I have a great fondness for pictures of women reading, so I thought I'd put one up here from time to time. Here is the first one. This one is by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, painted in 1869. It is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Saw the movie, read the book -- in that order. I enjoyed them both enormously, but that is not the order I would recommend. Why? Well, because when I came to read the book, I found it an almost unbearably painful experience, because I knew what was going to happen. Most people probably know that feeling from when they were little (or maybe even not so little) -- reading a book for the second time and hoping that this time things will work out differently. So many things happen in Atonement that seem to be the result of an arbitrary fate -- if that had not happened, this would not have happened, if this person had not done this, that person would not have experienced that, and so on. So though it was fascinating to see the flesh put on the bones of the film -- an amazingly good screenplay by Christopher Hampton, which managed to stay so true to what is in the book, while paring it down to its essentials -- I was constantly aware of what the outcome of it all was going to be. Of course you could say that this would also have happened if I had seen the film second, but I don't think it would be quite the same. The extra detail of the novel seemed to add even more intensity to the sense of dramatic, often tragic impending events. And of course the ending -- which I will not describe in case there is anyone out there who has not read or seen it -- hangs over the whole thing once you know what it is going to be. What a novel this is! I'm sure you could be really clever and talk about how it illuminates and foregrounds the process of creative writing, which it certainly does -- but it also hits the reader (or at least this reader) straight in the heart. Phew!
I picked this up in the library on Saturday as I was very curious to read it. I'd heard Nikita Lalwani being interviewed on the radio when it first came out, and knew that it had made the Booker longlist this year. It did not get to the shortlist and I am not entirely surprised, but that is not to say that it is not a good book -- far from it. I found it fascinating and thought-provoking. It brings together a number of themes that interest me very much -- gifted children, parent/child relationships, and what happens when people uproot themselves from their own culture. Add to that the fact that part of it is set in Oxford, where I used to live, and part of it in India where I love to go, and you can see why I wanted to get at it. The gifted child here is Rumi Vasi, daughter of Mahesh and Shreene. Mahesh, a lecturer in mathematics, originally came to England from India for a PhD, and stayed on to teach. Anxious to integrate, he made his young wife read the newspapers every day and tell him, in English, about world events -- and in the home, English is the language everyone must speak. Nevertheless, he is insistent on rigidly adhering to the traditional values of his native India, and to passing them on to his talented young daughter. For Rumi is a maths genius. She takes her maths O-level at 12 and her A-level at 14, and wins a place at Oxford where she starts when she is just 15. But Rumi, despite her brilliance, is an ordinary teenager interested in ordinary teenage things -- clothes, make-up, music, and of course boys. Her up-bringing has been astonishingly constrained -- hours spent in the library, no opportunity to go out with friends, little TV or other recreation. As she gets older, she starts to rebel, and the more she rebels the more strict her parents become. I don't want to spoil the outcome for anyone who has yet to read this, but I expect you can see that this is heading for disaster. Indeed, it is rather a sad book in the end, I felt, though it is often funny and entertaining along the way. It would be easy enough to demonize these parents, with their repressive rules and their seemingly blinkered world view. And yet -- they are being true to the culture and religious values of their upbringing, and are horrified by what they see as the degraded life-styles of British teenagers, the drinking, smoking, sleeping around. Interestingly, Rumi's visits to India are the high-points of her childhood, and she longs to go back. But at the same time she wants the freedom to act like other girls of her own age in the country where she was born and raised. So the novel raises difficult, probably insoluble issues. It would be interesting to read this alongside Monica Ali's Brick Lane and Hanif Kureishi's Buddha of Suburbia, both of which deal with comparable situations.
I've just finished this, the first of that pile of birthday books. They are all, as perhaps the picture showed, Virago Modern Classics. I must admit that though I have read a lot of contemporary fiction lately, it is the classics I love the best. This one was written in 1923, though it is set some years earlier. I had read a couple of Willa Cather's novels some years ago but though I remember enjoying them, I'm sure I didn't enjoy them as much as this. A Lost Lady is going to be one of those books that stays with me for a long time. Set in Nebraska, it tells the story of Marian Forrester, the young and beautiful second wife of the ageing Captain Daniel Forrester, a wealthy "railroad man". Forrester, respected by his colleagues and friends for his generosity and uprightness, in many ways stands for the old pioneering West -- a quiet and restrained figure in the novel, he is a marvellous creation, whose dignity and tolerance become clearer and clearer as he ages in declining health. But of course the central figure is Mrs Forrester herself, who is seen through the eyes of the young Neil Herbert, nephew to the local Judge. Neil first encounters Marian when he is ten years old and has an accident on the Forrester estate which results in a broken arm. As he grows up into a handsome and intelligent young man, Mrs Forrester takes a special interest in him, and he spends many happy hours at the house. But, as he does so, he begins to see aspects of Marian's life that disturb him -- in particular, he discovers her attachment to the raffish charmer Frank Ellinger. Terribly shocked and disillusioned, he nurses this knowledge in secret until one day Captain Forrester hands him some letters to post, including one from Marian to Ellinger:
"For some reason Neil felt embarrassed and tried to slip the letter quickly into his pocket. The Captain, his two canes in one hand, prevented him. He took the pale envelope again, and held it out at arm's length, regarding it.
