Wednesday, 29 December 2010

"The Burning Wire," by Jeffery Deaver

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I've just realised that it has been quite a long time since I wrote one of these. I apologise for being a rubbish blogger.

That doesn't mean that I haven't been reading - I've mentioned some on Twitter (the Gyles Brandreth Oscar Wilde mysteries). I broke my rule and didn't write on a couple of books, because I enjoyed them so much that I wanted to give them as Christmas presents to friends, and I didn't want to risk giving much away ("The Twisted Heart," by Rebecca Gowers and "Shades of Grey," by Jasper Fforde).

So I have come back to blogging with "The Burning Wire," a Lincoln Rhyme mystery by Jeffery Deaver. I have enjoyed his previous Lincoln Rhyme books, although I still think that "The Bone Collector" is the strongest (which stuck with me to the extent that it made me unwilling to go in a cab in New York). I also went to a talk and book signing by him a few years ago with a friend, let's call her Emma, who is also a fan. He came across as a thoroughly nice bloke with a healthy sense of humour (for someone who writes about gruesome murders), who worried about leaving his dogs when away from home.

In "The Burning Wire," Rhyme tries to balance two cases; a long distance case involving an old adversary, the Watchmaker, and a new case in New York involving a "perp" who uses electricity as a murder weapon. The forensic detail of Jeffery Deaver's novels is phenomenal, but never to the extent that it slows down the pace of the narrative, or detracts from the characterisation. This was a strong entry to the Lincoln Rhyme canon with effective twists. which engaged me and kept me wanting to read on.

There were two things that this book made me think about:
1. (mild spoiler) In the middle of the book, Lincoln has an attack of dysreflexia (related to his paralysis, which can put him at risk of suffering a stroke or could be fatal). He recovers. But this made me think about how much more interesting and brave the book would have been if he hadn't. It would take a lot of bravery and nerve for a writer to kill off his main detective mid-book, and perhaps the case could then have been closed by Amelia Sachs. It would be a shock to the reader - although I can imagine that reviewers might give it away. I'd also be impressed in the same way if Doctor Who managed to pull off a completely surprise regeneration, without any press awareness of the event (it would be a very brave thing to do although, in the current media climate, pretty much impossible).
2. Jeffery Deaver must do a hell of a lot of research about forensic science, and must now be very knowledgeable about this in his own right. Maybe he should do an Arthur Conan Doyle and turn to crime solving himself?!

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

The BBC figures most people will have read about 6 of the 100 books here.

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I just found this in a friend's Facebook notes, and thought that I would see how many I have read.

You are meant to put an X by ones you have read. In true book geek fashion, I have annotated the list with a few comments.

My score is quite high, but this might be due to enforced reading at 6th form and university. A few of these I would never have finished if I didn't have to (Thomas Hardy - sorry Alicia)

I'd be interested to know other people's count in the comment section - or if anyone thinks there is a book on the list that I haven't read, which I really should get around to.

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen

2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien (started it a couple of times in school summer holidays, never finished it)

3 Jane Eyre -Charlotte Bronte X

4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling X

5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee X

6 The Bible X

7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte (started it, never got past the dull opening)

8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell X

9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman X

10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens

11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott (bleurgh)

12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy X (not voluntarily - for A levels, and I loathed it)

13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller X

14 Complete Works of Shakespeare (bits of it)

15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier X

16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien (started it, got annoyed by his writing style)

17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks

18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger X (I think that I might have been too old when I read it, as I found Holden profoundly annoying and was ready to slap him if he used the word phoney one more time)

19 The Time Traveller’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger X (too sad)

20 Middlemarch - George Eliot

21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell

22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald X

23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens X

24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy

25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams X (yay!)

26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh

27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky

28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck

29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll (I think I read it when I was a child, but I'm not positive. I did have it on audiobook being read, I think, by the brilliant Willie Rushton)

30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame X

31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy

32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens

33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis X

34 Emma - Jane Austen (on my bookshelves to read)

35 Persuasion - Jane Austen

36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis X

37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini

38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Berniere

39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden

40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne

41 Animal Farm - George Orwell X

42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown X

43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving

45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins (it's been on my bookshelves for ages, but I haven't read it yet)

46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery

47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy

48 The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood X

49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding X

50 Atonement - Ian McEwan

51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel

52 Dune - Frank Herbert

53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons X (very funny)

54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen X (again not voluntary, but I have grown to like it)

55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth

56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon (on bookshelves)

57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens

58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley X

59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon

60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck X

62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov X

63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt X (I love this book and have read it a few times - can I count each time I read it?!)

64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold (listened to audiobook, but if films don't count, this probably doesn't either)

65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas

66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac X

67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy X (hated it, and am still traumatised that I read it because it was on the university reading list, which they later changed to another Thomas Hardy so I needn't have put myself through the torture after all)

68 Bridget Jones’s Diary - Helen Fielding X (oddly, hated the book but enjoyed the film)

69 Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie (on bookshelves to read)

70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville (on bookshelves to read)

71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens

72 Dracula - Bram Stoker X

73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett

74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson (I think I might have read it years ago - I read some of his but they kind of blur into each other)

75 Ulysses - James Joyce X (loved Leopold Bloom, bored by Stephen Daedalus)

76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath X

77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome

78 Germinal - Emile Zola

79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray

80 Possession - AS Byatt (I have an admission - this was bought for me by friends when I broke my ankle when I was 17, and I still haven't read it. I'm sorry if that seems ungrateful. I promise I will)

81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens X (I try to read it every Christmas, and we watch the Muppet version on Christmas Eve)

82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell

83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker X

84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro X

85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert

86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry

87 Charlotte’s Web - EB White

88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom

89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (not all of it - I have favourite stories that I tend to go back to. I have been to the Sherlock Holmes Museum in Baker Street though, and I have a beautiful annotated copy of all the stories)

90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton

91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad X

92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery

93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks (I started it, but it is pretty tough and i think I might not have finished it)

94 Watership Down - Richard Adams

95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole X (hated it)

96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute

97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas

98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare X

99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl (I was a very sensitive child - a wimp - and this scared me when it was read to us at school. Evil chocolate is against all my beliefs)

100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo 

Read: I think 40. I hate numbers almost as much as I love words, so I might not have counted too rigorously.

Partially read: about 6

I think I might have read it when I was young, but I'm not positive: 2

Audiobook: 1

Read to us at school and scared me too much: 1

On my bookshelves to read: about 6

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Karl Pilkington Abroad: idiot savant, or just an idiot?

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Last week I ended up in a bit of a discussion with one of my husband's friends (hello Dave!) about Karl Pilkington, as I mentioned that I was reading (Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant send) "An Idiot Abroad." I am a bit of a Karl Pilkington fan, but I can't quite decide if he is playing a character, or if he is genuine in his reactions. I got the impression that Dave enjoys Karl Pilkington less than I do, because he suspects that it is only an act (I'm sure he will correct me if this is not the case, if he reads this). I'm not sure if Karl can be as dopey as he seems - I incline slightly more to thinking he is genuine, although if this is the case I am amazed that he is allowed out on his own - but I don't think that I mind if he is just playing a character. I just find him funny.

Maybe I should explain a bit about who Karl Pilkington is, just in case this is read by someone who has never heard of him. When Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant worked for the radio station Xfm, Karl Pilkington worked for the station as a producer. When Ricky and Stephen went on to launch a podcast, Karl became an integral part of the show with regular features such as "Monkey News" and extracts from his diary. While I sometimes feel that Ricky and Stephen's treatment of Karl borders on cruelty, for me he is the star of the podcast. His world view is at once warped and twisted, and yet oddly logical at times (few things scare me more than thinking Karl has a good point). He has innovative ideas, but fails to recognise when an idea is impossible and has no bearing on the reality of the world. His ideas pass straight by genius and go directly to barking mad. For Karl, the "Fortean Times" (which I occasionally buy, and read in the same way that you might enjoy a ghost story told by a roaring fire) is fact, and Ripley's Believe It Or Not is highly educational. He is capable of amazement at watching an ant eat a biscuit crumb.

