Book and theatre review: “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley

I had my fill of Frankenstein last week – I read the book, saw the play and listened to Derek Jacobi narrating the audio book! My book club selected it as we were looking to read a classic, and, as it happens to be the 200th anniversary of the novel’s publication, it was also showing at the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre in a new adaptation by April de Angelis.

2018-04-19 11.30.32It is extraordinary to think that this remarkable novel, still as popular and as shocking today as ever, was written when Mary was just 19 years old. The fact that she was such a literary talent is not surprising given that she was the offspring of the two famous intellectuals, Mary Wollstonecraft, philosopher and author of the seminal feminist work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and William Godwin, the radical political philosopher. In her lifetime, she was highly regarded as a radical writer and intellectual, as well as being the wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, whom she met and fell passionately in love with at the age of 17. Her reputation since her death, however, has been overshadowed by that of her husband’s, with whom she bore four children (three died in infancy), whose affairs and financial troubles she endured, and whose poems she edited both before and after his death. Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned at sea in 1822, just six years into their marriage when she was 25. She died at the age of 53 in London from a suspected brain tumour.

Mary ShelleyBy any standards her life was remarkable and in the last few years her reputation has been revived and she has begun to be more widely considered as a formidable talent in her own right, rather than just a ‘one-book author’. Frankenstein has been a staple of English literature GCSE and A level syllabuses for years, but most of her other works have fallen out of print. A new biography, In Search of Mary Shelley: The girl who wrote Frankenstein, by Fiona Sampson was published earlier this year, some of which I caught when it was serialised in Radio 4 recently. What I heard sounded fascinating. Sadly it is not available on the BBC iPlayer at the moment.

Frankenstein is a brilliant book. It’s not particularly long so if you are not accustomed to the classics it is not too daunting. It is extraordinarily sophisticated in the themes it explores, from ideas about religion and creation, the vanity of man (men) and moral relativism. Its structure is also interesting: it is narrated initially by Robert Walton in letters to his sister. Walton is the Captain of a ship which he is sailing to the Arctic in the hopes of making a great discovery about the North Pole. He describes his ambitions, but also his loneliness and need for companionship. He meets an unexpected friend in the form of Victor Frankenstein who is on an unlikely pursuit of a mysterious giant figure which Walton and his crew had previously spotted. Frankenstein takes over the narration and we learn about the terrible events that preceded this chase, from his early family life in Switzerland and tragic death of his mother, his relationship with his cousin Elizabeth, to his university life in Ingolstadt. It was in Ingolstadt that he first felt the pain of academic embarrassment, when his naïve ideas were exposed, and he set out on the extraordinary task of creating a human. Unfortunately for Frankenstein, he did not think it through, and once he realised the horror of what he had done, quite soon after he brought his creation to life, he disowns it and leaves to its own fate while he spends the next few years wringing his hands. Frankenstein’s procrastination is fatal.

For a time there is also narration from the ‘monster’ (relayed by Frankenstein) who manages initially to survive on vegetation whilst concealed in a hovel, from which he is able to spy on a once wealthy but now fallen French family in a small village. From them he learns language and the ways of humans, and hopes that he will be able to become friends with them, as he longs for company. Unfortunately, when he introduces himself to them, his hopes are shattered; they assume from his, presumably horrific appearance, that he means them harm and they beat him and drive him out of the cottage. Disappointed and infuriated, the monster goes in search of Frankenstein, with the intention of demanding that he make him a female companion, with the threat of death and destruction if he refuses.

I will say no more. Though the story is well known, I do not wish to give away any further spoilers for anyone unfamiliar with it. I wanted to finish the book before seeing the play, so I mixed reading it with listening to the audiobook narrated by Derek Jacobi. This was read brilliantly, as you would expect, though I have to say it gives you the impression that both Walton and Frankenstein are older, wiser men when in fact it is their naivety and youthful impetuosity that is partly responsible for the grave decisions both make.

