Wednesday, 26 November 2014

My Life in Books: Series Five: Day Three

Aarti blogs at Book Lust.

JoAnn blogs at Lakeside Musing.

Qu. 1.) Did you grow up in a book-loving household, and did your parents read to you? Pick a favourite book from your childhood, and tell me about it.

Aarti: My sister and I both read a lot growing up (my brother less so), so I would say that we did grow up in a book-loving household, though I don't remember my parents reading to us very much. My dad would tell us bedtime stories, but they were never book-based. They just came out of his head and he usually focused on science or Indian history. I have a very vivid recollection of him telling us how gravity was discovered.

I don't think I had a favorite book when I was very young, but as I got a little older, I fell completely in love with Anne of Green Gables. I loved how smart she was, and how she questioned everything, and I always wanted to go and visit Prince Edward Island (alas, I never did). She was such a hero to me.

JoAnn: Books have always been part of my life. I can remember both parents reading to me as a child and, as the oldest of six siblings, I have fond memories of reading to my younger brothers and sisters. Scholastic book order days were always the best. I’d run home from school with the new books I’d ordered and hide in my room for the rest of they day. My favorite book from childhood is probably Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. There was something about Harriet and her notebook that struck a chord with me... and lead to a life-long fondness of stationery supplies.

Qu. 2.) What was one of the first 'grown-up' books that you really enjoyed? What was going on in your life at this point?

Aarti: I think I most remember books that I read in my freshman year English class in high school. We read To Kill a Mockingbird and All Quiet on the Western Front. They were both so brilliant. I loved To Kill a Mockingbird when I read it, but at that time, the 1960s felt so far in the past and quaint to me. I recently reread the book and realized just how revolutionary it must have been when it was published. And I don't think any book has brought war so vividly to life for me as All Quiet on the Western Front. I think that's when I started to understand nuances in history - that there isn't necessarily a "good" side or a "bad" side, but so many perspectives and motivations.

I don't think anything very special was going on in my life at that point - just that I was in my early teens, beginning to understand that adulthood isn't all that simple!

JoAnn: I was in high school when I finally figured out that books had a lot to say about life and how you might choose to live it. Ethan Allen Hawley's moral crisis in The Winter of Our Discontent, John Steinbeck's final novel, turned me into a Steinbeck devotee and cemented my love of classic literature.

Qu. 3.) Pick a favourite book that you read in your 20s or early 30s - especially if it's one which helped set you off in a certain direction in life.

Aarti: I read Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles and House of Niccolo series in my early 20s. A lot of the Latin language poetry and historical events went right over my head, but I LOVED those books (especially the House of Niccolo). I was also active in what is the now-defunct Yahoo Groups, so had so many people all around the world to talk about the books with, which was so wonderful and definitely a precursor to book blogging for me. I have always
loved historical fiction, and Dunnett's complex plots and twists and turns and massive casts of characters made me realize just how IMMERSED writers can become in a world. And just how passionate fans can be, too. It was really nice to see.

JoAnn: I didn’t read as much in my 20’s and early 30’s…mostly professional journals, then children’s books to my three daughters. When I did read, it was often sprawling family sagas. Favorites from this period include Steinbeck's East of Eden, novels by James Michener and Maeve Binchy, Beach Music by Pat Conroy, And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer, and The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher.

Qu. 4.) What's one of your favourite books that you've found in the last year or two? How did you come to blogging and how has blogging changed your reading habits?

Aarti: Oh, gosh, that is tough to answer! I will answer the second question first. As I mentioned above, I was active on a lot of the forums and Yahoo Groups related to books when I was in college and my early 20s. From there, it was a fairly natural progression to blogging.

I don't really know how blogging has changed my reading habits as I started blogging quite young - in my early 20s. I suspect that my reading habits would change as I got older, anyway. But I do think my reading tastes have expanded considerably since I started blogging. I would say that the most powerful impact that blogging has had on me personally has been my quest to read more diversely.

As to my favorite book over the past year or two - probably Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I have a massive literary crush on Adichie. Not only because she's so smart and articulate, but because she's so good at bringing up important points in a humorous and non-confrontational way that really makes you think. She's the best. And Americanah's unapologetic love story, the commentary on racism in the UK and the US, the sexism that women face - it's all wrapped up in a truly engaging and witty writing style that I loved.

JoAnn: Favorite books from the past year or so include Stoner by John Williams, The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, and, most recently, Florence Gordon by Brian Morton – all beautifully written character-driven novels.

