Friday, 25 February 2011

Tulips and pandas

For a blog that I envisaged being mostly about books, the 'and other things' seem to be rather more prevalent than I'd anticipated! But never mind... 

Truth be told, I've still not entirely regained my reading mojo and am halfway through two books. It's not helped by the fact that I'm riding my bike to work as much as I can, and the tube, whilst horrible on many levels, does have the advantage of an extra eighty minute of reading time a day! Consequently, I'm not feeling very literary at the moment, but I am feeling quite healthy. Swings and roundabouts.

So, in lieu of anything more interesting, here's a picture of the little table in my hallway which is pleasing me every time I walk past it. Tulips are my all-time favourite flower. Although I find I get fond of different plants each season as they bloom, I always come back to tulips. I think because they have such a lovely, neat shape and come in so many delicious colours. Anyway, this bunch on my table were a (only slightly hinted at) present from my lovely boy, and are sitting in a jug that used to contain a scented candle. The pictures are Constable's view of the cathedral in Salisbury (my home town) and a me as a very frowny baby. There's a also a sad panda in a cup. He used to belong to my uncle, who's no longer with us, and has to sit in that cup because he's been far too loved and falls over otherwise. His name's Curtain.

Oh, and some shells from a recent holiday. And a thermometer, but I'm not sure why that's there.

I don't know why this little selection of things pleases me so much; it just feels very me and home-y.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Frankenstein at The National Theatre

I was really quite excited about this play - gothic horror, impressive cast list, exciting director (Danny Boyle of Slumdog and, my favourite, 28 Days Later fame, amount others) - and it didn't disappoint. Boyle even threw in a little steam-punk styling at one point! We went to see it in preview and, at times, it did feel like some of the supporting cast weren't quite comfortable with their lines. But the overall impression was immensely enjoyable and visually stunning.

The two leads, Johnny Lee Miller (who most famously worked with Boyle before in Trainspotting) and Benedict Cumberbatch, are unusually alternating the main roles of Frankenstein and his monster. It's an interesting concept (and possible marketing strategy?!) but unless you plan on seeing it twice then it's not something most theatre goers will really get to appreciate. At the matinee on Saturday Lee was the monster and Cumberbatch the creator. This is the way round that makes the most sense to me; I can't help but think Cumberbatch little too pretty to make a good monster, but I would be interested to see what he did with it.

The play opens with the monster being 'born' out of a frame that seems to be made of taut, dried skin and which invoked, for me and not least because of the colour scheme used, Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man diagram. He then spends a good ten minutes alone on the stage, naked, going through the process of understanding his own body. At times, he's like a baby - his toes go into his mouth, he rocks back and forth trying to get to his feet, but at other points it seems horribly painful and hard to watch. This sets the scene for the whole play, though, the struggle of the monster to understand what he is, what he should do, and to try and rationalise humanity.

The film differs a lot from the book. Of course. The main difference I felt was that both main characters were far less sympathetic and human than in the novel. Frankenstein is an arrogant and unfeeling genius without the saving grace of his love for his friends and fiancĂ©e, I don't think we see him interacting 'humanly' with other people at any point. Similarly, his monster is far quicker to move from innocence to vengeance and seems almost predisposed to chaos as he murders the farming family who reject him and intentionally, rather than accidentally as in the novel, kills a young boy.

My only gripe, and I'm not sure whether it's a major one, is that the monster wasn't hideous enough. I was about two thirds of the way back, and did have my contacts in, but all I could see of his 'deformities' were scars that, whilst unpleasant, didn't make him seem inhuman. I felt that, every time a character recoiled in horror, I had to imagine what they were seeing. I'm not entirely sure what could have been done to add to his monstrousness; the part was beautifully acted and the way Miller carried himself was indeed inhuman and disturbing at times. Shelley's novel describes the monster as having 'yellow skin [that] scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries below' so possibly something more to alter the skin, make him look like he'd been stitched together from dead flesh? But maybe this was partially intentional, to draw more attention to the similarities between the creator and creation rather than  presenting them as opposites?

Overall it's a very impressive play and raises the questions about humanity, creation, about making judgements based on appearances, and about inclusiveness that are present in the novel, and which are still entirely relevant today.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Great Apes, Will Self

I must admit, I was very wary of Will Self's novels. Whenever I've seen him on television or heard him on the radio he's seemed so frighteningly intelligent and sneery, and to have such a vast vocabulary, that I couldn't help but think that his books would be impenetrable. And probably not much fun.

But, for some reason, I picked up How the Dead Live last year and really enjoyed it, which prompted me to read Great Apes as my first List book of 2011. He does really have an immense vocabulary (I found having a dictionary to hand quite useful) and both of these books are very clever, but I couldn't describe them as impenetrable. Self is very able to pick up the quirks and idiosyncrasies in people and use them to make his characters almost painfully life-like. Not always very likeable, but always familiar and relate-to-able.

