Sunday, 24 January 2016

So the Challenge begins...The Woman in White. #2016ClassicsChallenge (January)

I've read a few articles recently whereby people are supposed to feel guilty because they haven't read a book which is considered a classic. As far as I'm concerned, so long as you're reading something and using your mind and imagination, I don't think it matters whether the book is a classic or not. Whilst on that note, what makes a classic a classic? Who defines what a classic is, and are they correct when they put a book on "the list?" There are far too many books out there for us to read them all. So my advice is not to worry about whether you have read all the books on the "books you should have read list", read the ones that a friend has read and recommended to you if you think it sounds good, or one that appeals to you for whatever reason, even if it's only because you like the could surprise yourself!

Many of the books that appeal to me are often considered classics, so with this in mind I'm taking part in this years #2016ClassicsChallenge (   I am also raising funds for charity whilst completing this challenge and I have set up a JustGiving page to raise funds for Box Clever Theatre Company, details on my JG page!  I need to read one classic book a month and blog about it... let the challenge begin!

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1859)  

I had heard about this book years ago. The Woman in White was considered groundbreaking when it was first published. It was a piece of Victorian fiction which fused together the apprehension felt in a Gothic horror novel with psychological reality. It is helpful if you can submerge yourself into the mind of the Victorian reader when taking on this book. In November 1859, readers of Charles Dickens' periodical All The Year Round were finishing the serialisation of A Tale of Two Cities, and being introduced to a new piece of serialised fiction which would have them enthralled until August 1860. Despite its unsavoury themes, The Woman in White was due to be a huge sensation.

As a fan of all things Gothic why had I not read this novel? Well as I say at the start of this piece, there are hundreds of books out there and you can't read them all. So why choose to read it now? I was passing through Homesense and saw that they had a cloth bound Penguin Classic sitting on a shelf imploring me to buy it! It was as simple as that! 

"This is the story of what a Woman's patience can endure, and what a Man's resolution can achieve".

Now that I have read the book, I think if you haven't read this novel you should feel a little guilty! Not because it is considered a classic, but because it is a beautifully crafted novel. It takes you on a journey of discovery, bringing the terror previously read about in far reaching fictitious castles, to a terror on your doorstep. It has a dark plot centered on murder, insanity, incarceration, treachery. It showed the dark underworld of Victorian society and the possibility that it was possible for the well admired and respected nobility to be responsible for the poisoning of a husband, for instance, in order to claim his estate and take on a younger lover! We don't know what goes on behind closed doors, but the possibilities are endless and Victorian society fed on this manner of criminality. The Victorian era showed a rise in consumerism. More books were being published and the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park fed peoples desires for manufactured products and it was influential in educating people about the arts. Public shows were bigger due to advertising in the national press. Today the public seek their thrills by going on bigger and faster rides at theme parks, in the Victorian era thrill seekers would watch death-defying tightrope walkers or scare themselves at freak shows; children would read Penny Dreadfuls, badly written stories about pirates and dastardly highwayman! The Woman in White was consumed eagerly by the public and is still reknowned for creating a thirst for sensensational novels.

The Woman in White was initially written as a periodical and was more than likely inspired by the works of the French writer Maurice Mejan. Wilkie Collins was a close friend of Charles Dickens, another author we know who used to write his stories on a weekly basis rather than the novels we see today. These periodicals were the soap opera's of the day. Instead of sitting around the table asking who shot JR, Victorians were betting on the outcome of the stories, who did what to whom. The novel actually led to merchandising, ladies could spray themselves with Woman in White perfume, buy Woman in White cloaks, even music was specifically written for Woman in White Waltzes. Even Dickens himself had not had this amount of random publicity!

A series of witness statements.
What is clever about the novel, and unusual, is that we don't have one narrator telling the whole story, we have a series of witnesses to a crime. Just as a judge hears a persons piece of evidence and draws a conclusion, so does the novel take on the story from one narrator to another. Because we have to rely on each persons statement, how can we be sure that all parties are telling the truth? We have to draw our own conclusions as we read the story. Which witnesses do we trust? Who can we rely on and who is trying to salvage their reputation? This experimental use of all of the characters in the book telling their side of the story ensures that the novel moves on at a pace. We want to know how all of these characters interact, and whether we can trust their accounts. We need to be aware that not everything is always as it seems!

