Friday, 31 December 2021

The world itself is the bad dream

The Bell Jar I was taking a chance with The Bell Jar. A fictionalised autobiography about a young woman attempting suicide is unlikely to raise the spirits when you're living through the Covid pandemic. But there were headlines in the media about how lockdowns and isolation were affecting people's mental health so it seemed like something I should read. Besides, it's generally considered a classic.

Saturday, 25 December 2021

Our Christmas: a poem for 2021

Our Christmas

It's bacon for breakfast then coffee and chocs,
70s and 80s on Top of the Pops.
No church, no kids, no wrapping to do,
No Mum, no Dad now, just me, just you,
Two pigeons and Paxo, roast spuds, red wine,
Panettone and champers, and then there's just time
For a nostalgic film and a warm single malt.
That's it. Merry Christmas, and love to you all.

Monday, 20 December 2021

A child's Christmas in...

A Child's Christmas in Wales Adults always claim that Christmas is for the children. Who are they trying to kid? Whatever your age, 25 December provides an excuse to stuff yourself with sweeties and play silly games.

If you want something to get you in the mood for a merry Christmas, you could do no better than to pick up a copy of Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales. It's so short you can read it in less than an hour.

Saturday, 11 December 2021

Everyone thought I was rather a strange child

Convenience Store Woman Convenience Store Woman is about Miss Furukura. "Everyone thought I was a rather strange child", she says, and it was only when she started working at a convenience store and was trained to deal with customers that she was able "to accomplish a normal facial expression and manner of speech." Now in her mid-30s, unmarried with no boyfriend, she's worked part-time in the same store for the past 18 years or so. Following her sister's advice on how to appear "normal", she's happy.

The edition that I read included an essay by author Sayaka Murata entitled A Love Letter to the Convenience Store, and the tale is indeed a sort of romance between Furukura and the store. In the opening pages the character describes in fascinating detail how the sounds of the convenience store enable her to anticipate customer needs. She makes odd comments that set you wondering what, if anything, has happened to make her the way she is.

Although Furukura is content, there's a sadness to her situation. She realises that her sister is "happier rather thinking [Furukura] is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine". When Shiraha, a young man who rejects the expectations of society, joins the team, Furukura's ordered life is thrown into disarray. However, what is chaos for Furukura is conformity for her co-workers, and their interaction with her changes. Unfortunately "it felt like [they'd] downgraded me from store worker to female of the human species".

In addition to this idea of societal norms, the book raises questions about sexlessness and celibacy, which brings into question the translation of its title. In Japanese it is Convenience Store Person, but in English it has become Convenience Store Woman. I wonder why this decision was made, because it doesn't really tally with those themes.

Furukura reminded me of Aroon St Charles in Good Behaviour, or Eleanor Oliphant in Gail Honeyman's book. They are women who function within society and accept its mores but either can't or won't conform. Some might describe them as nerds or geeks, characters who take people at their word and don't understand sarcasm or "banter".

Furukura has found her place in society, or rather a small space where she fits without having to compromise. As she says, "I am one of those cogs, going round and round. I have become a functioning part of the world", and this makes her happy, whatever other people think of her.

Monday, 6 December 2021

Permissive, modern, challenging, gappy, frustrating, moving, attenuated, beautiful, ambiguous, resourceful, provoking, necessary. Yours.

This Is Shakespeare Here's a book for people who want to know more about Shakespeare but need a bit of guidance before sitting down to watch or read a whole play. Emma Smith has chosen 20 of Shakespeare's works, briefly explains the plots and investigates the themes. More importantly she teases out what it is about them that continues to make them relevant to theatre-workers and theatre-goers today.

Although written by a Shakespeare scholar, the writing style is accessible and engaging. Each chapter discusses one of the Bard's plays, but there's no need to read them in order. You can pick the book up and delve right into a comedy or tragedy that you know, then investigate those you may not be familiar with later. I started with favourite movie adaptations: Sir Ian McKellen as Richard III, Ben Whishaw as Richard II, Baz Luhrman's Romeo and Juliet, and The Taming of the Shrew aka Ten Things I Hate About You or Kiss Me Kate.

One of the most memorable chapters dealt with A Midsummer Night's Dream, which I'd never seen and knew little about. I'd thought it was just a fairy story, but it turns out that it "really isn’t a play for children". I've subsequently enjoyed the 1999 film version with Kevin Kline as Bottom. Other adaptations are available.

Like many, my introduction to Shakespeare was at school, but when I studied Twelfth Night aged 15 its cross-dressing characters merely seemed to be a plot device to set up some humorous misunderstandings. Now, in a world of LGBTQ+ rights the play takes on a new relevance. This is the value of Emma Smith's book. It shows how over the past 500 years, for each generation Shakespeare "can resonate in particular circumstances, and how we can bring to the plays our own emotional, political, ideological and creative energies."

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