Friday, 31 May 2013

Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint – Mark Twain

The Armchair BEA topic for today: NON FICTION

Now my initial reaction to this was: I don’t read non fiction. But actually, I never used to read non fiction. It always seemed like such hard work. Certainly after years of study.

But over time, I have actually developed an appreciation for non fiction. Must be my age. Learning to be more patient. And appreciative of reality.

I’m still not a fan of biographies. Auto or otherwise. I suppose I have never felt the need to know about other people’s lives. Certainly not about the lives of people I don't know personally. That said, I was given a copy of Nigel Slater’s Toast. And really enjoyed it. There was an element in it of reminiscence. Some shared childhood food experiences. And it was good to revisit them.
I was also given Waris Dirie’s Desert Flower. A whole different story, of course. Harrowing at times. Always instructive. Ultimately inspiring. 
Apart from that, I also liked Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Spence. But then I’d loved Deirdre Le Faye’s Jane Austen’s Letters too. Something to do with the Austen factor, methinks.

I do love books on language, linguistics and culture. I’m a fan of Professor David Crystal’s writings. On language and its development. And I always recommend Watching the English by Kate Fox and Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow. Non fiction with laughs. No, really. 

Otherwise I like books on health. And self help. And psychology. Is that the age thing? Possibly. But I figure any advice that could improve my life is good. And if it could make me the tiniest bit a better person, then fab…

Finally, I'd love to be able to read history. But it's just not me. At the moment, anyway. I've started watching history. Simon Schama, as an example. But reading it is way too heavy. For me. Except... that I did read A small corner of hell - dispatches from Chechnya. Anna Politkovskaya. Can you call that history? A conflict that continues. To a certain extent. Horrors that happened in my lifetime. Most without my knowledge. In a place I've only recently become aware of. Scary. Traumatic. And somehow compelling.
So while non fiction may seem a no-go, I’d encourage one and all to reconsider. Non fiction shouldn’t mean non!  Sometimes it’s the only way to go. Allez!

Thursday, 30 May 2013

But for my part, if a book is well written, I always find it too short - Jane Austen

The Armchair BEA topic for today: LITERARY FICTION

For me, literary fiction - and the closely linked classics - are my favourite reads. My comfort zone. That take me out of my comfort zone. That make me think, and react. Question. Muse.

Because in literary fiction, there's not just a tale to tell. But a whole journey to experience while the tale is being told. The tale being almost incidental to the journey being experienced. 

And quality counts. Luxurious expressions and challenging ideas all wrapped up in the choicest words and most delightful prose. Does that sound snobby? Maybe. I'm not dissing fast food. There's a time and place for everything. But when I'm dining I do like good food, presented well, stimulating all the senses at once.

I’m heavily into my Classics Club challenge at the mo, so my main reading this year has been the big boys. But if asked, I’d venture the following suggestions / recommendations to anyone who’d care to listen: 

Marilyn French (The Women's Room, In the Name of Friendship), Alan Bennett (The Uncommon Reader),  Edith Wharton (pretty much anything, but particularly: The House of Mirth), Evelyn Waugh (Scoop), Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid's Tale), Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist), Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner), Solzhenitsyn (Cancer WardOne day in the life of Ivan Denisovich).  And short stories: Saki, F Scott-Fitzgerald, Thomas Hardy.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking - Haruki Murakami

The Armchair BEA topic for today: CLASSICS

The word classics will always be problematic methinks. It's just not warm and friendly. It's stuffy. Distant. Cold, even.

It can make the works it refers to seem distant and cold. Too intellectual. Over our heads.  And that's sooooo wrong. It just means too many miss out on some brilliant, witty and entertainingly touching writing.

Do you remember when we used the word classic in every day chat to describe something cool? Something more than acceptable? Something really, really good. Like Hugh Grant in Notting Hill?

I wrote about "Classics" fairly early on in my life as a blogger. And my initial musings have become convictions. A Classic is what rocks your world. Moves you and stays with you. Shapes who you are and what you become. Whatever that may be.

My favourites, off the top of my head, are: Edith Wharton (The House of Mirth, The Old Maid); Marilyn French (The Women's Room, In the Name of Friendship); Ivan Turgenev (Fathers & Sons, First Love); Elizabeth Gaskell (Wives & Daughters, Cranford); Jane Austen (Emma).  I could go on. But I won't...

A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one - George R R Martin

New York! New York! Somewhere I’ve never been. And would like to visit. Particularly this week.  Fellow book bloggers are gathered together for the Book Expo America (BEA), a few days looking at the joys of blogging. And how to improve the joy. Which can only benefit us all.

And while I would prefer to be there in person, of course, modern technology – and a jolly nifty group of bloggers – have made it possible to have a cyber presence. The Armchair BEA. How cool is that?

In the spirit of community and hospitality, I have questions to answer for my fellow cyber participants – hello one and all – so here we go:

1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself: Who are you? How long have you been blogging? Why did you get into blogging?

