25 January 2012

A Christmas Carol

Now that we're reaching the end of a thoroughly damp and gloomy January, tonight I'm in the mood to revisit the boozy, chocolate-filled week where I, ensconced in my two (yes two!) new dressing gowns, finally settled down to read A Christmas Carol by Dickens.

Surely any reader worth his/her onions is familiar with the very essence of this wonderful ghost story, even those of you who have been living in a hole in the ground for the past 170 years and might have missed the countless theatric and filmic adaptations (yes, including the muppets) of this undeniable classic. After spending a great deal of energy banishing poor Kermit from my mind's eye, I found myself completely enthralled by Scrooge's surprisingly witty repartee and the appearance of characters and scenes that I know inside out, despite this being my very first read.

Ebenezer Scrooge is a solitary, miserly old man, so frosty towards his fellow man that;
'He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dogdays; 
and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas...
No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him.  No wind that blew was bitterer than he...'

Following a chilling visit from the spirit of his late business partner Jacob Marley (above), Scrooge is faced with the dire warning that he must change his miserly ways or else be faced with an afterlife of purgatory and suffering. He will be, whether he likes it or not, visited by the ghosts of his Christmases past, present and future who will confront him with his wrongs and (hopefully!) change Scrooge's ways for the better.

What better way to get into the festive spirit than this wonderfully moral tale, set historically in some very dark, very mean times. As well as the obviously honourable message that Dickens conveys here (with much conviction), he gives us enough frisson and, surprisingly, amusement, to keep the story flowing:

'Though he looked the phantom through and through, and saw it standing before him; though he felt the chilling influence of its death-cold eyes; and marked the very texture of the folded kerchief bound about its head and chin, which wrapper he had not observed before: he was still incredulous, and fought against his senses...

You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.  There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!"'

What do you all think of A Christmas Carol? And I suppose because it's the great author's 200th birthday this year, what do we all think of Charles Dickens in general? I think it may be time for a re-read. The recent televised adaptation of Great Expectations was really quite tantalising...

19 January 2012

The Paris Wife

My relationship with Ernest Hemingway has so far been a rather distant one. Although the fact that I have actually never read any of his books is almost as painful as my Daphne du Maurier virginity - it somehow doesn't feel quite as naughty. The boyfriend devoured his books whilst we were in Paris; where the atmosphere and the opportunity to read surrounded by the author's old haunts was the absolute perfect setting, it was a location I sadly never took advantage off to introduce myself to him.

The main problem is, and I'd be intrigued to know whether any of you feel the same way, I always see Hemingway as a bit of an author - dare I say it - for men (yikes!). I suppose this is a pretty controversial topic and probably merits a blog post of its very own. Women and men can of course read whatever kind of book they choose and I detest pigeonholing people/authors, though by the very virtue of what I'm saying here, I know I'm guilty of it myself. Surely at the end of the day, an author has a certain type of personality and an audience in mind when writing that may well mean that they largely appeal to one sex more than the other?

 Procrastinating aside, the boyfriend was the first to pick this up and (rather ironically) was very unsure at first; feeling that Mclain's style and sensitive portrayal of Hemingway's first, most beleaguered young wife Hadley Richardson was more aimed at a female audience who would perhaps connect with her voice more easily.  I can however happily confirm that despite these initial doubts he soon became hooked and was, needless to say, quite affected by it all in the end.

A few years ago I read Coco, the Novel by Patricia Soliman and surprised myself by quite enjoying the biographical-fiction genre; something I thought might be a little too trashy and vaporous for my tastes but that I found hugely entertaining, adding a bit more colour to my existing image of the legend that is Coco Chanel. That discovery considered, as well as always being intrigued by the wholesome-looking young woman who always features in photographs of Hemingway's early life, I thought The Paris Wife might also gently nudge me in the her husband's long-neglected direction.

(Elizabeth) Hadley Richardson met Ernest Hemingway in Chicago in the early 1920s through a mutual friend and were instantly attracted to one another. Deeply affected by his war-time experiences Hemingway was young, eccentric, energetic and, above all, volatile. Hadley, on the other hand, was the epitome of reliability and stability; honest, straightforward and strong, qualities that Hemingway clearly found attractive, most likely a breath of fresh air from the frivolous, frilly women who usually flitted around him.