In "An Idiot Abroad," Karl is the idiot who is sent abroad to visit seven wonders of the world. This was a TV series for Sky recently - which I haven't seen, as we don't have Sky - as well as the book. Karl dislikes travelling, and would rather go to Devon than go abroad. Stephen Merchant's reason for sending Karl abroad is an altruistic one; he believes that travel broadens the mind, and that Karl's life would be enriched by the experience. Ricky just thinks it would be funny, as Karl will probably hate the experience (and, to this end, he is booked into some of the world's worst hotels).

The experience does seem to be a traumatic one for Karl, as normally the biggest surprise he can handle is to wonder what flavour he will get in a bag of Revels. His twisted insights into the places he visits are very entertaining. In Brazil he is invited to stay with someone, but decides to leave when he finds a dead cockroach in the flat; he thinks it is a bad sign if cockroaches are meant to be able to survive beheading and nuclear war, but can't survive living in this flat (this is good example of what I mean by his occasionally persuasive logic). In India he sees a sacred cow being washed and blessed - and decides the cow looks embarrassed by the experience.

The main humour arises because Karl is supremely unimpressed by many of the wonders he visits. The statue of Christ the Redeemer in Brazil has a big chin like Jimmy Hill (someone points out to him that it is meant to be a beard). He is unimpressed by the Great Wall of China as it might be long, but so is the M6. He is more favourably inclined towards the Taj Mahal, but is skeptical of its origins as a mausoleum for emperor Shah Jahan's beloved wife. Karl thinks that he probably always wanted to build it but she wouldn't let him while she was alive, just as his uncle wasn't allowed to get a plasma telly while his wife was alive but bought one after she died. However, in Machu Picchu, he does actually find a wonder that impresses him.

I'm sorry that I have just given away a couple of things that made me laugh, but there were plenty other funny moments to enjoy in Karl's book. The humour arises as much from Karl's bewilderment at the minutiae of every day life and customs in other countries as it does from his reaction to the wonders. Karl is less amazed by the Great Wall of China than he is by the lack of doors on Chinese toilets.

In short, Karl would probably be a very annoying person to travel with - he'd spend the whole time complaining - but his book makes a very funny read.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

To sleep, perchance to dream...

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Ok, so maybe it is a rather predictable title for this post. But it was either this or "We are such stuff as dreams are made on" ("The Tempest" is one my favourite Shakespeare plays, which is why I almost picked the 2nd quote).

I am fascinated by dreams. I have Freud's "The Interpretation of Dreams" on my bookshelves as one of the many, many books that I have been meaning to read for ages. I have meant for a while to post something on dreams, and reading "The Manual of Detection" has taken me back to this subject.

I admit that I am one of those boring people who bangs on about their dreams, but I find it interesting to have that insight into how warped my mind actually is. Other people's dreams also fascinate me; I remember a friend at school relating to me an intricate, fantasy dream that took about 3 days of sporadic narration at break times to finish. Other people's dreams also help me to feel that I am not alone in being twisted and a bit mad.

I also admit to my dreams because they sometimes make me laugh, or just plain puzzle me. The best example of this is a dream I remember a few years ago, in which I was sitting, studying at a library desk when Barry Humphries came up to the desk and gave me a small, orange, jelly starfish sweet (no, not a chocolate starfish in case anyone is thinking that). Another more recent library dream had Stephen Fry searching for a book that would tell him how to make alcohol from prunes (and I thought that he already knew everything). I'm not sure what either of those mean, but I am proud that even my dreams take place in libraries.

I should say now that I don't believe in theories of dream symbolism in which dreams are predictive. I used to have dreams in which I saw bees quite frequently; this apparently means wealth, and that has never really come true.

I do believe in the more Freudian idea, however, that dreams are a way of processing events from your life and working through emotions. I have realised, for example, that when I feel swamped and don't feel like my life is under control, I have two recurring themes in my dreams. One is that I am going on holiday, or have an appointment, and I keep meeting problems that delay me - I usually wake up at the point where it becomes obvious that I am not going to make it. The other is overflowing water; most strikingly I remember a dream image of an overflowing toilet with goldfish swimming in it.

I am also aware of something odd, and I would love to know what this means. I have a clear memory of a dream when I was a teenager. It had a detailed narrative in which I was bait for a criminal - and both the criminal and the detective were David Suchet as Hercule Poirot. I remember having to climb an almost sheer wall of dry, shifting sand. But the most striking thing was that I end up in a vast garden, in three tiers, which is pure green hedges and grass - and by that I mean that there were no flowers at all; no colours but verdant green.

Has anyone any suggestions for what that might mean? I have noticed this again since - whenever I have a garden in one of my dreams, there are never any flowers. What on earth does that mean about me?

So this post is also your warning. If I have any odd or funny dreams, I might proceed to bore you with them. Sorry.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

"The Manual of Detection," by Jedediah Berry

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

This was a book that I had been intending to read for a while, and finally got around to. it wasn't what I was expecting - but in a good way. I had expected a conventional mystery, but got something a lot stranger.

The hero of Jedediah Berry's book is Charles Unwin. a seemingly unremarkable man who lives in a city somewhat like New York. He is a steady creature of habit, who deviates from his normal routine of cycling to work when he becomes obsessed with a woman who he sees waiting at Central Station. Then his work as a clerk at a shadowy detective agency is disrupted when the detective he is assigned to, Sivart, disappears and he is promoted to his place.

The book is a strange hybrid which somehow works. One of the reviews quoted in the book's promotional blurb compares it to Kafka, another compares it to a Sam Spade novel. I can see the point of both these comparisons, but I would also say that it has a sizeable splash of magic realism.

I think that I would recommend this book to anyone who saw and liked "Inception," as Jedediah Berry's book (which pre-dates "Inception") similarly plays with ideas of dream and reality. Jedediah Berry knows that dreams do not follow the same logic as waking life, which seems obvious, but he embellishes this theme with the realisation that "the world goes to shambles in the murky corners of night, and we trust a little bell to set it right again." But what if that trust is in vain...

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

"The Vesuvius Club" by Mark Gatiss

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

People who know me will realise that I tend to be quite rant-y and opinionated about writers, actors, plays etc that I like or dislike. And those same people will find it odd that I read a book by Mark Gatiss. I don't really get "The League of Gentlemen," and he was part of a couple of the weaker Doctor Whos of the reincarnated series ("The Idiot's Lantern" as writer, and "The Lazarus Experiment" as actor). So I came to this book as someone who is not a Mark Gatiss fan.

However, though I am often vocal and opinionated, I do think that I admit when I am wrong. When my husband disagrees with me on this, I cite the example that I didn't much rate the choice of Daniel Craig as Bond - but admitted I was wrong when I saw him in "Casino Royale." In the same vein, I am willing to admit that I did enjoy the effectively creepy and gothic ghost story series on the BBC written by Mark Gatiss ("Crooked House"). I was drawn to "The Vesuvius Club" because it sounded interesting and because Stephen Fry, who is never wrong, apparently liked it (book jacket quote, "the most delicious, depraved, inventive, macabre and hilarious literary debut I can think of").

So have I been wrong to be critical of Mark Gatiss, or - God forbid, as this would undermine my whole vision of life, the universe and everything - is Stephen Fry wrong?

Well, I didn't hate it. But I didn't love it either.

Gatiss' hero is Lucifer Box, an Edwardian painter and secret-agent, who lives in 9 Downing Street. He is Bond to the M of Joshua Reynolds (a real life figure, playfully fictionalised). There are some elements to enjoy in the novel. Gatiss has fun with naming characters (Bella Pok, Midsomer Knight), and his joyfully anachronistic use of modern spy cliches seems sometimes to owe more to "Get Smart" than it does James Bond. But, ultimately, it was all somewhat unsatisfying. I'm not convinced that it is as good as it thinks it is, or as good as Stephen Fry thinks it is.

