Wednesday, 11 December 2019

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

Dickens’ most famous Christmas tale is a warning against greed and a reminder that money doesn’t buy happiness. In his characteristic style, he brings Victorian Britain to life skilfully, with some dark humour running underneath. In such a short story he succeeds in creating believable characters and drawing out the traits them make them so memorable.

Scrooge is a miserly figure, universally disliked (although some do try) for his lack of generosity and dismissal of those closest to him. He finds no comfort in his wealth, keeping himself in discomfort to save money. He is the epitome of the futility of hoarding wealth for the sake of it. Through the visits of the three ghosts we learn more about his behaviour and some hint at what turned him into the cold, unloving figure that we know him as.

The Cratchits on the other hand are full of life and love despite their meagre income and the health problems that haunt them. Dickens’ character sketches are such that we feel for them almost instantly. The juxtaposition of Scrooge’s solitary, cold life and the affection and joy shared in the company of loved ones in the Cratchits is stark.

A cautionary tale for those in a position of privilege, it encourages a softer, more gentle approach. Scrooge realises how callous his own attitude to the poor is and comes to regret it. Dickens was originally planning to write a pamphlet in response to the horrifying facts revealed in the Children’s Employment Commission report. His choice of fiction instead has meant that his words and message have endured through the ages and remain relevant and heartfelt into the twenty-first century.

A short yet powerful book, and a great one to pick up if you want to give the classics a go.

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

A Girl Behind Dark Glasses, Jessica Taylor-Bearman

A Girl Behind Dark Glasses is one young woman’s story of life with a chronic illness that is largely misunderstood and desperately under researched. She is fifteen when Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME, also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) comes into her life. Up until then she had been active and fun loving, enjoying spending time with her family and sharing the dream of becoming an author with her grandmother. It seems as though her dreams are shattered when she becomes hospitalized, unable to move or speak. She comments on the humiliations of the early months and how eventually they fade, although the feeling of being treated like an exhibit rather than a human remains.

She finds solace in her audio diary, Bug, and offers an honest portrayal of her experiences. Readers will be shocked by the lack of compassion shown to her by medical professionals and their actions and treatments that make her condition deteriorate. She suffers cruelty, her family only being allowed to visit briefly once a week, essentially condemning her to solitary confinement with carers who do not take the time to learn the codes that she’d built with her family to allow communication.

There are terrifying accounts of traumatic procedures without any support in place. During one period she suffers abuse at the hands of a member of staff who is meant to be caring for her. It is shocking to read that even when the truth came out he was let off and it was Jessica who suffered as other staff began to treat her differently.

It is overwhelming to see all that she went through and the diary style format makes it feel both very real and honest. This isn’t a book with a fairytale ending but the shining star is Jessica and the amazing positivity and determination she possesses, along with the love and support of her closest friends and family. Since being diagnosed she has created paintings that were first exhibited at the Canterbury Art Festival. She also founded a charity, Share a Star, to support other children and young people who are suffering from serious illness.

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Autumn, Ali Smith

It’s 2016 and the Brexit referendum has left Britain divided, all across the country people are feeling variously outraged, smug, and tired. The political tensions provide a backdrop to the humorously written mundanity of life as Elisabeth struggles with an unstable career and bureaucracy. The trials of post office queues and over zealous passport checks will feel familiar, amusingly retold. Her job as a junior lecturer at a London university leads her mother to believe she’s living the dream ‘and she is, if the dream means having no job security and almost everything being too expensive to do and that you’re still in the same rented flat you had when you were a student over a decade ago’. Her situation will ring true for many readers. Despite this, the book is bright with the friendship she has shared with a former neighbour, Daniel Gluck , now 101 and dying in a care home.

Her mother didn’t encourage their friendship in her youth but they nonetheless managed to form a strong bond that profoundly impacted Elisabeth. We see snippets of conversations they’ve had through the years as he encouraged her to see the world differently, to think more creatively, and engage with under-appreciated art such as that of Pauline Boty, a female artist who was integral to the British Pop Art movement yet largely passed over since.

Smith uses events of the past such as the Profumo scandal to remind readers that turmoil is cyclical. The opening line ‘It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again.’ points to the fact it can often feel like things are the worst they’ve ever been, that the media may encourage hysteria, but that it will pass, and doubtless come again. There is something reassuring in placing current political woes into a broader historical context.

The setting may put some readers off, looking instead for escapism in their fiction, but ultimately this feels like a hopeful book. It points to the benefits of intergenerational friendship at a time when generations are pitted against each other. This is a book that will teach you not only about events of the past but also make you think about the different ways we see the world. The idea of being in love with the way someone sees is profoundly moving. Autumn jumps around in time and alternates between cuttingly realistic vignettes of every day life with passages that will make you think more deeply.

