Monday, 28 February 2011

Somewhere Towards The End - Diana Athill

In this book Diana Athill writes about what it's like to be old. She is beautifully unsentimental as she considers her life. She says that there is not much point in writing a book unless you're prepared to be honest and she neither minimises or exaggerates the problems of getting older.

As she looks back on her life she picks out some regrets. One of the main ones is not ensuring that she hadn't ensured her financial stability while she was working (though she didn't retire until she was 75) which would have removed some of the worry about looking after her elderly mother. But she doesn't blame anyone but herself for this. She knows she should've had a better salary at Andre Deutsch where she worked for so many years, but believes that it was her own fault for not fighting for it.

She writes very frankly about relationships and the gradually loss of sexual relationships. She accepts this without much regret, though she had enjoyed sex. She said to her final lover, 'The trouble with me is that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. My body has gone against it.' She had a sneaking suspicion that he felt the same way!

She has been very lucky to enjoy good health for most of her life and her fears about dying are eased somewhat by the fact that everyone in her family seems to have had an easy death. (Her mother's last words were, 'It was absolutely divine'. She was talking about a trip to a garden centre with Athill's brother).
She doesn't give advice as such, but it would seem that her key ingredients for a happy old age are keeping your interests and hobbies up and having the company of younger people.

Something that she mentioned which caught my attention particularly was that she doesn't like to read novels any more, though she read nothing other than novels as a younger woman. The reason she only reads non-fiction now is:

I no longer feel the need to ponder human relationships - particularly not love affairs - but I do still want to be fed facts, to be given material which extends the region in which my mind can wander...

I enjoyed this book tremendously. Athill has a lovely clear voice which reads wonderfully. It's not a handbook, she's not preachy. She just tells of her life as it is.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Neglected literary classics

In today's Observer newspaper Rachel Cooke chooses her 10 neglected literary classics. The premise is that they are all worthy of a BBC adaptation, like South Riding. They are as follows:

The Real Charlotte by Somerville and Ross
The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns
The Rector's Daughter by FM Mayor
School for Love by Olivia Manning
The Wife by Meg Wolitzer
A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O'Brien
The Odd Women by George Gissing
The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
Ann Veronica by HG Wells
The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski

I have to admit that the only two I have heard of are The Blank Wall and The Victorian Chaise-Longue because they are in the Persephone catalogue. Possible others are as well, I'm new to Persephone. I've read The Irish RM by Somerville and Ross and I'm sure I must've read something by HG Wells. Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns is on my TBR shelf. I have been wanting for years to read Fortunes of War by Olivia Manning after seeing the tv adaptation starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh.

I love lists of books. The Observer does a list just before Christmas in which famous people choose their favourite book they've read that year. And sometimes a similar one in early summer in which people say which books they're taking on holiday with them. I've recently discovered book blogs and they give me the same sort of pleasure, I love knowing what other people are reading.

One more thing - Rachel Cooke describes South Riding as a 'lost novel'. Was it really?

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Billy's bedtime book

Finally, finally we have finished Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. What a slog that was. We had seen the film and I think that the familiarity of the cover was what attracted Billy to the book at the library. He regularly commented as I was reading that he remembered bits from the film. I don't think I have ever read a novelisation before, and I am not encouraged to seek any more out. It was really just a description of the film, and very difficult to read out loud.

Billy and I take turns choosing his bedtime book (a system I started so I got a break from endless Horrid Henry), and I am choosing Prince Caspian by CS Lewis. We're working our way slowly through the series. We started last night and I think that it's going to be a good one.

Friday, 25 February 2011

The Fry Chronicles: An Autobiography

I love Stephen Fry and found this book very easy to enjoy. It covers his life through university up to the age of about 30. One of the appealing things for me was that the book is peopled with characters I grew up watching on TV and think of affectionately such as Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie and Ben Elton. There are plenty of behind the scenes anecdotes and a little bit of gossip. I enviously read about life as a student at Cambridge. He loves words and, had I not been enjoying the book too much to put it down, would've been reaching for the dictionary quite a lot.