I have just realised that this might be the first slightly negative review I have written. I feel a little dirty, and slightly uncomfortable - I'm worried that Mark Gatiss might find it and feel a little hurt, and I'd hate to hurt anyone's feelings. Maybe I'm not cut out to be a critic - or maybe I'll be the world's nicest critic (that's my gimmick).

But the Stephen Fry book jacket quote has made me start thinking of great, funny literary debuts....Jasper Fforde's "The Eyre Affair," of course Douglas Adams'"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," Donna Tartt's "The Secret History" (maybe not that funny, but kind of fits the macabre billing)....

Any other suggestions that anyone wants to run with in the comments section...?

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The Booker Shortlist 2010

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I'm very happy, as I have just found out that Howard Jacobson's "The Finkler Question" is shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize.

I discovered Howard Jacobson quite a few years ago ("Peeping Tom," set in Cornwall, was my first), and he has been one of my favourite authors ever since. He has been longlisted twice, but I think that this is his first time on the shortlist. The Waterstone's web page announcing the shortlist comments that "The Finkler Question" has been hailed as a "real return to form by the critics." I wasn't aware that any of his recent books had been off form.

I do have a slightly fractious relationship with the Booker Prize. It has always seemed curious to me that the Booker has faced criticism for ignoring female writers, and then seemed to enshrine this criticism by renaming itself the Man Booker. I have to admit to naively and stupidly not realising at first that this renaming was due to corporate sponsorship. Now that I know that the Man prefix is due to sponsorship, I can't help feeling that the company name is a little too painfully apt given the criticism of male bias. Even though the last winner was a woman - Hilary Mantel for "Wolf Hall" - the accusation of a preference for male writers seems hard to shake.

Which leads me on to the issue that I have with the Orange Prize for Fiction. Just as the Man prefix seems to hint again at a preference for male writers, I have an issue with a prize that is just for female writers. My response - maybe more instinctive that intellectual - is to feel that a prize just for women seems to support the idea that a female writer would not win a prize when judged against male writers. It feels a little like "Here, have this to keep you happy since you aren't likely to win the MAN Booker."

I didn't intend this to turn into a rant about prizes for fiction - it started off purely as a blog to say how happy I am that Howard has got in there. I have decided, by the way, from now on I'm going to drop the Man as protest and as laziness. Contrary to the impression that this blog might have given, I find the Booker fascinating, and I'm in favour of anything that helps support the book industry. I even thought that if I ended up as an academic, I would have liked to try and run a course on the Booker Prize - it would have been interesting to pick a year and form our own jury (particularly for the year when there was a draw between Michael Ondaatje's "The English Patient" and Barry Unsworth's "Sacred Hunger").

I believe the announcement of the winner will be on 12th October, and I will be interested to find out who wins. I'm sure the 2010 Booker will feature in my blog again over the next few weeks - I might even try to read them all in time to make my own decision (though this is our busiest time at work, so that probably won't happen).

Saturday, 4 September 2010

I am currently reading....and have been for quite a long time

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I don't know if anyone who checks my blog reads the gadget that lists the books I am reading. Come to that, I'm actually not sure if anyone checks my blog. Anyway, I have to admit to the fact that a couple of books listed are ones that I have been currently reading for quite a long time.

I feel a bit ashamed to admit this - especially since one of my long-term reading commitments was a present from a friend ("The Library of Shadows"). It feels a bit ungrateful somehow to have not yet finished it. I was reading it before we went to New York (blimey, that was April). I didn't take it to New York because I wanted to read something set in New York, and I never really returned to it. I was actually fairly near the end and was enjoying it (contrary to appearances), but it is now so long ago that I feel maybe I should re-start it. Can I still technically be said to be currently reading it, if this was nearly 5 months ago?

Another book I started but have not read much of is "The End of Mr Y." This is because I have 2 types of books - intelligent books, and breakfast books. The intelligent books - like "The End of Mr Y" - I get through a lot more slowly. This is because you need to devote all your attention to them, and I rarely seem to get time to do this.

In comparison, a breakfast book is - unsurprisingly - a book I can read while having breakfast. I like reading in the morning when having breakfast, but I can't cope with anything too intellectually stretching too early in the day. So a breakfast book is fun and undemanding - something I can also read with a little less attention when something else is on in the background (like when Mark is watching a football match in which they seem to be faffing around a lot and not actually kicking the ball into the net thing at the end of the field much).

My breakfast books fly past on the blog, but the intelligent books stay there longer because I read them less frequently and they take more time to absorb.

So that is the key to the books I am currently reading: if a book is on there for a long time, then it is more intelligent and takes time to digest. If it is only on there fleetingly, then it probably took less time to digest than my breakfast.

Monday, 30 August 2010

A.J. Jacobs: Man with a mission

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

If you regularly browse the shelves at any major book store, you can often spot new trends and emerging sub-genres. Some are completely inexplicable to me; I find it hard to understand the appeal of the autobiographies of misery typified by Dave Pelzer. Another more pleasurable sub-genre is the area of quirky male memoir. Its best known exponents are probably Danny Wallace and Dave Gorman: they are the men who undertake strange, wacky social experiments, and then write about them. They are the stars of their own books, and there is normally a co-starring role for a girlfriend with a varying level of tolerance. A.J. Jacobs belongs to this genre (although for girlfriend, read wife).

I discovered A.J. Jacobs by chance in our local library. I spotted one of his books, "The Year of Living Biblically," and was intrigued by the title. This is his project: to spend a year living by the rules set out in the Bible; part of the year will be dedicated to the Old Testament, the remainder of the year to the New. As A.J. Jacobs comes from a Jewish family (although not strictly observant, he remembers their family home having, "that paradoxical classic of assimilation: a Star of David on top of our Christmas tree"), he is more familiar with Old Testament teachings when he begins his project.

I find this a bit difficult to write about for a couple of reasons. Firstly A.J. Jacobs admits to the habit of googling himself, and I feel a little bit awkward about writing this in case he should discover it. I enjoyed his books, and I'm not about to write anything horrible - just wanted to reassure him now, in case he has found this - but it does make me feel more than a little self-conscious. I also find this difficult to write about because I am not a religious person, but I have friends who are and who might read this. A.J. Jacobs himself starts the project as an agnostic, and I can associate with the viewpoint he expresses, "if there is a God, why would He allow war, disease and my fourth-grade teacher Ms Barker who forced us to have a sugar-free bake sale?" Although I have never met Ms Barker, I can understand the sentiment.

A couple of his more religious relatives are concerned by his project; he is naturally drawn to the bizarre, and they worry that he will focus more on the more eccentric dictates of the Bible. In the course of his book he calls out a shatnez tester (who will test his clothes to make sure that he is not wearing any items made from mixed fibres), he undertakes to blow a ritual horn (a shofar) at the start of every month, takes an egg from under a pigeon, and tries to avoid eating fruit from a tree that is less than 5 years old. He also tries to avoid sitting on a seat that has been occupied by a menstruating woman - a regulation that his wife objects to by sitting on every seat in the house before he returns from work (I mentally cheered this inventive protest).

However, he also finds that his quest to follow the Bible makes him a better person. He is more circumspect in his words, trying to eschew gossip; he tries not to covet, and he tries titheing to give money to charity. He assembles a corale of religious figures to whom he turns for advice and guidance: for every fundamentalist he meets, he meets several wise people who provide him with insights into life and morality. He visits Jerusalem, finds much to admire in the reticence of the Amish, goes to an unfinished creationist museum and attends a meeting at Jerry Falwell's church. At the end of his project he hasn't found religion, but he has found that, "whether or not there is a God, there is such a thing as sacredness."

