Finding Wonderland

It was wet and grey in London yesterday and if it hadn’t been for some existing plans I would have been perfectly happy to curl up at Gidday HQ on the comfy couch. But the British Library beckoned and so just after lunch, friend Aussie-K and I stepped out for some literary loitering.

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It was our first visit to the library. Yours truly has been here twelve years and until yesterday, had only managed a passing acquaintance last year by way of a talk at the conference centre next door. Given how much I love literature and reading, I am delighted to have ticked this visit off my London bucket list and to have moved from ‘I must’ to ‘I have’ at long last.

And what, I hear you ask, made me get off my backside and go?

Well, Wonderland of course!

2015 was the 150th anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It’s a story that’s been told in a myriad of formats and iterations over the years, its other-worldly characters and trippy plot making it the subject of much interpretation and debate. I saw Robert Douglas-Fairhurst interviewed about his biography on Carroll – The Story of Alice – last year (which I am currently reading) and the Library has been running a temporary free exhibition which closes in April. So we entered the fray and hustled – with what felt like hundreds of half-term families – along the cabinets and displays.

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The front part of the exhibit was taken up with a series of twelve (or was it thirteen?) decorated mirrors featuring quotes from Alice in Wonderland whilst in a rather cramped section at the rear, there was an opportunity to learn about the author himself, his real-life Alice (who happened to be a brunette rather than the blonde we’ve come to know and love) and see the ways in which this famous story has been communicated over the last 150 years. It was interesting – however the area was poorly-lit with little opportunity to linger and I found it difficult to read all of the information and look at the details of the books and manuscripts on display. I’m not sorry that I spent the time to shuffle through and see it but it’s just as well it was free otherwise I might have been a little put out!

It seemed a shame to leave after such a short visit and as it was still raining outside, we meandered across to the Library’s permanent exhibition, Treasures of the British Library.

Now THIS was my Wonderland and I spent quite some time poring over…

…drawings & notes from Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo…

…musical scores from as early as 1050 and from geniuses like Mozart, Debussy, Chopin, Beethoven, Bach (just to name a few) as well as a page of Puccini’s scribbled stage directions for his opera Madame Butterfly and a touch from the modern era, a burst of scrawled lyrics for The Beatles’ hit ‘Help’…

…pages and pages of penmanship from literary giants: 16th century greats like Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson, acknowledged classics like Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and even a little something from Ian Fleming, the man behind James Bond – who you could argue is one of the 20th century’s most iconic literary creations – and his short story, The Living Daylights…

…sacred texts, beautifully illustrated, from as early as the 4th century and from a  variety of religions including Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and Buddism…

…and one of the four Magna Carta documents dating back to 1215 which was sitting right alongside the original papal bull that annulled it just 10 weeks later.

It was absolutely awesome – in the true sense of the word – and these were just the highlights.

And after such a deluge of inspirational history, it was time to venture back out into the real weather, make a damp and concerted dash past St Pancras Station…

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…and around to the YumChaa Cafe in Granary Square for a warming hot chocolate and a slice of apple and apricot loaf…

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All in all, it turned out to be the perfect way to spend an inclement February afternoon in London.

Five star wordsmith-ery

Last time I posted I was settling into a week of beach and books on the beautiful island of Mauritius.

Reading is my favourite thing to do so while others g0t immersed in the smorgasbord of all-inclusive resort activities or booked in for day trips involving dolphins and catamarans, I found myself a spot on the beach and spent the days – whether basking in the sun or relaxing in the shade – reading. And I read all sorts of things – old favourites, Kindle daily deal finds and even an autobiography that I’ve been meaning to read for quite a while. It was the ultimate indulgence.

I always rate and review my reads – reviews from others help me to choose – and while I love to share an absolutely cracking read, I will also share when my experience is not so great. I don’t go into the detail of the story like most reviewers – I like to discover the story and its characters for myself. Instead I share the experience of reading it and how I’m left feeling at the end.

A lot of my reads rate 3 or 4 stars – I love reading, can be quite eclectic in my choices and like to think that I lean towards being magnanimous in my reviewing – although perhaps I’m not the best judge of this.

