Thursday 25 November 2010

Top Ten Books (and some other diversions) To Read During the Holidays

I'm not a great reader of Christmas literature, but there are some that I like to read each year, and some that I'd like to read.

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol
One that I'll be reading this year

The Night Before Christmas
One that I do read with my son every Christmas Eve, whether he wants to or not

Polar Express
A lovely story, that I remember reading, but don't quite remember the story, even though I have seen the movie more than once.

The Twelve Days of Christmas
A fabulous tale of Christmas Stalking. I must reread this this year

Matchless. A Christmas Story
One I found accidentally, and read at a non-Christmas time. I will try to re-read it this year

Six White Boomers
A book that comes with a theme song

A Child's Christmas in Wales
One that I haven't read yet, and won't get to this year,  but will one day.

Bad Santa
OK, so it's a movie, but it's pretty funny

I'm a total sucker for Christmas albums. Yes they can be unspeakably tragic (and I love those too) but they can also be glorious as well.

A Carnegie Hall Christmas Concert
Andre Previn, Wynton Marsalis, Frederica Von Stade, Kathleen Battle
Possibly my Favourite Christmas Album Ever

Christmas Carols and Motets
I only discovered the Tallis Scholars two years ago, this isn't my favourite album of theirs, but they still soar to beauty

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. I don't participate every week, only when I feel I can do it justice.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

Private Peaceful

Michael Morpurgo is a somewhat prolific English writer of childrens books. He doesn't seem to be afraid of any topic, his breadth is vast, nor any age group, as he has written picture books, early readers, junior novels and everything all the way up to complex books for adolescents and adventurous adults. He discovered his talent and aptitude for storytelling during his years as a primary school teacher in Kent as a young man. He was instrumental in setting up the office of the Children's Laureate in Britain, and then became the third author to hold that office from 2003-2005.

 I haven't read more than a handful  of his books so far, and this is the one that has touched me most. It's astonishing. The title was inspired by a name on a gravestone in Ypres, Belgium, scene of an infamous battle in World War I. Private Peaceful is an account of a single night, Tommo our young narrator is preparing to stay awake all night. We're not sure what he's waiting for, but we know that he is waiting. We learn that he's alone, "the others have left", he doesn't want to sleep, he doesn't want to eat, he wants to remember. Chapters mark off the slow passage of time, as this seemingly endless night creeps forward towards dawn. Five past ten. Twenty to eleven. Nearly quarter past eleven.

The first section of each chapter, which may only be a paragraph or two tells us of this night. The rest of the chapter fills in the wonderful backstory of Tommo growing up with his brothers Charlie and Big Joe in rural England at the start of the twentieth century. Their father dies in a logging accident at the very start of the story. Tommo and his brothers are then either left essentially to their own devices, as their mother must go to work full time (and didn't children have a lot more freedom to roam and play back then?) until they come under the watchful and disapproving eye of Grandma Wolf. Big Joe is a simple, but happy lad, brain damaged after a bout of neonatal meningitis in the pre-antibiotic era, fond of singing Oranges and Lemons, and a lover of all creatures great and small. Charlie is the big older brother, who keeps an eye out for Tommo, and who eventually wins the girl that Tommo too loves.

Gradually the two story lines converge to bring us to that fateful night where Tommo is keeping watch. The last 20-30 pages or so is devastatingly sad. I read it with tears streaming down my face- and this was my second read of this book, I initially read it a few years ago. I loved it both times. Simply written. A great structure that naturally builds suspense and culminates in a powerful climax.

(Re)read as part of my 1001 quest

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Refudiate English

Refudiate. Gee last time I checked this wasn't a word, it was a typo. Today it's the Word of the Year. Now I like neologisms as much as the next person, but can the New Oxford American Dictionary really hold onto any shred of credibility when they make what should be a typo the word of the year? Initially I thought it all seemed to stem from one misspelled tweet back in July. But oh no. She keeps using it, over and over again. (I do like the title on that piece- Refudiate English, I'm going to pinch that) She speaks it, she tweets it. Arrrgh. It's like when George W Bush kept mispronouncing nuclear. It just won't stop. But I don't know what the hell the Obama wee wee'd up thing is either. At least that had been allowed to die a natural death. Refudiate is being resuscitated when it should be dead and buried.

