Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Look-i-like-i

Today we bring you the latest from the look-i-like-i files (okay, so I've only ever done one before and that was a year ago). Is it just me, or has anyone else noticed the similarity between baby-faced England bowler Stuart Broad (above), and spoiled, sneering Slytherin student (and Harry Potter nemesis), Draco Malfoy (below).

No? Just me, then.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Books read in January

The following are short reviews of the books that I read in January. The marks I have given them in the brackets are out of five.

Miss Garnet’s Angel – Salley Vickers (3.4)

This is one of those novels that EM Forster or Henry James might have written in which an elderly woman, Julia Garnet, goes to Italy and falls in love with Venice. She learns things about herself, such as not to close her mind or heart to new, hedonistic experiences. It is full of Venetian references with a dash of art and religion, as in Italy it is almost impossible to ignore either.

Miss Garnet travels to Italy in remembrance of her friend, Harriet, who has recently died. Initially, a parsimonious spinster, Julia soon discovers that it is not as hard to make friends and initiate relationships as she had thought. She can portray whatever image of herself she chooses in Italy where no one knows her and she is not confined by preconceptions.

She used to be a Communist and very austere, but now she starts to let herself indulge and even flirts with Catholicism. She learns about the angel Raphael through artworks and discovers he is the angel of healing and that he accompanied Tobias on his journey through the wilderness. Allegory begins to crash in, in deafening waves and this is the least enjoyable part of the narrative.

When Julia tells the story to a random stranger on a train it is a terrible device and makes her sound like the elderly teacher she is attempting to shed. The spiritual or supernatural element is overwrought and if Vickers had eased up on the symbolism it would have left a lasting impression rather than a whacking imprint.

Death on the Ice – Robert Ryan (4.4)

What made people risk their lives in treacherous conditions among people they didn’t know to reach the South Pole? This novel based on diaries and letters from the men on Scott’s 1912 expedition attempts to answer that question. Robert Ryan makes these men human through his imagined dialogue and characterisation and he describes the Antarctic scenery in all its terrifying beauty. This is an end of an era style of novel which depicts a time of heroism and duty against insurmountable odds. It is gripping boy’s own adventure stuff told with compelling language.

There was great rivalry between the English and the Norwegians and much is made of the difference between Scott and Amundsen. “Amundsen won the Pole. But Scott, he achieved immortality.” Scott’s expeditions included scientific research and quests other than reaching the pole, including gathering data that has been used in contemporary theories on climate change and anthropological information about emperor penguins and the effects of extreme temperatures.

Even though we know that Scott doesn’t make it back, he came agonisingly close. Mistakes were made; instructions given but forgotten in the intensity of the moment, and the mistaken confusion is almost Shakespearean in its scope. Part of the excitement and tension is due to the writing, which is very good and keeps the novel thrilling with is evocative and economical imagery. The novel also humanises the men and their journey and gives a voice to Kathleen, as the strong woman who had to wait behind, knowing that her husband was risking death and aware of the gossip that greeted her whenever she went out without him.

Zlata’s Diary
– Zlata Filipovic (3.2)

Before the war in Bosnia, Zlata Fliipovic was a normal privileged eleven-year old girl. She read books, played the piano and watched television, talking with her friends and going on skiing holidays. Like many teenaged girls, she kept a diary. Then in September 1991, everything changed in Sarajevo. Inspired by Anne Frank, who wrote to Kitty, Zlata calls her diary Mimmy, and confides her thoughts and fears in it. It is full of overwrought adolescent pretension and hyperbole – including a bombardment of capital letters and exclamation marks – but she has justification for her terror and anguish.

Zlata’s diary was discovered by Janine di Giovanni, a journalist for The Sunday Times in Bosnia. When her diary was published, Zlata became a media celebrity and a symbol of the casualties of war. She is often referred to as the new Anne Frank, but her work is not of the same calibre. From the day she knows her diary is due for publication, she is constantly aware of herself and the image she is projecting.

It’s not exactly the sort of book you would read to gain political insight, but it is worth reading to see how the war affected her. She describes how her family move their mattresses into the kitchen where they eat, sleep and live. There is no gas or electricity so she writes by candlelight and bathes in a basin. She writes of how they cope without running water, and describes the scenes outside of water collection, with one eye on the possible public reception.

One of the hardest things for a young girl is the lack of social contact. Her records of her visits to her grandparents are the most honest entries in the diary and she is concerned about the effect the war is having on her parents. Zlata looks forward to birthdays because it is the only time “when the neighbours relax, spend some together and cheer up a bit.” She spends the rest of her days in the house and the cellar, aware that her circle of friends has shrunk to the extent that she feels caged.

The Partnership – Barry Unsworth (3.5)

Published in 1966, this is Barry Unsworth’s first novel and it was immediately placed on the list of banned books due to its homosexual subject matter. This is, as is often the case, na├»ve and misses the point, as the novel also deals with a variety of themes including friendship, cruelty and loneliness.

In a plot practically made for an Ealing farce, Michael Moss and Ronald Foley are business partners, drawn together to make pixies for the tourist market of Cornwall that both despise. Both are using the other but the balance of power frequently shifts during their relationship. Moss is quietly oppressed, while Foley, although he likes to think of himself as a man about town, has no firm opinions and melds into whatever mould he is poured, much like the plaster of Paris shapes he makes on the side.

The Partnership is a curiously depressing little novel. With its dark undercurrents, shifting power struggle, and seminal sociological setting it is reminiscent of the film, The Servant. As it questions the elements necessary to form any type of partnership it leaves a sense of melancholy in its wake.

The Quick and the Dead – Janine di Giovanni (4.2)

Janine di Giovanni is the woman who ‘discovered’ Zlata’s diary, and this her collection of dispatches from Bosnia, particularly Sarajevo. Just as she knew that one person’s story is more affecting than the plight of a nation, so she realised that different angles and viewpoints would make this war more interesting to the Western media.

Although aware that she had the option to leave and so could never understand their plight, she did share some experiences with the besieged citizens, however, and explains these to the reader in terms they may be able to understand, appealing to the senses and personal deprivation. She describes how cold it was in winter; the endless queues for water, food, bread, wood, and even the opportunity to search for rubbish; the constant fear of the snipers; and the simple need for a little luxury.

Di Giovanni narrates these tales minimally and without melodrama, allowing them to speak for themselves. A resident of a nursing home, where old people were left to die without heating or medical supplies, braved the snipers to cross the street to the Holiday Inn where the journalists stayed because they needed to tell their story. This is the responsibility and motivation under which di Giovanni wrote. She felt that the world needed to know what was happening. It had all seemed such a distant possibility until it actually happened. Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984. Less than ten years later, the world was watching for different reasons.

The Quick and the Dead is an excellent collection of shocking stories that try to explain what the hell happened in Sarajevo. It has a rightful place in the canon of modern war literature.