Sunday, 27 September 2015

Ode To Autumn by John Keats

I looked out over the garden early this morning on an Autumn mist, which put me in mind of one of my favourite poems - To Autumn by John Keats - one of the first poems that I was required to learn in grammar school. In a letter to a friend Keats wrote that the fields of stubble that he saw when walking reminded him of a painting. I think the poem has a melancholy tone, which perhaps is an indication of the personal problems that Keats was experiencing at the time of writing. It was the last poem he wrote because circumstances had forced him to give up the life of a poet to earn a living. Some have read it as an allegory of death. Indeed, one year later the poet died in Rome, at the age of  twenty six. Here it is.

The Corn Harvest by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

To Autumn

by John Keats
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage trees,
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
   And still more, later flowers for the bees,
   Until they think warm days will never cease,
      For Summer has o'erbrimmed their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
   Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
   Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind,
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
   Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
      Spares the next swath and all its twin├Ęd flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
   Steady thy laden head across a brook;
   Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
      Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
   Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, -
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
   Among the river sallows, borne aloft
      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
   Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
   The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
      And gathering swallows twitter in the skies

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Holiday Reading

I'm flying off for a holiday in Spain on Thursday. There was a time when on holiday I would stagger to bed after the witching hour loaded with rioja or sangri - but not nowadays I like to be tucked up by ten, cuddling a book. So I've been thinking about what bedtime reading to pack. Last Saturday I bought the first volume of a fairly recent Faye Weldon trilogy to slip into my bag. But I couldn't resist reading it -  so now I need something else.

My opinion of Habits of the House (2012)? Well, I have to say that, though I am normally an avid and enthusiastic reader of Fay Weldon's books, my reaction in this instance is lukewarm. The book is infused with  customary humour and keen observation of human nature but I just couldn't engage with the characters, or care about what happened to them. But I'm willing to concede that the fault may lie with me rather than the writer - she is, after all, a Professor of English Literature at the University of Bath Spa, and was awarded the CBE for her services to literature.

The scenario is in Upstairs, Downstairs mode (Ms. Weldon was a scriptwriter for the immensely popular television serial of that name back in the day). The action takes place in the month leading up to the turn of the 19th century into the 20th and the book is written from a third person omniscient point of view. Despite my reservations about the story line, I am deeply impressed by the author's continuing ability to produce fiction in her late seventies (perhaps there is still hope for me) and may buy the second volume sometime, to satisfy my curiosity - about her writing, rather than the characters.

I also recently  bought a copy of Hostilities Only  by  Brian Lavery. This book is for those interested in Training the Wartime Royal Navy - as I am. It's non-fiction written by an expert in the field and published by the National Maritime Museum. I am using the book to glean background information for the memoir that I am writing about my father. As you may know, in recent years Dad told me a lot about his early life during our daily chats over morning coffee, and edited my drafts. But he sadly passed away three months ago so now I am continuing to write without his input. So what started life as a ghost-written autobiography is necessarily becoming fictionalised life writing to fill some gaps that were left in Dad's narrative. Hostilities Only has proved invaluable so far. But it's not holiday reading - and the print is so small that I'm thinking of buying a magnifying glass.

So, what reading material will I take on holiday? Along with the Spanish phrase book I'm packing Penelope Lively. Which is to say, one of her books. Specifically How it all Began (2011). I am a fan of Ms. Lively's books.If you enjoy life writing I recommend the first in her trilogy of autobiographies Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived, which tells of her early childhood in Cairo. Penelope Lively  has also written lovely children's books, which my own boys read when they were young. Amongst many accolades Ms. Lively is a Booker prizewinning writer  (Moon Tiger in 1987) and in 2014 was awarded the honour of Dame Commander of the British Empire for her services to literature.

Hasta luego. I'll be back soon and hope you will too.

Monday, 14 September 2015

The Hearts and Minds of Men by Fay Weldon

Fay Weldon is my all time favourite contemporary writer. She has been writing novels, short stories, screenplays and more for 5 decades and has been awarded a CBE in the Queen's Honours and Fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature. What I love about Ms. Weldon's books is the characterisation, which is often in the form of an omniscient and dispassionate view (albeit from a feminist perspective) of the motives behind the way that  her characters act and drive forward the plot. Fay Weldon has an educational grounding in psychology, which is evident in this aspect of her writing. Added to this, Miss Weldon is incredibly imaginative.

At the moment I am re-reading The Hearts and Minds of Men, first published in 1987. Ms. Weldon uses an interesting literary technique in this narrative: she writes from a third person omniscient point of view, with the author frequently directly addressing the reader - which creates a chatty conversational impression. A tug of love child is snatched by her father and put on a plane bound for Switzerland. The plane explodes mid air with the loss of all lives except that of the child, Nell, and her escort - who float to earth unharmed, still strapped into their seats, and land in thick mud on a French beach. What happens next? You will need to read the book to find out.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

The Bookseller of Kabul - A Must Read

This book review is for anyone who has been out of circulation/off the planet for the past ten years or so and consequently has not heard of or read The Bookseller of Kabul. I am now on my third reading in ten years and am so enraptured by the book that I have taken time out from a beautiful early autumn afternoon in my garden to tell you about it.

It was written by a Norwegian lady, Asne Seierstad in 2002 and has now been translated into many languages. Ms. Seierstad has received numerous awards for her journalism. She has worked as a foreign correspondent in Russia, China, and reported on the ward in Kosovo for Norwegian television. In 2003 she reported on the war in Iraq from Baghdad.

In 2001 whilst in Kabul she met by chance a bookseller and became so interested in his story that she invited herself to live with his family for three months, only venturing out into the dangerous streets of Kabul wearing a burka to disguise her identity and protect herself from harm. The Bookseller of Kabul is fictionalised life-writing based on her experiences. She writes in her Forward to the narrative that whilst the book is in literary form it is based on real events experienced by herself or what was told to her by people who took part in those events. When she describes thoughts and feelings she is recounting what people told her they thought or felt.

This book gives a unique insight into what life is like for a relatively affluent and well-educated man supporting a family in a patriarchal society in war-torn Afghanistan. Ms.Seierstad writes sympathetically but is open about her anger and frustration at the suppression of women in a traditional Muslim society. I can't recommend this book highly enough as a means of furthering understanding and sympathy for people living in very difficult circumstances. The book has been described by various critics as 'compelling, a triumph, stunning, and remarkable.'