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Reading Life: 17th October 2018

A photograph of an open gate in a stone wall, surrounded by autumn leaves, part of the Hever Castle mock-Roman gardens

Reading a Christmas book in October has been an experience, especially considering the current weather. It’s not been particularly cold and there have been a lot of sunny days; of course October isn’t the correct month for seasonal reading anyway, but the fact it’s been so mild has made it actively feel unusual. Has it put me in a Christmasy mood? No, but it’s given me a gentle reminder of the atmosphere, not that one was needed because I’m planning for Christmas in other ways and have had In Dulci Jublio in my head for several days. It’s just as well there aren’t any lyrics and it’s difficult to hum.

Book cover

The book was Jenny Colgan’s Christmas At Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop; I finished it yesterday evening but will be leaving the review until December. It was very seasonal despite its relative lack of time spent on the event itself – there was a lot of plot set during Advent but the Christmas days were dealt with swiftly, using a few romantic notions to make it more cosy. It may well be even better if read in December but to be honest I don’t think it particularly matters; the return dates stamped on the library issue paper at the front of the copy I read backs this up – there have been 5 other borrows (the book was published in 2013) but none have been at Christmas. In fact my late September issuing is the latest of the lot.

Having finished This Duchess Of Mine, book #5 in the Desperate Duchesses series, I’m looking at reading the last book, A Duke Of Her Own. I’m usually one to procrastinate over finishing a series I’ve enjoyed but as I didn’t like This Duchess Of Mine as much as most of the others (I wasn’t keen on book #2, An Affair Before Christmas, but it was for different reasons) I kind of want to get back to a better story; the plot of A Duke Of Her Own sounds more promising, seeming to be more focused on the ‘duke’ than the ‘duchess’, which may be an interesting change.

Something I did enjoy about book #5, however, was the information about medical advances, mostly factual. James included the basic story of Dr William Withering’s discovery of foxglove as a cure (or partial cure, she didn’t go into it) for heart problems. In the past it was proffered that this came about when Withering discovered a woman pharmacist giving people a mixture of various plants that seemed to work; Withering conducted a process of elimination to find out the effective active ingredient and then the right dosage. In reality, and whilst James included this anecdote, it has been debunked1 – it’s more likely to have been a family recipe. It seems James was keen to include Withering particularly as the discovery was hijacked by Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus, who published a paper with but a footnote about the doctor. The two had been acquainted earlier before Darwin’s need for a second opinion on a patient, resulting in the relationship breaking down. Withering has since been established as the discoverer of foxglove.

Book cover

As well as this, James made far more than a passing reference to the 1700s usage of old war hulks as prisoner ships on the Thames. Whilst the riots she wrote in weren’t so real – she switched locations and reasons – the prison ships of the time were based on history. I’m not sure what keywords to look for in order to find out much about this, but did find this snippet on Wikipedia.

In non-reading but still bookish news, I’m slowly writing the draft of a blog post I’ve been loitering around for a few years, ever since I read The Awakening. I’m not sure why I never finished the post at the time but recent reading brought in another possibility for it and suddenly the basic idea I had had has taken extra shape. I’ve been doing a lot of research and reading around the subject, including looking at the origins of the rediscovery of Chopin’s work in general2. I’m not sure when I’ll have finished the post as I’ve added a lot of extra work into it and became a bit too enthusiastic about research which means lots of opinions to par down, but it’s been quite fun.

Whilst I’ve not read as many books as I was hoping I would have by this time, I have watched a lot of films and am currently in a situation that rarely happens – I’ve not got any books lingering on my ‘currently reading’ list except the eternal Vanity Fair. It’s making me want to pick my next few reads very carefully so that I keep it up.

A photograph of a scene from Wicked

Photo copyright © 2013/14 London Company, photo by Matt Crockett.