Before blogging, I owned a classics reading group on Yahoo and followed a few book innovative concept back then. I wanted to participate in the conversation and started Lakeside Musing in 2008.

Since then, I’ve discovered many wonderful books and authors. enjoy virtual friendships with other book bloggers, own infinitely more books, and my love of reading has grown even more. My approach to the “what to read next” question has changed dramatically, too. Before blogging I would often wander around the bookstore or library waiting for something to strike my fancy. Now the sheer number of choices can sometimes leave me paralyzed with indecision.

Qu. 5.) Finally - a guilty pleasure, or a favourite that might surprise people!

Aarti: I think most people who know my reading habits know that Georgette Heyer is my guilty pleasure. I had access to almost all of her books in college, and I ate them all up. I still go to her when I am in a reading rut. Granted, now the racism and classism are a bit more jarring and harder to ignore, but she still makes me smile and laugh out loud and believe in happily ever after. Also, she makes me want to visit every single country home in England :-)

JoAnn: This is a hard one! I suppose my guilty pleasure is literary beach reads. I don't read any romance and very little of what might be classified as women's fiction, but I do love a good family story set near a body of water. If it involves an old summer home and coastal New England, all the better.

Recent favorites include A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams, The Vacationers by Emma Straub, The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine, and Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan.

And... I've told you the other person's choices, anonymously. What do you think these choices say about their reader?

JoAnn on Aarti's choices: A fabulous list of books! This is someone whose blog I should be reading, if I am not already doing so. I admire the variety and diversity of interests reflected in these choices. From a childhood favorite of my own, a WWI classic novel, and a sprawling saga to current literary fiction and the fun and comfort of Georgette Heyer, I feel this fellow book lover and I could chat for hours. The only question is whether to brew a pot of coffee or get out the teakettle.

Aarti on JoAnn's choices: Wow, this is difficult as I haven't read any of the books besides Harriet the Spy (which was SO good, but perhaps not indicative of a person's reading habits and personality in the present day!). I shall base this off GoodReads book summaries and my hazy knowledge of the books/authors :-)

Stoner has popped up a lot on blogosphere over the past few years, and most everyone has very positive things to say about it, so I would guess that the blogger keeps a pulse on book blogosphere and gets many recommendations from the people s/he follows and trusts. (Even if, like me, it takes him/her a long while to get around to reading those books.)

All of the books chosen seem to focus on relationships - family relationships in particular - and decision points that have impact not only on the protagonist's life, but also the lives of others. I think this blogger cares a lot about people and is deeply interested in stories that focus on how our actions impact the people in our lives.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

My Life in Books: Series Five: Day Two

Scott blogs at Me and My Big Mouth.

Catherine blogs at Juxtabook.

Qu. 1.) Did you grow up in a book-loving household, and did your parents read to you? Pick a favourite book from your childhood, and tell me about it.

Scott: My dad was the big reader in our house. He left school quite young to become an apprentice in the print trade and was certainly not academically inclined as a youth—I think driving down to Southend on his moped to beat up some Mods was a more regular pastime—but by the time I came along he had started to build a library. I can remember the purple spines of the Kings & Queens series edited by Antonia Fraser, he had most of them. Lots of books on Egyptology as well. Not much in the way of novels but there was definitely a bit of science fiction. And the Doc Savage books, a popular series of adventure stories from the 1930s that were reissued in the 1960s which much have been when he started collecting them.

My favourite book as a child was The Satanic Mill by Otfried Preussler. My dad woke me up one night to show me a box of books he had liberated from outside a local charity shop (he assures me he dropped a fiver through the letter box) and I was drawn to the spooky cover. I think I started reading it the next day and it was definitely the first book that moved me, that made me realise the power of storytelling. It captivated me, moved me and scared the shit out of me. I would have been about ten or eleven at the time.

Thirty years later and I was able to republish the book in the UK under its original title of Krabat. One of my proudest moments.

Catherine: My home was very much a reading household as my parents were both teachers. My parents both read to my younger sister and me. I particularly remember Mum reading us The Canterville Ghost and Dad used to read things like The Jumblies by Edward Lear. I loved my books as a child (when not reading I used to play libraries) and it is so hard to pick a favourite but one that stands out is Her Benny by Silas K. Hocking. It is a sort of Dickens-lite, set in Liverpool, and it is very melodramatic and a terrible sob story but I loved it. The copy I read had been a prize from Sunday School for my maternal grandmother. She had sobbed her way through the book, and then my mother had, and finally it was my turn. I'm wondering whether to try my daughter with it now. Fortunately Blue Coat Press in Liverpool have brought our a new edition as my grandmother's copy won't bear many more re-readings. I think my interest in older books, and books' physicality, stems from that volume.

