All posts in the Books category

Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger

Published 10/11/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

I’ve been a Penelope Lively fan for years, so I jumped at the opportunity of attending a radio recording of her talking about her Booker prize winning novel, Moon Tiger.   I’ve been to the BBC Radio Theatre several times, but this was a World Service programme, so it took place at Bush House.

The experience was a completely different one.  We were taken down a couple of flights of stairs and across a courtyard then down a further couple of flights, ending up in the bowels of Bush House.  Having started out at the Kingsway entrance to the building, we were now over on the Strand side.  In a highly civilised manner we were offered glasses of wine before going into the studio, where Penelope was already seated with Harriett Gilbert.  There were only about 30 of us in the small studio, and I was told that mine was to be the second question of the programme. 

After Harriett introduced Penelope, the writer read a short passage from the novel before taking the first question.  The pattern of the programme was a series of questions, some taken from the audience, others put to Penelope by Harriett, who had received them by email, and a couple more came in by phone from around the world.  It was interesting to take into account the questions posed by others and to learn of some of the writer’s insights into her working processes and the building up of character. 

My question was on the conflicting perspectives given in the novel, others asked about the research put in to build up a story, why the story didn’t have a necessarily happy ending and how much of the writer was in the protagonist.

It will be interesting to listen to the programme when it is broadcast in a few weeks, especially as our hour and ten minutes in the studio will be edited down to 53 minutes.  After that the programme will remain in the BBC’s archives indefinitely. 

Nigel Slater: Toast

Published 14/10/2011 by damselwithadulcimer


Nigel Slater is my favourite cookery writer and TV food presenter.  I refuse to call him a television chef, because he isn’t, but he understands food and how different flavours and textures work together.  His cookery books aren’t at all fussy or precise and he makes it very clear that cooking is a very personal practice that can be varied as the cook wishes.  But his recipes draw in the reader, make your mouth water, and make you want to rush off to the kitchen to start trying the dishes for yourself.

In this memoir he revisits his early and teen years using the sensory memories of different foods.  I was amazed at his recall of so many different items, especially the sweets.  I’m only a few years older than him, but I’d forgotten about some of the sweets he clearly remembers.  However he managed to sweep me back to my younger days of ‘Beatlegum’ (and the smell returned with the memory), Clarnico Mint Creams (my grandma used to eat them), pear drops smelling of nail varnish remover and the original Walnut Whips.  Back in the 1960s we weren’t very sophisticated on a culinary level, and I also remember when puddings tended to be fruit out of a tin, and when school dinners were atrocious, but you were forced to eat them regardless, including drinking the lukewarm school milk.  His food reminiscences work in tandem with his home life, his mother’s illness, his father’s remarriage, and later his father’s death.

He evokes experiences and encourages the reader to share his own teenage and adolescent growing pains, his mother’s loss, his difficulties with his stepmother, his early sexual adventures and his realisation that cooking is all he wants to do.  Each section (they’re hardly long enough to be chapters) bears the title of an item of food and it’s as if he’s sharing memories and experiences with the reader, and not recounting a linear autobiography.

Everyman by Philip Roth

Published 06/09/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

Perhaps this novel struck a cord because I’m not getting any younger, although I’m not as old the novel’s protagonist, who reaches the age of seventy-one.  Roth takes a novel approach in this short story (novella?) which begins with the funeral of the tale’s subject.  Obviously this opening sequence leaves the reader in no doubt that there will be no happy ending, and this is reinforced by a quotation from Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, itself a melancholy poem.  Furthermore Everyman can refer back to a medieval morality play where the living are summoned to death, or it can simply be an analogy for the lives of all of mankind.

Although the outcome is obvious, this tactic doesn’t stop the reader from wanting to know more.  (In Romeo and Juliet‘s prologue, Shakespeare lays out the bare bones of the play, but nobody walks out until the play is over.)  The protagonist of Everyman looks back over his life and recalls his childhood and parents, before we learn about his loves, marriages, affairs and philanderings, his children, career and retirement.  Different passages send him on various journeys of remembrance and we gradually learn, as he also realises, that he hasn’t been a terribly nice person.  Various operations in hospital contribute to his declining health until he reaches the point where he appears to be happy to embrace death, or to let it welcome him.

