Saturday, 23 April 2011

"Shutter Island," by Dennis Lehane

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A couple of months ago I watched the film "Shutter Island," and enjoyed it so much that I decided to read the original novel. I was intrigued by the twists of the plot, and wanted to read how it worked on the page. This, in itself, was an interesting experiment, as it is more normal for me to go from book to film (and, almost invariably, prefer the book). Am I more naturally inclined to prefer the book, or do I tend to prefer whichever I discovered first? I watched "Wonder Boys" before I read Michael Chabon's book, and this is a rare instance where I preferred the film.

I think that I am coming to the conclusion that I am not necessarily predisposed to prefer the book - it just seems that way because in most cases I have read the book first. I enjoyed the film of "Shutter Island" more because I came to it first: the plot was new to me; I didn't already have my own idea of the characters, my own image of how they look or how they sound. I could accept Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role, as he wasn't competing with the Teddy Daniels in my head. Maybe if I had read the book first, I would have accepted Leonardo DiCaprio less.

I don't want to comment on plot, as I don't want to give away the twists and turns of the story to anyone who hasn't already seen the film or read the book. But is it worth reading Shutter Island if you have already seen the film and know the twists of the plot? I think so. The time period of the story is a fascinating one, and novel itself is shot through with cold war hysteria and paranoia. The protagonist, Edward (Teddy) Daniels, is a marshal who takes on a case which sends him to a secure psychiatric institution for violent and disturbed patients. Ashecliffe Hospital is run more like a prison than an asylum. The action takes place not only against an oppressive time in society, but also against an uneasy, fraught paradigm change in the way mental illness is treated, as the invasive practice of lobotomy begins to give way to other pharmaceutical methods of treatment.

When I read the book, already knowing the plot, it gave me more opportunity to focus on other aspects of Dennis Lehane's writing, and there was an occasional lyricism of metaphor which grabbed my attention. In particular, an idea on only the first page of the novel appealed to me as a book lover: the book opens with an extract from the journal of a character, Dr Lester Sheehan, in which he writes "time is nothing to me but a series of bookmarks that I use to jump back and forth through the text of my life." This idea takes on greater poignancy as the now ageing Sheehan, who is looking back on the events of the main narrative, "feels as if someone has shaken the book and those yellowed slips of paper, torn matchbook covers and flattened coffee stirrers have fallen to the floor, and the dog-eared flaps have been pressed smooth." Putting aside the lamentable issue of his poor treatment of books (never, never, fold over the corner of a book), I particularly liked this piece of description.

I should also say that I tried reading a bit of "Shutter Island" to our new, nervous cat as I had heard that reading to them can help them get used to you. I deliberately didn't shock her by reading her the (non)sex scene, but the bit I did read turned out to be a bit sweary. I think she prefers Kate Atkinson.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

A visit to Greenway House (Agatha Christie's holiday home)

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When I was a teenager, I discovered an Agatha Christie on my Mum's bookshelves. I can't remember now which one I read first, but I enjoyed it and wanted to read more. I clearly remember my Dad going to a jumble sale one Saturday and coming back with a couple of cardboard boxes full of Agatha Christie books so that I could pick out the ones that I hadn't got. I now have all her books (except the ones written as Mary Westmacott), although I haven't read any for a while. When I was a teenager I wanted to write mysteries like she did.

A couple of years ago I heard that her holiday home, Greenway House, near Dartmouth, had been donated to the National Trust and was being opened to the public. As Mark and I both have this week off, it seemed like a good opportunity to finally visit Greenway - so we booked a parking space to visit on Tuesday morning (and if you do want to drive, you do need to book a parking slot in advance as parking is limited). Greenway is laudably being run on environmental principles, and they try to encourage tourists to reach Greenway by public transport (for example, there is a ferry from Dartmouth,or a vintage bus service from Torquay). The restrictions on driving to Greenway are also intended to minimise its impact on Galmpton, a small village through which you have to pass if you visit Greenway by car. In retrospect I think that travelling by public transport might be the preferable option, as the parking slots (we had 10.15 to 1.15) are tight to be able to explore the gardens as well as the house. Entry to the house is also governed in time slots to try to ease congestion - although you are timed in but not timed out, so you can spend as much time as you would like in the house once you have entered.

