Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Holiday Reads

As ever, this week’s Top Ten Tuesday is brought to us by the good people at the the Broke and the Bookish.  It’s been a little while since I’ve done one of these and, frankly, if it weren’t for the fact that I have hardly blogged at all in the past couple of months, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with this one.  You see, I am really not a beach person. Don’t get me wrong, I love the sea and the seaside.  I just don’t like the actual beach.  I don’t like how the sand gets everywhere, I don’t like being surrounded by throngs of people and, being both naturally “glow in the dark” white and having a lawyer’s tan, I’m unlikely ever to be cast in Baywatch.

Until the birth of mini-Falaise, I was always more of a city break kind of person.  I would make exceptions obviously and remember having great holidays in the south of France and on Corfu with Mrs Falaise but have never really gone for the beach since childhood holidays in Cornwall and on the Isle of Wight.  So, I can’t actually give you a list of favourite beach reads.  What I can give you, however, is a list of books that I read on holiday and that trigger memories.

1.         Poirot’s Early Cases by Agatha Christie.  I loved Christie and especially Poirot as a boy (and, secretly, still do).  Between the ages of about 8 and 11, our summer holidays were spent on the south coast of England, in places like Lyme Regis, Newquay and the Isle of Wight.  One year, when I had just started reading Poirot, my parents bought me a copy of Poirot’s Early Cases.  I was engrossed in it and can still remember being thoroughly sulky about having to put it down to join in with the rest of the family at the beach or on excursions.  Happy days.

2.         Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt.  When I go away, I like to take books that have a connection with the place I am going to.  Some years ago, I had been going through a rather intense period at work and rewarded myself with a three week trip through parts of the USA, travelling by train.  The longest stretch of travel was between Washington DC and New Orleans.  I had my own little compartment and had a wonderful time watching the world go by and reading.  One of the books I read was this one, as the train took me through Georgia on my way to the Big Easy.  The book was amazing, the trip even more so.

3.         Little Infamies by Panos Karnezis.  As I mentioned above, I once spent a fabulous week in Cannes with the (then) future Mrs Falaise.  We stayed in Hollywood splendour at the Hotel Martinez on the Croisette, one of the mainstays of the film festival.  We enjoyed the private beach, on which we dined while watching the firework display.  I also enjoyed relaxing by the pool, reading this collection of short stories, set in an obscure Greek village and focussing on the lives and deaths of the eccentric villagers.  It has elements of magical realism, not my usual thing, but was wonderfully readable anyway.

4.         Venice by Jan Morris.  Venice is one of my favourite cities in the world.  I’ve visited a number of times and never tire of it.  If you are planning a trip or just want to visit it in your mind, this is the perfect companion.  It’s not a guide book but is a superb portrait of this unique city.  Simply brilliant.

5.         Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh.  I read this for the first time as a teenager on a family holiday to Tenerife.  Although it is probably a bit overrated, I still think it is a beautiful depiction of love, loneliness and the slow decay of the old aristocracy.  I enjoyed it but didn’t take a teddy bear to Oxford with me.  After I’d finished it, I lent it to my father who returned it to me liberally smudged with his suntan oiled fingerprints.  Git.

6.         Astérix by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo.  As a child, I was never allowed to have any of the comic books telling the stories of the plucky Gaulish warrior and his sidekick, Obélix.  My parents considered them not educational enough.  I was, however, allowed to buy them if they were in the original French – that was considered just educational enough!  So a highlight of family trips to France was my ritual purchase of a couple of new hardcover Astérix albums and the agonies of having to make choices between them.  I still have them all in my library (aka the basement and mini-Falaise’s playroom).  I hope that, in due course, she will get as much enjoyment from them as I have.

7.         An Olympic Death by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán.  I read this Pepe Carvalho mystery on a weekend break to Barcelona in 2000, just before starting a new job.  Pepe Carvalho is a jaded socialist, gourmet private investigator who solves crimes in his native Barcelona.  An Olympic Death is set just before the 1992 Olympics and contrasts the old, earthier Barcelona with the glossy, glamorous Catalan city that sprang from the Games.  I often think that Montalbán gets unfairly overlooked in the Euro detective novel stakes and is definitely worth checking out.

