Thursday, 26 April 2012

Books I Have Read In April

I love reading and have decided to keep a blogging record of the books I have read each month.

First was "Digging To America" by Anne Tyler. I was reading this when I went to see Anne being interviewed and so I will keep this battered second hand copy forever as it contains her signature. I do love her books and this tale of two Korean babies adopted at the same time by two families in Baltimore was a deliciously good read. The characters were vividly painted and by the end I was rooting for them all, even the ones I had thought highly annoying at first. Warm and funny, it is a yet another excellent book from the really rather wonderful Ms Tyler.

"The Sense Of An Ending" by Julian Barnes is a slim volume that won the Booker Prize last year. The last Booker Prize winner I read was "The Finkler Question" which I did not like at all, so I was a bit wary of reading this. However, I need not have worried, it was a beautiful book and even though slim, I felt like I had read a much longer novel. It concerns a man entering old age and how his past comes back to haunt him, it is a book about love, friendship and loss and written so well I was enthralled. It was a worthy winner.

Every so often, I like to read something a little lighter, a "holiday read" really and Joanna Trollope fulfills that need very well. "Daughters-in-Law" is a family saga set in present day Suffolk and the title does give it away! It is about how family dynamics are thrown into chaos as each one of three sons gets married to three very different women. Yes, its cosy and middle-class, but Trollope is a master of the genre and I enjoyed it very much.

I am a member of a thriving Book Club that has being going for over ten years now and our book this month was "Wilt" by Tom Sharpe. I have never read any of his books, and I thought this was extremely funny in a painfully farcical way. I also could not believe it was written over thirty years ago, the themes were very comtemporary ( lecturers disaffected with educational institutions etc!). I have now got "Porterhouse Blue" on my shelf and I am looking forward to reading it.

Finally, my absolute favourite read this month was a book recommended by India Knight on Twitter and recently short-listed for the Orange Prize. "The Song of Achilles" by Madeline Miller is a re-telling of the legend of Achilles and Patroclus. It is simply a beautiful book, which taught me a great deal about the story of the Trojan War. The love story between the two men is so moving and more so by our knowledge of how it ends. They cannot escape their destinies and ultimately die for the love of each other. I could not put this book down but was sad when it had ended, really worth a read.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Tales From The Tearooms, The Secret Garden.

I live in Worsley, a suburb of Salford, whose inhabitants like to call a village, albeit one that is part of the vast urban sprawl that is Greater Manchester. Barton Road is the main road through and here you will find The Secret Garden Tea Room. Unfortunately, it closes on Mondays, which is when I usually have my shift at the library close by, curses. The tea room is quite small but after March the garden at the back opens and tables can be found there, lovely if the weather is kind.
The ladies who own the tea room are really friendly and the menu is full of the usual fayre, the home made soups are particularly tasty. I visited with Bel last week and I had a slice of lemon drizzle cake ( my personal all-time favourite) which was just lovely. Bel had a scone which she claimed was almost as good as mine ( being VERY diplomatic!), and with a pot of tea and a hot chocolate, the bill was a very reasonable £7.
I have had the Afternoon Tea there with a group of friends which was excellent value with laden plates of scones, cakes and sandwiches and pots of tea.
So, if you ever in Worsley, it is worth a visit to The Secret Garden, but not on a Monday!

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Anne Tyler at the Oxford Literary Festival

Our last event at the festival was on Sunday morning at the Sheldonian Theatre. Anne Tyler rarely gives interviews, indeed Peter Kemp ( our breakfast buddy!) said it was almost forty years since she gave her last one. I love her books, they are deceptively simple, telling stories of "ordinary" people, usually based in her home city of Baltimore. Her prose is warm, funny and her characters really do stay with you for a long time.
Unsurprisingly, the event was a sell-out with a 850 strong audience packing the beautiful venue. Andrew Holgate of the Sunday Times presented Anne with the paper's prize for Literary Excellence. Anne seemed rather nervous at first, she looked like a cross between Katherine Hepburn and Sissy Spacek and her voice was rather quiet. However, as time went on, under masterful questioning by Peter Kemp, she visibly relaxed and was funny, self-deprecating and very honest. Her insights into how she worked were fascinating and even Bel who has not read any of her books ( "I'm thirty years too young yet," she said ) was genuinely captivated.
Nick Hornby was on the front row, as were several other authors, I get the impression she is a writer's writer. Questions were taken from the adoring audience, which included people from Russia, Ireland, France and a fellow Baltimore resident!
After a well-deserved standing ovation, the crush to get Anne to sign a book was immense. It was also very comical as the hapless stewards tried to shepherd several hundred people into a queue, with some being put where they did not wish to go ( i.e. at the back!). One man behind us lost his temper, " THIS IS SHAMBOLIC" he wailed, whilst another lady started bawling about the " UTTER INCOMPETENCY" of it all. I was in the midst of a middle-aged, middle-class riot, it was delicious and surely a plot straight out of Anne Tyler's novels. One of the stewards asked a man not to shout, " I AM NOT SHOUTING, VALERIE" he bellowed. This is now mine and Bel's new catch-phrase. Bel found this all hilarious and it certainly made the long wait go a little more quickly.
Only one book each could be signed ( "SO UNFAIR" according to a peuce-face lady who had at least eight hard backs with her) I had a copy of "Digging To America" which I was reading at the time. Bel told me I couldn't just get her to sign that as it was dog-eared , came from Oxfam and had £1.99 written on it. I conceded she had a point, so I slipped out of the queue to the Blackwells stall and bought her new book, "The Beginner's Goodbye", as I rejoined Bel, I could feel the looks of disapproval at my back and I waited to be harrangued by VERY ANGRY Anne Tyler fans. Luckily, I got away with it and was soon at her table. Bel got the Oxfam copy signed, then it was my turn, "Hello there, Ellen" she said ( she isn't psychic, we had to write our names on a Post It ) and signed my book. I was star-struck, " Thank you very much," I stammered and it was time to go. The steward at the door apologised for the wait. "It was worth it", I replied and it certainly was.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Justine Picardie at The Oxford Literary Festival