Qu. 2.) What was one of the first 'grown-up' books that you really enjoyed? What was going on in your life at this point?

Scott: I left home at 17 and didn’t have a great deal of money for books so if I did buy anything I was sure to read it from cover to cover and make the most of it. I borrowed a fair bit from the college library as well. Around this time I would have been making my way through the novels of Milan Kundera, and I know that Life is Elsewhere blew me away. It has a dream within a dream within a dream sequence that knocks the socks off anything in Inception. Metroland by Julian Barnes made me laugh a lot. The non-SF novels of Philip K Dick made an impact in my late teens as well.

Catherine: When I was 13 my mother suggested I read Frederica by Georgette Heyer. I loved it! I have since read all her regency romances two or three times each and never tire of them. They're so warm and witty. I think reading Heyer's faux nineteenth century idiom tuned my brain into the language for later readings of Dickens and Austen – Heyer was perfect for getting your eye in with nineteenth century fiction. At the time my parents had moved jobs and I had to move school. In all the upheaval the constancy of a Georgette Heyer novel was a great thing to have.

Qu. 3.) Pick a favourite book that you read in your 20s or early 30s - especially if it's one which helped set you off in a certain direction in life.

Scott: Ahh, my 20s was when I discovered Haruki Murakami. This was back in the days when his books were actually quite hard to track down. I had to get hold of translations intended for students in Japan. A Wild Sheep Chase was the one that got me started. The books of his I read in the early 1990s undoubtedly shaped the adult me, for better or worse.

Catherine: If I'm allowed non-fiction, that's easy: A Beginner's Guide to Secondhand Bookdealing by Stuart Baldwin. I read about Stuart Baldwin in Sesame, the newspaper of the Open University. He'd taken something like 28 years to graduate because he kept getting ideas for businesses and taking time off to build these businesses up. One was Fossil Books and he'd written his guide based on this experience. At the time I was struggling to get the books I required for my MA here in the Yorkshire Dales, and I thought other must be having the same problem. Within a year I was dealing, within two I'd quit teaching to sell books full time. You don't get more direction changing than that!

For fiction, it would be The British Museum Is Falling Down by David Lodge. When I was teaching in my twenties I used to mark GCSE Eng Lit and a colleague and I used to share a lift to meetings in Manchester. He recommended Lodge – funny and a great antidote to the mental wear and tear of teaching he said. He was right.

Qu. 4.) What's one of your favourite books that you've found in the last year or two? How did you come to blogging and how has blogging changed your reading habits?

Scott: I started blogging when I joined The Friday Project and it was a platform to sound off about the book trade and try to get some publicity for the stuff we were publishing. It has evolved over the years into something far more personal, thoughts on the books I read and music and the like. The fact that I get sent lots of books to review because of the blog means I don’t really buy books in the way a ‘normal’ person would, so it has changed my reading habits quite a bit. The books come to me rather than the other way round. It still makes for lots of wonderful chance discoveries and, if anything, means I read more widely.

And I suppose my favourite books of recent years are all things that have plopped through my letter box. We, The Drowned by Carsten Jensen is a Danish epic set in a small fishing village and has been loved by everyone I have recommended it to, so do check it out if you get a chance and thank me later. The Last Banquet by Jonathan Grimwood was a sumptuous joy from beginning to end. And The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason. All masterpieces, if you ask me. Which you did.

Catherine: A stand out series for me in the last year or so has been Harry Bingham's Fiona Griffiths series. Very quirky female detective, very page turning, very intelligent. I don't think blogging (writing my blog) has changed my reading habits. Buying and selling books means that what passes through my hands is my greatest source of reading material and that of course hasn't changed. I do buy more books for myself as a result of other people's blogs. I buy more books for my personal shelves than I ever did when my recommendations came just from the broadsheets. A blog review from you or Harriet or Annabel or Karen means so much more that anything in the LRB. I know what you all like, and I know where our tastes cross, and so your recommendations are all the more pertinent. If bloggers can make a bookseller buy more books then they're getting something right!