I’m a life-long book lover, blogging for just over a year now. I'd been meaning to blog for a while. But being a professional procrastinator, it wasn't happening. Until I was housebound by a (very silly) accident last year. To stave off boredom and insanity, I launched myself into the blogging arena. And I’m loving it. I love reading. I love writing. And I love musing about the books I read, the words I see.  I love it that someone somewhere is sharing these thoughts and musings. I am delighted when someone shares their thoughts and musings through comments. When page hits become human interaction.

2.  Where in the world are you blogging from? Tell a random fact or something special about your current location. Feel free to share pictures.

From Strasbourg, France. Best known for storks, knacks (sausages), sauerkraut, beer, wine (of course), the Christmas market, and the European Court of Human Rights. (For the curious, here are some photos:!i=1684987381&k=tZt2r2b)

3.  What are you currently reading, or what is your favourite book you have read so far in 2013?

At the moment, I'm trying to get through Milan Kundera's essays, Les Testaments Trahis. Quite heavy going. But interesting and stimulating. Giving me the excuse (if ever I needed one) to counter with the lighter works of Roald Dahl. Something for every mood, as it were...

I'm doing the Classics Challenge this year (through to 2017) and am loving discovering new authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Goethe, Dickens. Dahl. I'm even enjoying discovering authors I don't particularly appreciate, such as Virginia Woolf.
4.  Which is your favourite post that you have written that you want everyone to read?

5.  If you could eat dinner with any author or character, who would it be and why?

Milan Kundera. Love his books, love his vision. He has an incredible mind. Has lived an amazing life. Seems to have a good sense of humour. What more could you ask for?

But also Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, Marilyn French. Such cool ladies. Big minds, huge intellects. A major headache for my little brain. But an experience to cherish. Forever. Can I have more than one? Like a huge big dinner party of the coolest people ever…

And so back to NY. I’m off to see what’s happening and will tell you all about it. Spreading the news, as it were…

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond - C. S. Lewis

Okay so I am totally addicted to Roald Dahl. Totally. I mean, how good are his books? Where have they been all my life?

Thus far, between work and life's commitments, I've read: The Twits; Fantastic Mr Fox; George’s Marvellous Medicine (how did that one get past the health and safety guys??); The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me; Esio Trot; The Magic Finger (I soooo want one of those); and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.

That one surprised me. I didn't know that Charlie continued his adventures publicly after his day at the Chocolate Factory. On his way back there with his whole family. In the glass lift. It's certainly an odd little tale. Less endearing than the others, I'd say. Somewhat ahead of its time with its civilian space travel and space tourism.And a bit more American methinks than CCF. Which was bizarre. For me. Who always associates the Chocolate Factory with Cadbury's...

There's lots of action. But it doesn't really do it for me. Not a (chocolate chip) spot on the Chocolate Factory. Although following that was always going to be a huge challenge. Which begs the question why you would try?

It feels like hard work somehow. For RD or for me. Not quite sure. It's meant to be fun, I know. But those old people are hard going. And generally I like old people. Except these old people.

RD's not short on moral statements. But in the Great Glass Elevator, he's possibly a tad more direct than elsewhere. Which again feels unnecessary. “It was an unhappy truth, he (Mr Wonka) told himself, that nearly all people in the world behave badly when there is something really big at stake. Money is the thing they fight over most.” And, as RD goes on to show, such behaviour always ends badly.

Still here's another great collaboration between author and illustrator in the style of A. A. Milne/ E. H. Shepard: RD and Quentin Blake. Hugely imaginative tales beautifully and faithfully portrayed. Perfection. I'm enjoying the images as much as the writing...

And I've just found out that QB used to occasionally present the BBC's Jackanory in the 1970's. Apparently illustrating the stories on canvas as he told them. My affection for him and his work grows as I write. I must have watched him over and again. Although I don't remember.

I do love connections though. And that's a great connection to my childhood. To which I'm slipping back. In ever decreasing circles. Should I be worried? Maybe. But not enough to stop my pursuit of Dahl. Not just yet, anyway...

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read - Groucho Marx

I think I’m stuck in childhood. Not exactly a bad place to be stuck, I might say. Still, all the same. I’m no Peter Pan. Yet I whiled away this afternoon with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Finally. And delighted in it.

I can't normally afford the luxury of dedicating whole weekday afternoons to reading, you understand. It’s just that after more treatment for my persistently painful and unhealing shoulder, I had to rest up.

Indeed, the pain today has been worse than that presented to my osteo yesterday. I feel like I've been battered. And while I’m assured this is the norm, it’s still very debilitating. Rest is the only effective aid. And good reading, of course.

I continue to persist with Milan Kundera. But in small bursts. So when my collection of Roald Dahl books arrived yesterday, I couldn't resist delving into Charlie's adventures. I fear my resistance will remain low before all the works in this box set. The Twits are calling me just now. Read into that what you will...

All the way through Charlie's time in the Chocolate Factory, I could see the old 1971 film. How many times did we watch that as children? It was magical. Good memories are so soothing.

But I must tell you of three freaky moments I experienced whilst reading about Charlie. I had BBC Radio 2 playing in the background. First of all, they played David Soul's Silver Lady. So strong was the memory that I stopped reading and was immediately transported back in time. How powerfully evocative music is!

