Monday, 31 December 2012

Books Read: 2012

I do always enjoy tracking what I've read in a single year, and it's actually one of the main reasons I keep this blog. I normally aim for around 50 books a year, but I'm not sure I met that target in 2012. Let's see:

  1. Flight from the Enchanter (Iris Murdoch)
  2. The Ballad of the Sad Café (Carson McCullers)
  3. Along the Cherry Lane (Richard Sparks)
  4. From The Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant (Alex Gilvarry)
  5. The Book Club Cookbook (Gelman/Levy)
  6. This Mobius Strip of Ifs (Matthias Freese)
  7. The Bottom Billion (Paul Collier)
  8. The Perfume Lover (Denyse Beaulieu)
  9. Glow (Jessica Maria Tuccelli)
  10. Midnight in Peking (Paul French)
  11. Helen Keller In Love (Rosie Sultan)
  12. Sweet Tea and Jesus Shoes (Chastain et al)
  13. My American (Stella Gibbons)
  14. On The Edge (Richard Hammond)
  15. The Fifth Mountain (Paulo Coelho)
  16. Blackbird (Jennifer Lauck)
  17. Girl from the South (Joanna Trollope)
  18. Starlight (Stella Gibbons)
  19. Winnie and Gurley (Robert G Hewitt)
  20. Diary of a Nobody (George and Weedon Grossmith)
  21. For a Dancer (Emma L Stephens)
  22. How Hard Can It Be? (Jeremy Clarkson)
  23. At Home (Bill Bryson)
  24. To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
  25. The Way of the Tumbrils (John Elliot)
  26. The Finkler Question (Howard Jacobson)
  27. Seeing Things (Oliver Postgate)
  28. The King's Speech (Logue and Conradi)
  29. Helpful Herbs for Health and Beauty (Barbara Griggson)
  30. Delirium (Nancy L Cohen)
  31. Running With Scissors (Augusten Burroughs)
  32. Five Children and It (E Nesbit)
  33. Blaming (Elizabeth Taylor)
  34. Embassytown (China Miéville)*
*to be reviewed

Frankly, I'm amazed that I managed to read the equivalent of one book every 10/11 days given my other commitments this year, with the shift from part-time to full-time work and my driving lessons being the main consumers of my time. I even think there may be a couple of books that I read but didn't review, so it may even be a little more than this (especially as I also don't count rereads).

I really discovered a new interest in politics and economics this year thanks to Cohen and Collier's books, and the classics I read this year were also a real highlight. 

Another big change this year was the exponential increase in free books received: of the 34 books listed above, 13 of them were kindly sent to me from PR agencies and authors for review. So to all those sponsors: thank you!

The main shame in this list is the total lack of French-language reading, which I really should do better at given that I've now lived in France for four years. Definitely something to improve in 2013!

I hope you achieve all your reading goals in the new year also, and experience health, wealth and happiness in all other areas of life :)

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Blaming (Elizabeth Taylor)

--The blurb--
"While on holiday in Istanbul, tragedy strikes, and suddenly the comfortably middle-aged, middle-class Amy is left stranded and a widow. Martha, a young American novelist, kindly helps her, but upon their return to England, Amy is ungratefully reluctant to maintain their friendship—on home soil she realizes that in normal circumstances, Martha isn't the sort of person she would be friends with. But guilt is a hard taskmaster, and Martha has a way of getting under one's skin..."

--The review--
Death has been a common theme in writing virtually since humans learnt to tell stories or put pen to paper. The process of grieving itself, however, is far less often explored. It is for this journey into love, loss and the process of absolving oneself of responsibility for actions that seem to factor in, at the time, to the death of others, that this lesser-known Elizabeth Taylor is one that should equally be a household name.

A contemporary of Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, and Jean Rhys, Taylor produced 12 novels between 1945 and 1976 but kept a relatively low profile and controversy-free life. Having started out as a librarian and tutor, she turned exclusively to writing following her marriage in 1936. Being determined to keep her private life private (to the point of destroying her own collection of letters), we cannot know how far exactly Blaming was derived from her own feelings. However, the authenticity of emotion involved means that it possibly does not come recommended for the recently bereft: it offers an insight into the extent of bewilderment and devastation that comes with the loss of a companion of so many years, and for this many readers will be reminded of relatives or even of themselves, coming out of the experience of reading Blaming feeling stronger or filled with greater admiration and empathy.

This experience as described by Taylor feels in no way unrealistic. There are no extraordinary events that we as readers feel could not happen to us, and in spite of protagonist Amy's passage through the classic stages of grief (including denial, anger and finally acceptance), Taylor's portrayal of these emotions does not feel hackneyed. Her pared-back style and carefully-chosen words mean that we are moved by the minimalist simplicity and rawness of the loss that has occurred, rather than being overwhelmed by layers and layers of complex description.

Taylor does layer in other ways, though: the 'blaming' of the title focuses not only on how far Amy can blame herself for the death of her husband (no matter how rational or irrational this may be) but also on the extent to which Amy could have changed the fate of acquaintance Martha (for whom the word "friend" does not seem quite right, for reasons that become clear during reading, even though friendship is what Martha tries to force on the grieving Amy). As well as grieving being explored relatively little in literature, it appears that this aspect of grief specifically is looked into very little, in spite of its validity.

The only criticism arguably lies in the notion that Taylor voices adults (men and women) far better than children: the grandchildren that feature in the story do not speak or act in a way that befits children, and it is clear that this is not one of the author's strengths. However, this happily does not detract too much from what we ultimately gain from Blaming.