8.         Cairo: the City Victorious by Max Rodenbeck.  A sweeping survey of life in Cairo from the very beginning, through its medieval glories to the end of the twentieth century.  I read it in Cairo, at the end of an Egyptian holiday that took me by boat down the Nile to Aswan, to the Temple of Karnak and the Winter Palace Hotel (in which Christie wrote Death on the Nile) in Luxor to the son et lumière show at the Pyramids, reminiscent of The Spy who loved me.  It’s a fascinating country and the book is truly evocative of the city.

9.         The Face of the Third Reich by Joachim Fest.  Not the norm for holiday reading, I would accept but I read this in France as a teenager on a family holiday and it still sits on my shelves today.  It is a series of potted sketches of various sections of Nazi society and a number of key Nazis, focussing on their psychologies and written in a lucid and highly readable fashion.  Its structure and tone is such that it avoids getting bogged down in the weight of detail that is available but manages to capture some essential truths about Hitler’s regime.

And one which I shouldn’t have bothered with………

10.       The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown.  I’m happy to admit that I quite enjoyed Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code.  I thought they were fun little pot-boilers and I do like all the occulty factoids, even if I do know they are clap-trap.  So, when we took a trip to stay with my parents in Normandy a couple of years ago just after mini-Falaise’s first birthday, I took this along to while away a few relaxing hours.  I wish I hadn’t.  It’s rubbish.  More than that, it is lazy, exploitative rubbish.  When we came back, I left it behind.  Several hours of my life that I will never get back.

Friday, May 27, 2011

2,564: The Shakespeare Secret by J.L. Carrell

You would have thought that some great novels could be written with Shakespearean themes.  The mysteries surrounding his identity, the rumours and suggestions of missing plays, the dark lady of the sonnets, there’s so much potential source material out there.  Almost any half-decent author should be able to hit a home run with this kind of stuff.  And yet, somehow, JL Carrell swung and missed with The Shakespeare Secret (also known as Interred with their Bones in the USA).

It’s a real shame.  Carrell is a genuine Shakespeare expert, having taught History and Literature at Harvard and being the owner of English degrees from Harvard, Oxford and Stanford.  Her area of research was the influence of Shakespeare in the American West which, unsurprisingly features strongly in The Shakespeare Secret.  It’s quite apparent from the book that she knows her Shakespearean onions.  Unfortunately, she wants to share all of them with us.  Consequently, the story becomes a bit of a mess, trying to knit together elements of the authorship question, a search for the manuscript of Cardenio, a missing Shakespeare play, the identity of the protagonists of the sonnets and Shakespeare in the West.  I can’t help feeling that Carrell is trying a little too hard and that she could probably have got a couple more novels out of the material if she had been more judicious with it.

Carrell’s heroine is one Kate Stanley, a former academic turned theatre director.  A few days before her Globe production of Hamlet is due to open, rehearsals are interrupted by a surprise visit from her erstwhile mentor, Roz Howard.  Soon, Professor Howard is dead, the Globe is torched and Kate is on the run from the police, accompanied by an enigmatic former SAS officer and in possession of a mysterious gift from Roz.  From there, we are taken on a breathless hunt from London to Cambridge, Massachussetts, where there is another arson attack, this time on Harvard’s Widener Library.  The trail then skips backwards and forwards across the Atlantic, climaxing in the Arizona hills.

If you have read any of Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon novels, you will be familiar with Carrell’s style.  There are lots of clues to be solved, plenty of chases and her main novelistic technique appears to be to use plenty of pace and attack to distract the reader’s attention from the holes in the plot, the totally implausible coincidences that litter the book and the cardboard characterisation.  Every character in the story appears to speak in the same kind of voice and, just like Dan Brown’s characters, they can’t seem to be able to resist giving potted lectures to help the story along in a way that no real person would ever do.

