Thursday, 30 August 2012

On NOT reading Fifty Shades of Grey

As part of my preliminary thoughts on reading The Hunger Games, I made the point that I am somewhat allergic to lots of hype (see here) - whether it's about a book, a movie, whatever... One of my regular followers, The Novelist, posted a query on my Facebook wall some time back asking if I was going to read Fifty Shades of Grey, and before I could respond, another of my blog groupies, The Teacher, bounced in with the comment that it would make so much 'fodder' for my blog. At that point, and don't ask me how I managed this because I couldn't tell you, I hadn't even heard of the book. A quick dive into a bit of Internet research and I emerged to reply to them both that it was most unlikely, with my limited time to read and write about my reading, that I would add this book to the TBR pile.

However, it didn't end there... DB and Sixteen do tend to get caught up by hype about certain things - witness the ongoing viewing of the numerous television singing contests at our house... So, I suppose it was inevitable that at some point, the subject of Fifty Shades of Grey should surface. The trigger wasn't the book itself, as DB hasn't read it, although I just found out Sixteen has (more about that in a minute) and I would assume that there could be a number of Sixteen's girlfriend's cronies who've smuggled it into their current reading matter - that, based on a recent blog post I read by someone going to buy it who had to reach through the crowd of blushing, giggling adolescent girls to get her hands on a copy...yet another example of my one of my previous soapboxes - do you know what your children are reading/watching/playing?

Anyway, the conversation with DB and Sixteen started when something flashed past on the TV about it, I think, and DB, always impressed by a big monetary success, waxed lyrical about how many copies had been sold and what that meant for the author, etc, in terms of it being a literary success. Interestingly, Sixteen unexpectedly agreed with me when I said that just because a book had sold millions of copies, it wasn't necessarily a literary success. It's certainly a commercial success, and E.L. James will never have to write any more than this trilogy (and from some of the reviews and commentaries I've read, I'd have to say it's to be hoped that she won't) in order to bolster her financial security.

DB says Sixteen read it because he "wanted to see what all the hype was about"... Sixteen also said I'd be horrified because it was so very badly written. But, it bolsters my case for the marketing and Internet sensation these books have become. The Novelist says she's going to read it to check out the sex scenes because she's writing a novel and wants to see how someone else writes a sex scene. The Teacher read the whole trilogy and said she couldn't put them down but wanted to... And then today, another friend on Facebook, lets call her Young Writer, put up a post saying, 'Hi my name is ... and I have a problem with 50 Shades of Grey/bullshit and the people who read it. Don't hate me. You don't need a "sexy book" to feel good...' A fellow blogger - you know who you are - read and blogged about this book recently and was hugely amused at my comments after his initial post.

And then - which is why I caved to write this blog post - I came across a review of the book in Southern Cross, the monthly magazine of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. It never ceases to amaze me, the books and films that get reviewed in this mag - although, there's a certain logic in a deeply conservative diocese pushing particular views of elements of popular culture. The writer of the review acknowledged the hype at the beginning of her piece, and then said it became obvious that it had to be the airport book, as she was heading off on a longish flight - the mind boggles at the thought of a planeload of people all reading this book at the same time... Again, I read a commentary on the quality, or lack thereof, of the writing. Given the forum, there was also a significant portion of the review that spoke to Christian values and the overt subversion of anything healthy and realistic about the relationship between the main protagonists. 

Have I read this book yet? No. Am I going to? No. Why not? Because, beyond the hype, enough commentary that I respect - including the blogger I mentioned, who spoke also of the poor writing - has reinforced the fact that I don't want to spend money on trash. I don't have time to read badly written books. And I also don't need this sort of shallow, gratuitous over-developed fan fiction on my bookshelves. When I think how many really good writers are struggling to get their work out there, I don't want to support bad work. 

And, an end note to my Hunger Games experience... My regular readers will recall that I made a similarly vehement statement about not wanting to see the movie after my reading of all three books in the trilogy. Just recently, DB downloaded it to watch at home, coming to let me know it was about to start so I could join he and Sixteen. He was somewhat taken aback by my instant refusal and I was equally taken aback by both of them clearly not having taken me seriously when I said I didn't want to see it...many times. About halfway through they took a break, and I went out to make more tea... DB was clearly quite shaken and his quote, which says it all was: "I don't know how you read these books, this is really messed up."

At the end of the we have to read stuff, or go to see movies, just because 'everyone else is?' My grown up self says, of course not. I do remember the pressures of a younger age when doing what everyone else does was what kept you in a group, and that felt more important than suffering through whatever the current thing was. However, these days, given the level of so many of the hyped up things that are having so much collective power, I'm becoming an advocate of rugged individualism! Wouldn't it be a great thing to see the growth of a cult of eccentricity among our young people that allowed for them to follow whatever interests they had and for their peers to celebrate that individuality? Just a thought...

Monday, 27 August 2012

National Literacy and Numeracy week

It's National Literacy and Numeracy Week in Australia this week.

I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the events - which can be found on this website:

However, I'd also like to point out that the URL indicates this is an Australian Government site. The same government that is currently discussing cuts to Arts subjects in mainstream curriculum. This is in the face of the many studies that indicate greater literacy and numeracy skills in students who have regular access to music, visual arts, dance and drama in their regular class time - not just as extra-curricular classes outside school. There's an excellent paper that can be read if you follow this link:

The paper touches on the integrated exposure to the arts that is a part of life for less 'civilised' cultures; where dance and music for religious observance is a normal part of life, painting for decorative purposes ditto... It looks at practices in other parts of the Western world at different times. It looks at practices in Australia, and the implications for our education system, and more importantly, for our children.

