Sunday, 30 June 2013

Short Story Sunday - Michel Faber

The Apple - Michel Faber

Michel Faber's collection of short stories, The Apple, is subtitled Crimson Petal Stories as many of the characters that first make their appearance in Faber's novel published in 2002, The Crimson Petal and the White, reappear in this collection. I have not actually read the novel about Sugar, a young woman who works as a prostitute in Victorian London, but as the author notes in the foreword to this collection, you don't need to have read the novel to appreciate this collection, "The stories are, as stories should be, little worlds of their own."

The Apple contains seven stories in 199 pages:
  • Christmas in Silver Street
  • Clara and the Rat Man
  • Chocolate Hearts from the New World
  • The Fly, and its Effect upon Mr Bodley
  • The Apple
  • Medicine
  • A Mighty Horde of Women in Very Big Hats, Advancing
It took me no time at all to finish reading the collection, and every story pulled me in to the action, fascinated and entertained me and impelled me to continue reading. This is not to say, however, that I liked all of the stories; some of the stories came across as unnecessarily crude and made me feel quite peculiar. I read the whole thing in two sittings, but that was more due to time constraints than anything else, as this is the sort of book that you could read in one go if you had a couple of hours free.

The two stand-out stories for me were Chocolate Hearts from the New World and A Mighty Horde of Women in Very Big Hats, Advancing. I think that the second story is probably the favourite of fans of The Crimson Petal and the White as the narrator of the story is Sophie's (the little girl from the novel) six year old son and as such constitutes a continuation of the Sugar saga as readers discover what happens to Sophie as an adult. The story follows the arrival of Sophie's family in London where they have returned after living in Australia for several years. Her son's impressions of life in England after his wild and free childhood in Australia and his comments about his bohemian parents are most amusing and although this is the longest story in the collection (64 pages) I was quite sad when it ended.

Chocolate Hearts from the New World describes a father's frustrations with and fears for his daughter Emmeline. Dr Curlew is worried that his teenage daughter will leave marriage too late as "The same physical features that made him such a distinguished looking man - tall, rangy build, aquiline nose, long face, strong jaw - were a calamitous inheritance for a girl." Despite Emmeline announcing that she does not want to get married, her father hopes that she will find a suitor when he learns that she writes to many men around the world. Most of Emmeline's letters go unanswered however, as her letters are missives on the subject of slavery and she mainly writes to cotton plantation owners in the United States urging them to turn their back on slavery and allow their hearts "to be penetrated by the love of Christ". Most of the responses she receives to her letters take the form of a rebuke, 
"I will thank you to keep your ignorant and impudent babblings to yourself, said one. Has it occurred to you, Miss, said another, that the very clothes you are wearing as you pen your imperious missive may have their origins in my cotton fields?"
The story of Emmeline and her father, like the other stories in this collection, is realistic, subtly-crafted and features witty dialogue.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Dreaming of Libraries

Spijkenisse Library in the Netherlands
At this time of year many people's thoughts turn to summer holidays and trips abroad. I do not have any vacations planned for the summer, but if I were to travel abroad, my dream trip would be to the Netherlands on a library tour (I am aware that this is not everyone's idea of fun, but like Citizen Reader I am not a huge fan of hot weather and lounging around beside the pool).

The libraries that I am particularly interested in visiting are: Spijkenisse LibraryDelft Media Library and the Library at Delft University of Technology

Spijkenisse Public Library, also known as Book Mountain is a really exciting concept for a public library. Around fifty thousand books are shelved on, what is in essence, one huge bookshelf which begins with a wide base and tapers up to the roof (like a mountain, hence the name). Sustainable principles were employed in the design of the building and the bookshelves are actually made from recycled plastic bags. The interior of the Library is designed to feel as spacious as possible and does not have a proper ceiling. A glass pyramid-shaped cover protects the books and patrons from the elements whilst allowing plenty of natural light into the Library.