That Taylor has been so consistently underrated is a shame: Blaming is elegant, concise, thought-provoking and heart-rending without falling into the traps of cliché and sentimentality. A timeless classic that paves the way for healing, regardless of the nature of our loss.

other works by Elizabeth Taylor
At Mrs Lippincote's (1945)
Palladian (1946)
A View of the Harbour (1947)
A Wreath of Roses (1949)
A Game of Hide and Seek (1951)
The Sleeping Beauty (1953)
The Real Life of Angel Deverell (1957)
In A Summer Season (1961)
The Soul of Kindness (1964)
The Wedding Group (1968)
Mrs Palfrey At The Claremont (1971)

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Bookish Bits and Bobs: Favourite Festive Reads

There's nothing more I love at this time of year than getting all of my Christmas kit out and making the flat look festive. Among the tinsel and fairy lights, however, is also a big slice of Christmassy culture, from The Muppets: Letters To Santa on DVD, to a CD of Tudor Christmas chants. Naturally there's also a stack of seasonal reads in there too, and there's little more comforting than curling up to read them all again each year. Let me take you through my favourites:

The Christmas Books: Charles Dickens
Passed on to me from my mum, the set of The Christmas Books that I own was originally a gift to her from my grandparents, making it not only a winter treat but also a valued family heirloom. This set of course includes the famous A Christmas Carol, but additionally contains lesser-known tales The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life, and The Haunted Man. A strange mixture of universal lessons for all the family and quite advanced language, images and socio-historical references, they are the kind of stories that you appreciate more as you get older - whether familiar or unfamiliar, they are packed with so much detail that each year you discover something new.
The Christmas Mystery: Jostein Gaarder
Having been a Gaarder fan for around fifteen years, I am bound to have a soft spot for most if not all of his works. However, I truly believe that The Christmas Mystery achieves Gaarder's usual goal of making philosophy accessible to beginners (whether adult or child), but through a new, innovative format that distinguishes it from his other books. It tells the story of a magical advent calendar through what is essentially an advent calendar itself, with the book being divided up into chapters that are dated for every day in December, with the whole family being able to enjoy hearing the story unfold each year in the buildup to Christmas Day. Heart-warming and thought-provoking without being too saccharine, Gaarder manages with The Christmas Mystery to add justly to his legacy.
Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm: Stella Gibbons
This one hasn't had a chance to become a Christmas classic yet, as it was only rereleased last year, but it's clear from even the first reading that Gibbons penned a worthy follow-up to the original Cold Comfort Farm. This collection of seasonal short stories proves occasionally predictable, but we could argue that at Christmas, we seek less to be surprised than to be comforted, and Christmas At Cold Comfort Farm ticks the boxes on this score without departing from Gibbons' previously-demonstrated skills.  The writer steps into the role of fairy godmother as we suspend disbelief for a moment, and by the end of the volume, we almost wish that Gibbons could tap on our own shoulder and tinker with our lives too.

The Atheist's Guide To Christmas: Ariane Sherine (ed)
Continuing on the theme of compilations, The Atheist's Guide To Christmas invited heathens from all over to write about what Christmas means to them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some entries are better than others and resonate more with the reader's own personal trajectory of belief; equally, all of the writers chosen have something of value to offer on this theme, regardless of how they express this. Something to savour throughout December, it's a volume that can be dipped into with ease whenever you want to think hard with AC Grayling, be amused by Jenny Colgan, or do both with David Baddiel.

A London Christmas: Marina Cantacuzino (ed)
Another compendium here, and the last one on my list. Cantacuzino has amassed a wealth of festive treasures here, ranging from novel extracts and poems and to engravings and journal entries, meaning that there is always something new and refreshing to look at. Again, reading the book in chronological order is not recommending, as you will just end up knowing the same ones intimately and becoming bored with the same others.  Definitely a traditional collection though - so steer clear if modernity is your thing. 
This is not to mention the seasonal books that I would like to add to my collection - there are plenty of classics, modern and traditional, that deserve a place on any Christmas-lover's bookshelf:

The Gift of the Magi (O Henry): A short story about newlyweds who struggle to buy secret gifts for each other on a low income. Written in 1906, it has already been adapted several times.

The Polar Express (Chris Van Allsburg): This 1985 tale was adapted into a film in 2004 starring Tom Hanks, and focuses on a small boy's trip to the North Pole on a magical train. Now widely considered a children's classic, it would be a shame to miss this one.

Christmas Poems (UA Fanthorpe): This, and the next item, is shamelessly yoinked from Guy Browning's 2004 list of recommendations. As shown by the seminal The Night Before Christmas, there's nothing like a good Christmas poem to raise the spirits, unite the family, and get children interested in poetry. Similarly to JRR Tolkien's letters, this volume arose in 2008 from poems that Fanthorpe wrote in Christmas cards to friends from 1974 onwards. I can see this one fast becoming a real treat for many families.

Families and How To Survive Them (John Cleese and Robin Skynner): In the same way as Jilly Cooper adds a touch of tongue-in-cheek wit to perennial Christmas problems (Cooper does it through How To Survive Christmas), the immediately identifiable humour of John Cleese comes to the fore in gently mocking the predicaments that come with hosting the family each Christmas. Whether your mum's had too much to drink or your dad's fallen into a deep seasonal sleep, I'm sure it would be pretty difficult for Cleese and Skynner to fail in leavening the mundanity of the whole thing.

Letters From Father Christmas (JRR Tolkien): Although best-known for his Lord Of The Rings trilogy, Tolkien also worked on plenty of other projects. Originally written for his own children between 1920 and 1942, the letters were only collated and published posthumously. This volume promises to be a wonderful insight into Tolkien the man and father, fleshing out our image of him beyond Tolkien the writer.

A Christmas Memory (Truman Capote): This daring author's autobiographical short story was published in 1956, and details his relationship as a seven-year-old with an ageing relative at Christmas. This, too, could lead to a more rounded perception of Capote the person, as opposed to Capote the celebrity. It has already been republished many times since in several anthologies.

Whatever your choice of reading matter, I wish a Happy Christmas (and a merry new year) to each and every one of you :)

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Film Review: Anna Karenina

The 2012 version of Anna Karenina on the big screen has been profusely advertised in France in the run-up to its release on December 5th, and so it's hardly surprising that the cinema was packed on the opening night with fans waiting to see the faces of Jude Law and Keira Knightley wrestle with the very definition of what love is or should be. This well-known pair was teamed up with rising stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Alicia Vikander in key supporting roles. So what did these four immense talents show us about this classic Russian love story, through the prism of director Joe Wright's (Pride and Prejudice; Atonement) interpretation of it? 