Quickly married and with Hemingway's new ideas and imaginings for novels full to bursting point, the couple moved to Europe and smack bang into the center of 1920s Parisian artistic society. Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, you name it, everyone is here. As well as bringing back fond memories of this beautiful city and exploring an incredibly dynamic and exciting period of history, Paula Mclain has created a sensitive and astute portrayal of a young woman and her great love for an extraordinary man that I quite simply found really touching.

Although we pretty much all know how the story ends and there are few surprises in the story (...right back to your stereotypical man's man; philandering, pipe-smoking Hemingway...) despite a few frustrating moments when I was saying to myself 'just get out of there woman!' or 'slap him, slap her!', I generally sympathised deeply with Hadley right up until the end. For a short time at a pivotal point in his career this unpretentious, genuine human being was his strength, support and inspiration and I was left wondering what kind of man, indeed what kind of author Hemingway would have morphed into had he kept it all tucked up safely in his pants (!) and stayed with her.

The only doubt I've ever had in the back of my mind about reading biographical fiction is the worry that any emotions you may end up having regarding the main protagonists may end up being quite false and unfair, almost akin to reading the lies the tabloids have to say about celebrities nowadays. The Paris Wife, however, is both well-researched and well-written enough to hold none of these unsavory, sensational elements.

 Read this for a bit of romantic relief from your heavier tomes. A Moveable Feast will be the next on my list I think.

9 January 2012

Whisky Galore!

On the 5th February 1941, the S.S Politician, a large cargo ship chugging its way to North America with its precious load of cotton, biscuits and, most importantly, 260,000 bottle of malt whisky, suddenly ran into trouble off the remote Isle of Eriskay in the outer Hebrides, becoming stuck in the sandbanks surrounding the island.

Listing to one side and flooding fast, rumour began to spread among the war-deprived islanders of the vessel's precious and potent cargo and, in truly enterprising fashion, the islanders set about to take advantage of this surprise landing on their shores and liberate the alcohol from its perilous home...

Although the local authorities were far from impressed with this turn of events, events for which a few hapless individuals were eventually punished, this charming image of craggy old islanders frantically rowing across the waves to claim their bounty is one that has certainly endured and, soon after the event itself, inspired Compton MacKenzie's 1947 novel Whisky Galore and the classic black and white film of the same name. The book was a sneaky charity shop find of Daddy Relish; the perfect present for the boyfriend; for whom the prospect of a wee dram at the end of a long hard day is becoming increasingly more attractive. What an old man.

In celebration of finally finishing the novel, we both settled down with a cheeky shnifter, turned the lights down low and watched the hilarious 1949 comedy last night, starring Basil Radford and Joan Greenwood. As well as being a thoroughly heart warming tale, particularly for those as fond of that part of the world and its people as we both are, the film really does hark back to a much simpler, more innocent way of life. We really are so over-stimulated and over-sexed nowadays it is really lovely to go back to a time when the simplest jokes and the simplest pleasures were truly the best and when a peck on the lips from your beau whilst sat on the beach was the sexiest, most romantic thing anyone could think of.

Do check out Whisky Galore, I'm assured that you will be as charmed by the book as we were by the film. Aaah I love Scotland!

7 January 2012

The Robber Bridegroom

I had a very trippy dream last night where a red-headed woman, dressed from head to toe in neon green feathers stepped out of the front cover of this very book and started to dance around the room with me .......either I had far too many beers last night or my subconscious self has completely summed up how I feel about this brilliant little find. 

Only a couple of years ago I discovered of the Virago green spines littering the shelves of my local charity shops and this slim volume was the one of the first I picked up, mainly because of the lovely picture on the front. (That incidentally has very little to do with the story inside.)
It must be fate that I found this rather dusty copy at the back of my bookshelf only a few weeks ago as Simon at Stuck in Book also gave Eudora Welty a mention this week. What a treat this little book is! An adult fairy tale with a twist, Welty, inspired (I assume) somewhat not only by her homeland, but by the Brothers Grimm themselves, tells the tale of Jamie Lockhart; a charismatic outlaw terrorising the population of deepest darkest Mississpi with his band of thieves, and Rosamund Musgrow; a completely innocent and utterly stupid young woman who wanders the countryside in her expensive silk gown, blissfully unaware of her evil stepmothers' burning desire to get rid of her for good. Stepmothers do get a bad press in fairy tales don't they?