The Delft Media Library also looks like an amazing space to use, with pod-like chairs, bright coloured fixtures and fittings and, again, lots of natural light. The Library occupies a former blast-furnace building which has been transformed into a bright, modern building.

I would also make another stop in Delft as part of my library tour, in order to visit the University of Technology Library which looks rather like a temple from Star Wars or some other space-age fantasy. It has an enormous grass roof which is skewered by a protruding cone-like structure and a glass facade to allow the light to flow in. The architects responsible for this innovative building, Mecanoo, also designed the new Library of Birmingham which opens in the autumn.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Short Story Sunday - Victoria Hislop

The Last Dance and Other Stories - Victoria Hislop

Victoria Hislop's collection of stories was published in 2012 and features ten stories:
  • The Priest and the Parrot
  • The Kafenion
  • Aflame in Athens
  • The Zacharoplasteion
  • The Periptero
  • One Cretan Evening
  • The Butcher of Karapoli
  • The Lesson
  • The Pine Tree
  • The Last Dance
Each story features an illustration on its title page by British illustrator Quinton Winter (what a fabulous name!). Do you like/dislike illustrations in books, or are you indifferent? I don't really care for illustrations in novels, but I absolutely love them in short fiction. Placed on the title page, illustrations make a collection very easy to navigate and encourage me to think about the story in a more visual sense (I usually focus on plot and dialogue with descriptions taking a secondary role). I don't usually look at them before reading the story, but I always return to look when I finish reading; it's interesting to see what the focus of the illustration is and whether there is any cross-over between the mental images that the story created for me and the images that the illustrator, in conjunction with the author or editor, chose to create for the story.

I found the collection a bit up and down, although at only 146 pages and written in clear, simple prose it is certainly a quick read. The first story was one of my favourites and instantly brought Roald Dahl to mind: a simple, human story where the characters try to mould life in a certain direction, but the unstoppable desires of man (love, hate, covetousness, in this case love) take over and the characters are just incidental players in the story of life.

Some of the other stories displayed this same vivid spark (The Periptero was another one of my favourites), but others seemed not fully formed (just an idea, not a complete story) or poorly developed with cliched and facile conclusions. For example, The Zacharoplasteion (patisserie in Greek - translating a Greek term into a French term to garner an English meaning!), really, really, really annoyed me. The story focuses on Angeliki who works for her mother in their small-town patisserie. Despite the fact that she has a dutiful daughter who works hard in the family business, Sofia frequently gives vent to her frustration that her daughter is now twenty-nine years old, and, unlike her contemporaries in the town, is still unmarried, "Why was Angeliki not like other girls? Why was she not married?" If the story had stayed with these two characters and developed the mother-daughter relationship I think it would have turned out well. Instead, Angeliki is single because she has already met her "prince charming" and knows that in acquiring a mate only perfection will do. Some time previous to the action of the story, a handsome stranger comes into the shop,
"His laughter and his good nature completely overthrew Angeliki. For five years she had worked there each day, and not once had she served a customer who had made her smile like this. She felt that all the ice-cream in the nearby cabinet would melt in his warmth. As well as taking a delighted interest in what was in the shop, he smiled: a deep, life-loving smile. She had never met anyone who was so relaxed and at ease with himself."
Any man who can melt a cabinet of ice-cream at ten paces is definitely a keeper! Although Angeliki has not really met this man, he just popped into her shop, had a brief conversation with her and bought some marzipan, "she was both made and unmade by the encounter." And, "Angeliki knew that her heart had been woken, not broken." I found this cliched and utterly cringe worthy, but I suppose if you believe in the lightening-bolt of love at first sight then it might not seem so bad. In some of the other stories the names of the characters have a meaning for the story (Aflame in Athens features two badly suited lovers: Irini (peace) and Fotis (coming from the Greek word for fire), maybe the fact that the mother is called Sofia (wisdom) shows that Ms Hislop does not believe in the sentimental concept of the prince charming and love at first sight, which could explain why the character of Angeliki seems so poorly developed.

