Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Reading Adventures on the Train. . .

While travelling around the U.K. on my various day trips, I've never been without a book in my bag to while away the less picturesque parts and the endless platform waiting.   I think train reading should always be fun, heavily plot-driven and if it also has its fair share of rail content, then all the better for this train-lit connoisseur.

I picked up a copy of Maurice Dekobra's The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars, translated by Neal Wainwright at Daunts Books, one of my favourite bookstores in London.  It's part of Melville House's terrific Neversink Library - another series of rediscovered classics and translated literature that I'm gradually making my way through (I've already reviewed The Train and The President by Georges Simenon and After Midnight by Irmgard Keun - all fantastic reads).  This novel, originally published in 1927, bills itself as one of "the biggest bestsellers of all time, and one of the first and most influential spy novels of the twentieth century".  I enjoyed this  book very much but not necessarily for the blurb description which drew me to it in the first place.  A "delightful romp" it certainly is, but not so much about spying as it is about, well, quite simply sex, though not at all of a gratuitous or pornographic nature. The plot is a bit flimsy;  our hero, Prince Gerard Séliman, secretary to the beautiful and sexy Lady Diana Wynham, the "madonna" of the title, sets off to Russia to ensure the financial validity of some oil wells left to Diana by her late husband and her last chance to escape financial ruin.  In order to get the Russian communist government to allow foreign investment, Diana has had to seduce Varichkine, the Soviet representative in Berlin, who wants her to become his wife in return for his influence.  Looming large is the indomitable Irina Mouravieff, high up in the Soviet command and Varichkine's mistress who is out for revenge (she would be perfect as a Bond villian) who is following Gerard's every move with potentially deadly results.  What dominates this novel though, are the strong women surrounding Gerard (including Klara, a German spy, and his estranged wife Griselda who suspects him of a dalliance with her stepdaughter), who matter-of-factly use their sexual attraction very strategically to the bemusement and barely concealed delight of Gerard.  The atmosphere including risque German nightclubs and even a Russian prison, is also conducive to sexual politics where the naked body (or humiliation of it) becomes a tool for both political and social power. Even Lady Diana shocks society by doing a striptease, ostensibly for charity, but with her own ulterior motives. It all provides quite the frisson to the backdrop of what is basically an adventure story with some dazzling (and very witty) dialogue and some very unusual and liberating depictions of the "New Woman" of the 1920s.  My one disappointment - there wasn't as much action on the trains as the title might have suggested, but I still enjoyed the journey.

It still shocks me that despite the fact that many of Michael Innes' books are still in print (published by the admirable House of Stratus), you'd be hard pressed to find any titles in a bookstore - independent or chain - or more than one or two in a library, and trust me, I've been looking.  I think he's one of Britain's best mystery writers and his books never fail to entertain with their wit and cynicism.  Appleby and the Ospreys is one of his later works, written in 1986, but with its small village setting embedded with inevitable class consciousness, the reader could be excused for thinking they've stumbled on a classic crime novel from the 1930s or 40s.  Sir John Appleby has officially retired but still likes to "run into mysteries accidentally on purpose." And like most series sleuths, people readily comply by ending up dead in his vicinity.  In this case, the victim is Lord Osprey, owner of a valuable collection of coins, whose dead body is found shortly after the Applebys have visited his mansion.  This is a fun take (spoof would be too undignified), on the typical English country house murder with all of the usual elements at play: a body found in the library, a group of house guests, many with a suitable motive, who are uncannily calm about events, red herrings and of course, the all-knowing and all-seeing butler.  I just never get tired of reading Innes and readily scour used bookstores for old Penguin editions of his books.

Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret novels are another guilty pleasure, but I also enjoy his psychological romans dur and have several taunting me on my NYRB Classics bookshelf. Sadly, despite its tantalising title, I found Act of Passion, translated by Louise Varèse rather dispiriting. The novel is told in the form of a letter written by convicted killer Charles Alavoine to his examining magistrate.  It begins: "I should like one man, just one, to understand me. And I would like that man to be you."  What follows is the story of his life and the events leading up to his crime.  Alavoine is similar to many of Simenon's characters - a loner, bored with his bourgeois respectable life and an unfulfilling marriage, and seeking to escape his own inadequacies with darker adventures mostly of a sexual nature.  But unlike say, Marcel in the aforementioned The Train, whose bid for personal freedom has far greater moral, historical and dangerous implications, Alavoine's indifferent egotism quickly gets annoying and the "love" that motivates his crime never entirely convinces. I have no problems with a thoroughly unlikeable protagonist but this one quickly bored me. It won't stop me though from eventually making my way through all the NYRB Classic Simenons; he's such a good writer that I can easily excuse a lesser offering.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Day Tripping: Beautiful Bath. . .

I've been busy using up my rail pass and taking day trips around the U.K.  And despite the distance and having to take three different trains, Bath remains one of my favourite places to visit.  

 It really is one of the most beautiful, compact and walkable cities in the world.  I wandered around and just gawked at all the beautiful buildings.

And there's tons of historical, literary and architectural inspiration wherever you look.

And what a refreshing treasure trove of independent stores to be found around every corner.  In particular, I loved all the inspiring craft stores:  a beautiful yarn store called Wool; a quilting shop with an extensive collection of fabrics and battings called Country Threads (which is just kitty corner from Wool); Bijoux Beads a very pretty and sophisticated shop which had some gorgeous, gorgeous beads; and The Makery Emporium which had a little bit of everything and just had my head exploding with ideas.  I wish I lived closer so I could take advantage of the many workshops they offer.

And then it was off to explore the two famous independent bookstores.  First up was Topping & Company,  the type of store filled right up to the ceilings with books.  I could have spent hours there. 

But I also had to check out Mr. B's Emporium of Reading Delights  (yes, Bath abounds in Emporiums) and now I just want to move in.

Despite its unassuming exterior, it's one of those stores with lots of hidden nooks and crannies and best of all, a bibliotherapy room at the top filled with suggested reading lists compiled by the staff.  You can see some of their "Very Important Book Lists" here.  When I'm browsing in an independent bookstore, I'm always on the hunt for a book that I've never heard of, something that the chains don't stock or if they do, they certainly don't celebrate.  I'll admit it was the cover of this book (prominently displayed) that first got my attention.

And then when I discovered that Names For the Sea by Sarah Moss was a memoir about the author's impulsive move to Iceland, I had to bring it home with me.  One of the best vacations I ever took was   a walking holiday in Iceland and I'm itching to go back.  Plus, I think knitting will surely make an appearance.  When I took the book to the cash register, there was a resounding endorsement from two staff members who had read it.  It's definitely next on my reading list.   And I'm already saving up to go back to Bath for an indulgent shopping trip - this time for at least a weekend!

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Living Under the Fatwa. . .

Joseph Anton is written in the third person, which seems appropriate, not only because this is mainly the story of Rushdie's life living under this pseudonym concocted for the police who were protecting him, but as a skeptical but appreciative reader of memoirs, why not "construct" your life as a separate character? One is never going to discover the full truths of a person's life or personality through their autobiography and even less so, I imagine, if the author is a talented writer.

I was a bookseller when The Satanic Verses came out and yes, there was a copy sloppily set on fire in the store, and I well remember all the heightened security when we hosted an event  for The Ground Beneath Her Feet.  The ongoing story of the fatwa and the debates over the cost and need for Rushdie's protection were never as intensely covered in Canada as they were in the U.K. and it was this detailed account, as well as insight into the enormous and time consuming efforts by hundreds of people and organisations lobbying to remove the fatwa that made this an absorbing and important read. The nuances, egotism, political interests and manipulation of language in the taut tightrope that is international diplomacy are fascinating.  I also enjoyed the parts where Rushdie described his inspiration behind his novels and the difficulties - ironically -  his sheltered life created for his writing one.  The almost decade long struggle to get out the paperback edition of The Satanic Verses was also very interesting and disheartening to read about.  His agents were relentless and tireless in their support; sadly his publishers were not.

