Saturday, 22 July 2017

Down Under: Travels in a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson

Bryson is known for his humorous yet informative books detailing his travels. Down Under is no exception as he explores Australia’s vast emptiness by foot, road, and rail, going on detours to find locations of events of interest, even when the locals seem to have lost all memory of them. He is baffled by the attraction of creating oversized models (giant lobsters, big apples, you name it, they’ve made it) alongside roads, yet finds that after hours of seemingly endless driving they become all the more appealing, and enjoys the quirks of the culture that find such things worth creating.

He is constantly alarmed by the many dangerous creatures lurking in the sea and on-land, and the blasé attitude the Australians have toward them. He notes their eagerness to reassure, and the almost inevitable following gruesome or disastrous story. Reluctant as he is to come face to face with many of the native species, he does make clear quite how remarkable the wildlife is. Undisturbed by humans, organisms have had the freedom to evolve in ways not possible in other parts of the world. Australia is unique in the volume of species only known to reside there (and the many still undoubtedly left to discover). One of the overarching feelings of the country gleaned from the book is the power of nature, and humans’ vulnerability to it. Whether it be tales of the many lives lost in trying to find routes through the desert, or of the most experienced of divers vanishing in its waters, it is abundantly clear the humans are at the mercy of nature.

Bryson enjoys engaging with Australians, finding them generally friendly and with a wicked sense of humour (he found it particularly telling of their character that they named a swimming pool after a Prime Minister who met his end through drowning). One aspect of the attitudes he meets there that he struggles to get his head around is the treatment and opinions directed toward the Aborigines. After being startled on numerous occasions by the popularity of such views he finds himself sitting in a café watching the world go by, feeling a sense of injustice for the disheveled Aborigines who seem all but invisible to the rest of the population. Eventually, he reaches the sad realisation that he begins not to notice them either. That is not to say that he does not care however, detailing the wrongs inflicted on them by past generations.

He seems to think fondly of this oft-neglected country, and leaves with a sense of sadness that he will not hear much of their current affairs once he is outside of it. A highly enjoyable read that brings the diversity, vastness, and character of Australia to life.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

What Would Mary Berry Do?, Claire Sandy

Marie Dunwoody tries to do it all – maintain a happy marriage, raise three children, and run her own dental practice, a vocation to which she is devoted. She manages an impressive juggling act of her responsibilities, but when she is told at the last minute by her twins that she’s meant to be baking a showstopper for their school fair she feels she has failed, having to resort to Mr. Kipling Fondant Fancies. Her humiliation is reinforced by her seemingly perfect neighbour Lucy’s beautiful creations outshining her meagre offerings.  The fair proves to be transformative, however, when Marie happens upon a copy of Mary Berry’s Complete Baking Bible. She vows to become more like Mary, and in consequence, to her mind, a better mother.

Her ambition soon becomes something of an obsession as she battles her way through simple sponges, the threat of the challenging croquembouche, which she has promised to make for a friend’s wedding, constantly hanging over her. Keen bakers will feel a sense of familiarity in the frustrations and satisfaction in attempting to produce a perfect bake, and relish in the humour of Marie and her husband Robert’s split allegiance when he becomes a devotee of Paul Hollywood. The book is not all light-hearted Bake-Off references and collapsing cakes however, dealing with the pressures of marriage and parenthood, and the contrast between appearances and reality. It is this which makes the book unforgettable and drags you into the lives of the inhabitants of a small suburban street.

Marie’s son Angus is besotted with a girl he has only ever met online while completely ignoring the affections of his neighbour Chloe, the future of the dental practice is threatened by the opening of a rival across the road, more concerned with aesthetics than quality dental care, Robert’s job is hanging in the balance, and Lucy’s perfect life is a constant frustration. It all feels very real and relevant.

Through her baking endeavours Marie’s perspective begins to change and neighbourhood scandals are discovered. All the revelations may not be a total shock to the reader, but it is the journey that matters, and you find yourself becoming quite attached to the characters. A feel-good book accurately portraying the day-to-day challenges and triumphs of a modern family. This was something of a diversion from my normal reading habits, but one that I’m very glad I took. 

