Saturday, July 19, 2014

it's a long way down

I have been absent for a while - probably because I have not been reading particularly often, unless you count that we read Little Women for book club in June, and I found it overwhelmingly disappointing.  I had read it when I was a child - once - and had watched the movie - once - and couldn't remember much about it when we agreed it could be fun to read it again.  It was not.  What a painful book.  I have to admit I didn't actually finish because I just found myself thinking I could be spending my time in so many different, more valuable ways...

This month's book club selection was much better:

Nick Hornby's A Long Way Down.

I've actually read this one before, but knew that I would want to read it again.

I see that a movie has recently been released and I hope that it is good, but I suspect it will Hollywood-ize this to an extent that misses Nick Hornby's graceful and careful handling of difficult subject matter.  This novel is well and truly a comedic novel, but it grapples with suicide with more empathy and realism than anything else I have ever read - at least, it feels that way to me. 

Four strangers meet on a London rooftop on New Year's Eve, intending to throw themselves off.  This is the story of their unlikely friendship - a friendship based on the fact that they are the only people they know who understand what it's like not to want to live anymore.  Apart from that, they are alien to each other - poles apart.

The two main things I admire about this book are that:

  • Each of the main characters has a unique and distinctive voice, and the author inhabits them equally effectively.  It's not often that you see an author manage to narrate equally successfully through such different characters. 
    Even though I finished reading the book a couple of weeks ago, I still think of the characters and am absorbed in their stories.  I don't think of the mechanics of the prose or the plotline, but the characters are real to me.  That is what makes a good novel.
  • I don't think the novel sentimentalizes or sugar-coats the issues.  It doesn't do away with the realities facing each of the characters, or suggest that life is going to become, miraculously, easy.  Somehow, nonetheless, it demonstrates the possibility of hope.  I really think that Nick Hornby has done a service to humankind in writing it.  I hope that it has helped people.

Highly recommended.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Love in a Cold Climate

I have seen a movie version of this book already - it wasn't bad, and so when I saw this book in the cheap-as-chips Penguin edition I decided to get it.

It has been sitting on my bedside table for a few months now, waiting, but now I am on holiday - in a bach in a beachy location with plenty of time on my hands.  Due to Easter falling one week before Anzac Day, I've taken three days leave and have ten solid days away from work! ... Anyway, the point is, I have finally picked the book up and read it from cover to cover in less than 24 hours.

The story is narrated by Fanny, a cousin/friend and onlooker on several families. She has grown up with several other English girls of the upper classes, all of whom are falling in and out of love. Along comes the beautiful Polly, home from India with her father the Viceroy and her frightening mother, and she doesn't seem interested in falling in love.

I give it a solid three stars. It was a good read with some great characters and there were some moments of real satirical genius. I particularly liked Uncle Matthew and his memories of the Boer War:

"Four days in a bullock wagon," he used to tell us, "a hole as big as your fist in my stomach, and maggoty! Happiest time of my life. The only thing was one got rather tired of the taste of mutton after a bit, no beef in that campaign, you know."

Then there's the splendid and ridiculous Cecil:

"Won't you take off your spectacles?" said Lady Montdore. "I should like to see your eyes."
"Later, dear Lady Montdore, later. When my dreadful, paralysing shyness (a disease with me) has quite worn off."

I also really liked the way it ended - it was quite funny. But I won't give away any spoilers.

It wasn't the best book ever, all the same. Perhaps it was the writing - it was fine, but not excellent. And I guess the reputation this book has for social satire made me expect a sort of 20th century Austen but it's not quite as biting as I had hoped.

So, all in all, a good-ish book. 

Now - back to the holiday! I've got Katherine Mansfield's short stories sitting waiting for me....

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

the alchemist

It's Book Club this Friday.  We meet in a cafĂ©, buy drinks, and talk about books.

On the basis of another member's recommendation, this month we've read The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho.  Hence this review.

I've got at least one good thing to say about it.  It's short.

Other than that, I'm going to have trouble being nice, because I found this one of the more painful books I've ever forced myself through.  The writer's sentimental and slightly vain introduction didn't help, but I tried to keep an open mind as I started reading the story...