Greenway is not your average National Trust property. In the entrance hall you are given a very brief talk and told that, unlike many other National Trust properties, there are very few roped off areas. Although you are asked not to touch items, you can be given the opportunity to play her beloved piano, and in one room there are a couple of sofas that visitors can sit down on. The effect is more intimate than the average National Trust house; Greenway is endearingly cluttered with Agatha Christie's collections of china (not to my personal taste!), boxes and archaeological oddments. It's a fascinating insight into the things that she cared about, and each room has scrapbooks that you can leaf through containing photographs and quotations from her life.

Unsurprisingly, my favourite room was the library (and I don't think I was alone in this, as this was the room that seemed most congested). I love looking at other people's bookshelves, so the chance to look at Agatha Christie's book collection was irresistible. I was slightly taken aback to see Michael Palin's "Himalaya," but this collection has been supplemented by other family members who had lived in the house subsequently. Most interesting to me were the vintage detective books by other authors in her collection, as well as vintage copies of her own books. In particular I felt quite nostalgic when I saw a Julian Symons on her shelves - he was a crime writer who, like Agatha herself, I loved as a teenager but haven't gone back to as an adult. I really should try reading some of his books again. I even have a letter from him somewhere because, as a teenager, I wrote to him asking for advice on becoming a writer. The library also has an interesting frieze, painted in 1943 when the house was occupied by Flotilla 10 of the US Coastguard, which shows significant events from their experience of the war. When Christie bought the house it was suggested that it could be painted over, but she chose to keep it as an historical record of events.

Unfortunately, due to the restrictions on the parking time and because we wanted to get back home to pick up our new cat, we ran out of time to look at the grounds. Greenway overlooks the river Dart, and has beautiful views from the house and extensive grounds. We didn't get the chance to explore the tennis courts, walled gardens or ornamental ponds. I did make a point of going down to Ralegh's Boathouse, on which the murder scene in "Dead Man's Folly" was based. The walk down there, passing an enchanting bank of bluebells on the way, has some stunning views over the river.

Anyone who has read any of these blogs will not be surprised to hear that I came back with a new book - which they offered to brand with a Greenway ink stamp as a memento (nice touch). I hadn't heard of the book before; "Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks." These were documents, discovered in Greenway and edited by John Curran, which show an insight into her writing methods and the plotting of ideas. I look forward to re-reading some of her novels, and reading this book alongside them (as the literary equivalent of watching the DVD extras after the main feature). This book also contains a couple of unpublished stories that I look forward to discovering.

Monday, 18 April 2011

A new member of the family

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No, I'm not having a baby. I'm having a cat.

We have collected a cat from the Cats' Protection League, but at the moment she is upstairs and still nervously hiding in her cat carrier. All we can see at the moment is a black face, white chin and bright, scared eyes.

She has come with a name that we don't especially like, so we are trying to think of ideas. Mark had the idea that we should give her a literary name, and we spent part of yesterday trawling the internet for ideas.

An obvious choice would be a name from T.S.Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," but I would rather pick something less predictable.

Apparently there is a cat in "Bleak House" (I don't remember this) called Lady Jane. But that doesn't seem a very interesting cat name and from what I gather she wasn't a very nice cat.

I like Tennessee Williams, and I found a site that mentioned that he had a cat called Topaz. Although a site I found said that "country crooner" Tennessee Williams called his cat Topaz. So now I am not sure if there was a singer also called that, or if I just found the site of a mad person (I've just found that Hank Williams was called The Tennessee Plowboy, so maybe they confused the two). I knew that Tennessee Williams had dogs, but I didn't realise that he had a cat, so I think that this might be wrong. Topaz is out.

She has come very close to being called Agatha, as we picked her up this afternoon after going to Agatha Christie's holiday home, Greenway, this morning (quite likely a post to follow on this). She does look a bit like an Agatha. Mark had also thought about a P.G. Wodehouse name, and (Aunt) Agatha would have covered this as well.

I had a few suggestions from friends on Facebook. Dewey (as in the dewey decimal system and Dewey the library cat, which I haven't read), Magrat, Hoover, Heathcliff, McCawber, Bookworm, Kindle. Some of which seemed a bit too male for a girl cat - but thank you for all the suggestions.