I enjoyed this book so much, that I treated myself to a couple of his other books to read on a week off work - "The Know-It-All" (which was written first) and "My Experimental Life" (the most recent book of the three). In "The Know-It-All," he is disturbed to realise that his adolescent intellectual prowess has been squandered. He knows about pop culture and the peccadillos of the stars, and little about anything else - and so he begins a project to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica. His book follows the alphabetical structure of the source; taking the form of events from his life - such as his experiences of joining Mensa and entering "Who Wants to be a Millionnaire" - and musings on his reading.

I haven't quite finished it yet, but my favourite facts so far are:

  • The philosopher Rene Descartes had a thing for cross-eyed women.

  • The explorer Shackleton took the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica to Antarctica. They had to use it for kindling.

  • In the 9th century the Pope Formosus was put on trial after his death for his policies - his body was exhumed and propped up for the course of the trial. He lost.

  • The Greek prostitute Phryne was tried for blasphemy, but was acquitted after flashing her breasts at the jury.

  • So far I have enjoyed "The Know-It-All" most of his books, but that could be because I am a geek - I even half fancy reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica myself. As his books are quite autobiographical though, don't do what I did and read them in the wrong order - it ruins any tension just a tad.....

    Friday, 30 July 2010

    Book review: "The Corfu Trilogy," by Gerald Durrell

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    I really feel like I need a holiday, and it's all Gerald Durrell's fault. A couple of years ago I read "My Family and Other Animals," and I've been meaning to read the next two in the trilogy ever since. I finally got around to borrowing "Birds, Beasts and Relatives" and "Garden of the Gods" from the library.

    "Birds, Beasts and Relatives," begins at a Durrell family gathering. "My Family and Other Animals" has already been published, and they are reminiscing about their time in Corfu. They come to the conclusion that Gerry had left out some of the funniest anecdotes - and they are horrified to find that he agrees with them, and was planning to write a further book. They all fear that the incidents of which they are most ashamed will be outed - and they are.

    We therefore find ourselves once again immersed in the world of animal-obsessed Gerry, gun-mad Leslie, acne and puppy-fat prone Margo with a tendency towards hysterics and malapropisms, artistic Larry and their slightly absent-minded mother. To the established cast of local characters like the ubiquitous Spiro (in my head, always played by Brian Blessed) and fount of all knowledge, Theodore, Gerald Durrell adds an assortment of motley characters. Highlights are Margo's association with the marvellously named spiritualist Mrs Haddock, whospeaksratherlikethis...Whaaaha, and Mrs Durrell's unwanted, lecherous suitor, Captain Creech.

    I think my childhood was happy enough, but I still find myself envious of his. I would return from a day at work and wish that I could have spent my day in the idyllic countryside of Corfu observing the wildlife. I am not sure that I would swap my childhood memories for his, but I would certainly swap a day at work for a day of exploring Corfu. I don't share his insect interests (I'm a bit put off to realise that Corfu has tarantulas and, yes, I watch "QI" so I am well aware that a spider is not actually an insect), but I would certainly envy him a day on the Bootle Bumtrinket - his temperamental boat, built by his brother - observing sea life with his dogs, Roger, Widdle and Puke.

    As a caveat, however, there is an acquisitional element to his childhood exploits - taking birds eggs, removing baby animals from their mother - that I feel slightly uncomfortable with in this age of environmental ethics. I am aware though that I do him a disservice by judging his actions against today's standards. This discomfort with Gerry removing animals from their natural habitat is tempered by an awareness that I am judging a child by adult values, as well as my knowledge that he became a great and influential conservationist.

    Gerald Durrell is a very natural writer - in all senses of the word - and, as you would expect, his descriptions of wildlife are particularly vivid. His observations of animal (and human) behaviour are rendered in beautiful, intricate detail. His Corfu is a paradise of abundance, fertile olive groves and seas rich with exotic life - and he is possibly their best tourist ambassador. As long as you aren't scared of insects.

    Friday, 16 July 2010

    On giving up

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    It used to be that I would never give up on a book that I have started. Once I began to read something I felt duty bound to finish it, even if I wasn't enjoying it.

    That isn't the case so much any more. Now that I am a bit older and have so many books and so little time, I have decided that I won't force my way through a book if I am not enjoying it. It isn't worth it. I do sometimes make exceptions for something that is 'worthy;'a book that is considered to be a classic, or a book that is highly regarded and intelligent.

    There are, however, remnants of my own pride and stubbornness which mean that giving up on a book is something that I don't do lightly. But, I confess, I am considering giving up on "The Strain."

    I don't mean to imply that "The Strain" is a bad book. It is an interesting take on the idea of the vampire, which is intelligently written by Guillermo Del Toro and Hulk Hogan (sorry, Chuck Hogan). The opening of the novel is particularly tense, and they effectively create an atmosphere of suspense and foreboding. But I am considering giving up on it because it is simply too damn scary for a wimp like me.

    I'm not good at horror, and I am especially bad at body horror - and this is quite body horror-y. I am a hypochondriac who is scared by her body's own potential for betrayal: for its potential to act against the dictates of my will, from the big stuff like cancer or heart attack, to the small stuff like not being able to resist the need to fart when in a public place. As someone who imagined she had bubonic plague after learning about it at school and who still can't watch the whole of the "Ice" episode of "The X-Files," "The Strain" is a bit too virus-y/parasite-y for my liking.

    "The Strain" is the first book in a trilogy. Is it a good book? It probably is - if it was a bad book, I wouldn't be so freaked out by it. If a book in the horror genre scares you, then surely that makes it a success. Will I finish reading it? I'm not sure yet. Will I read the next two books? Probably not.

    Sunday, 4 July 2010

    Book review: "Horns," by Joe Hill

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    "Ignatius Martin Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things. He woke the next morning with a headache, put his hands to his temples, and felt something unfamiliar, a pair of knobby pointed protuberances. He was so ill - wet-eyed and weak - he didn't think anything of it at first, was too hungover for thinking or worry.
    But when he was swaying above the toilet, he glanced at himself in the mirror over the sink and saw he had grown horns while he slept. He lurched in surprise, and for the second time in twelve hours he pissed on his feet."

    Joe Hill's book, "Horns," invokes sympathy for the devil. In his recent past Ig Perrish was a happy young man, with a beautiful girlfriend whom he met at a local church. He was due to go to London to start his dream job. Then his girlfriend dies tragically and violently the night before he is due to go away, and Ig is the main suspect. The case against him collapses, but so has his happiness, and Ig is left with a joyless and directionless life.

    Then Ig wakes with the titular horns and he discovers a new talent: people start to confess their deepest, darkest desires to him. The emphasis here is on the darkness; these are things that you don't even like to admit to yourself. He also finds that he can influence people to act upon these desires. Ig is disturbed to discover what his family, friends and acquaintances think of him and, even more significantly, he discovers what really happened on the night his girlfriend was killed. He then starts to direct his new talents towards revenge.

    Joe Hill is Stephen King's son, and there are similarities in their writing. If you enjoy Stephen King, you will probably enjoy Joe Hill as well. They share a robust and direct writing style; their prose is functional rather than flowery. However, I have been about 100 pages into a Stephen King book before now - 100 very enjoyable pages - before realising that actually nothing much has happened. This is not Joe Hill's style; he is more a mastery of brevity and, as the opening extract demonstrates, he jumps straight into the story.

    Joe Hill, like his father, is aware of the darkness within the heart of man. His characters are deeply flawed and often quite unsympathetic. In "Horns," as in "Heart-shaped Box" (his first novel), I found the female characters more likeable than the male. However, this comes with a huge caveat; his female characters, though more sympathetic, are often victims of abuse and/or their own self-hatred.

    I'm becoming aware that I am not exactly selling this book, and I'm probably making it sound heavier than it is. Yes, there is a streak of morality in Joe Hill's writing, but there is also a pleasing ambiguity between good and bad, human and demon. He has a nice line in black humour that lurks in the dark shadows of his writing. Particularly in "Heart-shaped Box," which I probably enjoyed even more than "Horns," Joe Hill's imagery provides some startlingly vivid, creepy, details, and his characters are memorable and well-defined.

