Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Adios 2008

This year has certainly been memorable, plenty of light, even more shade, but here is a purely cultural evaluation:

TV - Outnumbered, Little Dorrit, Merlin were live highlights for me, and on DVD, Mad Men, The Wire and Curb Your Enthusiasm have been wonderful. Can't wait to see more of Wallender as well, in which Branagh was marvellous and also provided a little touch of Tom Hiddleston, definitely an actor to watch (see below...). But my complete favourite was Devil's Whore with the amazing Andrea Riseborough, Dominic West, Michael Fassbender and Harry Lloyd as a memorably slimy cameo of Prince Rupert. I can't wait to see what Riseborough does next.

Books - Travels with Herodotus is the book I will definitely re-read from this year, along with Jude Morgan's An Accomplished Woman, and Megan Whalen Turner's Attolia books. This has been a great year for history books and children's fiction, but apart from Morgan and the delightful Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, good new romance has been thin on the ground. Am also being very careful not to gollop up CS Sansom's Shardlake books - I loved the first two.

Music - Well, Vampire Weekend obviously, as well as Fleet Foxes and The Killers, but the other pleasure has been discovering David Daniels, especially the opera Rinaldo with beautiful performances from him and Cecilia Bartoli, just utterly lovely. Minion No 1 went to his first rock concert, VW at Botanique here in Brussels, and we also took both boys to their first proper classical concert, a special children's concert with some Rimsky Korsakov, Weber and Stravinsky's Firebird with accompanying narration.

Theatre - the year started with the highlight of Much Ado About Nothing at the National Theatre with Zoe Wanamaker and Simon Russell Beale as Beatrice and Benedick, and another highlight was Maria Aitken's The 39 Steps, which is wonderfully funny. Cheek by Jowl's Cymbeline was excellent, pacy, weird and introducing Tom Hiddleston who is going to be big big big. He's one of those actors who just catch your eye and can't quite release you once you start watching him. Elegant, neat and precise with his verse. But of course, the big big big highlight was Tennant's Hamlet. Not just Tennant, but Greg Doran's wonderful ensemble cast, with an extra special mention to Penny Downie's Gertrude, who lingers with me.

Art - Renaissance Portraits at the National Gallery and seeing the Queen's collection of Flemish Masters here in Brussels have been major highlights. I took friends to see Rubens' house in Antwerp, always a delight to see. Taking the boys to Chatsworth was enjoyable - Minion No 1's egalitarian instincts were somewhat offended by the wealth of fine art snaffled by the Dukes of Devonshire on their numerous Grand Tours and then displayed so finely in deepest Derbyshire, but he was impressed.

Cinematically speaking, the stuff we saw was on DVD, but my main impression remains admiration for George Clooney for steadily producing a stream of interesting, complex films appealing to adults - this year, The Good German and Michael Clayton joined Goodnight and Good Luck and Syriana as films I will happily watch again. No, you know, I really don't fancy him. We finally caught up with Lives of Others, which was just as marvellous as everyone said, and with Sophie Scholl, which was terribly sad and beautiful. And I am going to stand up for Mamma Mia! which received very dodgy reviews from male reviewers but was and will be the ultimately feelgood film for dark times, one to watch and rewatch when the winter glums are a little too pressing.

So culturally, at least, a rich and varied banquet. No dance - so maybe 2009 is the year to introduce the boys to ballet...

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Madoff, Merdle and Money

Isn't money just weird...My first job was as a graduate trainee in a government organisation that was intended to regulate the City, the body that eventually transmuted into today's FSA. I ran away - two things in particular drove me. First of all, I felt physically sick commuting even the seven stops from Kentish Town to Bank, walking in a strange rhythm with thousands of fellow-lemmings from the Tube to the office, and second, once I was there, learning about the futures markets, I recoiled in some sort of allergic reaction to the idea of essentially betting millions and millions of pounds, dollars or yen. My limited understanding of most financial transactions of a more sophisticated variety was that they were very fancy ways of gambling, a past-time which has never held much appeal for me. I used occasionally to take on room-mates at school or university for stakes of Smarties or matchsticks, but real money has always been rather too rare for me to take any chances when it came into my possession.

The thing was, as a reader, I knew about families who lost everything. I knew about Little Dorrit, I'd read The Way We Live Now, and Middlemarch, I'd heard of the South Sea Bubble. Those of us who love literature and study history are well aware that once we humans have lost our understanding of money as a tangible, we teeter on a precipice which leads to darker places, like the Marshalsea, or Turkish baths where we may slit our throats rather than face the music. Merdle in Little Dorrit, as BBC audiences will have seen this last week, nabbed his step-son's pearl-handled knife so he could do away with himself in his local hammam, but Madoff (and what serendipity led a man with a name like Madoff to make off with so many people's moolah!) must face the music in court.

So here we are, those banks who seemed to be slipping through the credit crunch somewhat less scathed than others - HSBC, Santander, BNP Paribas, they turn out to be mugs facing potentially billions in losses for bunging the odd quid in Madoff's direction. It's all very well being a brilliant scientist/mathematician/economist/analyst, but once again, we have a prime example of how the financial world depends not on common sense or science, but on a herd instinct focused purely on false expectations. The Greeks, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and of course Dickens and Trollope (both of whom had direct personal experience of the fall-out of financial shenanigans) have all warned us against the pitfalls of handing over our hard-earned to the first plausible smooth-talker. Having watched with interest scams of one sort or another from Ernest Saunders' games with Guinness up to Madoff's appearance in court yesterday, I keep wondering how theoretically intelligent people (eg. Nicola Horlick and all the rest of them who thought Madoff's operations were safe) can fall for the scam. But of course, the other lesson that literature and history teach is that round the next corner, there is always another sucker.

Few fraudsters are remorseful, like Bulstrode, George Eliot's banker whose shameful dealings are exposed when he is at his height in terms of power and influence. Bulstrode has the bulwark of a faithful wife, willing to stand by him through his shame as she enjoyed his erstwhile glory. Ruth Madoff has posted bail to keep Madoff temporarily out of choky. This time, the bad guy will take the fall. But of course, it's still caveat emptor out there. Getting tangled up with money seems to me like getting tangled up with one of those men that country and western gals sing about, the types who leave a girl high and dry, or weeping into their whiskies, lipstick on his collar, a twinkle in his eye, and a permanent label that only shrewd women can read which says, "I will mess you around, you'll be walking after midnight, crazy for me."

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Recovery

An evil cold caught up with me so badly that I reread two of my favourite Georgette Heyers, Sylvester and Frederica, and they fulfilled their comfort function admirably, but as I logged them into the reading spreadsheet (yes, I am pitiful and with no life, I do keep records of what I've read), I realised that they were the first two Heyers I've read this year. Or at least, the first two I've logged, because I'm pretty sure I revisited Venetia in the summer.

Nor have I read this year my other favourite comfort writers, Eva Ibbotson and Jennifer Crusie. Playing - as you can - with my spreadsheet I see that this is a year where I've re-read a few of the books on my list, but those were professional reads, in other words, the books I have been teaching. Otherwise, this has been a year where I've read mainly new stuff, much less romance than usual, more history and biography, and the most satisfying reads have been children's fiction and classics, notably my buried treasure, which would be EM Forster's A Passage to India.

I studied APTI at university, but didn't rate it compared with Room with a View and Howard's End in particular. This time round, I have really fallen in love with the book, and that's a lovely and rare feeling, although it hasn't helped me particularly in trying to transmit its delights to a gang of somewhat baffled and overstretched seventeen year olds for whom English is a second language. Still, this time round, the symbolism, the richness of characterisation, the vividness of description, the explorations of spirit and nature have engaged me much more than the more contemporary fiction I've been reading. It's a juicy book, lush and plump, fascinating, with some lovely jokes and much carefully channeled anger. Forster excoriates his fellow Englishmen and women, deservedly so, but his eye for their follies and conceits is incredibly sharp.

Then there was Treasure Island, which really is a terrifically exciting book, very neat and delightful. My image of Long John Silver has been so frequently adjusted and warped by stage and film versions of the book that I had forgotten what a fascinating character he is and I want to see a decent remake of the film with Tom Goodman-Hill in the role, because after watching the amazing, wonderful and compulsive Devil's Whore, I would be happy to see any of the cast, but he did bring considerable comic relief to the down and dirty third episode.

Having meandered round the houses, I'm just going to end by saying that the Killers are just getting better and better. Day & Age is fabulous. This has been a good year for great discoveries - Vampire Weekend and Fleet Foxes are wonderful, but the Killers have come into their own, and while 2008 has been a tough year, at least it has had a terrific soundtrack.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Not a book or a movie, but a place

Today, I visited Aargh Ink, Jenny Crusie's blog, after a brief pause and found she had written about the wonders of maps, which are things that we very much love in this household too, which made me think of this place, which is definitely my favourite museum in Belgium, and is in my top five, along with John Soane's house and various art galleries.

You may not recognise, or even have heard of, the Plantin-Moretus museum, but it is the most wonderful place. Of course, I would say that, being a total bookaholic, because this was one of the first book-factories in Europe. Christophe Plantin was a Frenchman who came to Antwerp because it was a centre of humanism and translations of the Bible and music, and he set up a printing house. He had a daughter, and when she married, her husband and descendants carried on the business, and their name was Moretus.

