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Nicholas Royle and David Gledhill – In Camera

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Watched, photographed, painted.

Publisher: Negative Press
Pages: 40
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-957-38283-1
First Published: 10th May 2016
Date Reviewed: 23rd April 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

Taken by her father’s instruction that she may hold his camera but never click the shutter, an East German girl living at the time of the Cold War cannot quite ignore her inclination to disobey.

In Camera is a short-story-length historical art book that pairs fiction with oil paintings. Gledhill found a photo album from the time of the Cold War, decided to create oil paintings from it, and asked Royle to compose fiction around his work. It is very much a concept book and a lovely one.

The story is told in a series of vignettes, different episodes in the girl’s life, moving in a linear fashion except for a few times when we move to a more modern time, perhaps this present day, for added context and to tie up the various tales. There is only one name given in this book – the father’s – everyone else is afforded but an initial. This helps to keep each vignette short and nicely presented – most scenes happen in the space of one page and there is a painting to accompany each. It also suits the time period, the initials conforming to the idea of filing, tracking, shorthand, secret synonyms.

It’s all about surveillance in the Cold War, but it’s subtle. This is a book wherein there is a lot packed into a mere handful of pages, much to learn and discover lying under the surface. Again, it suits. The camera at the centre of the story means that the girl is effectively taking records of things that we can assume could be used as evidence; it’s an innocent pastime with an uncanny significance. Spying is the name of the day – presuming the father knows about the photography, which we can expect as she appears young and doesn’t understand that there’s a film inside to show that someone’s been using the camera, he doesn’t so much as mention it – one could say the borrowing is condoned.

Everything layered is rounded off by the simple day-to-day of the girl’s life, her games with her brother and her life as an adult wherein the camera is in full use. We hear about the modern efforts to find out what was noted about people, gaining knowledge – the reader gaining knowledge – from another perspective.

The only thing not in the book’s favour is the size of the prints of the paintings; they are often very small and because of Gledhill’s photographic-like talent, end up looking more like actual photographs than paintings, which makes sense in a way but does negatively impact the point of them.

In Camera is a wonderfully imagined piece of writing, and size aside, the paintings are lovely. If you like the idea of combining art and literature, you’ll like this book. If you like books with many layers, subtle stories that appear simple but have much more behind them, you’ll like this book. A lot.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Reading Life: 4th May 2016

A photograph of the site of the Curious Arts Festival

As much as I like using flowers as the visual theme of these posts, I can’t say I’ve all that many photographs left so I welcomed the chance to change it up a bit this time. The photo above is of last year’s Curious Arts Festival which I’ll be speaking about in a moment.

I’m still reading Far From The Madding Crowd; about half-way through now. I have come to terms with the fact that it isn’t (wasn’t? considering I’m half-way) going to be the glorious revelation I’d hoped when I first decided to read it – whilst my fifteen year old self may not have enjoyed it due to it being classwork and something she couldn’t relate to at that age and not having yet studied the period enough, I didn’t expect I would feel a similar boredom, if caused by different factors, this time. I’d thought I would love it; I don’t know why – I suppose there was something in my subconscious that paired ‘classic’ with ‘older now’ and with my teacher’s stopping the video cassette of the old film and saying “look at his eyes, girls!” which continues to be one of the very few things I remember verbatim from those years. (I now realise she was speaking of Troy as I vaguely remember a dark-haired man in a red military jacket, all 70s or 80s hair and that screen distortion that came with pausing videos.)

I digress. I don’t hate it by any means – I love Hardy’s clever independent woman moments wherein an appearance from Destiny’s Child wouldn’t go amiss, and I like his use of gender stereotypes and even the way he feels a need to explain obvious things, but the endless description of the country and night sky I could do without. It’s not Dickens – it’s not wordy – it’s just a bit dull. Yes, Hardy, I get it – please move on. This said, as I near 65% (I stopped reading my physical version because seeing the number of pages put me off) it’s starting to look up. There’s potential in it, I think, to get really good.

So Hardy’s book is my long-term read; I’m reading a couple of chapters a day, sometimes more if they’re short, full of dialogue, and unaccented (not often, then) and in the meantime I’ve been getting through the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist and whatever takes my fancy. I’ve put A Little Life on the sidelines until I finish Hardy because two long reads, albeit I know Yanagihara is a more compelling read for me, is a bit much. I’ve still the Thackeray and Tender Is The Night unfinished on my 2016 list which is giving me enough of a false sense of having read a good number of books; I don’t need to up that count.