I felt that there was enough insight into the private man to make me feel that I know him better now. One of the repeated themes of the book is the gap between the urbane, confident man we see on television, and the private man who is constantly doubting himself. He often apologises for any complaints he makes about his life, feeling that it must be extremely irritating to hear rich, successful people complain.

So, loved the book and would recommend it.

Friday, 18 February 2011

The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry

This novel is a cross between a film noir and an Escher drawing. It centres around Charles Unwin, a clerk in a huge, extremely hierarchical  detective agency. He loves his job and is very good at it. Then one day he is promoted, entirely unexpectedly, to the rank of detective. Confused and out of his depth he has to find the missing Detective Sivart, the man whose case notes he has been typing up for many years.
It has a wonderful cast of characters including the villain Enoch Hoffmann, the femme fatale Cleopatra Greenwood and the thuggish Rook brothers. It is always raining and hats and umbrellas are very important.
It's a convoluted novel. I had to retrace my steps a couple of times just to make sure I'd understood a new plot development, but it's well worth the effort.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Judi Dench: And Furthermore

This is an autobiography, but there is very little of her personal life in it. It is about her career, and mainly her career in the theatre. It's written as if it's a conversation (though obviously a one-sided one), and I really felt as if I could hear Dame Judi's voice in the text. And like in a conversation there were times when I wanted to say, 'Wait, what do you mean by that?' There were times when I thought an anecdote just petered out, like there should have been something else to say. Likewise there were instances where she seemed to feel very strongly about something and I couldn't quite understand what she was upset about. The incident with Roger Spottiswoode, the director of Tomorrow Never Dies, is an example. The argument she relates seems so insignificant that I felt that there must have been something leading up to it, that she didn't include.

I know Dame Judi from her tv and film appearances. I'm not a theatre goer and I think if I was I would've enjoyed this book more.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Tristram Shandy

I watched the first part of the BBC4 programme Birth of the British Novel. I love programmes about books and writers, and I found this one very interesting. It mentioned a book that I have wanted to read for a long time, Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. I think I haven't read it yet because it just seems so difficult, I feel like I wouldn't understand it (I haven't read Don Quixote for the same reason). But this programme has inspired me to give it a go, not least because I discovered that Shandy Hall, where Sterne wrote the bulk of the novel is not far from my home. The Hall and its gardens are open to the public. So, I can battle my way through the book, and then reward myself with a trip to Shandy Hall.

Birth of the British Novel is available on iplayer for a few more days.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Dorothy Parker

Yesterday afternoon I watch Saboteur, which was directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Reading the credits I was interested to see that Dorothy Parker co-wrote the screenplay. I didn't know that she had worked in Hollywood, but a little Googling revealed that she had a successful and lucrative career there in the 1940s. When I was about 15 years old I loved Dorothy Parker. I had an anthology of her poems and journalism, I may even have had a picture of her on my bedroom wall. Her life just seemed so exotic and exciting. I wanted a time machine to take me back to New York in the 1920s (actually it would have to be a time and space machine. A Tardis basically), so I could sit in on the witty conversations taking place at the Algonquin Hotel.

Of course I now realise that a life lived like that has its downsides. Dorothy Parker died almost penniless, her health ruined by years of heavy drinking. But her golden years were certainly very golden, and she was funny.

Resume by Dorothy Parker
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

Monday, 7 February 2011

The Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

I've just finished The Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver. It was a re-read, but from so long ago that I really couldn't remember the story. It has three interweaving stories with three main characters whose lives brush against each other. Deanna works for the government as a forestry worker and lives alone in the woods. Lusa marries into a large close farming family and has to learn to fit in. Mr Walker is a widower who lives alone and has very set views on how life should be lived. The book is structured so that each of the characters have their own chapters.

One of the themes of the books is nature, and how ecosystems are self regulating. A loss of a species can be catastrophic for a whole host of other creatures. Humans don't always understand the effect of their actions until it is too late. The characters in the story lose, and gain, and we are shown how they are affected.

I found the book an enjoyable puzzle, trying to figure out what connections there were between the characters and how Kingsolver goes about linking the stories together. I am trying to be a more active reader and be more aware of themes, plot devices and things like that (anything I can dredge up from A Level Eng Lit, 20 something years ago) and this was a good one to start with.