Tuesday 30 November 2010

Reading The Outward Room, by Millen Brand, reminded me of this painting by Hopper.
It is both a love story and the story of a young woman's recovery from mental illness after she has the good fortune to meet a thoroughly decent man. Harriet has spent years in an asylum following her brother's death. When she manages to escape, she jumps a train to New York where she is soon penniless, riding the subway at night with thousands of other homeless girls - and she can't even afford to buy a coffee in a neon-lit diner that sounds just like this one.
But when she meets John, his quiet goodness allows her spirit to mend.
The novel was a sensation when it was published in 1937 during the Great Depression, on the same day as William Maxwell's novel They Came Like Swallows.
I was fascinated by the descriptions of Depression-era New York, the El-trains and grimy rooming houses and sweatshops. But Harriet's slow, slow healing was a bit too slow for me and I couldn't help thinking that this would have been better as a long-ish short story. Maybe I just lack the patience for broken minds and broken syntax.
I'm glad that I read this but I far prefer William Maxwell. Interesting, though, that it was partly based on the experiences of Millen Brand's first wife who was deaf and came to New York when she was 17 to live in a windowless tenement in Greenwich village, supporting herself by working in sweatshops and washing dishes in restaurants.
I took my family on a walk around Spitalfields, one of my favourite parts of London.

My niece goes clubbing here every weekend, but she had never noticed these narrow Georgian streets where Huguenot silk-weavers lived.

However, she does know the names of all the graffiti artists.

I don't know that I'll ever be a huge fan of Banksy.
But I love the local wildlife.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

'Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you'll poison me.'

That's what the village children chant when they see Mary Katherine Blackwood, who is 18 years old, and lives with her sister Constance. 'I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cap mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.'

I love this cover, far more atmospheric than my free-with-The-Times Penguin edition. And I'm not going to say too much here because one of the best things about this book is the way Shirley Jackson drip-drip-drips clues about the two strange sisters who live alone in a rather wonderful house. (Eating rather wonderful meals because Constance is an excellent cook ... don't you love books that describe rum cakes for tea and rose-coloured china, and tiny thin hot pancakes for breakfast?)

It builds up to a climax that's reminiscent of Jackson's horrifying story The Lottery. And as she leaves plenty of room for the reader's imagination to go off at tangents, I'm still puzzling over the Blackwoods and how Merricat got to be like she is ... doesn't the father sound overbearing?doesn't the parents' marriage sound as if something wasn't quite right? There aren't any answers, just niggling, unsettling hints to worry your mind.

It was a delight to read something short and gripping - you could read it in an evening - after unrewarding weeks plodding through The Lacuna.
Which really wasn't worth it.

Sunday 14 November 2010

There's two books that I've enjoyed far and away above anything else I've read this year, so I'm delighted that they've won Galaxy National Book Awards.
I know I've harped on about them before. But for sheer brilliance of story-telling it doesn't get any better for me than Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal, awarded Galaxy New Writer of the Year for his riveting family history.
The Hare with Amber Eyes is the book that has made me want to jump up and down and tell people, 'You've simply got to read this!'
I'd jump up and down about Wolf Hall, but nearly everybody I know has already read it!
Whee-ew ... I have finished The Lacuna which is about the same length as Wolf Hall but which took me five times as long to wade through.
I'm not used to taking weeks over one book. There were times when I could have sworn that it grew 50 pages in length on the bed-table overnight because I never seemed to get any further on with it.
I thought if I ever finished it, I'd deserve a medal.
(It's a book group choice. I don't know why, because nobody's cracking a whip, but I've never abandoned a book group book yet. Think this has more to do with personal vanity at conceding defeat in a public arena than any finer feelings of etiquette and fairness to the person who chose the book.)
But now that I have finished ... there's ideas rattling round in my head about truth (especially as reported by newspapers) and the nature of celebrity and I realise that I was much more engaged than I thought. (Of course, for pure reading pleasure, it didn't come within a whisker of Wolf Hall. It won the Orange prize because it is a big, fat, serious political doorstopper and maybe we still don't expect women writers to address political issues.)
The photos are Leon Trotsky and Frida Kahlo. I'm far too lazy to write a review but here's an interesting interview with Barbara Kingsolver.
I still think that it's a major flaw if it takes 250pp to get interested in the main character.
But we'll have plenty to discuss when we meet later this week.
At least, we will if everybody else has finished the book!