The first in Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, this is an addictive read. I’m looking forward to picking up Winter but only wish we could have more time with Daniel and Elisabeth.

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Non-Fiction November – Favourites

This week’s non-fiction November theme, picked by Katie at Doing Dewey, is favourites. I’ve been reading more non-fiction this year and it’s been a great addition to my reading life. Currently working my way through Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano, my first ever ‘true crime’ book and it’s fascinating and horrifying. Here are some other brilliant non-fiction reads from over the years. I’d love to hear what you’d recommend.

Reason to Stay Alive by Matt Haig:
This is a book that doesn’t really need any more publicity but it’s popular for a reason. It details Haig’s battle with depression and offers insights into what has helped him, without ever claiming to have universal solutions to the illness. Whether you’re looking to find out more about mental health issues or just want to know you’re not alone, this is a great place to start.

Bryson brings his characteristic wit to his exploration of Australia, with funny anecdotes and informative snippets, it will leave you feeling like you’ve learned a lot as well as possibly more than you’d like to about all the potentially dangerous wildlife you might encounter out there. I’ve never read a Bill Bryson book that I haven’t enjoyed and he writes on such a broad range of topics that there’s bound to be one you can get stuck in to.

The Greatest Traitor: The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer by Ian Mortimer
This book had me hooked from the start. Medieval history doesn’t get all that much attention in general but I was shocked I’d never heard of a man that deposed the king and ruled England, albeit fairly briefly. This is history at its most dramatic – escape from the Tower of London, affairs that have extreme consequences, and a murder mystery that historians are still debating to this day.

The Brontës seem to be the object of insatiable public interest and although you may think we don’t need another biography, this is a brilliant addition. Well researched and thoughtfully portrayed, it is an enlightening read and one that makes you feel the heartache and difficulties that the family and specifically Charlotte faced.

This book should be required reading for all those politicians who tell us how wonderful employment rates are at the moment. Eye-opening and horrifying, this book gives you an insight into what it’s like to be stuck in the gig economy, working for companies that pretend to give you flexibility and freedom while trapping you in an endless cycle of being overworked and underpaid.

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town, Mary Beard

In this easy to read history Beard cuts through the myths surrounding Pompeii and looks at life in this ancient town. Discussion of the eruption is confined to the opening chapter, a moving introduction that dispells many commonly held misconceptions. Tour guides and popular imagination like to perpetuate the idea that it is a city frozen in time, unexpectedly interrupted by disaster. The truth is that there would have been earthquakes and other warning signs leading up to the eruption and many had already evacuated. This explains both the sparsity of items in the houses and also the amount of renovations that seem to have been taking place. Beard also lays bare the claim that what we see now is as it was discovered, in reality early excavations damaged remains and the site was bombed during World War Two. Renovations have taken place to create a less damaged appearance. Nonetheless, it is a unique and intriguing site, although one that throws up as many questions as it answers. Some objects and frescoes have sadly been lost to time but we can be grateful to artists of the past who created detailed images of what was there when it was originally discovered.

Beard discusses the split in opinion of historians – some are happy that an unexceptional town has survived, giving us a glimpse into the normal life of a Roman town that would otherwise have been forgotten whereas others lament that it wasn’t a more important place, believing we could have been privy to far more. She discusses the role of Pompeii, seemingly a town of little consequence yet evidence suggest its port was busy and that it facilitated foreign trade.

The importance of where historic evidence is found in its interpretation is also highlighted. For example, graffiti about gladiators has been used to suggest they were the heart throbs of the day, yet when you consider the graffiti was found in the barracks of gladiators it seems more of a brag than an indication of public perception. The discussions of how history is pieced together are an interesting addition and important for an excavation that elicits so much interest and to which so much has happened in the intervening millennia.

Beard’s style makes this an accessible history and one I would recommend to anyone planning a trip to Pompeii. It adds context to much of what you’ll see there including an explanation for the roads that needed stepping stones to cross and that the phallic imagery present around the town doesn’t indicate a city over-run with brothels as many would have you believe. For a town best known for its demise this book helps to bring the life of the town back to the fore.

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Three days in Naples

View from Castel Sant'Elmo

Naples has a reputation for being dangerous and dirty, although people that live there or have visited generally reject these assumptions. It is busy, chaotic, and very polluted, but you don’t feel unsafe walking around (although the traffic takes some getting used to!). Take care of your personal possessions, as you should anywhere you visit, but don’t let its reputation put you off visiting. It’s worth factoring in some time to just wander around the maze of streets and experience the bustling city first hand.