There are wonderful things in this place - on the ground floor are the presses and the proof-reading rooms, the bookshop and a study reserved for Justus Lipsius, who used to come and stay and have great thoughts. Upstairs is a warren of staircases and panelled rooms with prints and maps and globes, the first recorded image of a potato and illustrations of polar voyages complete with Esquimaux and polar bears. There are wonderful family portraits and illuminated Bibles, and Plantin's own sonnet on worldly happiness:

Sonnet

Avoir une maison commode, propre et belle,
Un jardin tapissé d'espaliers odorans,
Des fruits, d'excellent vin, peu de train, peu d'enfans,
Posseder seul sans bruit une femme fidèle,

N'avoir dettes, amour, ni procès, ni querelle,
Ni de partage à faire avecque ses parens,
Se contenter de peu, n'espérer rien des Grands,
Régler tous ses desseins sur un juste modèle,

Vivre avecque franchise et sans ambition,
S'adonner sans scrupule à la dévotion,
Dompter ses passions, les rendre obéissantes,

Conserver l'esprit libre, et le jugement fort,
Dire son chapelet en cultivant ses entes,
C'est attendre chez soi bien doucement la mort.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A book to avoid

This was one of those books where I read the reviews and thought, hmmm, interesting, and then was looking for something meatily populist to round out my 3 for the price of 2 offer at Waterstones. So I picked up Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and here I am, several days later wondering why I finished it, why it had rave reviews and how on earth anyone, even an Aussie, could even conceive of a single positive sentence featuring both War and Peace and Dragon Tattoo.

It's mean to pick on an author who is tragically and relatively youthfully dead, but when the Swedes sorting through Stieg Larsson's stuff after his heart attack came across three thick fat and unpublished manuscripts, I think it would have been kinder to Larsson's memory and the world if they'd not taken them to a publisher desperate for something to fill the schedules until the next Wallender novel.

Spoilers henceforth:

Plot/Themes: usual sexual violence/abuse/rape serial killer stuff along with corporate shenanigans and neo-Nazism corrupting Sweden from within.
Characterisation: hero is placeholder for author (shaggy, somewhat fit financial journalist, serial shagger), heroine, a sort of Boho wet dream girl-woman with Aspergers and an unusual interest in the inner workings of the iBook.
Style: euruuuughghghghghg. Translator should be shot for mistmatched idioms and clunkiness of Mount Rushmore proportions. There's a whodunnit for you - who killed the translator....Unless he was just working with what he had, in which case, hoo boy, it was lame.
Form and structure: Dual plot-lines for hero and heroine until they meld uneasily about 2/3 of the way in.

I am not going to waste any more of your or my time on this book - just trust me, it doesn't live up to they hype.
I

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Canto of Ulysses

Primo Levi's If This is a Man is a book that I read years ago and never forgot, but did not know until I started teaching it this term. This time, chapter 11, when Levi is asked by his fellow-prisoner Jean for some Italian lessons, is the chapter that suddenly stands out in stark relief to the previous chapters which record and reproduce the routines and systems that evolved in Auschwitz. Levi starts his first lesson with words, simple words for the simple things that their life has been reduced to but in the course of their walk across the camp, a walk of over an hour, Levi feels the desperate need to tell Jean the story of Canto 26 of Dante's Inferno, where in the 8th circle of hell, Dante encounters Ulysses. In an episode devised by Dante, Ulysses recounts to the poet his final journey, his passage past the pillars of Hercules and his speech to his men, exhorting them to keep faith and continue their voyage into oceans unknown, towards lands unexplored.

Dante tells his men:
118 Considerate la vostra semenza:
119 fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
120 ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.

This is translated in by Stuart Woolf (Levi's English translator) as:

Think of your breed: for brutish ignorance
Your mettle was not made; you were made men,
To follow after knowledge and excellence.

Of course, in Auschwitz, this is a cry of incredible defiance. But where Dante's Ulysses is destroyed by Another, Levi is destroyed ultimately by the knowledge that in Auschwitz, the struggle was not between the demand for obedience to divine rule facing off against the freedom to find out knowledge and excellence, but between those who embraced brutish ignorance, seeking to extinguish all knowledge and excellence and the men, women and children who entered their inverted, perverse, enclosed empire. The empire where criminals became kings and the bulk of inmates became dispensable vassals.

Levi confronts a terrible paradox in The Canto of Ulysses: to remain a man, he must remember Dante, but the act of remembering and delivering and explaining to the Pikolo Jean, reawakens in the prisoner the terrible agony of remembering his home, his mountains, his life prior to entering the circles of hell that comprised Auschwitz. And yet, through Ulysses, Levi begins to grasp at some explanation for the inexplicable, 'a flash of intuition, perhaps the reason for our fate'. Then the mundane, sordid, banal reality of collecting their cabbage and turnip soup dispels the moment and Levi ends with the final line of the canto:

'and over our heads, the hollow seas closed up'.

Even though he is in the category of the saved and not the drowned, here, he is swallowed up.

We must do our utmost, in however small a way, to rescue our fellow men from the hollow seas, to remember that we were not made to live like brutes, but to pursue excellence and virtue, to protect those who are at risk of the terrible brutishness of which we can be guilty and to help those who seem to be sinking into savagery find safe passage into the light of the sun and other stars.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Motion's Keats


I remember all the hoopla about Andrew Motion's Keats biography when it was first published in 1997, but I just never got round to reading it - after teaching Keats a good deal in recent years, I was finally guiltified into thinking I really ought to know a little more about him, so I got the book over the summer and finally started it about 3 weeks ago.

The book is incredibly thorough. I'm not sure that I needed to know that Keats ate porridge on the morning he went to Mull or that the Maria Crowther which carried Keats to his Italian death was a two-masted brigantine, but these are things I do know now. What I really did enjoy about the biography were Motion's explorations of Keats's verse itself, which inspired me to go back and reread all the bits I read only at university as opposed to the regulars one would expect to dish up to school age students, e.g. Eve of St Agnes, Odes and Belle Dame Sans Merci.

I was surprised to find out, according to Motion, how negative Keats was about women, because of all the Romantic poets, he seems to me the most romantic, with the most interesting depictions of women, from the Belle Dame to Isabella and Psyche. They are there pretty much to be worshipped, I suppose, and sometimes to be reviled, they can be a bit passive like Isabella and Madeline, but women seem to be essential to his creative processes, and he certainly isn't a twisted cynic like Byron or a player like Shelley.

Another pleasure of the biography was being able to position Keats in terms of his period and his friends, his social status and his day to day lifestyle. As expected, the end is terribly sad, partly because it is always sad to read of a young man or woman dying before they should, also because he was so terribly conscious of how much he might have achieved but wouldn't, and finally because he was heartbroken by the realisation that he would not see his Fanny again.

Fanny seems opaque as ever - it is not clear at all what kind of girl/woman she was from Motion's biography, we never seem to catch more than glimpses of her, but what is clear is that while Keats loved her deeply, he was also terrified of loving her (or indeed anyone). He had, understandably, given his mother's abandonment of her family first through remarriage, then through her disappearance and finally through her death, issues with women and also seemed to believe that love and creativity were incompatible. But eventually, just as he realised how very sick he was, he also realised how very much he loved Fanny. It is heartbreaking. But I do wish that Severn had shown fewer scruples and chosen to open Fanny's last two letters to him instead of burying them with him.

Teaching Keats has made me love his poetry more than ever - he always my favourite of the Romantic poets. But reading this biography brought home to me how very much we did lose first through the wilfullness of his reviewers who discouraged him and slowed his rates of production down by depressing him, and secondly through his death. His preoccupations and artistic concerns are so universal, his ability to ravel them up into verse which resonated and resounded with ambiguity and layering and complexity was so rich and his vision so clear that I regret all that he might have achieved if he had lived even for another three or four years, or past thirty.

Now we will just have to wait until the release of Jane Campion's film Bright Star, with Ben Whishaw as Keats - out sometime next year, and I hope, sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Memories

This morning, I turned on the tv and was immediately thrilled by the little numbers in the corner of the screen - I think at that stage, Obama had 338 and McCain 120 votes in the electoral college, and Dimbleby had a surreal interview with Gore Vidal, who declared "I don't know who you are". Then at 6am Brussels time, Obama took the stage with his family, and spoke for 10-12 minutes, calm, sensible, sane and dignified as ever.

I was three or four when my parents moved to Washington DC, and I was conscious of race, if not racism, very early. Washington is a black city, except for the compressed quarter where the expats and rich guys hang out. I remember playing with Angie Tutt, and I have a vague recollection that it was ok for her to come over to my house, but I'd never go over to her house. It wasn't safe: or that's the impression I had. It was certainly in a part of Washington that we just never visited. I remember hearing songs like Go tell it on the mountain, Oh, Happy Day delivered by Etta James with a soaring gospel chorus in the background, What's Going On. I know there were riots and demonstrations, some against Vietnam, some race-related, stuff that adults discussed in low, horrified voices. And I remember visiting other friends who had black housekeepers, ample women who changed out of uniforms and shrugged on shabby coats before catching the bus back to some other part of town. My school ran a scholarship programme, and there was a funny, long, gawky boy, Quentin, whose show and tell was a praying mantis over a foot long that he kept in a box in the corner of the schoolroom.

I wonder where Angie and Quentin are today, and how they feel, and whether they got to college and had the opportunities they deserved and if they are sitting in comfortable homes in nice suburbs of Washington, proud that their generation was the one that was able to provide not just America with the possibility of hope and change, but the whole world.