I think I am going to stick to an old favourite - Pyewacket, from John Van Druten's play "Bell, Book and Candle" (a play I love and, now that I come to think about it, should probably have been on my 40 books list). The female protagonist in Van Druten's play is a witch, Gillian, and Pyewacket is her familiar who she uses to cast spells. I considered Pyewacket as a surname - Agatha Pyewacket - but that might be a bit too far.

So Pyewacket it is.

But if we have this trouble choosing a name for a cat, I dread to think what we will be like if we have kids...

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

My final list of forty books.

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Hmm, it is proving to be a lot trickier that I expected to chose my final 6.

Just to recap, the list so far is:

1. Tennessee Williams "A Streetcar Named Desire"

2. Edward Albee "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf"

3. Terry Johnson "Dead Funny"

4. Shakepeare "Twelfth Night"

5. Shakespeare again "The Tempest"

6. Yet again "Much Ado About Nothing"

7. The Everyman Library John Donne

8. Steven Pinker "How the Mind Works"

9. Sigmund Freud "The Interpretation of Dreams"

10. Sir James Frazer "The Golden Bough"

11. Germaine Greer "The Female Eunuch"

12. Giacomo Casanova "The Story of my Life"

13. Daphne Du Maurier "Rebecca"

14. Donna Tartt "The Secret History"

15. Elizabeth Kostova "The Historian"

16. Michael Ondaatje "The English Patient"

17. James Joyce "Ulysses"

18. Charlotte Bronte "Jane Eyre"

19. Howard Jacobson "Peeping Tom"

20. Howard Jacobson "Who's Sorry Now"

21. Charles Dickens "Bleak House"

22. Douglas Adams "The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul"

23. Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle "The Case-book of Sherlock Holmes"

24. Stephen Fry "The Liar"

25. Tim O'Brien "The Things they Carried"

26. Paul Auster "New York Trilogy"

27. Nicola Barker "Darkmans"

28. Cervantes "Don Quixote"

29. Herman Melville "Moby Dick"

30. A.S. Byatt "Possession"

31. Steve Toltz "The Fraction of the Whole"

32. Thomas Pynchon "Gravity's Rainbow"

33. Don DeLillo "Underworld"

34. Michael Chabon "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay"

And my final 6?

I decided that I need a couple more plays to reflect my love of theatre - and also a couple with a good part for a woman to give me some fantasy casting room. So my next couple of choices are:

35. John Osborne "Look Back in Anger"

36. Terrence McNally "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune" (a bit of an outsider, this one - if you had placed a bet on this making my list, you would have got pretty good odds).

And I need some more gothic fiction and melodrama, so:

37. Bram Stoker "Dracula"

And my final few:

38. Iain Pears "Stone's Fall" partly because my husband bought it for me. I have read and enjoyed another Iain Pears, and this is partly set in Venice so, like Casanova's memoir, can bring back honeymoon memories. Although I have just realised that saying Casanova's memoir reminds me of my honeymoon could totally be taken in a different way.

39. Because I couldn't decide between Sherlock Holmes short stories, I decided to pick a 2nd short story collection, "His Last Bow."

And my final book? I'm taking a risk on another unread outsider from my shelves, as a friend whose taste I trust thought that I would like it: Steven Hall "The Raw Shark Texts"

So my choices are made. I hope it might be interesting to other book fans, and it might help anyone reading my blog who doesn't know me to judge if I have similar tastes to them. I think I chose more modern fiction, and probably more American fiction, than Susan Hill. I think her list was all books she had read and loved - whereas mine takes more of a risk in its unread good intentions.

I am finding that, now I have chosen, I am starting to think that maybe I should have picked "Frankenstein" as one of my final 6; or maybe I should have gone with Michael Chabon's "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" from the fringes of my list; or maybe a newly discovered (by me) Graham Greene like "Our Man in Havana."

I know that this is an intellectual exercise, but there is no point in creating this list if you don't actually take it seriously that these are the only 40 books that you can ever read. Which is a frightening idea.

In fact I'm starting to come over a little bit panicky in case I have made some bad choices that someone - like my husband - might try to make me stick to. No more books - only the ones you already have. Excuse me. I'm going to lie down in a darkened room and hyperventilate for a bit....

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

My forty books. Part 4: fiction

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Firstly, a little bit of housekeeping. If anyone should discover this blog with this post about 40 books, you might be a bit confused. If you read the post on "Howards End is on the Landing," or "Starting to think about my forty books," then the idea behind this might make a bit more sense.

