Monday, July 25, 2011

The Glass Room

Before I went on holiday, I read The Glass Room for the reading circle. I started off feeling, now this is a relief after the last fragmented book – a traditionally written literary novel. However, some of my feeling of appreciation faded away during the course of the book, which I felt lost its way a bit and for me lost impact in the latter half.

The Glass Room is based on a real building in Czechoslovakia - the Villa Tugendhat, designed in the late 1920s by Mies van der Rohe, which (I quote) is a celebration of steel, glass and space, an enduring reminder that modern materials can make for exquisitely sculptural architecture. (Personally, I have never been convinced by this modern preference for glass and steel. Bricks are much more homely and cosy. To work in an office with a huge window is a nightmare in summer - as I found out in a very modern building at a temp. job in Guildford.) However, let’s put all that to one side and get back to the book.

I was very interested in the couple who first instigate the design and building of the house, Viktor and Liesel, who having built the place, need to leave it, when Viktor, a Jew, becomes aware how Nazism is sweeping through Europe. The problem for me here is that while they leave the house, we do not follow them through their lives. Instead, we are forced to revisit the house and see who else occupies it in the ensuring years. The author may have been fascinated by the house, but I was not, and seeing that Viktor and Liesel had occupied a large percentage of the book, the other characters introduced later seemed irrelevant to me.

Others have commented on the coincidences which also take place in the book, some of which I was prepared to forgive, but others seemed contrived. At my book group, we also noticed the amount of fairly explicit sex that took place. As someone commented, the only thing left out, was a variation with animals. Was it necessary? I didn’t think so, myself.

The wartime events were of the most significant to me – and I particularly noticed how Liesel was reluctant to leave Czechoslovakia, even though the Germans had invaded Austria and subsequently, the Sudetenland. She didn’t think they should worry about things across the borders. That, of course, was the downfall of many victims of Nazism – that they couldn’t believe that it would happen in their land.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

New writing from the 20th & 21st century

July 2011

I have read four books recently, and not commented on them at all. As a result, they are fast fading from my mind. The most recent was An Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann. She was on the fringe of the Bloomsbury set, and there are echoes of Virginia Woolf in the way she concentrates on a very short space of time and presents the thoughts of the main protagonists, rather then telling a story with a strong plot. On the one hand, I have to say that it was amusing and endearing to get under the skin of the teenage girl, Olivia, as she prepares for the all-important first dance. On the other hand, this is not a book I would pick up thinking, I really must find out what happens. I think the latter half was slightly stronger, when Olivia is actually at the dance and having to suffer as she waits for partners - the indignity of being forgotten by one of them – the misery of being stuck with another unsuitable one, and so on. I had read, many years ago, Dusty Answer, which was a darker sort of book, and which I found strangely haunting, although unsatisfactory to me, in some ways, because I could not identify with the type of people who were the main characters. I simply didn’t live in those kind of circles.

The book which I read some weeks ago was If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, which I was going to allow to simmer. Well, to be honest, I don’t think the soup improved, because my memory of it is sketchy. This is undoubtedly a post-modern book. It doesn’t flow like an old-fashioned novel, where someone has a story to tell. It is more of a construction. As such, as far as I remember, various people tell of what they remember of a particular day and a particular event in a particular street. I don’t feel I have the time to read many books twice, but this would probably lend itself to that. The first time you read it, (rather like Behind the Scenes in the Museum), you spend a lot of time, working out who everyone is and where they fit it. I think perhaps on a second reading, you would feel you know the characters better, and you would pick up the various clues. Perhaps, because I’m old-fashioned, I like a traditionally told tale, and so I wouldn’t give this book, or Invitation … full marks, but I think, possibly, I didn’t give If Nobody … quite enough opportunity to shine.

