Walking Away – Simon Armitage

Last year I read Simon Armitage’s Walking Home, his tale of how he walked the Pennine Way (well, most of it) the wrong way round (North to South as opposed to the usual direction). I enjoyed its blend of humour, travel writing and description of the trials of a modern-day troubadour, paying his way on the journey by passing a sock round at poetry readings each night. It was particularly interesting to me as I have done bookstalls at a couple of poetry reading events with the author – he is widely read and even shows up on school syllabuses – so I could amuse myself by trying to read it in Armitage’s actual accent in my head. (This did work fairly well, but he does have quite a soothing tone of voice so I did drop off occasionally when reading in bed….). I even tried to persuade my other half to read it – he is a Yorkshireman, enjoys long walks and poetry; what could go wrong? Oddly, he didn’t enjoy it at all. I was informed that the author had lost his respect for getting lost almost at the beginning of his walk despite having a map and compass unused at the bottom of his pack. Also there wasn’t enough poetry in it.

Well, fair enough. We can’t all enjoy the same stuff. But he’s wrong about the poetry…

walking awaySo, Simon (the poet, not my other half, Rob – keep up…) has been at it again. This time he writes about walking part of the South West Coast Path, still giving readings each night and still relying on the hospitality of strangers. And for this walk he has a very expensive hat and a holly stick – well, for most of the journey, anyway. What is the same though is the humour and the poetry.

Now, don’t assume that this means there are sonnets and odes dropped in all over the place. This is more in the nature of stealth poetry – the descriptions of scenery, weather, other walkers and the natural world in particular are not just written in everyday language. Coleridge once described poetry as ‘the best words in the best order’ and that seems to be what we have here. The language is, on the whole, nothing that is hard to understand or obscure but it is wonderfully evocative of the sights and sounds which the poet experiences. And it’s still frequently very funny.

I may try to convince Rob to give Simon Armitage another go – but this time I may get him to read some of the actual poetry first (maybe his translation of Gawain and the Green Knight would be a good place to start – we’ve got history with that poem).

Jane

Enchantment all year round…

enchanted aprilOne of my very favourite books of all time is Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim.  A deceptively simple story of four English women in the 1920s who are oppressed – not politically or physically but by age, domesticity, husbandly expectations and beauty – and who discover their own versions of true happiness in an Italian villa. The plot is slight but the characters seem very realistically drawn and the descriptions of the villa and its garden make me feel that I am sat in warm dappled shade, scented by lilac and jasmine. It is an unashamedly feel-good book and one I turn to whenever I am in need of a dose of the warm-fuzzies.

So far, so good.

It was, therefore, with some hesitation that I opened up a copy of Enchanted August by Brenda Bowen since the blurb suggested that I was about to read a version of my old favourite, updated to the present day and reset on an isolated New England island community. Lets be honest – I was very much afraid that someone was about to walk over all my memories of a beloved story.

enchanted augustAs it turns out I was to be very pleasantly surprised by this update. The author obviously loves Enchanted April as much as I do and may even well have read it as many times as I have! The characters have retained their original charms, personalities and problems (even most of the names are the same) but are well-drawn as 21st Century individuals. I particularly liked the way that Mrs Fisher has been brought up to date (since her nostalgia for the days of the great Victorians seemed to be the hardest to modernise) and I appreciated the way that Rose and Lottie are now mothers (yet not to perfect children…).

If you fancy reading something light I can heartily recommend either of these books. April first if you appreciate the historical context but either way round would work. And then hang on to your copy to reread whenever April, or August, seem too far away…

Jane

Bradford Literature Festival – and so it begins…

Well, here we go! The start of 10 days of events – literary, historical, political and comedic – in the Bradford Literature Festival. We kicked off last night with a few evening events and I got to do the bookstall at the one I really really wanted to see – What The F*** is Normal with the marvellous Francesca Martinez.francesca martinez Funny and inspiring – but mostly funny – Francesca talks about her schooldays, acting career and family. Nothing unusual there you say? Try doing all that with cerebral palsy. In fact try even saying cerebral palsy with cerebral palsy….

This was a fabulous show which celebrated difference. And Francesca’s assertion that you can get through just about anything in life if you are loved as a child reminded me that, although we had very little materially when I was a child, I was loved and happy! I am grateful that I am not disabled but even more thankful that I have such a great family.

The book on which this tour is based is equally funny, angrily political and moving. It is also equally sweary – just to warn those who would be offended. Personally I was even more amused to learn some very colourful signs from the lady who was doing the signing for the deaf. Lizzie was an education in herself!

I would urge you to read this book or, even better, see Francesca when she is on tour. And maybe we could start a campaign to get her on more panel shows. I’d watch that!

