Wednesday, 21 March 2018

I do find that American book jackets can be desperately unappealing ... I mean, honestly, would you even think of picking up this dreary-looking thing in a bookshop? But I've been wallowing in Montmaray with guilty pleasure for the past couple of days. I don't read teen books very often but I'd have been in heaven if this had been around when I was 12. And if I were 12, I don't suppose I'd notice, let alone care that author Michelle Cooper has helped herself liberally from I Capture the Castle.

This is the journal of Sophia Margaret Elizabeth Jane Clementine FitzOsborne, begun this twenty-third day of October 1936, on the occasion of her sixteenth birthday ...

And if she isn't quite writing this sitting in the kitchen sink, listening to the dripping roof and watching her sister Rose ironing her only nightgown - well, give or take a title, Princess Sophia and Cassandra Mortmain are almost interchangeable. If Cassandra lives with her eccentric family in a decaying castle in the middle of the nowhere in the 1930s, the FitzOsbornes are living it in spades in their castle in the tiny island kingdom of Montmaray somewhere in the Bay of Biscay. There's a mad king, still wracked by WWI - a mad housekeeper, shades of Mrs Danvers - the housekeeper's handsome son - invading Nazis - secret passages - bombs ... and a bit too much author-splaining about the Spanish Civil War, Mrs Simpson and historical background, though maybe that wouldn't grate so much on a teen reader. Never mind, it was a jolly enjoyable read-in-bed although for my money, you can't beat Guard Your Daughters which has been republished by Persephone since I wrote about it two years ago. (I can't claim credit because lots of bloggers were urging it!)

Although the first book ends on a cliffhanger, I wasn't sure whether I'd continue with the Montmaray saga but as I was ordering this on Amazon last night - couldn't resist my baking heroine Regula Ysewijn at such a hefty reduction - I decided I needed something else to make up £10 and qualify for free postage. So that's three books bought this week, and I took three rather smaller books to the Oxfam shop - so it's one-in-one-out but not really solving the shelving crisis, is it?

Isn't Regula Ysewijn a fabulous name for a cook? I always think of her as Regulo Eis-wein but I'm probably mispronouncing her in my head.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Rimon (Pomegranate), Tal Shochat 2011

So perfect, you'd think it was plastic. Israeli photographer Tal Shochat (on her own? or with a squad of helpers? I couldn't help wondering) polished every twig, leaf and fruit on this pomegranate tree to achieve perfection. (And then rigged up a black background.) I am awestruck at the thought of going into the orchard with a can of Pledge and a yellow duster - when I so rarely attack my own bookshelves - and accept that I simply don't have the patience to be an artist and had much better put my creative urges to making cake!
The photograph is in the V&A's Into the Woods exhibition of tree photography. If you're at the V&A anyway for their ocean liners exhibition - which I enjoyed very much, but haven't got round to writing up - you'll find this tiny free exhibition in the next gallery and it's worth a 10-minute detour.

I loved this film when it first came out last year but at the time, there was little chance of seeing it outside London. Suddenly I see posters everywhere and it seems to be on wider release as of next week but the English title has been changed from the unwieldy Fifty Springtimes to I Got Life. Highly recommended and I might even go again. Miles, miles better than the clunky Finding Your Feet that squandered a brilliant cast (Imelda Staunton, Celia Imrie, Timothy Spall, all boosting their pensions!) on a hackneyed, patronising script.

Monday, 12 March 2018

I absolutely loved Bernard MacLaverty's latest book Midwinter Break which reminded me that I'd never got round to reading his earlier novel Grace Notes, despite the pulling power of its jacket by one of my favourite artists Hammershoi.
Sadly, it turns out that I'm the wrong the reader for this one and I didn't warm to this novel at all. Perhaps it really is 'a bad novel by a good writer' as one reviewer put it, but I simply felt irritated by Catherine, the young woman composer who is the central character; though I'll grant that someone more responsive to music - and the smell of babies - than I am might feel more sympathetic.
It's short, so I limped along to the end - felt glad that I didn't choose it for book group as it's my turn next and they'd all have hated for me for it - then picked up a George Gissing with huge relief because a good Victorian never lets you down.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Woman with Dagger, 1931
This is what Picasso painted during Christmas week, 1931. You can only imagine the festive mood in the family home ...