And as a sort of literary aside, because I found out yesterday it is based on a book, I saw the latest touring production of Wicked. I didn’t think much of the plot, but the set design, and the singing in itself, were fantastic. It’s in Southampton for the next week before moving on to Wales and Manchester.

Footnotes

1 Kirkler (1985) says: “In republishing a plate suggesting a discussion between Withering and “Mother Hutton,” presumably a rural herbalist, in which she appeared to give him the “family receipt,” Willius and Keys (7) did, however, acknowledge that this was an imaginary depiction. There is no need to improve on the account given by the author; town and country were then still much intertwined, and the crucial aspect is surely Withering’s botanical expertise.” (p. 5A) [Willius and Keys published their piece in the 1940s.]
2 It happened in the 1960s – the main facts passed around have to do with Per Seyersted, a Professor of American Literature, who found out about Chopin and reintroduced her work to the literary scene in 1969. However Chopin had been discovered already, in the 50s, by a Frenchman, Cyrille Arnavon, who translated the 1899 English book into French, calling it, simply, Edna. Arnavon wrote an essay to introduce the book, saying that it should be more well-known and studied.

Online References

Krikler, Dennis (1985) The foxglove, “the old woman from Shropshire” and Willam Withering, Journal Of American College Of Cardiology, Vol. 5, Issue 5, Supplement 1, pp3A-9A

 
On The Concept Of A Book For Someone Who Doesn’t Like Reading: An Argument Against

A photograph of a copy of Jane Eyre with a lock and chain around it

The photograph above was taken by Joanna Paterson.

I don’t remember ever feeling particularly against the idea of ‘a book for someone who doesn’t like reading’ – to use the phrase that first gave me this post idea, but thinking about it recently, I was a bit ill at ease, and although I’m still to make up my mind on the whole thing, I wanted to explore it from this angle of unease.

There are of course good goals to be found in getting non-readers to read, goals such as having children read more, which leads both to their own enjoyment in a new hobby and inevitable education benefits. There’s also the occasional – I’m guessing here, as I’ve not seen it happen – adult convert to reading, as well as people who fear reading for various reasons but might take it up with support.

But the idea itself, of getting someone who doesn’t like reading to do so seems a bit passive aggressive, a bit manipulative. We all have our interests and passions and I don’t think there’s ever an age at which we’re not susceptible to becoming a preacher of something we love, something that another may not feel similarly for. But, or especially in this case, if the person is an adult, you have to respect their interests are different.

I’d say that if someone says categorically that they don’t like reading, you’re not going to find a book for them unless, perhaps, they like the idea of picture books and graphic novels that have few or no words. (If you give them a graphic novel you might be putting in place the pieces for an argument when they tell you yet again.)

An argument in favour of the idea of a book for someone who dislikes them, is the similar idea, ‘if you don’t like to read you haven’t found the right book’, to which I expect the person who is looking for an answer to the initial question would respond ‘bingo!’. (We probably don’t want to get these two people together with the non-reader.)

We could consider the idea of ‘the right book’ strange, because it surely infers that there is one, or just a handful… so what do you do after that? It of course depends on what a person doesn’t like about reading but if by chance they find the metaphorical unicorn, what happens next? Are they now a reader, with one book behind them and no more on the horizon? And is there one or a few books that could really suit everyone?

I love finding or suggesting books for/to people who like a particular genre, or just books in general, but I’m yet to come across anyone who doesn’t like reading be open to the idea. It’s like ‘a car for someone who doesn’t like driving’ or ‘a mountain for someone who doesn’t like hiking’ – nowhere near as extreme, but it shares the same basic premise.

I love books and reading, but there are lots of things I don’t like that others do like, and even if reading is linked to health and education and betterment and many other hobbies aren’t, it still shouldn’t be forced. (And most other hobbies are linked to betterment by their hobbyists, anyway, as would be expected of those with different personalities.)

What do you think of the concept and do you have any anecdotes on the subject?