After such a wonderful talk by Bettany Hughes, we scurried through the cloisters and the beautiful Tom Quad, to the Blue Boar Quad. We were in a modern mini lecture theatre to hear Justine Picardie talk about her 2011 biography of Coco Chanel. I have been an admirer of Ms Picardie's writing for some time, and I thought the subject would appeal to Isobel. I was right, Justine talked with such skill about the life of the extraordinary Chanel, aided by many stunning photographs. Her account of how she wrote the book was so interesting and towards the conclusion of the talk, she made it intensely personal. Justine spoke of the importance of fashion, memory and family ties and to my amazement and Bel's utter horror, I could feel tears welling up. The lady in front of us was sobbing into her tissue. To me it was the thought that memories of your mother and grandmother are tied up with memories of their outfits and perfume and then I thought of the generations, how my mum sewed or knitted clothes for me with skill and love, and how now Bel and I have fun together shopping for outfits.
We queued to have our books signed afterwards. Bel had the Chanel biography and I had "My Mother's Wedding Dress". Justine was lovely to Bel, she said, "Ooh, a quilted jacket, VERY Chanel" ( mine actually, just call us Kate and Carole Middleton!) and chatted about Bel's ambition to one day have a Chanel handbag. In her book she wrote, " here's to your first Chanel!". I admitted I had horribly embarrassed my daughter by finding her talk so moving. She wrote in my book, "To Ellen, who understands the threads between mother and daughter". Perfect.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Bettany Hughes at The Oxford Literary Festival

I had never been to Oxford before, nor a literary festival, but when I saw the line-up for this year's Oxford Literary Festival on the weekend Isobel broke up for Easter, I knew we both had to go.
We arrived on a Friday evening and stayed in the stunning Christ Church College. Our room was in student lodgings in the Meadow Building, comfortable, with a beautiful view of Christ Church Meadow and the Oxford Literary Festival marquee right beneath our window.
We breakfasted in the Great Hall on the Saturday, much to Harry Potter-mad Bel's delight, and fell into conversation with a very avuncular chap. It transpired he was actually conducting the interview with Anne Tyler on the Sunday, more about that later, but Peter Kemp of The Sunday Times was very friendly and told us he hailed originally from Chorley. We had a bit of Northern-type bonding, then it was time to HIT THE FESTIVAL.
The marquee at Christ Church was enormous, Blackwells had stalls upon stalls laden with books, and yes, I did succumb to temptation. There was a couple in vintage garb handing out G and T's, ten o'clock was a little early even for me.
Our first event was an interview with Bettany Hughes, historian, broadcaster and writer of books such as "Helen of Troy" and "The Hemlock Cup". She was interviewed by Nicolette Jones, a fellow graduate of St. Hilda's College ( Hildabeests, as I learnt they were referred to!). Bettany was hugely entertaining, she made the subject of Socrates' life and legacy so utterly absorbing. Isobel was entranced and whispered, "she is a real inspiration". The hour flew by and I loved hearing the bells ringing several times during her talk, it was very evocative. The questions from the audience were intelligent and included a cheeky invite to speak at Cambridge from a man who said it was the best £10 he had ever spent!
We queued up afterwards to get Bel's book signed. A lady in front of us asked Bettany if she was Mediterranean, she replied one of her grandparents was Italian,"JUST LIKE ME" said Bel, who was delighted and her admiration of Ms Hughes was growing by the second. I let her do the talking, she told Bettany she was taking GCSEs in Ancient Greek and Latin soon. Bettany replied her daughter was also doing them, (wow, what revision help she must get!) gave Bel a few tips, then said "you look bright, I'm sure you'll be fine". She signed Bel's book with a phrase that included a Greek word, I asked Bel what it was, "its the Greek for wisdom, mum, we get the name Sophia from it".
So our first ever event at our first ever festival on our first ever visit to Oxford was brilliant. Look out for Bettany Hughes on the television soon with a new series on women and religion through the ages.