The Washington Post bravely reminds us that Shakespeare famously made up lots of words. And he did. He's thought to have created thousands of new words. Somehow that seems ok, whereas this somehow, well, doesn't.

There is a surprising amount of stuff to be googled on what is not infact a word in the English language. And it gets weirder by the minute it seems. There are no plans to include refudiate in the New Oxford American Dictionary, or any of the other Oxford Dictionaries. So why make it word of the year? Is it really just a publicity ploy from the dictionary people? They pick what otherwise seems to be a slow news day and whammo- they're everywhere.

It's all like when Pauline Hanson famously asked "Please explain?" when faced with the word xenophobic. Should public ignorance be rewarded with political fame? No. I don't think so.

I personally prefer vuvuzela for word of the year. Actually, even nom nom is better than refudiate. I refudiate it. Absolutely.

Would Banjo have liked a good refudiation? We'll never know.

Saturday 13 November 2010

The Literary Blog Hop

Literary Blog Hop

The Literary Blog Hop is sponsored by The Blue Bookcase and is a blog hop open to blogs that primarily feature book reviews of literary fiction, classic literature, and general literary discussion. I am doing more book reviews lately but that hasn't been the main focus of my blog for some time. YA literature may qualify. I think I tend to do more literary YA, than non-literary- or at least I hope I do. And I have done the occasional literary grown up book. So, I'm not sure that my blog does qualify really, but I hope it does as I wanted to respond to this one particularly as my lovely friend Debbie over at Readerbuzz supplied this weeks question. 

What is the most difficult literary work you've ever read? What made it so difficult?

There are a few contenders for this dubious distinction. I suffered through Patrick White's A Fringe of Leaves. But it was more boring than difficult. It was difficult to get through, difficult to keep going, and did take me three months to eventually finish as I recall. I famously hated Julian Barnes' England, England. Awful, just awful. But not really Difficult. 

The one that stands out for me as big D Difficult just now is Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway. 

What I wrote when I read it a few years ago, when I did suffer through this book:

Definitely style over substance. The writing interferes with concentration, understanding, enjoyment. Every time I put the book down, which was fairly often it took 6 to 10 pages to get back into the style when I picked it up again. Could easily have been called Septimus Warren Smith. I certainly did not get a feel for Clarissa Dalloway nearly as much as for SWS. What is the point of it all? I have no idea.

Perhaps I'm not literary enough. Perhaps I'm just thick, but it was all too much for me. And this is exactly the sort of book I don't like, where the writing obfuscates the story. And why I perpetually put off things like attempting James Joyce. Perhaps the author is writing it for themselves. Perhaps they are clever enough to understand it. But don't make me read it. My displeasure at reading Woolf (I have read To the Lighthouse as well, but didn't hate it quite so much) made a little phrase stand out for me in Julian Barnes' wonderful Flaubert's Parrot. His main character, Geoffrey Braithwaite, decrees that he is going to "save Virginia Woolf til he was dead." Sage advice. I am more than happy to join him. 

A Christmas Carol Read Along


What perfect timing. I was planning to read A Christmas Carol this year anyway.  I've been wanting to read it for a few years now. I did start a library copy a few years ago. Got stuck, had to take it back unfinished. Over the past few years I think I've seen every movie version of A Christmas Carol with my son- high budget modern spectaculars, low budget oldies, muppet versions and not. But this is the year I'm actually going to read it.

