Sunday Salon

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersOh Lord!  Sorry I haven’t been around these last couple of days.  My nightmare scenario happened at a preliminary meeting over at Stratford.  There was a major accident on the motorway on the way home and as a consequence the hour journey took nearer three.  And, as a consequence of that, my adrenalin problem kicked in and, well let’s just say you don’t want to know about the rest, because you really don’t!    I console myself by the fact that if things really do become impossible this is a degree that can be done by distance learning.  I don’t want to do it that way, but if I have to I will.  Nothing much to report from the meeting (this week and next it’s more administrative stuff than actual teaching) except that everyone seems formidably clever and incredibly confident.  I know enough about students to know that the latter, at least, is 90% bravado.  Most of them will be shaking in their boots as much as I am.

But, I did get a good tip from one woman to whom I spoke about a very good audio version of Richard II, which in the light of what we were talking about last week concerning the way in which Shakespeare’s audience would have listened to a play, I thought I would explore and see if just listening made a big difference.

The version about which she was so complimentary was the BBC Radio Production with Samuel West as Richard.  I’m not certain if those of you who are reading this outside the UK will know Sam West’s work, but let me just say that when I heard this existed I had to come home and discover if it was available anywhere because anything with West in it is a must in this household.  In fact, it is because Sam West is his namesake that Samuel Bear wants to grow up to be a Bear who is an actor. (Amongst many other things.  Samuel Bear is a Bear who wants to do everything; preferably yesterday.  Sometimes, living with Samuel Bear can be exhausting!)

The link I’ve given you is for the Audible Company.  I discovered them last week after deciding that I wanted to do more listening.  For £7.99 a month you can have one download whatever the actual price.  Sometimes that means a saving on shop bought CDs of over £50.  A deal not to be sniffed at.  We have already had our discounted download for this month and I’ll tell you about that another day, but as this Richard is only £8.99 I’m going to treat The Bears and we are all going to the theatre this evening.

I think Audible must have originated in the US, so if this is as good as my new colleague suggests then when I report back maybe you will be able to get a copy there if it appeals. I wonder, are there other companies like this around?  If anyone knows of any I’d be glad of a link.  As it is we have already decided on next month’s discount.  Little Dorrit is available at about 15% of the price I would have had to pay in the shops.  Our long winter nights with tea, scones and Dickens are now assured.

Published in: on September 20, 2009 at 9:39 am  Comments (9)  

Sunday Salon ~ A Different Type of Listening

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersI have spent the last forty-eight hours trying to get used to a new pair of glasses and so any form of extended reading has been very difficult.  Past experience has taught me that this will sort itself out in time, but at the moment it’s all very blurry and rather nauseating so I was more than usually interested in the discussion that I managed to plough my way through yesterday in Simon Palfrey’s Doing Shakespeare about Elizabethan audiences and the manner in which they listened.  (The ploughing, by the way, was down to the glasses and not the writing; the book is very good.)

Palfry makes the point that because of the very high levels of illiteracy (90% of women and 60+% of men) ‘[m]ost school learning was by rote, absorbed aurally.’  These people were read to, and it wasn’t just lessons that they experienced this way, but also ‘fables, stories, songs , ballads, news – and in a very real sense plays.’  They knew how to listen in a way that we have forgotten, nay in a way which we have never learnt.

For us sound is perpetual, we are surrounded by it constantly, to the point where complete silence, if we do ever experience it, is frightening.  But the corollary to this is that we have stopped listening.  I would consider myself to be far more aurally aware than many of my friends.  I watch almost no television and rarely go to the cinema.  Most of my non-reading entertainment and all of my news coverage is absorbed from the radio or via CD, but even so, I know that I do not actively listen to any more than about 20% of what I hear.  I am not an Elizabethan.  This weekend I have wished I was.  It takes practice to listen actively and I’m not good at it.

So, if it is permissible to make a new year resolution half way through September, here is mine.  In future when I put a programme on the radio that I want to hear I am going to stop doing whatever else I was multi-tasking and really listen to it.  I am also going to start downloading audio-books and listen to those.  There is a real issue here for me because my mother lost her sight and was unable to read during her latter years.  While the condition she had is not inherited, the shape of eyes that are likely to develop it is and so there may come a time when I have no option but to be an Elizabethan listener.  If that time should come then I don’t want to have to learn how to do it in my eighties.  Whether I will ever reach the listening heights that Palfry claims for Shakespeare’s contemporaries and be able as a matter of course to pick out the rhetorical figures of speech that dominate his works is another matter, but I’m going to have a really good try.