Obama's victory is a victory of clarity over confusion, of calm reflection over chaotic impulse and of a blend of idealism, fundamental decency and common sense over fear, pure fundamentalism and cock-eyed rationales with little or no foundation in fact. I hope he's also brought McCain back from his bizarre brinkmanship with the more delusional and plain weird shores of the Republican party. Simply put, where I face-palmed and did my best to ignore, I now hope. Thank you America, for giving all of us something to smile about, something to feel good about. Because if anyone has the intellect and organisational, executive ability to get us out of our current mess, it is Barack Obama.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Let's hope they will...

What a shame it is that we in the rest of the world can't vote in today's election - it'd be an Obama landslide. But all we can do is hope that enough people in the USA have believed 'Yes, we can' and have, or are or will be doing it today, voting not for McCain whose final stump speech in Colorado was all about fighting - 'my friends, we must fight and fight and fight... and I will fight and fight and fight', but for That sane One in the other corner.

I've heard so many totally stupid things said about Obama, but the comments that struck me today were the ones which dissed McCain and Obama equally, calling them both undistinguished. While I'd have to agree that McCain is, for his 72 years, pretty undistinguished (855th out of 860 in his graduating year at Annapolis, crashing four planes in his years as a fighter pilot, only allowed to fly because his father and grandfather were admirals, screwing around on the wife who'd endured terrible pain and disfigurement in a car-crash before divorcing her so he could marry a very rich woman, unable to remember exactly how many houses he has), Obama is a different kettle of fish. The first black editor of the Harvard Law Review is a pretty distinguished way to start a career; an eloquent and elegant writer; a man who turned his back on the opportunity to rake in the millions as a lawyer, preferring to serve and help disadvantaged people; a phenomenal organiser with a real talent for finding and keeping excellent staff; a man who rarely loses his temper in public.

Obama is special. The Economist fingered him a little over four years ago as one to watch and they have been right. Personally, I wanted him to win the Democrat nomination because I suspected that he would be less divisive than Hillary. While I admire what Mrs Clinton has achieved as a Senator, the Clinton I'd rather see in the White House is Chelsea, who seems to have taken the best of both her parents and become, somehow, a decent and sensible and sane human being. So I got that wish. And the way Obama has conducted himself and led his party and led his campaigners and organisers, who all seem to follow him with a dedication that goes well beyond duty, show a man of intelligence and warmth, of humanity and dignity, who no doubt will see his integrity suffer as he strives to manage the position which I so hope he wins during the course of today, but who also gives me the impression of being a man wise enough to take his country forward in a direction that will give not just the US but all of us hope.

Wisdom, health, common sense, intelligence, genuine commitment to family and to the future - these are Obama's positive attributes, and in a time where very hard decisions must be taken, where very dangerous people must be contained and where compromises must be reached, they are the attributes that will ensure that this currently rickety world of ours is a little safer and a little saner.

Obama's victory will say so much to the rest of the world about America, and for those of us who know and love America, will give us instead of the volatile, the self-absorbed, the materialistic and power-hungry world of Republicanism, the altruistic, exciting, innovative, problem-solving world of the United States.

I'm not naive - the Democrats have their ties to corporate fatcats and their satanic agreements sewn up with lobbiests too. Obama's hands are by no means clean. But if you are a decent individual heading into the muddy swamps of politics, you can't expect to remain squeaky and pristine. I'd rather have someone who does know and understand the ropes, who has an inkling of how to yank them to achieve his goals rather than yelling swear words and pulling a McNasty. Let's hope a significant majority of the American public is thinking the same thing. I'll be crossing my fingers.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The carcrash that is Spooks

Continue to wade my way through Andrew Motion's biography of Keats, verrrryyyyyy slowly, but thoroughly because I am stopping along the way with my old Penguin edition of the complete Keats to read early sonnets and Endymion, so no new books up for review at all. Perhaps a burst of activity in Nov, who can say, but I shouldn't think life will lighten up until all the references and university entrance palaver is out of the way.

In the meantime, I did start watching Stephen Fry and Simon Schama on the USofA, part of my great America fetish. Schama's programme is genuinely provocative and interesting, although of course, I'd have liked him to be a little less careful with his judgements and a bit more provocative with his commentary. But I am unhinged by overexposure to the Daily Show and Huffington Post, so what do I know? Stephen Fry's romp around the US in a black taxi is great - it's a bit like the way Americans do Europe - three seconds in North Dakota, a whole minute for some meander in the Mississippi in the company of a man who was a dead ringer for an Islamic terrorist given big bushy beardiness (BTW, I swear when I am Emperor of the Universe and Evil Overlord of all Dominions, I'm going to ban beards - they have always looked like homes for bacteria and strange fungal growths. I will entertain petitions for beards that are either so neat as to be unobtrusive or champion ZZ Top type beards, but 98% beards will be for the big shave).

And now I'm brought to my latest two televisual addictions: Little Dorrit, in same useful, user-friendly format as Bleak House, half hour on Thursday and Sunday, and of course, the diabolically appalling Spooks.

I've always thought of Spooks as shark-jumpy, from the end of Season 1 where MacFadyen has his girlfriend and her daughter trapped in a house with an exploding laptop, and yanno that everyone will escape the cliffhanger - but then the writers will get you with a much worse death for your favourite characters at the end of an early ep in the series. And it was ever thus, with the dispatch of Rupert Penry Jones, oops, sorry, Adam Carter, it's just the drama and writing are so implausible that I can never forget that the actors are actually actors and that Rupert Penry Jones is having to say these absolutely ridiculous things e.g. about how his grandfather had half his back shot away on the Somme so we aren't going to bow to terrorists demanding that we cancel Remembrance Sunday....eh?

Anyway, last night, RPJ bought the farm, but fortunately, hot guy role has been taken over by Richard Armitage, aka Guy of Gisborne, and bonus, he took off his top to reveal muscular glorification with Blake tattoed on his midriff. I am not sure how or why the tattoist in the Russian prison where Guy - sorry, Richard, sorry, Lucas North had spent the last 8 years (ahem conveniently skipping 9/11 and all previous series of Spooks) had access to a Blake print, but there it was on his chest, along with cobblers like Dum Spiro Spero and wiggly squirls on his back and arms. Anyway for those of you who missed it, Armitage has quite the upper body.

You can see that unlike previous series of Spooks, where they had Tom/Matthew MacFadyen walking into the sea and Danny the cool black guy having his brains blown out, I am no longer remotely upset by the death of key characters. I just like to know how they are going to get rid of them, and RPJ had let slip the suggestion that he might be leaving the series, so I knew sticky end would surely follow. The bad news is that despite having a full funeral the stupid blonde woman who RPJ/Adam was having an on-off thing with is back, behaving more stupidly than ever... in Russia undercover (ermmmm, MI5 don't do abroad, but that's only a slight technical hitch) using her mobile, then having a detailed practical chat over mobile in back of London cab - how bloody un-undercover is that? She did do a cool thing of kicking the s*@t out of a big bald bloke who was theoretically an Ivan following her, then straddling him with her crotch in his face and a ballpoint pen to his left eye so she could nick his carkeys.

Anyway, Spooks was well up to its customary standard of being beyond the collapse of the Twin Towers in its use of Willing Suspension of Disbelief, but I will be there like a panting hart to watch the second in the series tonight. But I'm getting perilously close to not wishing to spend my previous TV hours on a programme which has me howling at the screen every 3 seconds: "No, that couldn't happen, that just couldn't happen, arrrrghghghg give me a bloody break."

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Tennant's Hamlet


On Tuesday night, I saw Tennant doing Hamlet, and it was the most exhilarating of performances - although he couldn't have done it without the others. The cast was terrific, and I do think it is a landmark Hamlet, although what with Toby Stephens and Ben Wishaw around, there are plenty of major contenders for the Hamlet of the Noughties.

I've seen some great Hamlets - Jonathan Pryce in 1982, Branagh in 1992, Andrew Mallett in 1996 on the Great Wall of China, Simon Russell Beale in 2000. But Tennant was something else. It was like watching quicksilver, swift, elusive, allusive, rich, and utterly, totally enthralling.

The role is so absorbing, the word-play so dazzling, the imagery so vivid and the predicament so much the predicament of all of us poor puny humans. Not all of us are Macbeth or Lear, military men at their peak, or aged kings like Lear. But all of us have some moment when we are faced with terrible revelations, decisions, consequences, however it happens, all of us must lose a father, as Claudius so callously suggests in Act 1, and all of us have that moment when we are rendered rogues and peasant slaves for our failures.

Tennant's Hamlet left me wanting to be Horatio, and I have to say I thought Horatio was a gift in the casting, as were Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius and Penny Downie as Gertrude. The closet scene has lingered with me. I sat there tense and horrified, but now, the memory of Gertrude holding her beloved son as though she could by holding him somehow put them both back together again, shattered and distraught as they were, brings tears to my eyes. Patrick Stewart was not a bravado Claudius - he was avuncular but with this terrible, cold concealed cruelty that emerged when he saw Gertrude pick up the cup and ordered her not to drink. Then when she gazes at him, understanding fully what he has planned, he watches frozen, almost visibly convincing himself that he was better off without her. His own death was eerily unhurried.

Time was very clearly delineated throughout, the set was magnificent, but the night was Tennant's, the text was delivered sharp and clear so that meaning was layered and intertwined and everything seemed to me lucid, accessible and true.

Denmark became so real a place of mirrors and smoke, so subtle, the roar of the sea suggested, surrounding this prison with terrors of the deep.

