shewhomust: (Default)
That summer feeling, where doing not very much still fills the day from end to end, with plenty of breaks for reading or poking about the internet. Time slips by, yet nothing seems to have happened - or at least, nothing to write home about. Nonetheless, rounding up a few things -

Last Friday we went to a wine tasting at Majestic wines. We'd dropped in the previous day, in search of rosé, and since the tasting was of rosé, and the price of the ticket was redeemable against buying wine, and we weren't doing anything else, it seemed worth a try. We weren't sure what to expect, but we caught the bus, in the pouring rain, and were welcomed into the shop by Mike who had served us the previous day and was our 'wine guru' for the evening, busy putting out chairs for the six customers. That made it one of the smallest tastings I've ever been to, and definitely one of the least formal (we were not - quite - rowdy, but we may have come close). Mike had put together half a dozen wines from six different countries at a range of prices (and showed us, with evident regret, the Bandol which his budget wouldn't cover). The hit of the evening was a Côtes de Provence in a fancy square bottle, which I thought pretentious and not very interesting, certainly not justifying its price. I was disappointed in the Chapel Down (and I wish I'd been taking notes, because I don't remember why), intrigued by the Muga, which had the flavour of Cava but without the fizz, could have done without the Route 88 White Zinfandel (pink sugar-water) and of the six preferred the Breganze Pinot Grigio, an easy-drinking blush. But I didn't like any of them as well as the La Serrana we had bought the previous day, deep raspberry red with a surprising tannic grip, and how can they possibly sell something drinkable at that price? After which we caught the bus home to a takeaway pizza and a bottle of decent red. A fun evening, good company, I'd do it again.

We've been enjoying Doctor Who. The series began while we were away on holiday, so we've been watching on catch-up, and were following along a week behind transmission. On Saturday we watched the last two episodes back to back in one feature length extravaganza - and I'm glad we did, because I would have found the cliff-hanger irritating and the second part dragged out. As it was, I didn't feel it earned its extra lenth, but that was less obvious since we'd chosen to watch at extra-length anyway. The series as a whole has been very uneven, which I suppose is what you get if you have different authors for different stories. and there have been bits of dialogue (usually when the Doctor has to say something particularly high-minded) when I've just thought 'no!' but I tend to blame the writer rather than the actor. Overall, I've enjoyed Peter Capaldi's Doctor, and I'm sorry we have entered its end-game. Nardole was fun; Bill was fine, though the University setting was one of the more alien worlds the Doctor has visited. Initially I greeted the rehabilitation (or not) of Missy as a pretty threadbare plot device (I still don't buy the idea that the Master is the Doctor's oldest, bestest friend, he just happens to be evil) but it grew on me. She gets all the best lines...

We were at the Lit & Phil last night for the launch of Peter Mortimer's book The Chess Traveller: the proposal was that Pete would start from a randomly selected point and proceed from there by bike to a sequence of other randomly selected points, at each of which he would engage a total stranger in a game of chess. What could possibly go wrong? Plenty, of course, and the sections Pete read out were very funny about what did go wrong - as always with Peter Mortimer, I'm half amazed at what he achieves and half baffled how he gets away with it. But looking forward to reading the book.

At the market this morning I bought a red hat. Nothing special, and not expensive, just a floppy sun hat with a wide brim, in a strong deep red, lined with dark green. Only later did I realise that I was already wearing purple (with which it doesn't go). No-one can say they had no warning...
shewhomust: (mamoulian)

  • Poking around the internet, looking for something else, I found this article about the decline in puffin numbers in Iceland. It dates back to 2013, and blames the mackerel, heading north on the warmer waters and eating the zooplankton which would otherwise feed the sand eels (ans eating the odd sand eel, too). The evidence is circumstantial, but persuasive. In passing, it suggests that the technique of catching puffins in flight using a net on a pole is actually less damaging to the puffin population than the previous method of catching them from the burrows: "Pole netting targets the tremendous wheels of flying puffins that form just off the colony cliffs. Thousands of birds spend hours flying in an arc out to sea, then banking and coming back low over the cliffs. The birds that do this are mostly adolescents. They have free time, and they spend it endlessly reconnoitering the cliffs, trying to learn what it takes to find a burrow and a mate." Of course: birds that spend their time flying round aimlessly in circles, what could they be but adolescents?

