Friday 23 November 2012

I'm going to need a considerably bigger bucket...

(Image courtesy of Michelle Meiklejohn)

Liz, a good friend of mine from University, told me recently she'd started a bucket list. This alarmed me as we're the same age - surely not old enough to be contemplating all we'd like to achieve before we expire? Always well organised and practical (much more so than me), she pointed out that if you leave it too late you might not be in a position to get round to the things you most want to.

So I started thinking about what would feature on my own bucket list. Apart from the usual adventures travelling around South America and studying for that degree in English Literature I didn't take, I decided I'd like to see performed every play ever written by William Shakespeare - preferably live, but if that's not possible then at least in a film version.

Now, I know I've missed a huge opportunity in not taking advantage of all the works just staged during the World Shakespeare Festival, where even some of those rarely performed got an airing, but I'm not going to let that put me off.

Thumbnail for version as of 22:53, 26 April 2012

Like many of us, I studied Shakespeare at school but understood little at the time. Hours spent poring over unfathomable text in the classroom left me cold. Since those squandered days, I've gradually begun to realise what all the fuss is about and now I'm a convert. So, I thought over the years I'd seen a good number of Shakespeare's plays - the names are familiar, after all, like old friends your parents talk about all the time but you rarely get to meet. Turns out though, now I stop to consider, I've actually seen a few of his plays lots of times, but most of them (including some of the most frequently performed) not at all. So, here's the breakdown...

It is believed that Shakespeare wrote 38 plays between 1590 and 1612. Out of these until recently I'd seen
  • Comedy of Errors
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Richard II
  • A Midsummer Night's Dream
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • As You Like It
  • Twelfth Night
  • Hamlet
  • Measure for Measure
Not even a quarter of his canon - a shameful achievement for a supposed lover of literature! However, by applying myself to the task, I have managed to increase my total with some notable additions recently
  •  Julius Caesar at the RSC  - set in a contemporary African dictatorship, an inspiring version of one of Shakespeare's more challenging plays
  • The Tempest at Theatre Royal Bath, very inventive staging with Tim Piggott-Smith as Prospero
  • Timon of Athens, the National Theatre production screened live at my local Picturehouse Cinema (the wonderful Little Theatre Cinema in Bath) as I couldn't get to the actual performance
Still a poor showing, especially having seen only one of the history plays and nothing yet at the Globe (another bullet point on my bucket list...)

Here's what I still have to see
  • Henry VI Part II
  • Henry VI Part III 
  • Henry VI Part I 
  • Richard III
  • Titus Andronicus 
  • The Taming of the Shrew 
  • The Two Gentlemen of Verona
  • Love’s Labour’s Lost
  • King John 
  • The Merchant of Venice 
  • Henry IV Part I
  • Henry IV Part II
  • Henry V
  • The Merry Wives of Windsor 
  • Troilus and Cressida 
  • All’s Well That Ends Well
  • Othello
  • King Lear
  • Macbeth
  • Antony and Cleopatra
  • Coriolanus 
  • Pericles 
  • Cymbeline
  • The Winter’s Tale
  • Henry VIII
  • The Two Noble Kinsmen
Just as well I like a challenge! Liz has a point though and I need to get a move on. So, I've already done some online searching and booked tickets for
  • The Winter's Tale at the RSC in Stratford-on-Avon in February 2013
  •  A Midsummer Night's Dream at The Bristol Old Vic. I know this doesn't really count as I've seen it once already - at school though! - but it's produced by the team behind War Horse (Tom Morris and Cape Town's Handspring Puppet Company) and sounds intriguing.
Only another twenty-five to go - recommendations or suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

Do you have a bucket list? Let me know what's on yours...

Sunday 18 November 2012

Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick

Every now and then, you read a book which you just don't want to end. The characters draw you in, you live alongside their lives for a while and then you have to leave them. For me, Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick is just such a book.

I have to admit I hadn't heard of Cynthia Ozick before she was shortlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction with this novel. How ignorant of me, turns out she's a very well established American author, currently living in New York, with a whole host of awards to her name. Her parents were Russian immigrants and one of the themes in Foreign Bodies (and also, from what I've read since, of much of her writing) is the immigrants' desire and ability to reinvent themselves in their new land.

The novel opens in 1950s New York with a letter from Bea Nightingale, a middle-aged teacher of unruly boys, to her brother Marvin. Bea has anglicised her surname for the practical reason that her students found the original unpronounceable, but it is her brother who has truly reinvented himself as an all American success story, at least superficially. By adopting the attitudes and habits of fellow students during his days at Princeton, he has shrugged off the identity of a Jewish outsider;

'he resisted humiliation by accepting it, sometimes almost appearing to invite it: it taught him what was suitable and what wasn't.'

But Marvin has moulded himself into a self-important monster with a big job in California and an ailing wife and family to support. Virtually estranged from Bea, he nevertheless orders her to travel to Paris to track down his errant son Julian, the younger of his children. Bea lives alone and has few ties, he reasons, her brief marriage to a musician, Leo, has long since ended and she can easily put her little job on hold to help Marvin out for once. Bea resents his attitude but is nevertheless drawn into travelling to Europe, to search for a nephew she doesn't even know.