Qu. 5.) Finally - a guilty pleasure, or a favourite that might surprise people!

Scott: I have grown to dislike the term guilty pleasure as I think it is indicative of the sort of snobbery that is still all too common in the book world. I have seen plenty of interviews in which ‘literary’ authors are asked that question and they nearly always answer with a piece of genre fiction—crime, science fiction, fantasy—or perhaps a children’s book. If they feel guilty about reading Ian Rankin or Harry Harrison or Roald Dahl then they need a jolly good slap if you ask me. A great book is a great book no matter what the genre or subject matter.

Having said that, I know you didn’t mean it in that way, and I too enjoy it when people surprise me with their book choices.

I am a big fan of Miss Read. She wrote dozens of books set in and around small English villages and her Village School novels, the early ones in particular, are wonderful slices of social commentary. Her Thrush Green series gets a bit twee as it goes on but she created such a warm cast of characters with real depth to them that I can forgive her that. Comfort reading, rather than a guilty pleasure.

Catherine: My biggest guilty pleasure is probably football books – fact and fiction. I particularly like a good football fiction book though they are few and far between. The Damned United and How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the F.A. Cup are the obvious standouts. In non-fiction I'm very taken with the writing of David Conn though my favourite non-fiction is The Promised Land: A Northern Love Story by Anthony Clavane which parallels the history of Leeds the city, Leeds the football club, and the Jewish community in Leeds and is a fascinating study that anyone who enjoys social history would get something out of, I'm sure.

And... I've told you the other person's choices, anonymously. What do you think these choices say about their reader?

Catherine, on Scott's choices: This is an impressive group of novels. I'm not ashamed to admit that though I know some of the authors I haven't actually read any of these and I'm having to go on online reviews.

The reader is obviously someone of great taste (they're all very well reviewed) and is not afraid of a challenge with the number of works in translation there. I very much like the sound of The Satanic Mill, a children's fantasy, and have added that to one of my own wish lists. Like some of the other highbrow works on this list, like the Murakami and the Jenson, it seems exciting. The reader obviously likes to be entertained as well as challenged! Dear old Miss Read (never read any but I've certainly sold a lot) seems very cosy by comparison showing that though this reader likes to go off on adventures he or she likes to come home too.

I've no idea if this person is male or female but I am guessing he or she is not British because of the large number of non-English works, though the Miss Read did make me question that at the end. I hope I'm not wronging my compatriots but apart from RobAroundBooks and Stu Allen such dedication to translated works, to the exclusion of all but Miss Read, doesn't seem to me to a very British trait (I say that as a bookseller)!

Scott on Catherine's choices: Clearly they are a football-loving, secondhand bookselling individual with a penchant for Cornish writers sporting large beards and curling up with a Regency romance. And as there are probably only three such people on the planet they had better not murder anyone or they’ll be pretty easy to track down, I reckon. I am hugely intrigued to find out who it is.

Monday, 24 November 2014

My Life in Books: Series Five: Day One

Jenny blogs at Reading the End

Eric blogs at Lonesome Reader

Qu. 1.) Did you grow up in a book-loving household, and did your parents read to you? Pick a favourite book from your childhood, and tell me about it.

Jenny: Yes, I did! My mother started reading the Chronicles of Narnia to me and my sister when I was three, and she read a ton of books to us over the years. A favorite book from childhood was Emily of New Moon (et seq. -- is it cheating to say more than one book if it's three in a series?). I wanted to write myself, so I loved reading about all the stories and poems Emily wrote over the years. One of my favorite bits was in the third book, when she's finally published a book and she and her relatives are reading through all her contradictory reviews.

Eric: For a period of my childhood, my mother was a school librarian and we always had a fair amount of books around the house. My father is more of a reader of history. I remember a lot of bedtime story books that centered around famous world leaders, but we’d also read my preferred fantasy novels together.

One realistic book which made a huge impression was Stephen Manes’ Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days! It’s about a bookish outcast boy who happens upon a self-help book with steps that promise to make him into a perfect person. However, it turns into a celebration of all our quirks and imperfections. This message didn’t quite get through. It surmises that perfect people do nothing but sit quietly in a room all day sipping weak tea. This seems to me like a near perfect state of being.

Qu. 2.) What was one of the first 'grown-up' books that you really enjoyed? What was going on in your life at this point?