It was one of those nights of theatrical magic, inspirational, rich, unforgettable, the three hours traffic of the stage passing too swiftly. The memory will be green with me for years - I think of moments of the play and the scene unfolds before me in my mind's eye. It's easy with an all-singing-all-dancing-all-sci-fi version of Hamlet like this to forget the hand at the tiller, but Doran's Hamlet is absolutely riveting, and I wish I could see it again and again and again.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Hank and John, and the Nerdfighters

Last year, I was hooked by the Vlogbrothers, Hank and John Green who live in the middle of nowhere (OK Missoula, Montana, that's the middle of nowhere to a Neuhaus-chomping victory chimp swinging through the capital of Old Europe). They are a pair of bespectacled nerdfighter brothers who decided to communicate only via vlog for 2007, and whoopee, they have reprised themselves for a month because of some bet/deal/punishment decided by their nerdfighter followers. Huzzah.

It is hard to work out which one talks faster, but they are worth checking out for Hank's Numa Numa dance, and for their Obama Llama Duck song featuring George Bush as duck (sometimes sitting) and John's upside down waste-paper basket practice, oh, and by the way, his new book Paper Town comes out in six days. I've not read any of John Green's books, but they are recommended by my former pupil Naomi Rea, whose judgement I mostly trust where books are concerned except for her inexplicable addiction to Twilight and the subsequent stupendously stinky novels of major Mormon Stephanie Meyer featuring uber-Mary-Sue Bella and the gorgeous vampire Edward Cullen who sparkles (for more on his sparkliness also check out that other blogger of genius, Cleolinda). Goodness, that sentence was hard to reach the end of.

I can report nothing else on the book/movie front: we are trying to finish House season 3 before the boxed set of House season 4 is issued in OE, I am in the middle of several books and at the end of none of them, and the only movie I've seen recently was Run Fat Boy Run, a mildly amusing romcom with Simon Pegg and Hank Azaria. I found watching Azaria odd, because of course I know him as the voice of Apu and Chief Wiggum among others, not as some really quite pectorally moulded individual with a face that could only be American. It was a bit like watching my mother-in-law lapdancing. RFBR is also directed by David Schwimmer.

What were these two icons of US tv doing messing around with a low-budget Brit romcom? Saving grace (as always) was Dylan Moran doing one of his louche turns again. Anyway, it did get me through a couple of exercise sessions and I may watch it again while doing tedious bumps and thumps because I have watched so much MTV during my exercise sessions that I have seen every video about 50m times. In fact, if I had been paid a euro for every time I've seen the sodding Foo Fighters singing Best of You, I could step in and sort out the Icelandic banking crisis. Don't get me started on Slipknot and Queens of the Stone Age who continue to vie with the Pussycat Dolls for my vote for most repellent music videos ever conceived.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Dragonfly Pool


Eva Ibbotson has never let me down - I'm sad that she's now writing exclusively for the children's market, but her writing remains lucid, generous, warm-hearted and humane. The Dragonfly Pool harks back to the children's books of an earlier time, the Ruritanian romances of Anthony Hope, Frances Hodgson Burnett's Lost Prince and Violet Needham's books set in a fin-de-siecle zone somewhere east of Vienna. The brave, bright and sympathetic heroine, Tally Hamilton, has a strong moral code which leads her bizarrely to Bergania, a neutral fictional country that does its best to stand up against Hitler, and entangles her with the Royal Family of Bergania. There is a chase, there are villains of every stripe from the out and out evil to those who are simply utterly and entirely self-centred. Good more or less triumphs, the wicked more or less pay for their sins and the plot hangs together well for me, although as always with Ibbotson's books, I always wish they were longer for the elegance and gentle, witty style that she has perfected over the last 30 or so years of writing.

Ibbotson's stand-out books for me remain Countess Below Stairs, Magic Flutes and Company of Swans, all of which enlivened a rather difficult winter in Aberdeen that I remember for a cold so extreme that I spent quite a lot of time in both the University Library and the central city library, intermittently studying phonetics, sociolinguistics and more cheeringly, Renaissance Scots literature. Later she published The Morning Gift, which has become my favourite of her romances. There is a pattern - not a formula, but a pattern - to her novels. The heroine is always very much an ingenue, and good to her core. Good, not in a goody-two-shoes kind of way, but in a passionate and morally not always particularly easy kind of way, the kind of good that understands sacrifice and struggling for what one believes is right. The heroes are formidably intelligent and often self-made and staggeringly rich. They may be blinded by superficiality at the start of the novel, or even trapped not by blindness but by necessity into quite terrible matches, but they see the light and they are led to it by the heroines. There is always a rich cast of supporting characters with quirks and foibles that make them at once maddening and lovable, but also quite unique. And then there are the villains. There are quite often horrible, nasty evil people, like the leader of the Gestapo thugs in Dragonfly Pool, but also there are quite terrible, awful, banal, narcissists whose great wickedness is their self-centredness and almost unwitting cruelty.

Ibbotson writes a world of extremes, like Dickens or Austen, because extremes are more amusing, but there is a core of fundamental truth in her world - the good do not always entirely triumph, the wicked are not always, and in fact not usually, fully routed, but the triumph at the end of the novel is not so much love conquering all, as moral rectitude triumphing. Selfishness, self-centredness, these may continue in the characters who exhibit them, but our good guys, and this is more explicit in the children's books, enjoy a moral victory that is far more satisfying and true than perhaps glibber writers might manage. All this and careful, neat, high-quality prose that never talks down to the reader of any age. If you haven't read any Ibbotson before, go forth and devour. A writer to comfort the soul.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Consigning Ms Ranty McRant to the recycle bin

I've decided that I have to stop succumbing to the addictive horrorfest that is the US election season. I've always been interested in the US elections, ever since living in Wash DC as a small child. Early memories include my father ringing my mother to collect him because his bus home had been stopped by demonstrations - when we picked him up he was crying because making his way through the melee, he'd caught some tear gas; buying patisserie from a bakery in the Watergate complex and not quite understanding why the place was in the news all the time; and being fascinated by the name Spiro Agnew because I thought he was something to do with making those Spirograph drawings where you pin one wheel down on a piece of paper and then build up cogs around it to create mesmerising even spiral patterns.

But this time, I really don't think I can stomach any more. While I am pro-Obama (surprise surprise, what liberal European isn't?), I don't think he's going to be any panacea. He gives me the impression of being as bright as Bill Clinton, but not as savvy, nor as slippery. I don't know whether that makes him better or worse, but I do know I really really do not want the McCain/Palin ticket anywhere near the White House. But what's the point of following this whole jamboree at all? This is something I can do absolutely nothing about.

It seems very unfair that the rest of the world that we have absolutely no say in elections that will influence the direction of our world for the next four years...although perhaps from the tumultuous events of the last few weeks, perhaps we have seen the beginning of the end for US hegemony. I'm hesitant but we're looking at a resurgent Russia and a commercially powerful China. Both may yet catch cold, but Russia, as McCain says, is awash with 'petro-dollars' and lo, he sees in Putin's eyes the old message: K-G-B. Does this mean Putin has three eyes? I'm digressing - back to the point that perhaps the reason that the US election is so addictive is our very powerlessness in the face of the mighty US electorate - most of which won't vote. Although this year, they might.

Perhaps it is this total lack of control/direct participation that makes the elections such a compelling car-crash. And which turns me into Mrs Ranty McRant of Rantby, Rantshire, Great Ranting, of the Rantiverse. How do I rant? Let me count the ways - actually, I won't, but suffice to say that while I wasn't wild about Reagan, I never ever came close to obsessing as I currently do about the awfulness of the prospect of McCain/Palin. And really, I have better things to do with my time. So just one last look at my favourite sites over the past few weeks. Adieu, Huffington Post, farewell, Salon.com, hasta la vista to the NY Times and the Wall Street Journal. My ranting days are over. There shall be no more cakes and ale. Yeah right.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Re-entering Dunnettworld

Well, my reading rates have tailed off after that magnificent burst of activity during the summer. This month, I have gone back to the habit of having about 3 books on the go at any one time, and then of course, there is marking, the masters and planning and preparation to be done.

So what is on the Currently Open but Unfinished pile?

Solomon & Lord: disappointing Miami law-thriller-romance. Promising reviews from the likes of Carl Hiaasen and Harlan Coben, but it's mushy and the characters are more like tv-movie characters than real people. Nearly finished.

The French Renaissance Court, Robert Knecht: this one I am really enjoying. It is proper history, but also accessible to people like me who are not academic historians. And it is a beautiful book to handle, lovely quality paper and reproductions, along with competent, concise prose exploring a complicated and complex subject.

King Hereafter, Dorothy Dunnett. I've been saving this since I bought it in 2001 just after DD died and I knew there would be no more books. It's the story of Macbeth, but not as we know him from Shakespeare. Instead, it is one of DD's classic recreations of period, focusing not on 15th or 16th century Europe, but on 11th century Scotland, and it is wonderful. I wasn't in the mood when I first picked up the novel, but now there is a group read on one of the Dunnett webgroups and it is at a steady pace, not too fast, allowing us all plenty of time to tease out meanings, observe the subtleties and work our way through the labyrinth of names and places that are a little familiar, but not totally so. I was surprised to encounter Lady Godiva, frex.

