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.