There appears to me to be a great push to increase the technological capabilities of our school system, and offer our children the possibility of a laptop each in the classroom. But, should this be done at the cost of offering them music, paint and clay, creative movement and drama?

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Books for free!

I was just surfing the Internet, and came across this amazing photo of a bookstore sign... It brought to mind the other night, when DB and I were driving around a nearby suburb after being out for dinner and saw, outside a group of shops, a line of bookcases out on the footpath. There was a small group of people there, clearly fitting books into the bookcases, and apparently the books are all there for whoever wants to swap or borrow them. How cool is that?!

Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina

Re-reading books after a long time since the first reading is something I always find interesting, particularly with classics. My memories of reading Anna Karenina as a teenager are that it was a huge read, and sometimes tough going. Reading it now, I can see why that was the case. There is a certain amount of patience required to deal with Tolstoy's presentation of various political and social ideals via several of the characters which can sometimes feel as if the narrative has been suspended. Also, much of the emotional drama is played out within the interior landscape of the central characters, rather than by directly engaging with each other.

That was heightened for me back then due, in part, to my initial encounter with the book via the 1977 BBC TV adaptation, starring Nicola Pagett as Anna. I found a clip on You Tube from the third episode, depicting the horse race where Vronsky falls and his horse is fatally injured. (You can watch it by clicking HERE) Although the liaison between them is known tacitly, there is much that has gone unsaid. When Vronsky falls, Anna, who is at the races with her friend, Princess Betsy, is unable to contain herself, becoming visibly distressed - to the point that her husband, who is present, demands she leave at once with him lest there be a scandal. In the ensuing discussion, much is said by both Anna and Karenin. However, the same scenes in the book have the same information being communicated as part of the narrative, as internal dialogue. Anna doesn't tell Karenin outright that she despises him and his pride. He is unable to tell her how he fears for the disgrace that she could bring upon them, much less how hurt he is...

The contrast in storytelling is a result of what is possible with the different mediums, and there is certainly much more subtlety in the internal emotional turmoil than there is in Anna's quite shrewish spit in the TV series. As a teen, that subtlety was lost on me - particularly having watched the series first. As an adult, I'm much struck by how true to life so many of Tolstoy's characters are. How often do we, in times of emotional difficulties, run over the things in our heads that we wish we could say out loud...and never actually say them? In the case of Anna and Karenin, their lack of sympathy with each other is an insurmountable barrier to any kind of resolution. They have their internal pictures of each other, and are unable to say anything to each other to either clarify or alter that view or understanding of each other - although, in some ways, Anna's sense of Karenin is more accurate than his of her.

I also remember Vronsky in the light of the dashing hero, and that it is entirely understandable that Anna should fall for him. Perhaps I've become too cynical as I've aged (!) but, my overwhelming felling about him is what a cad the man is!! While he is aware that Kitty loves him, he is completely cavalier in his treatment of her because it doesn't suit him to abandon his free and easy lifestyle. Women, particularly young, pretty women, are just social playthings, and Kitty's feelings for him just add an extra frisson to his contact with her, since he enjoys her adoring attention. When he meets Anna, and runs full tilt into an infatuation of his own, Kitty might never have existed, and is discarded without any further thought. Anna, recognising that she too is drawn to Vronsky resists at first, conscious of her status as a married woman, and the wife of a prominent man.

However, as with Kitty, Anna's concerns are meaningless in Vronsky's pursuit of happiness for himself. This is the tragedy for Karenin, I think. Had he been more in tune with his wife, and able to be someone more approachable than he is - there is certainly no doubt that, early in the book, there is a mutual regard and respect in their marriage, but he is a distant man... - perhaps there might have been an avenue for Anna to evade Vronky's pursuit while she was still able to. At the beginning, having met Vronksy when he collects Anna from the Moscow train, Karenin is aware that Anna is disturbed. As time goes on, his suspicions grow, but rather than speak to her on a personal level, he couches his reproaches to her within formal parameters. All that does is reinforce her sense of him as distant and uncaring. Additionally, the largely separate lives of married couples of the Karenins' class ensures that they move within their respective social circles alone. Vronksy is persistent, charismatic, and much loved for his easy good manners and love of fun. Contrast that with Karenin's commitment to his professional life, his conservative and repressed character, and stern moral code, and it becomes easy to see why Anna eventually succumbs, and succumbs fast.

I find myself not liking Vronksy much at all, and Anna less than I did - although, as before, I am intrigued by her inner struggle. Karenin I have a sneaking sympathy for this time around, but I'm impatient with his inability to acknowledge that he has contributed to Anna's lack of fulfilment in their marriage.

Much to my surprise, I am also finding that there are parts of both narrative and dialogue that amuse me mightily. Poor Levin, with his bumbling, awkward proposal to Kitty while she is in the throes of her anguished love for Vronsky, is an object of pity. Conversely, he is also one of the few characters in this early part of the novel who, despite wrestling with how to achieve the finer details of the life he wants, has the bigger picture pretty much sorted. He doesn't like society life in the city, so he stays in the country on his estate. He doesn't enjoy the trappings of gentry-hood, so he lives simply and works with his peasants on the land. He is upfront and clear on his position if anyone asks, and appears not to feel the same pressures that others in his class feel to conform to societal mores. The times he does get tied up in a mess about various issues is when he's trying to stay in tune with whoever he's talking to -  and prevaricates for fear of creating offence. He then flays himself for not sticking to his guns!