Dunnett's modus operandi is layering detail on detail to build her world, and to write about intelligent heroes surrounded generally by intelligent and perceptive observers. We rarely enter the hero's point of view, most frequently encountering him through the perceptions of others, which are opaque and driven by their own agendas, and she is quite extraordinary in capturing the way internal and external drives conflict and mesh to drive events. She is like a scientist turning a specimen over and around, searching out its secrets, its crannies and its depths, and yet leaving still some mysterious glamour over the reader. Once she has you in her grip, that's it, you are hers forever as a reader. When I look at the complete set of DD novels, the audiobooks and the interaction with my fellow fans over the internet, I cannot quite believe that it is now 22 years since I first read her books, and 26 years since I first heard her name, recommended in glowing and passionate terms by a literature don at Georgetown University.

Her throne remains empty. There are other writers of historical novels, certainly, but no one really to compare with her. Patrick O'Brian, perhaps, although he died the year before she did. I think the closest I've come recently is Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, although they are slighter and more fantasy-oriented, and Megan Whalen Turner's Eugenides books, although they are alternative history and aimed squarely at the YA rather than the A market. I don't mean to diss either writer when I say they don't really compare.

So I am enjoying my last unread Dunnett novel, savouring it, relishing it and drawing out the pleasures of a stay in the Dunnettverse, a world of riches and insight, led by a sure-footed guide in full command of her facts and faculties.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

In praise of populist entertainment

This year like no other I am in thrall to the cracktastic circus that is the US Election trail, but last night I managed to behave like a normal human being and go out to the movies with my friends. We were determined to see Mamma Mia!, and how could I resist it? I have to say, opening moment with Amanda Seyfried were dodgy, I had a kind of weird out seeing Dominic Cooper looking buff and tanned and sincere since it was only last week that I saw him in concentration camp issue pyjamas smugly assuming that he wasn't a victim of the latest selection in the extraordinary God On Trial. Then Streep started singing, and I was a goner.

I've never been a huge Streep fan, but Mamma Mia! won me over entirely. Her singing was terrific and she kept the show on the road until the support staff were safely in place, in the form of Christine Baranski and Julie Walters. Now there have been dismissive reviews of the movie, but it deserves every ounce of success and kudos for various reasons - first and foremost that the real leads are mature characters in their 40s/50s, secondly for its sheer exuberance and enthusiasm and finally for its simplicity and lack of cynicism. It is a wonderful night out and Judy Craymer who devised the show and pushed to make the move is a genius.

The other piece of populist entertainment that I'd like to celebrate is the Simpsons. Without the Simpsons, my life as a teacher would be infinitely harder. It may be different in America, but in Europe where most people prefer secular humanism to churchgoing, it is increasingly difficult to teach those classics which are littered with Biblical references. Lo, the Simpsons descends in clouds of glory, for within the series are embedded the cultural markers not just of our age, but of ages past. I checked out with a class of 14 year olds the identities of Cain and Abel, Joshua, Jonah, the Whale, Samson, David and Bathsheba and Solomon, and they were all able to relate the Simpsonic circumstances in which these Old Testament figures had been namechecked. Thank you to the erudite, literate, witty writers who have made this teacher's life so much easier.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Where we were and where we should be

I was driving home from work, around 5pm British summer time, when I heard the news. The car swerved a little, my shocked response roused a shattered 4 year old experiencing his first days of formal schooling and when I went to the supermarket to pick up some essential supplies, everyone else seemed subdued and zoned out. We couldn't believe it, and the whole series of attacks which we watched over and over and over as our TV screens, governed by broadcasters as dazed and mesmerised as the rest of us, seemed like shots of a Hollywood movie. What did it mean? What were the implications and ramifications?

They weren't what I'd hoped for, that's for sure. I still can't believe that we rolled over so the Bush and Blair administrations could shaft us royally with the phony dossiers and 'war on terror' garbage. I still can't believe that Afghanistan is more of a basket case than ever. I still can't believe that the US voted Bush back in four years ago so he could oversee the shelling out of billions more dollars to his war contractor buddies and the melt-down of the US banking system. Yeah, I know that sub-prime and the collapse of Bear Stearns are not the direct responsibility of the US government and the Bush more properly known as Bozo the Clown. But my, wouldn't the US have been better equipped for the inevitable downturn in the housing and financial markets if they hadn't had several hundred billion dollars of war debt slung round their necks?

When I read Rory Stewart's fascinating trek across Afghanistan, The Places in Between, I was captivated by his depiction of a country which at last, post-Taliban, seemed to have some chance for revival. The book is set in 2002, and Stewart (clearly bananas) goes for quite a long 6 week walk across the centre of Afghanistan. Afghanistan as others have pointed out, is a place that exerts a strange and potent fascination, a remote place, unconquerable and opaque, a possible home to some Shangri-La valley apart from its opium, its appalling human rights record, its worse women's rights record...Of course, where we should be is a world where instead of distracting us with Saddam Hussain, the US and Nato actually tackled Afghanistan with a long-term development plan reinforced by troops who did not bomb the natives when they tried to get married/go to the market/head for the mosque, but actually built things and encouraged legitimate trade and public debate and the opening of schools, the revival of women in the workplace and the integration of Afghanistan into the global economy. Instead we had Iraq.

Today, I read Lucy Carrigan's moving words over at the Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lucy-carrigan/today-should-not-be-a-day_b_125641.html) and I wondered whether the majority of Americans might not just possibly reject the morally and fiscally bankrupt policies of McCain and the Republicans who are pulling his strings, and opt for a team which will make it their priority to get America financially and economically back on track, and make America a country that the rest of the world can admire rather than distrust, fear and even loathe.

And I urge those who have forgotten what 9/11 was really like to go to Youtube and look up Rufus Sewell and his touching reading of Simon Armitage's poem written to commemorate the fifth anniversary, "9/11: Out of the Blue".

Monday, September 8, 2008

Sharkjumper!!

I've been reading Katie Fforde pretty regularly since her first book came out sometime when I was in China about 15 years ago. Her novels are gentle, cosy reads about comfy women usually in their 30s/40s discovering or rediscovering their faith in humankind in general and mankind in particular. There's a soothing familiarity to her plot-lines in which slightly or more-than-slightly ditzy female encounters mysterious and brooding chap and eventually, after encountering some sleeping policemen (can't go so far as to describe them as bumps), achieve an HEA. The books are all set in a slightly mythical but pleasant England, perhaps Cotswold-ish or Somerset or Gloucestershire where people have big range cookers and cottages. They are really high-quality braingum, and I have loved them fairly uniformly, but reading Going Dutch, her latest paperback, turned into a terrible chore.

It was the usual problem: I started off not terribly entranced by our heroines - there was Dora, who was a silly girl in her early 20s who had succumbed to pressure to get engaged but then ran out on her wedding day and takes refuge with her best friend's mother, who was dumped for a younger woman and has left the family home to live on a barge on the Thames. Both Dora and Jo are rather dull, although Dora is duller and drabber. They are both in recovery, and their recovery by and large seems to include intravenous cups of tea. Now I know that tea is a great panacea, and I have just finished my afternoon cuppa as I type, but non-stop tea-drinking does not a great plot make, even when the cups of tea are being made for nice and mysterious chaps helping you cross the North Sea in a barge. And one falls off, and they rescue him and when they are all in Holland, both Dora and Jo finally get off with their swains and eventually get home so that they can live happily ever after. That's it. I skimmed the last 50 pages. I cannot say I'm bursting to read my next Katie Fforde unless she's miraculously discovered some character variation and a touch more excitement plot-wise.

Then I turned to the travails of Ariel Manto and have become hooked. Ariel is not a nice girl, still less a nice woman. She's an obsessive, dodgy doctoral student faced with the mysteries of the multiverse and her adventures are utterly bizarre and compelling. I am really enjoying The End of Mr Y, and I can't end-read because I had a look and I can see it won't make complete sense unless I've read the book sequentially, although I have my notions. It felt as though my reading glands had suddenly been given a shot of bicarb mixed with vinegar - fizz running through the synapses and all systems go.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Season of school and frenzied stationery purchases


This year, I was ready for school. Farewell to the pig-squeals ringing through the house as one boy discovers that another boy is infringing personal space/changing the tv channel/dismembering another trashy Star Wars toy, goodbye to the moans of "I'm bored"/'Why can't I watch TV/play on the Wii/use your computer" and hasta la vista to the expensive and sometimes tedious provision of activities to amuse.

I did manage to read over 30 books, some of which (as you can see from the posts in July and August) were amazing, some of which were not. I wrote my first play, which was very satisfying, even if it isn't exactly Shakespeare, and I managed not to write a word of fiction in August, which I think might be a healthy break because now I'm brimming with ideas, although time seems to have vanished, because all I can do is chase my tail this first week of school, a situation exacerbated by the annual scramble to supply Minion 1 with his necessary school supplies... paintbrushes, gouache paint, boxes, exercise books and sports bags, staplers, sellotape and scissors, pencil cases, rucksack and coloured markers - you get the picture.

Meanwhile, I am 'agog and aghast' (as Alice Miles in the Times described it) over the nomination of spooky Sarah Palin to the McCain campaign. She has the gravitas of Basil Fawlty aligned with the religious views of the Christian equivalent of an extremist ayatollah. She seems ruthless in her own self-promotion, and while many a man has sacrificed his family on the altar of his own ambition without picking up much flack, she is hardly a poster-girl for the women's movement - she seems to me to have much in common with Margaret Thatcher in her approach and attitude to her fellow females.