Other elements of the collection which seemed slightly ridiculous to me were: an evening of music undoing years of serious sibling rivalry and the certainty that time will cause an over-protective and controlling mother to accept her son's partner.

It may sound like I really hated this collection. I didn't. Some of the stories were beautifully crafted and very enjoyable indeed. The other stories, which I disliked, or had some issues with, will probably only serve to make this book unforgettable.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Charles Seale-Hayne Library, the University of Plymouth

The Library at the University of Plymouth allows members of the public to visit for free and, on production of ID showing current address, use the facilities on a reference only basis. I was interested to learn that the Library also allows members of the public and corporations to pay a membership fee allowing them to borrow books.

The Library holds over 500,000 books and 22,000 journals with particularly strong art and law collections. When I visited, the library was half-empty as the undergraduates have already departed for the summer and the few remaining students were hard at work at the numerous study desks (individual carrels and group study tables) or quietly enjoying a coffee in the Library cafe.

My preferred style of study desk.
There are separate study rooms on each floor of the library: quiet study, silent study and casual study (what's casual study?), but despite all these other non-book areas, the collection seemed huge with long rows of shelving packed with illuminating volumes. There is also a very interesting collection of children's books in the School Experience Collection which is designed to help teacher training students with their studies. I have not seen such a collection in a university library before and I was delighted to stumble across shelves of children's poetry anthologies, not what I was expecting to see, at all!

I spent most of my visit on level 0 browsing the books in the 700s, the Library uses the Dewey Decimal system and is well laid out making it very easy to use for a first time visitor. As you can see from the photo below, the reading room is large and contains an extensive collection of art books from volumes about famous art movements to art and science and a noteworthy collection of Artists' books.

 I found another book to consult on the subject of bookplates (my current passion): British Bookplates: A Pictorial History by Brian North Lee. My favourite designs were the two below:

Although the bookplate designed for Granville Barker is quite simple I found it intriguing: is the figure trapped by books and wants to escape (a strange image for a bookplate), or do the books represent an accumulated understanding and appreciation of the wider world?

Unlike some university libraries, the Library at the University of Plymouth does not restrict members of the public to 3 or 4 visits per year only, so I hope to make use of this wonderful resource again in the future. If you are in Plymouth and have an interest in art I highly recommend a trip to the Library.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Short Story Sunday - Edgar Allan Poe

The Murders in the Rue Morgue - Edgar Allan Poe

I confess. I have not read any of Poe's work before, even though I am quite a fan of crime fiction. However, a few months ago I saw The Raven, a thrilling, but rather disturbing film, and I think for ever more John Cusack will be Edgar Allan Poe, for me.

The Vintage edition of The Murders in the Rue Morgue contains the three Dupin Tales, the title story, The Mystery of Marie Roget and The Purloined Letter. I read the first story, only, as I found Poe's writing very difficult to get into and frequently felt my mind wandering (there is a pile of library books on my bookshelf waiting to be read, so I hope that I haven't entered a reading slump). The four, preliminary pages describing Dupin's love of puzzles and "ratiocination" helped to build a psychological image of the detective but was severely lacking in physical description. .

The mystery itself (a murder carried out in a locked-room scenario) was interesting enough and the revelation of the perpetrator of the crime was certainly original and amusing. Perhaps it was a little too amusing: an orangutan with a razor, how extraordinary!

This week's brief introduction to Edgar Allan Poe has not totally put me off reading more of his work. I appreciate that he was a trailblazer when it came to crafting the detective story and I would like to do him justice by reading more of his stories in the future.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Short Story Sunday - Lorrie Moore

Birds of America - Lorrie Moore

This collection from 1998 contains twelve stories:
  • Willing
  • Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People
  • Dance in America
  • Community Life
  • Agnes of Iowa
  • Charades
  • Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens
  • Beautiful Grade
  • What You Want to Do Fine
  • Real Estate
  • People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk
  • Terrific Mother
The stories deal with relationships between: lovers, mothers and daughters and divorced, or soon to be divorced, couples; relationships that are ruptured, just beginning or changing in some way. The themes of marriage (the putting-up kind) and divorce are very strong throughout the collection, and like many of the other modern short story collections that I have read, cancer makes an appearance in a couple of the stories. I found most of the stories quite brittle and harsh; however, the dialogue (internal and between characters) in many of the stories made me chuckle and kept me reading.

