Sunday, 31 January 2010

Cannery Row

Doc was collecting marine animals in the Great Tide Pool on the tip of the Peninsula. It is a fabulous place: when the tide is in, a wave-churned basin, creamy with foam whipped by the combers that roll in from the whistling buoy on the reef.
John Steinbeck's exhilarating passion for his native Monterey in California is evident throughout Cannery Row. Doc the scientist goes about his daily business collecting starfish, octopi and abalone from the tide pools for the Western Biological Laboratory. Lee Chong keeps a watchful eye on his store and a closer eye on Mack and the boys who live in the Palace Flophouse. Dora and her girls at the Bear Flag brothel work hard to accommodate the men coming in from the fishing boats and every evening at dusk the old Chinaman walks through the lot and across the beach not to return until dawn.

Steinbeck's fabulous descriptions of the marine life that inhabit the 'brown and blue and China red' rock pools of Monterey are echoed by the stories of those who inhabit Cannery Row. Humane, moving and laugh-out-loud funny, Cannery Row is one of the finest American novels.

The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second. John Steinbeck, Cannery Row

Sunday, 24 January 2010

The Life of Charlotte Bronte

The Life of Charlotte Bronte is a truly absorbing read and Elizabeth Gaskell was thorough in her research, observation and personal memories. The extracts from Charlotte's letters portray an exceptionally kind-hearted woman of literary ambition plagued by ill health and and the relentless need to earn a living. When acclaim finally comes for Charlotte is is meaningless to her as she has lost both her beloved sisters. The biography sparkles when Gaskell uses her own literary talents to describe events. For example the episode where Emily subdues her bulldog, Keeper:
He loved to steal up-stairs, and stretch his square, tawny limbs, on the comfortable beds, covered over with delicate white counterpanes. But the cleanliness of the parsonage arrangements was perfect; and this habit of Keeper's was so objectionable, that Emily in reply to Tabby's remonstrances, declared that, if he was found again transgressing, she herself, in defiance of warning and his well-known ferocity of nature,would beat him so severely that he would never offend again.
Keeper does transgress again and Emily does beat him but he bore no grudge and 'walked first among the mourners to her funeral.'

Muriel Spark's biography and critical study of Emily Bronte has been on my bookshelf for many years. Time for a re-read.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Her Fearful Symmetry

As a mother of teenage twins I get a bit fed up with the cliche of 'weird twins' in contemporary fiction, but Audrey Niffenegger's portrayal of mirror-image twins Valentina and Julia in Her Fearful Symmetry is sensitive and they are naive rather than freakish. The novel started off well. Set in Highgate Cemetery in London, there are lots of interesting details, for example the holly bushes in the cemetery which have sprouted from funeral wreaths left by the Victorians.

Valentina and Julia inherit a flat close to the cemetery which is haunted by Julia, the woman they believe to be their aunt. In the flat below lives Robert, Elspeth's former lover who is writing a dissertation on the cemetery and takes guided tours. In the flat above lives Martin, a man tormented by OCD who spends his time bleaching his floors and blanking out his windows. For me, Martin and his absent wife Marijke, are by far the most interesting and likeable characters in the novel.

The novel is cleverly plotted with a theme of twinning and symmetry. The history of Highgate is well-researched without being too research-y and I liked all the hip London references - Philip Treacy, The Sex Pistols, Prada and Liberty. Yet there was something missing from this novel for me. A good novel but not a great novel.

I enjoyed Book Snob's account of an evening with Audrey Niffenegger.

Sunday, 10 January 2010


For some years I have been perfectly my own mistress, subject to no control whatever; so far from it, that my sisters, who are many years older than myself, and even my own dear mother used to consult me on every occasion of importance...
It could be a quote from the fiercely independent Jane Eyre, but actually it's an extract from Maria Branwell's letter to Patrick Bronte. I'm deeply absorbed in The Life of Charlotte Bronte and intrigued by Charlotte's mother, Maria Branwell. Extracts from the letters she wrote to Patrick Bronte during the time of their engagement suggest a warm, intelligent woman, fond of reading and domesticity - she even makes her own wedding cake. Born and raised in Penzance, Cornwall, she is dismayed when her books, clothes and other belongings are conveyed by water to her new home and lost in a shipwreck. What a loss her early death must have been to her six children.

What do you think of Ruben Toledo's illustration of Heathcliff? I suspect you will either love it or hate it!

Sunday, 3 January 2010

More Bronte

I don't read a great deal of non-fiction but I'm interested in all things Victorian at the moment and I need to read Elizabeth Gaskell's biography of Charlotte Bronte. Presumably this is the definitive biography as Elizabeth Gaskell was a friend and contemporary of Charlotte Bronte. I'd be interested in any other Bronte biography recommendations.

With my Christmas book token (thanks Rob!) I couldn't resist the new Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Wuthering Heights with its fabulous Ruben Toledo cover.

By the way, Jane Eyre is currently featured on girlebooks.