Wednesday, 17 March 2010

On Butterflies...

They say that butterflies represent the human soul. Every time a chrysalis bursts open a new soul is born - carried forth by the butterfly on whose transitory wings it perches. This, I think is rather lovely and bestows a generous amount of responsibility onto such a fleeting insect! They have a few, short days to realise their purpose. The humble butterfly also carries the weight of chaos theory - the idea that something so small as a butterfly beating its wings can change the course of events via a ripple effect. The notion that the smallest of occurrences can lead to a complete divergence in course.

My sister has a beautiful butterfly that she bought at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. I was so envious when she brought it home, its iridescent blue shone out through the display box and I was enraptured.

So, when I went to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History I was delighted to see lots of butterflies on display. They really are lovely to look at and I marvelled at nature's intelligence and aesthetic vision at having produced such creatures. Whether these small insects can cause chaos and change the course of history I am not sure but looking closely at the shining brilliance of their wings I like to think that my soul was butterfly-borne, even if in my dreams.

Monday, 15 March 2010

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold - Book Review

I don't know why it has taken me so long to get around to reading The Lovely Bones. It was on my list of books to read for a long time so I asked my Sister to buy it for my Birthday. I picked it up last week and was immediately gripped.

The novel opens in 1973 with the rape and murder of fourteen year old Susie Salmon and the rest of the novel charts the impact of her death upon her family, friends and local community. We immediately know who her murderer is - the recounting of the event is chilling to read as Susie's narrative voice is both blunt and calm. The real sorrow and emotion develops as Susie watches her family and friends from her Heaven. She remains fourteen and powerless whilst she watches them struggle, grow and change.

Initially, I was concerned only with the capture and prosecution of her killer but as the novel developed my focus gradually weakened and I found myself becoming more concerned with the welfare of the Salmon family. This is Sebold's strength - that her writing leads the reader through the journey that Susie herself is on. But more than this, Sebold ensures that the reader does not just dwell on a desire to jump in and become a vigilante, erasing the novel of the 'baddie' but instead we are placed in Susie's Heaven. We watch her family and our focus on the murder becomes diluted with their struggles, torment, fracture and ultimately their reconciliation.

Her father and his breakdown is fascinating to read - the overwhelming sence of powerlessness that pervades every moment that we read about him is sorrowful. His obsession with her killer is natural and yet the only person who it has an impact upon is him - not the accused.

The reaction of Susie's mother is something which I am still grappling with. In some senses I can understand the desire for release and freedom from a horrific situation but ultimately, she had other children and reality can never truly be left behind. As she eventually found out.

Each character is affected by Susie's death in a unique way - but Sebold captures the relevance of the reaction for each character. Her sister, Lindsey, reacts exactly as a Sister reading the novel can understand. She is forever in shadow and yet frightened that the shadow will one day disappear. Her identity with Susie was entwined in life and in death it becomes even more so.

Sebold manages to write a Heaven that is not an embarrassing cliche - instead it is a slick and succinct device through which Susie Salmon has a voice after death, which is present and immediate. Even when Susie presents herself to members of her family or friends I did not shy away as I may have done if the portrayal had been a romantic one of life after death. In some senses this is a secular Heaven. One in which the protagonist comes of age, matures and is able to enter the new 'wide, wide Heaven' an adult. Susie may have been killed at fourteen but we watch her grow as she observes the people around her and discovers the intricacies of human relationships, sorrow, joy and love for the first time.

I haven't seen the film adaptation and I am not sure if I will see it or not. I rarely find that films based on books are that good - they changed the end of The Painted Veil (a favourite book), Stephen in the film looks nothing like the Stephen in the book of I Capture the Castle and Keira Knightley's Elizabeth Bennett is completely unrecognisable. Have any of you read the book and seen the film of The Lovely Bones - what did you think?

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

A very bookish birthday

I am undecided about my feelings towards my birthday. Shedding the years seems a sad activity and the celebration of another year passed can seem odd when, like me, you had a 'to do when I am (fill in age)' list as long as your arm. Last year I was supposed to go and see a musical (I have never seen one), take a ride in a hot air balloon, go to a theme park (I have never been to one), learn calligraphy and learn Latin. The list does go on and it is safe to say that I did NOTHING that was on the list.