Jenny:Jane Eyre was a gift for my ninth (I believe) birthday, and I loved it so much my heart hurt; it remains one of my all-time favorite 'grown-up books.' At the time I was miserable in school and feeling woefully misunderstood and wretched, so I identified with poor Jane right away and wanted to see life do right by her. I loved it when she inherited all the money and got to do whatever she wanted.

Eric: My parents recommended I read Shōgun by James Clavell when I was 12. It’s a fantastic epic adventure story with some fairly grown up themes, violence and explicit sexual content if I remember rightly. Like many adolescents at this point in life I was gangly, awkward and felt like a social outcast so loved sinking into this story of a foreigner’s immersion into an unfamiliar, beautiful culture.

Qu. 3.) Pick a favourite book that you read in your 20s or early 30s - especially if it's one which helped set you off in a certain direction in life.

Jenny: Can I go a bit earlier? I read a book called Greensleeves, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, when I was seventeen or eighteen, which is about a socially anxious girl who leaves her regular life and goes to be a completely different sort of person in a completely different sort of life. So many things about this book hit me like a ton of bricks, but particularly the idea that although it is impossible to change who you are, it is always possible to change what you're doing. I can't count how many times I read this book in my late teens and early twenties.

Eric: During one of the seminars I took during my Masters degree which I began when I was 22, I was assigned the novel Mysteries of Winterthurn by Joyce Carol Oates. Setting aside all the clever post-modernist theory you can read into the book which self-consciously plays with the genre of “mystery and detection,” this novel is a fantastically imaginative, thrilling and absorbing read that totally floored me. While creating a brilliant story of intrigue with dynamic memorable characters, it also unpretentiously raises the kind of philosophical questions which felt most central to my life at that time. It converted me into a life-long fan of Oates’ writing and made me realize the full elasticity of narrative to reshape reality. This is a book and writer that has really changed my life.

Qu. 4.) What's one of your favourite books that you've found in the last year or two? How did you come to blogging and how has blogging changed your reading habits?

Jenny: I came to blogging because I realized that if I read book blogs all the time, I'd never have the problem of having no ideas for what to read next. I've been blogging for most of my adult reading life, so it's hard to say how it's altered my reading habits -- I can't properly remember the baseline I'd be returning to if I stopped blogging! I think I'd probably read more nonfiction and more classics if I weren't blogging. And I think I'd be less attentive to the demographics of my reading. Because of other bloggers, I make a concerted effort to read more diversely, and that's brought a lot of awesome books into my life!

Most of my new favorites over the past year or two have been debut novels: Hanya Yanagihara's gorgeous, chilling The People in the Trees; Carol Rifka Brunt's Tell the Wolves I'm Home; and Laurent Binet's HHhH. Those were all books that surprised and entranced me and reminded me why I love to read in the first place.

Eric: Artful by Ali Smith is a brilliant example of a novel that shouldn’t work, but somehow it does in the hands of this genius writer. The majority of the content is a series of lectures Smith originally wrote to deliver at a university and then later reshaped into a novel building a story of an individual mourning the loss of a lover around them. It may seem like an intellectual exercise, but this book chimed emotionally with me to the extent that I found myself totally engrossed and frequently crying. I read this novel late in 2013 and went to see Smith reading from it. I could spend my life sat at this writer’s feet endlessly listening to her good-humored attitude towards life and wisdom about literature.

Feelings of isolation brought me to blogging and the community of book bloggers. I don’t necessarily read more now that I’m blogging, but I read more attentively and critically. Rather than putting a book down and thinking “I liked it” I really quiz myself about why I thought it was effective and what the author was really trying to say and do in their narrative.

Qu. 5.) Finally - a guilty pleasure, or a favourite that might surprise people!

Jenny: I'm going to go with the shmoopy historical novel Shadow of the Moon, by M. M. Kaye. It's about a British girl born in India who grows up in England and then gets to return as an adult, right in time for the Sepoy Rebellion. Lots of high drama.

Eric: I wouldn’t call this a guilty pleasure, but it’s a book I would certainly shy away from reading on public transport due to its size and the explicit nature of its drawings. The graphic novel Lost Girls written by Alan Moore with illustrations from his partner Melinda Gebbie imagines a fantastical meeting of three of literature’s most enduring young heroines: Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy Gale from Kansas and Wendy from Peter Pan. In their adulthoods, the girls meet in an Austrian hotel and have a series of frank sexual adventures and misadventures leading them on paths to self-discovery. The book plays with the original stories by reimagining them and delving into the deeper meaning of these girls’ awakening into adulthood. This book gave me some of the most intense dreams of my life; clearly some doors were opened. Some will consider the book perverse, but I think it’s truly radical and brilliant.