So far I have:
- 6 plays (I have decided that I enjoy "The Tempest" too much to ditch it, and for sentimental reasons I can't let go of "Twelfth Night")
- 1 poetry volume
- 5 non-fiction

That is 12 books so far. That leaves me with about 28 fiction choices to reach my 40.

I am going to start by discounting series of books from a purely practical standpoint. I'd rather have some variety than have, say, 7 of my choices taken up by the Harry Potter series. If it can't stand alone in its own right, then I am not going to chose it. That does leave me with a bit of dilemma over Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker books, Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series or Terry Pratchett.

I also have a dilemma over whether to chose fun books that I love, or worthy books so that someone reading this might think I am smarter than I am (if you don't know me; if you do know me then you will recognise if I am being fraudulent). I'm going to try to make an honest choice of the 40 books that I would be happy - well, not exactly happy - to subsist on for the rest of my life. You need a bit of fun to leaven out the intelligent stuff.

There is no particular significance to the numbering; they are just in the order that I thought of them / saw them on my shelves.

I'm going to break it down into a couple of categories - and I am going to start numbering them from here on. I'm far better with words than numbers, and I am starting to lose count.

Old favourites:

13 Daphne Du Maurier "Rebecca"
A really good story and Cornish too.

14 Donna Tartt "The Secret History"
I love this book. A friend gave it to me as a present - thanks Claire - and I have read it at least 4 times. I can't imagine reaching a point where I wouldn't want to reread it.

15 Elizabeth Kostova "The Historian"

Mark bought this for me and, as a fan of gothic horror with a penchant for vampires, I love this book.

16 Michael Ondaatje "The English Patient"

I haven't read this for a while, but I loved it when I first read it. Ondaatje's descriptive prose is extraordinarily vivid and imaginative, and I loved the characters of Caravaggio and Hana (more so than the titular patient). If I could wish a fictional character into existence, I would be hard pushed to chose between Caravaggio and Sherlock Holmes.

17 James Joyce "Ulysses,"

I can almost hear people thinking "What, really?" And "I thought you were going to choose honestly, and not out of intellectual pretentions?" However, I read and enjoyed "Ulysses" when doing teaching practice for my PhD. I'm not too keen on the sections with the pompous and prissy Stephen Daedalus, but I like the polymorphous Bloom and his wandering wife.

18 Charlotte Bronte "Jane Eyre,"

I've never taken to the other Brontes, but I like Charlotte a lot. I have read and enjoyed "Villette," "The Professor" and "Shirley," but "Jane Eyre" is always the one that I would want to return to the most. I'm not a Heathcliff kind of girl - never came to terms with Emily and "Wuthering Heights' - but I am quite partial to a bit of Rochester.

19 and 20 At least one Howard Jacobson - there is no better chronicler of male, middle-aged angst (not even Philip Roth). I think that I would have to pick "Peeping Tom," as this was my introduction to his writing and has a Cornish setting. Of his more recent books though, I am going to be controversial and pick "Who's Sorry Now?" and not his recent Booker winner (I think "Who's Sorry Now?" was longlisted). "Who's Sorry Now?" is a good example of what I love most about Howard Jacobson. He is very funny, but he can also take you by surprise with a moment of insight or tenderness. Sometimes to say that an author has done something that surprises you is a bad thing - it can mean that they have made their character do something inconsistent with what they have already told you about him or her - but with Howard Jacobson I always felt these moments are organic to the character.

21 I think I should have a Dickens. I read and enjoyed "Bleak House" when at university, so I think I will stick with that one.

22 Douglas Adams "The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul"
I refer you back to my comment about not choosing a series of books. I love Douglas Adams, but I don't think that you can isolate one of the Hitchhikers series and read it in the same way as you could a Dirk Gently. This might be heresy, but I think I even prefer Dirk Gently to Hitchhikers (although I might change my mind on this tomorrow) - and I would argue that it isn't so much a series as it is a couple of books with a recurring character.