Although Keira Knightley is something of a love-hate figure for many, there's little denying her excellence as an actress. It's hard to believe that at the tender age of 27, she has already been in training for more than ten years, bursting onto the nation's screens in independent British film Bend It Like Beckham before storming into blockbusters such as Love Actually and Pirates of the Caribbean. Her co-actors have an equally star-studded record, between them appearing in such works as The Talented Mr Ripley, Nowhere Boy, and Gosford Park. Joe Wright and Keira Knightley are also known for their close professional partnership, having worked together on a number of successful period dramas. The stakes are therefore high, particularly as they all take on one of the mightiest works of Russian literature. It's a book that lingers for its strong characters and emotions that run high, and this adaptation also has plenty to live up to, thanks to the fact that more than ten adaptations of the novel have preceded it since 1914.

The story itself is specific to its time period, yet all-encompassing and timeless in its message: a young Russian woman, married to a much older man, ends up having an affair with a count her own age. However, once she has decided to leave her husband and go to live with him, she cannot live with the effects and consequences of her choices. Wright's version of the film (whose script was written by acclaimed playwright Tom Stoppard) highlights Tolstoy's use of foreshadowing through minor characters, making full use of these as main events, and this contributes to the film's sense of building anticipation throughout as well as its highly successful dénouement. 

Even those who dislike Knightley normally are likely to marvel at her emotional engagement with the role of the eponymous protagonist. The real star of the show, though, is the up-and-coming 24-year-old Alicia Vikander, who plays Kitty, and in doing so proves herself as one to watch over the coming years. Her maturity beyond her years in her acting style is mirrored in Kitty's equally old head on young shoulders, making her an excellent choice for the role.

However, the characters and the story are occasionally detracted from by the strange setting of a stage, which is returned to again and again for various scenes (making it not quite a composite set, but almost). While at times it worked well (for example, during the scene at the races), more often than not it just seemed awkward, and although it had its elegant beauty, its inclusion was ultimately distracting and did not seem to be used for any good reason. The reason for its use was never made obvious to the film's viewers, with the closest plausible theory perhaps being that it is supposed to be some sort of Brechtian device, intended to remind viewers that we are only watching a film, and ought to be using the film's themes to reflect upon our own lives, not to become emotionally involved with the characters themselves.

Others also complain that in comparison to other versions of Anna Karenina on the big screen, the main character's complex personality is only superficially explored. Having not seen these other adaptations, it is difficult to agree in the same way, but ultimately I concur: the original text itself is hugely detailed and any modern film version is likely to be hugely distilled in this regard. Wright's version of this seminal work is therefore about as faithful to the original as it can be given the broad audience that it is trying to reach.

Nevertheless, in essence, Wright's film is a successful and accessible introduction to this classic Tolstoy novel, with emotions enhanced by Dario Marianelli's soaring soundtrack (which is heart-rending without being sentimental), the visual feast of period costume, and images contrasted by strong snowy landscapes. The negatives mentioned above fade into the background thanks to the accomplished acting and already dramatic storyline, and even if said negatives mean that comparison to other filmic versions is warranted, it ultimately makes the viewer want to rush out and read Anna Karenina in all its thought-provoking and emotive detail - or indeed even read it all over again.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Bookworm News (November 2012)

 Sitting pretty this season
Jacqueline Wilson fans will be getting comfy in no time this Christmas with officially licensed bean bags by BeanBagBazaar, the UK’s leading designer and retailer of bean bags and bean-filled furniture. Aimed at children aged 7-12, the bags were designed in conjunction with the Tracy Beaker author herself. Featuring individuals and book covers from Wilson's stories, fans of her writing will be able to pick out their favourite titles and characters, which they can curl up with as they read the latest title, Four Children And It. Nick Sharatt's illustrations abound and are sure to prove a colourful decoration in bedrooms and libraries everywhere. The officially licensed Jacqueline Wilson bean bags are available in four unique designs exclusively from BeanBagBazaar from £49.99 with free delivery - and I know my inner twelve-year-old would love one.

Funny ha ha
Massive Roald Dahl fans will be glad to hear of the recently-announced winners of the 2012 Roald Dahl Funny Prize: My Big Shouting Day by Rebecca Patterson (six-and-under category) and Dark Lord: Teenage Years by Jamie Thomson (seven-to-fourteen category). Each received a cheque for £2,500. Chair of judges Michael Rosen commented: "I'm very proud of the fact that this is the fifth year of the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, an award I cooked up when I was Children's Laureate in order to celebrate books that make children laugh. That's five years worth of books which are written with fun and enjoyment in mind. We know that reading for pleasure is an engine for attainment and achievement in all walks of life. Children, parents, teachers, librarians and all concerned with reading can find a rich vein of books for all ages in the back lists of this Prize, and this year's shortlists and winners are engaging, fascinating and above all, very funny." I often feel sorry that there will never again be another Dahl story - but perhaps Patterson and Thomson between them can provide us with the next best thing.

War of the Worlds re-recorded
HG Wells' classic sci-fi tale, The War of the Worlds, was made into musical form in 1978 by Jeff Wayne. Now, in 2012, a brand-new recording will refresh the recording of this iconic soundtrack. The new recording will take the form of a 2CD hardback, also being available as a digital download and special double vinyl with 52-page booklet and poster. Featuring Liam Neeson, Joss Stone, and Gary Barlow, the cast list is truly stellar and promises to introduce a new generation of fans to the success of the musical and book. Neeson will also be appearing in the 2012-2013 tour of the latest stage version alongside Marti Pellow, Jason Donovan and Ricky Wilson. Stunning 3D holography promises to complete the spectacle, which is surely unmissable as an end-of-year treat. Sadly it's not scheduled to come to the land of the froggy :( So I'll have to content myself with the film versions of Anna Karenina and The Hobbit, both out within two weeks of each other. Hardly a great hardship, I think you'll agree.