  • I described the practice of pole netting in a post last year about a television programme, also about the decline in seabird numbers, presented by Adam Nicholson. I am now reading his new book, The Seabird's Cry and hoping for more up to date information. I've barely started it, and have only just reached the chapter about puffins, but I loved this hint of how they spend their winters: "Winter puffins, dressed in grey, float in silence, picking at fish and plankton alone on the surface of the sea." Something very chilly about that wording.

  • And one puffin-free item: Harry Potter, the Durham connection. I am mildly shocked at the idea that Durham University is offering a Harry Potter module as part of its English degree: the course, as described, sounds like a very good way to teach civics to schoolchildren, but not the material for undergraduates on - oh, wait, can I even assume that it's a literature degree? Better stop here and go to bed.
shewhomust: (mamoulian)
Apologies for radio silence, lately. My desk is in the attic, and it gets very warm up here in the summer. Most years this creeps up on me, gradually getting harder to stay focused into the afternoon, but this year the sudden heat* has hit me like a brick, and I crawled away in search of cooler parts of the house where I might sleep until the summer weather has passed.

I grabbed a book from the heap to help me though this time of trial, and it turned out to be Laurie R. King's Dreaming Spies. Such a great title for what is, in part at least, an Oxford novel (and sufficiently loosely a tale of spies that I wonder whether she found the title first, and then had to write a book to fit it). You may deduce from this that nature of my relationship with Mary Russell: two parts suspicion to three parts 'I'm not going to put this book aside until I've finished it'.

*For values of heat as it understood in the northeast of England, obviously. Californians (and others who live with serious summer climates) feel free to laugh.
shewhomust: (mamoulian)
On Thursday I found a copy of Ben Aaronovitch's The Hanging Tree in a charity shop. I've been waiting for the paperback, and here was a copy of the hardback, missing its dust jacket but only slightly bent, at a fraction of the price and a couple of months early. I carried it home in triumph, and with an amazing effort of will managed not to start reading it for almost a day and a half. Then I caved in, and read it at every opportunity over the next couple of days. I love the 'Rivers of London' series, novels and comics both, and I enjoyed this sixth book as much as any of them.

So it wasn't until very early this morning, inexplicably wakeful and listening to the dawn chorus, that I started to think "Hang on, what happened to the plot?"

Contains spoilers, but of a very non-specific nature. ) But. The Hanging Tree has a sort of coda in which Peter reflects on what has happened, and draws some conclusions, and it felt like a promise: this is not just recycling the same characters, there is an overarching story going on here.

Aaronovitch goes to a lot of trouble to remind us of past volumes in the series. Characters, themes, locations, all reappear and are remarked on (it's a great candidate for a re-read). I feel he's earned my trust that the future is as solid as the past. If The Hanging Tree doesn't feel quite complete in itself, it's because it's one section of a single novel in multiple installments. "Oh," I thought, "it's a roman fleuve!"

Then I realised what I'd done, and was so pleased with myself that I fell asleep again.
shewhomust: (mamoulian)
Because one of the pleasures of being on holiday is packing a big pile of books (yes, even though I have a Kindle; now I pack a big pile of books and my Kindle) and feeling justified in spending lots of time reading them. Our recent trip was a four-book holiday - and there's a hidden theme: when is a historical novel not a historical novel?

  1. Started before we set off: Ren and the Blue Hands )

  2. A novel for adults by Noel Streatfeild )

  3. Flashman )

  4. Wives and Daughters ) It's a long, steady read, and I was still deep in it when I returned home (and once I'd finished it, I was ready for more Mrs Gaskell, so that's not a bad thing).
shewhomust: (mamoulian)
At the last bookstall of the market, up by the bridge, there was a fine collection of English-language poetry. In among the Yeats, and the Rattle Bag, there was Ode to Bully Beef, a collection of unofficial poetry of the Second World War, edited by Rosie Serdiville and John Sadler; Rosie Serdiville is a friend of a friend of ours, whom we know well enough to stop and chat when we run into her, but we had not expected to run into her here. We were discussing this with sufficient animation for the stallholder to notice, and comment that we had come a long way to buy English poetry. We said nice things about her stock of English poetry, which deserved them, and she repeated them to her partner, who, it turned out, was English - and not just English but with roots in County Durham: his father was from Stanley and his mother from - Tow Law, I think it was. They had visited Durham a few years ago, and enjoyed Beamish .