23 I need a Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, but which one? I prefer the short stories to the novels, so I might pick the collection that has the majority of stories that I love. I've just trawled through my collection. It's a really hard choice. "The Adventures...' for "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" and "The Man with the Twisted Lip"? "The Memoirs..." for "The Musgrave Ritual" and "The Greek Interpreter"? I think that it might be "The Case-book of Sherlock Holmes" for "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire," "The Adventure of the Creeping Man" and "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane" (set in Cornwall). Although even now I am starting to doubt my choice because it doesn't have "The Adventure of the Dying Detective" or "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot" (both interesting insights into the friendship between Holmes and Watson) from "His Last Bow." I might have to rethink this one. But, even so, I can't do without a Sherlock Holmes, and I wish he did exist even more than I wish Caravaggio from "The English Patient" existed: the world needs a violin-playing, drug-taking, slightly sexually ambiguous genius detective in it.

24 Stephen Fry "The Liar"

His first book, and still the one I like best.

25 Tim O'Brien "The Things they Carried"

I try to recommend this book to people, but I don't think anyone has ever taken me up on it. A brilliant selection of postmodern short stories set in the Vietnam War, and worth it just for one of the stories, "How to Tell a True War Story." Tim O' Brien has written quite a few books that I enjoyed - he was in the Vietnam War, and most of his books touch on the war to varying degrees - but this is still, I think, his most effective and moving.

26 Paul Auster "New York Trilogy"
I remember enjoying this a few years ago. I have Casanova's memoirs to remind me of a holiday in Venice, and this can serve to evoke a holiday in New York last year.

Books I mean to read:
27 Nicola Barker "Darkmans"
I bought this a couple of years ago, but haven't had the chance to read it yet. It sounds interesting and odd. It was Booker shortlisted, but didn't win.

28 Cervantes "Don Quixote"
One that I feel I should read, but also which I think I will enjoy when I get around to it.

29 Herman Melville "Moby Dick"

30 A.S. Byatt "Possession"
This was bought for me by friends to read in hospital when I broke my ankle when I was 17. I'm ashamed to say that I haven't read it yet. I'm now 35. I have re-watched the film recently during my current Jeremy Northam obsession, so reading this has the added bonus that I can imagine him as Randolph Ash.

31 Steve Toltz "The Fraction of the Whole"
Another Booker shortlisted tome which I think I will enjoy, but haven't read yet.

32 Thomas Pynchon "Gravity's Rainbow"
I like "The Crying of Lot 49," and want to tackle this one.

33 Don DeLillo "Underworld"
I have read and enjoyed a few DeLillos - "White Noise" in particular I remember enjoying - and want to get around to this one. This has the added advantage of being another New York book.

34 Michael Chabon "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay"

Again, like De Lillo, I have read others by Michael Chabon but not yet read this one (which I believe won the Pulitzer and is one of his highest acclaimed). I also have "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" to read, which is hovering around the fringes of this list.

Now I have a problem, which isn't the one I expected to have when I started this list. I thought that I would hit 40 and be able to keep going, and have to condense the list. But actually now I have compiled all the books I feel strongly about, and have the difficult task - maybe even more difficult - of choosing a final 6 from the myriad books that I like a lot, but don't necessarily feel are indispensable. I think I need to think about this for a further day or 2 before I unveil my final 6, and I think I might also compile the entire list into one blog post. I may even change my mind about some...

My forty books. Part 3: non-fiction

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I've realised when I started writing this blog that I read more non-fiction than I had previously given myself credit for.

My experience of choosing my 40 books has reflected this. I started off thinking that I would only want a couple of non-fiction books, and I wasn't even going to give them their own post. I was going to dismiss them as a numerical exercise in my post on fiction (if I have these 2 non-fiction, I can have all these fiction books to reach my 40). However, my 2 non-fiction has now grown to 5. It seems a bit unfair to give my one poetry choice its own post, and then not do the same for my non-fiction.

So my non-fiction choices so far are:

Steven Pinker "How the Mind Works"
I'm reading this at the moment. I am fascinated by psychology and the way the mind works. I don't have a scientific background so, although interesting, I am finding it tough going and I keep getting distracted by easier reads. If I was only allowed 40 books, I would be more likely to get around to finishing this one.

Sigmund Freud "The Interpretation of Dreams"
I've had this on my shelves for a while and not read it. Another good intentions book that I might be more likely to read if I eliminated some of the competition. I have very odd dreams, so I want to find out more about why we dream and what they mean. Although this is Freud, so probably every dream is about sex.

Sir James Frazer "The Golden Bough"

I find mythology, legends and superstitions fascinating. So I bought this one a few years back in a cheap edition because it sounded like an interesting ethnographic study of superstitions. Still not started it.