And... I've told you the other person's choices, anonymously. What do you think these choices say about their reader?

Eric, on Jenny's choices: This is a fascinating group of books and out of the bunch I’ve only read Jane Eyre. Looking up the themes and storylines of the novels I’d say this is a reader who is attracted to stories about savvy/feisty heroines, coming of age tales and universal stories that are found in other cultures – reading subjects very similar to what I’m interested in! I would guess it’s a reader who re-reads his/her favourite novels every few years – someone who is introverted, likes reading late at night and is excited by taking on book-reading challenges.

Jenny on Eric's choices: I'm going to be terrible at this bit because I haven't read any of those books. (Except -- I realized after some googling -- I did read Become a Perfect Person when I was small! I had forgotten about it completely until just now!) It seems like someone who reads widely and enthusiastically, and plunges with relish into reading challenges -- Shogun's massive, Lost Girls looks like a strange beast even for the wonderfully strange Alan Moore, and Ali Smith's one of those authors I'm too intimidated to do more than admire from a distance. S/he sounds like the kind of adventurous reader I always admire!

Sunday, 23 November 2014

My Life in Books: Series Five

If you've been reading Stuck-in-a-Book for a while, you'll hopefully remember - and may well have taken part in - the previous series of My Life in Books, where I pair up bloggers and ask them about different books that have been important at different stage of their lives.

Well, series five starts tomorrow! It runs through to Saturday, with another 12 bloggers sharing their lives in books. Do make them feel welcome... I'm sure you will.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Hamlet - reviewed by A.A. Milne

I am currently writing a conference paper on A.A. Milne's plays that I should have written ages ago, and enjoying revisiting everything I read and loved over a decade ago - including this fun riposte to dramatic critics. It is part of the introduction to the collection Three Plays, and is a first-night review of Hamlet:

Mr. William Shakespeare, whose well-meaning little costume play Hamlet was given in London for the first time last week, bears a name that is new to us, although we understand, or at least are so assured by the management, that he has a considerable local reputation in Warwickshire as a sonneteer. Why a writer of graceful little sonnets should have the ambition, still less conceive himself to have the ability, to create a tragic play capable of holding the attention of a London audience for three hours, we are unable to imagine. Merely to kill of seven (or was it eight?) of the leading characters in a play is not to write a tragedy. It is not thus that the great master-dramatists have purged our souls with pity and with terror. Mr. Shakespeare, like so many other young writers, mistakes violence for power, and in his unfortunate lighter moments, buffoonery for humour. The real tragedy of last night was that a writer should so misunderstand and misuse the talent given to him.

For Mr. Shakespeare, one cannot deny, has talent. He has a certain pleasing gift of words. Every now and then a neat line catches the ear, as when Polonius (well played by Mr. Macready Jones) warns his son that "borrowing often loses a man his friends," or when Hamlet himself refers to death as "a shuffling off of this mortal toil." But a succession of neat lines does not make a play. We require something more. Our interest must be held throughout: not by such well-worn stage devices as the appearance of a ghostly apparition, ho strikes terror into the hearts only of his fellow-actors; not by comic clowning business at a grave-side; but by the spiritual development of the characters. Mr. Shakespeare's characters are no more than mouthpieces for this rhythmic musings. We can forgive a Prince of Denmark for soliloquising in blank verse to the extent of fifty lines, recognising this as a legitimate method of giving dignity to a royal pronouncement; but what are we to say of a Captain of Infantry who patly finishes off a broken line with the exact number of syllables necessary to complete the iambus? Have such people any semblance to life at all? Indeed, the whole play gives us the impression of having been written to the order of a manager as a means of displaying this or that "line" which, in the language of the day, he can "do just now". Soliloquies (unhampered by the presence of rivals) for the popular star, a mad scene for the leading lady (in white), a ghost for the electrician, a duel for the Academy-trained fencers, a scene in dumb-show for the cinema-trained rank-and-file - our author has provided for them all. No doubt there is money in it, and a man must live. But frankly we prefer Mr. Shakespeare as a writer of sonnets.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Misleading titles...

...a quick post tonight, as life has been super busy of late (and I'm a bit of a minor medical mess at the moment - limping around and a bit coldy and suchlike) - but wanted to quiz you on something that came up at book group tonight: what is the most misleading title you've read?