I guess I can also be slightly positive in that the book wasn't difficult to read.  It wasn't well-written, but it was at least readable.  For a while, I was interested in what would happen to the main character, an unnamed 'boy' who starts as a shepherd in Spain and who travels across North Africa in pursuit of his "Personal Legend" (BLERGH).  I guess the first two thirds are slightly plot-driven and so more tolerable.

Then you get to the bit where the boy is communing with the desert and discovering the Soul of the World and listening to his heart and becoming friends with his heart and being congratulated by an alchemist for pursuing his Personal Legend and learning that it is we who nourish the Soul of the World, et cetera, et cetera.  I just can't write any more because it's too painful.  GAH.

The Alchemist is deeply depressing, as yet another example of a terrible book which has somehow made its author famous and rich.  One star from me - and that's being generous.

At least I've got out the worst of my spleen.  Now I have to work on being polite about the book on Friday.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

last ride

I have had an exceptionally busy few weeks.  And I have not been reading much, unfortunately.

But I did get a chance to watch an Australian film from 2009 called Last Ride, which was pretty much forced on me by a colleague who said he knows that I don't like being forced to read or watch things but that in this case the movie was so good that he was not giving me a choice.

Last Ride stars Hugo Weaving and a kid called Tom Russell, who play a father (Kev) and son (Chook).  There are a few other incidental characters here and there but the film is very much focused around this relationship.  The film is based on a book called 'The Last Ride', by Denise Young.

The film begins in the early hours of the morning, with Chook waking, in the car, somewhere in rural Australia.  He and his father are on the run.  It will take us some time to find out what from, and why.

It is a really beautiful movie - wonderfully filmed, well conceived, excellently acted, well paced and plotted.  It had all the best elements of fiction going for it, but it also gave me the impression that it was entirely real.  The two main actors (and indeed everyone else touched by the storyline) were really superb - nothing made me think 'what skill, what soulful acting' because I was far too busy being engrossed in their reality.  They were heart-breakingly three-dimensional and human.

Characterisation, in fact, is what makes this film sing.  No one is a monster, but everyone is flawed and broken.  In the midst of all this brokenness, relationships are fragile and yet resilient.  I suppose it is a tragic story.  I know that I couldn't sleep for hours after watching it, just lying in bed thinking about those characters.

I highly recommend this movie.  Normally I'm reluctant to watch "tragedies" because I feel manipulated by them.  In this case, there was nothing manipulative about the way this film was put together.  It's just a superb piece of story-telling which will stay with you for a long time.  Five stars from me.

If you need any further convincing - see Roger Ebert's review here.

Monday, March 3, 2014

what I did on my holidays (part the third)

On my final full day in England, I got up and drove to Winchester, Hampshire.

This is not my own photo, because for some reason I didn't take one from outside of the cathedral which is basically the central point of Winchester:

Image via Panoramio
 It didn't really look like that on the day, being December in the northern hemisphere, and in England no less - but it did look rather beautiful.  It happened to be a day of Christmas markets!

Christmas markets are a happy thing.

What I was really there to see, though, was the interior.

Winchester Cathedral
 In particular...

The slightly weird thing about visiting Jane Austen's grave is that it's just another slab in the floor which you're clearly not expected to refrain from walking over.  In this photo, you can even see the leg of one of the cathedral chairs placed artistically (or maybe not so artistically) over the gravestone.

Never mind.  Here was the gravestone, and I am thankful that it still exists, unlike so many of the things which used to prove she existed and now are gone forever.  Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think we are extremely lucky to have as much as this grave, because she certainly wasn't drastically famous when she died, and we probably owe our luck to the fact that she had a rich brother.

It wasn't until later that they installed a stained glass window for her in the same cathedral (of which I got no good photos), and this gold thing:

From Winchester, it was off to the tiny town of Chawton, where Jane Austen lived for the last eight years of her life.  This house was a part of her rich brother's estate - he had been adopted by his aunt and uncle when he was small, as they could have no children of their own, and his own parents recognised it was a good opportunity for him.  In fact, his riches meant that Jane, her sister Cassandra and her mother did not have to have a drastic lifestyle change after the death of her father.