What Durham and Ghent have in common is that they are small cities with big universities, but they were positive about this. The students, they said, kept the town lively: compare it Bruges, which is beautiful but closes down at 8.00 pm. Though I note that they don't live in the city, but just outside; we had heard Ghent's vibrant night life from our city center hotel, and were less enthusiastic. I'm not sure how far the similarities go, either - but interesting, all the same.
shewhomust: (bibendum)
All the bells were ringing as we set off this morning for one last visit in Ghent, to the Sunday book market on the Ajuinlei; and somewhere a pipe band was just audible above the clamour of the bells, which tells you something about bagpipes.

I wasn't hoping for much in the way of English books, even though we had found English very widely spoken in the city. I did hope that, books being books,some French might have seeped into this very Flemish territory. As always, I was underestimating the extent to which Belgium is divided by its two languages: there were a few French books, but not as many as there were English. One stall, specialising in old comics - collectable old, and being checked through by a man with a grey pony tail - had adjacent cases for 'Tintin' and 'Kuifje' (both the same person).

So I ended up buying more than I had planned. First off, Photographic Pilgrim's Progress, being the memoirs of Charles Duncan ("one of the best known and most beloved veterans of photography", says the jacket copy), published in 1954. Then we came to a stall offering books at €2, 3 for €5, so when I had picked up a collection of Zelazny short stories (it's called The Doors of his Face, the Lamps of his Mouth, but the back says, in block caps "INCLUDES STORIES NOT IN THE ORIGINAL EDITION", so what's a girl to do?) and Maurice Maeterlinck's La Vie des Abeilles (because I had discovered that that tree that failed to light up should have been displaying blue birds in homage to Maeterlinck, who was born in Ghent, and besides, how could I resist a book of which Sam Goldwyn once said: "My God! The hero is a bee!"?), Roger contributed a Colin Dexter Inspector Morse, and our threesome was complete.

Serre d'ennui

One last Maeterlinck moment: Roger pointed out to me that the building across the river had a poem inscribed in a blank doorway, and we could make out the title, La Serre d'ennui. And here it is, in the original, and in an English translation which is accurate rather than atmospheric.

ETA: How could I have forgotten?

That mission accomplished, it was time to move on. We have left Flanders, and after a very pleasant drive through the forests of the Ardennes, we are in French speaking Wallonia, in Bouillon, with a view of the castle from our hotel bedroom.


Apr. 2nd, 2017 05:57 pm
shewhomust: (puffin)
A month ago I admitted that I had managed to read A.P. Herbert's The Water Gypsies without noticing that its basic mode was comedy. So I would like it on the record that I have since read Frances Hardinge's Fly By Night, and it is funny.

It is many other things besides, but it is funny.

It is funny in its use of words, and names in particular: alongside the elegant fantasy names of the city of Mandelion and Lady Tamarind, it contains Eponymous Clent, who wins the support of heroine Mosca by his use of words. She knows how little he is to be trusted: "You tell lies for money," but when he replies "Pray do not confuse the execise of the imagination with mere mendacity. I am a master of the mysteries of words, their meanings and music and mellifluous magic," she is won over. She isn't fooled, but where else will she hear words like 'mendacity' and 'mellifluous'?

More to the point, because this is the thing I so utterly blanked in The Water Gypsies, the way plot developments are announced made me laugh out loud. I hope it won't spoil anything for anyone to say that Chapter 1 (which is, in any case, titled 'A is for Arson') ends with Mosca explaining why she is so keen to get away from the village where she has lived all her life:
"Very soon," Mosca said quietly, "my uncle will wake up. An' when he does... he's likely to notice that I've burned down his mill.
Fly By Night was published in 2005, and it got great reviews then. It has taken me a ridiculously long time to read it. This may have been partly due to the title, and the heroine's name, which suggest that it is about houseflies. And it sort of is, but do not be deterred by this. I eventually came to it because I read Frances Hardinge's latest book, The Lie Tree, which is also wonderful, but in a completely different way. It did not in the slightest prepare me for how funny Fly By Night is.
shewhomust: (galleon)
One more book post, because every day is Book Day in this establishment.

At the pub quiz, we have a 'book of the moment', on which there is one question each week, running through the book more or less in order: which is why I have for some time been reading Treasure Island slowly and carefully. (I recommend it, by the way: it stands up even to this treatment.)