    I also noticed on IMBD that a film of "Heart-shaped Box" is in development. If the film gets made - and I hope it does - I would be interested to see who is cast, and how Hollywood treats Joe Hill's novel.

    I read "Heart-shaped Box" because I was intrigued to read a book by Stephen King's son. Now I read his books because they are by Joe Hill.

    By the way, Alicia and anyone else who is scared of snakes. "Horns" is probably one you should avoid.

    Book review: "Outside of a Dog," by Rick Gekoski

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    In the past year or so, I discovered a new book geek pleasure. A friend of mine, let's call her Brenda, gave me a great Christmas present - a book journal (even more meaningful, as I know she used to despair of me wanting books for a present instead of something glamorous and girly). My new pleasure then was to scour the magazine brought out by Waterstones (a large bookselling chain in the UK), and make a note of all the books that sound interesting. "Outside of a Dog," was one of the books that I saw in a Waterstones magazine.

    Rick Gekoski's book is a memoir of a life in books (as a lecturer, and then as a rare book dealer). This memoir takes Rick from his early years as a highly sexed adolescent, placing a different spin on Carlyle's dictum that "the best effect of any books is that it excites the reader to self activity," to finding his voice as a writer in later years. Along the way he meets luminaries such as Germaine Greer (a colleague when he was a lecturer), Graham Greene and the widow of Kim Philby. In addition to reading about writers and books, you also find out a great deal about Rick and his family.

    This book essentially does what every good book about books should do - makes you want to read more of them. His chapter on T.S. Eliot made me want to reread "The Wasteland," which I initially didn't like as a student but have now come to admire. His chapter of Yeats, however, has done nothing to ameliorate the dislike that I felt for his poetry. As an admirer of Germaine Greer (the most interesting people are passionate, committed and a little bit mad), I found the chapter on her particularly interesting as it places "The Female Eunuch" within the context of its time.

    I especially found that I could relate to his discomfort with the rise of literary theory. My inability to process literary theory, and my dislike of some of its tenets, was one reason why I decided that I was not suited to a career in academia. In modern academic life it seems impossible to lecture and not have to teach theory. Theory made my head ache; it seemed to take pleasure in asserting its intellectual superiority by being contrived and - to my limited brainpower - completely impenetrable. It was language as obfuscation, not explanation. In my attitude to literary theory - as in most things - I was terminally unfashionable. Most of all I hated Roland Barthes' idea of the death of the author: that authorial intent is irrelevant, and what matters above all else is the reader's interpretation. This, of course, is a gross simplification that proves my inability to grasp theory. I passionately took against this idea, because for me the intellect that created the work is as fascinating as the text itself. And Rick Gekoski is a very interesting author with whom to spend some time.

    There is one element of this book that fascinated me and has made me think again about my reading habits. And this is something that I have still not resolved, and am working through in this blog. Rick Gekoski, on leaving academia, rebelled against its tenets by embarking on a process of "becoming less intelligent." This involved taking out a standing order for 20 thrillers a month; disposable novels that were read at speed and almost instantly forgotten. This has increasingly become my style of reading. The majority of the novels that I have read recently have been to literature what Pot Noodle is to nutrition. I recently tweeted that I hoped my policy of complete declaration of my reading might shame me into reading something more intelligent.

    Although I have apparently internalised this snobbery which elevates some writing as literature and denigrates some as trash, a big part of me rebels against this. I used to be saddened by people at university who told me that they were unable to switch off their critical faculties, and just read something trashy for pleasure. Why should this be less valuable than "literature?" Do I think Dan Brown is a great author? Of course not. But do I find his books enjoyable on the basic level of a good story, which sweeps you along so that you want to find out what happens next? Yes, I do. Well, maybe not so much with "The Last Symbol." But, surely, that is what you should ask of a good thriller? A thriller that has "literary value," whatever this is, but fails to produce a compelling narrative, is surely a failure? From the earliest traditions of oral history, humanity is a storytelling species. Telling stories spans all cultures in a way that suggests it is an integral part of the development of our species, just as much as the opposable thumb. Granted oral history, myth and fairy tales are all meant to teach us something about our nature and development, but when did the ability to tell a good story become devalued?

    Rick Gekoski's resolution is to be "differently intelligent." I'm not sure yet whether this phrase will help to resolve my reading habits. In being differently intelligent, he sheds his contrived academic voice and finds the more natural voice that he uses for this memoir. It is an effective and engaging voice, and becoming differently intelligent allows him to reclaim the literature which became daunting to him while also reading a modicum of thrillers. For me, I always had the distinctly unacademic belief that the most important thing was whether I enjoyed something. And I enjoyed this book.

    Thursday, 1 July 2010

    Confessions of a bibliophile

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    I've already decided that, if and when (hopefully when), I win money on the lottery, I need a house with lots of rooms. One bedroom for my husband and I, a spare room for friends to visit, a couple of extra rooms in case we have kids, a library for me, and a cinema room for Mark. That's not even counting the rooms I have taken for granted, like a nice kitchen, bathroom, dining room etc. I also think we should probably have some space for a bit of gym equipment, or maybe a pool (because reading and watching films are both sedentary pastimes).

    But since the lottery isn't working out for me, I have to admit I have a dilemma. I have more space for books than I used to - but still not enough to house my books still at my parents' house. I admit I am quite a materialistic person. I can hardly deny it, having just admitted the desire for enough riches to have a mansion. And my main weakness is books. Even though I have shelves of books I intend to read, I still can't resist a visit to the library to seek out something new.

    So a couple of months ago, I decided that I would be more ruthless. When I have read a book which I don't think I will want to reread, I will get rid of it. This backfired when I took 2 books to a second hand bookshop. This was a good start, which I ruined by buying 3 books. Since I made the decision to ruthlessly purge my books, I have probably bought more books than previously because I saw books I wanted to read in second hand shops, or on offer in bookshops.

    One solution is my Sony ereader, which Mark got me. And I do love it, don't get me wrong. An ereader is an excellent solution to lack of space for a bibliophile, and I love the download sites for free out of copyright classics (my favourite is Feedbooks - which I will add an internet link to in the gadgets on this blog). I have cleared a bit of space by replacing some of my cheap classics with a downloaded version for the ereader. But, given a choice and unlimited space, you can't beat the feel and look of a traditional book.

    I have just realised today though that I have found a solution to the problem of having too little space for my books, as well as having too little time to read them - and it's a solution of which I think Mark and some of his friends will approve. I need a fully functioning TARDIS. Unlimited space and time travel, bargain. And it has a library with a pool in it.

    Sunday, 18 April 2010

    Our last day in New York

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    The next morning we went to Central Park Zoo, which we didn't have time to do the day before. It would have been nice to have looked for the Alice in Wonderland statue, but I didn't want to risk getting lost in Central Park again when we had to get back to make sure we got to the airport on time.

    We had breakfast in the zoo restaurant, and had a look around. Central Park Zoo is renowned for its conservation work, and is generally lauded for its innovative use of a small amount of space. The child in me enjoys seeing cute, furry animals in the zoo; my adult self has problems reconciling the ethics of conservation work with the restrictions of captivity. As far as Central Park Zoo goes, their use of a small amount of space may be innovative, but doesn't alter the fact that it is a small amount of space. The polar bear in particular looked heartbreakingly bored when we looked into its sad eyes through the glass of its enclosure. The child in me, though, was very happy to see lemurs - still my favourite animals - and the red panda (also very high on my list of favourite cute and furry animals).

    For reasons too dull to recount here, we had very little spending money for our last day in New York - we only just had enough for the zoo and breakfast. In the airport before we left, I didn't even have enough change in my purse for a packet of crisps. We still had a good day, but we had to have a picnic lunch in Herald Square Park because we didn't have enough money to have a proper lunch somewhere. I didn't mind too much, as Herald Square was one of the first places we saw when we arrived in New York. Herald Square, like many places we saw in New York, had trees covered in white blossom - now whenever I see white blossom I will be reminded of New York.