There is a lot of famous name dropping, some of it valid in terms of the writers and politicians who supported him (and those who didn't),  and a lot of it quite inconsequential; I didn't really care which celebrities he fleetingly bumped into at parties. His genuine concern for the safety of his family and friends, particularly his sons, is very moving; his views on the relationships with the women in his life leave a rather disagreeable taint, in the sense that none of them come off in a particularly positive light and it feels as if the reader is reluctantly forced into invading their privacy. But I gather that would always be a risk if one got involved with a writer.

His story will always be an important and celebrated one in the history of censorship and freedom of speech, and it has been well worthwhile to read his own account of it.  Here he sums up exactly what was and continues to be at stake:

Literature tried to open the universe, to increase, even if only slightly, the sum total of what it was possible for human beings to perceive, understand, and so, finally, to be. Great literature went to the edges of the known and pushed against the boundaries of language, form and possibility, to make the world feel larger, wider, than before. Yet this was an age in which men and women were being pushed towards ever narrower definitions of themselves, encouraged to call themselves just one thing, Serb or Croat, or Israeli or Palestinian or Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Baha'i or Jew, and the narrower their identities became, the greater was the likelihood of conflict between them. Literature's view of human nature encouraged understanding, sympathy and identification with people not like oneself, but the world was pushing everyone in the opposite direction, towards narrowness, bigotry, tribalism, cultism and war.  There were plenty of people who didn't want the universe opened, who would, in fact, prefer it to be shut down quite a bit, and so when artists went to the frontier and pushed they often found powerful forces pushing back. And yet they did what they had to do, even at the price of their own ease, and, sometimes, of their lives.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Music in the City. . .

What a great city this is for music - of all types -  as my excursions last week proved.  This is a picture of the Liverpool Philharmonic - a gorgeous Art Deco building with great acoustics and a lovely cafe in the basement.   

I've been to a few classical concerts already but last Monday I headed there for something completely different.  Last month, the Philharmonic had a promotion, offering £1 tickets for several of their upcoming shows. I was more than happy to line up for three hours, and one of the gigs I jumped at was  the Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers - a Scottish group that practices Japanese Taiko drumming.

It was an exhilarating performance and what a workout for the drummers! At one point several were sitting on the floor with their feet wrapped around medium sized drums and basically doing sit-ups while drumming.  You could definitely see the grimaces on their faces.  I loved the energy and the choreography - it was all just fantastic.

Wednesday night I headed off to the Capstone Theatre, part of Liverpool Hope University, for a night with jazz singer Stacey Kent.  I previously wrote about my appreciation for her here and was thrilled when I saw she was coming to Liverpool.

She had a great band and it was a very enjoyable night with a mixture of American songbook classics, a bit of French and Serge Gainsbourg, a little bit of bossa nova, and the premiere of yet more quirky sad songs written for her by her husband Jim Tomlinson and the writer Kazuo Ishiguro.

Then last night it was back to the Philharmonic for a concert I've been so looking forward to.  Listening to this band completely brings me back to my university days and they were just fantastic live.  One of the best concerts I've ever been too - it was impossible to get to sleep last night, I was so wired.

A really nice surprise was the opening act, Blueflint.  I'd never heard of them before but immediately fell in love. They are a five person band from Edinburgh with two female singers and lots of banjos, bass and fiddles.  They made me nostalgic for bands from Nova Scotia and the East Coast - foot stomping music, great lyrics and songs about boats and water.  And with the purchase of their CDs you got a free tea towel!  Now how often does THAT happen at a rock concert?

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Knitting Dreams. . .