The Austen women and a family friend, also a single woman, lived in this red brick house in Chawton:

Jane used to sit in the parlour, writing at this very table, and hiding her sheets of paper under a blotter when people entered for visits:

This was the place she edited Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey before they were published.  This was the place she wrote Emma, Mansfield Park and Persuasion.

She and Cassandra shared a room upstairs, looking out over the back of the house:

It was absolutely lovely to visit this place.  They had a few items of real interest, like the writing desk, although most items were objects of a similar kind to what the Austen family might have had in their home.  Walking round someone's house, though, you get a sense of the way they lived, and can visualise their lifestyle in a new and interesting way...  I found it quite moving and I also found myself thinking extremely conceited thoughts like "We would have been best friends!"  Slightly wishful thinking but that was the direction my thoughts went in.

This really was a wonderful note to finish my time in England on.  (If I were being really honest I would admit that I actually finished my time in England in the nearby town of Basingstoke and then flew out of London Stansted, neither of which is in any way romantic or exciting, but I'm going to pretend I ceased to be in England when I left Chawton.)

Sunday, March 2, 2014

"Would you like an adventure now...

... or shall we have our tea first?"

Is what Peter Pan said to Wendy, John and Michael.

And our latest (26th!!!) issue of Halfway Down the Stairs is out now, themed "Adventure".

 We really hope you like it.

If you are something of a wordsmith, you might like to consider submitting some work to us.  Submission guidelines are here.  Our next issue (June 2014) is themed "Possession" - should be interesting seeing what comes our way!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

novel or fanfiction?

I should have learnt my lesson last time I hunted down a continuation to Jane Austen's unfinished novel The Watsons.

And then Book Depository recommended this for me... Joan Aiken's 'completion' of Jane Austen's fragment: The Watsons & Emma Watson.  Of course I had to have it.

The last time I tried John Coates' continuation I was disappointed, even though it wasn't a bad book, simply because I loved the original fragment so much that it would be hard for anyone else to satisfactorily complete it.  But I wondered if maybe this would be better.

Unsurprisingly, it wasn't... not really.  Again, it wasn't a bad book.  It was fairly readable.  It was somewhat higher quality than most of the fanfiction I used to obsessively read.

But it certainly wasn't Jane Austen.

It would be asking a lot to expect that.  Nevertheless, it's sad.  I actually think the author here bit off more than she could chew - normally, with fanfiction, you can start a new story, featuring a new perspective, and so the comparison is not so transparent.  In this case, the reader has to read Jane Austen's unfinished text right at the beginning, and the new part needs to seamlessly flow on from that.  It did not.

The main problems:
  • Characterisation - The characters we had already met changed slightly, and subtly modernised.  New characters introduced into the story were pretty two-dimensional.
  • Odd and unnecessary plot twists - Aiken chose to kill off some critical characters - Jane Austen herself indicated to her sister that one character would have died if she had finished the book - but the others, I think, were completely unnecessary, and it just didn't feel like the sort of decision Austen would have made for the plot.
  • How the book ended - The ending raced to its conclusion in an oddly unsatisfying way.  I also think that the author should have paid slightly more attention to Austen's own intentions for the book.  I get that you have to do what works for the story as you actually write it, but the inspiration for this book did not belong to Joan Aiken, and yet she chose to send the book in a different direction than Austen said she would have.
  • Period detail overkill - The author was way too keen to include period detail, as if to say, "look, look, I've done my research!"  It was all detail that I can't see Austen getting into - she didn't need to include it because her readers would have understood.  I guess your opinion on this might differ based on your expectations of the book - I expected to see a "completion" of Jane Austen's manuscript, not a new book directed at modern readers.

Having said all that... the book's not bad.  It's a pretty good effort at fanfiction, in my opinion, as fanfiction attempts go.  But it's quite a big claim to make - that you are "completing" a Jane Austen novel - and I'm afraid I was consequently slightly more judgmental than I might otherwise have been.  Two stars from me.