Frankenstein play
Copyright –  Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

The play was also wonderful and provided a rewarding extra-curricular outing for the book club! It was visceral, shocking, truly gruesome in parts. I loved the way the complex narrative structure, and the jumping back and forth in time was handled. I also loved the way it was interpreted for a 21st century audience, particularly in drawing out the feminist undertones (Elizabeth is played more strongly than in the book, while Frankenstein is often exposed as foolish). It had thrills, spills and lots of action, and stayed very true to the book, leaving out remarkably little and using some of the really powerful passages (particularly those spoken by the monster) verbatim. It will have been a fantastic bonus for any young people studying it for exams this year.

A thoroughly enjoyable monstrous week!

April Reading Challenge

At last, it’s starting to feel a little more spring-like as we enter April, which must mean it’s time for this month’s book on the Facebook Reading Challenge group.

2018-03-29-10-08-25.jpgLast month, we battled our way through Madame Bovary, some enjoying it more than others, it has to be said. Our theme was a classic novel, and this can be a challenging genre. It can take you right back to schooldays and unhappy memories of working line by line through a text that had no relevance to your teenage life. And if you are out of the habit of reading classic, usually older, novels, the language can feel outdated, and hard work.

For me, the challenge was the size of the typeface in my University days edition! Not only was this a strain on my ‘mature’ eyesight, but it meant that pages were turned less frequently than I am used to. A trivial point perhaps but it gave me an insight into what motivates continued reading, and feeling like you are making progress can be a part of that. Personally, I really enjoyed it – it was all about the writing for me. Just sublime. Irony on a par with Jane Austen. I had forgotten how good a novel it is.

2018-03-29-10-28-24.jpgThis months’s challenge is something altogether different – a children’s novel and I have chosen Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada. This book first came to my attention before Christmas and I have been keen to read it ever since. It is written from the perspective of three different polar bears: the first , a female, who flees her homeland in Soviet Russia, the second, her daughter, a dancing bear in a Berlin circus, and the third, the most recent, born in captivity in Germany.

The book has won high praise for its Japanese author. It’ll be the second children’s book I’ve read recently that is written, in part at least, from the perspective of an animal (the other being Pax, which I enjoyed enormously), so I’m looking forward to it. I expect it will be one of those books that blurs the boundary between ‘children’s’ and ‘adult’ fiction. Happily.

If you would like to participate in the challenge, do join us on the Facebook group, or if you have read this book and have a view on it, I would love to hear it. 

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Easter Greetings

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Easter is falling rather early this year, and with the weather not looking great for the UK this weekend, it could be a rather chilly Spring break. Perfect for spending time with a book! My kids will be getting the usual smallish chocolate egg from the Easter mummy bunny, plus a book token, a tradition I started a couple of years ago.

I’ll be away for a few days and have been giving some thought to what reading material I will take with me. I will, as always, take far more than I will actually get through, but I do that because I get a bit nervous when I have only one book available to read! I like to have a choice and nearly always have a couple of books on the go, in any case.

I’ll be taking Paul Auster’s 4321, about which I posted here a couple of weeks ago. I started it last Autumn and have found it really hard-going. I have been pondering whether to give up on it, but I think I’m going to give it one last focussed go, to see how I get on.

I’ll also be taking Frankenstein, the 1818 classic by Mary Shelley, which celebrates its bicentenary this year. I’m reading that with my girlfriends from my book club and we have booked to see the new production that is currently running at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester in a couple of weeks. Really excited about that.

That’s it. Just the two books! That demonstrates an unusual realism about my reading and my commitment to doing justice to 4321, I think. (Although I do have a couple of back up books on my e-reader. Just in case.)

I bought a couple of magazines for the journey (I can’t read a book in a car) and nearly choked when I discovered they were £4.30. Each! Is it really that long since I bought a magazine? You can buy half a book for that!

Have a wonderful Easter, with plenty of reading and chocolate!