Against an atmospheric backdrop populated by legendary figures from the place and period, Jamie Lockhart claims Rosamund as his own (quite literally) and whisks her off into the sunset to live as his 'robber bride'. This is a dark, poetic and completely unreal short(ish) story, written in an authentic voice and chock full of twists, turns and tricks. Drawing inspiration from traditions and tales far older than herself, Welty has written something truly unique. Something I rarely stumble across nowadays...

'"Oh, you do plague me so, to be nothing more than a head wrapped up in blue mud, though I know your eyes and your tongue do stick out as red as fire, the way you came down off the pole in Rodney Square." And he said, "Oh, Big Harp, my brother, please stay in the trunk like a good head, and don't be after me eternally for raiding and murdering, for you give me no rest."
But the voice said, "Let me out!" all the while, even after the Little Harp fell asleep and went to snoring.' 

3 January 2012

New Year Meme - Book titles

What is this I hear you cry?! Relish posting two memes in a row!? How disgracefully lazy of me in this fresh, literary new year. WELL. I don't care. The fabulous Mr Adam Beyonce Lowe introduced me to this, although I'm not sure how well this will work...

Complete the following sentences with book titles that you have read this year (2011) Put the author of the book in parenthesis.

I am:  An Artist of the Floating World (Ishiguro)

I will never be:  Sense and Sensibility (Austen)

I fear:  The Winter Ghosts (Mosse)

My best friend is:  Queen of the Elephants (Shand)

What’s the weather like?  A Fine Balance (Mistry)

Best Advice:  Enduring Love (McEwan)

I’ve never been to:  Brick Lane (Ali)

Favorite form of transport:  Birdsong (Faulks)

I’ll never fit in at:  Major Pettigrew's Last Stand (Simonson)

How I’d like to die:  A Handful of Dust (Waugh)

You and your friends are:  Jamrach's Menagerie (Birch)

Thought for the day:  When God was a Rabbit (Winman)

Your soul’s present condition:  Satori in Paris (Kerouac)

Well, the bit about the weather is a bit of a fib but I suppose I'm getting there! 

1 January 2012

Hola 2012!

Happy New Year one and all! Before I start with the far-too-serious state of affairs that is the putting together of new year resolutions and some (hopefully) well-considered book reviews, Nadia at A Bookish Way of Life's latest post reminded me that I should perhaps review my own year's reading beforehand; by way of a clever little meme that originally started life with The Perpetual Page Turner - strictly for my own benefit/amusement!

           1. Best Book(s) You Read in 2011?

          2. Most Disappointing Book?

          3. Most Surprising (in a good way!) Book of 2011?

The Robber Bridegroom - Eudora Welty (more to come on this soon!)

          4. Book(s) you recommended to people most in 2011?

The Crimson Petal and the White - Michael Faber 

          5. Best series you discovered in 2011?

I haven't technically read any series this year. However, the wonderful Woman in White by Wilkie Collins was originally published in this format. Does that count?

          6. Favorite new authors you discovered in 2011?

Deborah Lawrenson (The Lantern) and Sarah Winman (When God was a Rabbit)

          7. Most thrilling, unputdownable book in 2011?

The Crimson Petal and the White - Michael Faber

          8. Book you most anticipated in 2011?

          9. Favorite cover of a book you read in 2011?

              10. Most memorable character in 2011?

    Count Fosco in The Woman in White 

              11. Most beautifully written book read in 2011?

              12. Book that had the greatest impact on you in 2011?

    A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry

              13. Book you can't believe you waited UNTIL 2011 to finally read?

    Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier

              14. Favorite Passage/Quote From A Book You Read in 2011?

    'When in doubt - wash!' - Jennie (Paul Gallico)

              15. Book that you read in 2011 that you would be most likely reread in 2012?

    This is pretty unlikely given the size of my TBR mountain. However, I would gladly dive into Rebecca all over again! 

              16. Book That Had A Scene In It That Had You Reeling And Dying To Talk To Somebody About It? (a WTF moment, an epic revelation, a steamy kiss, etc. etc.) Be careful of spoilers! 

    Some parts of Jamrach's Menagerie (Carol Birch) are utterly horrifying (in a thoroughly entertaining way!) as is The Cement Garden (Ian McEwan)