A photograph of the Curious Arts Festival

Moving away from books themselves I’m contemplating the Curious Arts Festival. It’s a smaller festival, less known, hosted at Pylewell Park in the New Forest. This year it’s from 22-24th July and if you go for the whole weekend you can take a tent and pitch it in the grounds; you’re right there, no need to travel during the festival itself. Pitching is free once you’ve a ticket but you can rent a more luxury tent if you wish. It promises to be a weekend of literature, music, theatre, and good food, and there are plenty activities for children, too.

Given it’s not for a few months yet, the list of people confirmed is still growing; at present highlights include Carol Ann Duffy, Deborah Moggach, S J Parris, Renée Knight, Meg Rosoff, Joanna Cannon, and S J Watson.

Part of the selling point for it is surely the location – to paraphrase Marks And Spencer’s adverts (“this is not just chocolate, this is Marks And Spencer’s chocolate”, repeat for any other number of items) this is not just the New Forest, this is an estate in the New Forest, and beautiful, too.

I’ve been watching TV recently; this happens rarely at the moment – there are too many books to read. I pulled a muscle which caused me pain for a good while and for a few days could do nothing but sit still. A few years ago – well, 2010, I suppose, when it was first shown – I’d earmarked The Indian Doctor as something I wanted to watch and then went and missed it. Anyway, it was repeated on iplayer. I liked it but it was a bit cringey at times and the Indian drumming used as incidental music was a bit too, ‘don’t forget, there are Indians in Wales’, making the situation be a bit too exotic. Other than that I watched Maigret and Being The Brontës. The latter was fair, the former I thought very good. A lot of people have said Rowan Atkinson’s Maigret isn’t sprightly enough, not humorous enough, but be that as it may I thought it was a good programme and dealt with the source material well.

No Star Wars comment from me today; I’m sure you’ve heard it enough.

How is your reading going?

 
April 2016 Reading Round-Up

This month has been about events, also birthdays. And sunshine – we had a day of lovely spring heat and another during which I got a little burned. I’ve become acquainted with some fantastic books, most that I’ve shared with you through event posts, and others that I’m looking forward to sharing with you. I got a couple of great reads from the charity shop, too, in particular a hardback copy of Susanna Kearsley’s The Firebird; well timed because I’d just finished my first book of hers. It’s also been about the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist.

The Books
Non-Fiction

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Amy Liptrot: The Outrun – Liptrot’s journey from alcoholic to sobriety which happens mostly back at home in the Orkney isles, as opposed to London, where she helps her father on his farm, takes long walks, watches for birds for conservation, and goes swimming in the sea in all weathers. Solid; good.

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Cathy Rentzenbrink: The Last Act Of Love – The story of the event and aftermath of the author’s brother’s accident as a victim of a hit-and-run. A superb book.

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Suzanne O’Sullivan: It’s All In Your Head – A doctor’s story of her patients who have psychosomatic illness, the history of the diagnosis, and her hopes for change. Good, if a little too ‘are you with me!’ at the end.

Fiction

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Alex Pheby: Playthings – Based on the life of a turn-of-the-20th-century German judge, this is a fictional account to follow on from the factual memoir the man wrote of his Schizophrenia.

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Holly Black: The Darkest Part of The Forest – When the boy who has been sleeping for generations disappears, things start to go wrong. Not the best summary; it’s an okay book.

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Marie-Sabine Roger: Soft In The Head – A man who speaks of his lack of education and poor childhood meets an old woman in the park and they strike up a friendship over pigeons, books, and learning. Utterly fantastic, there are so many different themes to this book and they’re all handled excellently; and it’s a book wherein I heard the character in my head rather than my usual ‘voice’ – so well written and translated.

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Mavis Cheek: Dog Days – Patsy’s divorced her measly husband and is looking forward to being single and living with her daughter, hopefully staying far away from her friend’s attempts to match-make. An easy, escapist read that’s slightly dated but very honest in its look at divorce.

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Nicholas Royle and David Gledhill: In Camera – During the Cold War an East German girl pinches her father’s camera and take photographs of her family and home life. A great short story with many layers, matching fiction to artwork.

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Susanna Kearsley: Mariana – Julia buys the house she always dreamed of living in and finds herself slipping backwards in time. Pretty awesome.

Finally a month in which I read a lot. I took The Last Act Of Love with me everywhere. It’s an excellent book, though it seems wrong to say so. Mariana was a good runner-up, a few niggles, but I enjoyed it a lot, and In Camera was pretty fab – I loved the way the girl’s narration was surface dressing to Royle’s underlying story. And Soft In The Head I highly recommend; look out for it in June. It’s been a good reading month – the only book I wasn’t keen on was the Holly Black. All the others I enjoyed a fair to a great amount.

