Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Month: November 2012 (page 1 of 3)

Getting to know Beryl better…

Beryl Bainbridge: Artist, Writer, Friend by Psiche Hughes

I will happily go on record to say that Beryl Bainbridge is my favourite author. Earlier this year, I hosted a reading week celebrating her work; you can see my record of that week and a bibliography of Beryl books and reviews on my Reading Beryl page. Through searching through reviews, obituaries, TV clips etc to complement and enliven the reading of her books – I felt I had got to know her quite well. Not well enough it seems!

When I was able to get my hands on this new biography, it went straight to the top of my TBR pile, temporarily relegating Dorothy Dunnett!

beryl biogI knew she painted, but I had no idea how good she was. This biography of Beryl, which happens to be the first to be published after her death in 2010, comes from art publishers Thames & Hudson – and it anchors itself primarily in her art, although her literature is closely interlinked. Although we know Beryl as a writer first and foremost, she always painted, she sold paintings between novels, and when she periodically suffered from writer’s block, she was able to work through it by painting.

The author was a friend of Beryl’s from the early 1960s onwards; they started off as neighbours in Camden after Beryl had moved down from Liverpool, bonding over their young families. Hughes herself is a lecturer and a writer, married to an artist, so is ideally placed to write about her friend. The introduction is also written by a friend – Brendan King, who was Beryl’s editor for twenty years, and who pieced together Beryl’s final novel The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress which was left unfinished when she died.

Beryl always rejected the label of being eccentric; I’m not so sure, but she is certainly idiosyncratic – having her own consistent style which suffuses her life, and thus her art and her books. Her pictures and her novels are heavily influenced by events from her own life, and often include other subjects that fascinated her like Napoleon, pictured dancing on the cover of this book. Her paintings are delicate, many done with and ink and smudges of colour, yet their subjects are earthy. Many of the figures within are nude and Rubenesque; expressions of her subconscious?, yet she always grounds them with an object placed in the frame – a plant … or her favourite samovar even. The figures tend to have an ethereal feel, and many have reminiscent of Modigliani’s elongated faces – he was a painter Beryl admired.

Hughes writes about Beryl’s views on art…

She attended the openings of my husband’s exhibitions because he was a friend. On one occasion she even wrote a short piece for the invitation to one of this exhibitions (in July 1987), which gives a brief personal doctrine of painting: ‘What one wants from art is a personal statement, a successful arrangement of colour and shape and a sense of place.’

The picture below is a family group of the author and her family on the arrival of a new sibling, was painted in 1970, the angel was added later when Hughes had a fourth daughter.

Beryl Bainbridge's portrait of Psiche Hughes' family and the arrival of a new sibling 1970Later on, Beryl took to painting pictures based on the subjects of her historical novels, “after its completion, as if to exorcize the memory of the effort she had spent in the writing.” Hughes suggests.  The pictures included for her novels, The Birthday Boys, and Every man for himself (based on the events of Scott’s journey to the Antarctic and the sinking of the Titanic respectively), are particularly evocative – the colours of the sun on the snow, and the dark night as the ship sinks create real atmosphere.

Supplementing Hughes’s text are 108 illustrations – many in colour of Beryl’s paintings, but also photographs and book covers. The whole book is produced on high quality cream paper, with a ribbon bookmark, making it a pleasure to read.

The triple approach to Beryl’s life – artist, writer and friend really worked, and I now feel I know her a lot better. This is a lovely book. (10/10)

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I was lucky enough to receive a review copy through Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Beryl Bainbridge: Artist, Writer, Friend by Psiche Hughes. Pub Oct 2012 by Thames & Hudson. Hardback, 208 pages.

Look at what I won!

I have had my moments as a ‘comper’ in the past – entering loads of competitions, and winning a few too. I haven’t done that for years though, and have reverted to not winning things in general – but this week I’ve won twice! Not only did I win a prize (a nice multi-wicked candle) in my daughter’s old school Christmas fete raffle, but I entered a twitter competition from @AtlanticBooks and blow me, I won!

My prize was a selection from their current list:

I’m particularly looking forward to reading The Dinner by Herman Koch since I read Stu’s review, and only this afternoon I was looking at The Potter’s Hand by A.N.Wilson in the bookshop – it’s about Josiah Wedgwood; Will Rycroft admired Patrick Flanery’s Absolution too. I shall look forward to reading those three, but know nothing about the others – but they look interesting.