Happy birthday to you
In celebration of its 75th anniversary in 2013, Britain's best-selling weekly comic, The Beano, is releasing a special annual this Christmas. A traditional gift for the young and young at heart, it's packed with jokes and activities and should provide hours of fun for the £7.99 cover price. A perfect gift for someone born in 1938 perhaps - or anyone who still enjoys The Beano today. The bulk of the celebrations, though, will be focused on July 30th, 2013, on the exact anniversary of the comic's first publication - and the annual is just the first collector's item of merchandise that will be available in the UK. I have many happy memories of popping to the corner shop to get some sweets on a Sunday, and The Beano was among my magazine choices for sure, with Twinkle and Shout being just a few of the others. At the same price, the 2013 albums for the equally classic Dandy and the books of Jacqueline Wilson are also available as fabulous presents during this festive period.

On my wishlist
It's that time of year again when friends and family start asking me for copies of my Amazon wishlist again (which has probably changed a million times since they last looked at it). Here's a few of the books that I've added this November:
  • Otter Country: In Search of the Wild Otter (Miriam Darlington) - for an insight into the world of these fascinating (and cute) creatures
  • John Keats: A New Life (Nicholas Roe) - to see the universe anew through the eyes of this young poet, and those who love his work as much as I do
  • This is Your Brain On Music: Understanding A Human Obsession (Daniel Levitin) - I am continually trying to understand the deep connection that humans create with music to the point of it engendering and intensifying physical feelings within us. Perhaps Levitin's new tome will help?
  • Jamie's 15-Minute Meals (Jamie Oliver) - with my time being increasingly squeezed by work, commute and driving lessons (and heaven forbid that I should actually have a life), the act of co-running a household seems to be something that is squashed into the cracks at times. Can Jamie make me more efficient? 
  • Look Me In The Eye: My Life With Asperger's (John Elder Robison) - hot on the tail of my reading of works by Daniel Tammet and Mark Haddon, I hope to understand even more about this multi-faceted condition.
  •  The Mind of God: Science and the Search for Meaning (Paul Davies) - recommended by one of the most intelligent people I know (thanks Steve!), this is part of my quest to reconcile my burgeoning interest in science with my wish that I could somehow believe in a god.
  • Trains and Lovers: The Heart's Journey (Alexander McCall Smith) - something witty and funny to cuddle into this Christmas. McCall Smith has never let me down so far with his panache and intelligence; Trains and Lovers therefore seems more than a safe bet.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Five Children and It (E Nesbit)

--The blurb--
"When Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane and their baby brother go digging in the gravel pit, the last thing they expect to find is a Psammead – an ancient Sand-fairy! Having a Sand-fairy for a pet means having one wish granted each day. But the children don't realize all the trouble wishes can cause . . ."

--The review--
With books more easily available than ever before, and a lack of exposure to the classics in school, it can be argued that young people are reading children's classics less and less. However, rereading Five Children And It as an adult reveals plenty of reasons to keep children reading the golden oldies.

This is not to say that there are not aspects of these stories that adults of today may find questionable. The fact of Five Children and It being written in 1902 means that it contains some spurious reasoning, and the class bias of its author at this point in time seems to reflect a dying breed, with not many children in twenty-first century Britain being able to identify with the protagonists' social class or living situation. However, plenty of children's books today also have a class bias, with Jacqueline Wilson being perhaps the most notorious.

Nonetheless, the curiosity shared by almost all children will never date, and the sense of delight in these tales is instant (in spite of the nicknames given to the children that may seem silly to adults: 'Pussy' for Jane? Really?). Nesbit is drily humorous and packs the stories with creative imaginings of how fossils came to be, combining this with moralism as she points out the pitfalls of getting what we want. Teaching children that actions have consequences can be no bad thing, and Nesbit mixes entertainment and didacticism perfectly. While occasionally too rambling, the chapters are ultimately short, strong and readable, enabling them to be read as separate stories or part of a cohesive whole.

With the stories being 110 years old this year, parents and teachers could be forgiven for feeling that these at times less-than-politically-correct narratives are not relevant to today's children. However, they at the very least paint a picture of an age gone by - and at their best, do not fail to capture the mind with their magic.

other works by E Nesbit
The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899)
The Wouldbegoods (1901)
The New Treasure Seekers (1904)
The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904)
The Story of the Amulet (1906)
The Railway Children (1906)
The Enchanted Castle (1907)
The House of Arden (1908)
Harding's Luck (1909)
The Magic Castle (1910)
The Wonderful Garden (1911)
Wet Magic (1913)

*Nesbit also published 11 novels for adults (1885-1922), as well as several short story and poetry collections for children and adults.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Running With Scissors (Augusten Burroughs)

--The blurb--
"This is the story of a boy whose mother (a poet with delusions of grandeur) gave him away to be raised by her psychiatrist, a dead ringer for Santa Claus and a certifiable lunatic into the bargain. Suddenly at the age of 12, Augusten found himself living in a dilapidated Victorian house in perfect squalor. The doctor's bizarre family, a few patients and a paedophile living in the garden shed completed the tableau. Here, there were no rules or school. The Christmas tree stayed up until Summer and valium was chomped down like sweets. [And w]hen things got a bit slow, there was always the ancient electroshock therapy machine under the stairs..."

--The review--
The book market these days seems to be shifting towards a different trend to that of the late 1990s and early 2000s, swapping the once highly-popular misery lit genre for stuff inspired by vampires. It's difficult to say what's preferable. Augusten Burroughs' Running With Scissors doesn't quite combine the two, but almost matches both in terms of wackiness. At any rate, it was one of the most popular misery lit books of its time, with it being published in 2002 and made into a film in 2006. So now that we all have the chance to read this autobiography away from the prism of its whirlwind trend of several years ago, how does it stack up?

