March 2016 reading round-up

Wheeler & Wilson trade card, 1784.
Wheeler & Wilson trade card, 1784.

This month I managed to read a lot, but I’ve reviewed less than half of it as I realised I just didn’t have something to say about every book. I’m happy about this decision, and hopefully it will let me do a better job of the reviews that I do write. Here’s hoping!

I also went to the launch of a friend’s debut poetry collection, spent a long weekend in London during which I finally saw Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, and went to see the new film High-Rise, starring Tom Hiddleston. I’ve not read the book by JG Ballard, but I suspect the film is a pretty faithful adaptation – by which I mean it’s completely bonkers in an intelligent and politically astute kind of way.

In TV land, we watched all of season two of Daredevil in less than a week. (It’s based on comics so it’s totally literary, right? Well it’s good, anyway!) And we’ve started (though not yet finished) watching the excellent BBC TV series of John le Carré’s The Night Manager. Because there’s no such thing as too much Tom Hiddleston.

How was your March?


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The unreliable measuring device of words

the story of a new nameThe Story of a New Name
by Elena Ferrante
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

This is book two of the famed Neapolitan Novels, which started with My Brilliant Friend. This review does contain spoilers for the first book, which I also highly recommend. Arguably you could come to this book cold – everything you need to know from book one is repeated – but you’d be missing out on a key part of the experience in my opinion.

Elena and Lila are on the verge of adulthood. Married at 16, Lila is gradually realising that marriage is not a quick fix to make her brother rich, and that being married to someone she doesn’t love is fine until she does fall in love.

For Lila, marrying Stefano, the grocer, was supposed to be the lesser of two evils – her other rich suitor in book one being Marcello Solara – but either way Lila is tied up with the dangerous Solara family and not in the powerful position as one of their wives. Did she make the right choice? She spends frivolously and flirts with both Solara brothers despite her husband’s violent temper. Has she shut down all true feeling? She is smart and aware, surely she knows the dangerous ground she is treading?

“She was beautiful and she dressed like the pictures in the women’s magazines that she bought in great numbers. But the condition of wife had enclosed her in a sort of glass container, like a sailboat sailing with sails unfurled in an inaccessible place, without the sea.”

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In 1945 all the nice people in England were poor

girls-of-slender-meansThe Girls of Slender Means
by Muriel Spark

This odd little book is funny and tragic, fleeting and profound. I enjoyed it quite a bit more than Muriel Spark’s more famous work The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

It’s the story of a Kensington hostel, “The May of Teck Club for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London.” With savage brilliance, Spark lampoons everyone – the young women new to the club, intent only on dating airmen and giggling endlessly; the slightly older women who are engaged or very nearly engaged or seriously intent on their careers; the sad old spinsters who try in vain to control goings-on at the club; the married men who become obsessed with the May of Teck and all it represents.

There are two timelines: 1945 and an unspecified “many” years later (the novel was published in 1963 and this seems a reasonable guess as to the “future” year). In the future timeline, journalist Jane Wright is phoning round her old friends from the May of Teck to break the news to them of the death of a man they all used to know, who used to visit the May of Teck in 1945. The 1945 storyline runs roughly from VE Day to VJ Day, and is occupied with that uncertain jubilation, the balance between sudden peace and stricter-than-ever rationing, a city half in ruins but no longer under threat.

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Love should bestow sublimity

dark side of loveThe Dark Side of Love
by Rafik Schami
translated from German by Anthea Bell

I can’t remember where I first heard about this book but I do know it was on my birthday wishlist a few years back and I was surprised when I opened the parcel to find not a stack of three or four books, but one big fat book. It is epic in every sense of the word and I loved spending two weeks absorbed in it.

Rafik Schami writes in his afterword that ever since he was a 16-year-old boy in Syria, back in the 1960s, he had wanted to write a realistic Arab love story, but it took him 40-odd years to get it right. The result is a novel that looks at dozens of permutations of doomed romance against a backdrop of decades of Syrian history, though the bulk of the story is set in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Nagib looked askance at his daughter and smiled. ‘Why does love always have to imply possession?’ he asked, shaking his head…’You should love with composure…Love should bestow sublimity. It lets you give everything without losing anything. That’s its magic. But here people want a contract of marriage concluded in the presence of witnesses. Imagine, witnesses, as if it were some kind of crime…State and Church supervise the contract. That’s not love, it’s orders from a higher authority to increase and multiply.’ “

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Sunday Salon: All culture is here (except the bits that are elsewhere)

The Sunday SalonIt’s been a bit busy of late. This weekend I’ve finally had a chance to relax after the crazy that was last weekend. We crammed a lot of stuff into too short a time, and my energy levels are showing it. So shockingly (or not) I still haven’t written any of those long-promised book reviews. I have, however, done lots of fun cultural stuff I thought I might share.