There’s plenty to see in Naples including three castles. Castel Sant’Elmo sits proudly above the city, an imposing fortress that has often been used as a military outpost. It now hosts art exhibitions and offers beautiful views over Naples. If you don’t want to climb the hill to get to it, there’s a funiculare that will take you nearby.
Inside Castel dell'Ovo

Head toward the harbour and you can’t miss Castel dell’Ovo guarding the bay. It is the oldest standing fortification in Naples and the peninsula on which it sits used to be the island Megaride. It is free to enter and there are information boards explaining its varied history including being used as the seat of the Royal Chamber and State Treasury, as a prison, and as a defense structure during many periods of unrest.

Follow the harbour round and you will soon find yourself at Castel Nuovo which has been used frequently as a royal residence over the years. Today it hosts a museum, chapel, and library. A short walk from here will bring you to the Piazza del Plebiscito, on one side a royal palace, on the other an impressive church. 

If you’re tired of tourist attractions by this point and want a bite to eat or to do some shopping, the Galleria Umberto I is just around the corner. An impressive nineteenth century shopping gallery with domed ceilings and mosaics lining the floors. It’s worth popping in to see it but pass through it and head into the narrow side streets and you’ll find a wide variety of pizzerias and trattorias where you can eat a delicious meal and have change from €10.
Galleria Umberto I

Approximately half an hour walk from here takes you to Napoli Sotterranea where you can go on a guided tour of the underground sections of the city. Here you’ll learn about the devastation that Naples suffered during the Second World War and how they converted tunnels they’d been using for rubbish for decades into bomb shelters, walk along ancient aqueducts, and even see some flowers growing 40 metres underground. Opposite the entrance to the tour you’ll find Christmas Alley, where you can pick up handmade Christmas decorations all year round.

A ruined temple at Pompeii
Few travellers will stop in Naples without visiting Pompeii or Herculaneum. Easily accessible by the Circumvesuviana which departs from Garibaldi, allow a full day to walk the Pompeii excavations. Herculaneum is a smaller site as the new city was built over the remains and so it’s unlikely the whole city will ever be fully uncovered. Although Pompeii is the far more popular site, Herculaneum is worth a visit. Its proximity to Vesuvius means that it was destroyed and therefore preserved, in a slightly different way. The hot ash carbonised wood, preserving features that were destroyed at Pompeii, and more of the buildings have upper floors and wall paintings still intact.
Remains of a building in the excavations of Herculaneum

As it’s a smaller site it’s possible to combine a day trip with going up Vesuvius. There is a tour company that operates from Ercolano Scavi station. They’ll drive you the majority of the way up the volcano and you then have an hour and a half to climb to the summit yourself, just enough time to get there and back with a few photo stops.

If you’ve not reached archaeological saturation point, the National Archaeological Museum in Naples is a popular tourist spot as it houses the majority of treasures unearthed in the excavations, moved to the museum to aid in their conservation.

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Victober 2019

To my great delight, I discovered Victober this year – a month of reading Victorian novels run by some lovely bloggers. Check out the Goodreads page for more details and to get involved. I found out about this quite late and alas already had a full reading schedule for most of the month so haven’t been able to take part as much as I’d like but will be ready for it next year and have loved all the discussions going on around it. As regular readers will know, I’m a big fan of Victorian literature so this month is my idea of bookish heaven. Not wanting to be left out, I thought I’d do a summary of books I’ve read that fit in with the themes and a few that I’m still hoping to get to.

Challenge one – read a book by a female author (bonus if you haven’t read it before):
There are a lot of great female Victorian writers, many of whom I still need to get to. I’m always an advocate for Mary Elizabeth Braddon who doesn’t get nearly as much love as she deserves, but my book by a female author that I haven’t read before will be Shirley by Charlotte Brontë.

Challenge two – Re-read a Victorian book: 
Wuthering Heights is my most re-read Victorian novel, with Frankenstein a close second. With Christmas fast approaching though, I think I might give Charles Dickens’ Christmas books another go.

Challenge three – read a book under 250 pages or over 500 pages:
My favourite short story from the period (although not from a British author so not sure if it entirely counts) is The Yellow Wallpaper. For the 500+ pages I’m going to suggest Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin, a generally under read book that may have had a boost with Sarah Perry’s re-imagining Melmoth last year.

Challenge four – read an underrated book from the same year as your favourite:
I’m going to go for The Professor by Charlotte Brontë which I know wasn’t technically released in the same year as Wuthering Heights but Charlotte was trying to get it published at the same time and it would have been written around the same period. I read it last year and wasn’t sure what to expect as it’s famously her first rejected novel, but it was brilliant, and I’d recommend picking up a copy.

I’d love to hear from you if you’re taking part or for a general chat about all things Victorian.