Friday, 25 September 2020

A Long Petal of the Sea? Not my cup of tea.

A Long Petal of the Sea Our book club choice for August was Isabel Allende's A Long Petal of the Sea, published in 2019. Len and Yvonne are fans of the Chilean writer and were keen to read it.

She's a new author for me. Allende's Wikipedia page was encouraging, mentioning magical realism and saying her novels are often based on historical events and real-life individuals. As for A Long Petal of the Sea, it ticked quite a few of my boxes. The opening part is set during the Spanish Civil War, a conflict I know little about, during a period of time that I find fascinating - the 1930s, economic depression, competing ideologies of Marxism and Fascism, the run-up to World War II. With a couple of weeks to spare before book club I read George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia and then sat down to immerse myself in Allende's tome.

Thursday, 24 September 2020

Period Piece: charmingly fearful of the lower classes

Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood It's been difficult keeping Book Club going since March. Some members returned to their native land for lockdown, and most of our group are technologically challenged so Zoom is out. You can't imagine the relief when the rules eased and Sian invited the remaining four of us round to hers to discuss her book choice, Gwen Ravarat's Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood. Much as I love The Dog, I was euphoric with the prospect of finally seeing someone other than my partner and somewhere other than the walls of our apartment.

There was me, Sian, Bernard, Marco, and Susan, white bread smeared with salted butter and topped with smoked salmon, and a glass of white wine, which always helps lubricate the discussion.

So what about the book?

Monday, 31 August 2020

Rats as big as cats

Homage to Catalonia You have to admire the courage of war correspondents, the journalists who place themselves in the middle of a conflict in order to bring us reports of the fighting and destruction and its effects on citizens. In December 1936, six months after the start of the Spanish Civil War, George Orwell travelled to Spain "with some notion of writing newspaper articles". Unlike today's reporters he went a step further. He promptly joined the militia, "because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do". It's rather a lame explanation, ill-considered and reckless considering what happened next.

Thursday, 20 August 2020

Excusing Barbara Cartland

I had a good laugh at Barbara Cartland's expense after finishing Mission to Monte Carlo. I texted my literary chum who sniggered, thanks for the heads up, just in case I have a lobotomy and reach for one of her tomes. Why would anyone ever read a Barbara Cartland?

I emailed my sister next, chortling that my IQ had dropped several points. She said that our nan used read the fuchsia-frocked novelist's books. Really? I paused to consider what this working class woman born in the first decade of the 20th century might see in the candy floss stories.

Thursday, 6 August 2020

Romantic fiction or psychological manipulation?

Mission to Monte Carlo I just read my first, and last, Barbara Cartland book, Mission to Monte Carlo. It's a piece of romantic fluff set at the turn of the 20th century and so absurd that I had to imagine it was a parody of itself in order to get to the end. But while I sniggered through its seven chapters, the "happy" ending left me uneasy and fearful for the future of its heroine. I know it's only fiction, but hear me out.

Spoiler Alert

Every Barbara Cartland story, so I'm led to believe, follows the same basic plot. In Mission in Monte Carlo it's this: A man who's had lots of affairs but never been in love, saves an inexperienced girl who's under pressure to offer up her virginity in exchange for secret information. The handsome man and the timid virgin fall in love spontaneously. They marry. The end.

Here's my problem. Our leading man Craig, a millionaire playboy, removes all agency from his supporting actress Aloya in what looks to me like gaslighing.

Saturday, 1 August 2020

After lockdown

I stirred when the sun came through the shutters, casting golden dashes on the wall. The bed was silent and empty, the Dog asleep on the sofa. I was alone with a thick head, although I'd slept well. Probably the heat, maybe the Aperol Spritz and glass of red wine I had yesterday evening; nothing compared to what I used to drink, but now it's more than usual.

It's best to go for a walk in the cool morning air, fewer people around, no traffic. You can hear the birds before the clamour of the day starts. On the horizon hovered an ugly blemish on an otherwise silver sea. It was heading for Villefranche. So that's where the gangs of tourists are coming from! The cruise ships are running again, this one from Genoa. As I watched the monstrous spectre a sound other than bird song hit my ears. An aeroplane. When did I last hear an aeroplane? There's usually so much noise that they're inaudible, but at 6.30am it boomed from behind the mountains and roared overhead, the sun reflected from its undercarriage.

Perhaps there was a brief moment of time during lockdown when the world was a better, more peaceful place.

Friday, 31 July 2020

One reads for pleasure. It is not a public duty.

The Uncommon Reader I've been watching Season 1 of The Crown again and particularly enjoyed episode 7, Scientia Potentia Est*. Poor Princess Elizabeth struggles with the intricacies of the UK constitution, schooled by the Vice-Provost of Eton under the beady eye of his pet raven. It was a singular education, tutored at home with her sister Princess Margaret. Apparently she speaks French like a native thanks to her governesses.

If we're to believe The Crown, the Queen's educational achievements have never been tested in the way that your average British teenager would recognize. Alan Bennett's fictional Queen Elizabeth II is also lacking in knowledge and appreciation of literature. In his humorous 2006 novella The Uncommon Reader Queen Elizabeth discovers a mobile library in the grounds of Buckingham Palace and out of politeness borrows a book, something by Ivy Compton-Burnett, which she describes as "too hard going altogether." Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate is her second, more enjoyable choice, and the Queen is soon an avid reader. Unfortunately this leads to a less conscientious performance of her duties, neglectful even, as she prefers to lose herself in a good book. Her private secretary is not pleased.

The Uncommon Reader can be finished in a couple of hours and is a wormhole through which to discover new writers, for example the previously mentioned Ivy Compton-Burnett. I wonder how much of Bennett's own preferences are mirrored in Queen Elizabeth's thoughts. Why would you want "to give Henry James a good talking-to?" and is it really worth reading Dr Johnson when "much of it is opinionated rubbish?" And is it a good or a bad thing when a book of Ian McEwan or A.S. Byatt is "leaped on by any attendant dog, worried and slavered over and borne to the distant reaches of the palace or wherever so that it could be satisfyingly torn apart."

There can't be many who envy a monarch's life of duty and courtesy. Those who marry into it often struggle. Perhaps someone could put together a list of essential reading for the new Royal, literature "about other lives. Other worlds."

* Beloved quote of librarians and researchers: knowledge is power.