Friday, 10 February 2017

The Phantom of the Opera, Gaston Leroux

Gaston Leroux’s most well known title is nonetheless known more for its musical adaptation than the novel itself. Often dismissed as confused, not know quite what it’s trying to be, I feel, however, that you’d be missing out on a novel of great intrigue and atmosphere were you to cast it aside so easily. The tale of Erik/the Phantom is haunting, his genius and twisted spirit apparent as he roams the secret passageways of the Opera house he helped to create. His love of Christine is obsessive, his desperation to be loved all too obvious when one of the narrators reveals Christine allowed him to kiss her forehead, something not even his mother would. He forces the reader to question their judgment – can he so easily be condemned when he has been rejected and starved of affection his whole life? Should we not feel some pity for this man forced to live an invisible life?

Christine’s story is not without its own tragedy – her father’s death in her youth wounding her deeply and stripping her of the joy of music, making her once enchanting voice little more than average. Raoul, who had known her before her father died, understands the pain of loss, having been brought up by his brother in the absence of a parent. His love for Christine is of a very different nature to that of the Phantom. Raoul loves her and wants to protect her from the Phantom, who takes advantage of her grief to manipulate her to his will. Raoul’s feeling are changeable, often flicking between devotion and suspicion, fearing she is having an affair with another man and behaving loosely.

The format is not untypical of the time, Leroux using a common technique of addressing the reader in the prologue, speaking of the truth of the tale. The three central characters are reminiscent of those from another great Gothic revival novel  - Wuthering Heights. Erik reflects Heathcliff – treated with violence and rejection at a young age, creating a manipulative, some would say evil, man with an otherworldly feel. They both desire love and are motivated by an unhealthy obsession with a woman. Catherine is a fiercer heroine by far but faces a similar dilemma – letting go of the past or holding on to a destructive force. Edgar is a more loyal counterpart to Raoul and struggles in a relationship with a woman whose heart belongs, at least in part, to another. It is a tried and tested formula with an anti-hero that inspires sympathy.

The gradual revealing of information about Erik’s past makes him feel more real than the ghoulish tales of fiery eyes and an ever-present smell of death. He is cunning both in his exploitation of the secrets of the Opera but also in his more sinister intentions, creating a torture chamber of great ingenuity. If you want a tale of passion and mystery, drama and crime, then The Phantom of the Opera contains all that you could want.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France, Evelyne Lever

Lever’s easy-to-read account of the infamous French Queen, Marie Antoinette, brings her story to life almost as a novel might. The reader is led into sympathy for the young Queen, having been sent to a foreign country at a tender age and being forced to survive in the trying environment of Versailles in such a public marriage. Lever details how trying Antoinette found her situation and how she longed for some sense of normality, creating a haven for herself at Trianon. She disliked the constant rituals of royalty and found public duties tiresome, leading her to break with some traditions. Surprisingly, however, she did not push against one of the more invasive customs – that French queens had to give birth publicly in order to prove the legitimacy of their child.

In all other senses when it came to her children she does not seem to have wished to follow in the distant relationship expected from royals. Lever paints her as maternal, with a desire to be active in her children’s life, and even wished to breastfeed them herself. Her apparent motherly instincts seem at odds with those of her own mother, who is depicted as manipulative, using emotion against her children in order to manoeuvre them into positions of influence. Political dominance seems to have been a greater concern to her than her own children’s happiness, not uncommon at this time, but exaggerated in her family. Indeed, Marie Antoinette seems to have received very little affection from her family at large; her tragic figure imprisoned near the end of her life, believing her family would save her when in fact they had no intention to help.

Marie Antoinette is often vilified for her excesses and political ineptitude, but this biography paints a softer picture – one of a young woman thrust into court life without sufficient training to succeed. A woman whose intuition about the views of the people of France was severely lacking, but a woman of heart. One can’t help but think she would have thrived in a more domestic situation. Lever’s biography is unlikely to satisfy many academics, and the wider political and social context of events is all but absent, resulting in a somewhat misleading, half-formed version of events. The storming of Versailles especially reads more like a novel than an historical study, but the book is accessible and gives a sense of life as experienced by her. 

