Monday 29 August 2011

'One Day' by David Nicholls

Having bought One Day last year I finally got round to reading it, and finished it last week. Unsurprisingly, I thoroughly enjoyed it. The way it is written so that you only get to see one day of each year is interesting, and certainly helped keep me wanting more. Often there would be mention of something important happening the next day, a conversation that as a reader you desperately want to listen in on, and yet you know the outcome of the events will only become apparent in some future chapter.

I enjoyed the younger years more so than the later ones but this may have been more to do with the fact that I could relate more to the situations the characters found themselves in in their twenties. The book is witty and hits the nail on the head in the descriptions of feelings and situations. I found myself somewhat addicted to the book, and yet somewhat depressed by its depiction of growing up.

I certainly felt I could relate to the characters, and was constantly willing Dexter to stop treating Emma as disposable, even though you know that really he cares just as much about her as she does about him.  There were deeply moving passages, especially in the scenes where Dexter was emotionally vulnerable and it was clear he had no idea how to deal with it. I felt more affection toward Emma, although her behaviour was not always ideal. Although it seems you could dislike Dexter the dislike never really materialised.

I found my enjoyment of the novel dwindle nearer the end. The climax of the novel which was clearly meant to be remarkably moving did not move me as much as I was expecting, perhaps because I could see it coming. Saying that I still found my heart beat speed up and had to force myself not to skim over the page to find out if I was right. Perhaps I would have been moved more by it had the characters’ positions been reversed.

All in all a fantastic novel, a real page-turner; in places humourous, in places deeply moving. A realistic and poignant look at the past few decades and what it was like growing up in them. My only problem with it was the incessant will they won’t they got a little frustrating after a while, and yes I’m aware that this is the main premise of the novel. It just felt as though after a while there really was not any need for them not to be together, and that I almost did not think they should be. This did not stop me feeling the hurt of the characters every time something got in their way, especially in the earlier sections of the novel. I thoroughly look forward to seeing the film, and have high hopes for it.

Friday 19 August 2011

'Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England, 450-1500' by Henrietta Leyser

The first thing that struck me about this book was that it covered a large period of history for such a short book. I have always tended to lean towards broad areas of interest myself, although sometimes this proved to be a shortcoming. I was intrigued to see how Leyser dealt with it. The book is split into four sections; the first three chronological, the final section on literature and spirituality. I found the book very easy, and enjoyable, to read, which is always pleasant, as so many history books I have come across deal with a fascinating topic but just are not written with much flair. The way this book is laid out helps digest the information, separating the various sources we have to help enlighten us to the lives of women in the earlier periods dealt with, and for the later period, split into the various areas of women’s lives.

It was quite refreshing to read a history book about women, by a woman, without it having many feminist rants and constant jibes against men in. I agree that throughout most of history women have been treated hugely unfairly, but it is nice to read a book that does not feel too biased because of the gender of the author. Indeed, in the literary section especially, she seemed to try and dispel ideas of misogyny surrounding many texts.

The idea of some of the medical procedures made me squirm, but I was interested in the writings that claimed if a pregnant woman lost her beauty then the baby was a girl. I had never heard of this idea before, but I then saw a programme on TV where this same idea was put forward in a modern setting. Leyser claims that this was a sign that male offspring were much preferred in the Middle Ages, which makes it seem all the more strange that people still believe it to be true today.

I appreciated the fact that medieval women were not portrayed in such a helpless and vulnerable fashion as often thought. They worked hard, and, in some cases, had a lot of power and influence over their husbands. I was interested in the sections on marriage and sex, and what was essential for a marriage to be legal. The story of the parents who beat their daughter and encouraged a prospective husband to rape her because she wished to become a nun was truly disturbing. It seems to me that the idea of rape as being accepted as somewhat normal in this period is a common belief. It was therefore fascinating to discover that a common punishment for rape was castration. Men could not get away with such behaviour after all!

All in all a highly informative read which is written well and very easy to read. The extracts from primary sources at the end were useful, and particularly appreciated as they are not readily available to the common reader. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone with an interest in medieval, or women’s, history.

Monday 15 August 2011

Book versus adaptation?