I've read Parts 1 and 2, and am well into Part 3 now. You can also read Rachel's post on the first quarter of the novel at BookSnob, along with the comments her fellow readers have posted. She has a group reading along with her, as I have some friends reading with me. Feel free to drop in and leave your comments about Anna Karenina here. I'll be emailing Rachel with a link to this post so we can share the conversation. And keep watching - I'll post again when I get to the end of Part 4.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Coming of age

In one of those odd coincidences, my 100th post (wow!) happens just after acquiring my 21st follower. As I've crept through the 90s, I've been contemplating the possible contents for this post in advance, because it felt as if I needed to do something significant. I toyed with the idea of a list of books with '100' in the title - but could only think of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I've not yet read. Googling just results in lots of entries for top 100 book lists. So, I thought I could maybe make one of those myself...but I didn't really have time. And of course, time marches on, the posts happened through the 90s and I got no further with my cogitations... As life would have it, something did pop up, which amused me for both its timing and the gently ironic synchronicity:
Those of you who have been following this blog from the beginning, might remember my very first post - Book Junkies in the Age of the eBook - where I opened this mad journey into writing about what I read with a discussion on my love for actual books, compared with all the electronic forms of reading now available. It's still one of my most popular posts, which surprises me, but then, there have been many random and unexpected things that have happened with various posts since I started blogging. This little cartoon comes via Facebook from a friend who is an avid eBook reader, and we've had many a discussion about that...

I'm having a great time with this blog. I would like to thank those of you who read me, and who make comments. There have been some great discussions over the months, and I've met some very interesting folk. My reading patterns haven't changed significantly, although, I do find that I read with the knowledge that I may well write about the book - although, I've not actually written about every book I've read since starting the blog... I am finding that I have more incentive to get to those neglected classics, because they're being discussed - here and on other blogs that I follow. It's partly what spurred me on to re-read Anna Karenina (first post coming on that very soon, for those who are reading with me), which I'm enjoying much more than I did as a teenager - maybe I have more reading muscle these days. Months of reading craft theory, as I did for my Master's thesis, was kind of like reading boot camp!

What I have become more aware of is how other people read - both those who are fellow book-bloggers and friends with whom I discuss reading. Books crop up more in conversations with friends now too. 

I've also been constantly surprised by where my audience is located. Currently, my top three - in order - are Americans, Australians and Russians. The Americans and the Aussies jostle for top spot, and the Russians have been sitting solidly in third for months now. Why Russia? As far as I know, none of them have signed up to follow, or make comments, so I have no means of knowing what it is that appeals enough in my posts to attract such a loyal following. Most intriguing. The contingent from the Phillipines come via another blogger's site I suspect. And then, after that, there is an amazing shifting mix - currently the really interesting additions are Peru and Panama! DB says of the former, possibly some lama farmers with a good Internet connection! Whoever you are - welcome! 

Thank you everyone who has been a regular here, and those who drop in from time to time. If I could invite you all over, I'd make something like this and there'd be pieces all around and champagne! 

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Penelope Farmer: Charlotte Sometimes

I made a discovery just recently - one of those serendipitous moments, generated this time on Facebook. It's scary really, how many random facts come via this site, although, not really unexpected. Anyway, a friend of mine uploaded a YouTube video of The Cure singing Charlotte Sometimes, which, up until that point, I only knew as the children's book I'd loved in primary school and then hunted for relentlessly as an adult until I found me a copy in Puffin - exactly the same as the school library copy!

I just listened to the video clip. Apparently, the members of The Cure were very literary types and this isn't their only song based on a book. However, listening hard, I found it difficult, as I'd said in the chat that followed my friend's post, to marry the book and the song...
I wrote just recently about my children's literature shelves not containing much in the way of fantasy. They do, however, carry a number of books based on time slip themes - does that count as fantasy? I love the idea of slipping through whatever gateways or portals there may or may not be to inhabit, however briefly, a different time. Penelope Farmer's Charlotte Sometimes is a delicately crafted story. It centres around Charlotte Makepeace, newly come to boarding school, who goes to sleep in her old, iron bed in a five bed dormitory, exhausted after the confusion of First Day, and wakes up in the same bed, but nothing is the same - not the people, the clothes, the food, the subjects, nothing... 

Her confusion is, of course, enormous. Her 'little sister' Emily thinks she - 'Clare' - is having an unusually slow day. She muddles through, allowing the extroverted Emily answer all the 'new girls' questions that are fired at them from all directions and collapses into bed, only to wake up the next morning back in her own time. The next night, the same thing happens, and to clarify for herself what's going on, she opens the book by her bed - 'Clare Moby PRIVATE' - clearly a diary, a diary dated 1918. A day later, in her own time, she finds another notebook - Clare has written to her, having worked out that there's clearly something very odd about the bed they share, suggesting that they keep each other up to date via the books - Charlotte is to write in Clare's diary - and that Emily not be told. That's all very well, except that Emily, a sharp child, has woken up to the fact that there's something odd going on, and challenges Charlotte who, without Clare actually there to back her up, tells.