Published in: on September 13, 2009 at 8:57 am  Comments (16)  

Sunday Salon ~ Relics of the Dead

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersIt isn’t often that I do a book review for the Salon, but everything seems to have got a bit out of kilter this week and I want to write about the new Ariana Franklin book, Relics of the Dead, while it is still on my mind and before I throw myself headlong into good old Titus Andronicus – reckless fool that I am.

I really enjoyed Mistress of the Art of Death, the first of Franklin’s books about the twelfth century anatomist, Adelia Aguilar, sent from Salerno to aid Henry II in his search for the murderers of missing Cambridge children, but was disappointed by the second, Death Maze,5151hHUYDXL._SL500_AA240_ and so I approached this, the third, in the series with some trepidation.

Well, I have to say that I think it’s much better than Death Maze, which would, of course, be a good thing, if it wasn’t for the reason I think it’s better.  My problem with its predecessor was that while the thrust of the concept behind the series is that women are perfectly capable of following the same professions as men, that particular novel only really came to life when one of the two principal male characters, Rowley, Bishop of St Albans, or Henry II, himself, was on the scene and they weren’t on the scene that much.  One of the main reasons that this is a much better book is that these two play substantially bigger parts and the writing, especially the dialogue lifts off the page as a result.

The year is 1176 and Henry II is having trouble with the Welsh, trouble he thinks he can put an end to once and for all (should someone tell him, do you think?) if only he can prove that King Arthur is not sleeping ready to lead them against their English oppressors, but well dead and buried.  So, when two skeletons turn up at Glastonbury, that he might just be able to claim to be those of Arthur and Guinevere he sends for the only person who might be able to give him evidence one way or the other, Adelia.

Of course, there are those who don’t want the skeletons to be Arthur and his wife and those that do and the two sides fight it out between them.  But, far more of a danger to Adelia and her protector, the Saracen, Mansur, are those who don’t want it to come to light exactly who those skeletons were in real life.  As I said, there is a fair bit of Henry and a lot of Rowley and the story tumbles along at a splendid lick as a result.

So, no more about the plot in case I give too much away.  However, this book did set me thinking about a couple of other matters.  The first was to do with Glastonbury.  I have only been there once and that has been an absolutely deliberate decision on my part.

There is a lot of talk in the book about the atmosphere of the place, the feelings of unease, of a power beyond human explanation that is experienced by many of the people who find themselves there.  Adelia scoffs at this and I have to say that under normal circumstances so would I.  I do explanations.  But the one time I was in Glastonbury  I was spooked and when we climbed to the top of the Tor for the only time in my life I was completely disorientated; I couldn’t have told you where North was to save my life and normally that is something I can always do.  I came down from there as fast as I could and I would not and will not go back.  When I think of Glastonbury now I try to put that out of my mind and remember instead the sign we saw there that advertised homegrown bananas.  I’m still trying to work that one out.

The second thing I found interesting was that while Franklin insists twice that what Henry will be remembered for in history is the killing of Thomas a Beckett, that has never been what I have remembered him for.  I don’t know why, but when I think of Henry II what I think of is the man who laid the foundations for a rule of law that served the common people as well as those of noble (Norman) birth.  It was Henry who introduced the jury system and he was also responsible for the standardization of our weights and measures.

Where did I first encounter this man, and who was it who taught me to see him as a seriously good thing rather than the butcher that so many feel him to be?  I can’t remember.  I just know that that is the way I see him and every time he turns up in Franklin’s narrative I feel my spirits rise.  He may be quick tempered and manipulative, but his real concern is for the people.  Beckett’s was for the Church.  Given the corruption of the time.  I know whose side I would have been on.

Published in: on August 30, 2009 at 9:43 am  Comments (5)  

Sunday Salon ~ On Tolkien and Shakespeare

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersThere has been a certain amount of chatter here over the past two weeks about Dr Samuel Johnson, prompted by my admission that despite the fact that he is very much a local writer I know almost nothing about him.  I’ve sat back in admiration letting other bloggers teach me about one of the great figures of English letters and I’m very grateful, but it’s not very good for ego, so yesterday I set off to remind myself that there is one local writer about whom I know much more.