Jane

The Museum of Things Left Behind – Seni Glaister

It’s Spring (no, honest, it is – don’t look at the weather, look at the calendar!) so my thoughts are drifting almost inexorably towards dreams of holidays. I’m not much of a one for sitting on beaches – I don’t tan, get too hot and the sands gets between the pages of whatever I’m reading – and I don’t do long haul flights so Europe is as exotic as I get. I love to visit a new city, see its history, try its food and drink and generally mooch around feeling all ‘continental’*. As you can imagine large parts of my hard-earned time off is spent in some kind of cafe (or on a train) with a drink and a book. In fact, this could be my definition of bliss.

Museum of Things Left BehindSeni Glaister’s Museum of Things Left Behind is the story of one such holiday – although maybe with slightly more excitement than I usually experience. Lizzie arrives (by train – my kind of heroine) in the fictional country of Vallerosa and, due to a slight miscalculation, is greeted as if she were a representative of the British Royal Family. The country is tiny, forgotten by the rest of Europe (even during periods of global warfare!) and seems to run on tradition and tea. To be honest, by this point I’m virtually booking my ticket!

Vallerosa is a country steeped in its isolation. In some ways very advanced – the education system is impressive – but in others quite old-fashioned. The political posts, in fact all rôles, seem to be hereditary and women’s rights appear to be set in the early C20th (if they are that advanced) but somehow you warm to the place. The real baddies seem to be the American ‘business consultants’ trying to control the country via the tea trade. Some of the country’s practices – medical staff at the hospital only tend to their patient’s medical needs, all washing, feeding and social care is provided by their families – seem almost backward to us but are only what we were used to in living memory. The medical care is certainly modern enough. The author’s tone is quite approving of some things which don’t sit well with our modern sensibilities but the otherworldliness is part of the book’s charm.

Charming and quirky are the two words I would use to describe this novel if you were cruel enough to limit me. Let me sneak in a couple more and I would add heart-warming and satisfying – this will be a great summer read in the cafés of Europe.

Jane

 

*Barcelona is the city I will be sipping wine and reading in this summer – maybe this will be my time to read The Shadow of the Wind?

1914 And All That

Given the historical significance of the Great War and the fact that we are currently, and for the next three and a half years, commemorating its centenary I feel ashamed to say that I had some glaringly huge gaps in my reading. Yes, I have read Goodbye To All That and the war poets when I was at school: I’ve ticked off some of the recent WW1 novels like Wake, The Lie and My Dear I Wanted to Tell You – but I was missing some of the classics. And I am still not completely up to speed – I’ve still not tackled All Quiet on the Western Front or the Regeneration trilogy – but I have filled in a couple of blanks in the last few weeks.

Both books are ones that many people have described to me as their ‘favourite read ever’ (so, no pressure…) but my own experience could be described as ‘mixed’. Firstly, Birdsong8959789 – a powerful and moving novel focussing on one man’s life both before and during the Great War. I could appreciate the beauty and power of Faulk’s writing but, overall, I was not particularly moved. Oddly, I almost found the parts written from the point of view of Wraysford’s granddaughter more interesting than the wartime sections. Maybe I could understand them better, since they occurred in my lifetime, or maybe I was just recalling how I had taken against the main character in the recent tv adaptation. Whichever it was I am sure the fault is with me rather than with Birdsong itself. There were plenty of descriptive passages highlighting the horrors of trench warfare – but nothing which crystallizes the whole thing better for me than the closing scenes of Blackadder Goes Forth – and (to my eternal shame) I just found the recurring imagery of birdsong annoying by the end.

After this experience it was with some trepidation that I started reading Testament of Youth for our in-store reading group.20140504222301!Testament_of_Youth_Book_Cover In this case, however, I shouldn’t have worried as I ended up really enjoying the whole book immensely. Again the book is, basically, one person’s experience of the period but, somehow, it was one I warmed to. Maybe Vera Brittain’s experience spoke to me more as a woman – I would never have been fighting in the trenches myself – or maybe it is her political stance I found myself in agreement with but I was far more absorbed by her story  than that of any soldier.

This is not to say that Testament of Youth is an easy read. It starts very slowly, outlining Brittain’s privileged and sheltered upbringing in the Peak District and goes into a fair amount of detail of her struggle to be allowed to attend University. For me, despite the fact that it needed a fair amount of concentration to read, this was hugely interesting – it is, in effect, the development of an early C20th feminist. In fact it is, for me, primarily a story of how an Edwardian girl becomes a very modern woman.

The war, her awful experiences as a voluntary nurse and her terrific losses are, of course, a huge part of the book. These, however, are all things she looks back on. The most positive aspects of the whole book, for me, is the future she is moving towards by the end. One where the awful experiences the world had been through help those who survived to try to make sure things are better in the future. Obviously, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that more horrors were still to come but at least the book is able to end positively.