I do like winning books – such fun!, as Miranda would say. A huge thank you to Atlantic Books.

Getting to grips with the phenomenon that is Lee Child

Killing Floor: (Jack Reacher 1) by Lee Child

Lee Child is a phenomenon. Made redundant by Granada TV at the age of forty, the Sheffield man who had initially studied law turned to writing and created the series of thrillers featuring Jack Reacher – there are now seventeen of them. Child is a worldwide bestselling author and now divides his time between the USA and the South of France.

I’d always treated this series with slight suspicion – they’re much beloved by the male side of my family, but I didn’t believe they would live up to the hype.  But then I saw Mariella gushing over Child  on a Sky Book Show programme, and thought – well maybe I ought to try one, I shouldn’t be so snobbish about it.

I started at the beginning – with the first novel, Killing Floor, published in 1997.  In a moment of serendipity, the day I picked up the book was October 29th.  That day you see, is Lee Child’s birthday, and Reacher’s too – the latter I knew from the first page where there is a CV of Reacher.

Reacher is an imposing chap – six foot five, dirty blond hair, fifty inch chest, and ice blue eyes. A former military policeman, he was demoted from a major to captain, but left as a major again.  Father a US Marine, so Jack and his brother grew up wherever their Dad was based.

No birth year given though.  Reacher is obviously a bit of a younger and maybe hunkier version of Child himself – who is very tall and slim with dirty blond hair.

So why, oh why, is shorty Tom Cruise playing him in Jack Reacher the movie (based on the 2005 novel One Shot) which will hit screens soon?  This is certainly a case of being glad to have formulated my own vision of the character from the book before seeing him on the screen.

Reacher is the modern day equivalent of Clint’s High Plains Drifter or Alan Ladd’s Shane. He’s a drifter and maverick, going where he pleases, paying no taxes, owning just the clothes on his back and what’s left of his army payoff. He arrives, shakes things up and leaves.

In Killing Floor, Reacher picks the wrong time to arrive in the town of Margrave, Georgia.  It was a sudden decision to get off the bus early to visit the town where a legendary bluesman had died decades before.  As soon as he arrives in town, having walked fourteen miles in the rain from the bus, he’s in trouble. The night before, there was a murder – he’s the stranger in town … he must have done it according to the policeman who takes him in.

Of course, these corrupt officers have picked the wrong buy to take the fall. Reacher is very soon able to free himself, and finds that the chief detective, Finlay, who is not part of the cabal, is under pressure. Reacher is able to put his years of expertise at the disposal of Finlay, and together with the overlooked policewoman Sgt Roscoe (who will naturally fall for his charms), they start to investigate the case. The bodycount will mount, and the layers of corruption in this little town are many; they will need all their skills to outwit the bad guys, however, by this time it’s personal for Reacher once they identify the first body …

I’m pleased to say all my preconceptions were wrong – this was a cracking good crime thriller.  Reacher is strong, physically and mentally. He’s a hard man, but one with a heart; he can love and show compassion, but won’t hesitate to kill if needed.  It’s a great move for Child to make his hero effectively a deputised sheriff rather than just a gun for hire, and it gives what would otherwise be a standard police procedural an edge.  The plot is complicated, and needs most of the 523 pages to be resolved, but it moves apace and keeps you guessing. A satisfying mystery with a charismatic hero – give me more!  (8.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Killing Floor: (Jack Reacher 1) by Lee Child. Paperback.
High Plains Drifter [DVD] – directed and starring Clint Eastwood
Shane [DVD] [1953] starring Alan Ladd.

A woman scorned …

My First Wife by Jakob Wassermann, translated by Michael Hoffman

They often say that truth is stranger than fiction. This novel is apparently no fiction – it’s one of those ‘all names have been changed’ type books!  My First Wife was published posthumously in 1934, and was a thinly veiled account of the author’s first marriage – and that marriage was a dis-ast-ah!