Two sentences made a strong impact on me: ‘Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.’  This appears to sum up his failing health, although we know that his older, more successful and healthier brother, Howie, would obviously think differently.  The second occasion is when the protagonist appears to be moving closer towards death and impulsively decides to visit the cemetery where his parents are buried.  ‘They were just bones, bones in a box, but their bones were his bones … The flesh melts away but the bones endure.’  It is obvious that he is a secular Jew, religion plays no place in his life, and he doesn’t believe in an afterlife, but the realisation that he is still connected to his parents is an epiphanic and painful one.  ‘He couldn’t go.  The tenderness was out of control.  As was the longing for everyone to be living.  And to have it all over again.’

I closed the book, but the story has left me with an ache.  Roth has a knack of setting out the human condition and pointing out that things could be different.  It’s up to us to follow the right path and make the necessary choices.  A funeral can (and should) be a celebration of an individual’s life and the final page of Everyman is that in a way.  We’ve learned how the protagonist lived his life and found out why the mourners at his funeral acted as they all did.

Review of A Bit on the Side by William Trevor

Published 03/09/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

Reading William Trevor is like coming back home to a warm fire and a pair of comfy slippers. He is a gifted story-teller, especially of short stories; less is more. He crafts his characters, both physically and psychologically, and their emotions, using the fewest number of words possible. He moves easily from Ireland to England, but his turns of phrase and use of idioms and vernacular leave the reader in no doubt where each story is set. In stories like ‘Justina’s Priest’ he has no need to explain that she is backward; he has already made that clear to the reader without needing to spell it out. You find yourself under the skins of many of the characters, sometimes they arouse sympathy, sometimes annoyance and sometimes just pity. But the effect, as with many of his other stories, both short and long, is of a modern day Chekhov. You experience an ache and a longing for what has been missed or what could have been avoided.

Review of The South by Colm Toibin

Published 28/08/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

<a href=”; style=”float: left; padding-right: 20px”><img alt=”The South” border=”0″ src=”; /></a><a href=””>The South</a> by <a href=””>Colm Tóibín</a><br/>
My rating: <a href=”″>5 of 5 stars</a><br /><br />
I read my first Colm Toibin novel (Brooklyn) a few months ago and am a complete convert.  The South was his first published fictional novel and he shows many of the concerns of his later work in this earlier one.  There is a female protagonist, there are life changes, displacements and moves away from, and back to, home.  Enniscorthy features again and helps Katherine Proctor reach conclusions about her life, as well as being a place where she renews relationships.  Katherine travels, physically and metaphorically, between Spain and Ireland as she travels through her adult years.  She develops and matures, learns insights and suffers loss, but Toibin never judges her.  He deftly paints her and her surroundings, as she too takes up art.  He is more of a water colourist than an oil painter, but he writes deftly and precisely, getting under your skin and leaving lasting imagery with you.
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The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore

Published 20/08/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

I have to admit that Helen Dunmore can do no wrong where I’m concerned. The Betrayal picks up on the story of Andrei and Anna in post-war Stalinist Leningrad. I was impressed by the way Dunmore worked the earlier novel, The Siege, and her evocation of the sensations of hunger and cold that formed the background to Leningrad during the siege of 1941/2, and this later tale is equally impressive.

The reader is sucked into the story of the young couple, and those around them. I found myself reading the book as if I were also waiting for that dreaded knock on the door. The fear and tension are palpable, as are the feelings of living under a totalitarian regime, where people can be arrested and accused of non-existent crimes merely because of the delusions of a paranoid dictator and the machine that grinds away under his wheels. It’s a story that makes you care desperately about the characters it depicts, even the less sympathetic ones, as you’re aware that everybody is a victim, even those who appear to wield power.

Dunmore researches and writes meticulously; you will feel as if you are in cold war Russia, struggling to survive and maintain your dignity.



The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim

Published 22/07/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

The Enchanted April (Virago Modern Classics)The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a find! If a friend hadn’t invited me to join Bright Young Things I would never have come across Elizabeth Von Arnim or The Enchanted April. Such a delightful early twentieth century fairy tale of the change that comes over four women who decide to share a medieval castle on the Mediterranean coast of Italy. New love is discovered, marriages are repaired, the gardens change as the weeks advance and everybody has an enchanted month away from England. Nearly a hundred years ago women didn’t have the independence and autonomy that we take for granted, but they have the capacity to be happy, and that is what is so heartwarming about this clever, witty novel.

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