    I think we did quite a lot while we were there, and there were only a couple of things that I missed that I would have liked to have done. I never did see the Alice in Wonderland statue. But my main regret is that - as I did a PhD on homosexuality in 20th century American drama - I had wanted to go to Greenwich Village and see the Stonewall Inn where the Stonewall Riot started, and walk past the street where my guidebook told me Edward Albee once lived. Maybe that means that I have unfinished business and should go back sometime...

    New York day 3

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    After having a late night, we had a bit of a lie-in before taking the subway to the edge of Central Park. We had what might be the most unhealthy breakfast of our time in New York - an ice-cream from Coldstone, which had been recommended to us by a friend.

    I had a number of landmarks in Central Park which I wanted to see, and we started off by looking for Belvedere Castle. We had planned to do quite a lot on our Central Park day and, in retrospect, I think we planned too much. Though we weren't helped by my horrendous sense of direction - Central Park is not well mapped, and we got lost in the aptly named Ramble when looking for the Castle. When I look back on it now, I feel that getting lost in Central Park is an essential New York rite of passage. And on the plus side, we did end up going through the Shakespeare Garden, which we might otherwise have missed.

    Belvedere Castle is a 19th century folly that provides a good view over Central Park, and also doubles as a weather station. When local news reports give the temperature in Central Park, this will have come from the monitoring station in the castle. We also saw Bow Bridge, but unfortunately missed the Alice in Wonderland statue that I had also wanted to see.

    Mark and I both had things that we wanted to see in Central Park. Mark's was the John Lennon Memorial in Strawberry Fields. This seemed to be one of the main tourist spots of the park, with seemingly constant tours going past and people jostling to have their photo taken by the Imagine mosaic. My priority was to see the Bethesda Fountain of Tony Kushner "Angels in America" fame. I was especially conscious of the connection to "Angels in America" on our trip, as the Walter Kerr Theatre in which we saw "A Little Night Music" was the venue for the premier of Kushner's plays. I was a little disappointed to find that the fountain was dry, but it is still an impressive statue with a picturesque backdrop of one of Central Park's expanses of water.

    After some time in Central Park, we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for some lunch and culture. Our visit to the Museum was very short, and I wish we had spent more time there. I had mainly wanted to see Seurat's study for A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (another Sondheim connection), and I had also wanted to see Edward Seichen's photo of the Flatiron (maybe my favourite NY building). Our guide book said it was at that museum, but it turns out that it was not on display (and we were told by someone who works there that the collection it is from has not been displayed for a while).

    We were going to go down to the zoo, but we ran out of time. Instead we went to the Flatiron itself, and then went back to the hotel for a quick rest before going out again. At the time we were in New York, Antony Gormley's statues were on display and we saw one near the Flatiron.

    We went to the Empire State Building that evening. This was one of the more frustrating experiences of our time in New York. The queues were huge and slow moving, and by the time we got to the top it was completely dark. I tried to spot the Flatiron, but in complete darkness it is very hard to distinguish one New York landmark from another (with the notable exception of the distinctive apex of the Chrysler Building). In retrospect from my experience at the Rockefeller Centre, the best time to get views of New York is sunset - to see the transition from daylight, through dusk, to the electrical extravagance of the lights of New York at night. A friend who has been up the Empire State has also recommended early morning (apparently the queues are shorter at this time). Our hotel offered the chance to buy VIP style tickets for the Empire State Building that allow you to skip the queues, and I did wish that we had taken the express route.

    We then went for what turned out to be a longer walk than I expected to the Empire Diner, which I had heard about in my guide book. I looked to see if the Empire Diner had a website so that I could post a link to show you what it is like - and found that it was due to close (and probably has closed by now). Mark loves art deco style, so I thought he would like the diner (I was right). I had a milkshake as well as food there - I felt like when you are in an old-fashioned American diner, you really should have a milkshake. We recently watched Woody Allen's "Manhattan," and it was a thrill to see the outside of the Empire Diner in one of the early shots of the film. For me, that was probably the best bit of the film, and shows what an iconic New York landmark the Empire Diner was.

    We walked back to the hotel. I made the mistake of suggesting we walked around a different way to see a bit of New York we hadn't seen before. This was a bad idea. The new bit of New York that we saw was very industrial, run-down and a bit dodgy with lots of lorry bays - although it did mean we saw some old fashioned looking tenement buildings with metal fire escapes outside. I did also see the outside of the Chelsea Hotel, though - this was exciting for me, as a number of writers I admire have stayed there (Tennessee Williams, Dylan Thomas...).

    It was a strange and exciting feeling to end our last full day in New York, walking along a street that Tennessee Williams had walked.

    New York day 2

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    Mark had wanted to do a helicopter journey over New York, and on an impulse we booked to do this today (New York was having an unseasonable heatwave while we were there, which was due to break the next day).

    As this was an impulse, we had a hurried journey by subway to get to the South Ferry Pier. This was our first subway journey. I wasn't too worried about being on the subway - mainly because I was too busy worrying about going in a helicopter. I used to love flying when I was a child but, as I got older and became more aware of mortality, I became more nervous about flying. I was worried because I vaguely remembered a news story a year or two ago about a helicopter crashing into the Hudson. Mark reminded me that it wasn't a helicopter - apparently it was a small plane. I'm not sure that knowing that made me feel any better.

    There are quite a few helicopter companies that run trips from South Ferry - and on the approach to the pier, you are likely to be beseiged by a number of people trying to convince you to take a helicopter trip with their company.

    The helicopter trip lasted 20 minutes and was pretty expensive, but as an experience I felt it was worth the money. It was still a bit misty (smoggy?), but seeing New York from the air is a good way of appreciating the scale of the city. I believe that on the day we went they had instituted a new law that prevents helicopter trips from flying directly over Central Park. The trip we went on instead skirted around the park - I didn't feel that I enjoyed it any less due to this, although while waiting for the trip we were treated to an argument from someone who was due to take a helicopter trip and was unhappy that the trip would not be as advertised. Beware that they will also probably try to sell you a photo of yourself by the helicopter after landing as well, even though you have already paid over a reasonable sum of money for the trip itself.

    Because our helicopter trip was an impulse deal and we had taken off early, we hadn't had any breakfast. So we had our first New York bagel in a little shop near Wall Street. I had wanted to see Trinity Church at the end of Wall Street, as it looked very attractive in the New York guidebook that we had. We also saw the front of the New York Stock Exchange, although by now it was mid morning so we didn't see many Gordon Gekkos bustling around.

    From Wall Street we went to Ground Zero. When we were there Ground Zero was a building site, as I believe they are building a memorial. I'm not sure that it would be possible to visit New York and not go to Ground Zero - I feel like attention must be paid. I still feel that the destruction of the Twin Towers is our generation's death of JFK - everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when they first heard what had happened.

    After going through the Winter Garden shopping centre (a huge marble and glass extravaganza, with palm trees growing inside the main concourse), we walked through Battery Park (which appears to be New York's squirrel central). We walked around the waterfront of Battery Park, with a view of the Statue of Liberty. In accordance with my father's wishes - he is keen on family history - I checked the name plaques of the war memorials for our family name, but didn't see it there. We weren't in the phone book either.

    We then got the Staten Island Ferry to get better views of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. In retrospect the Staten Island Ferry is probably not the best way to get to see the Statue of Liberty - although it is the free way. There are boat trips which will take you to the Statue and Ellis Island - and these will probably take you closer than the Staten Island Ferry does. It is hard on the Staten Island Ferry to get the chance to take photos unless you get on quickly and try and make sure no-one is in front of you. I thought that I would stay on the ferry when we got to Staten Island so that I could get a better view - but they don't let you stay on the ferry at the other side (you have to get off and get back on again). On the plus side though, Mark made friends with a local commuter while I was trying to get some good photos.

    We went out for an early Italian before going back to the hotel to get ready for the theatre. I had been warned that people don't tend to dress up for the theatre on Broadway (apart from first nights), but I decided that I wanted to dress up. I wore my favourite red dress. This might be my only chance to go to the theatre on Broadway - and to a Sondheim - and I wanted to be glamorous.