As some of you know, I live in The Shire.  Now don’t get worried.  I’m not living a fantasy life.  I really don’t believe that I’m a woolly-footed Hobbit or a long-eared elf, although I have to admit that when I was at work there were days when I wouldn’t have minded being a grumpy axe-wielding dwarf.  No, I actually do live in The Shire, the landscape that Tolkien drew on when he was creating the Middle Earth homeland of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.  I often go for tea at the mill that was the model for the one own by Ted Sandyman and yesterday, between first and second breakfast (I do have a healthy admiration for the Hobbit insistence on regular meals) I went for a long walk in The Old Forest.

Fortunately, we haven’t had that much rain over the past couple of week, because one good downpour and the paths can become impassable and as Frodo and his friends found out to their cost, taking a detour is not a good idea.


As you can see, I was able to do the sensible thing and follow one of the tributaries of the Brandywine so that I would be sure that I could find my way out again.

I was also able to stick to the lower path.  It’s always wise to avoid the upper one.  So much easier to hide if you happen to hear horses hooves coming up behind you.  They may say they’re just from the local trekking centre, but who knows what guises those evil Nazgul may have taken in this reincarnation.

Walking these paths alone, it is actually very easy to understand not only where Tolkien’s ideas came from, but also where he found some of the inspiration for the chilling atmosphere that he created.  It isn’t perhaps as easy to see how the University clock tower became one of the two towers of the trilogy’s second book, not that is, until you know that when it was built, a process Tolkien would have watched, it was constructed from the inside.  There was no scaffolding.  Watching that grow day by day, with no visible support, must have been very creepy indeed and it must have been easy to attribute it to some sort of magical intercession.

I cherish my links with The Shire and I also cherish my links with that other local writer, William Shakespeare.  As you will know if you come over here for tea on a regular basis, I’m going back to my Shakespeare studies and there’s been a suggestion made that we set up a Shakespeare discussion group.  I’ve put together a post about this, which is at present a sticky on the main blog site.  If you are interested in joining us then just click on the blog tab at the top of this post and you can read more about it there.  It would be great to have some fellow Salonistas along.

Published in: on August 23, 2009 at 8:51 am  Comments (11)  

Sunday Salon ~ An Open Letter of Apology

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersExcuse me, but were you the lady behind whom I was sitting in the bus on Thursday morning?  If so, I would really like to apologise.  I know the way in which I was peering over your shoulder and craning my neck around was an appalling example of bad manners, but I was just desperate to see what book it was that you were reading.

Actually, you were so engrossed in it that you probably didn’t notice me.  In fact you were so engrossed that you very nearly missed your stop.  I do have to say that that puzzled me.  I have read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and to be honest it wasn’t exactly the most riveting book I’ve ever picked up.  But we could have talked about that, couldn’t we?  If I’d had the courage to come and sit next to you and strike up a conversation one reader to another.  Except so deep in the African forests were you that you probably wouldn’t have appreciated my bringing you back to the dusty byways of Warwickshire one little bit.

Anyway, should we happen to find ourselves on the same bus again some day, I promise to try and behave in a more seemly manner.  Perhaps you could bring your knitting to occupy you or something to listen to on your I-pod?  Then I wouldn’t have the temptation to peer put in front of me.  Because, to be honest, peering over the shoulders of people who are reading is like an addiction to me and without serious therapy I don’t think I’m going to be able to break it.  Perhaps there are clinics that specialize in curing such problems?  If you should happen to be aware of any then I would consider it a real kindness if you could let me know.  Some day someone is going to take exception to the way I behave and bop me on the nose, which would embarrass not only both of us but also everyone around us.

Again, I really am sorry and hope that you will accept my apology.

Yours very sincerely

Addicted Reader.

Published in: on August 16, 2009 at 9:28 am  Comments (20)  

Sunday Salon – On Being Read To

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersIt might surprise you to hear this, but I was a very late reader.  I must have been seven, rising eight, before I started to read independently.  This puzzled my teachers, because it was clear that I had a certain modicum of intelligence and they couldn’t for the life of them see why it was that I was having so much difficulty.  All was made clear one Parents Evening, when my mother, asked if she knew of any reason why I might be so reluctant to read on my own, said that she couldn’t possibly imagine what the problem was especially as  I loved books and we both got great pleasure from the long sessions we had every night when she read to me before bedtime.  Crafty little beggar, wasn’t I?  I wasn’t going to show that I could read for myself if that meant losing out on those times when I got my mother’s undivided attention every evening.  Looking back, I think those teachers probably underestimated just how intelligent I was.  But, my mother took their words to heart and decided that both she and I would have to fore-go those cosy reading aloud hours and somehow I’ve never really rediscovered just what a joy it can be to have someone read to you, even though as a teacher I recognized its importance and read to my pupils every day of my working career.