Woman in a Red Armchair, 1931
And this is the large painting he does, very quickly, on Christmas Day, a portrait of his secret (and much younger) lover Marie-Thérèse, with her face obliterated and her features replaced by a heart. (They met - or rather, he picked her up - in Galeries Lafayette one day when she was 17 and had gone to the store to buy a Peter Pan collar and cuffs. She remained in love with him for the rest of her life and said that he was the only person who ever really looked at her and properly saw her. ) 

And that's the opening of Tate Modern's magnificent Picasso exhibition that gives a day by day/month by month account of just one year in his life, 1932, when he was 50. I was riveted; when you look at the dates, you realise what a furious pace he worked at. 

The Dream 
I was one of the last to leave yesterday and stood in front of this for a long time; every curve seems imbued with love. (Of course, I'm glad that it wasn't me who did this. Whoops! )

Sunday, 25 February 2018

This was going to be my handbag book this week. (Can't get on the Tube or a bus without a book!) But I dipped into it in bed last night and now I've kind of had enough, because there's only so much schoolgirl enthusiasm you can take: 'Super - dead thrilling - Latin was simply unspeakable - Ye Gods! - The lower VI concert was terrific.'

I'm flagging - but in small doses it's fascinating as a window into the unsophisticated life of a 15-year-old in 1954. Margaret thinks boys are soppy and girls who are into boys are even soppier. She washes her 'mop' once a fortnight and helps her mum with housework on Saturday mornings. She thinks lipstick is 'muck' and despises those girls who try to look 20. 'Give me socks, flat heels, no makeup & teenage clothes any day!' 

Less than 20 years later, I was also a northern schoolgirl, equally set on getting into university but rather less assiduous when it came to revising. I would have died rather than wear socks. I haunted the makeup counter in Boots (Miner's lipstick, Kiku perfume) and my biggest interest in life (apart from boys) was my split ends, discussed endlessly with my best friend. We fervently believed that a much-advertised shampoo called Protein 21 would miraculously mend them. We hated Latin, never helped our mothers and ached to be grown-up.

I was never going to win any scholarships. But my spelling was much better than Margaret Forster's!

Friday, 23 February 2018

This stage adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock (at the Barbican until tomorrow) has had excellent reviews but didn't really do it for me, and judging from conversations I overheard on the way out those who hadn't seen the film were mightily confused by actresses playing several parts. I came home and re-watched the film which I hadn't seen for years and enjoyed it more. You do need the ethereal beauty of Miranda and that haunting Australian landscape. Last night's girls in blazers looked more like escapees from Marcia Blaine School. Only 3* from me but I see that a TV adaptation is coming soon.

Oh, it was a very chilly night for a 3* outing and I was definitely wondering why I'd bothered when I could have been at home with a good book and a bottle of wine. I had to chivvy myself out tonight, thinking, 'This had better be good!'  - and it was, this time it was 5*. (I had to remind myself when a mouse shot out from under my seat on the platform on the way home! Perhaps it sniffed the nice sourdough loaf I'd bought for breakfast.)   

A Wedding is such a powerful film - like a Greek tragedy - inspired by the true story of a westernised Belgian-Pakistani girl pressured into an arranged marriage by her deeply loving but traditional family in 2007. I'd love to say, 'Do go and see it,' but tonight was a one-off showing and there are no plans for even limited UK release. But there's an English trailer and quite a long extract here (with a massive spoiler in the final two minutes, so don't watch to the end if you think you might buy the DVD!) It's nominated for a César - as best foreign film, even though it's in French - but it's up against big budget movies like Dunkirk and La La Land so it doesn't seem a very even playing field. For my vote, it's better than Dunkirk!