Last week I went to the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden to see the Mariinsky Ballet dance Anna Karenina. I had intended to read the novel before going but was so busy reading about five books at the same time (which is very unlike me, I’m usually a one book kind of girl) that I never quite got round to embarking on the mammoth book that is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. To start with I was rather disappointed with myself for this, but then I thought that perhaps it was a good thing as I tend to judge adaptations of novels I enjoy harshly, and am able to enjoy both book and adaptation much more freely if I read the book second.

As it was, I arrived at the theatre not really knowing what to expect. A friend from work had told me that she thoroughly enjoyed the novel, and I liked the sound of it from what she had told me. I got a little confused as to who was who to start with, but once I’d worked it out I thought it rather enjoyable. I was somewhat surprised that it wasn’t a particularly long ballet considering the length of the novel, but then it would hardly have been possible to fit all that into a normal length ballet.   

Other than the actual dancing, one of the aspects of going to the theatre that I particularly enjoy is the set itself, and the dramatic techniques used. Rather than lots of massive set changes they used projection to allow the story to move around within each act. This was really quite effective, not particularly being concerned by the fact the physical objects on stage hadn’t much changed. One particularly impressive piece of scenery was a train carriage that appeared several times throughout the evening. I was particularly impressed by how they did the end (but won’t say what happened in case people reading this have yet to read the book, and plan to at some point).

All in all, it was a good evening. It was nice to see a company dance that I don’t often get to experience, and to see a ballet that I had never seen before. I do wonder, however, what my feelings would have been toward it had I read the book beforehand. I saw a ballet of Wuthering Heights a few years ago and didn’t particularly enjoy what they had done to a book that I am particularly fond of. I love the musical of Les Miserables but have yet to read the book, hopefully when I do it will not ruin my enjoyment of the musical. I saw the musical of Oliver at the end of last year, and although I thought it was good, I still found myself judging it somewhat for things they changed from the book. The most obvious departure from the novel being the character of Fagin. In the musical he comes across almost as a lovable rogue, you don’t feel a lot of distaste toward him. In the book I found him highly unpleasant, conniving, and to blame for rather tragic events near the end. The novel is far darker than the musical portrays.

For some reason I find it less annoying when musicals and ballets don’t stick to novels as closely as I would hope than when films do it. There are some films of books that I can barely sit through because they not only don’t stick well to the story, but fundamentally change the essence of the novel. I’m always excited by the prospect of films of novels that I like, but also cautious of being disappointed. I am yet to have seen an adaptation of Wuthering Heights that I enjoyed, and yet will eagerly await the release of the latest film. I have recently come to the conclusion, however, that I am perhaps a bit harsh on adaptations, they are, after all, only based on the books. So long as they capture the essence of the novel, and stay true to that then they aren’t half bad, or so I try to convince myself as I sit through another film ruining a brilliant novel for me. Please do comment about film adaptations you like, or dislike. I would be more than happy to discuss further.

Monday 8 August 2011

Books do furnish a room, and shape a life.

I was musing over an idea for a post for this blog that I might write in a few days and it got me thinking about ‘Matilda’ by Roald Dahl, and how much that book gives me a happy, warm feeling inside. This made me think about other books that stirred up strong emotions when reading them, or bring back particularly happy memories. The fact that books hold this power to me means I like to keep hold of the books I have read, as they entwine my memories, and have contributed to the person I am today (and maybe just a little bit because I’m an obsessive hoarder…).

Here are some of the books that mean a lot to me (mostly children’s books to be honest, but I had to try not to get too carried away).