Germaine Greer "The Female Eunuch"

I like Germaine Greer a lot. Like many of the people I admire, she is fiercely passionate about her subject, articulate, intelligent, imaginative and quite, quite mad. I disagree with her quite a lot, but that is a good thing because it makes me examine my own attitudes.

Giacomo Casanova "The Story of my Life"

I bought this when we went to Venice on honeymoon; when I go somewhere on holiday, I like to read something set in the place. I decided on this. However, I didn't get very far because I hadn't allowed for how challenging the old-fashioned language would be (and, to add to this, translated from the original language). I'd like to give it another go.

Apparently non-fiction is paved with good intentions. I haven't read one of these yet...

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

My forty books. Part 2: poetry

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John Donne.

Job done.

I don't read a lot of poetry - I prefer drama and prose - but I have loved John Donne since since studying the Metaphysical Poets at 6th form. I did think of a collection of the metaphysicals, but John Donne is the only one I really need (although I am now thinking I would miss Andrew Marvell and "To his Coy Mistress"). My John Donne would need to be the beautiful Everyman copy that my husband bought me as a present.

I quite like e.e.cummings, but John Donne writes the sexiest poetry. Years ago, the BBC did a poll on the nation's favourite love poem. I thought about "To his Coy Mistress," but thought it was a bit too predictable. I considered e.e. cummings "May I feel said he," which is funny and sexy but ultimately, I decided, too cynical. In the end I voted for Donne's "Elegie: To his Mistress Going to Bed.' I was also pretty impressed when this poem made the cut and was on the CD compiled by the BBC. It was also read by one of my favourite actors, Paul Rhys. Bonus.

I can't think of another poet who could write a sexy poem about being bitten by a flea. In "To his Mistress Going to Bed" he also manages to get away with using 2 words that no woman wants to be reminded of while being seduced (labour and midwife).

So I now have 5 - maybe 6, depending on the final cut - plays and 1 volume of poetry. But, as someone who reads mostly fiction, my next choices are going to be the hardest....

My forty books. Part 1: plays

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I found that I couldn't get off to sleep last night. Partly because my brain was already trying to decide my 40 books, partly because Mark was listening to a radio comedy that somehow managed to simultaneously bore me and keep me awake.

I had initially thought that I would word process my list of 40 books and present it as a complete list on here when I had decided what to choose. But I have been thinking that a list of 40 books would be terminally dull, whereas if I rationalise my choices on here, while deciding, then it might be marginally interesting to other book obsessives. It's a bit like the literary equivalent of having to show your workings in a maths exam.

I decided to start with plays, because in some ways they are my easiest choices.

As a provisional figure, I thought maybe to aim for 5 out of the 40 as plays. Plays are intended to be watched, not read, so to read as a play as text is to divorce it from its proper context and authorial intention. But I love theatre, so I think I would need a few plays to remind me of productions I have enjoyed. Also, as a frustrated but talentless actress, there are some plays with female roles that I would covet, had I talent. I like to read plays and play the part in my head - so this gives them worth as a text among my choices. Only in my head am I ever likely to be cast against someone like Jeremy Northam or David Tennant.

I have 3 definites:
Tennessee Williams "A Streetcar Named Desire"
I love Tennessee Williams and, of his plays, this is probably still my favourite. I had to study "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" at A-level, which I enjoyed, but I love Streetcar. As a repressed English woman, I am drawn to the torrid sexuality and overwrought melodrama of Tennessee Williams as cathartic release (this is probably true of my 2nd choice too). In my head I play Stella rather than Blanche. I'm not sure who is my Stanley - if I am brutally honest, that changes with whatever actor I have an immature schoolgirl obsession about at the time.

Edward Albee "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf"
Martha is another brilliant female character, and I think that this is a cathartic choice again. If I think I have hurt anyone's feelings, I agonise about it for ages. I think it might be quite a release to be bitter and twisted for a couple of hours with no consequences. It's a cruel and emotionally raw play, but also a very funny play. Although Martha is a monster, Albee shows the frustrations that have twisted her and, in doing so, manages to pull off the difficult trick of drawing the audience in to feel sympathy for her.

I'm not sure that I have the reserves of bile and venom needed to do Martha justice though. That's a bad thing for any acting ambition I might have, but probably a very good thing in terms of my private life.