What will you be up to this Easter? What are you reading?

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Book Review: “The Life and Loves of a He-Devil” by Graham Norton

I love my little book club – it’s small and very exclusive and, besides books, we specialise in popcorn, gin and tonic and extra-curricular trips. All in the name of literature, of course!

We have been meeting every month for a couple of years now and have read a wide range of books: fiction, non-fiction, YA, thrillers, classics, to name but a few of our chosen genres. Some books we have loved, some we have loved less. Some generate an enormous amount of discussion, others less.

The Life and Loves of a He Devil imgWe decided for our March meeting we’d read Graham Norton’s 2014 memoir The Life and Loves of a He Devil. We wanted to read an autobiography and felt that among the many “celebrity” memoirs out there, Graham’s might have more to offer than most. We all like him as a broadcaster and personality and thought it might be fun. We were not wrong! But when we came to meet and discuss it, we had very little to say. We’d exchanged a number of messages on our WhatsApp group in the preceding weeks, with many laughter emojis, asking each other if we’d come across the dog and condom anecdote yet, or the Dolly Parton story. Some sections of this book, which I read most of whilst on a train journey to London, were laugh-out-loud, or rather “try to suppress a laugh because I’m in public”, moments. It’s a romp and Graham writes the way he speaks, with wit, authenticity and complete honesty. His writing style is similar in his novel Holding, which I reviewed here last year, and really enjoyed. (His second novel, entitled A Keeper, is due out in the Autumn.)

It’s charming and funny, and there is such a lot of name-dropping that it’s a bit of escapism too. Reading it is a reminder of just how successful, Graham is; I lost count of the number of homes he owns and the list of people he calls friends is something to behold. I think it’s because he manages to make you feel that he is a regular guy, just like the rest of us, and just as in awe of all the celebs and their glitter. He also manages to convey a kind of naivety and innocence that make you feel he is very ordinary. He is not of course; he’s supremely talented and clearly unusually astute to have achieved what he has. That does not come from luck alone. Concealing all of that beneath a veneer of self-deprecation is a talent in itself and I admire him enormously.

Back to my book club, we had only one criticism, and that is that the opening chapter (the book is divided into chapters, each of which is about one of his ‘loves’), about the joys of being a dog-owner, was, we felt, by far the funniest, so everything that followed was not inferior exactly, but did not quite meet the same high bar.

Not much to say then, except that it’s hugely funny, and if you like Graham Norton, you’ll love this book!

Have you read this or any of Graham Norton’s other books?

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Advice wanted on Paul Auster’s “4321” please!

Around the middle of September, the six-book shortlist for the Man Booker Prize, the foremost literary award in the UK, and one of the top prizes globally, is published. I usually clear the reading decks for the next five or so weeks and set myself the goal of trying to read all of them before the winner is announced in mid-October.

Last year, I did pretty well, managing almost five before making my (incorrect!) prediction. Amongst many book bloggers, and reading groups, things become a bit competitive, and some years the books are long and it can become a real slog. In 2016, I struggled to get through Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which I found very sludgy at first, but thoroughly enjoyed by the end. I finally published my review of it this time last year, about six months after the Man Booker shortlist was published.

Alas, I have beaten that particular record… six months on and I have still failed to complete Paul Auster’s 4321. And this is making me a bit gloomy. It’s not that I’m not enjoying it, I sort of am, but to say it could do with some robust editing is an understatement. I crawled through the first 200 pages (which, incidentally, in a normal book with a normal typeface and normal line spacing would, I am convinced, be at least 300 pages), but I still have 650 pages to go! And it’s been so long since I read any of it that I’ll probably have to go back and start again.

It’s really heavy to carry around – definitely not one that slips in your handbag – and the audiobook is 37 hours long, which would still take me weeks to get through!

So, what to do? The reviews I have read say it’s great, which makes me want to continue, but it also feels like a huge commitment.

If you have managed to finish this book, do you recommend I continue?