Great Apes focuses on Simon, a high-living artist in London in the '90s who wakes up one morning to find himself in what I guess could be termed an alternate reality, where chimpanzees instead of humans have been evolutionarily dominant. The world he finds himself in is almost identical to the one he left, except that all the 'people' are chimpanzees instead of humans, with a social structure based on that of the chimpanzees.... cue lots of grooming, references to bottoms and the marvellous concept of a 'second breakfast'.

I felt that one of the major successes of this novel was the language and style Self uses. His chimps communicate via a mixture of verbal sounds and sign language, and this is expressed with the sentences (that would be signed) interspersed with the verbal sounds: 

"HoooGrnn," Paul vocalised, then gestured to Simon, 'Now Simon, we're not going to hurt you -' 

At first I found this quite hard to read, the unfamiliar word/sounds upset the flow of the sentences and kept 'jarring'. But as the book develops, it gradually became more natural and understandable, which seemed to perfectly mirror Simon's gradual acceptance of his 'chimpunity'; as I found the chimp world easier to read and understand, so Simon came to terms with his new body and habits and so I was rooting for him to accept it.

The easy, obvious, subtext to the novel is that of a satire. People are like monkeys,  making us aware of how beasty we can be at times, and how the chimps' way of doing things might make more 'logical' sense. But that would be little more than a short story, whereas this managed to both make me aware of 'issues' whilst still being entertaining and engaging. Self seems aware of this, though, as the last exchange between his main characters questions whether the 'conviction that you (Simon) were human and that the evolutionarily successful primate was the human was more in the manner of a satirical trope'? The question isn't answered.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011


Well, not really. The world isn't coming to a sticky, orangey, rind-spattered end. But there were moments at the weekend when I thought my kitchen might... New Boy likes marmalade, you see, and being a domestic type and keen to impress I agreed to have a go at making some. From his family recipe.

I've never made any sort of preserve before; all that faffing about with sugar thermometers and vast vats of boiling liquid seemed both too clinical and too risky, and far less fun than baking a cake and playing with icing. But I like a challenge, and we found some Seville oranges (in Waitrose, of course) so had to go for it.

Thankfully, it was a success. I was completely unsure of what the finished product was going to turn out like and, as I don't actually like marmalade, didn't much care as long as it was edible. But apparently it's nice. And it meant I could indulge in kitsch with little marmalade-jar hats:

The recipe, in case anyone is interested:

Dark, Thick Marmalade

1.5 kg Seville oranges
4kg sugar
8pts water
1 lemon

Wash the fruit, cut in half and squeeze. Put the pips and left over white bits and pulp from the squeezing into a muslin bag (or fashion one using a tea-towel and Hard Knots). Cut the rind of the fruit into thick shreds and pop it into an ENORMOUS pan with the water and the juice, and the bag of bits. Boil for about two hours or until it's reduced by a little more than a third.

Remove the bag and give it a squeeze to get all the juice out (note: it will be hotter than the sun, so wear gloves or perform some sort of pincer manoeuvre with spoons). Add the sugar to the pan and let it boil for another one and a half to one and three quarter hours, 'til it's darkened slightly.

Test to see if it's set. Do this by putting a saucer in the freezer 'til it's cold, then dropping a teaspoon full of marmalade onto it. Pop it back in the fridge for a minute and then see if, when you poke it with your finger, it forms a bit of a skin. If it does you're all done, if not it's not going to set. ( I don't know what you do if it won't set. Cry, probably.)

Pour it into jars (these will need to be nice and clean and sterile, and preferably warmed in the oven a little bit first, so they don't crack when you pour the marmalade in). Be very careful as it'll be hot and go everywhere. Theoretically put a little circle of greaseproof paper on the top (I didn't) and screw the lids on quickly. Allow it to cool and, hopefully, set whilst you entertain yourself making little jar-hats.

The most important marmalade making lesson I learnt? Everything will get VERY HOT and also STICKY. Be prepared.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Raise the Titanic! - Clive Cussler

Just to contrast nicely with The List and all its literary pretensions, I think the first book I shall devote a blog post to is going to be Raise the Titanic! by Clive Cussler.

Firstly, whilst I will read most things quite happily, I'll admit that this was a slightly unusual choice for me. However, as a child I was the victim of a fairly weighty obsession with the Titanic (blame my father for showing me A Night to Remember when I was three...) and still find it hard to pass by anything that mentions it. This was, I hasten to add, before the DiCaprio/Winslet/Dion love-in (I'm so ahead of the trends) and also resulted in my persuading my long-suffering maths teacher to let me do my GCSE maths course work on it. 

Anyway, obsession notwithstanding, this is Not A Very Good Book. I'd find it hard to say it's even a moderately good book. It's page-turning in places, but far too stuffed with 'characters' who are mostly just stereotypes and who don't seem to add much to the story, and bubbling with casual sexism and racism that I couldn't help but wince at. I think it probably works best now as a period piece, and there were definitely moments where I was reminded to be glad that I was born in the 80s rather than the 50s. I rather doubt that was Mr Cussler's intention in writing it though.