Quotation Report

None this time.

Here’s hoping the trees gain more leaves by the end of spring… it still looks wintry here.

How was your April?

 
World Book Night 2016

A photograph of Cathy Rentzenbrink, Dreda Say Mitchell, Holly Bourne, Matt Haig, Sathnam Sanghera, and Stephanie Merritt (S J Parris)

“I think I’m on a list,” I said to the woman on the door. It was one of my first times on a list for a public event and I wanted to notify her in case the ticket desk wasn’t the one I’d need, without sounding pretentious. Yes, I was over-thinking it.

Here we were at the British Library Conference Centre for the World Book Night gala event. It was pretty packed.

Roly Keating, who I expect finds lots of people asking if he knows of the pop star with the very similar name, welcomed us to the event. He’s the Chief Executive of the Library and told us, in reference to the whole Shakespeare celebration (it’s the 400th anniversary of the Bard, his birthday and death day being the same date) “we’re going to party like it’s 1616″.

Not straight away, though – Sue Wilkinson, Chief Executive of The Reading Agency, introduced us to the night’s proceedings and to the panel of authors about to take to the stage. She spoke of the charity and of reading in general, the mission of the Agency. “Libraries aid us all our lives… we believe everything changes when you read.”

It was the goal of those who created World Book Night to get thousands of people who’d never read a book before to read one then, to be inspired and to pass their book on to another who could also benefit. Research shows World Book Night does get people reading: 85% of the 5000 surveyed, who’d never read before, said they’d kept on reading afterwards.

The panel consisted of Cathy Rentzenbrink as chair, Dreda Say Mitchell, Holly Bourne, Matt Haig, Sathnam Sanghera, and S J Parris. Dreda gave a brief introduction to east London, her home, saying how it doesn’t fit the stereotype, that it’s full of culture. There weren’t books in her childhood home because there didn’t need to be – there were plenty of good libraries, an art gallery, and Dreda and her siblings would visit them all, their parents not always in the know. Her first favourite books were the Topsy And Tim series and the scratch and sniff books of yore.

Dreda does a lot of prison work. 50% of people in prison have poor literacy skills. “Reading opens doors for you… if only so much [money] was spent on reading,” she said.

For Holly, reading helped make sense of life. She called it both an escape and a hallucinogenic drug. She didn’t see how hard life was where she grew up because her face was always in a book. Her love for reading dipped in secondary school due to the requirement for exams on things she loved. Her first poem, the first she liked, was a Philip Larkin – she liked the use of the F word. “You can’t find poetry,” she said of her late development in it, “poetry has to find you“.

Matt remembers reading tractor catalogues in his younger years; he had dreams of working with them. Similarly to Holly he said, “school distanced me from that pure joy for a while”. He came back to books at 13, reading The Outsiders. Then, suffering from depression and anxiety, he got back to his childhood favourites, minus the tractor catalogue. He said reading had been his only escape from himself. “Stories are about change,” he said. The good thing about his issues, he jested, particularly the agoraphobia, was that it narrowed down his career options.

Sathnam’s father was illiterate but took his children to the library. As a child the author became obsessed by the idea of owning a book and bought a nice copy of the collective works of George Orwell. He was too young to understand it but enjoyed pretending he’d read it when his cousins came from miles away to see it. He still hasn’t read it.

In regards to his own work: “If your parents don’t read books you can write anything you want about them”. Much laughter. Most people he knows just want to know when there’ll be a TV adaptation. Ending on an ironic note, he told us he’d failed the audition for his own audiobook.

S J Parris – Stephanie Merritt – grew up in a house full of books because neither parent had had books as children. She was very young when she picked up her first non-picture book, one of The Famous Five, and thought the chapters inferred it was a short story collection. The book she read to us from, A Christmas Carol, she first attempted aged 10.

A photograph of the British Library

We moved on to Shakespeare. Stephanie said she’d had a great English teacher who had made a bet with her to read the Bard’s complete works by the end of her GCSEs. She read most of them. “A bad adaptation is the worst thing in the world, a good one the best,” said Sathnam. Teachers need to be aware that it’s hard for kids, he said, they need to break the text up. Matt spoke of how there’s wisdom in Othello and Hamlet about mental health – it’s as though Shakespeare invented Cognitive Behavioural Therapy; it’s hard to read the plays and not see the writer’s depression.

