speak and read English to improve business. With sweeping changes happening to her country mirroring the changes in her household, her life becomes a turmoil of emotions.
How she resolves all of this, and still remains the loved and respected head of the Wu clan makes for a memorable visit to another time and place.
Positively swooning stuff. Keep?
Radio 4 chose a biography of Buck as Book at Bedtime and I rushed (well, clicked on Amazon) to buy it. BuryingThe Bones by Hilary Spurling And I hesitate now, because it told me so much about Pearl S Buck that it left me wondering of sometimes it’s better not to know too much about an author that you have admired. Her life as a child of a miserable missionary father in China was grim. Her married life little better it seemed, and the last stage of her life (described as resembling the main character from one of her books The Last Empress where she surrounded herself with ‘catamites’ and had ladies-in-waiting , would grant audiences to people sitting in a carved throne like chair) and with her family squabbling over her fortune left me wishing that she had stayed in the realms of my mind as a silk enrobed mistress of story telling.