The extent to which the outcome of the Presidential elections are dependent on visceral emotions and personality is absolutely petrifying. A schoolchild can see that McCain and Palin are dangerous, hypocritical and frighteningly incompetent - McCain on record as saying he doesn't understand economics, Palin fingered by her fellow-Alaskans as a financial nincompoop when it came to handling the revenues for a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. And she's a book-banner, a supporter of the aerial shooting of wolves and bears, a creationist who is prepared to push the teaching of creationism as a valid scientific alternative to evolution, and someone who believes that the US presence in Iraq is God's plan, that US troops are God's troops.

I really really hope the Republicans with their vote-stealing machinery and gubernatorial trashing of electoral lists do not nick this election as they've stolen the last two. Obama and Biden seem like savvy operators with some morals and standards. I'm sure they've both played the slimy Washington game as people who are in Washington must, but they do have conviction - without the passionate intensity that identifies both McCain and Palin.

" TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity."

Yeats seems more prophetic than ever. I wish he weren't.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Phew, faith restored in romance

The Perfect Rake came out in 2005 and I heard good things about it, but hadn't got round to picking up a copy until this year. It was a marvellous antidote to Private Arrangements, because although people did behave in a doo-lally way, it was consistent with the world of the novel and with their characters. Not a spock moment in sight, and as a bonus, some lovely secondary characters, notably the sweet Great-Uncle Oswald who conceals considerable shrewdness behind a dapper, frivolous front, and the slimy Phillip who is a terrifically unpleasant fiancé for the heroine to dispense with before she can enjoy True Leurv.

The dialogue was sparky and funny, the story rocketed along at a fair old pace and the motivations of characters were effectively drawn without being a seminar in Psych 101. On All About Romance, the reviewer was a little discomforted by the contrast between sunny romance and the darker situation of the heroine and her sisters who were initially at the mercy of their extremely brutal grandfather, but that didn't bother me as it gave rock solid reasons for the heroine's initial behaviour. And Gideon, our hero, is a terrific hero, and we are shown exactly how and why he loves Prudence. It was a pleasure to race through this one. But now, duty calls. Breakfast, tidying of boys' pits, dispensing with the remnants of the out of control forsythia that was triffiding up the garden, etc etc. Sigh. In the meantime, many thanks, Anne Gracie, for riding to the rescue of historical romance's reputation and coming up with a delightful frothy confection. I'm delighted to discover that I've got three sequels and the start of a new series by Gracie to catch up with. Huzzah.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Two terrific reads...and a stinker...


This was the first of two children's books that have been August highlights for me. Fly by Night features a brave heroine who makes mistakes and leads a very exciting life in a world that is influenced by Jonson and Pope - a world where books are dangerous and a printing press is a weapon as fearsome as a dirty bomb, and where heroes and villains are very hard to distinguish. It is clever, exciting and subtle. Frances Hardinge is writing a sequel, and I'll be queuing up to get it.

The second one is E.L. Konigsburg's The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World, an unwieldy title for a very wieldy book. The story is complex, compelling and poignant. I loved Konigsburg's Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler when I first came upon it, but I think MEHW may be her masterpiece. It is a book for adults as well as children, as it deals with the Holocaust, and the fate of the old person no longer quite able to care for themselves as well as the nature of identity and friendship and all sorts of other rich notions. Konigsburg has a very engaging voice, a little remote and formal, very matter of fact and clear as well. It would go well with two other WW2 books for the YA market that also stand up to re-reading, Aidan Chambers' Postcards from No Man's Land and Mal Peet's Tamar. I would heartily recommend it.

And now for the stinker...

Private Arrangements by Sherry Thomas has received accolades aplenty from many review sites and blogs, and she, along with Joanna Bourne (Spymaster series), is being hailed as the next big thing/saviour of the historical romance. Which was what got me onto Amazon.

Sigh sigh sigh.

How do I hate this book, let me count the ways...

First of all, it made me feel like Spock. The emotional responses of these puny humans seemed to me entirely illogical, captain.

The main characters are called Camden and Gigi. Or hereafter, Crazed-for-sex and Gasping-for-humiliation. First of all, Crazed is totally in physical thrall to Gasping. But he is almost betrothed to another and he will not break his pledge. So Gasping forges a letter from Another saying that she was on the point of marrying Someone else. Crazed reads the letter, goes 'phew, now I can marry Gasping and shag her senseless'. BTW, I'm not kidding about the shagging. Sherry Thomas was clearly channelling Bridget Jones because the shag word comes up frequently. Too frequently. It's not an anachronism, but it isn't a word I associate with romance or the Belle Epoque era in which the book is set. Once she could have massaged past me, but repetition was jarring.

Back to the odd plot. Crazed discovers that the letter was forged, so he goes through with the wedding, has a rapturous shagathonic wedding night and then deserts her. This is the point at which she demonstrates her key characteristic, because she chases after him to Paris (where he is studying engineering at the Ecole Superieure) and keeps flinging herself in his path wearing little but scraps of lace. No hint that her behaviour raised any eyebrows. He resists her over and over and hires an actress to pose as his mistress because he is no longer quite so Crazed now that he's had his night of nookie.

Five years later, he sees her in Copenhagen. He's there with his current squeeze, but he catches a glimpse of her, she's on a boat and she goes all white-faced and Gaspy, and his heartstrings are tugged and he chases after her but only after buying the most vulgar ruby necklace he can find, which leaves her time to decamp so he heads back to New York where he has made his fortune. Oh, and btw, he, unbeknownst to her, despite her amazing financial acumen, has raised a whole load of loans using her name as security so that he can make as much money as she already has because heaven forfend that a woman have more financial clout than her husband. When Gasping discovers this chicanery, she's like, 'whatever'. If that had been me, I'd have had his testicles in a test-tube. And, if he wanted her back, why didn't he just go to London, where she lived and would sooner or later turn up and wait for her there? It's on the way between Copenhagen and NY, after all.

Ten years later, she finally gets round to demanding a divorce. So he comes back and says, I'll give you the divorce if you give me an heir. Spock alert spock alert.

Now, if he cooperated over the divorce business right away, he could get himself another hot mamma like Gasping and do the baby thing without further complications. And while we are talking post 1880s, surely Crazed and Gasping would have demonstrated quite a bit of complicity which courts did not look on kindly especially when deployed by divorcing couples.

Anyway, of course she accepts his weird conditions and they shag three times, and for various reasons which seem to have something to do with contraception, after the third time, he gives up and goes back to NY, and then sends her the ruby necklace (keep up, the one that meant he missed her when they were in Copenhagen) and demands that she return her engagement ring which was a modest sapphire number. So she takes this as an invitation, follows him to NY, turns up at a soiree in his home, insults his taste and then heads for his bed where he finds her starkers as soon as he'd got rid of all the guests. And they are reconciled.

So to start with, plot and characters are leaky, like the Titanic after that little brush with the iceberg.

Then there's the language. This was a rave point for reviewers, but here's a sample: "overhead, thick clouds hung like giant wads of soiled linen, gray with stains of pus yellow". There's a lot of that sort of description. I quite like a touch of pathetic fallacy, but this was like being clubbed by the Pathetic Fallacy ogre. Then a touch of historical background: "Perhaps the agricultural depression that had cut many a large estate's income by half had something to do with it. The aristocracy was in a pinch." Eh?

There's more, but basically, the language seemed to me at best unnoticeable, at worst, clunky and sometimes bizarre.

Theoretically, the book is set during the Belle Epoque, but apart from the occasional namechecking of Impressionist artists and Oscar Wilde, you'd hardly know it wasn't any old time when people wore long frou-frou skirts.

And finally, there's the structure, which is flashbacks and forwards and then interwoven here a fribble plot featuring Gasping's mother and the neighbouring duke who she'd always had a bit of a thing for. I skipped most of that because Crazed and Gasping were quite sufficient in terms of testing my limits of willing suspension of disbelief to utter destruction. But the to-and-fro structure highlighted that neither Crazed nor Gasping seemed to have matured remotely in the ten intervening years.

My absolutely final gripe with Sherry Thomas is this comment she made in a Q&A session: "England is always a good setting for a romance because, as a friend of mine once analyzed, England is an indubitably masculine place, which provides a perfect contrasting backdrop to a story about romantic love."

England - the masculine place where women like Boudicca and Margaret Thatcher, Elizabeth I and Elizabeth Fry, George Eliot and Jane Austen have scarcely impinged on the national consciousness at all...I'm not even touching that 'perfect contrasting backdrop' but the term backdrop tells you all you need to know about Thomas's grasp of English culture and history.

Anyway, I put the book down and felt as though I'd swallowed a mouthful of cobwebs. Luckily, this morning I picked up Anne Gracie's A Perfect Rake and about 70 pages in, am feeling 'phew, there are still good, fun, frothy romances out there.' I feel in safe hands. There's a strong flavour of Heyer's Frederica about a couple of the opening situations, which is promising given that Frederica is one of Heyer's best ever books.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A book to devour

It's sometime since I've been really satisfied by a novel, but here was an unexpected jewel that I picked up because it was on offer at a mass market bookseller at Dover's ferry docks. I hadn't previously heard of Bloom or the novel itself, but I will look out for more Bloom on the strength of Away.

While I was describing the story to a friend, I realised that most of my favourite books are about people making journeys and surviving in snowy wastes - This Thing of Darkness, Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow, the People's Act of Love and The Tenderness of Wolves spring to mind. And in the classics, one of the books that has risen up my top five list in the last few years is Frankenstein, where once again the denouement takes place in the Arctic circle.

