The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Sunday, 29 November 2009

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Having enjoyed 2 other Steinbeck novels I was pleased that this one was on the reading list for the course I am on in the new year, about how American history is depicted in its literature. I already had a lovely 2nd edition hardback from 1940, that a friend had given to me, so it was great to be able to pick up this American classic as my next read.
This famous depiction of the great Depression during the 1930's follows the Joad family, generations of which have worked the land near Oklahoma as tenant farmers, and who now find themselves (along with all of the other farmers from the neighbouring states) losing their home to corporate land owners, who turf them out with no work or home. Like everyone else for miles, they all head west on route 66 to California where more corporate companies have advertised work on the fruit and cotton farms. Sadly there are many many more workers than jobs, a deliberate calculation to keep wages down by the companies, so instead of a bountiful place where you can eat all the fruit you want and make a good living, there are shanty towns of desperate hungry people, oppressed and abused by the police, hated and mistrusted by the locals. There is little work and little hope.
We follow the Joad's, decent and hard working, from their farm, piling their resourses, leaving a life that had worked over generations, on their journey west, losing family members, making friends, surviving with others on the same journey. Their incredible migration fills the first half of the story. The second half is their attempts to do everything they can to find work and survive in California, through the dreadful Hoovervilles, the better government camps where a sense of civility returns, and being forced to leave to work on a peach plantation surrounded by strike pickets protesting about pay cuts, forcing them to live in near prison conditions. They finally settle picking cotton and living in a box car, but the family have fragmented, the work is drying up and their future is uncertain. The last chapters depict their desperate situation with maximum drama.
Steinbeck depicts his characters in such a way that you feel as if you know them, you care about them, spend time with them, understand them. I always feel as if Steinbeck loves his people and it makes you love them. This made this story really hard because you know that things will not go well for them and you worry. The family however seem to hold on to hope despite the worst conditions. Their dignity and resoursefulness is inspirational and heart warming. I rooted for all of them.
Steinbeck intersperses his chapters about the Joad's with short commentaries about the wider picture, some of which incited disgust and fury in me while reading them, while recognising the relevance of those affected by similar organisational giants and their railroad tactics today. I particularly found the chapters about the faceless tractors mowing down their land and houses very moving, and the one about the abundance of fruit while people starved, the rotting mountains of peaches, the vegetables tipped into the river causing people to literally fish for potatoes to feed themselves and their families. In fact I found the entire story very moving on lots of levels.
I loved Ma Joad, the character that is depicted the most, the matrarch who increasingly finds herself making the decisions for the family. I loved it when she stood up to the jobsworth shopkeeper telling him that when you are struggling, it is only other poor people who will help you out, others with nothing.
I really enjoyed this book because I connected wholly with the characters and worried for them all the way through. The disturbing last chapters and last scene in particular will stay with me. I am not sure I could emotionally survive the film version with Henry Fonda. This is not the most harrowing story I have read (that award goes to Germinal by Emile Zola), but it is certainly a very memorable roller coaster, and an important book that I highly recommend.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

British Theatre is booming.

I read an excellent article this week through the Times Online Arts and Entertainment bulletin that I get e-mailed to me (along with the Times Literary Supplement Newsletter).
The article examines why theatre attendance in Britain has increased considerably in the last year or so. Statistics show that even from 2 years ago more of us are choosing to see live performances all year round, not just in the holiday season when Pantomime is popular for families of all ages. Many of us are booking tickets for other shows too. Unusual, especially as we are in the middle of a recession and everyone is watching their pennies.
The article explores many reasons for why this may be so.
  • Are the theatres managed differently, opting for subsidised funding (once frowned upon) to ensure not only a wide variety of popular shows but productions by new writers and plays appealing to more specialist tastes?
  • During these more thrifty times, are some of us abandoning expensive holidays and going for entertainment nearer to home?
  • Are trends changing, as they always do, so that amongst so much home entertainment, do we crave community based activities?
  • Publicity and advertising for live theatre has changed, with TV personalities such as Lenny Henry in Othello and David Tennant in Hamlet taking on the greats, ensuring stampedes for tickets out of curiosity/sensationalism and the rush of excitement at getting a ticket to the hottest show in town, as well as making Shakespeare more attractive to non-regular attenders.
  • Do community based activities offer comfort when times are uncertain?

It could be some, or all, of the above are correct. You may have your own theories. It is great to see so many theatres doing well and so much on offer. My favourite theatres are listed on my sidebar.

My favourite productions this year have been...

A Midsummer Nights Dream by Propeller at the Liverpool Playhouse

Macbeth at the Manchester Royal Exchange

The Caretaker with Jonathan Pryce at the Liverpool Everyman

Prick Up Your Ears with Con O'Neill at the London Comedy Theatre

The poet Roger McGough at the Liverpool Playhouse

All of these have been brilliant and I have been fortunate enough to see many others too. What have you seen this year, or your most memorable plays and performances?