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Les Misérables, Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo’s epic Les Misérables is a broad examination of the lives of struggling citizens of France in the early nineteen century, and a polemic against a society where people are so carelessly abandoned by the State. Jean Valjean, the unifying character, is a complex man whose good intentions were forced out of him during his harsh and intolerable captivity. His crime was little more than desperation to relieve the suffering of his loved ones, and his ever present determination to escape, however slim the chance of success and however high the penalty. Readers will easily be led into sympathy, and feel the hopelessness, the injustice of the legal system. He emerges with a broken soul, all ability to love seemingly crushed. His encounter with the Bishop of Digne stuns him, his kindness a sudden bright light that dazes Valjean after so many years of darkness. It is this which allows a return to empathy and encourages what becomes a life led selflessly.

Fantine, an innocent girl who places her heart with the wrong man ends her life tragically when she finds herself pregnant and abandoned. On meeting Madame Thenardier she sees a solution to her troubles, thinking she has found a loving family to care for her beloved child, Cosette, while she works hard to support her. She suffers a double misfortune as the Thernardiers prove to be of deplorable character, only interested in what they can gain. Her workmates also prove to be unkind, causing her problems for the sake of it. She soon finds herself destitute, relying on her body to provide for the ever increasing demands of the Thernardiers. It is heartbreaking to see her resolve to suffer so much with the only comfort that her sacrifices are granting Cosette health and happiness when we see how despicably she is in truth being treated.

Valjean, now in a position of some power and wealth, comes to hear of Fantine’s story and takes on the responsibility of care for Cosette. He sees the Thernardier’s for what they are and takes Cosette away from them, making enemies in the process. Without ever explaining the reason to her, he and Cosette hide from the law, and most especially Inspector Javert, who seems incapable of understanding life beyond the confines on the law.

A whole host of characters are introduced in relation to the events surrounding Valjean and his adopted daughter. The benign Marius whose morals lead him into a life of struggle, reluctant to accept financial help, and bent on finding Monsieur Thernardier with the aim of repaying the kindness he believes was shown to his father when injured at the Battle of Waterloo. Valjean is suspicious of the young man, both for his constant fear of being followed and watched, but also for the risk of Cosette falling in love. His past life haunts him to the end.

The Thernardiers reappear many times throughout, sometimes under different guises, and we see how they treat their own beloved daughters when hard times hit. The contrast between Cosette’s life and that of the once more privileged family is stark, a fact that enrages Madame Thernardier. This contrast is made even more apparent when you realise the street urchin Gavroche is also a Thernardier, although he is left to fend for himself and seems to have avoided the undesirable family traits. He is a shining example of generosity and wisdom far beyond his years. There are few scenes more heart wrenching than his demise, and the following treatise on how easily lost children can be sucked into the city and made invisible, struggling to survive in a world that only punishes them for their attempts to be fed and sheltered.

It is impossible to do justice to the breadth of this novel in so short a space. The characters may be a little exaggerated, which can be frustrating at times, and there are many lengthy digressions (some of which have mercifully been moved to appendices in this in this edition) but it is a powerful story with characters you can’t help but feel for. The sheer length allows the characters to age and develop, experiencing the upheavals of attempts to revolutionise France. An historical novel when it was published, its message is no less relevant today.

Friday, 6 January 2017

A Time to Reflect and Look Forward

As is true for most, the end of the year is a busy time. 2016 proved even more so than usual for me and I couldn’t find the time to squeeze in any writing. I hope you’ll forgive this bumper post which will be both a look back at 2016 and a look ahead.

First off, theatre highlights from the past year. An early performance that certainly left its mark was Dinosaur Park, a quirky show by a talented trio that weaves a re-telling of Jurassic Park with a moving family story. Even for someone who isn’t an avid Jurassic Park fan this is a fantastic show – funny, clever, and with a real emotional kick.