The night and night about continues. Charlotte suffers no matter where she is - in her own time there are subjects she's good at and others she's not, but she and Clare aren't the same, so she's constantly in trouble for work not done, and in her own time her piano teacher can't understand why one day she struggles with her scales (Charlotte) and the next, she can play her pieces easily (Clare). However, it is soon to come to an end. The room Clare and Emily occupy in the school in 1918 is in the hospital wing, and they're there because there is no room for more boarders, and they are soon to move to lodgings. The girls work out that the nights will fall out all right, and they will end up in their own time. Charlotte though, has been haunted by the experience, wondering how it is no one has noticed. She quizzes Emily, who tells her that she and Clare aren't so alike really, but that, in the end, she wonders if it's because she's never really looked at either Clare or Charlotte properly. 
Perhaps we never look at people properly, Charlotte thought. ... And, she thought uncomfortably, what would happen if people did not recognize you? Would you know who you were yourself? If tomorrow they started to call her Vanessa or Janet or Elisabeth, would she know how to be, how to feel like, Charlotte? Were you some particular person only because people recognized you as that?
I think this is one of the passages that haunted me all those years, and it's one that always comes up off the page and smacks me between the eyes when I re-read the book. This is a children's book, written in an era when children were still children...

To continue... Disaster strikes. Charlotte goes to bed on her last night in 1918, very sad that she won't see Emily again. She wakes in her own time and realises she'll have to come to grips properly with things because she won't be travelling any more. After a normally bewildering day, she goes to bed, comforted to some degree by knowing that the confusion will now lessen. And wakes up. And it's 1918. And Emily tells her ...'in a small, flat voice, "We didn't go into lodgings yesterday after all. We're going today."' Charlotte is stuck in 1918 and Clare is on her own forty years in the future.

They are moved to the house of the Chisel Browns...Mr and Mrs, and Miss Agnes Chisel Brown. The hope of the family, Arthur, was killed in France, where the girls' father is currently serving in the War. This is where the daily horrors of WWI really come home in the book. At school, there is a certain level of buffering, but living as day girls, the girls see the victory gardens, experience the food shortages differently, live with a family in mourning for their only son, and see the wounded soldiers returning at the railway station.

Charlotte becomes increasingly lost in being Clare, reminded eventually by Emily that something has to be done, sometime, to make the swap back. They have an eerie night adventure, making their way to the school after everyone in the house has gone to sleep to see if Charlotte can get in to sleep in the bed. She does, but the influenza epidemic has begun and there is someone in the bed. Eventually, when the Chisel Browns decide to hold a seance, and the girls are discovered hiding in the window when Clare puts in an appearance, the girls are banished back to school. Emily catches flu and ends up in the hospital wing, and sends a note to Charlotte to tell her the bed is empty and to 'come.' Charlotte, after lights out, makes her way there, crawls into the bed, still in Clare's dressing gown, falls asleep eventually, and wakes up, finally, back in her own time.

This is an exquisite little book. There is much, much more than I can include in a review here. I don't know how easy it might be to get your hands on, but if your interest is piqued, have a go. It is beautifully crafted. The writing is excellent. The complexities of the emotional journey Charlotte travels are delicately handled, but realistically so. Her sense of loss in both times is clearly voiced, as are the difficulties she has with various relationships in both times. Her sense of who she is, and the struggle she has to hold onto that, is beautifully realised. If you like time slip stories, you can't not read this one, because it is class all the way.

Friday, 10 August 2012

National Bookshop Day

Well, I know what all my fellow Aussie book junkies will be doing today - it's National Bookshop Day today, so we are obligated to visit our local bookshops... That means that, although I have a full day of work ahead of me, I will have to use one of my break times to duck down to Double Bay to join in the fun at Oscars and Friends.

Other news - a couple of friends have joined me in reading Anna Karenina. I also read a post this morning by the English blogger who is doing this, which prompted me to extend the invitation here. She's coming up to 250 pages, and is going to do her first post shortly, so I'll post a link to that so we can read it and the discussion. I think, because we're all reading different editions, I'll wait until I get to the end of Part II - which I've just started - before I do my first post.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Read with me: Tolstoy's Anna Karenina

Best Friend and I talked last night - she lives interstate - and compared notes about our current reading. I'm posting my new copy of Antonia Forest's Autumn Term to her, because she's not read them. What happens for the rest of the series after she reads it, I'm not sure... However, one thing we did talk about was a number of big classics that we'd either read so long ago that it'd be almost like reading them new again, or that we'd never quite managed at all.

Remember a while ago after one of my falls from grace in the bookstore near my office, I mentioned buying a copy of Anna Karenina because a blogger I follow is reading it and invited people to join her and read along? Well, BF and I are starting now. So, I'm issuing an invitation to any of my followers to join us. Who hasn't read it but has always meant to? Who, like BF and I, haven't read it since high school? Who would like to join us and p'raps contribute to a chat along the way? Then, at the end, I can direct the other blogger to our chats, and see if we can't get some cross blog stuff going on!!

This post, by the way, is also a means of putting myself in a position of having to start reading now, because BF has already done so, and said to me last night she doesn't want to read this by herself just, knowing she'll read this (and will probably laugh), I'm saying, for the record, that it's tonight's reading when I've finished the assignment I'm working on - and, what's more, has displaced the last of the Marlow books! Greater love etc, etc...

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Book Olympics

Librarian posted this pic on Facebook overnight. In the light of current events, I thought it appropriate to share it here:
So what would the events be, I wonder? Single short story sprint? Chapter by chapter relays? The War and Peace marathon? Any other ideas?