I have one other minor quibble.  Carrell, despite having studied in England, makes some fundamental mistakes in her treatment of scenes set in England or with English characters, including an incorrect English street name and a comment on the likelihood of being a victim of crime in London that would have been anachronistic in 1950s London, let alone the London of the 2000s.  I appreciate these are minor criticisms but they did have a negative impact on my enjoyment of the book.  It wouldn’t have taken much research to get this right.

It’s not all bad, though.  The story moves quickly and there are some interesting Shakespearean titbits.  It’s a harmless, sub-Dan Brown page turner which whiled away a few hours and would be moderately amusing for any Shakespeare fan with a taste for detective stories.  Literature this ain’t, let alone the Great Shakespeare Novel but I’ve bought the sequel anyway. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

2,565: Who Wrote Shakespeare by John Michell

Well, it’s obvious really, isn’t it?  Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, didn’t he?  Only, it may not be quite that simple.  You see, possibly, maybe even probably, the man we know as Shakespeare isn’t the man we know as Shakespeare.  Confused?  Concerned about my sanity?  Well, read on MacDuff!

The Authorship Question is the “deranged relative bricked up in the tower” of Shakespeare studies.  It is the issue that the vast majority of Shakespearian academics would like quietly to vanish, never to be heard of again.  Certainly, the town of Stratford upon Avon, currently the sixth most popular place to visit in the UK, would like it to go away as, if the William Shakespeare of Stratford is not the William Shakespeare of Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello, then Stratford is just another Midlands town.

But, for those of us who have neither a professional, economic or personal tie to the man of Stratford, the Authorship Question is a hell of a lot of fun.  It has everything a good mystery could hope for – conspiracies, spies, murder, aristocratic intrigue and, best of all, there appears to be no way of proving anyone’s theory to be true or false.

John Michell’s book, unlike most others in the field, does not seek to promote any of the rival candidates or to defend orthodoxy but acts as an overview of the claims for most of the leading candidates.  It’s an excellent introduction to the question and, written in a sardonic manner is, with one caveat that I will deal with later, a lively read.

In order for their even to be an Authorship Question, there first has to be doubt as to the provenance of William Shakespeare as the author of the plays and sonnets.  Unfortunately, for the Stratfordians (as the supporters of orthodoxy are known), this is rather easy to show.  Indeed, there is remarkably little positive evidence of him as the author beyond Ben Jonson’s introduction to the First Folio in 1623, a few faked-up buildings in and around Stratford and the fact that his name is on the front of the plays.  William Shakspeare (the man is referred to as Shakspeare and the author as Shakespeare in Authorship Studies).  There are huge gaps in Shakspeare’s personal history and what there is of it suggests a country boy with limited education who grows up to be a small time businessman and property dealer who becomes an actor, gets involved in some rather dodgy enterprises, makes his money and retires to the life of a rural gentleman.

And this is the starting point for the anti-Stratfordians.  They point out that there is virtually no connection between the type of man Shakspeare was and the kind of author Shakespeare was.  According to various experts, Shakespeare must have been, amongst other things, of noble birth, a trained lawyer, familiar with France, Italy and Denmark, a soldier, a botanist, a highly-educated individual with a detailed knowledge of Greek and Roman classics and, in short, someone very different to Shakspeare.

The anti-Stratfordians also point out another uncomfortable fact.  There are very few references to Shakspeare by his theatrical and literary contemporaries.  How can this be the case for someone of his renown which was great even in his own time?  Indeed, other than the Jonson encomium, those references that do exist suggest that Shakspeare was more of a copyist, plagiarist or manuscript thief than the greatest playwright of his age.

There is much more to the argument, as Michell relates, but this is enough to give a flavour of the doubt that may be cast on the authorship of Shakspeare.  The next step for the anti-Stratfordians is to come up with an alternative candidate and here the fun really starts.  In no particular order and without being exhaustive, claimants for Shakespeare’s crown include Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, the Earls of Oxford, Derby, Rutland, Essex and Southampton, the Countess of Pembroke, Sir Walter Ralegh, Cardinal Wolseley and Queen Elizabeth I herself.  While you get your breath back from the laughing fit this will have caused you, I would say that, in addition to more serious writers, contributors to this field have included a man called Looney and a woman who actually did go mad.