Running With Scissors' blurb suggests that the plot line might at least be darkly humorous, but this is difficult to find amongst the hackneyed portrait of the abusive relationship with the child caught in the middle, the doctor acting at the pinnacle of unprofessionalism, and the repeated name-dropping of famous brands such as Pucci. British readers will also be distracted by the inherent wrongness of the line "Sebastian gave her a shag" (N.B., the author is referring to a style of haircut and not a casual sexual encounter). Isn't this what editors of international editions are supposed to be for? Throw in incidents of bestiality, lesbianism and adultery and it's not difficult to understand why readers may begin to find all of this a little unbelievable.

In spite of all of this, the plot is essentially predictable. Yet all the while we are amazed at every turn that such people were (or should that read 'are'?) ever permitted to have, let alone keep, children. It is a shame, then, that Burroughs does not let us in on how he managed to escape this existence to become a reasonably well-functioning adult (a courtesy that at least Dave Pelzer does do us). Burroughs keeps us on our toes in other ways, but not always positively; even though he can at times be thought-provoking, touching and even spooky in his writing, he is also gruesome and uses immature similes involving Sea Monkeys. Although the author is occasionally darkly funny, such instances are rare, and are not enough to compensate for the rest. 

Burroughs maintains to the end of the book that events as described were really true, but allegations have emerged since relating to defamation and fabrication, leading Burroughs to admit that the events within it were "only loosely" based on his own life. To many, this can be considered a relief that he did not really suffer the traumatising events described. However, this could also incite anger in others, as it could be perceived as a devaluation of, or lack of respect for, those that really do suffer on a similar scale. If the world of literature really has moved on - albeit only to vampire-based slush - this is arguably better than people being tempted into reading mawkish lies that ultimately are only masquerading as fact.

other works by Augusten Burroughs
Sellevision (2000)
Dry (2003)
Magical Thinking (2004)
Possible Side Effects (2006)
A Wolf At The Table (2008)
You Better Not Cry: Stories For Christmas (2009)

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Delirium: The Politics of Sex in America (Nancy L Cohen)

--The blurb--
"The 2012 election was supposed to be about the economy, but over the last few months it turned into a debate about sex and women’s rights. In Delirium, Cohen takes us on a [...] journey through the confounding and mysterious episodes of [...] recent politics to explain how we and why we got to this place. Along the way she explores such topics as why Bill Clinton was impeached over a private sexual affair; how George W. Bush won the presidency by stealth; why Hillary lost to Obama; why John McCain chose Sarah Palin to be his running mate; and what the 2012 presidential contest tells us about America today. She exposes the surprising role of right-wing women in undermining women’s rights, as well as explains how liberal men were complicit in letting it happen. Cohen uncovers the hidden history of an orchestrated, well-financed, ideologically powered shadow movement to turn back the clock on matters of gender equality and sexual freedom and how it has played a leading role in fueling America’s political wars. Delirium tells the story of this shadow movement and how we can restore common sense and sanity in our nation’s politics."

--The review-- 
As previously mentioned on this blog, Tudor history and American history are given arguably disproportionate importance in Britain's history curriculum, meaning that 18-year-olds often leave school with knowledge of little else in spite of having studied history until the moment of their leaving. However, this emphasis does not mean that everything about American history is covered - and it is clear from Nancy L Cohen's latest book, Delirium, that even those who think they know plenty about American history have only scratched the surface.

Delirium is the title, and madness in various guises is certainly what readers get an alarming insight into throughout this history of the sexual counterrevolution in American politics. In describing how different views on sex and gender in the United States have affected the nation, Cohen is both wide-ranging and detailed, covering topics such as birth control, marriage, and homosexuals in the military. Equally, she keeps the text engaging and readable, condensing what has clearly been long and complex research into accessible chapters without dumbing down. 

The fact that Delirium was written in the midst of the recently-terminated 2012 presidential campaign may mean that this version of the text ages quickly. However, with President Barack Obama having won a second term for the Democrats just days ago, this also leaves the door wide open for future editions and revisions. Full of interesting and little-known facts, Delirium is also concise and well-explained, with plenty of fascinating and largely relevant diversions (although occasionally goes so complicatedly off-topic that the original aim seems distant). 

Some necessary background is given, but at the same time, Cohen does assume that her audience is American and fails to define some key terms from the outset, which would make a glossary handy. However, the author makes up for this with her meticulous research and citations elsewhere in the text, and continually proves herself to be intelligently tolerant and aware of difficulties. Cohen contextualises the issues at hand in a highly distilled manner and gives the reader plenty of food for thought thanks to various jaw-dropping moments and the notion that religion has so much to do with this as to almost be worth a book in itself.

Delirium was an ambitious project, and Cohen has every right to be proud of her achievement. She has spanned a vast time period with dignity, clarity, and concision, and the reader can be left in no doubt of her expert standing. Her other books are certainly worth seeking out, and Delirium itself definitely merits rereads.  

other works by Nancy L Cohen
The Reconstruction of American Liberalism 1865-1914 (2002) 
The 1990s: A Social History of the United States (2009)

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Helpful Herbs for Health and Beauty (Barbara Griggs)

--The blurb--
"Herbs have a myriad of uses, and not just for cooking. Herbs are also incredibly useful for healing the minor medical miseries of life (and some of the major ones too) and in many cases, they are more effective than the pharmaceutical alternative.  Nothing zaps a sore throat faster than Propolis, sorts out a painful gum infection more efficiently than a shot of Marigold or takes the sting out of sunburn better than Aloe Vera.  For as long as people have been able to pick berries and forage for food, herbs have been used for medicinal purposes. There is even evidence to suggest that Neanderthal Man knew about and used herbs. Country people the world over have always relied on them, especially when no other doctoring was available.  And you don't need to be a trained herbalist to be able to use them. It’s simple. All that is needed is information, inspiration and a little savvy and that’s where Helpful herbs for health and beauty comes in! Discover the many medical uses of nature's bounty, and also find out the canny natural beauty tricks that really work."