Another highlight, also associated with a film – The Rocky Horror Show. Not having seen the film I didn’t know exactly what to expect – I knew it was a cult classic, was familiar with some of the costumes, and of course, knew the Time Warp. What ensued was one of the most fun shows I’ve been to. The performance itself was brilliant but the atmosphere in the theatre certainly added to the experience.

Finally, a comedy show – Randy Writes a Novel. A purple Australian puppet may not be your average weeknight entertainment but this was well worth it. He had the audience in fits of laughter, and dealt well with the general reluctance to participate, but there were plenty of more serious moments where he spoke about more difficult issues. A comedian that can make you laugh and think all at the same time.

It’s difficult to choose highlights of days out both in the UK and further afield, but here are a few that stand out. Portmeirion had a full post for me to gush about it in but it deserves a mention here too. This decorative Italianate village in north Wales will transport you to a different world. Colourful, slightly eccentric, and beautifully peaceful, a happy afternoon can be spent exploring this gem.

The Historic Dockyards at Chatham proved a surprisingly fun day out. I was originally there for a Call the Midwife locations tour (highly recommended for any fans) but the dockyards themselves proved plentiful entertainment. There are ships from broad periods, a submarine to board, and a Victorian ropery.

Sticking with the history theme, Chartwell, Winston Churchill’s home in Kent is in beautiful surroundings and has plenty to keep all the family entertained. They had a Winnie the Pooh trail when I was there, swings are dotted around the estate, and the café had some simply delicious chocolate cake. Even on what turned into a rainy day, this was a brilliant trip.

The most recent jaunt abroad took in Copenhagen at Christmas. Activity-wise the highlight was probably Tivoli Gardens. Bedecked in festive lights, it felt truly magical. Bustling Christmas markets, a light show to music from The Nutcracker, and an impressive firework display – if you find yourself in Denmark’s capital during the festive season this is a must-see. I can’t write about Copenhagen without a nod to their incredible cycling infrastructure which truly puts the UK to shame.

Another major highlight from the year’s travels was Paris. I can’t choose just one thing, there’s so much it has to offer. The Louvre is just incredible, the view from Notre Dame breathtaking, and you can easily imagine Claude Frollo or Quasimodo lurking just beyond the staircase on the descent. I fell utterly in love with the small town feel of Montmartre with its bustling markets, creative vibe, and quirky side streets. You feel the culture and history as you wander the streets of this remarkable city, take in the sights, or enjoy a peaceful amble on the banks of the Seine - I hope to spend many more happy days exploring. The only downside is that the delicious pastries available in their many boulangeries has utterly ruined the British alternatives (aim for the year – learn to make pastry the French way).

Finally, to books, of which many more have been consumed than have made an appearance on here. A Little Life continues to haunt many months after embarking. See the full post for further details of its power, but I’ll just say that it is a remarkable character study that becomes all consuming. Heartbreaking and illuminating.

Another highlight is a short gem of a book – Doctor Glas by Hjalmer Söderberg. Using the narrative form of a journal the reader is privy to our protagonist’s thought processes as he carries out his duties as a doctor and ruminates on topics such as assisted suicide and abortion. Published in 1905, his views were considered shocking and the author suffered a harsh backlash for their inclusion. For the modern reader it is a wonderfully realised deconstruction of Glas’s mental state and tackles issues that although not as shocking today, continue to cause debate.

Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo also deserves a mention. Hugo is infamous for his penchant for lengthy tangents that are mostly irrelevant to the story, but Notre-Dame is not so bogged down in these digressions as Les Miserables, and it is a far smoother read because of it. The story moves at ample speed and has a marvellously constructed villain who is infuriating in his determination and wickedness. The characters are all three-dimensional, their stories cleverly woven together. It’ll certainly tug on your heartstrings but there’s also humour to be found. At its core is a gripping story handled masterfully by one of France’s national treasures.