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Book junkie cubby house

Did you build cubby houses when you were a kid? I did - everywhere I could... Rainy days, we were allowed to have sheets and blankets to drape over the kitchen table and make something more substantial. My kids did that too. And, remember the gorgeous tent the little girls have in their bedroom in that lovely, lovely film, The Holiday, with Jude Law, Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet and Jack Black?

However, my teacher/librarian friend posted this pic on Facebook just now - it has to be the ultimate cubby house for a book junkie!
It comes from the Facebook page of Ellison Hawker Bookshop in Hobart, Tasmania - somewhere to add to my list of places to check out on a Tasmanian holiday. They have this paragraph on their homepage:
Our dedicated, knowledgeable staff are always keen to help you find that book about that guy who did that thing that you can't remember the title of or who wrote it but the cover is blue with white bits. 
They sound cool!

Who says reading's boring??

A little while back I posted a photo I'd scavenged from a Facebook post of a bookcase built to look like Dr Who's tardis. You can have a look at it HERE. I didn't mention, at the time, the chat that happened on Facebook in relation to the image. It wasn't relevant to my post, but a couple of things have happened since, and it's niggling me now. One bright spark - who protested after he'd been slammed by a number of others that he was only having a go... - said something along the lines of it being such a shame it was filled with 'boring books' instead of windows to other worlds and times. I will leave the various responses that prompted to your imaginations...

It comes to mind because I'm struggling at the moment with one of my students. I am blessed (!) with a bunch of sixteen year old boys who are all doing year 11 English, and are poised to transition into their final year of school. It means that they're in the throes of discovering that there are some very different expectations when it comes to dealing with texts. For starters, the books they're reading have a lot more substance than previously experienced. They're getting more than one book simultaneously for the purpose of comparative analysis. They're being required to annotate what they're reading. Soon, they will be given the text for their first major topic - 'Belonging' and the text is Romulus, My Father by Raimond Gaita - and they're going to have source their own related texts - at least two, and one must be a medium other than a novel.

The student in question, so his mother tells me, used to be a bookworm. Everywhere she went, she had a small boy attached with his nose in a book. So far, in my time with him, he hasn't completed reading a single book he's been given for English. He's scraping through, using other people's notes, cheats obtained on line, and an attitude that says as long as he passes it doesn't matter how well he does. It's frustrating, because he's a bright boy. It's not even, so far, as if the books themselves have been particularly onerous - most recently, they had George Orwell's Animal Farm. I suggested, to try and pique his interest and give him a fairly straightforward bit of comparative literature, that he have a look at William Golding's Lord of the Flies. This was just prior to three weeks of holidays. Both are short books. He had to read Animal Farm. He didn't have to read the other one. He didn't even bother to get the copy of Lord of the Flies out of the family bookcase. And he still hasn't finished the Orwell, and won't now, because the topic is over.

He says it's boring. All of it. I asked him - reasonably enough, I thought - what happened to turn such an avid bookworm into this apathetic can't be bothered creature. He grinned - he has great charm, the ratbag - and said, "Gym, and girls."

DB says I should give him up, that I'm not doing him any favours nursing him through. I'm not doing his work for him - that isn't going to happen, regardless of what he thinks are clever strategies to trap me into it... The part of me that is stretched too far as it is agrees with DB. Why waste my time, which is in short supply, in a situation that is so frustrating, where I'm not being met even close to halfway? It doesn't pay well enough to make it worth sticking it out just for the money and, in any case, I can't take his parents' money if there's no progress being made. On the other hand, I look at him, like so many of the current generation - being dubbed, in a variety of media, 'The I Generation', or as one witty type wrote it, iGeneration... - waiting for it all to just drop out of the sky and happen for him. He had an exam recently on Animal Farm. He was so affronted by the prep sheet he was given, which reminded them of the need to have read the text carefully and to have made comprehensive notes. There was a second text, a doco on a rock star, Strummer, the topic for the exam was 'Rebellion' and the brief said to prep for the possibility of either an essay, an opinion piece, a conversation or an interview as the genre with which to respond to a question on issues of rebellion in both texts.

Needless to say, with typical Gen I why should I attitude, he kept asking why it had to be like this. Why couldn't they just ask a straightforward question? Why couldn't they say what the exam was going to be? Why was it so hard? As I pointed out, his teachers were doing something very helpful by offering them, before it really mattered for the HSC, a taste of how HSC exams worked, so they could see for themselves that being asked to read a certain way, annotate and absorb more than just the words in a text, was for a reason. It isn't because the teachers just want to make them do work they don't want to do, it's because if they don't learn to do it this way, come the real exams, they'll have no idea what's hit them.

At bottom, I think that one of the issues for him is that it takes time to read, whether it's for pleasure of study purposes. It's not that he doesn't have time - his timetable is geared to allow for necessary reading. It's more that he, along with so many of his peers, doesn't consider it a worthy use of his valuable time... But, you have to wonder what's going to happen when they hit the real world where their time is no longer their own...

Antonia Forest: The Marlows and the Traitor

The next book in Antonia Forest's Marlow books, along with the third, works well in setting up the rest of the series after Autumn Term. The whole series occupies, in the real time of the characters, a two and a half year span. Autumn Term, when the twins are thirteen, gives us our first taste of Kingscote school and the girls' life; their relationships with various friends, staff, their sisters within the school context, and a sense of the separation between home and school.