  • ‘Matilda’ by Roald Dahl. I adore all the stories of his that I ever read, and I got through pretty much all of them that are published. It’s hard to choose a favourite but there is something special about ‘Matilda’ that has stayed with me.
  • ‘Vlad the Drac’ by Ann Jungman. Perhaps not one that so many people have read but I absolutely loved it. A vegetarian vampire with a penchant for washing up liquid, wonderful stories. “Poor old Vlad, poor little Drac”.
  • The Usborne Puzzle World books. Fantastically entertaining. I remember being very excited to be old enough to move on to the more complex series.
  • ‘The Jolly Christmas Postman’/‘The Jolly Postman, Or Other people’s Letters’ by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. Absolutely wonderful book. I genuinely believe all children should read these at some point. Quaint little stories, and great fun seeing what’s in all the letters.
  • The Famous Five series by Enid Blyton. To this day, thanks to these books, I have idealistic ideas about getting a group of friends together, packing up a picnic, and cycling off somewhere for an adventure.
  • ‘A Note of Madness’/ ‘A Voice in the Distance’ by Tabitha Suzuma (not for children). I adore all books written by Tabitha Suzuma but these are the first two I read, and indeed, ‘A Voice in the Distance’ was the first book to ever make me cry. So emotional, I didn’t want it to end. I want to read them again now my emotions have recovered from the last time. Brilliant stuff. Not enough people have read her books, and they are really missing out. Her latest novel, ‘Forbidden’ was absolutely fantastic and really makes you think about it a long time afterward. I think I must have seemed very anti-social whilst reading it, and a few days after, as I was so wrapped up in what was happening in the story.
  • ‘Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man’ by Claire Tomalin. I really felt that this biography brought the world of Thomas Hardy to life, and for some reason inspired me to be creative. Loved it.

I didn’t include ‘Harry Potter’ on this list as the series got a whole post of its own last week. I would absolutely love to hear which books have been important to you throughout your life, so please do comment and share your favourite books.

Friday 5 August 2011

Fiction of a historic nature

Historic fiction has never been something I have been particularly eager to read. This comes as a surprise to many who know how much history interests me. My main problem is not that huge numbers of historic novels are marketed as historic romance, and romance is not particularly my favourite genre, but instead the concern that when reading fiction about real historic figures my brain will get confused, and after some time I will no longer be able to remember where I read the information, and thus become confused as to what is actual history and what is fiction. Of course, there are many novels set in a period of history but with the characters being entirely fictional, these I am less wary of. I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Atonement’ without even thinking of it as a historic novel, however, it later became apparent that this was foolish of me as the historic events taking place are incredibly important to the story’s development.

A few years ago Antony Beevor came to the University I was then studying at and gave a fascinating lecture that included something of a debate about just this topic. Many there argued that it was because of historic novels and films that they had first become interested in the topic, and that they thus have a great value to inspiring people to look further into the subject covered. I am very much of the same disposition, having read a novel set in a period I’m not too familiar with, and then reading history books to find out more about it. Of course, a room full of History and War Studies students would be somewhat biased in this approach. For many, watching the film or reading the novel is as far as it goes. Is this necessarily a bad thing? I’m not entirely sure, it at least gives an opening into the world of history, and one in which it seems interesting, and even fun (I have been told by so many people that history is boring, surely ways which make it seem accessible are no bad thing?). If you are reading this and have an opinion, please do comment, I would be very interested to hear more points of view on such matters.

Having avoided historic fiction for quite some years, I finally decided to try C. J. Sansom’s Shardlake series. I wasn’t too hopeful, my experience of crime fiction never getting far beyond the odd Agatha Christie novel, and a book in the ‘Knitting Mysteries’ series. (Not that I wish to detract from the entertainment such novels can bring, I merely wish to point out that I am not overly familiar with the genre). It came as something of a shock to find myself so enthralled by ‘Dissolution’. I claim very little knowledge of the period and so could not be sure how much of what I was reading was historically accurate, but the characters and locations certainly came alive on the page, I would definitely recommend these novels to anyone who loves reading fiction, no matter what novels usually take your fancy. I have recently finished reading ‘Dark Fire’ and, again, found it gripping. I knew somewhat more of the history surrounding this novel, having done a certain level of study on crime and punishment, and more specifically Newgate gaol, and was impressed by the level of historic knowledge that had clearly been put into it. I plan to read the rest of C.J. Sansom’s novels at some point, and, indeed, to do some more reading around the period the stories are set in. These novels have certainly proved to me that it is important not to disregard books just because they don’t fit the type of books you usually read, and for all of those bookworms reading this I urge you to spread your reading horizons and try something new, you may be pleasantly surprised.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

Must I diet, just because I’m a woman?