And then something happened that changed all that in a single stroke.  Swine Flu arrived.

No, you didn’t mis-read that.  Swine Flu arrived.  We have had a very serious outbreak here in the West Midlands and one friend of mine was struck down so badly that she was hallucinating for twenty-four hours and in bed for five days.  Well, you can imagine the panic here, can’t you?

“What,” said The Bears, “are we going to do with you if you are in bed for five days and not feeling well enough to read?  You will be unlivable with!”  (Nice to think they’re so concerned!)

“Well,” I said, “there are always the Lord of the Rings CDs.” (We have the BBC Radio dramatization.) “You could play me those.”

“Pffhhhh!” said The Bears.  “They only last thirteen hours, no use at all.  Now, if we were to buy a copy of the Harry Potter CDs with that nice man Stephen Fry reading them, then that would keep you busy for at least five days.”

You may feel you sense a certain amount of self-interest entering into the conversation at this point.  How well you know these Bears!  But, I could see their point.  If I do go down with something that keeps me at home for any length of time, I will, once I’m slightly on the mend, go stir crazy without something relatively undemanding to keep me occupied.  And as, if you browse round the net, you can actually pick up copies of the Harry Potter recordings for much less than they were originally being offered for, I took their advice.

Well, you know what the next part of the story is, don’t you?  Certain Bears decided that it would be a shame to have to wait until I was ill to hear these wonderful readings.  After all, I might never get the wretched flu and then they would be sitting there still in their wrappings and no one (for no ‘one’ read no ‘Bear”) would ever get the benefit of our having bought them.  Currently we are in the middle of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, loving every minute of it and I have rediscovered the joy of having someone else read to me.  Audio books are never going to replace ‘the real thing’ in my reading life, but as an occasional substitute at the end of a long day, or when my eyes are tired from other reading, they are definitely the way to go.

However, two things bothers me. The first is how difficult it is to find audio books that are not abridgements of the original.  If I’m going to hear a book read then I want to hear the whole thing as the author wrote it, not a hacked about version that someone else thought was an adequate representation.  Finding recordings like this is proving very difficult and any recommendations that other Salonista have would be gratefully received.  I’m not looking for downloads, but actual CDs that I can listen to from my Hi-Fi system.

The second issue is to do with the readers.  Fry is brilliant.  Whoever chose him to do the Potter readings was inspired.  But, this isn’t always the case.  Apparently, Fry himself has become addicted to this form of story-telling and I caught him on the radio the other day making this very point.  He happened to mention that he’d come across some very good complete recordings of Dickens with an American actor reading who he thought was superb but what he didn’t say was who that actor was.  I would love some unabridged versions of Dickens.  Imagine long cosy winter evenings in front of the fire with someone reading Our Mutual Friend or Little Dorrit to you.  Bliss!  So, I wondered if any of the American Salonista had any idea who this actor might be.  If I can track some of these down then I might even be generous and buy a couple for The Bears for Christmas, just in case they go down with Swine Flu and need something to keep them amused, you understand.

P.S. The Bears are building their own ‘About’ page.  I apologise in advance for any offense given.

Published in: on August 9, 2009 at 9:46 am  Comments (27)  

Sunday Salon – The Alternative Booker.

70757~Cafe-Mocha-Posters If you’ve seen my post from earlier in the week, then you will know that for once I’m actually not up in arms about the choices made for the Booker long-list this year.  Three of the four books that I felt very strongly ought to be there if we were going to talk about the best books of the year have made it and while I’m disappointed about the fourth, I can see why it might have raised problems with some readers.  However, I did notice that one of the UK papers had started a list for books that readers felt ought to have been there but which hadn’t made it and that set me wondering what fellow Salonists would have liked to have seen included.  If there is one sure way of making that TBR pile even bigger than it already is then it has to be by asking for recommendations from the most erudite bunch of readers going.

So, roughly the same rules as the Booker:

any full length novel written by a citizen of the Commonwealth, the Republic of Ireland or Zimbabwe;

no translations

no self published books

the books have to be published between 1 October 2008 and 30 September 2009.

Just one suggestion each, please and if there is enough interest then next week I’ll put the list together and share it around the Salon.  I’ll start the ball rolling with my missing favourite

Anne Michaels’ The Winter Vault.

