Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Five Wine Boxes of Books

Emma Norminton has come up with a great idea for a blog. It is called Five Wine Boxes of Books and in her first post she explains why. Having moved to a smaller flat she is forced to restrict herself to five wine boxes worth of books. She continues:
'Having settled in and arranged the books in their new home, I decided to commit myself to reading all of them. After all, I had chosen each one, elevating it above its many competitors, with the full intention of reading it at some point. Why not now? I would work my way through the books I already actually owned. I would not be distracted by the temptations of new books coming out, by sudden memories of books I had been meaning to find in the library, by enticing reviews and recommendations. This blog will be a record of that project.'
I confess I came upon the blog because Emma included one of my books as one of her first to review (for which I feel much honoured) but judging from her fine review of Carol Shields' Happenstance I am looking forward to what comes next even more.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Reading Pile for March

Here are some books I am hankering after reading in March.

Some have been on my shelves for years; some are more recent additions. I would like to think that is is possible I could read them all in March, but I expect that would be overambitious...

Monday, February 20, 2012

As You Like It at Theatr Clywd.

About twenty minutes from our home is a wonderful theatre called Theatr Clwyd. It is usually packed with an appreciative audience. There's no unwrapping of sweets or other irritations, and the seats are comfortable and well-raked so everyone has a good view.

We go there fairly frequently, and I can't think of anything they've produced that I haven't enjoyed. On Saturday we went to see Shakespeare's As You Like It, a play I haven't seen before, and think it is the best production I have ever seen. It was funny, very well acted (there was not one wrong note), beautifully staged and I could hear every word. Of course the script was pretty good too... It made me realise, again, how little there seems to be left to say because Shakespeare has usually expressed it perfectly already.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Smut: two unseemly stories by Alan Bennett

A sweet little surprise came in the post yesterday; no, not a Valentine from a secret admirer but a book called Smut by Alan Bennett.

I have encountered Alan Bennett twice in the flesh: the first time in the Cheltenham Literature Festival when he was interviewed on the stage in front of hundreds (and described as a 'National Treasure') and in a small cafe in Liverpool when he seemed to be with a group of students. Each time he was wearing his low key but distinctive uniform: tweeds, corduroys and woollens in beige, brown and blue. There is something soft and understated about him - and very English. He seemed equally at home in both places. He may be our National Treasure, but he also knows how to be one of us.

I think this comes through in his writing. It is set in the England I knew in my childhood, a time when all the colours now seem to be the 'touched-up' sort from bottles of tints. Even though he writes about mobile phones and the internet, this earlier time is always present. The people are holding on to their mid-twentieth century hang-ups. Homosexuality may be legal, but it is still risqué. They have sex, but they have it in the English awkward way: if they are not embarrassed, they know they ought to be. This, after all, is 'smut' and they can't admit to enjoying it. They talk archly, and the narrator, who intermittently comes to the fore makes hilarious and clever asides.

The first story, 'The Greening of Mrs Donaldson', concerns a 'fragrant' 55 year old widow who not only takes on an unusual job in a hospital, but also receives an even more unusual payment in lieu of rent. The second story 'The Shielding of Mrs Forbes' features a woman of a similar age, but this time concerns her whole family and their various secrets. To say any more than that would give away too much. They both end neatly and satisfyingly.

In the first story Alan Bennett mentions a picture by Harold Gilmour called Mrs Mounter. She was a doughty old land lady, and the portrait obviously made a big impression. Mrs Mounter is a typical Bennett character: a feisty and pretentious exterior proving to hide something of great depth - once the thin and brittle covering is cracked. I have seen the portrait on display at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool: a place where Bennett's characters - who are ostentatiously cultured - would feel at home. I remember hearing about another momentous encounter with art when Alan Bennett was a schoolboy. The art in question was a biblical scene with a half naked woman lactating so forcefully that she could feed the infant Jesus a foot or two away. 'And that,' Alan Bennett's teacher had pointed out to her ogling charges, 'is smut.'

Of course it was better when he told it. Whenever I've heard the word 'smut' I've thought of it. The two long short stories in this book called Smut are similarly entertaining and memorable.

Many thanks to Profile books for sending it to me.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Entering the Realm of the First Emperor of China (220 BC)

I am nearing the end of of my Qin Dynasty reading, and as usual the book pile has grown a little as I have been carrying out my investigations...

I started with the first few chapters (early times to Han) of the Cambridge Illustrated History edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey which gave me an excellent grounding,

I then revisited a book I had read a couple of years ago: The Dynasties of China by Bamber Gasgoigne. Just a couple of pages in that introduces the era.

I then moved on to read The First Emperor edited by Jane Portal.

This was a series of essays on various aspects of the life of the first Qin emperor, but its main focus was the archeology of his tomb near Xian. Various experts described the buildings, the scientific studies, the clothing, the social aspects and what is known about the emperor's life. There was a little overlap, but this added to the dove-tailing effect as one expert took over from the one who had gone before. The book is stunningly illustrated, and I now feel I know a lot about the contents of the emperor's tomb.

One of the authors of the essays was Michael Lowe, and I read his book: Everyday Life in Early Imperial China next.

This concentrated mainly on the Han empire that came after the Qin. The Han Empire lasted for several centuries, whereas the Qin lasted for less than two decades, so there is much more information about life under the Han than the Qin. One of the main sources of information is The Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian, and I have read the pertinent parts of this too, having discovered one night that it was available on the Kindle ( The First Emperor Selections from the Historical Records by Sima Qian, translated by Raymond Dawson).

Frances Wood's The First Emperor of China
also depends on Sima Qian's book, but she also uses the content of the Emperor's tomb to give a concise description of life in Qin China. Again, this book was very well illustrated with drawings which added a lot to my understanding of the era.

The remaining books I have dipped into: China Land of Discovery and Invention by Robert K.G. Temple - which is a catalogue of Chinese inventions, and each time I look I am amazed at the range of Chinese discoveries made so long before our own. The Anthology of Chinese Literature from early times to the 14th century by Cyril Birch

gave me a taste of various Chinese writing including extracts from Sima Qian, and Zhuangzi which enticed me to read more (the Raymond Dawson translation and also Zhuanzi's Essential Writing).

The I Ching was recommended to me by Anne S. I have so far only dipped into this too but already I see it provides an excellent insight into the mindset of China in this era.

I like to feel fully immersed in a time and approach it from as many different ways as I can find. So apart from the books I have also been watching films: Confucius

(which was full of epic battles and gave the sense of a wandering scholar), Hero (more fighting, but this time one to one and conveyed in a mystical and fantastical way)

and tonight, perhaps, The First Emperor

after which I shall come blinking back into the light of the modern day.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Frost feathers...

...on the inside of my window.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

Today I read and finished The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey, having downloaded it onto my Kindle. Unsurprisingly, given the title of this blog, many people have told me about the existence of this book ever since it came out a couple of years ago.

It is beautifully presented, even on Kindle, with lots of small drawings, and I learnt a lot of interesting facts about snails. The book is mainly about how a debilitating disease causes the writer to slow down. She turns it to her advantage: as a result of her constant vigilance she was able to make an observation no one else had ever made about snail parenting skills.

Despite her predicament, the account is almost cheerful, and reading it I learnt to appreciate, once again, the value of 'the slow'.

Friday, February 03, 2012

My Book on Kindle

I am delighted to report that my book is now available on Kindle.
I have, of course, downloaded a sample straightaway...

Thank you Seren!