'Mrs Forrester is a fine penman; have you ever noticed? Always was. If she made me a list of articles to get at the store, I never had to hide it. It was like a copper plate. That's exceptional in a woman, Neil'.
... Neil had often wondered how much the Captain knew. Now, as he went down the hill, he felt sure that he knew everything; more than anyone else; all there was to know about Marian Forrester".
The Captain, in truth, loves, appreciates and understands his wife in a way that Neil will never achieve -- a rather repressed and prim young man, he fails to see that her passion and energy are as much to be valued as her fragility and her sweet and elegant charm. Here's the first description of her, early in the novel:
"She stood beside his desk in her long sealskin coat and cap, a crimson scarf showing above the collar, a little brown veil with spots tied over her eyes. The veil did not at all obscure those beautiful eyes, dark and full of light, set under a low white forehead and arching eyebrows. The frosty air had brought no colour to her cheeks -- her skin always had the fragrant, crystalline whiteness of white lilacs. Mrs Forrester looked at one, and one knew she was bewitching. It was instantaneous, and it pierced the thickest hide....There could be no negative encounter, however slight, with Mrs Forrester. If she merely bowed to you, merely looked at you, it constituted a personal relation. Something about her took hold of one in a flash; one became acutely conscious of her, of her fragility and grace, of her mouth that could say so much without words; of her eyes, lovely, laughing, intimate, nearly always a little mocking".
There is so much skill in the way this novel is written, not least the way Cather uses Neil as the story's point of view: idealistic, a little prudish, he never fully understands the world he is drawn into observing. The writing is superb -- so simple and pared down but so full of meaning. Buy it and read it, please! You won't regret it.
A few weeks agoThe Book Depository had a giveaway and I was lucky enough to get one of the books they were offering to bloggers. This was the one I picked, and I picked it for no other reason than that I loved the cover. I had vaguely heard of the book but not, as far as I remembered, read anything about it and so until it arrived I actually had no idea what it was I was getting. Publishers and jacket designers do worry about covers, of course, and there is always some debate about how important they are. Well, I don't suppose I would actually part with the full price of a book just on the strength of the cover, but this experience was interesting, to say the least. Of course I could have hated it, but luckily I didn't. But if I had read anything about it and not fallen in love with the cover, I probably would not have thought it was something I would enjoy. People talk these days about reading outside their comfort zone, and to some extent this book did make me do this. It is the story of a family in Iran, in the period following the expulsion of the Shah and the setting up of a revolutionary regime. These people are wealthy, cultured, well educated and Jewish. Isaac, the father, is a jeweller, his beautiful wife Farnaz has been a journalist. Their son Parviz is in New York, studying architecture, and their young daughter Shirin goes to a good private school. One day, Isaac sets off to work as usual, and does not return. He has been incarcerated in a harsh and violent prison, accused of unspecified offences (of which in any case he is entirely innocent). The novel tells the story of the effect on each member of this family. Isaac, in prison, is made to suffer in appalling ways, and to watch people he has become to close suffer and die. The perspective of the narrative shifts between his increasingly desperate plight and the almost equally terrifying uncertainty suffered by his family on the outside, who have no idea what is happening to him or if they will ever see him again. The world they all knew has crumbled and they feel increasingly that they have no place in this new one. Parviz, in New York, feels depressed and out of place, his only friends a family of Hassidic Jews whose intensely serious religious beliefs he cannot share. Although the novel ends on a note of hope, it is extremely muted -- whatever the future holds, it will not be comparable to the comfort and safety of the lives that have been left behind.
The beautiful Dalia Sofer (don't ugly people ever write novels?) herself is Iranian, and as she, like her characters, fled Iran with her family in the 1980s it seems clear that the novel is at least partly autobiographical. But the material is skilfully and subtly crafted -- she is clearly a talent to watch.
Yes it is my birthday. And my darling daughter gave me a pile of books. They were a special deal from the wonderful Book People, and there are some real classics in there. Can't wait. And I have just been out for a slap-up meal in Manchester, at the Sanaam Indian Restaurant in Rusholme. Nice day.