--The review-- 
Homeopathy and herbal remedy garners a range of different views, from those who dismiss it all as sheer quackery to those who shun traditional medicine in its favour. Barbara Griggs, the author of Helpful Herbs for Health and Beauty, does not quite fall into this latter category, but offers us so many solutions for everyday illnesses and injuries that don't involve talking to someone in a white coat that it's hard to not sit up and listen.

Sensible and realistic, Helpful Herbs serves as a Bible for all ages and ailments, as well as seeming to cover every eventuality. Its many short chapters are easy and readable to consult, although the 'how did it go?' section is awkwardly named. It presents a good combination of familiar and new ideas, enabling readers to already feel slightly expert while learning new things.

Some of the recommended herbs are repeated often, but this is hardly Griggs' fault, as many of them have multiple uses, and this won't be so obvious if you are using the book encyclopaedically, rather than reading it chronologically. Some information is also covered less well, with more expansion being required: how are novice readers supposed to know, for instance, how often to use the greasy hair remedy, or whether to use this in place of shampoo or in addition to it, or what a 'reliable' brand of herb is? While it's refreshing to not see an author name-dropping, a little more guidance in this area would have been appreciated.

Nonetheless, the author is extremely informative and authoritative without being patronising, and gives plenty of useful information on incompatibilities between different herbs, as well as regularly advising readers to consult qualified herbalists if unsure and to continue to see traditional doctors for more serious illnesses. Griggs' advice is backed up with plenty of statistics and published research, and her own long publishing history is equally reassuring. At times contradictions are present: for instance, valerian is not to be used if the patient is depressed, but at the same time, it can be used to help sleeplessness caused by anxiety. The author indicates that she is aware of these contradictions, however (and there are not many of them in any case). There are also one or two omissions: chicory (which can help to treat sinus problems and gastroenteritis), for instance, is a commonly-used substitute for coffee, and while herbal tea is talked about a lot, no mention is made of this. A chart at the end of the book of ailments and solutions would have also been greatly prized, although the bibliography, suppliers list and list of herbalists is excellent.

Helpful Herbs is in the end an honest guide: magic is not promised, and caution is urged. There is plenty of food for thought here - far more than the "52 brilliant ideas" promised by the book series name. It utilises an international approach, with tips taken from around the world, and covers health, beauty and well-being, thus making it truly all-encompassing. Highly recommended.

other works by Barbara Griggs
Baby's Cook Book (1979)
Home Herbal: A Handbook of Simple Remedies (1983)
The Food Factor (1986) 
Superfoods (1990; with Michael van Straten)
The Superfoods Diet Book (1994; with von Straten, Mason, and David)
Green Pharmacy: The History and Evolution of Western Herbal Medicine (1997)
The Complete Woman's Herbal (1999; with Anne McIntyre)
The Green Witch: A Modern Woman's Herbal (2000)
Superfoods for Children (2001; with Michael van Straten)
Superfoods Super Fast (2006; with Michael von Straten)

(cross-posted to Bianca's Beauty Blog)

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

The King's Speech (Mark Logue and Peter Conradi)

 --The blurb--
"One man saved the British Royal Family in the first decades of the 20th century - he wasn't a prime minister or an archbishop of Canterbury. He was an almost unknown, and self-taught, speech therapist named Lionel Logue, whom one newspaper in the 1930s famously dubbed 'The Quack who saved a King'. Logue wasn't a British aristocrat or even an Englishman - he was a commoner and an Australian to boot. Nevertheless it was the outgoing, amiable Logue who single-handedly turned the famously nervous, tongue-tied Duke of York into one of Britain's greatest kings after his brother, Edward VIII, abdicated in 1936 over his love of Mrs Simpson. This is the previously untold story of the remarkable relationship between Logue and the haunted future King George VI, written with Logue's grandson and drawing exclusively from his grandfather Lionel's diaries and archive. It throws an extraordinary light on the intimacy of the two men, and the vital role the King's wife, the late Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, played in bringing them together to save her husband's reputation and reign. [...] Logue's diaries also reveal, for the first time, the torment the future King suffered at the hands of his father George V because of his stammer." from; abridged by me

--The review--
By the time many interested viewers got to see the film of The King's Speech, which featured Colin Firth in the star role, there had been so much discussion of and hype surrounding this cinematic piece of history that they had little left to be surprised by. While this frequently did not diminish enjoyment of the film, one would hope that the book version of The King's Speech, co-authored by the grandson of speech therapist Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush in the film), would yield more surprises.

In this, Mark Logue (along with journalist Peter Conradi, who has written a great deal on historical figures, both famous and less well-known, including the current Royal Family) does not disappoint, delving deep into his grandfather's archives to give us as much of the full story as is possible given that some key documents are still missing. Complete with high-quality photographs to supplement the story, the book takes us through the full span of the lives of both Lionel Logue and King George VI, from birth until death. As well as covering key events in the men's lives, the authors also uncover more anecdotal stories and quote directly from letters between the two of them.

Hugely readable, with relatively short chapters, the book is also interspersed with aspects of general history, from the widely-known to quirkier tidbits. Logue and Conradi control this pace well and invoke a promising sense of local place (it would almost be possible to weave together a King's Speech road trip or guided tour from these stories: the Berkshire town of Bray, for instance, is missing a trick in not cashing in more on its connection to the divorce of Wallis Simpson and previous husband Ernest). These elements all combine to give deeper insight into the monarchy and highlight the aspects that were used to create the film. The sheer detail of the material further embroiders what we already know and increases fascination in a set of people and a period of history in whom and which there is so much more scope for understanding and research.

There is little focus, however, on the technical aspects or "behind the scenes" elements of the making of the film itself, which may prove disappointing for some people. For a historical insight into the people involved, though, Logue and Conradi fulfil their purpose perfectly.

