Rolling – Booking Through Thursday

Do you get on a roll when you read, so that one book leads to the next, which leads to the next, and so on and so on?
I don’™t so much mean something like reading a series from beginning to end, but, say, a string of books that all take place in Paris. Or that have anthropologists as the main character. Or were written in the same year. Something like that’¦ Something that strings them together in your head, and yet, otherwise could be different genres, different authors’¦

I suppose my immediate answer to this is yes, very often. I do like to read another book by an author when I’ve enjoyed one – but that’s not the question. Books in the same genre are also easy to think of – I took part in the R.I.P. Challenge, so that was all books with themes of mystery and imagination – I like those, not gory or horrific but books that keep you guessing and make you ponder. I like to vary my reading as well, so I do try to pick different types of books and different authors, ones I’ve never read before as well as old favourites.

But to answer the question, recently I find that some books I’ve read have a 1940s theme. I’m thinking of One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, set in England in 1946 just after the Second World War, Playing with the Moon by Eliza Graham lokking back after 60 years to the 1940s and The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning, set in Bucharest in 1939/1940 at the outbreak of the War. Even Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner fits in with that time and Surveillance by Jonathan Raban looks back to the 1940s as Augie writes about his wartime experiences as a refugee from Germany.
When I decided to read these books I had no idea that they were all linked like this.

Cranford – Revisited and Nostalgic Memories

It was the second episode of Cranford on Sunday – see the BBC website here. There were so many scenes that were all totally unknown to me that it was as if I’d never read the book. I was able to watch it without my pre-conceived pictures intruding. It was a mixture of comedy and tragedy, as is life. See the Radio Times website here for more information on the cast and crew, location shots, photos and video clips. I thought Julia Sawalha was just right as Jessie Brown and I was pleased to read in the RT that she is in Lark Rise to Candleford, which is coming to the BBC next year. I read Lark Rise about 10 years or so ago when I was recovering from flu, so I’m looking forward to seeing it. With such a gap since I’ve read it I’ll be able to watch it with fresh eyes – I’m not planning on reading again until I’ve watched the drama.

Thinking of Cranford has made me think back with nostalgia to my schooldays at Altrincham Grammar School for Girls. I remembered today that the house I was in at school was called Gaskell after Mrs Gaskell (the school houses were named after people with local connections). I got out some old school magazines and read them with great pleasure wondering what has happened to my old school friends. My school has its own website and I had a look tonight. It has changed almost beyond recognition, although the main school building is still the same. I wonder if they still have the same house system.

Cranford is the only book I’ve read by Elizabeth Gaskell and I must read some more. I’d like to read Mary Barton and Ruth, which sound very different books from Cranford, but as I’ve got Sylvia’s Lovers I’ll start with that.

The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning

The Great Fortune is the first in Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy. It tells the story of Guy and Harriet Pringle’s marriage set against the background of Bucharest during the ‘Phoney War’ period of 1939/40. Guy teaches in the English Department of the University and Harriet has to find her place in Guy’s friends’ and colleagues’ university circles in the multicultural city. England and Germany are already at war and tensions are high, as the Rumanians fear a German invasion.

Throughout the novel there are contrasts between the rich ruling classes and the peasantry; between life as it was pre-war and the uncertainties and fears that the war is bringing; between the British community in Bucharest and the Rumanians; and between Guy and Harriet as they both adjust to married life, with Harriet making most of the adjustments.

It’s a richly descriptive book of both characters and place. Olivia Manning vividly depicts pre-war Bucharest. In the following scene Guy and Harriet hire a coach to take them out one evening :

When the trasura stopped at Pavel’s, one of the largest of the open-air restaurants, there could be heard above the traffic the shrill squeak of a gypsy violin. Within the shrub hedge of the garden all was uproar.

The place was crowded. The silver-gilt glow from the globes set in the trees lit in detail the wrinkled tree-trunks, the pebbled ground, and blanched the faces of the dinners, that damp with excitement of food, gazed about them with deranged looks, demanding to be served. Some rapped with knives on wine-glasses, some clapped their hands, some made kissing noises at the waiters, whilst others clutched at every passing coat-tail crying: ‘Domnule, domnule!’ for in this country even the meanest was addressed as ‘˜lord.’