There are few that dip into 2-star territory (where I’m left feeling pretty dissatisfied) and even fewer 1-stars where I feel like I’ll never get back the hours I spent wading through the pages or just don’t finish. The latter is rare – I don’t ever want to be tempted to revisit a rubbish read by someone saying ‘oh but it got better in the end’.

And there are the 5-star reads. These are the ones that, when I read the final page, make me go wow. They leave me excited, reflective, profoundly moved and they are the ones I will get evangelical about, saying to whoever will listen ‘you must read this’.

2015 started well with 5 stars awarded in January to C.J. Sansom’s sixth in the Shardlake series, Lamentation. Since then, the wows have come in threes – March/April saw a trilogy of 5-star ratings awarded to The Girl on a Train, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Labyrinth and then it was August before I was successively thrilled by The Devil’s Star, Far from the Madding Crowd and The Taxidermist’s Daughter.

Books 2015

I returned from Mauritius relaxed and happy, having soaked up a goodly dose of sunshine whilst devouring a book a day, six of which I gave 4-star ratings . But I felt like something was missing and when I thought about it, I realised what it was – a cracking 5-star read.

It’s been three months since The Taxidermist’s Daughter and by my calculations, it’s time to up the ante with a 5-star read again. I have a Kindle full of choices but what I’m really interested to hear is what you’d recommend. What’s taken your literary fancy of late? What have you read that has had you gripped, delighted, missing your train/tube/bus stop or staying up way too late because you just have to read one more chapter?

I would love to finish the year on a literary high so let me have it peeps – whose wordsmith-ery made you go wow this year?

A contract of invention

In a few weeks time, this year’s Man Booker Prize winner will be announced.

The last two years have seen the prize awarded to antipodean writers with epic tales: New Zealander Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries in 2013 and Australia’s Richard Flanagan with The Narrow Road to the Deep North the following year. It is the latter who will pass the winner’s baton to Marlon James, Tom McCarthy, Anne Tyler, Hanya Yanagihara, Chiozi Obioma or Sunjeev Sahota on 13th October.

I have not read any of this year’s books so cannot offer a view as to who my ‘vote’ would go to, although I have been an on and off fan of Tyler since reading Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant as part of my high school English curriculum. And dipping into prior short lists for reading inspiration in recent years has given me the beautiful prose of Tan Twan Eng (The Garden of Evening Mists was short-listed in 2012 and I then discovered The Gift of Rain) and sent me back to 1982’s winner, Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark, following my visit to Krakow some 30 years after.

But I will say this: the 2015 winner will have big shoes to fill.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is one of the most extraordinary books I’ve read in a long while. It’s a story that cuts right to the heart of what it is to be human and left me profoundly moved. So I was thrilled to come across an opportunity to see Flanagan interviewed last week as part of The Guardian Book Club.

Flanagan talked thoughtfully and easily for about 90 minutes, answering a myriad of questions with his antipodean twang and laconic Aussie style. I was struck by his open-ness in answering, whether it was his views on books vs movies (thumbs up for books) or research vs invention (the creativity in ‘making it up’ is what he loves).

(Actually, now I think about it, he’d make a great dinner party guest.)

Despite his father’s experiences in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II and his coming face-to-face with his father’s captors during a recent trip to Japan, Flanagan was at pains to say that this was not a researched book and certainly not based on his father’s particular experiences. He talked about daydreaming, imagining the horror of the death railway or catching the moment when the sun caresses a lover’s shoulder as he sat at his table and then setting out to describe what he was seeing in his mind rather than telling the reader what to see or think.

A novel is an invention of the human spirit….a contract between the writer and the soul of the reader who connects to give the story its meaning and depth.

Flanagan described the book as something he tried to escape writing, likening it to ‘a boulder on his chest’ that made it difficult for him to write anything else…since its completion, he mentioned the writing being ‘released’ and that he has a couple of projects in the pipeline.

It was difficult to write that last sentence without making it sound like some melodramatic realisation on Flanagan’s part. I’m not sure I succeeded but it didn’t come across that way at all – it was understated and sincere and I was left with a quiet feeling of admiration for this articulate Australian…and maybe just a little bit of national pride.

There is nothing left for me to say except that in The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan has created a story that is poignant, unyielding and richly-drawn.

Read it – it will touch your soul.

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