On Saturday I went into Waterstones, Oxford and found myself in the middle of a Regency style musical performance. I was a little annoyed that the crowd which had formed around the performers meant that I could get nowhere near the fiction books I’d planned to spend half an hour browsing, but when I heard Austentation (there to mark 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice being published) performing Greensleeves- which is one of my favourite folk songs- I quickly forgave the disruption!
When Ed Caine, an NGO worker employed by the Global Justice Alliance moves his wife and young child to Africa to improve living conditions in the Makera slum, he genuinely believes he can make a difference, but in ten short weeks his ideals are shattered. Despite the assistance of Beatrice Kamunda and her father Joseph Kamunda, a senior government official known for his principled stance against corruption, he finds himself stonewalled as funds are siphoned off by the government. As Ed and his friends try struggle to save their project, they begin to realise that they a powerful enemy is behind the land grab. As political tensions seethe pushing the country to the brink of civil war, Ed and Beatrice begin to understand that much more than the survival of the project is at stake.
For anyone who remembers the outcry that arose when it was revealed that millions of pounds of Western Aid (including funds from Live Aid) was used by rebel leaders to buy arms, Ten Weeks in Africa by JM Shaw is an interesting read. It is well written with a fast paced and engaging story, but more than this it poses some interesting questions about Western interference in Africa. Through careful characterisation and plotting, Shaw creates a brilliant tension which gives birth to a pointed question: does financial aid from rich countries exacerbate the problems it is intended to solve?
Though I am interested in politics and global justice, I can’t make any claims to be an expert, so I did some research about what the experts actually thought about it and the consensus seems to be that it is a well-researched, accurate representation of the concerns of people working in this area. For more information I recommend this article by Peter Gill for The Guardian and this article by Charles Moore for The Telegraph.
When I was small, reading A Visit from St Nicholas, more commonly known as, ‘Twas the night before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore was a Christmas Eve Tradition. I don’t normally post the full text of a poem to my blog, but this was published in 1823 so the term of copyright has expired and I couldn’t resist. I hope this gets you into the Christmas spirit!
A Visit from St Nicholas/The Night Before Christmas
Clement Clarke Moore
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.
And Mama in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.
When out on the roof there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
tore open the shutter, and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
gave the lustre of midday to objects below,
when, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
but a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles, his coursers they came,
and he whistled and shouted and called them by name:
“Now Dasher! Now Dancer!
Now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid!
On, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch!
To the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away!
Dash away all!”
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
when they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky
so up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
with the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
the prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head and was turning around,
down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
and his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
and he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes–how they twinkled! His dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
and the beard on his chin was as white as the snow.
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
and the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
that shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
and I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
and filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
and giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”
Fun facts about the poem
- In the original poem, Donner and Blitzen are called Dunder and Blixem which apparently links back to the idea that Clement Clarke Moore was inspired to create his Santa Claus by a Dutchman he knew.
- Only one original copy of the poem remains in private hands, and it sold for $280,000 back in 2006.
- People often change “breast” to “crest” in the poem because they are embarrassed by the other kind of breasts or think it is dirty. Fools.
- The poem has been widely parodied, my favourite is the one in the style of Ernest Hemingway
“The war tried to kill us in the spring. As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers. While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onwards through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.”
The Yellow Birds Kevin Powers
While serving in the army in Iraq, Bartle and Murph told each other that the important thing is to avoid being the thousandth American military death of the conflict. If they died before or after, fine, they’d accept it, but neither of them wanted to claim the milestone for themselves. But war is about more than numbers, and when Bartle returns home without Murph, he is haunted by the promise he made Murph’s mother, and the actions he took in the wake of her son’s death.
Written by an Iraq veteran, The Yellow Birds is a different kind of war novel. Though the language used is often figurative to the point of flowery, the plot is pared back so that small moments expand beyond the moment they occupied in time, much like memories to create a realistic representation of lingering post-traumatic stress. The narrative is erratic, slightly disjointed so that through words of the introspective Bartle with his meandering descriptions of the bloodless, ghostlike Murph and seemingly sociopathic Sergeant Sterling, Kevin Powers creates a convincing portrait of three men bound and broken by a war beyond their control.