This enjoyable read handles a set of complex people, places and circumstances in a truly accessible way, and places great confidence in the other historical works by Peter Conradi.  Anybody who enjoyed the film of The King's Speech or has any interest in the Royal Family or this period of history will gain something from this fascinating collection of recollections and primary sources.

other works by Peter Conradi
The Red Ripper: Inside the Mind of Russia's Most Brutal Serial Killer (1992)
Mad Vlad: Vladimir Zhirinovksy and the New Russian Nationalism (1994)
Hitler's Piano Player (2004)
Royale Europe (2011)
The Great Survivors: How Monarchy Made It into the Twenty-First Century (2012) 

Monday, 5 November 2012

Seeing Things (Oliver Postgate)

--The blurb--
"For over forty years Oliver Postgate was synonymous with the best in children's television, including Bagpuss, The Clangers, and Ivor the Engine. Oliver wrote and narrated the stories, while Peter Firmin illustrated the characters and made the puppets. In this autobiography Oliver Postgate describes how he came to create his stories and characters, developing innovative techniques of animation and puppetry alongside his friend and co-producer Peter Firmin. Before his first TV production, Alexander the Mouse in 1958, he had already been a war evacuee; a conscientious objector; a farm labourer; a relief worker in post-war Germany; an artist; an actor; and an inventor. The story of Oliver Postgate's extraordinary and adventurous life, and the wonderful characters who populated it, both real and imagined, is beautifully remembered and beautifully told." (from; abridged by me)

--The review--
The wonder of video streaming sites such as Youtube and Vimeo has made the nostalgia of childhood even more accessible to adults on a day-to-day basis. Assuming you haven't had enough of children's television by the time your own children have finished melting your brain with endless reruns of In The Night Garden (or whatever today's young minds are being warped with), you can be watching a vintage episode of (for my generation) Playdays or Rosie and Jim at the click of a mouse.

But now fans of the wide-ranging and, it seems, endlessly beloved work of Oliver Postgate (of Noggin The Nog fame) can extend their wanderings through yesteryear with a copy of his autobiography, Seeing Things, which was published in 2000 originally before being pimped upon his death in 2008 for republication in fancier packaging. The hardback edition is a thing of beauty in itself, with a sparkling red and gold cover, and is replete with photographs reproduced on high-quality paper in both colour and monochrome.

What of the text itself, however? With the world and his dog seeming to have an autobiography out these days (often of the ghostwritten variety), perhaps it's normal to be cynical. And certainly Seeing Things is not perfect: it's unclear what the title refers to, and at times the prose can be akin to the description of Postgate himself, given by his son in the book's epilogue: "[it] would be like taking a clock apart to see how it worked: you end up with a pile of cogs and springs and none the wiser." Such a precise simile made me wish at times that Daniel Postgate, rather than his progenitor, had written Seeing Things: the prose emitted by the creator of Bagpuss is at times rambling and unfocused, causing the reader to lose interest as he dwells in excessive detail on subjects where he fails to engage us or realise that we are not as expert as he is.

However, the parts that are of interest (and there are many) are absolute gold mines. There are many amusing anecdotes relating to how programmes like The Clangers were received, as well as stories relating to his relationships with the programmes' commissioners. And for those of us that enjoy all of the behind-the-scenes, "how did they do that?" kind of hocus-pocus, Postgate does not disappoint us there either, letting us in on all kinds of staging secrets. In these cases his fondness for extravagant minutiae is put to good use, and we are left full of admiration for the patience and tireless work that his magical creations required for their success.

Ultimately, in spite of its longwindedness, Seeing Things is a fascinating read that will bring fans back again and again. Now, I'm off in search of the autobiographies of John Cunliffe and Ivor Wood - creators of many programmes that I also enjoyed as a child, including Postman Pat, Charlie Chalk, and Bertha.

other works by Oliver Postgate
The Writing on the Sky (1982)
Becket (1989; with Naomi Linnell)
Columbus, The Triumphant Failure (1991; with Naomi Linnell)
The Sagas of Noggin The Nog (2001; with Peter Firmin) 
The Burglarproof Bath Plug- A Collection of Memories, Thoughts and Small Stories Including "The Trouble with Magic" (published posthumously in 2008)

Sunday, 4 November 2012

The Finkler Question (Howard Jacobson)

--The blurb--
"Julian Treslove, a professionally unspectacular former BBC radio producer, and Sam Finkler, a popular Jewish philosopher, writer and television personality, are old school friends. Despite very different lives, they've never quite lost touch with each other - or with their former teacher, Libor Sevcik. Both Libor and Finkler are recently widowed, and together with Treslove they share a sweetly painful evening revisiting a time before they had loved and lost. It is that very evening, when Treslove hesitates a moment as he walks home, that he is attacked - and his whole sense of who and what he is slowly and ineluctably changes."

--The review--
Many time-poor commuters look, rightly or wrongly, to the Booker Prize shortlist and eventual winner each year for surefire good reads, and hope not only for something intellectually weighty but also readable and amusing, so that it's not too hard to read during the 7.30 commute or just before bed. It's possible that this is too much to ask - and sadly The Finkler Question only fulfils the first category (and borders on the confusing at that). How is it that a book and author so reputed for their humour could prove so disappointing?

Of course Booker judges do get it wrong at times. Ian McEwan's Amsterdam is often considered an ill-deserving recipient of the prize, while many others consider it unfair that JG Ballard's Empire of the Sun lost out to Anita Brookner's Hotel du Lac. And initially it seems that The Finkler Question (which won the award in 2010) is not part of this list of ill-fated novels: from the outset it is dry, wry, sardonic, ironic, and satirical, with a gripping opening. Chapters can be short and readable, and the novel deals with notions of the past, present and future in ways that are significant to us all. The question of whether we can truly escape our upbringing and background is equally thought-provoking, and well worth exploring.