Holly’s introduction was via Keanu Reeves – she didn’t need to understand it. Matt mentioned the Leonard Di Caprio Romeo And Juliet – yes, she liked that, too. School put her off but she’s interested again; she spoke of Shakespeare being 400 years ahead of his time in the way he approached gender, treated women, and said he showed there was more to women than was thought at the time. She loved that he invented the words ‘eyeball’ and ‘lonely’. What did we do without the word ‘lonely’?

Dreda said what by now we were all thinking – Shakespeare’s taught badly. She had a teacher who emphasised performance and spoke of how her class had been enthralled by Judi Dench saying ‘unsex me now’. If you get a good production you can really draw kids in, she said. He’s writing about things we like, what we watch on TV.

What books would the authors give away? Dreda chose The Colour Purple, Holly To Kill A Mockingbird, Matt The Outsiders and The Cosmos. Cathy said she’d give away Matt’s book and has done previously, saying it illustrates how reading makes you feel less alone.

After this we all went into the main lobby of the library, joining many others, to view the exhibitions on Shakespeare through the ages. There were primary sources involved, so no photographs, but along with the original texts there was Vivian Leigh’s Lady Macbeth costume, and a room dedicated to black actors playing Othello (the first in Britain acted in 1925… it’s not like Othello was written to be a black man, after all…). There was also the last draft of one of Angela Carter’s books.

Here’s a grainy photo of Sir Trevor Macdonald. I was too busy trying to take it to really listen…

A photograph of Sir Trevor Macdonald

I forgot that June Brown was Dot Cotton from Eastenders so I missed half her set. She was speaking of her Shakespeare plays, how she’d been taught to keep thinking to rehearsals and not think when performing. She said she’d speak all night if she could and that she’d once interpreted a spotlight on her as encouragement to go on when it was actually a hint for her to stop talking. Here a glass broke somewhere downstairs in the bar area and she shouted at them to stop making so much noise when she was on stage. I remember seeing her drunk on Graham Norton’s show alongside Lady Gaga and thought she was funny; seems she’s funny all the time. I suppose one has to be when they work on Eastenders…

Having never done anything for World Book Night before because I always miss the date, it was a super first innings. Thank you, Alice, for inviting me.

What did you do on World Book Night? (I’m assuming most of you were very appropriately Readathoning!)

 
Elizabeth Gaskell – Cranford

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No man’s land, gender form.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1851-1853
Date Reviewed: 8th April 2016
Rating: 3.5/5

Our narrator – whose name we will learn in time (this is no Du Maurier) – takes trips to the town of Cranford periodically and informs us of the goings on. Most of the residents are women – men tend to disappear – and a certain propriety functions. You’ve people like Deborah – faithful to the works of Samuel Johnson – and you’ve the richest woman, Mrs Jamieson, who struggles somewhat to retain feelings of wealth in a town where money never grows on trees.

Cranford is a novella, one of three that looks at the fictional town; it deals with many different subjects. Akin to a long-running soap opera in terms of its lack of action and overall excitement, the book is more an escape and ripe for pleasant Sunday afternoons.

This said there are two ‘sides’ to Cranford. Certainly the surface dressing and the majority of the content is frivolous – we could well imagine people in Gaskell’s time sitting down to the most recent chapter (the work was first published as a serial) but there is a second side akin to Gaskell’s work in North And South. It may take a while for the side – the social commentary – to become apparent but to put it simply, the book includes a small-scale study of poverty. One can assume Gaskell was wanting more contemplation for her readers, in fact one could assume she was wanting to say something without jeopardising their interest – she looks at poverty in general and how other people work to help each other, whilst simultaneously never implying anyone lacks money. Needless to say the book can be read in a variety of ways; Gaskell seems to want you take away what you will.

Away from this there’s little to comment on in depth. The book is all about its humour – every now and then you may laugh out loud but the emphasis is on subtlety. Here, again, Gaskell doesn’t want to alienate her serial readers – the characters are women and that’s great, but we’ll have some fun at the expense of them on occasion. The male characters, likely deliberately, are all good guys, men that can match the women in wit and personality and thus stay in town.

The writing is strictly okay; you can see why, perhaps, Gaskell is not considered on a level with her friends Charlotte Brontë and Charles Dickens, but it does the job.

That this review is so short should clue you in to what you can expect from Cranford – fun, yes, and escapism, but a lot of average moments and a sense of convenience. Reading the book is like watching Neighbours, just without the divorces and deaths. It’s something to read whilst you’re deciding what to read.

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