The other two recent books have both been concerned with the Second World War and the Holocaust, and acted as appropriate bookends to my trip to Israel. But more of that another time.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Butterfly and books

If you've been missing me, I've been busy, holidaying and reading and generally trying to catch up. I'll try to get some of my holiday down shortly, but first a word or two about Tainted Tree, and thanks very much to Sharon Bidwell, who you'll find on Facebook and whose books are at Amazon, for her review of TT, which she's very kindly included on Amazon and which I've set out here:

I’m happy to say I took Jacquelynn Luben’s ‘Tainted Tree’ on holiday with me. Initially, I thought I was in for a slow read, but that’s only because it’s a very different book to the type I’ve been reading lately. In reality, this book moves at a gentle, steady pace, perfectly in keeping with the story. A bequest leads American adoptee, Addie Russell, to Surrey in the UK where she will uncover facts about her past that are both painful and bittersweet. The exploration of both her family's history and self-discovery are a slowly unfolding journey of revelations that the reader takes almost as a ghost hovering on Addie’s shoulders. Nothing is rushed; nothing is uncovered out of a logical, practical and perfectly paced sequence. I found the story refreshing, and although capable of making the reader tearful at times, well-balanced and realistic. The writer has said that every word in this book was necessary, and I quickly realised what she meant. I became as engrossed as Addie in the search for her past. A good and well above average summer read.

Thank you very much, Sharon. Much appreciated.

In the meantime, we at Goldenford have published A Brief History of the Whole World - an adapted version of the book written by George Abbot, Archbishop of Canterbury four hundred years ago. The launch took place recently at the historic Abbot's Hospital in Guildford, and the book is now officially available for anyone who wants to see how the world was viewed four centuries ago. It's been adapted and edited by the Master of the Abbot's Hospital.

I have three books that I want to write about here, but since I was at the Royal Opera House to see Madam Butterfly at the beginning of the week, I think they will have to wait. Irene and I went in the afternoon, and had a meal in Covent Garden, which was busy and noisy. Then up to the very top of the Royal Opera House, which is daunting if you're not very keen on heights. I don't mind sitting looking down, but I don't like walking down steps looking down. When we got to our row, I had to pass a man who was already in his seat, and rather than face outwards, I edged along face to face with him. I resisted the temptation to grab hold of him, as if he were a bannister, nevertheless, there was a point when we were almost dancing, if not quite embracing. However, you don't want to know about all that.

This was the first time I had seen Butterfly, although, of course, I know the famous aria, One Fine Day, and much of the story. I hadn't realised though what a cynical character Pinkerton is. I was quite shocked when at the beginning of the story, he says he will rent a house on a 999 year lease, but can terminate at the end of a month - and then applies the same attitude to his forthcoming marriage. What's more Butterfly is only 15. Butterfly was composed at the beginning of the 20th century, but what it's describing is no different from sex tourism today. I felt that unlike some operas, it had a really strong plot. As for the music, Butterfly herself was wonderful, and won a 'bravo' and spontaneous applause for 'One Fine Day'. I don't know whether it's right to applaud mid-story, but I do know from my half a year in a theatrical agency, that in the musical theatre, they love a show stopper. I thought the whole production was good, but I read a slating review on line from the Independant; hunting around I found a good one from The Guardian. However, they both approved of Butterfly, played by Kristine Opolais. My one criticism, which was also mentioned by both papers, was Butterfly's dying scene, when she starts flapping her arms (clad in her white bridal outfit) and lurching forward. What is she doing? I thought, and then realised she was being a dying butterfly. But it didn't work for me; I'd have preferred her to lay dying on the ground in view of Pinkerton. Her 'tacky, flapping gesture' as described by the Guardian, was not only undignified, but what's worse, almost comic - just at the moment, when one should be moved to tears.

Emotions are heightened by that sort of occasion. It put me in a romantic frame of mind and I noticed a couple in the street, as we came out to the street, kissing passionately. As we crossed the bridge to take us back to Waterloo, some young men passed us by. I could imagine that it was the sort of occasion - a warm night in London, buzzing with people - when such a group might turn to a couple of women and say, 'How about coming for a coffee, girls,' and a romance would be born. I had to remind myself that I was no longer in my teens or twenties, and that it would not be happening to me.

I got home at 12.30 like a proverbial Cinderella, and found the OM asleep in a chair. And, as Pepys might have said - and in fact, did say, And So to Bed.