I've already scheduled it as our Christmas read for 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up. I've bought my own copy, so I can't give up. And it's a nice one. Large format, fake leather bound, illustrations by Quentin Blake- who I adore. I have to finish it. And now there's a blog read along at the exact same time. Too much synchronicity to ignore. I will be reading it. Oh yes. And then I won't have to hang my head in shame any longer at never having finished a Dickens. Sure it will be his shortest published work, but I will still have Read A Dickens. Although I do often toy with the notion that half reading Bleak House twice may actually count as Read A Dickens.

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Purple and Yellow

There's something about the combination of purple and yellow that I just love. It makes me happy  wherever it appears, and on whatever scale it happens to exist in.

Sadly I couldn't find  fields of purple and yellow side-by-side this year, but you get the idea.

More sadly my camera seems to photograph the purples a bit bluer than they really are.

Updated November 2012.
It's taken me a while to discover why, but the very clever and talented Carol Gillott at Paris Breakfast has explained why purple and yellow make such a fabulous combination. Purple and yellow sit opposite each other on the colour wheel used by artists- and so they always complement each other! Yellow will make the purple more intense. And I thought I was on to something new....

Monday 8 November 2010

Swallows and Amazons

Wholesome. That is the over-riding feeling of tone I got from Swallows and Amazons. Don't get me wrong, I liked the book, in fact, I really liked it, but it definitely evokes times gone by. More wholesome times. Times when 4 children could go camping for two weeks on an island in the middle of a lake, without their parents. So Wholesome they wear their shoes and stockings all the time, and even a tie whilst camping!

The other big words that I keep thinking of is Competent and Courteous. These kids are Competent. They can sail from a young age. Put up tents by themselves. Cook over an open fire. Catch and clean their own fish. And generally not get themselves into too much trouble, even if they think that they might have. I've been thinking about this aspect a lot. We don't seem to want competent kids any more. They are coddled and chauffered instead, their every moment planned, tracked and monitored by helicopter parents. Sadly, today we need movements like freerangekids to encourage parents to let their kids have what just a few decades ago was a normal childhood.

And the four Walker children are Imaginative. They aren't just four children camping as themselves. They have roles on board their ship, and they take these roles very seriously. Captain, First Mate, Able Seaman and Ship's Boy. And they are well versed in lore of the sea, and children's classic literature. There are several references to Robinson Crusoe, and when the children rename Mr Turner as Captain Flint, because they feel he is a retired pirate, the name they pick is a character from Treasure Island. Not a coincidence I'm sure.

The book gets off to a rather famous start. The children are pestering their mother to be able to go and stay on the island. Their mother has to write to the children's father who is away at sea, although I don't recall that we ever really know why. Is he a merchant seaman? Is he at war? Wherever he is, communication is reasonably quick, and the response is predictably famous- "
Better drowned than duffers if not duffers won't drown." Hard to imagine a modern father feeling that it was better to be drowned than be a duffer. I know that it was said in moderate jest, but still....

The action is a little slow at the start, and there is a lot of sailing terminology to get through early on. I now know the nautical meanings to simple words like thwarts and painters. This book has a wonder non-nautical vocabulary as well. It's not every book that has wonderful words such as walloper, assegais, parley and pemmican. I am completely taken with the concept of pemmican. Both the actual stuff (and how fantastic is it that there is a wedding pemmican?), and the use of it within the story. I love that the children swap names for their ordinary tinned meat, and so it becomes pemmican that they have brought with them on their journey. 

It's wonderful to see that this book still finds an appreciative audience in more modern times. There is an Arthur Ransome Society, only set up in 1990, to keep his books and the types of activites portrayed going. The boats that inspired Arthur Ransome are on display in the UK it seems, and we can peek at them on the internet through modern magic. I'm hoping to get Master Wicker to read this sometime soon. I think he'd enjoy it. I feel I would have loved it as a kid. The story is close enough to that of the first Famous Five (1942) that I had evil thoughts about Blyton possibly taking inspiration from Ransome's work. After all you only really need to add a dog to get the basic Famous Five story.