Then the show presenter, interviewing a writer on her writing methods, commented: "How very Roald Dahl of you…"!!

Finally, Charlie, Grandpa Joe and Willy Wonker were high in the sky in the glass lift. "It was an eerie and frightening feeling to be standing on clear glass high up in the sky. It made you feel that you weren't standing on anything at all".

And this took me way back to the CN Tower in Toronto when my sister and I came across the glass floor 342 metres above the ground. And I mean "came across". We didn't know it existed. I lost my legs. Even sitting on the glass panes for the obligatory photo cost me more than I can say. We laughed like giggly schoolgirls. As we have done so very often on our holidays together.
They're good memories. And good memories are so soothing...

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Make it a rule never to give a child a book you would not read yourself - George Bernard Shaw

I've been painting again. In true bank holiday tradition. And in true BH spirit, I did it all in one afternoon. Three huge walls. Floor to ceiling. Needless to say I was a tad pooped by the end. Indeed, I couldn't move too much. If at all.

Thus I was condemned to read... With a book propped up on pillows in front of me to avoid paining any further the muscles in my arms. And that’s my Complaining Song. For I am Eeyore. As I discovered through the pain.

So yes I strayed from my Classics Club challenge. It felt wrong, if the truth be told. But it was more than partly due to my suffering. You see, Milan Kundera was next on my list. Les Testaments Trahis, to be exact. In French.

Now, I'm a big fan of MK. I've read just about everything he's ever written. I love his perspective. His meandering reflections. His delightful grace of style.

But these are essays. Intense. Philosophical. And in French. Too much for a bank holiday. In pain. And in need of comfort and consolation after a hard morning's work.

The encounter with the children last week was still with me. Part of our time together had been spent watching back-to-back cartoons. None of this modern stuff either. Pink Panther. Tweety Pie and Sylvester. Wile E Coyote and the Road Runner. Fun and nostalgic. Although all in French. Which gave them all a whole new dimension.

Particularly Pepe Le Pew. Who actually lost his charm somewhat. As you will understand if you were ever a fan. And loved his French accent and French ways. Including his imperfect English à la française.

So, dismayed somewhat by the challenge of MK and the consequential need to think too hard, I turned to Winnie the Pooh. The only option under the circumstances. I have a lovely copy of the complete collection of stories and poems. A beautiful, big hefty book. A real tome to read to children. And to myself.

I have never read the whole of WTP. Only extracts. I can now only wonder why. Through charming tales, A. A. Milne shines through as the author who has become the father. Eager to delight the child before him. His loving dedications to his wife add further to the charm of the whole. But maybe that's the romantic in me.

The endurance through time of Pooh and friends is totally comprehensible. And what a wonderful cooperation between AAM and E. H. Shepard: beautiful words faithfully portrayed in such touching and delicate illustrations. I have just learned that EHS used his own son's teddy, Growler, as the model for Pooh. Fathers and sons, huh.

How inspiring children are. We really need to be with them more to get more "rememberings". Do you know what I mean? “I hope you do too because it’s all the explanation that you’re going to get..."

Monday, 6 May 2013

Think before you speak. Read before you think – Fran Lebowitz

I spent part of last week staying with some very good friends. Visiting other good friends. Eating lots. Laughing some more. It's been a while since I felt that good. That relaxed. Surrounded by goodness and love and support.

And their two very delightful children. Two energetic, polite, fun creatures. I forget what good company little people are. They remind you of the goodness of life. Which we can so easily forget as adults...

During the journey there and back, I finally finished Heinrich Boll’s The Clown. And really enjoyed it. As previously mentioned.
The account allows us to share a few hours in the life of the clown in question, Hans Schnier. A few hours sharing his thoughts, his emotions, his frustrations.
Schnier has lost the woman he loves to a man he despises and a belief system he has tolerated but never accepted. His career as a clown has lost its way. And he's losing himself to alcohol.
True tears of a clown. Forgive the obvious. But if ever that phrase was needed, it's here. There is certainly self-pity in abundance. And in his post-war rage, the tears of youthful Schnier lead to a vitriolic against society.  Against disappointment. Shame. Hypocrisy.
His view of life is simplistic to an extreme. Perhaps as a result of the confusion and hysteria of growing up during the war. But too simplistic to survive a society doomed by its own submission to the dictates of opinion and conformity. Where reality and truth are not addressed. Where issues are side-stepped. Where straight-talking is frowned upon.
It cannot be coincidental that Böll chose to question the basic ethics of his society through the rantings of a man dressed up, made up and performing. Indeed, Schnier is at his most relaxed at the end of the book, painted and ready to perform. Hiding behind the mask that he refutes in others. Concluding: “there is no better hiding place for a professional than among amateurs”.

Böll's writing is certainly forthright, stimulating and emotive. Stirring up so many thoughts, so many reactions. Conflicts. Questions.
Here The Clown shows how much damage human relations can do. Thankfully we have the little people to remind us of the goodness of life. The fun and the delights that human relations can bring us. Inspite of all the rest...