 
September 2018 Reading Round Up

September was fairly good for reading. The weather has changed but the hours around noon, when there is sun, are hot enough to read outside. Otherwise planning is afoot, for both Christmas and autumn in general. In terms of reading, in keeping with my plans I’ve got a couple of Christmas books from the library; I found Dilly Court’s The Christmas Card and so loaned it out, and they had Jenny Colgan’s Christmas At Rosie Hopkins’ Sweet Shop so I got that too. I’ve no idea what the Colgan is about or whether I need to read any previous books first, but the title sounds suitably warm and fuzzy. I like the idea of reading them now – well, I kind of have to, having loaned them! – and thus having reviews ready for early December. Interestingly, according to the issue slip, the copy of the Court has been issued out in the spring and summer months but never any later.

All books are works of fiction.

The Books

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah – A Nigerian student leaves behind the love of her life to study in America, where she discovers that she is now ‘black’. This book is fairly complex, summing it up difficult, but it’s incredible, albeit that the heroine isn’t particularly great (the hero’s fine).

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Özgür Mumcu: The Peace Machine – A Turkish writer of erotic fiction comes to know about a theoretical ‘peace machine’ that would eliminate hate in the world, and joins the highly political faction that is spending time with those working to assassinate the Serbian monarchs whilst working on their machine. Yep – it’s confusing all right.

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Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar – A high-achiever moves to New York but starts to fall into a deep depression over various social ideals; she had had periods of mental illness before. Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel, it’s one to read and a good literary text.

I’m just over halfway through Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn which is quite enjoyable and features department store work in 50s America which I’m loving – I enjoyed reading about and watching the following TV series on Mr Selfridge, as well as the glimpses of historical department stores in The Marvelous Mrs Maisel. Tóibín has included the social change wherein black Americans were finally invited in to shop, too, which is both fascinating and awful – lots of staring, and only 70 years ago! After this, I’ll be picking up those Christmas books.

I’m hesitant about the next few months as I’ll miss the weather. I also can’t get my head around the fact that it’ll soon enough be time to decorate for Christmas. We’ve got a new family member this year so more planning to do.

What did you read in September?

 
Film Review: Fallen Stars

A screenshot from the film

Screen shots copyright © 2017 El Camino Entertainment/Thousand Miles Entertainment.

I have an interest in small independent films, and whilst the trailer for Fallen Stars didn’t grab me, I thought I’d give it a go because it stars Michelle Ang whose work I like a lot. (She’s most well-known for playing Lori Lee in Neighbours, Akemi in Xena: Warrior Princess, and Kimmie in Top Of The Lake.) It turned out to be an incredibly good, bookish, watch.

The plot is as follows: A thirty-something year old man (Ryan O’Nan) who has a very mundane, routine life, starts to feel stifled by the bartender job he’s been doing for 10 years. When a new customer, Daisy (Ang) walks in with her book, few words, and sullen manner, he’s intrigued, but her mood remains. Meanwhile, Daisy is facing a monotonous life of her own. On her walks she goes to the dog shelter but although she becomes fond of one of the dogs, she won’t let herself adopt it.

A screenshot from the film

The film shows us the progression of the pair’s friendship day by day. It’s as slow as the blurb sounds but that is the point of it. It’s obvious that every little thing in this film has been thought through, from the same old takeaway menu that gets dropped through Cooper’s letterbox every day, to the plot that carries on with little change for quite some time. Cooper wakes up at 7, gets coffee, naps, goes to work, and returns home with little difference for days, the story unapologetically portraying aspects of regular life at the same time it shows how unexciting this particular one is.

As the film continues little changes start to be added and mount up – Cooper rises at 9 one day (you notice the alarm clock), he starts to meet up with Daisy, he sits in his garden to read the book she was reading at the bar. And along with this, the plot ekes out what Cooper and Daisy’s backgrounds are; ashamed of their lives, it takes events like bumping into old friends for their history to be revealed to the film-goer. The eking out also applies to the friendship, as the characters hold back their emotions from one another and mistakes are made.