And so she embarks on an adventure in broken, post-war Paris, becoming more and more entangled as she does so in the lives of Julian and his sister Iris. The plot is a sort of inversion of Henry James' The Ambassadors, with Americans seeking restoration in Europe, the young siblings escaping from a 'coddled' existence in California, to tread streets full of real refugees fleeing the ravages of war.

Iris and later Julian, awaken something in Bea, enabling her to move on from the stagnating ties of her brief marriage, symbolised by the large grand piano that passionate composer Leo had left behind in her flat. She helps Marvin's children by deceiving their father in her letters, mainly, though not exclusively through sins of omission. Then, her visit to Marvin's wife, the mentally unstable but clear-sighted Margaret, has consequences more far-reaching than she could ever imagine.

A middle-aged divorced woman with sensible shoes and no children, Bea could be an easy figure to disregard.Yet she is able to hold her own in teaching English Literature to high school boys and and  gradually she emerges over the course of this story as its quiet,though often flawed, heroine. If Bea is introspective and wraps you up in her thoughts, then Ozick's other characters are almost all as complex. Julian and Iris may be aloof and unreachable, often maddeningly so, but I read this as the detachment of youth; there are no two dimensional plot fillers in this novel.

Ozick has an eye for the detail and small disappointments which undermine a life, the decisions which once taken can then unravel the good intentions which originally lay behind them. The letters from Marvin are outrageous yet authentic; Bea's in response become careful yet intending to deceive. There is a wonderful sense of place in this novel; Ozick's descriptions of the oppressively hot and scarred streets of Paris contrast with the oppressively cold and claustrophobic experience of being trapped by a snow storm in Bea's tiny New York apartment.

I don't think I wear sensible shoes even though I probably should, but in other ways I felt myself identifying with Bea and her choices. Perhaps that's why I didn't find it strange that she decided to travel away from her contained existence for a while, towards a continent that was damaged yet full of possibilities.

Saturday 10 November 2012

Time To Let Go

I need to have a sort out of my bookshelves - I haven't got room for any more books!

Besides these shelves, we've got books spilling out all over the house - piles at the side of the bed, rows on the top of chests of drawers and so on and so on. Trouble is, even if I don't really like a book, I find it hard to let go, just in case... in case of what? I'm not going to recommend it to anyone or read it again to see if I missed something first time round, but somehow it's still impossible...

I'm not usually a hoarder (unlike my other half) - I'm pretty ruthless with clothes, dvds, furnishings and other bits and bobs. I'm a regular seller on ebay and donor to my local charity shops. But somehow books are different. Each one has its own personality and they become your friends. And you wouldn't just give up on your friends and throw them out, would you?

One answer of course is to switch to ebooks, but I've been resisting this for a while, even though I'm feeling more and more of a pariah because of it. If I travelled any distance regularly or lived in a cupboard, I definitely would invest for the convenience. But when I do take a train I find it very annoying not to be able to see what other people are reading, even if it is quite likely to be Fifty Shades of Grey. I mostly read at home and develop an emotional attachment to physical books  - their look and feel and size and weight and smell - that an ereader just can't compete with.

Thursday 8 November 2012

Uncle Tom's Cabin

This is my copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher-Stowe and I love it.

It isn't exactly an heirloom - I bought it a few years back at our village fete book stall and I'm ashamed to say I only got round to reading it a couple of months ago. I had it in my head that being an important American text about slavery, the story itself must be worthily and fustily written in 19th century prose. It's a problem I've had most of my life, as a teenager I took against English literature set texts from Jane Eyre to The Mayor of Casterbridge on principle, no matter what their (obvious in hindsight) merits, only having the limited vision to enjoy books I'd discovered for myself.

My book group isn't really formal enough to get into picking 'themes', but sometimes we choose them unconsciously. A while back we went through an American phase, starting with The Help (a far superior book than film) then moving on to Steinbeck's devastating The Grapes of Wrath and Toni Morrison's beautiful but oh so dark The Bluest Eye. So, one thing led to another, and there was my dusty old Uncle Tom's Cabin being reached down from the shelf.

This copy from Cassell and Company has the original illustrations by Jenny Nystrom-Stoopendal. I'm not usually a great fan of illustrations in books as, like most avid readers, I like to do the imagining in my head. But I warmed to these as they're so evocative, conjuring time and place much more clearly than I would've done on my own. The only problem was not looking at them as soon as each page was turned; they often give away what's happening before you get chance to read it for yourself.

Harriet Beecher-Stowe (1811-1896) was born in Conneticut and her literary career began after her marriage in 1836 to the Rev Calvin Ellis Stowe. She wrote many short stories and eventually published more than 30 books, but her first success came in 1851 with her contribution to The National Era, an anti-slavery paper, of Uncle Tom's Cabin in episode form. It was subtitled A Tale of Life among the Lowly and after some difficulty finding a publisher, the novel as we know it today was born in 1852.

Success was rapid and sales quickly spread from the United States to England, after which it was translated into many languages. It added to the debate about the abolition of slavery in America at the time of the civil war and aroused great opposition in the South. Beecher-Stowe herself met with Abraham Lincoln in 1862 and legend has it he greeted her with the words 'so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.'