Friday 12 November 2010

I'm not an opera buff - but last night's performance of Roméo et Juliette at the Opera House was a bit of a let down.
If it had been MacMillan's exquisite ballet, I'd have been holding back tears.
If it had been Shakespeare, I'd be on the edge of my seat.
But I did think that Gounod makes a sentimental dog's dinner of a great tragic story.
And there were several empty seats after the interval.
Not me. I stuck it out to the end.
But I must have had a premonition that it was going to be a Long Night.
Because at 4pm I hurriedly made a big plate of egg and chips.
To see me through -
A very shrill soprano
A libretto that would have Shakespeare spinning in his grave
And an overwhelming urge to grab the mobile phones from all the fidgety, twitchy young people sitting around me.

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Being rather witless about anything technical, I've only recently discovered my stats counter which is now a source of endless fascination.
Whoever would have imagined that, so far today, there have been rather more visitors from America than the UK. (Why, I wonder?)
As well as others dropping in from Canada (hi, Darlene), New Zealand, Switzerland, Spain and Singapore.
This week I've had guests from Croatia and Argentina, Romania, Australia and Malaysia.
Not to mention Mrs Miniver's fanbase in South Korea and Russia. (Are they learning English? Or should I be worried?)
I wish I knew who you all are. Do you arrive by mistake and shuffle off quickly? Or stay here to browse?
Come on. Be brave. Leave a comment. Even if it's just, "Hi."
We don't bite.
Well, not very often.

Monday 8 November 2010

When Darlene wrote recently about Frost in May, by Antonia White, I couldn't resist pulling my copy down from the shelf. I remember exactly where and when I bought it on a drizzly, rainy weekend in a dreary out-of-season seaside town in Devon. It must have been 1978, everything was closed, I was working in my first job and counting the months until I wasn't quite so useless and could find employment in London.
But when I discovered that slim volume in a secondhand bookshop (1948 edition, 35p, sadly, no dustjacket), I was ecstatic ... because Frost in May was the first Virago Modern Classic and I'd read all about it in Cosmo. If you weren't around in the 1970s, it's impossible to describe how exciting that magazine was, how we counted down the days to the next issue, how it was our lifeline to the glamorous, glossy, sophisticated life that we had to believe was around the corner. (I hasten to add that it bore no resemblance to the trashy rag it is today.)
So there was a lot of nostalgia in immersing myself in that novel once again. (Nostalgia for my 21-year-old self, not for out-of- season seaside towns, because my instincts were absolutely right and I was much happier living in London. Even if that glamorous sophistication has always eluded me.)
But 30 years on, I think I've responded differently to the Lippington nuns. In 1978, I hadn't long escaped from my own school days in a convent which was a watered-down version of the Convent of the Five Wounds. We had black lace mantillas, marked with Cash's nametapes, as part of our school uniform and bridal veils for feastdays; at primary school, we even curtsied to the teachers. Far from being a Nanda, I loathed the whole caboodle.
But this time round, what horrified me wasn't the rigid regime of the nuns but Nanda's creepy father, a Catholic convert, his intense relationship with his daughter, his ownership of her 'purity,' his angry rejection of her as soon as she appears tarnished.
I also wondered if the nuns weren't kinder and more realistic than I'd given them credit for. After all, this is pre-WWI and what was going to happen when middleclass Nanda and her aristocratic friends left school? For Nanda, in Earl's Court, there would be no coming-out parties or curtseying to royalty; outside the democratic walls of the convent her friendships would surely fade when she couldn't keep up. (Read The Flower of May by Kate O'Brien for the damage wreaked by convent friendships across class boundaries.) I was horrified by the nuns' snobbery when I was younger ... now I think that maybe their feet were firmly on the ground and that they had a very realistic grasp of the society they lived in.
Still shudder at the convent cabbage, though ...

Tuesday 2 November 2010

I have never heard the first cuckoo of spring.
But today I heard the first strains of White Christmas playing in M&S.
So I accepted a free sample of shortbread and walked out the door and did my shopping elsewhere.
So there!