I can’t say I enjoyed this novel, because enjoyed is too light a word. It was both too realistic and too consciously stylised for that. Reading felt like an act of voyeurism, as though the book was an effort by the author to define and accept his experiences of war and I was spying on someone’s private nightmare. But it is a novel that lingers in its honesty, and, being about as far removed as it’s possible to be from the offerings of Chris Ryan and the like, is a powerful contrast to the vast swathes of Call of Duty and Medal of Honour narratives of modern warfare.
Death comes in the form of a dying man, a victim of the Bubonic Plague, sent by the Sultan to spread the disease through the city and bring his enemies to their knees. Life comes in the form of a talented young doctor, Feyra, a stowaway, running from the Sultan’s advances and carrying an important message for the Doge of Venice. But Feyra has few allies in the plague ridden city, and time is running out…
Taking real historic details as a starting point, Marina Fiorato has created an enjoyable story which, though clearly very well researched and brimming with historic detail, feels natural and engaging. Those with a passing interest in history will be pleased with the detailed reconstruction of plague struck Venice, with its saints and quacks, while those reading for adventure and romance will not be disappointed.
The characterisation is decent, there being enough complexity to prevent Feyra becoming the stock plucky yet virtuous maiden, and enough warmth to prevent Annibale becoming a Renaissance Mr Darcy in a bird mask. The relationships which develop between characters are for the main part credible, if a little oversimplified, though the author uses a subjective narrative to understate or overstate the bonds between characters to great effect at times.
The novel relates some very dramatic moment- births, deaths and destruction- without seeping into hysterical melodrama. And though there were occasions when the novel felt a little awkwardly paced, or when characters felt a little more like plot devices than characters (Columbina Cason) I was impressed with the way the author managed the pace and scope of the novel.
Looking at the cover with its beautiful woman in a low-cut corseted dress against the backdrop of Venice, you could be forgiven for thinking that this would be something of a bodice ripper and dismiss it as a result. Don’t. The cover is beautiful in its own way but really doesn’t do the story justice.
On the whole this is an enjoyable read, which is suitable for young adults but which has enough flair to impress an adult reader as well.
Lucille Turner’s debut novel Gioconda imagines the untold story of Leonardo da Vinci, the original Renaissance Man, from his upbringing as the bastard child of a notary, through his training as an artist, fleshing out the facts of history to explain why the Mona Lisa, or La Gioconda, was never delivered to the family who commissioned it and was instead inherited by one of Leonardo da Vinci’s pupils upon his death.
The novel is fluidly written, with few historical markers making it hard for the reader to judge at exactly which point in history the narrative occurs which aids the author in condensing the events of what is potentially a fifty year period into a relatively short novel, and allows the reader to focus on the polymath’s genius rather than on incident. For me, that’s where the difficulty of this beautifully written novel lies, the author seems to be trying to force a love story out of a true story which is already brilliant. For me, the intrigue in this novel was learning about Leonardo’s dissections and studies which were considered heretical and very dangerous- his relationship with Lisa seemed almost incidental. His character was too focussed on his work and too rational to make the desire to paint Lisa convincing, or the ending of the novel, which links back to the opening chapter, satisfactory. The Leonardo of the opening chapter and the Leonardo of the rest of the book seemed like two very different characters.
Gioconda is a good read, but not a great read. The strength of the novel lies in colourful descriptions of da Vinci’s artistic and scientific works. So while Turner’s attempts to convince me of a relationship between Leonardo and Lisa may not have been wholly successful, I will definitely be keeping my eyes open for a really nice edition of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks.
When I visited my boyfriend’s grandparent’s a few weekends ago, his grandfather (who has the most amazing ability to remember hundreds of lengthy poems by rote) very kindly gave me this 1850 version of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. He said he thinks it might be a first edition, and it is certainly a very early one. I love that it has so much history.
The poor book is showing its age though, as you can see in the pictures below. I’m going to take it for conservation work to prevent it becoming any more damage and to hopefully buy it a little more time. Luckily a father of a good friend of mine works as a librarian and was able to recommend a reputable conservator.
I hope that in a few weeks I will be able to show you a much happier looking little book.
I made a vague new year’s resolution to read more non fiction. I like to keep my resolutions vague because it means that failure is less of an option. However, I am making an effort with this and kick started my non fiction year with The Discovery of Jeanne Baret by Glynis Ridley, an English professor at the University of Louisville.