Terry Johnson "Dead Funny"

My most contemporary choice, and the only one of the three where I wouldn't have to attempt an abysmal American accent. Terry Johnson has written a few really good parts for women, but Eleanor in "Dead Funny" is probably his best. In the midst of characters who think that they are funny, she is the only character who actually is genuinely funny in a mordant and bitter way. It has only just occurred to me that she is a little bit like a younger Martha in some ways. I'd never realised this until writing this post.

That leaves me 2 Shakespeare choices, which is quite hard. I'm shallow, so on purely entertainment grounds - and if I can have only 40 books, I want to make sure that they are ones that I like - I would probably exclude the histories and tragedies.

My shortlist would be:
"Midsummer Night's Dream"
I love this play, and I love the character of Helena. However, I would be more likely to be saddled with being Hermia who gets short jokes made about her (I'm about 4 foot 11 ish). I think that Shakespeare was heightist - his wet characters like Hermia or Hero are short. I don't think it makes one of my 40, but it's on my reserve list in case I change my mind about something.

"Twelfth Night"
Partly for Maria, but mainly as a sentimental choice. My husband proposed to me in the interval of a production of "Twelfth Night." I had looked over at him in the first half and thought that he was bored. I only found out later that it was nerves.

"The Tempest"
I'm not sure that I can analyse why I love this play. I first read it having seen Frank Langella in a play, knowing that he had played Prospero on stage. He has a very strong stage presence, and I have never seen a Prospero that matched in dominance the imaginary Frank Langella performance in my head. This is a strong possibility for my list of 40. I also think that it was Shakespeare's last play, if I remember right, and it fascinates me to wonder if Shakespeare had consciously decided this when he wrote Prospero's "This rough magic I here abjure" speech. This might be an exceptional choice, in that it is solely for the play as a whole and not because there is a female role in it that I have my eye on.

"Much Ado About Nothing"

I think I probably can't do without this one. Susan Hill decided not to have "Hamlet" on her list, because she felt that she knew it so well that she had it almost off by heart. Beatrice is my favourite Shakespeare woman but, although I could probably quote a fair amount of it, it would be really annoying to half remember a speech and not be able to look it up. And I'm probably Beatrice opposite David Tennant as Benedick - though annoyingly Catherine Tate is beating me to this one. I also studied this at 6th form, so it has a nostalgic appeal.

"A Winter's Tale"

Again a nostalgic choice, as this play was probably my best experience in the theatre. I won't write too much about this here, though, as I have already done so in a post about theatre in February last year. I don't think that I would pick this one, but it's up there as a possibility.

I don't think that I will change my mind about Williams, Albee and Johnson. My Shakespeare choice might change, but at the moment I am leaning towards "Much Ado" and either "Twelfth Night" or "The Tempest."

So I'm roughly an eighth of the way to deciding my 40.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Starting to think about my forty books....

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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.

Since reading "Howards End is on the Landing," I've already started to think about my forty books. The idea behind this comes from Susan Hill's "Desert Island Discs" inspired list - she set out to make a list of 40 books that she could subsist on for the rest of her life, if she wasn't allowed to read anything else. This is, of course, a hypothetical list. If someone told me I could only have 40 books, I might have to punch them and then start crying.

In "Desert Island Discs," the guest is allowed "The Bible" and "The Complete Works of Shakespeare." Under Susan Hill's rules there are no givens, and the complete works would be cheating. A Shakespeare play counts as one of your choices.

This might take a few posts to work through - I'd hate to rush into this and be stuck with 40 bad books.

I think I would need:
- some favourites that I know I like and would be happy to re-read. Comfort reading...
- some books I have always intended to read
- I'm not a huge poetry fan, but I think I might at least need some John Donne
- there would have to be a bit of Shakespeare. But what?
- any other plays?
- what percentage of fiction to non-fiction?
- at least a couple of really thick books to keep me going for longer?

I think I need to think about this for a bit longer....

Saturday, 2 April 2011

"Howards End is on the Landing," by Susan Hill

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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 post is so meta that it is starting to make my head hurt. Let me see if I can get this straight. You are reading a blog, written by me, about my reaction to reading a book which has been written by an author about her experience of reading books by other authors. I think that makes sense.