A screenshot from the film

The whole is about how life is when you haven’t reached your potential and feel it keenly, as well as how life is when you’re overwhelmed by your work to the point of avoiding it. As the film continues it becomes particularly poignant and there is a big reveal about 2/3 of the way through that completely changes everything, not in a major shock-tactic manner, more in the way you’ve been viewing these people and their lives. It’s a surprise that will be welcomed by readers, in fact the film’s atmosphere as a whole is a sort of Groundhog Day/literary fiction mash up; Daisy uses books to halt conversation and Cooper to try and improve it; and then there’s the surprise.

When it comes to the dog shelter there’s an early punch, and this feeling extends for a while before reaching a better place, this is to say that if you’re an animal lover you’re potentially going to find it very emotional.

Restrained acting, storytelling, a dull pastel palette to work with – by description it’s boring. But if you’re prepared to give it time, it comes into its own, the character development, the acting, and the whole concept planned and executed to perfection. It’s available to watch on Amazon and iTunes and in some countries available to purchase on DVD.

 
Film Review: This Beautiful Fantastic

A screenshot from the film

Screen shots copyright © 2016 Ipso Facto Productions/Smudge Films.

This Beautiful Fantastic is only a couple of years old, a British production shot and released in 2016. I had never heard of it until I stumbled upon it on a catch-up service (it’s on iplayer for the next month). I enjoyed it so much I thought I’d write about it.

A screenshot from the film

The story centres on Bella (Jessica Brown Findley), a young woman with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – timing and organisation rituals, mostly – who lives in a basement flat in a nice area. As a baby she was left in a box in a park, found by an elderly gentleman who had gone for a swim in the lake. She went to a convent school. (The details here are vague, presumably to add to the fairy tale nature of it.) Now grown up, she lives an old-fashioned life, dressing in clothes from decades past and wearing an old digital watch, and works in a library that fits her lifestyle. The only thing about her world that isn’t tidy is her garden, a wild patch of ground that scares her. One day she injures herself; her curmudgeonly neighbour, Alfie (Tom Wilkinson) takes her in, where he proceeds to rant about dinner to his cook, Vernon (Andrew Scott), which leads to Bella offering Vernon a job with her. Annoyed, and with Vernon refusing to return, Alfie tells Bella’s letting agent about her garden, and the agent gives her one month to clear it up or leave her flat.

The above is about 1/3 of the story – the story is about more than the garden, but gardening and its benefits are what the film revolves around.

A screenshot from the film

Bella’s life story, told at the beginning of the film, includes more than a hint of magical realism, and there’s a strong literary atmosphere throughout that suggests you might be watching an adaptation of a wonderful novel, perhaps by Amy Bender or Frances Hodgson Burnett, the latter not simply because of the garden but because of the magic. There’s also some soft humour that suggests the writer was inspired by Alan Bennett. But the film isn’t an adaptation, it just feels like one, and it is this that makes it a good possibility for a book lover.

There is so much to this film: the look at mental illness and the way support can make a difference; the romance (Bella and Billy, played by Jeremy Irvine) that is very well done both in the script and by the actors. And there is the production itself: a slight bloom effect covers the picture for the entirety of the film; the colours are muted, often dark. The use of history in the eccentricities is weird and wonderful and confusing; you’ll likely continue to ponder on is exactly when the film is set, the story offering a mix of a present day background with people who run the gambit from tracksuits to steampunk.

A screenshot from the film

The literary quality of the film extends to Bella’s occupation – a librarian seeking to become a children’s author and illustrator. And Alfie’s book-like narration rounds it off.

Certainly you have to suspend reality in order to enjoy this film. As this is a book blog I’ll say that I think anyone who likes Austen, the Brontës, Dodie Smith, and magical realism, will at the very least appreciate it. It’s slow, full of feeling and fantasy.

It’s a film that should be a book.

 

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