I am not going to rehearse the arguments for any of these candidates in particular – you should go and read the book but, suffice it to say, there is plenty to be said for many of them.  This is, of course, where the problem lies.  It is possible to read almost anything into the text of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets.  The champions of various candidates make opposing claims about the nature of Shakespearian characters such as hamlet, who is claimed to resemble at least three of the major candidates.  Writers on the topic, especially the Baconians, tend to be fascinated by cryptography and word play and create all sorts of fantastical claims for the text of the First Folio and other contemporary texts which, they say, show that Shakspeare wasn’t the author and that their candidate was the real mastermind.  To give but one example, the existence of a thick black line around the edge of Shakespeare's face in the engraving in the First Folio is claimed to show that the dface is a mask behind which the real author hides.  Having said this, there is plenty of much more serious and persuasive evidence to be considered.

The huge quantity of evidence of differing persuasiveness leads to the one criticism of Michell’s book.  In order to cover each candidate properly, he sometimes gets bogged down in detail.  This isn’t really his fault and, in his defence, he has tried to distil thousands of pages of Authorship Studies material into a readable summary.

The truth of the matter is that, in the absence of new evidence, it will never be possible to settle the Authorship Question.  Given the repressive nature of Elizabethan England, the intrigue that surrounded the Queen and her counsellors and the lack of respectability of the theatre, it is eminently reasonable that the real author, if he or she were noble, would want to keep their identity a secret.  Given that backdrop and the real doubts about Shakspeare as author and endless speculation is possible.

So where does Michell stand?  Michell can’t quite bring himself to say it but he is clearly an anti-Stratfordian and posits a hypothesis of a group of writers, masterminded by Bacon, publishing plays that were intended to educate the play-going public in Bacon’s ideas and beliefs.  Where do I stand?  Well, it is safe to say that I am no longer a Stratfordian.  I did flip-flop between candidates as I read the chapters devoted to each of them but, if push comes to shove, I am probably a Marlovian now although who knows where I will stand if I read more on the subject.

And read more I will because this is fascinating and fun stuff.  I've only been able to give a flavour of the subject here and I would highly recommend Michell’s book is an excellent primer on the question.

Friday, May 6, 2011

I'm Back.........With Some of my Favourite Opening Lines

As Mini-Falaise bellows whenever she returns home from an outing, “I’m BACK, Daddy!”.  Well, more precisely, I am now fully recovered from my encounter with viral meningitis (which, fortunately, sounds more deadly than it actually is).  I’ve got even more books backlogged for review but it’s Friday afternoon and I’m not in the mood for it so, instead, I’m going to be very self-indulgent and share with you a list of ten of my favourite opening lines for no other reason than it seemed like an enjoyable thing to do – at least for me, if not for you.  I’m only allowing myself to choose from books I have read which will explain the absence of a number of the classic openers.

Here goes:

1.         It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” - Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

2.         “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” - Anthony Burgess, Earthly Powers

3.         “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – George Orwell, 1984

4.         Marley was dead to begin with.” – Charles Dickens (again!), A Christmas Carol

5.         “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

6.         We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” – Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

7.         “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.” – Ian Fleming, Casino Royale

8.         “In the year 1872, No. 7 Savile Rowe, Burlington Gardens--the house where Sheridan died in 1814--was occupied by Phileas Fogg, Esq.” – Jules Verne, Around the World in Eighty Days

9.         “Afterwards, in the dusty little corners where London's secret servants drink together, there was argument about where the Dolphin case history should really begin.” – John Le Carré, The Honourable Schoolboy

10.       “Everything starts somewhere, although many physicists disagree.” – Terry Pratchett, Hogfather

Do you have any particular favourites?