Reading with particular attention to names, numbers, places, the sort of things it's easy to ask questions about, I noticed something a bit odd, and I'd appreciate any thoughts anyone might have on the subject: one of the pirates has no name. Strictly, more than one remains unnamed: Stevenson's too good a writer to swamp you with the names of a cast of thousands. Gradually as the Hispaniola sails towards Treasure Island, Jim starts to refer to individuals by name, although others remain anonymously in the background.

Seriously? Spoilers for 'Treasure Island'? Oh, well, just in case... )

I could tell you the name of the parrot...
shewhomust: (mamoulian)
This set out to be a book post in celebration of World Book Day, in which I talked about the unexpected pleasures of A. P. Herbert's The Water Gypsies (1930). In the process of writing it, though, I realised that I had complately misjudged what kind of book it is. Not for the first time, I had been derailed by my blind spot for comedy.

That isn't as bad as it sounds. At least, I hope it isn't, but I am not impartial in this matter. I'm not claiming to have no sense of humour, but I can see that others might disagree. I enjoy humour, but I want it to make sense. It's not unknown for me to be left going "Yes, but - ", while others protest "It was a joke!", as if this explained everything. Apparently the opposite is also true, and I can read a novel for the narrative, without spotting that there is humour not only in the author's voice and the big set-piece descriptions, but also in the logic of the narrative itself.

That's what happened with The Water Gypsies, and there's really no excuse for it. I was so busy enjoying a reading that was completely unspoilered, where I knew nothing about the plot, that I told myself I knew nothing about what kind of book it was: which is to say, I decided to overlook everything I knew about A. P. Herbert. I knew Herbert mainly from his Misleading Cases, rather than as a novelist, but I knew perfectly well, if I'd only stopped to think about it, that what he does is tell you a story which is funny because it is almost - almost - believable. In the Misleading Cases he does this to make points about the law; likewise in Holy Deadlock, which I'm pretty sure I've read but don't remember, he is campaigning to reform the law on divorce. The Water Gypsies, despite the odd passing swipe at the licensing laws, seems more interested in the characters and their lives for their own sakes, and this fooled me into missing that it is, as Wikipedia points out, "a romantic comedy novel" (sufficiently so that it was filmed as a quota quickie, and also made into a stage musical).

Jane and Lily live with their widowed father on an old sailing barge on the Thames. Jane works as a maid in one of the houses overlooking the river; Lily is, at the start of the novel, about to start work as a milliner; father is employed as a musicial at the cinema. Jane has two gentleman friends, Fred, who works with his parents on a barge, up and down the canals, and Ernest, who is a Socialist and works at Down Street Station (a small coincidence which pleased me immensely). Fred and Ernest do not know about each other, or about Jane's interest in Mr Bryan, who is an artist and has been staying with his friends and her employers. When I summarise this information, I don't know why it wasn't obvious to me that the whole thing is a joke, not to be taken seriously, and that the author's refusal to judge his characters is based to a large extent on the fact that it doesn't matter, that this is a book in which these things will not be taken seriously.

To be fair - whether to A.P. Herbert or to myself - the humour is not unkind. It is possible to sympathise with the characters even as we laugh at them. Even Ernest, who is the least attractive person in the story, and whose socialism makes him very tedious company, is at his best when he is addressing a meeting, which he does with genuine passion and eloquence. His socialism is no more absurd than the artistic credo of Mr Bryan. One of the definitions of comedy is that it is tragedy that happens to other people, and that's probably true of The Water Gypsies: most characters end up more happily than not, but you could come away from the book feeling that its overall mode was melancholy.

Or rather, I could. And did. Which is embarrassing, but I'm unrepentant, because I did enjoy it so very much.
shewhomust: (puffin)
I had just finished reading Hisham Matar's The Return, a good book but a sad story of a lost father, an unhappy country (Libya) and crushed hopes; the final chapters spiral down and down into darkness. What to read next, to restore some balance? I had been wanting for some time to reread Archer's Goon, and since [ profile] durham_rambler was there, I asked him to reach it down from its high shelf, and Dogsbody too while he was about it.

Archer's Goon )

Dogsbody )

And the lesson we learn from this is that memory is not to be trusted. Rereading, the gift that goes on giving.
shewhomust: (mamoulian)
The BBC has announced the death, aged 104, of E. R. Braithwaite, best known as author of To Sir, with Love, an autobiographical novel about his time as a teacher in the East End of London; the book, in turn, is best known as the basis for a film starring Sidney Poitier and Lulu (and how often do you get to join those names?). It's a long time since I read the book, but the assessment in this article in London Fictions matches my recollection: an interesting account of a particular place and time, not the greatest literature but well enough told, though the hero / narrator is perhaps a bit too good to be true (or sympathetic).