We kicked off with a gig here in Bristol. Local rock band Reef were playing what I thought was a reunion tour, but it turns out they’ve been back together since 2010 and I just hadn’t noticed before. Still, it was a great night. Tim and I relived the Reef gig we went to together about 12 years ago and wandered home late on a balmy spring evening. Spring is teasing us with its gradual arrival this year but I think it might just have got here now.

Next up we headed to London. We spent an afternoon at the Science Museum, mostly in the Cosmonauts exhibition (which ended last Sunday) but we also caught a couple of photography shows there. All were excellent, but especially Cosmonauts, which follows the Russian space story.

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Poetry book launch: Elizabeth Parker, Paul Deaton and Claire Williamson

Many moons ago and not so far from here, Lizzie Parker and I were at secondary school together. We were close friends, sometimes best, sometimes not, in that way that friendships fluctuate when you’re young. After leaving school we lost touch for many years, and then recently reconnected in Bristol. But once someone has been your best friend, however briefly or long ago, they’re tied to you in a way.

Which is my long-winded way of saying that I can’t be objective about the first of the three poetry pamphlets I went to the launch of on Monday night. For the record, I think it’s very good. And Lizzie has been shortlisted for multiple prizes so it’s not just me who thinks that. But if you need convincing, watch the above video of Lizzie performing.

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Films not books


In the past week and a half I’ve watched an awful lot of films. Usually I’m more of a TV series person, though we do have a film night most weeks, but sometimes only a film will hit the spot – maybe it’s the beginning, middle and end all wrapped up in a two-hour package that makes it so good.

When I was feeling unwell last week I binged on gentle comedies. There was Chalet Girl, in which Felicity Jones plays a working glass girl who falls for a posh boy and tries to win a skateboarding competition. It’s better than its predictable cliched plot thanks to a decent script and great actors, including Bill Bailey as a deadbeat dad. I followed that with Nine Months, which is pretty awful and even a small supporting role from Robin Williams couldn’t save. Then there was Julie and Julia, which I wasn’t expecting much of until the opening credits reminded me that it was screenwritten and directed by Nora Ephron, and it lived up to her high standards despite my having zero interest in historical or current TV chefs or French cooking in general (Japanese cooking, on the other hand…). And then I started watching 84 Charing Cross Road, based on the wonderful book by Helene Hanff and starring Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft, and frankly I was bored silly. That story just doesn’t make sense anywhere but on paper for me.

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Even the moonlight could not give it beauty

the-birds-and-other-storiesThe Birds and other stories
by Daphne du Maurier

This is an excellent collection of short stories. The tales are all weird, spooky, dark with flashes of humour.

The title story is the one that Hitchcock adapted into the film of the same name, but there is little resemblance between book and film. Both are excellent but I was surprised by quite how different they are. Du Maurier’s story centres on farm labourer Nat who lives on the Cornwall coast with his wife and two children. There’s no glamorous California or pet shop but there is the added peril of children being in danger. The birds on the attack are truly terrifying.

However, my favourite story was “The apple tree”, in which a widow becomes convinced that a sick old tree is taunting him with the spirit of his dead wife. It sounds ridiculous but is in fact a brilliant story that includes many of the same themes as Rebecca.

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World Book Day 2016

Happy World Book Day! Every child went to school today dressed as their favourite book character and 14 million children in the UK and Ireland have received a £1 book voucher. (There are 10 special £1 books for the occasion, or they can just get £1 off any book they like.) It’s a fantastic celebration of books and reading and I really feel that as a book blogger I should contribute…something.

I am hugely behind on book reviews, having finished no less than three books this week, but I’ve been unwell and full-of-cold brain is not conducive to good writing. I’m sure all the top journalists say the same.

But what I can still manage is to write about the four new books I gained this last week. Because this post is mainly pictures and even ol’ snuffles here can take a couple of photos.


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