I was not planning to post again today, and indeed hadn’t intended my next post to be about this, but I was thinking about this yesterday, and a friend pointed something out to me today that has inspired me to write this.

I have always been rather against all the pressure put on people in general to look a certain way, being truly disgusted a few years ago when I saw an advert for cosmetic surgery claiming to be the answer to making you happy ready for Summer, or something along similar lines. Now, I understand that for some people having surgery to correct something they believe to be a defect genuinely can make them a lot happier, but to project this idea to try and sway people into having such surgery is just wrong, in my opinion. Why must we all look the same in order to feel beautiful? I am of the strong belief that everyone is beautiful.

Now, I was reading a newspaper yesterday that had an article about how unhealthy snacks that you can buy at the cinema are (no kidding!). It was clearly targeted at women, and when giving the values for how many calories and fat content was found in the different snacks they related this to the percentage of a woman’s daily allowance. Now, I’m well aware that this could well have been done purely to make the findings sound worse as women are meant to consume less calories and fat in a day, but it just seemed to be re-enforcing a gender stereotype which is particularly unhealthy. I’m not suggesting that we should be gorging ourselves on unhealthy food, not at all, but why must it always purely be directed at women. We are not all on diets, and we should not be made to feel as though we should be. My feelings on this were further incensed when my friend informed me of an advert she had seen earlier about a new health drink, one for men, one for women. The male one was advertised for its beneficial qualities, the women’s one as low in calories.

It saddens me how many of my friends feel they need to lose weight when, in fact, if they lost much weight they would be underweight. Why are women made to feel like being a size 12 is fat? And why is dieting always pushed as the way forward. I have never been on a diet in my life but exercise regularly and don’t live off junk food, and I’m a size 8/10. Diets are often not very healthy, and I strongly believe that it is much better just to try and live healthily, exercise in whichever way you find most fun, and try not to only eat junk food.

The idea that it is only women who worry about these things is also somewhat antiquated and entirely untrue. I have many male friends far more concerned with dieting, etc than I am. Must they be made to feel overly effeminate because they want to be healthy and look good (in the way in which society tells us to)? This gender stereotyping seems unhealthy and unfair on both women and men.

Farewell old friend

I thought it would be a good way to kick-start my blog with a reminiscent rambling about Harry Potter. It may not seem the most intellectual way to begin, but will at least go some way to proving to some that I am in fact not a book snob.

I started reading Harry Potter at the age of nine, and now, at the grand old age of twenty-one, am still as attached to it as ever. I feel absolutely privileged to have been alive as the books and films were being released (and indeed, working in a bookshop for the release of the final book), and although generations of new fans will no doubt enjoy the books greatly I think there was certainly something special about the anticipation of awaiting the next great instalment. This also meant that I was approximately the same age as Harry, Ron, and Hermione as I read through the books, and quite literally grew up with them. For this reason they will always feel like old friends.

Although I was not the biggest fan of the films to start with I have begun to appreciate the value of them. Having re-watched the first three recently I see how they really do re-create the magic from the page, and quite frankly, I’m quite jealous I never got to visit some of the sets, because they were no doubt absolutely breathtaking. Yes, they didn’t fit in everything that was in the books (though that is hardly surprising considering the length of the later ones), but they certainly capture the essence of them. I was somewhat distressed by some of the omissions from the third film but, having devoured the books, I simply fill in the gaps in my head, adding dialogue to scenes that I wish had made it into the films.

I found it incredibly emotional watching the premiere of Deathly Hallows Part Two, and genuinely feel for the actors. Millions of fans are experiencing a sense of loss at the end of this magical journey, so the actors that have played these characters half their lives, well, I know I would be a mess. They have done a fantastic job, and I doubt I will ever be able to read the books without picturing them from now on.

Anyone reading this who has not read the books, but enjoyed the films, I do urge you to delve into the books. I know it may seem a daunting task, but they are wonderful books, and full of so much detail that never could have made it into the films. So I say, farewell, Harry, Ron, and Hermione, and thank you J. K Rowling for creating such wonderful characters.