However, these positive points are short-lived. Some important plot points are based on psychic predictions coming true, or (for the cynical) coincidences occurring, and these frequently seem just a little bit too convenient. It's possible that this impact depends on the reader's level of belief in the occult - but let's try to be fair. We don't see the significance of all this hocus-pocus, but the narrator does, and surely the point of writing is to show us something that is different to ourselves. And if we as readers are of the same view of his family, who also don't understand the protagonist's point of view, we shouldn't feel completely alienated. On the other hand, a more skilled writer perhaps makes the character seem believable, or like someone we can identify with, only to turn this idea on its head later (as Sebastian Faulks does in Engleby) - but with Jacobson's main character, named Julian Treslove, this never happens.

Unfortunately, the criticisms don't stop there. Along with Jacobson's irritating use of ellipsis and unclear plot points, The Finkler Question seems to have adopted an anti-BBC stance just because it is fashionable, and the holy trinity of bitter arts student stuck in the past is more than a little contrived. Frequently obscure, overly philosophical, stagnant, and almost too self-reflective, the author's pompous prose is also in no way enhanced by the eccentric characters that are intended to be amusing (but are not).

The narrator's paranoia is also not something that the reader can easily identify with, and this ultimately proves reminiscent of the protagonist's unbelievable "secret" that forms the centrepiece of Philip Roth's The Human Stain. Further to this, the presented view of how women see sex seems incongruent, and the plotline presupposes knowledge of Israel, Palestine, Gaza, Zionism and so on, and while this could galvanise less-informed readers into action, it too serves overridingly to alienate. Tyler and Sam's relationship is equally incomprehensible, with them barely seeming to like, let alone love, each other.

One of the interesting questions that Jacobson does raise - whether a whole new life and mindset is ever completely possible - is never answered by the author, along with several other questions that he plants the seeds of (including that of the book's title). Even though the novel arguably teaches us not to become Julian Treslove, and to live our own lives instead of living through others, this meaningful message is often so poorly told that it's easy to see why readers do not persevere with The Finkler Question - or why they are often so disappointed when they do. Time-pushed commuters would do better to heed the 2-star majority of reviews on Amazon for this work by Jacobson, and look elsewhere for literary yet amusing forms of entertainment.

other works by Howard Jacobson
Coming From Behind (1983)
Peeping Tom (1984)
Redback (1986)
The Very Model of a Man (1992)
No More Mister Nice Guy (1998)
The Mighty Walzer (1999)
Who's Sorry Now? (2002)
The Making of Henry (2004)
Kalooki Nights (2006)
The Act of Love (2008)
Zoo Time (2012)

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Bookworm News (October 2012)

The British Museum and The Folio Society join forces this Christmas

 The British Museum Company and The Folio Society have collaborated to bring The Folio Society's illustrated editions of the world's greatest books to the customers of the British Museum's Grenville Room shop, and its online store. The British Museum Company therefore now stocks Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet, The Tempest, and Sonnets & Poems from The Folio Society's Letterpress Shakespeare in its Grenville Room shop, to coincide with the current Shakespeare exhibition, which finishes on 25 November. The Grenville Room is also playing host to a selection of Folio's children's classics, including Wind in the Willows and Alice in Wonderland. Beautifully presented and built to last, they would make wonderfully historic gifts this Christmas to last a reading lifetime.
 Shine inside and out this winter

With the onset of cold weather, we are often inclined to turn to recipe books that are bursting at the seams with soups, puddings and pies. But to keep healthy throughout the year – even when it’s freezing outside – many believe that we should be continuing to incorporate more and more raw foods into our diet. This is a philosophy espoused by Rebecca Kane, whose newest book, Shine Inside and Out, aims to help us do exactly this. Shine Inside and Out follows her first book, Turn Your Shine On, in providing recipes for refreshing smoothies, soups, main meals and desserts, which are all wheat free, dairy free, and, crucially, raw. Already a Raw Food Expert for Videojug, Rebecca specialises not only in classic cold dishes, but also in such delights as chocolate brownies and Thai curries, which continue to appeal even in winter – with traditional Christmas treats such as mince pies also available. Stay tuned for a review of Turn Your Shine On coming soon!

Samuel Johnson Prize Shortlist

With the results of the 2012 Man Booker Prize having just been released, it can often seem that all eyes are on fiction. However, the winner of the £20,000 Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction is also just around the corner, with the announcement due on November 12th. The titles shortlisted this year cover subjects ranging from the Spanish Holocaust and Mumbai slums to Strindberg and Mallory, with the list including luminaries such as Steven Pinker. History buffs may henceforth rejoice.

Think decisively, take action and get results in 2013

The above sounds like a list of new year's resolutions - and new book Result could be just the thing to help. Result's philosophy rests on the notion that it's the approach you take that matters, rather than just how much work you put in, which makes sense in terms of the maxim "quality, not quantity." Out this November, the book (by business coach Phil Olley) sounds to me like a straight-talking self-help book for the 21st century, focusing on skills and mindset in equal measure. Definitely sounds like a good one for me to have on my Kindle in the new year as I do battle with IB paperwork, lesson planning and assessment frameworks over the next few terms…
Lost for words?

Friends and family certainly won’t be when you adopt a word for them this Christmas. Choose a special real or made-up word from “surprise” to “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” for a personal gift that’s suitable for all ages. Your chosen word can be ‘adopted’ online, helping you to avoid the high street, and you can even combine words to adopt a whole phrase. All words and phrases come with their adoption pack, which is sent by post or email, and you can even purchase merchandise with the word or phrase on it to go with your gift. What’s more, it’s an ethical choice too: all the money raised goes to I CAN, the children’s communication charity, making the gift a truly thoughtful and unforgettable choice.

La Hune in its new location
Venez visiter le salon littéraire!

If you’re in Paris for a romantic winter break, you may want to come and visit Louis Vuitton’s new literary salon and gallery in the city, which has the theme « Writing is a Journey ». The temporary exhibition will be on display until December 31st, with art on the walls, books for sale, and literary conversations timetabled. The space, which was previously occupied by bookstore La Hune (which has moved to a corner a few streets away), is set to become part of an extended Louis Vuitton boutique in 2013. I can’t wait – and will let you know when I’ve been able to pop in for a peek.