DSCF0058 If you read yesterday’s post then it might relieve you to know that this morning the sun is shining and it looks as though I can leave my Blackwell’s umbrella at home when I go out for a walk.  For this relief, much thanks.  Twice in the past few days I’ve come in and had to change every stitch of clothing I had on.  No, I agree, not a pretty thought.  On Wednesday I even had to cancel an outing.  I wasn’t flooded because I live at the top of a hill, but all the land round me was and the only way to go visiting was to swim.  It reminded me of Penelope Lively’s book for children, Voyage of the QV66, which supposes a flood of biblical proportions in which all human life has been destroyed and only the QV66’s motley crew of animals is left to rediscover the wonders of the arts, science and technology – the wonders and also the temptations.  I don’t know if it’s still in print, but if you can get hold of a copy I heartily recommend it, whatever your age.  It has some very salutary points to make about the way in which we use those creations, inventions and discoveries that should make life better for all of us.  It’s also very funny and when you’ve had the sort of weather we’ve had for the past few weeks anything that can give you a laugh has to be seen as a good thing.

Published in: on August 2, 2009 at 9:10 am  Comments (4)  

Sunday Salon

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersI was reading a piece by Salley Vickers yesterday about certain people’s reservations when it came to novels written by poets.  Vickers’ wonders why this should be, given that [t]wo of our greatest poets, Thomas Hardy and D H Lawrence, were also fine novelists.
Well, I have to be honest and say that as far as I’m concerned Vickers couldn’t have chosen worse examples to make her point.  I do like Lawrence’s poetry, although I’m no lover of his novels, but I was once heard to remark to my Literature tutor that while Hardy might have been only a second rate novelist he was definitely a third rate poet, and I’ve never been persuaded to change my opinion on either count.
However, I do share Vickers’ wonderment at such a general condemnation.  I can think of several poets whose novels I read with a great deal of pleasure.  I’ve written a number of times about Sophie Hannah’s excellent prose works, both in her thriller mode and as a short story writer, and she is a very fine poet. Then what about May Sarton, Maya Angelou, Ted Hughes (if you haven’t read his prose for children such as The Iron Man and How the Whale Became you have missed a real treat)?  For the most part, these are writers who really know how to weigh the importance of each word.  There is nothing superfluous in their writing.  And, most important of all for me, the music is right.  The ‘sound’ in my ear is as good as the story in my mind.
Perhaps my favourite poet turned writer, however is Anne Michaels, whose novel Fugitive Pieces is one of the most sensitive books I’ve ever read. I have waited for years for her to write a second novel and now her new book, The Winter Vault, has turned up on my library pile. The weather forecast for the next few days is appalling, rain, wind and general misery, awful if you happen to be going away on holiday but perfect for settling down with a book that will almost certainly need time and loving concentration.  This is a real treat in store.
What do other readers think about Vickers’ basic question?  Do you agree with her or with her unnamed sceptic?  And do you have favourite writers who work in both modes?  I’d be interested to know.

Published in: on July 26, 2009 at 8:18 am  Comments (10)  

Sunday Salon

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersAt last I’ve had to admit defeat and take the step of moving my blog from its previous format over to wordpress.  Every time I managed to get it working under the newest set of protocols the powers that be changed the goalposts yet again and since the latest upheaval I simply can’t get it to publish at all.  So, henceforth Table Talk will be found at .  Unfortunately, there isn’t a facility that allows me to move my archive over.  If I ever have a spare year or two I might do it by hand, but don’t hold your breath – these days a spare minute or two would be nice.

Where the weekend’s reading is concerned I’ve had one of those disappointments that come when, having really enjoyed a book by a ‘new’ writer, you pick up another only to find that it doesn’t live up to your expectations.  Like so many readers I really enjoyed Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind.  There’s something fascinating to an avid book person like me about a novel that deals with books themselves.  So, I’ve been waiting for The Angel’s Game to turn up on my library ticket ever since it was published earlier this year and rushed home with it on Friday contemplating a weekend curled up with several pots of tea lost in the world of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.  But, it was not to be.  About a third of the way through I suddenly realised that I couldn’t care less about the main character or the world that he inhabited.  It’s very rare that I actually put a book down and decide I have better things to do with my reading time, but this was one of those occasions.  Has anyone else read this book?  And if so, what did you think?  Is this just me, or is it a common reaction?

I’m consoling myself with the new Reginald Hill Dalziel and Pascoe novel, Midnight Fugue, which definitely is coming up to expectations.  Thank goodness, two misfires in a single weekend would be more that I could bear.

Published in: on July 19, 2009 at 4:58 pm  Comments (18)