Jeanne Baret was the peasant born mistress of William Commerson, the botanist, who disguised herself as a man to enable her to join her lover on the first French circumnavigation of the globe. On this trip she helped discover the Bourgainvillea. In her book, Professor Ridley attempts to offer “a forgotten heroine a chance to bloom at last” if you’ll forgive the pun in the blurb (she was a herb woman/botanist). I couldn’t really. I’m just like that.
While Prof. Ridley’s book was certainly well written and engaging, I found myself very frustrated by it. For me it suffered from the same problem that plagues so many books about the less famous mistresses of famous men- the majority of historical records associated with the woman are actually about her more famous and powerful lover. In Baret’s case there are contemporary records which tell some of her story but they are of questionable integrity (which Ridley addresses very well) and require a degree of interpretation. Ridley’s methods for interpreting these records involve detailed exploration of the lives of Commerson and Bougainville in order to contextualize the records about Jeanne Baret which is really the only way to proceed under the circumstances, but results in a book which, for me, was more about Commerson than his mistress, making the title The Discovery of Jeanne Baret something of a misnomer.
Working in academic publishing, I read a lot of books like Ridley’s as a part of my day job and I think that my expectations as a result of this may have tainted Ridley’s book for me. It’s a dangerous strategy as a publisher to bring out a book with a very academic tone which attempts to cross over for the general reader. The book is poorly referenced throughout and though it includes some passages by way of evidence, much of the time I found myself muttering to myself “Where’s your evidence for that? What are you basing this on?” to the point where I felt that sweeping of (admittedly quite lovely prose) were pure conjecture which could easily have been remedied by replacing phrases like “Jeanne would have felt” with “Jeanne might have felt”. I’m not a fan of speculation presented as fact in these books, it read more like an exercise in gender studies than a historical account.
This is worth a read if you are happy to skip over the material which is presented in the footnotes of more academic texts. It has been well written and well researched, but I felt that by attempting to be a hybrid text it overlooked the level of detail and integrity its readers might look for.
Have you read this book? Would you disagree?
I recently visited an exhibition at the Bodleian Library Oxford which showcases some of the rare and ancient manuscripts the library owns. The exhibition will run until December 23rd 2011 and allows the public to view the treasures to decide which should go on permanent display.
You can see all sorts of wonderful things including a Shakespeare First Folio, a 1484 copy of Aesop’s Fables, fragments of lyric poems by Sappho, a draft of Frankenstein, The Kennicott Bible and original watercolours from The Hobbit. My favourite was Gregorio Reggio’s Herbarium which contains samples of plants collected around 1596. I just found it incredible that this has survived so long and is in such great condition.
I can’t post pictures from the exhibition here (without paying a £15 permissions fee) but do check it out on the Bodleian website and visit if you get the chance.
Whisper it, but I had never bought or read a Salman Rushdie novel until very recently. Fortunately, having filled up my loyalty card at my favourite bookshop, I was entitled to £7 off a book and had a quick scout around the shelves for something exciting. I’m a sucker for a pretty cover, so that (coupled with the fact that I’ve always meant to get around to reading Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses) made the book my gratis book of choice. I’m so glad that I picked it up.
The Grand Mughal, Emperor Akbar, is a man of the world who understands that life is often more complex than it seems. His favourite wife is a woman he has imagined into being; his three young sons, each addicted to opium, are plotting against him for his throne; and he is emotionally conflicted by his inability to talk about himself in the first person. And life for the Elephant King becomes increasingly complicated when a young Florentine arrives at his court claiming to be the son of the lost Mughal princess, Quara Kὅz, a noted beauty and enchantress, which would make him the great Mughal’s uncle…
A clever pastiche of the oral tradition of storytelling and packed with historical characters, this book is a beautiful bedtime story for adults. Richly exotic and evocative, Rushdie adopts many storytelling conventions which have sadly fallen out of favour in adult fiction and uses these folkloric devices to create something exciting and wonderfully grown up- with plenty of clever nods to the need for storytellers to flatter their audience. This book is a jewel.
I’ll leave you with this, one of my favourite lines:
When the emperor learned the truth he understood all over again how daring a sorcerer he had encountered on that long-ago morning after the dream of the crow. By then, however, the knowledge was of no use to him, except to remind him of what he should never have forgotten, that witchcraft requires no potions, familiar spirits or magic wands. Language on a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough.
The Enchantress of Florence, Salman Rushdie
See? Genius. What are you waiting for? Get out, buy it, read it to friends, memorize lines and share them with strangers on the bus.