Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Future Homemakers of America - Laurie Graham

Laurie Graham's books are wonderful. Always such a pleasure to read, and descriptions, so completely unexpected, such as in this one, instructions for how to cook an eel, caught in the Norfolk Fens, on a barbecue, alongside recipes for Fried Squirrel, and, more to my best, Betty's Best Ever Brownies.

However, recipes are not the main focus of this story. It is about strong friendships across continents, new experiences, differences in lifestyles. It tells the tale of the wives of American airforce men, based in Norfolk and trying to fit in with the locals, and how they eventually build a very special friendship with a particular couple and how this friendship is sustained through relocation, transport developments, and bravery. They see the funeral cortege of the King of England, and then celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. But they also focus on more personal issues, such as hereditary medical illnesses and how they are managed during these times.

It is very moving in some places, and hilarious in others. The passages about the Americans' rich way of life compared to the spartan provisions available to the English during ration times are so interesting, and the animosity facing the Americans, quite sad at times.

I really like Laurie Graham's books because they are about people you can really believe in. Real people. Another one by her, The Importance of Being a Kennedy, is about a nanny from County Meath in Ireland who becomes nanny to the Kennedy children in America, and again it has great scenes describing the differences between the two cultures, and gives a very personal feel to the the Kennedy family.

These are not stories of adventure and mystery, but of real people and real lives. They are fascinating, interesting, and just a complete pleasure to read. If you like books by Fannie Flagg (another one of my favourites), then you might like these too.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Magician's Nephew - C.S.Lewis

The pleasure of this book was enough to take me on to the second one, so the recommendation is already there.  It is well-written, as you would expect, simple language, well-constructed.  It is also politically incorrect - for republicans at least - favouring a world of royalty and a clear segregation between the ruling and the ruled classes.  What I noticed, to my surprise, is the similarities - without the cruelties - to The Island of Dr Moreau (H.G.Wells).  The animals talk, some of them at least, and they take on human qualities - one of the concerns for Aslan is that they will slip back into their animal ways.  Anyway, to return to the beginning, I recommend this book.  If you haven't read it, you're missing out.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

True Grit - Charles Portis

This came as a recommendation.  I had also seen the John Wayne film - I have since seen the re-make.  It opens as a revelation; the blurb suggests echoes of Mark Twain, but I was reminded of Harper Lee - To Kill a Mockingbird.  The heroine is young, fresh, direct and innocent.  She has a lively style to match - plenty of small-town wisdoms and original political/religious comment.  The ending is disappointing, however.  Having spent half the book preparing Mattie Ross, a fourteen year old girl, for her journey into Indian territory with Rooster Cogburn - a True Grit Deputy Marshall, Portis seems to tire of the story.  We rush through the details then - all the killings and survivals - at a helter skelter pace, and lose most of the slow adventure of the build-up.  I finished it nonetheless, and would recommend the book - if only for the
first hundred pages.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Pilchard Books - our shop sign is almost ready!

“Pilchards! Whose bodies yield the fragrant oil and make the London lamps at midnight smile!” 

Peter Pindar 1783 via National Maritime Museum of Cornwall 

We have commissioned Paul Wilmott, a fabulous artist from the Lake District, and a wonderful friend, to paint the sign for our bookshop. This is what he has created.

The background to our sign stems from the fact that in 1895, Mevagissey had a power station built, which was powered by pilchard oil and provided electricity to the lighthouse and street lamps in the village. It is rumoured to have been the first town to have electric street lighting powered from pilchard oil.
Source: Cornwall Calling

Pilchard oil was also used to fuel the street lamps of London.
Source: National Maritime Museum of Cornwall

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Isabel’s Bed – Elinor Lipman

I am re-reading books by some of my favourite authors. When I hit my thirties, I discovered several female writers who wrote with greater creativity than the shallower chick-lit. Don’t get me wrong, I love chick-lit too, but sometimes you want something that will keep you guessing, that is not predictable. These authors include Anne Tyler, Alice Hoffman, Laurie Graham, Curtis Sittenfield, Fannie Flagg, and Elinor Lipman, one of whose books I am talking about today. EL has written many books, and while they vary greatly, they usually involve a quirky relationship, and a very strong female lead. Her most famous book is probably “Then She Found Me”, which was turned in to a film. I didn’t see the film, because I read the description, and felt that it wasn’t going to be true to the book, which was brilliant. So, the one I have just read, Isabel’s Bed is just great. It isn’t complicated, but it is entertaining and well-written. It is about a writer who is trying to get published, without much success, so she applies for a job as a ghost-writer for a flamboyant woman who is living as a recluse in a beautiful house by the sea, with her discredited artist husband and their handyman. Throw in the scandal where her lover is murdered by his wife after she catches them in bed together. This is just a basic outline of the story. There are so many twists and turns in this adventure, but it is all described so well, and it almost feels like a farce on the stage. You can’t help being gripped by the characters; they seem so believable, even though the story is quite incredible at times. It isn’t life-changing deep, but it is thought-provoking as you wonder if there are people out there who really live like that. My other favourite of Elinor Lipman is The Inn at Lake Devine. Fantastic, and hugely enjoyable.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Last Don - Mario Puzo

The Last Time.  I chose this book as a distraction.  Having read The Godfather - though many years ago - I thought that I knew what I was going to get with a Puzo novel about the Mafia.  This reads, however, like a series of notes, or a
series of preludes, setting up a story.  If it suddenly takes off after p.110 I apologise - I may have missed a lively, engaging and distracting story.  As it was it felt like a chore just to get as far as I did; and eventually I couldn't punish myself any further.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Graduate - Charles Webb

The Graduate works on dialogue.  It is pacey and plausible, telling a compelling and - as many people have seen the film - familiar story of a young man, Benjamin Braddock, who has an affair with an older woman, Mrs Robinson.  Braddock is engaging in a cringe-worthy sense; I found myself wanting repeatedly for him to say/do things, when I knew all along that he was going to say/do the opposite.  The outcome was unsettling for me as a reader; I enjoyed and disliked the character at once.