The second book, The Marlows and the Traitor,  places Nicola and some of her her sisters with one of their brothers away from the school environment, but not at home either. Home at this point in the overall narrative is still London, although we never experience the family in a London setting...
It is the Easter holidays and Nicola, with Lawrie, Ginty, brother Peter, and their mother, are spending it at a 'really lush, luxury hotel' by the sea while the drains of their London home are being taken up. Their father is involved with Navy exercises nearby, while their older brother is on his ship elsewhere, and their older sisters have gone to spend the holiday with various friends. Peter and Nicola, close in the way that individuals within a large family can find relationships in the midst of the communal ones, have lots of notes to compare about their respective terms at school - Peter having had a similarly difficult term to Nicola's first term at Kingscote with all its associated dramas. 

The book opens with Nicola and Peter heading out into a grey stormy morning, having both woken early. Despite having been warned about the treachery of the seafront during storms in this particular location, they decide to walk the sea wall that runs beneath an undercut cliff, and there is very nearly disaster when a huge surge nearly drags Nicola under the safety railing and out to sea. Still shaken, they head back, both dripping wet, realising they aren't going to be unnoticed, as there is a man heading towards them. Most disconcerted, Peter realises it is the officer from school who had berated him for incompetence in the 'boat thing' the previous term. Even more disconcerting, he acts as if he hasn't recognised Peter - although, Nicola insists that he did, "Like in The Thirty-nine Steps. The First Sea Lord. Don't you remember? The one who couldn't have known Hannay and did ... And his eyes flickered. So Foley's did too."

When it all comes out at breakfast how very nearly they'd both been drowned, their mother is far from pleased. Peter feels as if, yet again, he's in the doghouse for being incompetent. Gently nursing him into a better frame of mind, Nicola agrees to a bus expedition to a place they've noticed on a signpost with the intriguing name of Farthing Fee. It's just a little village, but they find a mysterious path and follow it to a house called Mariners. It's clearly empty and in a moment of curiosity, they decide to explore, letting themselves in via the coal cellar and making their way up to a crow's nest. There is more mystery when they discover on a telescope mounted in the crow's nest a legend pointing to 'Foley's Folly Light'. Spooked they leave, but then the next day, despite Nicola having been warned off by a fisherman friend she's made that none of the rest of the family know about, return with Lawrie and Ginty. In a more thorough exploration of the house they come across some indications that someone has been occupying the cellars as there are blankets, and more disturbing, blueprints and microfilms. While they are discussing what to do, they are discovered - by Lieutenant Lewis Foley, Peter's nemesis from school.

They are unceremoniously rounded up and bundled, in the fog, down the continuation of the lane where a cutter, The Talisman, is moored. It's not until Foley starts to usher them aboard that they discover Lawrie is missing, and no one remembers when they last saw her... 

Clearly Foley has plans, and equally clearly, he's not about to divulge them. He locks Ginty and Peter into the cabin of The Talisman, but is forced to have Nicola with him in the cockpit due to her invariable sea-sickness. When he heads downstairs, leaving her with the tiller, fortified by a few shots of medicinal brandy forced on her by Foley, she seizes the opportunity to painstakingly turn the boat about to head back to St-Anne's-Byfleet. Half an hour later, Foley thunders up from the cabin, having realised, but it's too late - inspired by a ditty from her fisherman friend, Robert Anquetil (an old schoolmate of Foley's), she has dropped sugar into the petrol tank and the engine dies. Tide and weather drive them onto rocks and they end up at the Foley lighthouse, marooned when the boat breaks up overnight. 

Foley has to regroup and send a new message to his contacts, and the children realise very quickly that unless they do something, they may not survive this mad adventure. A covert bit of reconnaissance nets them the information that the lighthouse lamp is fully fueled. They hatch a plan to fake Peter drowning so he can hide upstairs while the girls act distraught and no longer a threat to lull Foley into a false sense of security, so that that night, they can send a message to the Navy fleet who are tantilisingly close for their exercises. It all comes right in the end, but not without many glitches for all concerned, including Nicola's friend Anquetil who has, it turns out, been monitoring Foley's movements.

One of the truly remarkable aspects of this book is that, over some 250 pages, the real time period is only four days. Once Lawrie is separated from the others, the narrative separates into distinctly separate strands. To create tension, this is an excellent device because as readers, we are left with the same incomplete stories as the protagonists. Nicola's struggles with the dichotomy of half liking Foley while hating what he represents as a traitor are really interesting. Peter's bruised sense of betrayal for the same reason provide a wonderful counterpoint. Ginty's natural fragilities having betrayed her yet again in sequential moments of crisis, is left feeling grossly inadequate. Lawrie, on the other hand, having spent the bulk of the drama unconscious in hospital after being hit by a car after leaving the bus she caught back to the town, is, characteristically fully of herself and her broken leg!