I had a particular reason to be interested, though. My mother always claimed that Braithwaite's job in the East End was as her maternity leave replacement, which made me in a way responsible for the book. We took this, as we took all my mother's stories, with a pinch of salt: she was a great myth-maker, and lived the post-truth life half a century before the term was invented. Nonetheless, it's not impossible. That London Fictions piece identifies the school as St George in the East, where I believe she taught (and which sounds like quite somewhere in itself), and a biography on the British Library site places it in 1951, which is right. So who knows?
shewhomust: (mamoulian)
I recently read two books which were burning a hole in my To Be Read pile. I read them end to end because they seemed to fit together: both quite new, both set in Scotland, and both novels about the crime of murder - and this post has been on the back burner so long that Mark Lawson has got in ahead of me, and included them both in his best crime books of the year. I liked the symmetry of bringing together that most literary of literary things, a novel shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and a crime novel with the impeccable genre credentials of the seventh mystery featuring a series detective as seen on TV. But such a very literary novel of a crime novel, and such a gore-spattered yarn of a Booker contender.

The literary novel is Graeme Macrae Burnet's His Bloody Project, and I'd like it on the record that I bought it before it was Booker shortlisted, because I was intrigued by the Guardian review, and pleased that a small press publication should have made it onto the Booker longlist. The crime novel is Ann Cleeves' Cold Earth, with the usual disclaimer: Ann is a client and a friend, and I wouldn't be writing about her book if I didn't like it. Warning: may (will) contain spoilers for earlier books in the series.

Graeme Macrae Burnet: His Bloody Project )

Ann Cleeves: Cold Earth )
shewhomust: (puffin)
I refused to get up this morning until I had finished reading An Inheritance of Ashes: I don't often do that.

I remember this book when it was called On Roadstead Farm, and [ profile] leahbobet was posting daily wordcounts and the occasional darling: does that give me a proprietorial bias in its favour, or does it mean I am coming to it with impossibly high standards? Let's assume they cancel out, and that I am, if not a perfect and impartial critic, swayed only by my own tastes and preferences. On that basis, this is an amazing book, and I don't know why I haven't been hearing more noise about it all over the internet.

I've never read Laura Ingalls Wilder, but if that change of title suggests some sort of collision between post-apocalyptic YA and the Little House on the Prairie, I don't think it'd be far wrong. Something has taken out the cities and their technology, but that was long ago, and serves only to set the scene: a world of family farms and small towns, hired men and manual labour, which can still be startlingly modern in its social attitudes, where women are as likely to be in charge as men, in which both men and women have husbands and religions co-exist.

This is a post-apocalyptic world in which the apocalypse is eclipsed by the more recent past, the war in the south from which the men (and yes, it does seem to be men) are only now returning. Hallie and her elder sister Marthe struggle to maintain Roadstead Farm, and hope for the return of Marthe's husband Thom. There's a flavour of the American Civil War in that summary, but this war has been stranger than that, and it was ended by a heroic deed, when John Balsam killed the Wicked God - if the stories are to be believed. But there are still strange things, Twisted Things, like the spider-bird that crashed into Hallie's window and burns to the touch...

Hallie is a brilliant narrator, with all the passion and blindness of her sixteen years, and An Inheritance of Ashes is entirely her story. But the canvas gradually widens: Hallie takes on a veteran called Heron to help out over the winter, the Blakely family from the neighboring farm arrive, Hallie ventures into town to buy provisions and spectacularly fails to heal the rift between her family and Windstown. Everyone has secrets, everyone has things they are not saying, everyone has their own story.

Not everything in the book works for me. In particular, there are aspects of the ending which leave me saying wait, what? (and I don't think all of them are intentional). But what I want is for everyone to read it, so we can discuss this properly.