How to get their noses in a book this half term

When my children were young, I found it relatively easy to entertain them during school holidays; they still liked going to parks (sighs wistfully!), did not roll their eyes when I suggested a museum or gallery (usually running a school holiday activity), even a bus or train ride was a novelty! And if I needed to work or just needed a break, there were always organised activities, sports clubs, etc. Now, two of my children are teenagers, and the third is there in spirit if not in chronological years. They can entertain themselves, often making their own arrangements with friends, requiring only transport assistance from me, and this is great; they are independent and there is a lower impact on my writing life.

girl-672267_1920However, with autonomy comes power – if they are having an ‘at home’ day they can simply slip under the radar and spend a great deal of quality time with their phones and tablets (oh for the days when I only worried about how much Balamory they watched!) They can secrete themselves in their bedrooms while I lose myself in all my usual activity. At their age, sure I watched a lot of telly while my parents were out at work in the school holidays, but I also spent plenty of time with my nose in a book. Digital distractions were fewer and less powerful.

I’m not looking back with rose-tinted specs thinking ‘if only their lives could be like mine…’ no way; I know I would have loved the internet! However, now I’m a 21st century parent I can see how easily it is for the reading, no, the whole cultural habit to slip away and get lost in the mire of competing forms of entertainment. So, what can be done? Well, if the scenario outlined above sounds familiar and, like me, you would like your young people to engage more with paper and page-turning rather than screens and swiping, here are some thoughts for you:

  1. Don’t panic and don’t give up – even the most avid readers have dry periods and the teenage years are unique and short-lived. They have many things to contend with and reading may not be top of their list. Hang on in there and see below.
  2. Let them see you reading – I work mostly from home and my kids are fascinated by what I do all day! When they are off school I make sure they see me switching off the phone and the computer and reading; don’t save your reading until bedtime. Ten minutes reading in front of your kids is far more powerful than all your verbal exhortations to read – they listen to nothing you say but they watch everything you do. Model the desired behaviours.
  3. Bring books into their life – yesterday I went out with one of mine and treated them to a hot chocolate…in the bookshop cafe! And afterwards we had a browse. Later in the week I may find I need to call into the library while we are out.
  4. Seek out literary-themed days out – you may have at least one planned day out while your kids are off. Did a favourite author live nearby, whose home you could visit? Is there some literary link to a local beauty spot? I live in Manchester in north-west England and we are very fortunate to have a rich local literary heritage – Elizabeth Gaskell’s house, four fascinating libraries (Central library, John Ryland’s, Chetham’s and the Portico), and the Lake District is nearby (Charles Dickens, Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome).
  5. In fact, any culture will do – museums, galleries? Many are still free so there is no pressure to spend all day there, just hang out for an hour or so. Engagement with any kind of cultural activity will demonstrate to your teens that life exists beyond the screen and even if they start bored, they will probably have to read something, even if its only the descriptions of the exhibits.
  6. Watch a movie adaptation together – the key word here is ‘together’. If it’s their choice, maybe an adaptation of a YA novel, so much the better. If they like the film, but haven’t read the book, suggest getting it for them.
  7. Revisit a once-loved childhood classic together – were there books they loved reading as children? Perhaps dig out an old favourite, they’ll enjoy the nostalgia. My eldest still goes back to Harry Potter from time to time.
  8. Buy newspapers and magazines – all reading is good.
  9. Finally, leave all kinds of reading material lying around, in every room, even the kitchen and bathroom. When they’re off school and they’ve more time on their hands they may be inclined to linger.

The key thing is to show an interest and not to judge. I consider myself an avid reader these days and I did read a lot of classics when I was young, but I read some ‘trash’ too, and I loved comics and teen magazines. Value their choices, even if you secretly wish they’d read something different, and talk to them about what they’re reading.

What do you do to try and get your kids reading, particularly the older ones? 