I have read very little of Susan Hill's fiction. In fact, I think I have only read "Strange Meeting," which I had to study at school. I didn't enjoy it much, but I do wonder if I might appreciate it more as an adult; it is very different to read something of your own volition, than it is to be required to study it to death. With some exceptions, I think most of us probably find the books we love most through chance and choice - not through being told to read something. I have, of course, heard of "The Woman in Black," but I have not yet read it. I tried "Mrs de Winter," as I love "Rebecca," but I didn't get very far into it because I did not enjoy her writing style in the novel.

In the light of this, it might seem odd that I chose to read this book. However, after reading "Outside of a Dog," I was predisposed to enjoy reading books about books. The starting point of "Howards End is on the Landing" was Susan Hill searching her copious bookshelves for a particular book, and instead finding vast numbers of books that she either had not read, or wanted to re-read, or had plain forgotten that she owned. Thus began her project to spend a year reading from home - to eschew the library, and resist buying the latest fashionable book or Richard and Judy promotion in order to rediscover the books on her own bookshelves. This is a laudable aim, and one that I have sadly not followed. I am fully aware of the irony that I borrowed this book from the library, instead of exploring the unread books on my bookshelves.

So was it worth shunning my own books to read this? I feel rather ambivalent about this book. This is not your average person's year of reading from home. In a chapter about James Bond, she recalls being at a party and seeing an aging Ian Fleming lounging against a mantelpiece with a cocktail. In a chapter on things that fall out of books, she finds inside a book a postcard from Dirk Bogarde - which is surely not a regular occurrence for most people. I never have exciting things like that fall out of my books. Maybe a bus ticket used as a bookmark, and that is about as thrilling as it gets. So hers is a very rarified year of reading from home. At first I was fascinated by her stories of encounters with famous writers, but it did begin to pall as a kind of glorified name-dropping.

This is not a flattering reflection of my own personality, but I think I was also alienated by jealousy. Her descriptions of her big farmhouse filled with books, and of reading in her idyllic garden in the sun, primarily made me envious. The chapter when she pours scorn on e-readers made me seethe with anger. She derides ereaders as being "monotonous-looking" and "small, flat, grey," and says that if she had one she would only need a small house which would be very tidy. Coming at this from the other angle, where I don't have a seemingly endless farmhouse of books, I would stand up for my ereader: maybe if you have a small house, then you need something small, flat and grey to store your books. She is very eloquent on the pleasure of a paper book as a physical object, and I am firmly with her on this. However I read a lot - I think I might have bypassed being an avid reader and progressed straight to obsessive - and, as such, living in a smallish house with limited bookspace, I would rather have a book on something small, flat and grey than no book at all. I was slightly mollified by her chapter in which she remembers having to choose the books she bought carefully, as they had to justify themselves in terms of bookshelf space and financial outlay. So she obviously does know how that feels - I'm just not totally sure that she remembers too well what it is like.

When writing on "Outside of a Dog," I wrote that a good book about books should make you want to read more of them. And, in the midst of my ire, I did not feel that this book did that. However, now that I have calmed down a bit, I have to admit that it did. I have reserved a book by Patrick Leigh Fermor about staying in monasteries from the library after reading her recommendation. I have also got a couple of Graham Greene books from the library which she recommended - although this is also largely due to enjoying an audiobook of "Our Man in Havana" being read by the very talented and, incidentally, very sexy Jeremy Northam.

I do have a further caveat. This book was published in 2009. However, for a book written so recently, it seems to concentrate more on the classics and feature very little contemporary writing (off-hand, the only names mentioned that really spring to mind are Ian McEwan and Martin Amis). If I did a year of reading from home - which isn't such a bad idea - my year of reading from home would involve a lot more recent fiction.

It has probably become very clear that this is a very personal review of her book, coloured by my own jealousies or preconceptions, but that is in keeping with the way that she writes about books. Her approach is not overly analytical, but rests more on what the book means to her and its context in her life. I'm conscious in re-reading some of my blogs that I feel I have evolved more of sense of my own authorial voice in these posts, which I hope feels quite personal. It isn't that different from her style of writing about books - just without so much name-dropping. But if I had met W.H Auden at a party when a student and he had offered me guidance on his poetry, I sure I would have also felt that worth dropping into this blog.

She also makes a list of the forty books that she could survive on, if she was only allowed 40 books to read for the rest of her life. I have been thinking about this as well - not really coming to any conclusion yet - but I might make this list in a future post.