Is it a bit crazy that I'm drawn to this sheet set featuring a print of knitting?  Oh, the Liverpud would never go for it.  Maybe for the guest bedroom (which also doubles as my craft room).  Or maybe I could get away with just the pillowcases.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Unravelling Revelry. . .

In the "wish I could have been there" department - look at what Toronto's Knit Cafe did for Nuit Blanche this year!

They had a series of knitted Russian dolls and all night, every hour, they UNRAVELLED one to reveal the next hiding underneath.  Great photos and a full description of this very cool project can be found here.   I used to love going to this shop which also had a cafe, a great selection of yarn (Madtosh! Madtosh!) and very friendly and helpful staff.  I've been to several really good yarn shops in the UK but there isn't a dedicated independent one in Liverpool proper, which is a shame.  Mind you, I probably have enough stash to last a decade.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Daytripping: The West Pennine Moors. . .

Another sunny fall weekend and our anniversary to boot, so off we were for another day-long hike. This time we headed to the West Pennine Moors, not far from Bolton.  We started our walk along the Anglezarke Reservoir.

And through some peaceful forest paths.

 Working our way ever upwards where the majority of the hike was on gorgeous open moorland - my favourite type of walking terrain.  It was a bit boggy in spots, but much of the path was on paving stones or gravel so it wasn't too hard going.

In the distance is Pendle Hill infamous for its witch trials in the 17th century

Along the way there were plenty of sheep to accompany us.

And several hours and miles later we completed our circular route and were overlooking the reservoir again.

Another beautiful walk within an hour's drive of Liverpool.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Daytripping: The Tarnished Old and the Shiny New. . .

About ten years ago I spent three weeks taking a summer course at Oxford in their Continuing Studies department.  I loved everything about it.  My room was on the top floor of a tower and climbing seven stories of stairs several times a day was completely worth it. I'd open the windows to the summer evening and gaze on the spires and listen the the choir practicing in the chapel next door.  During the day I'd be reading Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf in the Bodleian Library and working on an essay in-between lectures and tutorials. I went punting, saw lots of theatre and popped into London on the weekends. It was one of the best "vacations" I'd ever taken and the experience totally inspired me to go home and get my Masters in English Lit.  So I was very much looking forward to returning for a day trip.

Oh dear. . .

Yes, the beautiful buildings are still there and the cows are still grazing on Christchurch Meadows, and the students and faculty still whizz by purposefully on their bicycles.  And it seems ridiculous to say a place that has existed for centuries has changed in the last decade.  But I went not just to wander old haunts, but to browse the bookshops, in particular some of the quirky used bookstores I remember.  And they are ALL GONE!  Oh, the Blackwells is still there and as extensive as ever, but two used bookshops in particular (I've forgotten their names but definitely not where they were) that I used to frequent are no more.  How utterly sad because if Oxford of all places can't support a couple of used bookshops, who can?  Apparently the rents have risen so high that they've had to close. Rising rents also seem to be threatening some of the independent businesses in the covered market, although you can still get a good meat pie for lunch.  It was all rather depressing and I think I have Oxford out of my system now; I really don't have any desire to go back.

I had to change trains in Birmingham and with an hour to kill, I ventured out towards the markets and to see this rather iconic building which houses the Selfridges department store and certainly a complete contrast to their flagship store on London's Oxford Street.  As unique as it is, I have to say I prefer the London shop; this building looks fab from the outside, but inside it reminds me very much of the duty-free shops in airports.  Rather soulless.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Daytripping: Walking in the Clwydian Hills. . .

We're trying to make the most of every good hiking day this fall and yesterday was perfect - crisp, fresh air, lots of sunshine and no rain in the forecast.  So armed with bacon butties, a flask of tea and chocolate, we headed out to one of our favourite places for a day hike. About an hour's drive from Liverpool is the lovely Clywdian Range in North Wales.  We parked at Loggerheads, walked about three miles through a forest path and a bit of steep road to the little village of Cilcain where a plaque on the local pub proudly points out that scenes from the 1998 film Hilary and Jackie were shot here.