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Hot new books for Spring

At last, January is out of the way! The mornings are getting lighter, the sun is shining as I write this and things are starting to sprout in the garden; there are definite signs of Spring. Christmas is huge for the publishing world, for obvious reasons, so the new year can seem very quiet – no-one is spending any money, and we are all curled up on the sofa watching the telly! (I’ve been working my way through all the seasons of Breaking Bad and Mad Men forever and I made some pretty good progress last month!)

By February, publishers are getting itchy, however, and it seems to me there is a rush of great books coming out this month and in the next few weeks, all aimed at grabbing our attention for Spring reading. Perhaps you are going away for February half term or will be looking forward to some days off at Easter and relaxing with a book?

Here are some of the titles that have caught my eye that I think you might enjoy.

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The Immortalists  by Chloe Benjamin

This American author’s first novel, The Anatomy of Dreams was a prize-winner so the follow-up is much-anticipated. The Immortalists follows the lives of four siblings who visit a psychic, who forecasts the exact dates of each of their deaths. The novel explores some very topical themes including what part so-called ‘fate’ and choice play in our lives. Interesting given the promise, surely, in the next few years that gene-mapping will be able to determine what diseases individuals might be at risk of getting in their old age. Great cover too!

 

Feel Free by Zadie Smith9781594206252

Personally, I’ve struggled with Zadie Smith’s work over the years and have never yet managed to finish one of her novels, but I am determined to persevere at some point as she is so widely-acclaimed. This might do the trick as it’s something a little different from her, a collection of essays, some of which have been published before on other fora. The questions posed by the essays are characteristically provocative and diverse, such as asking whether it is right that we have let Facebook and wider social media penetrate our lives so profoundly, and how we will justify to our grandchildren our failure to tackle climate change. With titles as intriguing as Joy and Find Your Beach this might just be the book that finally does it for me and Zadie!

33590210

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Described as a ‘novel of the new South’ this is a novel in a new genre that is attempting to recalibrate our assumptions about the modern American south. Set in Georgia, Celestial and Roy are newlyweds whose lives seem to be on the up, when Roy is convicted of a crime he did not commit and sentenced to twelve years in jail. The novel explores the impact on their still young relationship of such a devastating event. Roy is finally released after five years but it is not clear they will ever be able to go back to what they were. Looks like a fascinating read.

 

9780525520221_custom-1b66fc1d3f41e6340606905dfa87fccab46e79f7-s300-c85I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

A memoir this time from a great British novelist, written as a tribute to her young daughter who suffers from eczema so severe that it impacts on every aspect of her daily life and her safety. This book is an account of a number of incidents the author has experienced in her life where she has come close to death, such as a life-threatening childhood illness and an encounter with a stranger in a remote location. She reflects on how we are never more alive than when we come close to death and so the book is ultimately life-affirming.

 

35411685How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

Matt Haig’s 2015 non-fiction publication Reasons to Stay Alive was a sensation in the way it tackled the author’s experience of living with depression. How to Stop Time is Haig’s latest novel, first published last year, but now being reissued, is a science fiction love story.  Tom Hazard, an apparently normal 41 year-old, is part of a small but exclusive group of unusual people who have been alive for centuries. They are protected by the Albatross Society on one strict condition: they must never fall in love. Tom lives in London as a high school history teacher, but then a romantic relationship with a colleague means he must choose between the past and the future, or, quite literally, between eternal life and death.

 

Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton34374628

And finally, a bit of historical fiction. I love a good historical novel set somewhere exotic; I find it compensates for the limited amount of travel I can do at this stage in my life! Miami-based writer Marisol Ferrera visits Cuba to fulfil the final wishes of her late grandmother Elisa, who wanted her ashes scattered in the place of her birth. Elisa escaped Cuba at the time of the revolution. Marisol returns to the land of her roots, tracing the history of her grandmother’s youth and uncovering long-hidden family secrets. I think this might be the one to read on a long journey! Tantalising.

 

What are you planning to read this Spring? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

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