Of all the characters Harriet and Prince Yakimov, or as he refers to himself ‘poor old Yaki’, a Russian emigre, half Irish and half White Russian, are the most memorable to me. Harriet is finding it difficult living in a foreign country amongst people she doesn’t know, feeling isolated among strangers, both British and Rumanian, jealous of Guy’s friends and his relationship with Sophie (who had hoped he would marry her) and his allegiance to other people seemingly over his marriage.

Harriet eventually realises that Guy is ‘a comfortable-looking man of an un-harming largeness of body and mind. His size gave her an illusion of security – for it was she was coming to believe, no more than an illusion. He was one of those harbours that prove to be shallow: there was no getting into it. For him, personal relationships were incidental. His fulfilment came from the outside world.’

Yaki, a raconteur and joker, who is said to ‘have a peculiarly English sense of humour’ uses every opportunity to sponge off anyone who will ‘lend’ him money, give him a meal or a bed for the night. He is forever ‘waiting for m’remittance from m’™poor old ma’, promising to repay the loan when it arrives, only to spend it as soon as it does without repaying anyone.

Guy decides to put on a play, Troilus and Cressida, using the students, friends and the ‘chaps at the Legation’ to act the 28 speaking parts. Whilst seeming at first to be over-ambitious and divisive the play is the means of consolidating the Pringles’ relationship and it is a success. However this coincides with fall of Paris and the despondency and fear that this brings. The book ends with the realisation that Rumania will also fall and that the Pringles’ survival depends upon their leaving:

“We’ll get away because we must. The great fortune is life. We must preserve it.”

I found the book interesting and informative about the start of the Second World War. It is also an entertaining book working on different levels, exploring the nature of marriage, friendship, patriotism and the attitudes and beliefs of the pre-war period. It’s written in a style that is slightly detached yet energetic and sympathetic. I think I’ll re-read it, as I’m sure there is much that I missed at this first reading. The next book in the trilogy is The Spoilt City. I’ve reserved it at the library and hope it won’t be too long before it arrives.

The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson – the Opening Chapters

I’™ve just started to read ‘œGideon Mack‘ this morning and must write about it. I’™m enjoying it so much that I’™ve had to slow my reading down to make sure I read every word. I’™m reading this book as part of the From the Stacks Challenge, and cannot think why I haven’™t read it before now.

I first came across this book in my local library at the beginning of this year. It was on display on the ‘œQuick Choice’ stand. I started to read it and was enthralled. I was disappointed that I couldn’™t renew it as someone else had reserved it, so I had to take it back, largely unread. Because I liked what I had read, I decided to buy a copy. However, by the time I could get a copy I was well into reading other books (which ones I can’™t remember now), so ‘œGideon Mack‘ sat in a pile and gradually got further and further down until I almost forgot about it.

Thanks to the Challenge I remembered that this was a book that I’™d wanted to read, or rather had felt compelled to read. So when I finished The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning (post on this to follow when I have time) I picked it up. I’™m so glad I did. I’™m sure already that it’™s going to be one of those books that I’™ll be enthusing over for a while yet.

Just a small taster. Gideon Mack, a faithless minister is writing an account of what happened to him. Here he is describing how he feels about running:

‘œI was somewhere in between ‘“ an escapee from my professional hypocrisy, a minister off the leash, a creature neither wholly real nor wholly imagined, hurrying through an ancient landscape. Yes, even then I suspected what I now know to be true: that life itself is not wholly real. Existence is one thing, life quite another: it is the ghost that haunts existence, the spirit that animates it. Running, whether in the rain or sun, felt like life.’

There is so much on a variety of different themes that I’™m interested in packed into the opening pages of this book! References to other books (some I’™ve read and others I’d like to read); what is life and what is real; belief or non-belief in God; the nature and importance of evidence and facts, that can be misleading or just plain lies, and the slipperiness of truth; the pleasure to be found in the doing of something and not in its completion; reminiscences of one’™s early life; not to mention the pleasure of ‘œthe glide and flow of nib and ink on paper’ and the benefits of writing with a pen over writing on a computer!

I can’™t wait to get back to it.

Remainder by Tom McCarthy

From the back cover of Remainder‘œMcCarthy has a precision, a surreal logic and a sly wit that is all his own. It will be a long time before you come across a stranger book, or a truer one.’ Rupert Thomson, The Observer.

Yes, a strange book indeed. I started to read it in August and at first I was interested because it explores the nature of memory, identity, human nature and behaviour. There is very little plot and the main character is a man who, after an accident, is suffering from amnesia and brain damage. We never find out any details of the accident that nearly killed in and left him in a coma and somehow it’™s unimportant, because what is important is what happens to him when he recovers. He receives eight and a half million pounds as compensation and embarks on a series of actions in an attempt not only to regain his memory but also to feel natural when he does things.

I think this is fascinating part of the book. The way we perform our actions is spontaneous without thinking how we actually move and do things, but as that part of his brain that controls the motor functions of the right side of the body had been damaged he had to learn how to move by first visualising a movement, then understand how the tendons, muscles and joints work and in what order, before actually performing a movement. What is even more fascinating is that having done this he realised that his actions and movements weren’™t seamless and natural ‘“ he was having to think each movement through before he could perform them.

I was fine with this and felt the book was going to be really good, but gradually as he goes over and over everything in his mind and tries to reconstruct his former life from fragments of memory it became tedious. Then it moved into realms of fantasy, but dull, banal fantasy in which he hires people to act or rather re-enact time after endless time certain scenes, cats falling off a roof, a woman frying liver and a pianist practising a piece of music etc, etc. It becomes increasingly unreal as he tries to be more real.

McCarthy explained the title in a press release: ‘œThe hero, his body and his mind are a remainder, what the accident leaves,’ explains McCarthy. ‘œThe world he reconstructs is a remainder, made up of fragments left over from his ideal ‘˜remembered’™ world. And I love the provocation of calling a book Remainder.’

I cannot say I enjoyed this book. I found it tedious and disturbing as he descends into what I consider to be madness. I stopped reading it twice and went back to it as I did want to know what happens at the end. The ending is like the rest of the book; it’™s madness and endless repetition of the same actions over and over again and then right at the very end ‘“ well, there is a completion of sorts.

Would I read it again? No.

Three Books for Christmas

Soon it will be Advent and we will be preparing for Christmas. I know that other people start long before I do, but for me 1 December really starts the build up (and even that is a bit early!). The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder, A Feast for Advent by Delia Smith and Skipping Christmas by John Gresham are three very different pre-Christmas books, offering different perspectives on the season.

The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder is a good book to read during Advent. Gaarder is a Norwegian writer, formerly a philosophy teacher. I first came across him a few years ago with Sophie’s World, a marvellous book about the history of philosophy.

The Christmas Mystery is a story within a story, intertwining the present and the past. The book is divided into 24 chapters, one for each day up to Christmas Eve. It’s the story of Joachim, a young boy who has been given an old faded Advent calendar. But this is no ordinary calendar. It has a beautiful picture on the cover, showing Joseph and Mary bending over the baby Jesus lying in the manger. The Three Wise Men kneel in the background, whilst the shepherds and their sheep are outside the stable with angels floating down from the sky. Each day Joachim opens a door revealing a picture and a sheet of paper falls out on which there is a chapter of the story of Elisabet who disappeared in 1948. Joachim is anticipating Christmas with great excitement and his wonder and amazement at the Christmas story grow throughout the book. As the days follow on towards Christmas Day the story travels back in time and place to Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus. A magical book.

Delia Smith is better known for her cookery books and TV programmes and also for her interest in Norwich City Football Club. She has also written spiritual books. In A Journey Into God she writes about prayer and her own experience and in A Feast for Advent she writes reflections on Christmas for every day in Advent, together with Bible passages and prayers. As she writes in the introduction she has come to understand that ‘prayer and contemplation, while utterly necessary, do absolutely nothing to ease the pressure and that on Christmas Day I will always end up horizontal!‘ In A Feast for Advent Delia offers help in escaping for a few minutes each day to contemplate the meaning of Christmas, providing a journey through Advent, illustrated with photographs and reproductions of Quidenham Cards from the Carmelite Monastery in Norfolk.

Thinking about the pressures of Christmas reminded me of a very different book I read a few years ago – Skipping Christmas by John Grisham. This is not the usual Grisham legal thriller, but a very funny little book about the horrors, commercialisation and expense of Christmas. A middle-aged American couple Luther and Nora Krank estimated that the previous Christmas they had spent $6,100 and that was not all it had cost – there was their time, the stress, worrying, bickering, ill-will and sleep-loss as well. So, as their daughter will not be home for Christmas they decide that this year they will skip Christmas and fly off to the Caribbean. They will not have any lights, tree, gifts, parties, hassles, or expenses. I must admit that I was very tempted by the whole idea.

However, when their neighbours, friends and family find out there will be no celebrations and no annual Christmas Eve party that the Kranks normally hold, they are horrified and pile on the pressure. The Kranks find that it’s not going to be as easy as they thought. Then they receive a surprise phone call and realise that Christmas is not just about material things after all. I really enjoyed this book.

Cranford TV Drama or the Book?

Last night I watched the first episode of the BBC’s dramatisation of Cranford. I liked it. Last week I read Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford. I loved it. They are two different things. If you haven’t read the book Cranford, don’t think that the BBC’s version is the same – it isn’t. Someone once said to me ‘Do you have to be so precise?’ Well, yes I do. It’s important to me to be accurate, to get the facts right; opinions and interpretations are different. I should have known better than to expect the drama and the book to be the same. After all, I’ve been disappointed by most televised or film versions of books when I’ve read the book first. In this case the cast with so many well known actors is a very strong point in favour of the programme. I enjoyed all their performances, although at one point it did feel a bit like spot the stars.

As I watched Cranford I kept thinking that’s not in the book, but that is in the book. The dramatisation is not pure, unadulterated Cranford – it’s an amalgamation of three books – Cranford, Mr Harrison’s Confessions and My Lady Ludlow. I haven’t read either of the other two books, but from a quick look on Amazon I see that Mr Harrison’s Confessions, is indeed about a young doctor who is invited by his father’s cousin to join his country practice but it is in Duncombe, not Cranford. My Lady Ludlow appears not to be connected to Cranford either. So my picky mind says this is not Cranford, but I can see that to enjoy the dramatisation on its own merits I need to stop myself from thinking, ‘yes that’s in the book’ or ‘no I don’t know that, it must be in one of the other books’.

Cranford (the book) is a beautifully written and amusing story, centred on the lives of Miss Deborah Jenkyns and her sister Matilda, known affectionately to everyone except her sister, as Miss Matty. I was interested to read in the introduction to my copy that:

‘Most of Cranford is founded on fact – the hairless cow that went to pasture in a grey flannel jacket, the fashion displays in the little draper’s shop – all the rules of etiquette of the Cranford ladies were part of her [Elizabeth Gaskell’s] early life, and the skill and delicacy with which she draws upon her memories to build up her story proves how deeply rooted was her love for the old town and for its inhabitants who believed in the old order of things and hated change.’

Elizabeth Gaskell portrays life in Cranford and its inhabitants sympathetically and whimsically, without making fun of the characters. It made me chuckle as I read it and this came over in the TV drama – D said to me he hadn’t realised it was a meant to be a comedy. The sight of the ladies trotting along side the sedan chair was very funny.

Elizabeth Gaskell was a friend of Charles Dickens, so I found the episode where Captain Brown and Miss Jenkyns have a ‘literary dispute‘ over the relative merits of Dr Johnson and Mr Boz to be amusing. Captain Brown sings the praises of The Pickwick Papers, whereas Miss Jenkyns asserts that she does not think ‘they are by any means equal to Dr Johnson. Still perhaps the author is young. Let him persevere, and who knows what he may become if he will take the great doctor for his model.’

Cranford is a quiet tale of everyday events. Some of the characters have to overcome disappointments – bankruptcy looms and matrimonial hopes fail to materialise for some, but overall it’s a story of friendship, peace and kindliness. The last sentence in the book sums it up for me: ‘We all love Miss Matty, and I somehow think we are all of us better when she is near us.’ Dame Judi Dench is an absolute joy as Miss Matty.