    We were going to see "A Little Night Music" at the Walter Kerr Theatre (decor - enthusiastic about red plush seats and gilt, short on leg room - although I am also short on leg, so it didn't bother me too much). If I were to make a Nick Hornby-esque list of my favourite Sondheim shows, "A Little Night Music" would be around the middle of the list - although probably upper middle. It is a tale of romantic and bitter-sweetly comic intrigue, based on the Bergman film "Smiles of a Summer Night." It is probably one of Sondheim's most accessible shows, but I have to admit that I prefer him when he is more quirky or daring.

    I was also excited about seeing Angela Lansbury on stage. I grew up liking Angela Lansbury: when I was a child "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" was one of my favourite films to the extent that I always wanted to be called Miss Price in role-play games; and I enjoyed watching "Murder, She Wrote," despite being aware that she would probably run out of friends because they all seemed to end up as murderers or victims. My favourite Disney films strangely fed in to my adult interest in Sondheim musicals - just as Angela Lansbury is revered as an interpreter of Sondheim's work, one of my first crushes was Dean Jones in "That Darn Cat," who went on to star in "Company." I even have a Sondheim-y name (Amy is a character in "Company," and my middle name is also used in "A Little Night Music").

    I wasn't disappointed by Angela Lansbury's performance, even despite my high expectations. She played Mme Armfeldt with eccentric, crotchety charm. Her delivery was faultless - and her interpretation of "Liaisons" marks probably the only time that I have not been vaguely annoyed by the rhyming of liaisons with raisins.

    As well as Angela Lansbury, the star casting came in the form of Catherine Zeta Jones. I'm not a huge fan - I don't dislike her, but I didn't have the same anticipation about seeing her on stage. That said, she was very good. To play Desiree Armfeldt is to follow in illustrious footsteps - for example Glynis Johns, or Dame Judi Dench, both of whom have very distinctive singing styles. "Send in the Clowns" was, after all, written with Glynis Johns in mind once she had been cast - and was written with regard to her strengths and limitations as a singer. Catherine Zeta Jones is technically a better singer, and also effectively put across the emotion in the music. The male lead was Alexander Hanson. I hope it is not disparaging to say that he is not a big star name, but by no means does this imply that he is any less talented than Catherine Zeta Jones. I had actually seen him years ago in the only West End play I have ever seen (Ayckbourn's "How the Other Half Loves," which owes much to "Private Lives"). It was pleasantly nostalgic to see him again, like bumping into an old school friend with whom you had lost touch.

    We walked back through Times Square at night. Times Square is more spectacular at night, when the glitter and glare of the neon signs light up the sky. That said, I did finish the evening feeling that I am a bit too old and grumpy for Times Square at night. Imagine a frustrated day shopping in a city centre with people dawdling in front of you and stopping randomly in your way - times that by one hundred - and you have a rough idea of my impatience with Times Square at night. Although I think that is more an indictment of my of my old, antisocial irascibility than it is of the bustle of the place itself.

    I did get a kick out of seeing a guy in an Elmo costume mingling with the crowds outside Planet Hollywood....

    New York day 1

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    Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

    On our first full day in New York we got up early and went to the Rockefeller Center. I think that this might have been my favourite time in New York - when the city is less crowded, and your main street fellows are early rising businessmen and women with their Starbucks coffee cups for a caffeine hit.

    New York will seem familiar to anyone who watches lots of films. I got a bit overexcited that early morning and took a photo of a random intersection just because an iconic yellow cab was going past. The streets really do have iron grids which you can imagine Marilyn Monroe standing above in a billowing white dress (and which demand a whole new skill set when walking in heels). The subways unsettlingly call to mind shoot-outs with the bad guys hiding behind slightly discoloured, grimy pillars. Or horror films with nasty little creatures skittering in the dark (after watching "Cloverfield" I really wasn't sure about going to New York - it always seems to be attacked by big, scary monsters in the movies).

    Actually my subway horror movie of choice would be "Mimic." It is maybe not a cinematic masterpiece, but Jeremy Northam is damn fine.

    In keeping with the many businessmen and women, we started the day with a Starbucks breakfast(raspberry coffee cake in honour of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum and a dark cherry mocha which was pleasantly like drinking black forest gateaux). I'm still getting over the disappointment that Starbucks don't seem to do the dark cherry mocha in the UK.

    Our first sightseeing experience was going to the top of the Rockefeller Centre. I quite liked the Rock and I did think that it had better views of NY than the Empire State (and I did have it pointed out to me before going that you can't take a photo of the Empire State Building from the Empire State Building!). If you are a romantic, then the morning we went the city was shrouded in softening mist - if you are a realist, then the city was obscured by smog. The Rockefeller Centre has a great view of Central Park, which gives you an idea of the expanse of real estate given over to greenery (it is apparently the same size as Monaco). Sadly, the view of one of New York's most loved buildings - the Chrysler - is partially obscured by the less attractive Metlife building when viewed from the Top of the Rock.

    After exploring the Rockefeller Centre, we decided to go and pick up our theatre tickets (for "A Little Night Music") to make sure we could find the theatre - and they were also doing signings of the CD cast recording that day. To get there, we walked through Times Square. Times Square is a monument to consumerism and a nightmare of an electricity bill.

    When we got to the theater, there were already people queueing for the signing. My husband was very understanding in losing 3 hours of precious sightseeing time in a queue. I have been a huge fan of Stephen Sondheim since I was a teenager (which, sadly, is now quite a long time ago). So when a friend, Alan, told me that Sondheim was doing a signing while we were in New York, it felt like an opportunity that I could not miss. There was a pleasant, chatty, camaraderie in our bit of the queue. I know the side of the Walter Kerr theatre quite well now - it has a kind of waterfall down the side of the building, which might be unfortunate if you had missed your chance for a toilet break before joining the queue.

    I felt nervous. It wasn't exactly how I would have liked to have met Sondheim (I had a big spot on my cheek, I had spilt grape juice on my top - which luckily was purple, so it didn't show - and my comfortable boots had started to disintegrate). Rather than have to break in new boots while walking around New York, I had temporarily managed to fix my old ones by sewing them up and fixing it with glue. So I wasn't at my most socially poised (I'm never that socially poised anyway). They actually did the signing on the stage - so I can literally say with pride that I have been on stage on Broadway. And they had put down the red carpet treatment. I'm relieved to say that I didn't make an idiot of myself (which I worried about doing). The whole cast was there for the signing. I wished Sondheim a belated happy birthday, and he said thank you. I'm just glad that I said something to him that wasn't ridiculous, and that he said something back to me. I'd rather not say anything to someone I admire, than say something that might make them think that I am a fawning gimp. He won't remember me of course, but at least I didn't make an idiot of myself in front of someone that I admire a lot. Despite the glued shoes.

    From there we had a late lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe in Times Square (I'm not entirely sure that it's not criminal to go from meeting Sondheim to the Hard Rock Cafe - but I felt that we should also do some cheesey American things). I actually wasn't feeling too hungry, so I ordered a starter size of nachos (which turned out to be huge - the only time in America that we really experienced the fabled massive portions of food).

    We then spent the rest of the afternoon walking around various sights. We went to see the art deco grandeur of the Chrysler Building. This is my husband's favourite building, and I think he was suitably impressed by the rich golds and pinky-red marble of the lobby. We saw the extravagant concourse of Grand Central Station with its dance of bustling commuters, but didn't explore the passages below (only since returning have I heard of the acoustics of the whispering corners in the passages of the station). Helene Hanff describes Grand Central Station as being beloved by tourists for its grandeur, but hated by native New Yorkers for its complicated platforms. We also explored a very grand building that turned out to be New York's Public Library - a huge, overwhelming building.

    Our last stop of that day was back to the Rock. We had a drink in the bar downstairs, from which you can view the skaters on the ice rink outside. I found myself longing to see a show-off skater fall over - and then felt very chastened and guilty when he stopped to help a wobbly young child who didn't seem very confident on the ice.