On we went along tracks such as this, gradually climbing.

Our ultimate destination (and where most paths in this region lead) was up to Moel Famau, the highest hill in the Clwdyian Range.  On the top are the ruins of the Jubilee Tower, first built in 1810 to commemorate the fiftieth year of George III's reign.  You can just see it on the crest of the hill.

The tower seems to have been doomed from the start with bad construction and it's been crumbling ever since, despite many attempts to reconstruct it.  Still, you can't beat the views and on a clear day you can see all the way to Liverpool (impossible to capture with my tiny camera).

We took a long leisurely route back to Loggerheads that gently descended through another quiet forest path with tall majestic trees around us and the smell of pine needles everywhere.  A five hour, ten mile hike in beautiful scenery is just the perfect way to relax on a sunny Saturday. 

Friday, 5 October 2012

A Country Book Swap. .

One of the things I look forward to each week is my knitting night; I meet up with a lovely group of women at a cafe not too far from where I live, and we drink lattes, eat cake, knit and discuss all manner of subjects. The group is a nice mixture of ages, with some born and bred in Liverpool, and others who are newcomers to the city, one even newer than myself.  We exchange a lot of tips about the city and have the odd moan or two about British bureaucracy.

One woman who moved here from Prague several years ago, is a big reader and we recently exchanged books by favourite authors from home.  I gave her Margaret Laurence's A Jest of God (which fortunately she loved - she's asked to borrow The Fire-Dwellers next), and she in turn pressed Bohumil Hrabal's I Served the King of England, translated by Paul Wilson, on me.  I think the only Czech writer I've previously read is Milan Kundera and I was excited to finally give Hrabal a try, having two other books by him on my to be read shelf - Too Loud A Solitude and Dancing Lessons For the Advanced in Age.  I've also seen the Czech film Closely Watched Trains that was based on his novel and shares some of the same youthful and sexual antics.

I Served the King of England follows many years in the life of Ditie, a young man from humble origins who works his way up from busboy to millionaire hotel owner and back to the ordinary, learning many life lessons along the way. It's a simple, basic plot but what makes this novel quite extraordinary and very enjoyable to read is Hrabal's sheer imaginative exuberance and excess of detail. The characters and situations that Ditie encounters are completely over the top but it doesn't matter; the scenes are fully and convincingly drawn out and played for both comic and poignant effect. Just suspend your disbelief and enjoy the narrative ride. Descriptions range from the simple image of stark white underwear discarded from hotel windows only to be caught on hooks wielded by his grandmother, to lavish, spectacular feasts involving stuffed camels and the Emperor of Ethiopia, to an imaginative hotel concept that becomes for Ditie not just a financial but a satisfyingly artistic success.  Memorable characters abound from a tyrant boss in a wheelchair, to the all-knowing head waiter who credits his success to having served the King of England, to Lise, the powerful German woman that Ditie marries just as the Nazis are coming to power. Believe in the unbelievable is a key theme of this novel where class, belonging and the need for acceptance from one's peers is a strong undercurrent. Hrabal suggests that the real richness of life is the beauty and wonder of the world not so much in nature, but in the accumulative human nature that we encounter with all of its crazy intricacies and eccentricities.  And Ditie only discovers this when he hits rock bottom doing hard labour repairing roads.  In his solitude comes understanding, restorative reflection and creativity:

And I said to myself that during the day I would look for the road to the village, but in the evening I would write, looking for the road back, and then walk back along it and shovel aside the snow that had covered my past, and so try, by writing, to ask myself about myself.
I loved the enthusiastic prose, the narrative rush, the cynicism, imagination and originality behind this novel.  It made me smile and count my blessings as corny as that may sound.  I'm looking forward to reading more of Hrabal's work.