There is redemption for Peter. In the last stand at the lighthouse, when the U-boat has surfaced to take Foley off and the fog clears to reveal the British Navy standing by, he stands his ground when the German officer demands he come to the U-boat. He defends his sisters and, ever so gently, as he's been taught, squeezes rather than jerks the trigger of Foley's gun, which he'd seized when Ginty's one moment of clear thinking in a crisis resulted in Foley being pushed down the spiral staircase of the lighthouse, and disposes of the officer. Later, when it's all over, Commander Whittier, the highest ranking Naval officer in charge of the operation, asks Peter what it was that he'd said to the German officer before he shot.
Peter though back. "I think I said: 'Get back to your ship.' Why? Shouldn't I have done?"
But Whittier was grinning. "Certainly you should. One should always make the most of one's opportunities. But it'll be a long time before you strike one like that again. Know who he was?"
Peter shook his head.
"Well, I don't suppose his name would mean much. But during the war he was ein Kontenadmiral." The German syllables rolled grandly. "That's the equivalent of a Rear-Admiral. So just remember, when some haughty sub in your first ship is telling you what a low form of life you are, that you once gave a Rear-Admiral his marching orders."
The pace, the complex net of tensions, the layers of politics - personal and beyond - and the brilliance of Forest's writing take this story of school children and a spy from something that could have been like a cliched Billy Bunter type of story to something rather different. The sequence of seeming coincidences, the incidental relationships that make up the interrelated net of personalities, and the failures and frustrations experienced by all the characters, are drawn from real life complexities and this makes it impressively realistic and probable.

I had though, initially, and optimistically, to write about these books in clusters. I started my previous post about Autumn Term intending to combine it with this and the next book in the series. However, I find myself completely unable to do it! Just as well I have no brief to meet... These books demand more than a glance at the plot, and while I've not gone into detail, I hope I've managed to convey something of the magic of what it is that sees this whole series as one of my absolute treasures within my large collection of kid's lit.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Antonia Forest: Autumn Term

Books! Look folks, a post about books that I've been reading. I hadn't realised until I reviewed the last few weeks of my blog how many of my posts about have been all sorts of things book related, but not so much about actual books, much less the ones I've been reading.DB and I have both been under the pump with work commitments.

I have been comfort reading to the max, as I mentioned in a post of that name from earlier this week. As is usually the case, my books of choice for this difficult time have come from my collection of children's literature. While the given nomenclature for much of this genre these days is 'young adult', most of my collection date from a period when children got to be children for far longer than they do these days. Consequently, my collection has a significant lack of the current YA fantasy, very little based on teen relationships, and nothing at all to do with vampires! Mine have in common, for the most part, a flavour of wholesomeness, gentleness and reality. Even the really vintage books have a ring of authenticity for their periods, and the characters are real.

One of my treasured series is Antonia Forest's Marlow books. I've written already about these in a number of posts, including reviews of the two historical books that stand along the contemporary series. You can read those here here and here. Then, as I mentioned at the time, I had to re-read the entire series. I have to say, it's the longest it's ever taken me to work my way through them. There are ten in the main series, and then the two historicals.
The series begins with Autumn Term. This is my prized Puffin paperback. These were printed in the 80s at the height of The Chalet School series popularity, when Penguin, the parent company, approached Faber, the original publishing house, and purchased the rights to the books that are set in the girl's school. They're a bit fragile, these books, with nowhere near the sturdiness of their Faber Fanfare precedents, let alone the original hardcovers. 

We meet thirteen year old twins, Nicola and Lawrie Marlow who, in the company of their older sisters, Karen, Rowan, Ann and Ginty (Virginia), are on the train from London heading for Kingscote school to start their boarding school careers, after many delays and illness had prevented them from starting any earlier. Bored with sitting quietly in their compartment with the others, they get permission to go and stand in the corridor from Karen, also the current Head Girl, who says, "...don't go and fall out of a window. Miss Keith wouldn't be a bit pleased if the train was late because one of the school was careless about a little thing like that." Prophetic words, as it turns out. 

The girls meet Talia (known as Tim) Keith in the corridor, also new and with the dubious distinction of being the Headmistress's niece. In the process of getting to know each other, and showing off going to school presents, Lawrie's watch and Nicola's pocket knife, the pocket knife is knocked out of Lawrie's hands and out of the window they've opened as the train rounds a corner while she's passing it to Tim. Without stopping to think twice, Nicola leaps for the emergency stop on the train! In the ensuing confusion, she manages to retrieve the knife from beside the track, but arrives back to the train to find one of the senior school mistresses in full inquisition mode with the furious but mute, hapless Karen bearing the brunt of her anger-borne sarcasm. This, on top of the glorious picture the twins have painted of their prospective conquest of school life in the wake of their illustrious siblings, sets up the premise for the subsequent less than predicted course of events. 

Instead of passing the form exams with high enough marks to land in the A form for their year, they end up in III Remove. From there, because everyone in the class is behind for some reason - the twins due to their interrupted early schooling due to illness - they are barred from playing in the junior netball team (where they'd panned to cover themselves in glory) because the powers that be have banned sporting extras. They are just left with Guides, which they don't much want to join because sister, Ann, is a Patrol leader. However, join they do, but run foul of the new Patrol leader with whom they're placed, due to her ongoing feud with their older sister Rowan, who queers their pitch at a court of honour, and they are given the boot. All is redeemed by the end of the book, although not without all sorts of dramas, when Third Remove stage a play for the end of term fund raising bazaar, rather than put up with the stalls assigned to them by the rest of their form. 

Under Tim's masterly direction, their form mistress is appeased for lackadaisical preparation and performance in class, the art mistress is pressed into action designing their sets, Lois Sanger - the fifth former who messed up Guides for Nick an Lawrie - is press-ganged into being the narrator when it becomes evident that Tim is hopeless at reading aloud, and they create and perform a madly successful play based on Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper - which I had to go and read after my first reading of this book! During the rehearsals, Lawrie's extraordinary talent for acting emerges, and regardless of all the things they fail in the course of the term, so does Nicola's ability for management when, under her stern eye, the form win the tidyness award for their home room.

