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.