You will note that this is a strange type of review, in that I haven't told the premise of the story, or detailed the characters involved. There is a reason for this. Wilkie Collins in his preface to the book requests that reviewers do not tell the story second-hand. I can understand why he asks this. He has written the novel carefully so we meet the correct characters in the correct order suppressing important linkages until they need to be unearthed. If I started informing you how the novel runs and who does what to whom, the integrity of the novel is lost. The reason why you want to read the novel is because you are curious about who the Woman in White is, and you want the excitement and surprises to be revealed just as the author wished them to be.

The writing of the novel might be of a bygone age, but it is detailed and poetic. The descriptions are so complex that you can envisage what was going on in Collins' mind; you are figuratively standing in front of the characters, viewing them as though you are standing in the room with them. "The lady's complexion was almost swarthy, and the dark down on her upper lip was almost a moustache. She had a large, firm, masculine mouth and jaw; prominent, piercing, resolute brown eyes; and thick, coal black hair, growing unusually low down on her forehead. Her expression - bright, frank, and intelligent - appeared, whilst she was silent, to be altogether wanting in those feminine attractions of gentleness and pliability, without which the beauty of the handsomest woman alive is beauty incomplete. To see such a face as this set on shoulders that a sculpture would have longed to model..." Great attention is paid to the sound of the novel, this is what gives it the creepy edge when reading it. If you don't know what I mean, try reading the passages out aloud, rather than quietly in your head!

When it was written, the novel had the ability to make the hairs on your arms stand on end and the heart to beat a little faster. Modern society has been desensitised so we don't feel fear in the way Victorians would, however, that is not to say that the novel doesn't still have its place today and it is a novel which would be great adapted for the winter TV schedule. A theatrical adaptation was made in 1871, so it should be something a good dramatist could put on for a modern TV audience!

I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys historical novels, who likes a bit of mystery and wants to be captivated to the very end of the book. It is more of a psychological book than a terrifying horror story.  The book caused excitement when it was first written, and despite being over 150 years old, it echoes themes that are still current. The possibilities of trust and mistrust are just as prevalent today as they were back then, and people today will be party to a crime if they believe they can benefit from it.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

The Danish Girl (The Battle of Lili Elbe)

I knew nothing about the story of The Danish Girl, but when I was asked if I fancied seeing it I said yes without any thought. It was a chance to get out of the house and speak to a human being on the way to and from the cinema!

I used to hate going into the office on a daily basis because I knew I would have to paint a smile on my face and interact with a number of individuals who I found vacuous and irritating! Now I am on a sabbatical from the corporate world, I notice that I don't miss the irritation of being polite to what amounted to two-faced non-entities often declaring "woe is me," but I do sometimes get a little bored talking to the wall each day! I guess this is where Twitter and social media gives you a lifeline to the world, however, many of the irritants that I found in the office I find on social media too, it is an outlet for people to declare publicly that they are feeling sorry for themselves! So the opportunity to speak to a person about fun things and to look at the positive side of life was embraced, so off to the cinema we did go!

Whilst I quite agree that Eddie Redmayne was deserving of an Oscar for The Theory of Everything, I don't think this performance is deserving of one at all. He was OK in the role and brought an empathy to the character, however, it was a far-reaching topic to tackle, and warranted more than coy looks and awkward glances at the floor. This happened throughout the entire film and so there was no depth or change in understanding the character, and this just started to aggravate me if I'm honest. Towards the end of the film I could hear sobbing near me (I just sat there thinking aww that's sad.) If I am totally honest, I felt more for Gerda, Alicia Vikander, who I thought gave a more dramatic performance about the difficulties of coming to terms with the change of gender of her husband.

The film is based on the novel of the same name, but it should be remembered that the novel is a work of fiction, based on the real life of Lili Elbe. As with most fiction, the love story takes over, and there is less about what was going on inside Lili. The battle of her emotions is generalised. To find out Lili's true story we need to look at Man into Woman: The First Sex Change, a book that took Lili's letters, diary entries and incorporated them into a volume explaining the thoughts and feelings held by Lili.