Autumn Term, like all of Forest's books, is characterised by truly beautiful writing, pithy dialogue that generates moments of sidesplitting laughter, quirky characters that are utterly believable and real, and a created environment that comes to life in the reading. The girls get cross with one another, have bitter fights, and then have to deal with the consequences. These are no cliched, saccharine-sweet English boarding school heroines - they're very real people. The starry-eyed optimism with which the twins have set themselves up to go forth and conquer the Kingscote scene with greater panache and achievement than any Marlow before them is all too real and potentially disastrous. Their sense of crushing inadequacy when, again and again, things go wrong is entirely lacking in melodrama or artifice. The irritation of Tim Keith, who sees entirely the house of cards they've built for themselves, and isn't above pointing it out to them as a foil for deflecting notice from her own completely unsuccessful attempts to capitalise on being the headmistress's niece, is both comical and insightful. The one time she does deliberately use her position - to get permission to do the play - Miss Keith comprehensively wipes the floor with her, making it very clear that Tim has crossed a line she shouldn't ever even think about considering crossing again...

This really is the most delightful book. There is a freshness about it that is like a glass of cold water on a hot thirsty day. It was published in 1948, but reads as if it came out just recently. There is a timelessness about Forest's style which is truly remarkable - and just as well too, since she wrote each book so infrequently, that the last one (which I've not quite reached yet) wasn't published until 1982, but they're seamless in style.

Faber, in response to demand, reissued Autumn Term in paperback, in 2000. It was all very exciting. I bought a copy and waited for the rest thinking it would be great to have the series in duplicate so I could loan them to people. I don't know anyone with these books that allows them to leave the security of their own homes, because they're so rare and so valuable. However, it was not to be... As I've said before, I'll loan this edition of Autumn Term to interested souls for a taste, but if they want to read the rest, they'll have to do it in my house!!

Book labyrinth

Have a look at this mad creation - if Twenty-One had seen this when he was a wee small thing building roads all over his bedroom floor out of his book collection, there'd have been no stopping him!
For the full story and more pics, check out this link:

Steampunk adventure on the buses

My commute is very short. There's a short hop on the bus for, I think, five stops to get to the local train station, followed by three stops on the train before I reach my stop in the city. Some time ago, I wrote about the issues of short commutes and satisfying the book junkie cravings - you can read that post here. That was back in January, and would you believe, I still had Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own in my bag til just recently?! Still not quite finished... In theory, my commute is now actually longer than it used to be when I caught the ferry, but, as well as reading, I'm trying to cram in some knitting, so I need to allocated time for both. I can't knit on the bus, but I can read - don't ask...!

Anyway, anyone who reads here regularly and includes the comments in their reading time may recall some strenuous encouragement I've had over quite some time from a fellow blogger to read his stories. He has a whole series he's been writing that sit under the collective title of Beyond the Rails. He's hassled me gently for months to have a look at them. For one reason and another - partly the fear factor of reading them and possibly not liking them, then not knowing what to say to him... - it's taken me ages, BUT...I finally got myself organised and printed off the first one, The Botanist, took Virginia Woolf out of my bag (poor Virginia, she's a tad battered after all this time) and shoved Jack Tyler, on A4 printer paper, in instead. We had a rather amusing email conversation where I had to spell out my commute time and lack of other time, hence reading this short story in installments... He was also more than a little disconcerted by the idea of having displaced Virginia Woolf - the single line query in his email spoke volumes!

Folks, this is a seriously good fun bit of rollicking story-telling. I sat on the bus the first morning clutching my fistful of papers, looking as if I was reading work papers, except that people on buses at uncivilised hours of the morning don't read work papers chuckling all the way through them - I got some very odd looks. Jack has a gift for great, pacy dialogue. His characters are well drawn and convincing. He paints a highly evocative word picture of the bustling confusion of Mombasa, where the freshly minted botanist of the title, one Nicholas Ellsworth, Dr, arrives with the intention of heading up-country to sample and record the flora of the unexplored and wild regions 'beyond the rails' - the end of the train line. He is informed at his hotel that getting to the locations he's dreamed of is no easy feat, nor a very sensible plan... He's not having any of that, however, and insists he must go. He finds himself, rather the worse for wear - and makes an ass of himself as a consequence - making the acquaintance of one Patience Hobbs, airship pilot extraordinaire, and one of a motley crew who ferry freight and passengers into the interior. The description of Ellsworth's awakening in the airship the next morning with a full-blown hangover is hilarious.

I'm not going to write any more potential spoilers. What I want you all to do is take a wander across to one of two sites: Jack's Hideout, where you'll find Jack's general purpose site with his blog, other stories, these ones, and other bits and pieces that he adds to as the fancy takes him, and, his new site that's dedicated to Beyond the Rails. Follow the links and enjoy! Seriously - go on...and I take my tone from the man himself, who is given to clearly forceful, but kindly, directness!

In addition to Jack's stories, I wanted to include this delightful drawing I stumbled across while I was whiling away what should have been serious work writing time (my brain was fried...) by surfing the net for steampunk images:
You can go look at this guy's work via this link:

So, channeling Jack again - what are you guys waiting FOR....? Scram! Go read!