Jane

 

The Fire Sermon – Francesca Haig

I’ve mentioned before about having the best job in the world haven’t I? You know, getting to read lots of books and talk to customers about them? Access to cake? Not to mention all my lovely customers? Well, some weeks it is even better than that – and last week was one such. For I had not one but two evenings out courtesy of those wonderful folk at Harpercollins. On the Wednesday I made my way over to Manchester (or the dark side as I have learned to call it since moving to Yorkshire) with a colleague to hear from three children’s authors – Sophie Cleverley (who was wearing the most amazing dress), Shane Hegarty (who was exactly the charming Irish chap he sounds like) and Holly Smale (who apologised for having to rush off after the talk – she had a book to finish in four weeks and had snuck out to attend the event: shades of Douglas Adams, I feel). Their books are now on my ever huge to-read pile and will be reviewed as soon as I get to them!

The main reason I didn’t dive straight into my stack of children’s books was because of last week’s other publisher event – held in Leeds on Tuesday by Harper Voyager, Harpercollins’ imprint for Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Horror. I’d started flicking through a proof by one of the authors that lunchtime, was a quarter of the way through by the time I got to the event and wasn’t going to be stopping until I’d reached the end.

fire sermon

This book (and the Joe Abercrombie titles I blagged at the same event) are sci-fi/fantasy titles which, while not specifically young adult books, are certainly suitable for that audience. But not so much so that they feel too ‘young’ for more mature readers. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy quite a lot of YA books (the Dancing Jax series, Half Bad by Sally Green and many more) but I am, allegedly, a grown-up and like to have a good range of ages represented in my reading. Anyway, I digress…

In the world created here every person born is a twin – always a boy and a girl. One perfectly healthy and robust: one deformed in some way. And when one twin dies so does the other. From this fairly simple but intriguing premise a plot develops. Our heroine, Cass, is not split from her twin until they are 13 – her ‘deformity’ is mental rather than physical and she is able to hide her status as a seer for many years – so she develops a closer relationship to her brother than is usual. However, when her brother rises to a position of power we find that he doesn’t seem to feel the same closeness with her. It is explained that the twins, and particularly the deformed siblings (known and branded as Omegas), are the result of some kind of a nuclear holocaust. For most of the perfect twins (Alphas) their other halves are something to be feared and even blamed for the evil in the world. Omegas are shunned and hated by Alphas – yet it is necessary that they exist in order for the Alphas to continue to live.  And the easiest way to kill a powerful Alpha is through their twin…

There is an adventure story here, a smattering of love interest and lots of the world’s internal politics. But there is also a lot to think about – I found myself wondering about how we feel about our own Omegas (the disabled, the poor, the other) – and some rather beautifully turned phrases. Francesca Haig is an academic and poet as well as a novelist which I think really shows in this well thought out and well written tale. I’m looking forward to the next installment already.

Jane

Playing to the Gallery – Grayson Perry

The old cliché goes ‘I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like’ and, like many clichés it is largely true. I enjoy looking round galleries, I paint (although that may not, strictly speaking always be terribly ‘artistic’) and I have read my Gombrich. I have, however, always had a problem with a lot of contemporary art. I’m a big fan of Magritte and Matisse and I’ve spent many a happy hour wandering around the Yorkshire Sculpture Park admiring the Gormleys and Goldsworthys but the rest I don’t quite ‘get’. And I’ve often thought this could be a fault in me…

graysonperry_playingtothegallery_00

Grayson Perry is someone whose opinion I can really value in this area – he is a successful practicing artist and a fellow Essex ‘girl’ – and, after reading Playing to the Gallery, I feel that I have gained a huge amount of artistic confidence.

What I have learned is that the ‘best’ art isn’t necessarily the most popular, the most expensive or the one which is reviewed in every broadsheet. That art is scary because you can’t explain why you like a particular work, that appreciation is as much about what you feel as what you see and that it is okay to disagree with the great and the good….(especially when they write about art in ways that just make you feel you aren’t clever enough to understand what they are saying). Oh, and that I’m probably never going to be a fan of ‘performance art’.

The best part of this book is Grayson Perry’s voice. He just seems to be such a down-to-earth person – one who not going to let being a transvestite from a county which sometimes seems to be a national joke hold him back. And why should he? He knows his material here but doesn’t talk down to the reader – he certainly makes me feel like I should go and visit some art on my next day off. In this book he has made contemporary art seem far more approachable (and has reminded us we have permission to dislike it if we want). He has also made it (along with Caitlin Moran, Claudia Winkleman and Victoria Coren Mitchell) onto my fantasy dinner party list – I reckon it would be a great night!

Jane