Herzog is a poor writer who moves to Vienna, where he meets Ganna. She is the fifth of six sisters, she’s not a beauty, she’s eccentric, bookish, and, he finds out too, late – über-clingy. But lured on by her rich family and his debt, he panders to Ganna’s odd behaviour and lets himself be fascinated by her …

It was one of my most disastrous qualities that, faced with a self-willed person, I would lose out because the phenomenon of willpower in and of itself would put me into such a state of amazement that I could generally only come to the decision my opposite number had made for me.

Alexander had been spending the summer in the country, house-sitting when Ganna arrives on her bike, and threatens to jump in the lake (a twenty foot drop) if he won’t have her.

And she: ‘Will you have me or not?’
I didn’t know whether to laugh or be cross. ‘All right, I will, I will.’ I said hurriedly, if only to put an end to the upsetting scene, but even as I said it I had the feeling I had swallowed poison. She jumped back, dropped to her knees in front of me and covered my hand with kisses.

Not an auspicious start, and in fact it goes downhill rapidly after they’re married. They have to live off the interest from Ganna’s settlement, they can’t afford a big house, they have babies, and Ganna has very odd ideas about education. Meanwhile, Herzog dabbles at writing and tries to avoid doing anything meaningful, especially with his wife.  Eventually he leaves Ganna for his mistress and that’s when he finally realises that she will never let him go, and that all the money they have and more will be used up by the leeches she employs to fleece him, leaving him a truly broken man.

I read this book immediately after The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, another story of dysfunctional marriages and philandering, and by the end of The Good Wife, I had had enough of this misery! Herzog is so up himself, he’s so weak and self-centred, Ganna is barking and you wonder why she settled for the first man who’d have her. Herzog treated her appallingly, and she, scorned, turned it all back on him. I really felt for their children.

But whereas Ford’s narrator was of the unreliable type, remembering things that changed the story, Wassermann’s isn’t – but of course we only get Herzog’s side of things and he is full of self-pity – none of it is his fault. I wonder if Wassermann himself was such a shit!

Even after reading Ford, I was totally engrossed in this tale which has all the vicarious thrill of a period memoir that bares all – so much so, I can’t really comment on Hoffman’s translation. Wasserman tells the story in short chapters, unnumbered, each with a tantalising title and relating a specific event or anecdote.  One such was ‘A female Don Quixote’ in which Herzog tries to explain to one of Ganna’s sisters why he was fascinated by her. He likens Ganna to the ‘idealistic battler against windmills’ – this was, of course, before they fell out.  I liked the structure and writing even if I didn’t like the antihero (7.5/10)

I read this book to take part in German Literature Month hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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I received a review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further at Amazon UK,  please click below:
My First Wife by Jakob Wassermann, translated by Michael Hoffman, pub Penguin Classics, Aug 2012. Hardback 288 pages.

Incoming Beryl …

Beryl Bainbridge: Artist, Writer, Friend by Psiche Hughes

I am inordinately excited to have been able to get my mitts on this rather different biography of my favourite author, the first full biography since Beryl’s death. Thanks to my lovely neighbours who rescued it from the Amazon delivery man and depot hell this morning, so I could share it with you.

The lovely thing is that Beryl turns out to have been a brilliant artist as you can see from the cover below, and made money from her painting when writing couldn’t provide it.

This biography comes from art publishers Thames & Hudson, and is beautifully produced on quality paper with over 100 illustrations in colour and b/w including many photos of Beryl throughout her career.

Beryl and Italian-born Psiche met in the early 1960s, they were neighbours in London and their friendship lasted until Beryl’s death in 2010.

I am really looking forward to reading this book and savouring Beryl’s art. Expect a full review soon!

If you want to find out more about Beryl, why not check out my Reading Beryl page, which contains all the reviews and links from Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week, which I hosted back in June.

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I received a review copy via Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Beryl Bainbridge: Artist, Writer, Friend by Psiche Hughes, pub Oct 2012 by Thames & Hudson, Hardback, 205 pages.

Modern Art is not rubbish

What Are You Looking At?: 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye by Will Gompertz

The BBC’s Arts Editor, Will Gompertz, is unusual for an arts commentator – he has a sense of humour and a mission to enthuse us about his subject. He is uniquely qualified – having worked for the Tate Modern and performed a stand-up show about modern art at the Edinburgh fringe. A colleague of mine met him at a recent charity event, and said he was wacky and brilliant company – he sounds a great guy, and he always comes across as if he enjoys his job when you see him on the TV.