    I would recommend the day and night ticket at the Rockefeller Centre, which allows you to go up twice in one day. We used our second time to get some night photos. We actually went up to the top while it was still light, and waited for the sun to set. I'm not a great photographer, but the photos that I took at sunset on this day were probably my favourite of the trip. It was a great way to end the day.

    More on Helene Hanff

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    Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

    I'm having a bit of an Helene Hanff obsession, and have googled her today to find out what else she has written that I have not yet read. I am quite excited to find that there is an omnibus in the stacks of our local library that contains a couple of books that I have not read yet (it also includes "Apple of my Eye," and I am hoping that this will be the revised edition).

    Today I also finished re-reading "Underfoot in Show Business." This, like Helene's book on New York, is a lively, entertaining read. When Helene first moved to New York, it was as an aspiring playwright with a promising future. However, in accordance with Flanagan's Law ("No matter what happens to you, it's unexpected) her playwriting career was a bit of a bust. However, she does find what seemed to be an enduring friendship with an also aspiring actress called Maxine, and edges her way into a writing career.

    In writing about "Apple of my Eye," I wrote that her easy, natural writing style was probably quite hard to cultivate. This book demonstrates how hard working she was as a writer, and how dedicated she was to getting it right (she undertakes to learn Greek and Latin in the belief that she would only be able to select the precisely right English word by understanding the Greek or Latin root of the word). That said, some of the most entertaining elements of the book come when she spectacularly gets it wrong (such as writing a television script about Rhodope for a television show - The Hallmark Hall of Fame - with a highly moral sponsor, only to find on the morning of transmission that the source of her inspiration had misrepresented Rhodope as an innocent slave girl when she had actually been an infamous prostitute).

    I think it is quite entertaining to note something that Helene herself pointed out.

    When she first moved to New York from Philadelphia, it was under the auspices of winning a fellowship from the Bureau on New Plays. They had offered $1500 to a couple of deserving new playwrights each year.

    The year Helene won, the Theatre Guild decided that it was not in the playwrights' best interests to award them money, but then leave them to go their own way in the hard world of show business. They decided that in addition to the money from the Bureau of New Plays, they would also offer some training - so the year Helene won a fellowship, they were also treated to seminars from eminent theatre professionals. They were also given the chance to sit in on the preparations for a selection of Theatre Guild productions.

    Of the twelve lucky hopefuls given this training (including Helene), a couple went on to become screen and television writers, but none of them became playwrights. The Theatre Guild productions they were privileged to have an insight into, all flopped.

    The year previously, the two hopefuls who were awarded the money but received no training, and were left to their own devices, were Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.

    Book review: Helene Hanff's "Apple of my Eye"

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    Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

    I discovered Helene Hanff quite a few years ago, when I was sent a copy of "84 Charing Cross Road" by a friend, Alan. My friendship with Alan is almost like our personal homage to Helene as - like her epistolary friendship with Frank Doel - we have corresponded for a number of years, but we have never met. I value my paperback copy of "84 Charing Cross Road," not because it is a first edition (it isn't), but because Alan has written in it, "Hoping our friendship lasts at least as long as theirs did." By my reckoning we are probably about 6 years off their record.

    It is very fitting, in the light of this, that the main comment on my New York reading list came from Alan. He pointed out that New York is a vibrant, constantly changing city and that all my choices are books that are quite old (the most recent being Underworld). They are therefore about a New York that no longer exists.

    This is a fair observation, and I could analyse the reasons for this. So I will.

    Firstly - the purely practical; my choice was based on raiding my bookshelves for New York books, and those were the ones that I had.

    Secondly - modern NY novels are to some extent shaped by the tragedy of the Twin Towers and, as a slightly nervous flier, this did not seem to be a good choice for airplane reading. It is right and proper to acknowledge the tragedy, which is probably the shooting of JFK for our generation (most people can remember what they were doing when they heard what had happened). We did see Ground Zero - currently a building site (this is the photo on this article, as seen from some seats where older men meet to play chess like they do in the movies).

    Lastly, I probably cling to a romantic idea of the old NY that does not exist any more - the good-hearted gangsters of Damon Runyon, museums that don't charge an entrance fee (but just ask for a donation). There is probably a cyclical element to this analysis. I only chose from the books that I have on my bookshelf, and they represent my attraction to a romanticised, old-fashioned New York.

    Which brings me to Helene Hanff - but in a good way. My airplane reading in the end was Helene Hanff's "Apple of my Eye" (not a big surprise - I think this was always going to be my top choice from the time I rediscovered it on my bookshelves).

    "Apple of my Eye," was written when Helene was commissioned to write copy for a book of New York photographs. She was initially enthusiastic to be hired to write about something that she loves so dearly. This excitement was tempered by the realisation that, as someone who lives in New York, she had never seen the tourist sites. She sets out to rectify this with a friend, Patsy Gibbs, who also realises that she has not visited the places that New Yorkers take for granted. Patsy and Helene are also both scared of heights - which is unfortunate when so many of the New York landmarks are so tall.

    This book was written in 1977 (and, I have just discovered, revised in 1988 - I have the earlier version). For obvious reasons, it should not be read as a guide book. However, it is a very entertaining read with a very easy, natural style (that probably takes a lot of work to cultivate). Helene Hanff is fascinated by history, and subjects Patsy to historical digressions that apparently bore her but fascinate the reader. There are mysteries along the way: why they are the only Americans on a bus tour of Harlem; an apparently disappearing plaque/tombstone in Trinity Church, and whether a bank in Wall Street ever replaced the stolen plaque that marked the position of the titular wall.

    The thing that most dates the book is probably its most poignant detail - at the time of writing, construction was just being completed on the World Trade Center. As Helene Hanff died in 1997, she thankfully did not live to see the tragedy that would befall her beloved New York. I like to think she would be reassured that the city has resolutely refused to be beaten into submission.

    Friday, 2 April 2010

    The dilemma of traveling

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    Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

    In a couple of days time we are going on holiday to New York, and we will have a flight for about 8 hours. This leaves me with the important dilemma that I always have when I travel anywhere - what shall I take with me to read?

    I like to read something set in the place I am going, so I have been raiding my bookshelves for books set in New York.

    So far I am coming up with:

    "Underworld" by Don Delillo. I have been meaning to read this for ages, and I have enjoyed the books that I have read by him. The one thing that puts me off is the practicality - it is a quite a thick and heavy book to carry when traveling.

    "New York Trilogy" by Paul Auster. I read this years ago, and enjoyed it. I'd quite like to read it again, and I do think of it as a quintessential New York book. This is one of my top choices.

    "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" by Betty Smith. I was given this by a friend years ago, as it is a book he loves. I still haven't read it, and I feel rather guilty that I still haven't read it.

    "Guys and Dolls and Other Stories" by Damon Runyon. Another of my top choices. This has a more period angle on New York, and I think is probably lighter reading (and carrying) than a couple of my other choices.

    "Breakfast at Tiffany's" by Truman Capote. I'm not sure about this one. I will read it at some point - but it doesn't appeal to me right now. This is probably one that I am less likely to take.

    Underfoot in Showbusiness" and "Apple of my Eye" by Helen Hanff. I was quite excited to find these on my bookshelves at my parent's house, as I had forgotten that I owned them. I will definitely take these. Helene Hanff - who is probably best known for "84 Charing Cross Road" - is a very engaging writer, and I will enjoy reading her take on the New York she knew so well. That's also another advantage of the book - it is about New York, not just set in New York.

    I know what will probably happen. I won't be able to decide, and I will probably take the Helene Hanff books, the Damon Runyon and the Paul Auster. They are not very thick (in fact the 4 of them together would probably not be as thick and heavy as just taking "Underworld").

    Incidentally, I am very excited - and this relates to my last blog post. I have just discovered that Stephen Sondheim and the cast of "A Little Night Music" are doing a signing of cast recordings while I am in New York. I think I might have to join the queue for this...