I also discovered this excellent open source journal in 2016. It’s run by the Department of Victorian Studies at Birkbeck College and I have been happily making my way through their issue archive.

As for the year ahead, well, hopefully it’ll include making some headway with the serious backlog of book posts currently taunting me. After finishing reading The Saga of Gösta Berling I intend to move on to What Would Mary Berry Do?, which should be something of a gear change to my recent reading fodder. It may then finally be time to finish the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness with Monsters of Men. I hear it’s a bit of a tear-jerker so better stock up on the tissues! I’ll then likely scuttle back to the nineteenth century but have no set reading plan (though do have an ever-increasing to-read list/pile). Any recommendations always welcome.

A while back I saw a blog of someone who had baked their way through an entire Mary Berry cookbook and blogged their efforts. Ever since reading their blog I’ve been keen to try out every recipe in a cookbook myself. This being a very Mary Berry Christmas, I received My Kitchen: 100 Cakes and Bakes, which may well be the one, though I’ll give myself more than a year, there is such a thing as too much cake…

I’m also entering the year with a satisfying stash of tickets, starting with The Red Shoes this evening. I’ve heard only good things about it so have high hopes. There’ll also be a few old favourites including The Phantom of the Opera and Woolf Works. Wayne McGregor’s take on a selection of Virginia Woolf’s writings almost had me in tears last time, and I’m hoping it won’t have lost any of its power. There’s also, finally, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on the horizon (and, I hear, an exhibition at the British Library later in the year which will doubtless be one to see). I admit I have read the script so the story won’t be a surprise, but from reading it I could just imagine how incredible the production value will be and can’t wait to see it brought to life on stage.

It looks set to be another busy year and hope it’ll be a good one. Happy new year one and all, may it bring peace and happiness.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

My Cousin Rachel, Daphne du Maurier

du Maurier's last bestselling novel is set in the familiar surroundings of Cornwall, narrated by a young man, Philip Ashley. Philip has been raised by his cousin Ambrose in his large estate which houses only men. This deliberate exclusion, almost distaste of women, makes it surprising to discover that having travelled to Italy for the sake of his health, Ambrose has met and married their cousin Rachel. The bliss of married life does not last long however and soon Philip receives disturbing letters indicating Ambrose's distress and hinting at his suspicions of his new wife. Philip's rushed journey to be re-united with him proves fruitless and he returns to Cornwall bitterly despising Rachel who he suspects of playing a part in his cousin's demise.

When Rachel arrives, uninvited, in Cornwall he intends to treat her with nothing but hostility. He soon falls for her charms however, and his resolve melts with every passing day. Thus ensues an intriguing tale whereby Philip is constantly thrown around by doubt and determination, alienating those around him as his affection and blind-sightedness grows. Rachel remains an enigma to him and even once events have drawn to their conclusion he admits '...every day, haunted still by doubt, I ask myself a question which I cannot answer. Was Rachel innocent or guilty?'

The reader is often led into confusion with our unreliable narrator and his ever changing assumptions. Indeed, there is little to be trusted throughout - Ambrose's letters could have been the result of a fractured mind, his brain tumour making him lose his grip on reality (if we are indeed to believe he was afflicted in this way). Rachel, who seems so calm for the most part, does occasionally let her mask slip, and her defence is natural to one attempting to cover a misdemeanour. As we are only ever able to see her through Philip's eyes we are given merely a refracted view - how are we to judge her without bias? Similarly Philip's jealousy of, and hostility to, her confidante Rainaldi can colour the reader's view. How are we to know who to trust? Paranoia and mental instability run in the Ashley family and the strange misogynistic upbringing Philip experienced with Ambrose, whose remarkable similarity is commented on many times throughout, is bound to have impacted on his view of the world and the drama in which he suddenly finds himself embroiled.

This cast of characters lead the reader along a winding path with no clear-cut end. Forming your allegiances early may be the only way to have some sense of closure, following our narrator's lead and making of the story what you want. It is a delightfully ambiguous plot with du Maurier's characteristic skill at storytelling and creating intense atmosphere making this an enjoyable read.