What happened? Where did the year go? Time seems to get much faster as I get older - and I often wonder what happened to those long, endless summers? I would spend hours drifting around my mother's garden - the mossy lawn would spring between my toes as I would go down to the vegetable patch to pick whatever my mother needed for our supper. Balmy evenings would be spent watching the swallows whilst lying on my bed with the windows wide open - the warm breeze nudging me further towards a sleep which seemed a thousand sleeps from the morning in September when I would wake to a stiff collar, crisp pleated skirt and a new pair of sturdy, awful shoes that I would 'grow into'. I now have an irrevocable aversion to ever being 'sensibly' shod - much to my mother's annoyance.

Time seems different now and in acknowledgment of this I have not written a list for this year. The only thing I would like to do is ride in a hot air balloon at the end of a hot summer's day, (with a bottle of cold champagne, of course) to listen to the silence of the air as I look down on a patchwork burnt by the sun. This, I think I will do.

I had a very lovely birthday weekend spent wandering the streets of Oxford in the early spring sunshine and a day spent at my parent's in the company of my family including my lovely eight week old niece who stole the show entirely - understandably. My mother baked me a fantastic cake bedecked with glitter and I have just scoffed the last piece with a cup of tea.

I was very spoilt and have been given a truck load of books - I received two Persephone Books vouchers (cannot wait to spend on Saturday) along with the following stack.

The secondhand copy of Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree and Sylvia Townsend Warner's Summer will Show were bought in the Oxfam bookshop in Oxford with some birthday money from my Granny. The Lovely Bones and The Other Queen were given to my by my Sister - here is where I confess my dirty secret that I read Philippa Gregory, still everyone needs a bit of mental chewing gum now and again; surely? The snob in me is screaming to deny my ever having heard of her - the shame. My lovely friend bought me Elizabeth Goudge's The Bird in the Tree and Coco Before Chanel which I have wanted to watch for ages as I adore Chanel and my mum gave me Meals in Heels (I did mention my aversion to sensible shoes - it pervades every aspect of my life) which has me salivating already. The still wrapped Persephone is House-Bound by Winifred Peck which I am sure will render me house-bound for a while. And finally, Rachel (Book Snob) gave me Elizabeth Goudge's Green Dolphin Country which I have wanted to read for ages.

The long, endless summers may have become short but this hardship is counter-balanced by the realisation that I would rather a shorter summer with no starched school term looming ever closer - now I can decide my own reading list and while away my Sundays with books that I enjoy rather than a maths textbook or my MA thesis to write (of which I still have nightmares) - and that is absolutely worth getting older for.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Henry VIII's Art Deco Palace

As winter slowly creeps back into its icy lair and tree buds tentatively thicken, hope seeps into the newborn warmth of the air as we all wait for spring. Snowdrops hang their heads as the Daffodils start to take charge and perch on the edge of bloom. And every year at this time I get excited as not only is it my birthday in a few days but it is lighter when I leave work and I know that the time will come when I can leave the house with only a cardigan for warmth. I start to leave the husk of my winter hibernation and I look forward to the colour, smells and lushness of spring. The thought of soon being able to read a book in the park is simply too much excitement.

So, to take my mind off warm fantasies I am currently reading Henry: Virtuous Prince by David Starkey (with a frightful cover design). So far, I cannot put it down. Starkey writes in an incredibly accessible way. I have, perhaps a misplaced notion that non-fiction is often dry and laborious but this is a real page turner.

It has also reminded me of one of my favourite places in London. Eltham Palace was Henry VIII's childhood home. Now owned by English Heritage, the ruined medieval palace was bought by the millionaires Stephen and Virginia Courtauld who built an extraordinarily stunning Art Deco mansion on the site. The original Great Hall exists and medieval and Art Deco architecture sit side by side and work together to present an outstanding and unique palace.

The entrance to the Art Deco palace.

The Courtaulds turned the ruined moat into a lawn.

The medieval Great Hall, built by Edward IV in the 1470s

You may recognise the entrance hall from the recent film of
I Capture the Castle

Virginia's Boudoir

The ornate Art Deco interior is beautiful but my favourite room was Stephen's bathroom. I love the pattern on these curtains and the colours of the leaves against the blue tiles. The simplicity of his choice of decor is both striking and comforting. In contrast, Virginia's bathroom was covered in gold mosaic tiles, containted a Grecian statue and boasted a rather large mirror framed with lightbulbs.

Before I return to my longing for the warmth of spring I have to announce the winner of the copy of Iris Murdoch's The Book and the Brotherhood that Random House kindly gave me to offer for my book giveaway. I am pleased to let Hannah Stoneham know that she is the winner! Just email me with your address and I will pop it in the post. Thank you to everyone who entered - I hope that some of you will go out and read an Iris Murdoch - perhaps in the warmth of the sun in your local park?