There were points whilst watching the film where I lost any feelings of compassion towards Lili, finding her overtly selfish. There is a scene where Gerda had held an art exhibition and her husband had not gone with her. Her physical and emotional crutch was not by her side and when she went home, she entered the flat, soaked to the skin, to find Lili waiting for her at home. Gerda cries that she needs her husband, she needs Einar, and she is met with the reply that Einar has gone and can not be brought back. This was the point of the film where I should have felt compassion towards Einar/Lili's confliction, but I just wanted to punch him, I was so angry at how selfish he was being, when his wife had gone through so much and had been so supportive of him.

This also got me onto thinking about the part his wife had played in bringing out the character of Lili. Had she encouraged him? Had she brought this on herself? Obviously the feelings Einar had were deep-rooted already, and the pivotal moment of the film is when Gerda's model didn't turn up for her portrait sitting, so Einar dons stockings for the first time. At this point I did find Eddie Redmayne believable, as you can see the various thoughts and emotions going through his mind as he realises he likes the feel of the silk and satin, but also the dawning realisation of what this could mean. It was as if Gerda had flicked on a light switch, but it was now stuck, it could not be turned off again.

At this point I think it is a good point to see what the real life situation was like for Einar and Gerda. Einar wrote "I cannot deny, strange as it may sound, that I enjoyed myself in this disguise. I liked the feel of soft women's clothing. I felt very much at home in them from the first moment." Gerda did feel some sense of responsibility for creating Lili, she said to Einar " I have felt prickings of conscience because I was...the cause of creating Lili, of enticing her out of you, and thus becoming responsible for a disharmony in you which reveals itself most distinctly on those days when Lili does not appear."

Einar and Gerda married in 1904 when they were 22 and 19 respectively. It was in 1930 that Einar acknowledged that Lili had completely taken over him stating "she rebels more vigorously every day." He chose the date 1st May 1930 to commit suicide. After two decades of knowing he was a woman trapped in the body of a man, he could no longer control his feelings, and at a time where people were not compassionate against things they did not understand, he could not foresee living for any longer. A few months before his desired death date he learnt of a doctor in Dresden who may be able to perform transgender surgery on him. The film infers that there were only two operations, one to remove the male genitalia, and a short while later the surgery to finalise his transition to being a full woman. In fact, Einar went through four or five operations during 1930 and 1931. A castration was first carried out, followed by penectomy, a transplant of ovary tissue (many reports say that whilst undertaking surgery, doctors found rudimentary ovaries in Lili's abdomen) and creation of a vagina. The final surgery was the transplanting of a womb as Lili was desperate to have children, and had fallen in love with an art dealer and had planned to remarry. The final surgery however proved fatal, her body rejected the new organ that had been implanted.

And what of Gerda? What happened to her? Gerda had been a leading illustrator of high fashion, and was thought highly of in the fashion magazine industry. Her most popular pictures were of a lady with a brown bob, and it came as a huge surprise to find out that the model was actually her husband. As the scandal broke in Copenhagen that the paintings were actually of a man, Gerda and Einar moved to Paris in 1912 due to the more open-minded society. Gerda's paintings became more and more risque, often painting nude women in sexual poses. These paintings opened up the question as to whether Gerda was a lesbian, and whether this is why she was so accepting of her husbands behaviour. Gerda became a well-known artist in France, but her notoriety came to the attention of the King of Denmark who declared her marriage to Lili Elbe null and void in 1930. Gerda married an Italian officer who squandered all of her money, the couple divorced in 1936. Gerda moved back to Copenhagen dying penniless in 1940.

The real life story perhaps ends more profoundly than that of the poignant ending to the film. The real life characters of Gerdan and Einor/Lili are far more interesting than that which the film depicts. The characters are very one dimensional and we don't get a full insight into their true potential. We see a short scene where Lili has got a job in a department store, and looks so happy and comfortable in this new role. In this short frame we can see why it was so important for Lili to live as Lili, but it was only for a fleeting second. There was far more to Lili than downward fluttering eyes and there was more to Gerda than weeping about her confusion of the situation. Both were strong characters in their own ways, and whilst I enjoyed the film and it allowed me to research their real lives, I think it was only a good film...not a great one.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Pistols at Dawn - War and Peace continues

Things might seem quiet around here but I have spent the week surrounded by papier mache and watercolours. The papier mache can be ignored for's a long term project (each layer takes a while to dry) so I won't be showing what I've been up to for a while!