We first meet Tom at the opening of the novel as the 'best hand' belonging to benevolent Mr Shelby, a gentleman of Kentucky who treats his slaves well but nevertheless is obliged to sell our eponymous hero to a slave-dealer to discharge his debts. Thus we are introduced to one of the recurring themes of this work; slaves may be humanely looked after by their current owners but are never in charge of their own destinies as their circumstances change.

The low-life slave-dealer Haley also insists on taking ownership of a young boy, Harry, whom he knows will fetch a good price. Harry's mother Eliza overhears this conversation, and rather than lose her child decides to flee with him, setting up a pursuit which threads its way through the heart of this novel. Tom, meanwhile, accepts his fate with an equanimity rooted deep in his Christian faith, even though his sale to Haley means he must leave behind his wife and children for a probable life of  hard labour on the plantations.

What I didn't realise until reading this book is that it's a fantastic episodic adventure story; in retrospect you can see how it fitted into the formula of a periodical, with chapter endings hooking you into reading on. Tom's goodness overcomes the indignities thrown at him and he strikes up a remarkable friendship with a young white girl, Eva St Clare, on a Mississippi steamer. He's bought by her family and starts a new life, all the time working towards a return to his old one in the cabin. Although promised, this is not realised, and the demise of the St Clare family sees Tom sold once again, this time unable to avoid the plantations.

Tom's trajectory is a cruel one, but Eliza's is more hopeful; she's helped on her way by many good souls from a Senator's wife to a settlement of Quakers. The plot twists and turns and some of the language and perceptions of the time do seem very quaint. Often sentimental and prone to delivering sermons, Beecher-Stowe is nevertheless engaging and tells her story with such affection for her characters that the warmth shines through every page.

From what I've read, Uncle Tom's Cabin still  divides opinion in the United States today - perhaps because it's often a set text there, many Americans resent being made to read it at school (I'm not alone after all!). But putting this aside, unless you have a heart of stone, be warned you're likely to be crying by the end - often out of sorrow and anger, but sometimes from amusement and joy.

Friday 2 November 2012

Kamchatka by Marcelo Figueras

I first heard of this novel when it was reviewed on Radio 4's A Good Read, during the rain-sodden months we laughingly refer to as the British Summer of 2012.

This Summer was memorable for many things - the Diamond Jubilee, the Olympics and Paralympics in London and not least my daughter's 'A' level results. Being in Britain felt like being at the centre of the world - but the weather was definitely forgettable, and sooner or later some form of escape was called for. A real escape was out of the question so, hell, once again it had to be literary.

Kamchatka, by Argentinian author Marcelo Figueras, was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and after listening to the unanimously glowing reviews on A Good Read I knew I had to track it down. Maybe the Argentina of the 1970s depicted in the novel wouldn't be my first choice for asylum, though - the country was ruled at that time by a military junta of generals intent on waging a dirty war against their own people. Political opponents or even those who dared criticise the regime disappeared from everyday life in their thousands, as though they had simply never existed.  

The story is seen through the eyes of a ten-year-old child; we never know his real name but he adopts the identity of Harry as his family is driven into hiding. Harry is an endearing and knowledgeable narrator who retreats more and more into a world of comic books and superheroes - some of my book group thought he was too knowledgeable for a child, but the story is being told some time later and the greater experience of the older Harry is often woven into the narrative. The title of the book Kamchatka refers to a place not in Argentina but in Russia, one of the far flung territories in Harry's beloved board game of Risk. It is also the last word that Harry's father says to him, for reasons which are revealed as the story unfolds.

You feel as though this is a very real childhood and, from what I've subsequently read of Figueras, quite a lot is indeed autobiographical. The story is made by its details - the board games, the comics, the Nesquik and his brother's precious Goofy, the many, many references to the books and films Harry loves. The relationships are beautifully observed, too, from Harry's Papa and Mama (the Rock) his little brother (the Midget) and his assortment of grandparents and various 'Uncles', to the friends he reluctantly has to leave behind and the new ones he makes along the way.

The book is sub-divided into different school periods by subject; Harry is good at school and misses his classes when forced to leave. He tries to resent his new Catholic school, but in the end he can't. But the threat to his family is always lurking there in the shadows, in the coded conversations and looks exchanged by his parents and the unexpected late night journeys and retreats.

It cannot end happily and you're drawn towards an inevitably heart-wrenching conclusion and the horror of loss. But there is lightness along the way; a heated debate over the relative merits of Superman and Batman, a toad rescue mission, The Rock's failure to become an efficient housewife and epic games of Risk. And, above all, there is the realisation of the true meaning of Kamchatka.

I would have loved to read this novel in its native tongue, but my Spanish is lamentable so I settled for Frank Wynne's admirable English translation. As soon as I finished the book, I searched for other works by Marcelo Figueras; several more have been published but Kamchatka is the only one so far to make it into English. There's a wonderful interview on Winstonsdad's blog in which Figueras mentions he would like to see La batalla del calentamiento translated next; please Frank and Atlantic Books, could you see what you can do?