What are your theories on the theatre-going boom? Is America enjoying similar rises in numbers of theatre attenders?

To read the article Why British Theatre is Booming click the link and let me know your thoughts.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Writing America

I want to tell you about the course I am enrolled on starting in January. The course is over 4 evenings, one a month, and examines how 'history often plays a vital role in shaping American novels'.
The course is using 4 novels to examine this...
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, quite a substantial novel made infamous by the well loved film of the same name. I haven't read this yet but saw the film a long time ago. I'm looking forward to looking at issues regarding the American Civil War and how it comes into this story, and how it depicts those times.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, my 3rd Steinbeck novel and a book that I am 3/4 through and enjoying very much. My version is a lovely 2nd edition published in 1940 too, and clearly representing the Depression in America.
Beloved by Toni Morrison, which I reviewed in May 2008, a novel I have loved along with many other people, exploring Black American history and slavery.
Finally, one of my favourite books, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, which I read back in 1994 after a work colleague had recommended it.
So some fantastic titles to talk about. I am really looking forward to doing the course. I have noticed that a lot of American bloggers love to immerse themselves in English historical novels and classics. Maybe I am one of the English bloggers who loves the American classics as I do seem to have leanings in that direction and have chosen to read as many as possible. I also think that the film adaptations have encouraged this too.
As you can imagine this has shaped my current reading list to accomodate the texts of the course. I'll review the books as I finish them and also tell you about each evening as it happens in the new year.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

I picked this one up from the Bluecoat book fair a couple of months ago, wondering what the novel behind such a famous film was like. I saw the film years ago, and there are many iconic images from it that are regularly seen in the media. It was also pretty short at just on 100 pages.
Set during the 1940's in New York, the story is narrated by a man who is never named. He tells the story of an enigmatic and exuberant young woman who lives in the same building of apartments. The woman in question has passed into the mists of legend at the beginning, rumoured to be in Africa and just as infamous, making his friend Joe misty eyed with remembered affection. From here our narrator recounts how he met Holly Golightly and became entangled in her life for a short time and the effect that she had on all around her.
The story is an examination of Holly's character as a good time party girl, a charismatic character full of contrasts that are irresistable to all. Prioritising money but yearning for love, needing protection like a naive child but also a street-wise survivor. Holly hates feeling caged or trapped and yearns to be free. When anyone comes too close she closes up and becomes vague, adding to her allure. By the end everyone has a crush on her, is a little in love with her, or even more than a little.
I enjoyed reading about her, once I had got over the fact that she has short, blond hair. She still continued with Audrey Hepburns voice though, such is the endurance of the film. This is a story about one of the most memorable female characters (from a book or film) and I think that it is because Holly is so unpredictable and charming. She gets away with more than most women of her era simply because she is so likeable. You are aware of her materialism, her shallowness, her dubious relations with men, but she is also very alluring, and beautiful, causing men to be entrapped by her personality, like moths around a flame. I couldn't decide whether she really was so in the dark about the mess she becomes entangled in, but the question adds to her mystery.
The abiding theme of the story is that you cannot trap a wild thing. Indeed, the narrator is first aware of her before he meets her, by a notice on her mail box, 'Holly Golightly, travelling' and it seems that she never stops long, anywhere. When Holly buys the narrator a birdcage he had admired, she makes him promise not to put anything in it. She also likens herself to her nameless cat saying they are both homeless.
A series of events ensure that Holly is off travelling again at the end, and appears to still be so fifteen years later where the story began. You can be sure that adventure will always follow her and many more will recount the days in ber presence with a rosy nostalgia that accompanies days spent in a hedonistic hormonal kind of bliss.
The enigma that is Holly Golightly will ensure that this book will be held high, as a classic story about an unforgettable female, for a long time, and will provide lots for readers groups to discuss too.
There is a dedicated website to all about Breakfast at Tiffany's. Click the link.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

October Roundup

Hope you all had fun over Halloween. This lovely drawing was created by artist Jeff Ward and you can check out more of his work on his website thepaintingplace. Perfect for the spooky month of October.
Read - 1 and a half books
Completed - Breakfast At Tiffany's by Truman Capote
Currently Reading - The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
TBR pile - currently at 71 (according to GoodReads) with 2 new ones added...
Accordion Crimes by Annie E Proulx
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Challenges - completed all twelve of the 2009 Mini Challenges started in January. You can read my challenge wrap up here
Wishlist Additions - none this month, probably just as well considering how huge my TBR pile is.
Discoveries - Oxford University has distance online courses in lots of subjects, including 10 in literature. Check out the Oxford University Continuing Education department for more details.
Events - attending the one day course The Hour for Loving: Texts in Time at the Liverpool University Continuing Education Department.
The wind has been blowing all of today, blowing us towards winter and into November...

Hay on Wye

Hay on Wye