What did not convince me was the alternative romance - his love for Mrs Robinson's daughter, Elaine.  Webb takes it as self-evident that Benjamin and Elaine love each other, and doesn't bother to tell us why - he rather provides many reasons why the innocence-personified Elaine should have nothing to do with the selfish, drunken, dishonest, corrupted, spoilt and demanding Benjamin.  My temptation then is to say that the romance fails; and to imagine - along with Mr Robinson - that after a few weeks in bed together the couple will tire of each other and go their separate ways.

In consequence, I would recommend this book if you wish to discover that life is dark and meaningless, a misery of failed hopes before you die.  If, by contrast, you like your romances warm, meaning-giving, then you will probably feel a little hollow at the end, just as I did.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Happy World Book Day!

Happy World Book Day! What is your favourite book? In my experience this changes regularly, which makes me feel a bit disloyal, but there are so many great tales being told. I tried to think of my favourite, but there isn't just one, so here is a list:

  • Red Bird Christmas - Fannie Flagg
  • Shadowlands - William Nicholson
  • 84 Charing Cross Road - Helene Hanff
  • Little Women - Louisa May Alcott
  • Blackbird House - Alice Hoffman
  • Garden Spells - Sarah Addison Allen
  • Inn At The Lake Devine - Elinor Lipman
  • Twilight - Stephenie Meyer
  • Book Thief - Markus Zusak
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - JK Rowling
  • Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  • The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Room With A View - EM Forster
  • Death in the Clouds - Agatha Christie
  • School at the Chalet - Elinor Brent-Dyer
  • Little Grey Rabbit - Alison Uttley
  • Asterix in Britain - Uderzo and Goscinny
  • Princess Bride - William Goldman
  • The Hobbit - JR Tolkien
  • Jurassic Park - Michael Crichton

What's your favourite?

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Gool Peran Lowen! Happy St Piran's Day!

We are new to Cornwall, in fact, due to moving delays, we are not even down there yet. Hopefully we will be in Mevagissey soon though.

Anyway, to learn more about my new home, I have been signing up to lots of resources about Cornwall, and today I have seen an abundance of "Happy St Piran's Day" messages. But, I am ashamed to admit, I didn't know who St Piran was, so as the good librarian that I am, I have done some research.

It turns out that St Piran was born in Ireland in the 6th century, and later became a Cornish abbot, and later still, the patron saint of tin-miners and Cornwall. There are lots of parades and celebrations going on throughout Cornwall, with music, good food, plays, and poetry, and I wish we were there to take part, because it looks such fun.

The black and white St Piran's flag will be flying throughout Cornwall today, so if you are there, have a wonderful day, and enjoy the festivities! Happy St Piran's Day! Gool Peran Lowen!

Slaughterhouse 5 - Kurt Vonnegut

Imagine you're on the Titanic.  All the life-boats have left and the ship is sinking.  You can dress in an expensive Oscar-gown if you like, or a tuxedo that gives you the suavity of a Bond, James Bond.  Next, fill your glass with some cocktail, or champagne, or spirits - any sort or measure; the bar is free and credit is cheap.

On the stage is Kurt Vonnegut and his famous Slaughterhouse 5.  You have wanted to see them perform for years; and here they are in the exclusive and intimate surroundings of the Titanic's emptying ball-room.  When they sing - Vonnegut does a Tom Waits rasp, an intense and somewhat delicious misery - their lyrics remind you that you are on a sinking ship, a ship believed to be unsinkable, a ship that is sinking indeed because it almost crossed the Atlantic in record time.  (What a story that would have been.)

Personally, I prefer more optimism.  Slaughterhouse 5 is well-written; Vonnegut tells a storblade's too blunt to slit my wrists sort of way.  Then, having been forced to live, I fall off a platform and under a train.
y that spans several decades, and he does so using simple devices that kept me engaged, though he was telling his multi-decade story simultaneously.  His lead character, Billy Pilgrim, is intriguing, amusing in a

Anyway, I won't recommend this book - it has too many fans already.  Instead I will call it a period piece - published during the Vietnam War and it keeps one eye on the fire-bombing of Dresden.  I am glad that I have read it, however; and having finished I am going to ask the band to play a different tune.  I'm drowning out here.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Railway Children - E.Nesbit

The Railway Children is not perfect; it's like Christmas.  Santa Claus is not real, and those presents I got - my fort for example - weren't made by elves; they were made or bought by my father and mother.  Having said that the delight of Santa was fantastic as a child; and the wonder of imagining the man, with his reindeer and helpers, is a magic that can be remembered with pleasure.

The same can be said about The Railway Children.  The morals are so perfect they are twee; and the narrative is so perfect it too is twee.  Yet, it is fantastic to read about a world where being nice to people is transformational, where hoisting your red petticoat on a pole can save a train, and where everything works out splendidly well because that is how it should be.

I won't recommend this book; it recommends itself.  I read it with relish throughout, however, savouring the twee, and wanting what happened to happen, and for the adventures to continue forever.  The prose is simple, sweet, direct and engaging; I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Does that make me a bad man?