I always think it's fascinating to see how a title can affect the way we read a book. I think I first noticed it with William by E.H. Young, which completely changed the slant of a book about adultery (to make it all about the father's viewpoint) - and since then, I've pondered it over with lots of books. Sometimes, as with a particular Muriel Spark, the title can even reveal a huge spoiler...

As for misleading titles - there is the whole tractors-in-Ukrainian school of titles, which thankfully seems to be dying out now (self-conscious wackiness never quite works) but others, like The Catcher in the Rye or even To Kill a Mockingbird seem to be so tangential as to be unreliable. Then there's The Silence of the Lambs...

But, moving away from that sort of metaphor, I thought of Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go - a title that seemed to have absolutely nothing to do with the novel (except for the shoe-horned-in song) or its tone. Similarly, Jocelyn Playfair's A House in the Country sounded like an idyllic rural novel, and certainly was not.

Over to you!

Monday, 17 November 2014

My Sister Eileen: the film

A while ago I blogged about the lovely book My Sister Eileen by Ruth McKenney, which I heartily recommend. And in the latest meet-up for Simon and Andrea's Film Club, we watched the film - well, one of the films. It turns out this unassuming little collection of childhood and adolescent memories had quite an afterlife - although mostly focusing on the few chapters dealing with life in a New York basement.

All the posters I can find seem to think Janet Leigh's legs are the star.

There was a play, a 1940s film, a stage musical (called Wonderful Town), and this film - from 1955. I think the script might be similar to the play and Wonderful Town, but they couldn't get the rights to Leonard Bernstein's music - and so new music was written (and, so the Wikipedia entry informs me, even had to appear at different stages of the narrative - so as to avoid possible suing.)

I thought it would be fun - but I hadn't realised how great it would be. I really love this film!

The sisters are played by Janet Leigh and the remarkably Betty Garrett (Eileen and Ruth respectively); they do indeed live in a basement flat, just about the subway, and Ruth is trying to make it as a journalist. That's about where the similarities with the book begin and end. (Oh, except for the introduction of the Brazilian Navy - which is quite out of keeping with the rest of the film, though still great fun, and seems too far-fetched, despite being true.) In the film, Ruth is the plain-Jane to Eileen's beauty (and, while Betty Garrett is hilariously dry and feisty, in her early 20s she ain't). They both meet eligible young men - one of whom is Jack Lemmon; the other of whom is choreographer Bob Fosse (who plays a complete sweetheart, in Frank Lippincott; Jack Lemmon's character is rather creepier by modern standards, but is - I believe - intended to be romantically forceful in the '50s.)

Alongside their sororal relationship is the bedrock of the film, it's actually rather a lovely ensemble piece. Special mention must go to charming Dick York, their rugged, friendly neighbour, who pops in to do their ironing (although he won't do sewing; 'that's woman's work') and protect them from unsuitable suitors. We spent the entire film thinking he was called Rick (in a Noo Yoik accent), but it turns out he actually is called the Wreck - his wrestling nickname. Sure, why not?

My favourite songs were the two frenetic, cheery ones - 'I'm Great (But No One Knows It)', and the superb 'Give Me a Band And My Baby', in which the four participating characters pretend to be playing various instruments. And the dancing! Leigh and Garrett aren't terrible, but it's Fosse and Tommy Rall who dazzle and amaze - particularly in a tap-dancing scene. Indeed, Rall's character (a romantic rival for Frank L) seems to be there simply to give Fosse a dancing partner of equal talent, but I'm not complaining.

I don't really know why a film as joyful, funny, engaging, and beautiful as My Sister Eileen - with great songs and exceptional dancers - ever fell out of favour, but I certainly hadn't heard of it until lately. And is Betty Garrett known? Wikipedia tells me she was blacklisted in the US during MacCarthyism. She is so brilliant in this - delivering a withering line like nobody's business, and remaining entirely sympathetic throughout.  Janet Leigh is also good fun, and an able comedian. It's basically all a delight - which is fitting, given what a delight the book is.

Amusingly, Andrea and I spent some time musing on the fact that the song 'Why-oh-why-oh-why did I leave Ohio' (or whatever it's called) would have been a good fit, and kept wondering if it would turn up - only to discover later that it's in Wonderful Town, and thus would have been a very good fit!

Do track down the DVD - and enjoy this poor quality video of 'Give Me A Band and My Baby' as an introduction: