Booking Through Thursday

It’s Booking through Thursday time again.

Monogamy

One book at a time? Or more than one? If more, are they different types/genres? Or similar?
(We’™re talking recreational reading, here’”books for work or school don’™t really count since they’™re not optional.)

Definitely more than one book at a time. I like to have a few going at the same time, although recently I did try reading just one book – Harry Potter. I thought when I finished it I would carry on reading only one book, but there are so many books I want to read that I just had to start others as well. I also like to mix up the genres and read some non-fiction as well as fiction. At the moment the non-fiction is biography.

Currently I’m reading four – see on the left. Lewis Carroll is breakfast time reading, then The House at Riverton whilst I have coffee (and a bit longer too) and at night, as it’s really a good book – I could drop the others for a while maybe to finish this. The other two I fit in now and then – the Michael Palin Diaires goes nicely in short doses. I’ve only just started Remainder – in preparation for finishing The House at Riverton.

It helps to have more than one on the go at once, because sometimes I hit a time when nothing fits the bill and even though I’ve lots of books waiting to be read, I can’t find just the right one.

Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk

I finished reading Arlington Park over a week ago and I’ve been pondering since then why I found this book so interesting when it is about an ordinary day, when nothing much happens, in the lives of bored, suburban housewives.

This book starts off well for me with the opening sentence: ‘All night the rain fell on Arlington Park.‘ The entire chapter is then devoted to a description of the rain falling on this English suburb contrasted with the neighbouring city. This was very apt because as I started to read the rain was falling and continued to fall for some considerable time. Rachel Cusk’s writing is most impressive in this description of rain.The monotony of it is emphasisied by the numerous repetions of “It fell…“; its sound is reproduced: “like the sound of uproarious applause. It was if a great audience were applauding. Louder and louder it grew, this strange unsettling sound … as if a dark audience had assembled outside and were looking in through the windows, clapping their hands.

This was only one of a few books that I was reading, so I hadn’t finish it when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published and that was just one book too many to add to my piles of reading. Unusually for me, I decided to concentrate on reading just one book at a time and read Harry Potter straight through.

Then I decided to finish, one by one, the other books I’d started. Surprisingly, this worked quite well and as I was away from home I did have more time to just sit and read. The weather was good too, so that helped. I sat on the patio at Twilles Barn enjoying the sunshine, cups of tea, glasses of wine and my books. The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman was next as I was two thirds of the way into that – more about that in another post.

Then I picked up Arlington Park again and when I began to read I wished I’d not put it down. I was about half way through it and the rain had stopped falling on Arlington Park and the sun was shining there, bringing people out from their cars, houses and streets down the paths into the park. This section reminded me of Virginia Wolfe’s short story Kew Gardens with its descriptions of people in the park on a sunny day. Location is important in this book, with vivid well-drawn descriptions of places as well as the people who live there and their relationships. It’s a well-written, easy to read book that makes you want to read on, which is amazing really as it’s about an ordinary day in the lives of several women, their relationships and the everyday minutiae of life.

My overall view of Arlington Park is that it is a book about angry, discontented women who are feeling either inadequate, or as though something they cannot identify is missing from their lives, blaming their discontent and frustration on their husbands and children. We meet Juliet first, who is a part-time teacher, married with two children. It is morning and Juliet is upset, feeling that she is the person who does everything, angry at men and the way she perceives they treat women, ‘All men are murderers’, Juliet thought. Juliet and Benedict are invited to the Langhams for dinner in the evening.

Then there is Amanda, a perfectionist who appears cool and detached (she loves her car) and in control of her life, whereas she actually feels that she is inadequate and boring. She has invited other mothers for coffee and is preparing for their visit, when her sister phones with news that their grandmother has just died. She appears to be in the novel as a link, as one of the mothers who visits her is Christine Langham (who gives the dinner party in the evening) and it is Christine who is next in the spotlight, when she, Maisie and Stephanie drive to Merrywood Mall, the shopping centre three miles from Arlington Park. I would have liked to know more about Amanda and how she dealt with her feelings on hearing of her grandmother’s death.

We see the shopping expedition mainly from Christine’s point of view. She contrasts the refinement of living in Arlington Park with the surrounding areas they cross to get to the Mall. She is afraid of ‘inauthenticity which seemed to reveal to her the vulnerability of her grasp on the real, the authentic life.’ The Shopping Centre makes her feel good, that life is full of possibilities – but how it makes her feel good and what these possibilities are seem also to be beyond her grasp. I particularly like the description of the shopping mall:

It was like an illustration of the heart: people were carried upwards by the escalators, eventually to re-emerge, oxygenated by shopping.  The place was full of people, on the escalators, all along the glass-fronted galleries milling on the broad avenues that led off the main hall, yet the acoustics and saturating glassy light deadened the sense of human congress so that they seemed almost to be swimming or floating rather than walking.

The there is Solly, who has no connection with the other women apart from the fact that she also lives in Arlington Park. She too feels she’s a failure – ‘a sack stuffed with children, a woman who had spent and spent her life until there was none left‘. She’s pregnant and dreading the birth of yet another child. Children are either ignored or considered to be a nuisance or a hindrance to most of the women in this book.

Back then to Juliet and her boredom with life. It is now late afternoon and she is taking the after school Literary Club. Juliet’s disillusionment with life is expressed in her thoughts on the pointlessness of it all:

And what was it all for? What was the point of it? In what sense did the girls, even the scientists, profit from their hard work and their grades? Sooner or later they would meet a man and it would all be stolen from them. The girl with her chemistry textbooks would meet a man and little by little he would murder her.

More doom and gloom follows when we enter Maisie Carrington’s house and are confronted with her melancholy. She feels divorced from life, as a character in a play, seeing herself ‘always animated by a nameless dissatisfaction.’ She is driven by her needs into her marriage, her job, house and children, but always feeling ‘not right, like a boat in a harbour where the tide has gone out, lying helplessly on her side in the mud with the neutered fin of her rudder drying in the air.’

This sense of the hopelessness of these women’s lives concludes the book with the dinner party in the evening at the Langhams, where Juliet and Benedict Randall, Maisie and Dom Carrington and a new couple Dave and Maggie Spooner meet. By this time Christine is at the end of her tether, preparing for the dinner party (reminders of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway?) and feeling that all life is work and that she has to do it all, Joe, her husband arousing feelings of mutiny within her. I did enjoy this description, needless to say I’m glad I was reading it and not having to eat the end result:

With a knife Chrisitine slit open a chicken breast and forced the herb
butter into the jellied flesh with her fingers. It was hard to get the butter to
stay in. It kept coming away on her fingers. She prised open the slit and wiped
her fingers all over the veined insides. Liquid ran out and coated the gobs of
butter and made them slippery.

Christine, like Juliet is an angry, self-centred woman, dissatisfied with her life. ‘You’ve got to love just – being alive’, she says more in despair than in hope, it seems. Yet the final paragraph in this book does hold out some hope for Christine, but only through Joe. She looks at him and ‘sees his face as a form of safekeeping, the whole world of herself concentrated on this little stage.’

To me this is a book about the depression, discontent and the despair some women feel trapped in lives that they find meaningless and futile. I am amazed that such topics can be made so entertaining and enjoyable. I think I like it because of Cusk’s style of writing – the descriptions of people and places so that they are real, I can see and hear them in my mind. At times I laughed out loud and at other times I was irritated by the attitudes and prejudices, but at all times I was entertained. It was nominated for the Orange Prize, but lost out to Half a Yellow Sun, which I have waiting to be read. I only hope that I enjoy it as much as Arlington Park.

Birthday Treats

Yes, books do please. It was my birthday last week and these are some of my presents. They are:
  1. Nigel Slater – The Kitchen Diaries
  2. Michael Palin – Diaries 1969-1979 The Python Years
  3. Kate Morton – The House at Riverton
  4. Chimamanda Adichie – Half of a Yellow Sun
  5. Tom McCarthy – Remainder
  6. Jed Rubenfeld – The Interpretation of Murder
  7. Maeve Binchy – Whitethorn Woods

They make a mixed bunch, some I ‘ve read about on other blogs – nos.3, 5 & 6 which I thought would be good. Ever since Kimbofu admitted to reading Maeve Binchy I’ve wondered about Whitethorn Woods, hence this choice. Half a Yellow Sun won the Orange Prize for Fiction this year and is described on Amazon as “compelling”, “disturbing”, “fantastic”, “brilliant” and incredible”.

Which brings me to the diaries of Nigel Slater and Michael Palin. (Diaries and auto/biographies seem to be currently featuring high up in my reading preferences.) Nigel Slater’s cookery programmes are very entertaining and his food always looks delicious. His book is autobiographical (I’d like to read his autobiography “Toast” sometime) as well as being a recipe book. The photos were taken in “real time”; Nigel writes “After I have cooked each meal and it has been photographed, we sit down and eat it while it is still hot. Then I wash up.” That’s what I like – it’s real stuff. I’ll certainly be trying out his recipes.

And now for something completely different – via Michael Palin, a great entertainer and long-time favourite. I started to read this book as soon as I opened it and it had me laughing straight away with his description of how he gave up smoking and started to write a diary to keep his “newly liberated fingers occupied”.

John Cleese decribes Michael as “the worst man in the world to take on a commando raid. You might as well take a large radiogram with the volume turned up. On and on, hour after hour, tiring the sun with talking and sending him down the sky, Michael chats, quips, fantasises, reminisces, commiserates, encourages, plans, discusses and elaborates. Then, some nights, when everyone else has gone to bed, he goes home and writes up a diary.”

Of course, the enjoyment of this for me is not just the details of how Monty Python came into being, but also this is about life in the 1970s – the index shows the broad range covered from literature, films, theatre, TV and radio programmes through to the electricity power-cuts and the three-day week, politics and politicians, cricket, football, and a Yeti expedition; and not forgetting information about family, friends and colleagues. This should keep me quiet for a while. On second thoughts it won’t – as I’ll be reading bits of it out loud so D can enjoy it – he’s an even bigger Python fan than I am and he’s also started to read this. No doubt I’ll be treated to his versions of the Argument and the Dead Parrot sketches etc, etc.

To round off my birthday D treated me to a sumptuous meal at Hartwell House. The House is beautiful, with both Jacobean and Georgian features. It has spacious rooms, with decorative ceilings and panelling, paintings and antique furniture. Its most famous resident was Louis XVIII, the exiled King of France who lived there from 1809 to 1814. Our meals were delicious, my pudding was outstanding – passionfruit souffle, with dark chocolate sauce and orange carpaccio and orange sorbet , undoubtedly the best pudding ever.

Bat Rescue

This is the usual view of a bat flying – in the dark, but I was surprised yesterday afternoon to see a little bat flying in the garden in bright sunshine. It swooped down over the back fence and flew to the flowering cherry tree in the middle of the lawn, where it flopped down to the ground at the base of the tree. Before I could get there Lucy, our cat, was there like lightning, most interested in the little bat. I called her off, but the bat seemed to be stuck at the bottom of the tree, with its wings spread out wide. We tried to move it gently away from the tree and it flapped its wings feebly and then folded them around its body and crawled slowly along the grass.

Unsure of the best thing to do, we decided to take it to St Tiggywinkles the local Wildlife Hospital. They identified it as a “teenage” Pipistrelle and thanked us for bringing it in. They thought that it would be ok. They will release back in our area as soon as they are sure. Bats are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which prohibits anybody catching them or disturbing their roost. However, it does allow for the handling of bats that are injured or obviously in difficulty, especially those clinging to walls away from a normal roost site, although they must be released as soon as they are fit.

July’s Books

I’ve given all the books I finished reading in July a five star rating and have thoroughly enjoyed all of them, for different reasons. I’ve already mentioned Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin and Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, both excellent books.

I also briefly referred to Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, which he based on the letters of Mary Hallock Foote. This book won the Pullitzer Prize for fiction in 1972. It is the story of Lyman Ward, a wheelchair bound retired historian who is writing his grandparents’ life history and also gradually reveals his own story. It’s a long book, but completely enthralling.

I now know much more about the early days of the opening up of America’s western frontier than I learnt from TV cowbow series and films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid etc. The story is of Oliver Ward’s struggles with various mining and engineering construction jobs, contrasted with Susan Ward’s efforts to support him against great difficulties. This is made more difficult when she compares her life with that of her New York society friend, Augusta.

There are long letters from Susan to her friends which I think are taken directly from Mary Foote’s own letters and these are such descriptive letters that I could imagine what life was really like at that time and place. My only criticism is that I felt the ending came too quickly and was too compacted. I wanted to know more about Susan and Oliver. It was as though Lyman became too disappointed with how their life turned out, or maybe it was because he was too engrossed in his own problems, his illness and difficulties in his personal life. Ted suggested I’d also like Crossing to Safety, so that’s also on my to be read list now.

I interrupted my reading of The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman and Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk to concentrate on reading JK Rowling’s final (?) book of the series – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I finished all three last week whilst staying at Twilles Barn.

What can I say about Harry Potter? A N Wilson says it so much better here than I can. I’ll only add that I was glad not to find one single Quidditch match and I thought the ending was well worth waiting for. I particularly liked the section near the end when Harry was talking to Dumbledore.

After the Rain the Sun

D and I drove to Woolhope, near Hereford last Sunday. The weather was fine, with blue sky and fluffy clouds, a welcome change after all the rain that had drenched England in the last few weeks. There had been floods in Gloucester, which was on our route to Woolhope, but when we got there the roads were clear. I was reminded of the poem I used to recite as a child, beginning ‘Glad that I live am I’ and the lines:

After the sun the rain
After the rain the sun
This is the way of life
Til the work be done

We arrived at Twilles Barn in bright sunshine and it looked beautiful, in an idyllic setting, next to apple orchards, overlooking the Herefordshire countryside.

The word ‘˜hope’™ in Woodhope, Fownhope and Sollers Hope, all villages in the locality, means a small, enclosed blind valley. The Barn just outside the village of Woolhope is surrounded by hills in just such a valley, lying at the end of a gravelled driveway, beyond a gate flanked by pillars topped with two stone carved creatures.


The garden is large, with lawns sloping down to the building, a timber framed brick barn conversion, with a modern conservatory on the side and a crazy paving patio bounded by a small brick wall. The patio was the perfect place to sit and read, sipping a glass of wine. The apple orchards to the side and front are also the home of numerous sheep, all noisily calling to each other as they forage among the grass, constantly trotting or ambling around the apple trees.

Birds flock to the bird feeder in the centre of the side lawn, with the greater spotted woodpecker having precedence over the other birds. One morning I walked into the conservatory and was surprised by the sight of a female pheasant preening on the patio wall with the male strutting proudly around the tree behind her.

The weather was perfect – all week it was hot and sunny, just like summers used to be. On Monday we went to Hereford, on the banks of the River Wye. It has been a cathedral city since about 700AD. We had lunch in the Cloister Cafe, in the Cathedral.

The Cathedral was built over the centuries, and contains examples of architecture dating from Norman times. There are massive Norman pillars dividing the 12th century nave from the 14th century north and south aisles. The stone and marble tomb of Thomas Cantilupe, who was the Bishop of Hereford and Chancellor of England, canonised in 1320 is one of the best preserved medieval shrines in England, according to the description in the Cathedral guide.

The most interesting part of the Cathedral for me is the medieval Mappa Mundi and the Cathedral’™s Chained Library. The Souvenir Guide states “the map can be dated to the late 1280s, certainly after 1283 when work began on the building of the castle of Caernarfon, which appears on the map.” I am fascinated by the thought that this map has survived all these centuries since then.

It is drawn on a single sheet of parchment, 5ft 2in high and 4ft 4in wide, depicting the world within a large circle, with Jerusalem at its centre, illustrated outside the circlewith scenes of Christ sat in judgement and pictures of Biblical events.
Later in the afternoon we went for short walk from the Barn down a little lane, with grass growing in the middle, to Alford’™s Mill. In the evening we went to the Butchers Arms just outside the village and had a very good meal. The pub dates from the 14th century and was originally a butcher’™s shop and beer house, until 1881, when it was licensed as a public house. It is a beautiful black and white timber framed building, with more modern extensions. It has low beamed ceilings and a small welcoming bar.