And I haven't even mentioned the wonderful Chandlers.
shewhomust: (mamoulian)
From the British Library website, the rejection letter sent to George Orwell by Faber & Faber, declining to publish Animal Farm (with thanks to the Guardian for the transcription:
I think my own dissatisfaction with this apologue is that the effect is simply one of negation. It ought to excite some sympathy with what the author wants, as well as sympathy with his objections to something: and the positive point of view, which I take to be generally Trotskyite, is not convincing... And after all, your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore the best qualified to run the farm - in fact, there couldn’t have been an Animal Farm at all without them: so that what was needed (someone might argue), was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs.
Signed: T.S. Eliot
shewhomust: (dandelion)
A week ago (yes, I know. Sorry about that.) we were at the Newcastle Noir crime fiction festival at the Lit & Phil. I would have told you that two years before that we had been at the first Newcastle Noir; I couldn't understand why the organisers kept talking about this year being the second festival. Later I looked up what I posted about it at the time, and discovered we had been at 'Crime Saturday', a one-day event which was regarded as a precursor rather than a first release or Year Zero of Newcastle Noir itself. Somebody had already coined the name, though.

The weekend was fun, though I don't think I had twice as much fun in two days as I did two years ago in one - two and an evening, in fact, as there was also a Friday evening launch, Gail-Nina Anderson in conversation with Ann Cleeves, a relaxed and genuinely conversational conversation. Next to this item on the programme I have scribbled: "the smell of bread baking". Gail was very impressed by the physicality of Ann's latest novel, The Moth Catcher, and gave this example; it's about creating a setting that feels real, said Ann, but it might tell you something about the character, too, the retired man with time to fill and frustrations to work out in kneading bread. All of which is true, but since my tastes in crime fiction run closer to the classic mystery than the dark and violent noir, I was also happy that the weekend was opening on this cosy domestic note.

I had been selective in choosing which panels to book: the booking system I used didn't offer me an all-weekend ticket, and while I was pretty sure one existed (it did) I decided to take the hint, and allow plenty of free time. So our first panel was 'Icelandic / Nordic' at a very civilised hour on Saturday morning: three Icelandic women and a Finnish man. They included Yrsa Sigurðardóttir ("It's more fun to kill good people!"), described as 'the Queen of Icelandic Crime' and Antti Tuomainen, 'the King of Helsinki Noir' (according to the Finnish press). Over in the Twittersphere, people were taking exception to this royalism. Ewa Sherman (@sh_ewa) tweeted "Queen of this, King of that... In #Finland we have a president! So what next?" and Lilja Sigurðardottir (@lilja1972) replied: "Democratically elected president of scandi-noir'?" Lilja also gave the best - and least expected - answer of the weekend: Jacky Collins, chairing the session, had asked "What do you put into your books to give readers the flavour of your country?". It's not a question I would ever have asked - surely it's the things you don't realise are peculiar to your country that give foreign readers the real insights - but Lilja was falling over herself to grap the microphone and answer: "the elves!" Elves, it seems, a widely accepted as part of Icelandic life, and Icelandic critics reviewing her novel about the Mexican drugs cartel, the caged tiger and the elves had complained that the tiger was unbelievable. Of all the books discussed at Newcastle Noir, this was the one I most wanted to read. But there's a snag: it hasn't been published in English yet - and it's called 'Trapped' (Gildran in Tcelandic), as in that TV series I enjoyed recently.

There was time for a cup of coffee before the next panel, which was called Novellas & Short Stories, but whose true name was 'On Being the Right Size'. Once upon a time, that title would have introduced a discussion of literary craft and what makes a good short story; now we skipped that and cut straight to the realities of publishing - which was equally interesting. Quentin Bates was billed as chairing the panel, but he took a moderator's role, and helped the participants into a very free-flowing discussion. Two of the panel members were new to me, but seemed to have written series of novellas which had been published electronically with enough success that they were now making it into print. The third was established author Cath Staincliffe, who admitted that her books tend to be short, and that she is sufficiently nervous about hitting contractual lengths that she never looks at her word count at the end of the day - and has been very disconcerted by her updated software, which insists on displaying the tally whether she wants it to or not. (Fellow professionals advised: stick a post-it note over that corner of the screen.) The consensus was that a book is as long as it is, that Simenon was a master of the genre and that his books are short - extremely short by modern standards - and that the internet makes it easier to be flexible about the length and pricing of books.

Lunchtime, and we had a lunch date with Frances Brody. Our first plan was to use the vouchers we'd been given for the Union Rooms, but it was a match day and the place was packed, so we went to Mario's, which was quiet and is always good (the waiter was surprised to see us by daylight).