Having greatly enjoyed Sophie Hannah's Little Face I wanted to read this one very much. And hooray, it was another Bookmooch find. I don't know how she does it, but Sophie Hannah has an extraordinary way of making her books so absolutely rivetting that you simply can't bear to put them down -- at least that's been my experience with both of these. The technique she uses in both of them is the same -- the chapters alternate between the voice of the female protagonist -- Naomi Jenkins in this case -- and a narrator who describes the action from the perspective of the police. I was happy to meet again the two detectives who figured in the first book -- the serious, highly intelligent, emotionally confused DC Simon Waterhouse and DS Charlie Zailer, a sharp, attractive, extremely competent woman who nourishes a not-so-secret unrequited love for Simon. Indeed the inter-relationships between these two and with the other members of their team, headed by surly Proust and including adulterous, lascivious Sellers and Gibbs, who forthcoming marriage seems to be filling him with dread, is entertaining enough on its own. But of course this is a psychological thriller, and the plot is breathtakingly challenging and mystifying. When it begins, Naomi is in a state of anguish -- her married lover, Robert Haworth, has failed to turn up at their weekly assignation and has not contacted her or answered her many calls to his mobile. Certain that something serious must have happened to him, Naomi goes to his house and meets, for the first time, his wife Juliet. This provides the first of many shocks -- Juliet is not at all as Robert had described her -- instead of a mousy, shrinking, incompetent housewife, she is clearly an intelligent, attractive and business-like woman who appears to know all about Naomi. Increasingly certain that Robert is dead or in grave danger, Naomi tries to get the police to take her story seriously, but predictably they take the view that Robert is just tired of her and wants to end the relationship. Desperate to get things moving, she changes her story, and uses a terrible secret trauma from her own past to make her accusations more convincing. An investigation begins, but what is revealed is more astonishing and dramatic than anyone could ever have predicted.
Anyone who has been paying attention round here recently will remember how I was raving about Andrew Taylor's Roth Trilogy. I really wanted to read more of Andrew Taylor's books and found several on Bookmooch. This was one of them. I'd seen it in bookshops and dithered over it but not felt sufficiently drawn to it to cough up the full price, so I was glad to get my nice free copy. This novel is a departure for Taylor, I think, as it is set in the 19th-century -- he seems to favour the mid-20th in the books I have read so far. The American boy of the title is Edgar Allen Poe, aged 10 years old. Taylor has based some of the background here on known facts of Poe's life -- he was brought up by foster parents, Mr and Mrs Allen, as his mother was dead and his father had disappeared from the scene. In fact his father, David Poe, puts in an appearance early on in the novel and proves to have quite an important part to play in the plot. Essentially, though, this is the story of a young schoolmaster, Thomas Shields, who is employed at the school where Edgar and his friend Charlie Frant are pupils. A series of dramatic events, including a murder, lead to the two boys being taken out of the school, and Shields is asked to accompany them to Charlie's family home to act as a tutor. He finds himself strongly drawn to Charlie's beautiful mother Sophie, but also is attracted to her cousin, the lively, strong-minded Flora Carswell. Intrigued and disturbed by the many mysterious and troubling events that he witnesses in London and in snow-bound Gloucestershire, Thomas sets himself the task of uncovering the identity of the murderer and unravelling the complex tangle of inter-related events that have followed it. But he is constantly foiled in his attempts and ends up homeless and jobless, struggling to survive in the harshest, poorest part of London's slums. His fortunes do finally turn -- but you'll have to read the book if you want to know more! Taylor has certainly done a great job of writing a sort of quasi Dickensian quasi Wilkie Collins-esque (is that right) Victorian thriller. There are some great characters -- the black servant Harmwell and his housekeeper mistress Mrs Kerridge, the dumb girl Mary-Ann, the benevolent lawyer Mr Rowsell, the mysterious faded beauty Mrs Johnson -- and the settings are impeccably researched. For all this, I am not raving about it quite as I was with the trilogy. But if you like this sort of thing, it is certainly a good and absorbing read.
I read A S Byatt's Possession when it first came out, I think in 1990 -- that was the year it won the Booker Prize, anyway. But I have to admit that I was not all that enthralled by it. Of course I could see how clever it was -- the contrast between the two contemporary academics and their Victorian poetical counterparts, especially in their attitudes to sex and sexuality, the gradual uncovering of the mystery of the letters, and above all Byatt's brilliant ventriloquism as she recreates those Victorian poems and correspondence. But as I read it it I found myself too aware of the cleverness of it all, and I got rather irritated by it in the end. Five years ago the novel finally made it onto the big screen, but I didn't bother to see it, for those same reasons, I suppose. But I was looking for DVDs in the local library a few days ago, spotted it on the shelf, and thought I might as well give it a go. And in fact I rather enjoyed it. Obviously there were no surprises as far as the story was concerned as the film has managed to stay pretty true to the novel as far as I remember it. I particularly liked Gwyneth Paltrow (in her English mode) and Aaron Eckhaart as the two academics -- their relationship seemed to me to be entirely convincing. As for the Victorian lovers -- well, Jeremy Northam is a fine actor and I even quite liked Jennifer Ehle, although for some reason she is not my favourite actress. But I still felt, as I had done when I read the book, that the relationship between these two great (fictional) Victorians had something contrived and, dare I say it, a bit cheesy about it.