Although I know that the stories are not about birds, the title made me look for them. In the collection, I found: jays, ravens, chickadees, blackbirds and vultures, gulls, grebes, flamingos, geese, ducks and crows. Audubon (the author of the original Birds of America) is mentioned in What You Want to Do Fine. The main characters of this story, Mack and Quilty, have visited Audubon's house on one of their previous road-trip vacations. Although Audubon is mentioned in this story, I thought that the choice of Birds of America as the title of the collection had a greater meaning - perhaps Lorrie Moore's Birds of America is supposed to be a comprehensive reflection of the lives of various types of modern Americans. I am not sure about this analysis, and when I was reading the collection I did feel that maybe I was missing various points from not understanding enough about life in the US. In any case, I enjoyed this collection and found the writing clever and witty.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Plymouth College of Art Library

I always assume that as a member of the public I may not have access to libraries of academic institutions. In Plymouth, thanks to an initiative called Learning through Libraries in Plymouth I can access the libraries of a number of institutions on a reference only basis. I made use of this wonderful initiative today and took a trip to the Library at the Plymouth College of Art.

The Library, situated on the third floor of the building, was not really what I was expecting: the college building has a modern-looking, dramatic facade and I thought the Library would be a spacious, airy, tiled-floor sort of space. It was not like this, at all. The Library was smaller and drabber than I thought it would be - more like a medical library and less like a place to keep information on the visual arts.

The College is currently undergoing a £7.7 million extension (due to open in September 2013), but as far as I know the extension does not mean change for the Library. Although I was not enamoured with the physical space, the Library has an excellent collection of journals (over 100 different titles), plenty of individual study spaces (with laptops) and a group study area too - all the students sat at the individual study desks were talking to each other anyway when I was there, so maybe the whole area should be renamed "group study". The Library holds almost 16,000 books, which seems like quite a small number for an academic institution (Falmouth College of Art holds 50,000 volumes, for example).

Despite being slightly taken aback by the small size of the Library, I was very pleased to find what I was looking for on the shelves. In addition to my interest in libraries, in general, I was hoping to spend some time referring to a book on my new obsession - bookplates.

The book in question, A Treasury of Bookplates from the Renaissance to the Present by Fridolf Johnson was a fabulous resource, and I am very pleased that I was granted access to it.

I am toying with the idea of designing myself a bookplate at the moment. Do you have a personal bookplate? If yes, did you design it yourself, buy a ready made one, or commission an artist to design one for you?

Here are a few of the bookplates from the above mentioned book:


Sunday, 2 June 2013

Short Story Sunday - Roald Dahl

Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life: The Country Stories of Roald Dahl

After WWII Roald Dahl returned to England and spent some time living with his mother in Buckinghamshire. They lived in Old Amersham for a number of years and the country stories contained in this collection are set in the Chiltern Hills, in and around that town.

The collection, with illustrations by John Lawrence, contains seven stories (most of which were first published between 1953 and 1960). The longest story (Mr Feasey) is forty-three pages long, but, long or short, all the stories are easy to read, hilariously funny and quite often nauseatingly grotesque; I made the mistake of reading the revolting tale, The Ratcatcher, while eating breakfast.

The ratcatcher and his ferret.

Despite their apparent simplicity  and strong sense of time and place, many of the stories are timeless, masterful studies of human nature: the covetous antiques dealer in Parson's Pleasure who is ultimately vanquished by his own slick, well-practiced swindle; the fiance, who cannot hope to ever please his beloved's father, in Mr Hoddy; and the sly bookmakers at the greyhound track, in Mr Feasey, who prove that however much you think you might be pulling the wool over someone's eyes, you might just be being taken for a ride too.