Our afternoon panel was - allegedly - on historical crime fiction, but it never really engaged with the theme. Instead we had three authors (one had had to cancel) speaking well about their books and how they came to be written. As well as Frances, participants were Kate Griffin, author of Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Murders, and Clare Carson, who was a bit taken aback that Orkney Twilight, a book in which she attempted to unravel her childhood was regarded as historical. I didn't buy any books over the weekend: the threat of having to pack everything into boxes while we repair and redecorate acts as a deterrent. But these two interested me enough that I went upstairs to the Lit & Phil library to look for them (I found, and am currently reading, the Kitty Peck. It's well done, so far, but too noir for my tastes.)

I have less to say about Sunday, and not just because it's getting late. A walk in the morning around some of the murderous sites of the city, real and fictional, was a useful reminder how much less entertaining murder is in real life: people killing each other in fights, or for small amounts of money, or just because they were drunk. Back at the Lit & Phil, a panel on 'Writing Elsewhere' with - among others - Barbara Nadel, whose first Inspector Ikmet mystery I read long ago and didn't like (it has a very nasty murder scene in it). On the strength of this panel, though, I might be persuaded to try again. Finally, we end as we began with Gail-Nina Anderson in conversation, this time with Val McDermid, always entertaining. After which we lured Gail over to the Union Rooms for a conversation of our own.
shewhomust: (mamoulian)
In the last week, among other things, we have been to the cinema twice (for some reason, both films included a piece of the Flower Song from Lakmé), been to two book launches (by coincidence, both books brought together images with poetry by a number of poets; that being the case, it's no coincidence that some of the same poets were at both launches) and entertained a house guest (D., who is still with us, except that he has gone out to do his own thing this evening). In brief, then:

First film: Anomalisa
Peter Bradshaw's glowing review in the Guardian; Mark Kermode's more ambivalent review in the Observer.
Does that excuse me from producing an opinion of my own? The midlife crisis of a motivational speaker, staying in a corporate-type hotel before giving a corporate-type speech. Here he meets a young woman who seems different from everyone else. This is familiar territory. But the actors are stop-motion puppets, which is not only an interesting gimmick but opens up possibilities: Lisa genuinely is different from everyone else, she has her own face and voice, while all the other characters (except Michael himself) have the same face and are voiced by the same actor. There's something called the "Fregoli delusion" apparently, which is that everyone is really the same person, and this is referenced in the name of the hotel - the Fregoli Hotel. So that was a clever reference that I didn't pick up on, and had to have pointed out to me. On the other hand, I did spot that the film on the tv in Michael's room was My Man Godfrey, and wonder why (because, says the internet, unlike Casablanca, it is in the public domain).
Extremely clever, and the character of Lisa is actually very touching. These two things ought to enhance each other; yet I react as if they were in conflict.

First book launch: Two Rivers and the Sea
Inspired by the work of Rachel Carson, poet Lisa Matthews ans visual artist Melanie Ashby spent a series of four residencies on the Northumberland coast, the circuit of A Year in Beadnell. They blogged, they took photographs, they filmed life in the rock pools, they wrote poems, they invited other poets to visit and observe with them, and they have published this record of the year.

Second film: Marguerite
Strange enough that there should be one film about Florence Foster Jenkins, but stranger still, two have come along at the same time. This is not the one with Meryl Streep, this is the other one, the French one, "based on a true story" but fictionalised. This has the drawback that you can no longer point to the story it tells and say "Incredible though this seems, it happened." It has the advantage that you are free to tell whatever story you wish, and to relocate it to the 1920s, with all the fun that offers: the frocks! the Dadaists! The tone wanders uncertainly between comedy and pathos, and there are aspects of the story whose truth I questioned which have nothing to do with Florence Foster Jenkins. But I didn't feel I'd wasted my time.

Second book launch: NORTHbound
Vane Women celebrate their silver anniversary with an anthology built around Pat Maycroft's photographs. The women themselves and invited guests contributed poems inspired by one of Pat's photos, and many of the contributors were present at today's launch, so we had an unusual reading at which each poet read a single poem. Highlights included Pru Kitching's Franz Kafka in Durham City (a moody black and white view up a vennel that could well be in Prague's Old Town), Diane Cockburn's Heloise takes the Veil (a cat at a lace curtained window) and Bob Beagrie's Amanita Muscaria (what it says in the title, with Andy Willoughby taking second voice, reading the 'shadow poem', so that I half thought the magic was in the performance until I saw how ingeniously the poem was built on the page).