The journey of Lilian Leyb in Away is epic and dangerous in a multitude of ways, and although Lilian does at times seem a little opaque, the cast of supporting characters she meets are rich and varied and Bloom somehow skewers them very delicately. I heard a radio review of the novel by an academic at Georgetown University who trashed the book for being 'a pale Yiddish imitation of Toni Morrison's Beloved', full of stereotypical characters, but actually, I thought that was desperately unfair. I have read Beloved, which I have to say I liked a good deal less than Away, although it is many years since I read it, but actually, I didn't see that much in common between the books. There is something gloriously life-affirming in Away - Lilian has terrible, difficult experiences, but there is an unquenchable optimism to Bloom, and I also found Bloom's style much more accessible. It is very pared down, but when she uses imagery, it is sharp and clear and unforced. I actually thought of Austen although that may be because I am currently re-reading Pride and Prejudice. But Bloom has a delicate hand with irony and the book has some delicious set-pieces as well as a narrative flow that swept me along with some regret to the end.

And by the way, for those familiar with my evil end-reading habits, I gave only the briefest of glances at the end.... the journey there was too enthralling for me to head for the final section without having read the middle.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

A sad week

Kate Mortimer has had some wonderful obituaries in The Guardian, The Independent and the Times this week, but this is how I will remember her, standing in her kitchen, at the hatch where she read her post, her papers and did the Times crossword as well as making tea and supervising her family, friends and pets. I first met Kate when I was five, but later she became my guardian when I was at boarding school, my godmother when I finally decided I needed to be christened at the grand age of 10, my landlady when my mother and I moved into her Hammersmith house, my boss, when I dipped a toe into the world of financial regulation and always, a funny, warm, generous and loving friend. Her funeral this week took place in the church for which she had raised tons of money for restoration, repair and maintenance, with a crowd of friends and family, on a ludicrously beautiful Devon day. She will be deeply missed.

And yesterday came the news that another fine, funny, warm and generous soul had died. After a long battle with pancreatic cancer, Randy Pausch, the computer scientist, has died.

There are plenty of platitudes that one can utter, but the basic truth is that death, particularly the premature death of people who have given so much and have so much more to offer, is miserable and unfair. But having known Kate and having known about Randy Pausch, both rigorous, ethical minds who shared their knowledge and their expertise for the benefit of their fellow humans, has been a privilege and the best that we who are left can do is try to live up to the standards that they have set - being brainy, and then working their brains hard, being decent, and then building on that with loyalty and generosity of spirit, exploring their dreams and helping others achieve their dreams.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

And a quickie!!

Ooohhhooo, I'm on YouTube.

Last year, Daisy Godwin, a wonder-woman of British poetry, made a three part series on Romance called Reader, I Married Him, and I am an interviewee. Feels so weird. Made minion number one really embarrassed. Hee hee, the joys of motherhood.

Over at Youtube you can find:

Happily Ever After - Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

Heroes - Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9

Heroines - Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

It is so painful seeing myself on TV - and the voice. Eek, do I really sound like that!

In Which We Serve

Last year, in the name of educating the minions, my husband bought the Complete Collection of Best British War movies, and so far we have seen The Dam Busters (saddest really about the dog), Went the Day Well (superb), and last night, In Which We Serve, which was really the Noel Coward show, as he wrote the theme toon, composed the theme toon, sang the theme toon, directed and produced the theme toon (with apologies to Little Britain and Denis Waterman). With a little help from David Lean.

So far, all three movies do stand the test of time, in that they tell their stories, depict their times and reflect the preoccupations (which let's face it, were by and large meatier and a touch more intense, than ours) of their times. And I will openly admit that I blubbed a fair bit through In Which We Serve. As I am still capable of extreme stony-heartedness and outright mockery in the course of sappy visual entertainment moments, I think this is a testament to the film and its actors. There was a window of opportunity, largely associated with the hormones that flow during pregnancy and for perhaps a couple of years after, where I wept at even the most cynically manipulative of sentimental moments, even as my every critical faculty screamed that I was a suckahhhh...and the plot vessel was leakier than a pea-green boat navigated by feline and night-bird and the characterisation was lame, but no more, I'm pretty much fully reverted to the 10 year old self who sat dry-eyed through Gone with the Wind as my mother snivelled and sighed beside me.

What was it about IWWS? The acting was terribly terribly 1940s, Celia Johnson and Coward clipping their speech in that frightfully British way, and Coward had clearly resorted to his Bumper Book of Working Class Clichés for the men and women of less than middle class social status. But apparently, according to Wiki, the depiction of Navy life was so accurate that the Navy used it as a film to introduce new sailors to conditions on board ship for the rest of the war. In contrast to our sweeping modern blockbusters, even Atonement, the filming is tight and limited by logistical and financial constraints. The stories interwoven through the film are predictable. But there is also something honourable, straightforward and quite adult about the film without any gratuitous violence or moral ambiguity. What was noticeable about all three of these films is that they are rated U - they are suitable for whole family viewing, and yet they tell adult stories, primarily aimed at adults.

Looking through our video collection for a film that DH and I could watch with Minion No 1, who is of an age to want to see more stretching films, there are very few intelligent modern films of the calibre of those 1940s/1950s/1960s films that are suitable for parents to share with their kids. If I make a list of films that affected me and that meant something to me, I can think of the following:

Anything with Cary Grant in it, but especially Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday and Arsenic and Old Lace, quite a few Hitchcocks (I'm not sure that I want No 1 son to see either The Birds or Psycho, but North by North West, Vertigo, Rear Window, bring them on), any Astaire and Rogers, The Third Man, Fallen Idol, Citizen Kane, all the Ealing comedies, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr Zhivago, the list could go on.

While I think CGI is a wonderful thing and I have enjoyed a whole range of recent movies primarily aimed at children e.g. Shrek and Toy Story, B Movie and Enchanted, Narnia, Potter, LOTR and all, it would be really interesting for once or twice to have films that are primarily aimed at adults but are suitable for children rather than having films for children back-loaded with in-jokes for grown-ups. But I think of the films I've seen recently really aimed at grown-ups who like thinking and moral ambiguity, e.g. Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana, Donnie Darko, The Good Shepherd, Notes on a Scandal, The Good German, Capote, Inside man, Runaway Jury....

These are all 15s. I suppose the same thing happened when I was 11-12-13. There was a run of movies that my mother took to me to though I was technically too young to see them: Flight of the Condor, All the President's Men, The Odessa Files are the ones that spring to mind. But that was back in the day when Saturday Night Fever was given an X certificate because there's a brief flash of Travolota buttock in the back of a car. Now, that would probably be a 12. And when I think of certain scenes in any of the films I've mentioned above, I wouldn't want to be explaining them to an 11 year old who may have the reading and comprehension age of an adult, but is still a kid in terms of emotional maturity.

So when is Hollywood going to wake up and make some accessible films that are actually intelligent? I'm not sure I'll be putting any money on that possibility. In the meantime, it's back to superhero land, what with Hulk and Dark Knight in the multiplexes, or the classic B&W movies of yesteryear in the comfort of our own home.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Tied to the Tracks

Tied to the Tracks is a book set in the south, in a college town an hour by train out of Savannah, Georgia, where the Civil War is known as the War between the States and where everyone is related to everyone else either through blood or marriage. Into this community come three interlopers from Hoboken, who find in Ogilvie purpose and love.

I'm frankly a sucker for tales of small-town America. If you made me live in small-town America, I'd run shrieking for the hills, but I never tire of reading about the funny, witty, by and large educated men and women who seem to populate these towns (step forward Jennifer Crusie and Joshilyn Jackson and Lani Diane Rich) and how under the eyes of everyone they know, they find the Big L.

Anyway, Lippi has scored a winner for me. I won't go into too much detail, but here's a run-down.

Angie Mangiamele runs a company filming documentaries, and is invited by a literary legend, Miss Zula Bragg, to Ogilvie GA to make a documentary on the occasion of Miss Zula's 50th graduation anniversary. Angie has no option but to accept the job, although every sinew in her is screaming danger. Her old flame, John Ogilvie, is the new chair of English...and all set to marry one of the town's patrician beauties.

There we are. Of course, in real life, no English professor is as hot/fit/gorgeous as John, although I can well believe that Angie's two partners in her film business are as written: seedy 50ish Tony who lurches from married woman to married woman, and the gorgeous Rivera Rosenblum, tall Jewish Puerto-Rican of lesbian tendencies. Angie herself is a classic placeholder heroine - not really interested in clothes, a bit of a workaholic, a family kind of girl with deep friendships.

But who wants real life when they can have the rich variety of characters that inhabit Ogilvie: Patty-Cake: the statutory mad as a bag of badgers female defending her territory against the evil Northern interlopers; the wary Miss Zula living with her cuddly cooking sister Miss Maddie; the exotic lovely and slightly Aspergers Japanese maths prof married to John's brother Rob.

Then there are secrets old and new that are exposed as the summer wears on with ramifications for most of the main characters.

This is a gentle book, with a gentle rhythm and events which goes to the heart of why I love this kind of book so much - no violence, no crazy murder plots, just people coming and going, falling in love and fighting it a little, and an ending that allows everyone a little happiness.

The book that I've read about the south that I love most is Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, peopled by the eccentrics that John Berendt met during frequent visits to Savannah in the late 1980s/early 1990s, and perhaps Lippi could have gone further down the Berendt path in creating her cast - but that might arguably have distracted from the driving narrative of John and Angie which powers the book. Although this is billed as straight fiction, it is a good strong romance, and Lippi has an unerring eye for the moments that send sizzle through a reader without being explicit - personally I find that works much better than the 'tab A slots into tab B' clarity of many romance novels. There's a moment when John takes Angie's hand and puts her finger on his pulse and it is so simple and so effective in reminding me of that slight vertigo/breathlessness/stomach-dropping-away sensation of early love that I almost feel it myself. Now that's good writing. Oh, and no, there are no rape-lite scenes of seduction either, ronaldp...