I love art – ancient and modern. I know what I like, but I don’t know enough about most of it to set it into context properly, especially modern art.  In that, I have taken after my father, who enjoys modern art for what it is – which in some respects is what many abstract or minimalist artists intended, but I haven’t needed to take it further – until now, when I managed to get my hands on a copy of Gompertz’s new book.

What are you looking at offers a personal introduction to the subject aimed at a wide audience. Gompertz is the perfect guide through the web of all the ‘isms’ and movements of modern art.

After a sketch outlining the first true avant-garde act of modern art – Duchamp’s 1917 work, ‘Fountain’ – a signed urinal, we divert back to the Impressionists, the previous band of art rebels, to set the scene. Talking about abstract art in general, Gompertz says:

You could argue that Manet started it all back in the mid-nineteenth century when he began to remove (abstract) pictorial detail in his painting The Absinthe Drinker (1858-9). Each subsequent generation of artists eliminated yet more visual information in an attempt to capture atmospheric light (Impressionism), accentuate the emotive qualities of colour (Fauvism), or look at a subject from multiple viewpoints (Cubism).

From then on it’s a broadly chronological journey up to the present day from the Impressionists through Bauhaus and Surrealism to Pop-Art and bringing us totally up to date with the YBA (Young British Artists). A helpful fold out ‘tube map’ of the isms and key artists shows how all the different schools of modern art grew out of each other and how they interlink, and a handful of colour plates and a few monochrome pictures help elucidate the key works described.

Gompertz’s style is clear and easy to read, chatty and humorous when needed and it is full of anecdotes which bring the artists to life. Whether you agree with him or not – I’m afraid that no-one will make me enjoy the paintings of Bacon or De Kooning – I did appreciate reading about them.  He also has no sacred cows:

There are times when those of us involved in the arts talk and write pretentious nonsense. It’s a fact of life: rock stars trash hotels, sportsmen and women get injured, arts folk talk bollocks. Among the main culprits are museum curators, who have a tendency to write slightly pompous, wholly incomprehensible passages exhibition guides and on gallery text panel.  At best their talk of ‘inchoate juxtapositions’ and ‘pedalogical praxis’ baffles visitors: at worse it humiliates and confuses and puts people off art for life. Not good. But in my experience the curators are not trying to be deliberately obtuse; they are talented individuals catering to an increasingly broad constituency.

There are omissions – the Op Art of Bridget Riley only gets a passing reference, as does early David Hockney. Others who don’t feature include Georgia O’Keefe, giant scribbler Cy Twombly (another artist I don’t get!), much of sculpture, photography in general except for the work of Cindy Sherman, and installations of the kind that tend to win the Turner prize, which is another thing Gompertz doesn’t comment on.  A book of this kind can’t hope, or want, to be all-inclusive however, and all the key artists and art movements are there and will give you a path for further personal research.  An appendix lists where you can see the works mentioned.

I found the chapter on Post-Modernism particularly useful. For instance, you have to know that Cindy Sherman’s photographs are designed to be stills from non-existent movies that reference other films. Gompertz says: “But the truth is that Postmodernist art rewards knowledge much like a cryptic crossword, where comprehension comes from solving the puzzle.”  

While I know this is not per se a picture book, a few more illustrations scattered through the text would have been welcome. I didn’t really need the occasional cartoons that pop up here or there – the only slightly heavy-handed nod to remind us this is a book for everyone. There are two sections containing around 20 colour plates, plus another fortyish illustrations in black and white.  Given that the book’s RRP is £20 (not £19.99!), another insert of colour plates, even if it added a couple of quid more, would have been nice – someone willing to pay £20 would probably part with £22 say, (or it’s on-line discount price equivalent).

I’m lucky enough to have seen works by many of the artists mentioned, so I could visualise most of the broad styles from Gompertz’s great descriptions. I learned a lot, and I’d recommend this book thoroughly for its lucid text, (another good Christmas present idea).

Going to see art is better though, and my next visit to the Tate Modern will be a very different experience – which is, of course, what the author hopes we’ll all do having read his book.  (8.5/10).

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I received a review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
What Are You Looking At?: 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye by Will Gompertz. Pub Penguin, Sept 2012, 435 pages incl indexes. Semi-hardback.

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