Bonus art exhibition: Cercle d'Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise
The NORTHbound launch was at mima, and while we were there, we saw the current exhibition of sculptures by Congolese plantation workers. I wish I had taken my camera. Failing that, imagine a bright white room containing a number of brown sculpted figures and portrait heads, and interspersed with leafygreen potted plants. Each piece is moulded from clay, scanned and the data transmitted to somewhere (I've forgotten where) in Europe where it can be reproduced in Belgian chocolate through multiple technologies, including 3D scanning and printing. Evidently the purpose of the project is to generate income for the cocoa plantation workers, and who knows how suitable a material chocolate is outside this context. I'd have photgraphed, too, the sign on the wall saying that mima was supporting the project by purchasing one of the pieces for £3000 (through a gallery which would take its usual 50% cut): surely the starkness of the statement was intended to make me want to photograph it?
shewhomust: (dandelion)
On the building front: the errant downpipe has been reattatched, and the insurance company notified that the cause of the damp has been corrected, and they can start repairs as soon as they are ready. Meanwhile, while the scaffolding is in place the builders are doing useful things to the back of the house, repointing, repairing window frames, repainting woodwork.

The next job will be external repairs: the wall at the end of the garden, the outhouses, the steps down to the garden. The wall has already gone. We knew it was unsound, it was further damaged in bringing scaffolding through, and when the builder tried to remove the tree growing out of the top of the wall, it became clear that the tree was in fact the only thing holding it together. Just as well we already wanted to replace it. Replacing the back steps is also we've had in mind for some time - but it will have to wait until the scaffolding is removed.

This ought to be enough excitement to satisfy anyone. I don't know why I feel that nothing much is going on here.

On the Northern noir front: I've been enjoying Shetland enough to be sorry to see it come to an end, but thought the resolution was a little weak. The scheduling did it no favours, following the emotional blockbuster of the fifth episode with a two week gap, and then a dénouement which depended on cramming quite a lot of new material into the final hour, some of which didn't add up. As usual, I'm left feeling that the books are better. And the TV version seems set on dismantling everything interesting about Jimmy Perez's personal life. Oh, well.

It tells you somrthing about Trapped that where Shetland is filmed in Shetland in the summer months, Trapped meets the Icelandic winter head on: it is set in February, so not only is the town cut off by snow, and the population 'trapped', most of the action takes place in the long winter nights. This can be dramatic, and events are often macabre, but I wouldn't call it gloomy. There's a relish to it. One confrontation in episode three, which is as far as we've got, takes place while one of the characters in skinning and gutting a reindeer.

If that's part of your definition of noir, you can add The Last Seabird Summer to the list. Adam Nicolson (whose book, Sea Room, I have quoted before) investigates the decline in sea bird numbers around the coast of Britain, which includes going to Iceland (Grimsay, in fact, the island on the Arctic Circle) where licensed hunters still pluck puffins from the air with fishing nets, and cook them in barbecue sauce. Nicolson's discomfort at this is a thing of beauty.

Nothing to do with anything else, but the Guardian has an obituary of Gillian Avery. I loved The Warden's Niece; I've read and enjoyed others of her books, but The Warden's Niece remains special.
shewhomust: (puffin)
Berrydin Books of Berwick seems to have a source of Elsie J. Oxenham titles; it's the only secondhand bookshop where I ever find them, and reasonably priced, too - which is odd, because although it's a shop I enjoy visiting, I rarely buy anything else there. Last summer's haul was three volumes, bought because they were the ones on offer, and I am currently binge-reading them. Between them they stake out the territory of the series very neatly. They all have the magic word 'abbey' in the title, but only one is actually concerned with the Abbey itself. Jen of the Abbey School allows the Abbey series to intersect with the Rocklands School series, The Abbey Girls Win Through is concerned with "the Abbey Girls" as they grow up, and its heart is at the Hall as much as at the Abbey. Only Secrets of the Abbey is as I remembered the books from my childhood reading, with thrilling discoveries to be made at the Abbey itself: how significant is it that this is one of the 'retrospective titles', in which Oxenham returned to the adventures when younger of charaters whose lives she has already mapped beyond this point?

Jen of the Abbey School )

The Abbey Girls Win Through )

Secrets of the Abbey )

The inevitable footnotes )

September 2017

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