Anyway this means that yes, I am going to go out looking for Pajama Girls of Lambert Square, Lippi's latest novel.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Top Ten Flawed heroines

Yes, of course I should be writing proper stuff, not blogging, but I'm researching something very dark and I need a break, and Smart Bitches gave me the idea. In no particular order, just as they occur to me, here are ten flawed heroines.

1 Scarlett O'Hara - what a biotch!!! Love her. I reread GWTW constantly and repeatedly from the age of 12-14.5 : I virtually knew the book by heart and she was my goddess. I will never be like Scarlett: I never have had nor ever will have a 21" waist, and I can't be ruthless and cold and I'd have realised that Ashley was a milksop and that Rhett was a honey much earlier, but she was a great great role model. (Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell)

2 Frederica Merriville - managing, bossy, a little bit blind to what is going on under her nose, but she is a loving and lovable woman who gets every little bit of happiness that she deserves. (Frederica, Georgette Heyer).

3 Eustacia 'Force of Nature' Vye - really not personally a Hardy fan, but I like the men in the novel, fell for Eustacia, who is one of those dangerous people who seems exotic because they are different from everyone else around them, but are actually just miserable. And even though I know Eustacia is one of those tiresome people who insists on setting by the ears everyone in the vicinity, I still can't help but love her. Bathsheba has some of the same qualities, but is nowhere near as extraordinarily vivid as Eustacia for me. (Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy)

4 Becky Sharp of course. Say no more. Well, I have to say a little more - she's so wicked and so full of life and grit and determination. She is a shockingly wicked woman, I wouldn't personally have her anywhere near me, but I love reading about her. (Vanity Fair, Wm Thackeray)

5 Magdalen Vanstone - arguably one of the greatest characters in Victorian fiction. Her story is absolutely sensational, in no small part due to her wonderful complexity, whose name suggests that she will undergo trials and difficulties - and indeed she does. She is by no means a submissive Victorian miss, but a woman who wants to exert control over a life which has lost its central gravity. (No Name, Wilkie Collins)

6 Adelaide Houghton - a woman who is not afraid of trying to tempt a lover into adultery. She's really lacking in morals, but she's very compelling and quite frightening. Technically, she's not the heroine of the novel, who is a rather insipid character, but she is the female presence who is strongest in terms of characterisation and plot importance. Trollope knew how to create strong women characters. (Is He Popenjoy? Anthony Trollope)

7 Anna Petrovna who keeps falling for the wrong guy, the really really uber-wrong guy, time after time, but you can see exactly why she is so lovable. Gutsy, independent, determined, with a touch of the implacable - she's marvellous. (People's Act of Love, James Meek)

8 Emma - Austen herself famously said that she thought no one would like Emma but herself, but Emma is so funny and so satirised, spending time in her company is never a hardship. Austen is ironic, but also ultimately, kind to the delusional girl, and makes sure she gets a great HEA. (Emma, Jane Austen)

9 Vivian Geiger, especially as played by Lauren Bacall, the lying, cheating, loving heroine of The Big Sleep. Amazing woman. (The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler)

10 Sophie Dempsey, from Welcome to Temptation. Sophie has a temper, a good but not perfect bod and a chip the size of Mount Rushmore on her shoulder, she treats her man mean, but for perfectly good reasons and she is a witty, wisecracking, funny woman whose story I could read over and over again. (Welcome to Temptation, Jenny Crusie)

And finally, I can't decide which one is the heroine of Sarah Waters's Fingersmith, but both Sue Trinder and Maud Lilly are wonderful flawed females.

Now instead of doing what I should be doing, I want to go and reread books.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Sigh - Dr Who series finale - SPOILERS AHOY!

Ah well, où sont les neiges d'antan? Poor old Donna, mind-wiped, Rose exiled across the universe along with psycho Doctor 2, Martha gearing up for full-time Unit/Torchwood action, Sarah Jane settling down into domesticity with her lucky Luke (what a cool mother to have!). The companions have been well and truly dispatched to the past, leaving the way for Steve Moffat to hey, bring back the Doctor's daughter, and Sally Sparrow... or find some new faces.

I thought, as season finales go, it was full of the usual excitement, laughs (Donna as Doctor, sheer genius, gyrating daleks hoho), pathos and fluidity that characterises the current generation of Doctor Who episodes. The writers and directors and producers have taken all the best of recent US tv and played it back to us with a peculiarly British spin. The fact that it is for children is even better.

Recently a columnist in the Independent was in full snark mode about Russell T Davies, the man who revived Doctor Who for the post-Buffy generation, delighted to hear that Davies has resigned from the show and handed over the mantle to the sure touch of Steven Moffat. The reason for the delight was 'phew!! now RTD can go back to making telly for grown-ups instead of this dreary kids' stuff, because, let's face it, kids have no judgement or discrimination, so we can feed them on all sorts of rubbish.'

Having spent some of the past 11 years since the first minion arrived watching children's dreck of all sorts (personal nadirs include Land Before Time movies, any power rangers episode and The Noddy Show. And I will take great pleasure in strangling Elmo if I ever come across him), this point of view drives me absolutely gaga. It's an insult to children, it's an insult to those of us who have at some time or other spent time at home with small children and it's an insult to those people who do their best to make decent children's programmes.

Children deserve the best of the best in their tv. They deserve Derek Jacobi doing voiceovers and Richard Dawkins turning up as a guest in Doctor Who, they deserve excellent scripts and high production values and they deserve to be treated as sentient and thinking humans who should be encouraged to think about big questions, frex, is it right to destroy a species, how do we co-exist with extra-terrestrials (useful metaphors for all the race-religion-gender divides that plague us), is it right to put ourselves and our friends in extreme situations because we won't kill anyone, how do we say goodbye to people we love but will never see again, and many more issues that our children should be thinking about and discussing but are too distracted by pen and paper tests to see if their schools have drilled them well enough to meet rather low educational targets.

So thank you, a big, deep, heartfelt thank you to Russell T Davies not only for reviving Doctor Who, but for doing so with style, substance and a commitment to quality that hopefully will be maintained by his successors.

Friday, June 27, 2008

All romance is rape-lite!!!!

I just read a great article about Lilian Peake's Promise at Midnight, a skewering of the old-style M&Bs that used to circulate in the late 1970s (just around the time I started reading them - no wonder I never trusted boys!) (Link: http://jezebel.com/5019950/1980s-romance-novels-hair+raising-lip+mashing-horror-shows).


And then in the comments, I found that someone called ronaldpagan said:

"All romance novels have disturbing rape-lite scenes, but this is one of the worst I've ever seen."


You what!!! Um, ronaldp, read any good books recently? Umm, like Pride and Prejudice, uber-romance, or Frederica by Georgette Heyer, or Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson, or Bet Me, Jennifer Crusie or or or or....

Anyway, I'm still picking my jaw up off the floor after that sweeping and ggrrrrrr outrageously ignorant and dumbass statement.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Summertime and the reading is easy

Before I head for bed with another good book, just a couple of comments on Your Scandalous Ways by Loretta Chase, which has created a mini-furore in RomanceLand because the heroine is a colourful courtesan at the top of The Game in Europe. Nope, she is not a virgin. Yup, she has had sex with men other than the hero and enjoyed it. Nope, she is not repentant. Yup, she is different from other heroines.

This issue is a real hot button for a lot of readers. On one or two boards, people's comments have been very condemning, although those come from people who haven't read the book and have no intention of reading the book because the heroine is unchaste.

That doesn't bother me. It's a slight, frothy book, and the only thing that interfered with my enjoyment is the plot which is by and large missing. It's quite screwball/zany stuff - e.g. hero and heroine dunk themselvs in a Venetian canal for no apparent rational reason. On the other hand, I didn't find this a wallbanger. I liked the hero. But it all seemed very thin to me. Which is a rather more serious issue than whether the heroine has had sex with more than one man.

A better book altogether was one passed to me by a friend who said, "It's a very good beach read", but I glommed it up in a gulp or two before getting anywhere near a beach. It was called Water For Elephants, and has been very successful in the US but seems scarcely to have caused a ripple in this neck of the woods. It is the story of a young man, Jacob, who is propelled by personal catastrophe into the world of a very ropey circus in the early 1930s, touring the US by train. There is plenty of plot in this one, lots of things happen, and it rollicks along at a fair old pace. It was an extremely easy, engaging read, especially after the Murakami. But as time passes, I know that the Murakami will stay with me - I ended up talking about it today to a student, where Water for Elephants will go down on a list of suitable summer reads for the 14+ book list - the main feature is the unusual setting which is full of opportunities for the introduction of weird and wonderful characters - and then be forgotten. Except that it has been optioned to be made into a movie, and it should be a good movie if they get the right cast. Big If.

In the meantime, have fallen in love with a new band: Fleet Foxes are a weird combination of let's see, Kings of Leon meet Beachboys with Arcade Firey-Midlake type vibe. Lots of harmonies, mandolins and walls of sound. Yumm. Not quite knocking Vampire Weekend off their perch as number one on the iPod, but v. infectious. First time I listened through, I thought, hmmm, then the songs earwormed me.