The watercolours however I can show you! I haven't dabbled in paint for a number of years and for some reason I thought it would be a good idea to paint the three troublemakers in last night's episode of War and Peace. I think for a beginner they are OK, but hopefully with some practice I might get better!

So seeing as I've started on the War and Peace theme, I may as well give my opinion on the third episode!

Well I did as I suggested last time, I (figuratively) threw the book away! Within minutes I'd picked it back up again, because this time I was squealing with delight and needed to double check a couple of things which were said! The dueling scene came very close to what was in the book, however I didn't expect for one minute that they would keep the part in where Dolokov greedily bit at the snow before he raised himself to take a shot at Pierre. The way this part of the scene was carried out showed that Tom Burke has obviously acquainted himself with the book, or at least he's certainly read the parts that Dolokov features in!

Whilst we are not treated to the full extent of Dolokov's relationship with his mother during his convalescence, it is hinted that Dolokov the brawler and and bully is indeed an affectionate character, or at least when it comes to his mother and sister. In the book there is a wonderful passage which describes the way his mind works and helps us to understand his behaviour a little later in the episode after he has proposed to Sonya. "I know people consider me a bad man!" he said. "Let them! I don't care a straw about anyone but those I love; but those I love, I love so that I would give my life for them, and the others I'd throttle if they stood in my way. I have an adored, a priceless mother, and two or three friends- you among them- and as for the rest I only care about them in so far as they are harmful or useful. And most of them are harmful, especially the women. Yes, dear boy," he continued, "I have met loving, noble, high-minded men, but I have not yet met any women- countesses or cooks- who were not venal. I have not yet met that divine purity and devotion I look for in women. If I found such a one I'd give my life for her! But those!... and he made a gesture of contempt. "And believe me, if I still value my life it is only because I still hope to meet such a divine creature, who will regenerate, purify, and elevate me. But you don't understand it."

The book details how Dolokov has fallen in love with Sonya and makes every excuse possible to come to the house in order that he may see her. Over this period Dolokov is at the house more and Nikolai less and less. By the time Christmas arrives and Dolokov proposes it is obvious that he has lost his heart to her, so to be refused in such a pointed and definite manner was obviously going to have an effect and this was played out brilliantly on screen. Back to the rogue, the devil, the villain of the piece! It's a shame that the two sides to Dolokov's character were not looked at in more depth, but I think most people watching the show would gather from the subtle nuances that Dolokov had indeed fallen in love with Sonya, it wasn't just to be another one of his conquests! I believe that Dolokov actually craves some love and attention. We know how much he ensures that his mother and sister are looked after, but does this mean he has always been the caregiver whilst growing up, and not been given the care, love and affection that he required? Perhaps he hoped if he could find a woman who was pure and loyal, and Sonya certainly ticks both of those boxes, she would ensure that he didn't need to be the bad boy that we are see, and the softer side of Dolokov would surface properly.

I have to say that this is the episode that Paul Dano began to shine as Pierre. In the first two episodes I thought him a rather feeble and drippy version of the Pierre I had known in the book, but this episode showed the different facets of his character. He is an honest character, pure of heart and simple and direct. The scene with Helene was eye opening as he grabbed the marble table top and smashed it to the ground; I honestly didn't think he had it in him to shout at her like that! (Speaking of Helene, I would just to to say at this point I am jealous of Tuppence Middleton. I have serious dress envy going on! I thought the white dress she wore in the first episode was gorgeous, but as the series has gone on, more and more gorgeous frocks come to light. It's not just War and Peace either, she's got some lovely costumes in Dickensian too! I fear I my have to get the sewing machine out and make some modern clothes inspired by the ones in War and Peace!)

I'm glad that we were only treated to a small portion of the Freemasons, it becomes a little overdone in the book, whilst it appears to be a somewhat random piece in the show, it is one that helped show Pierre's growth as a man. So far he has done nothing with the fortune he has inherited, now he is about to do good by visiting his tenant farmers and various estates and having a good old heart to heart with his best friend Prince Andrei! This heart to heart doesn't delve very deeply though, and at the Tsar's ball we can foresee that hearts are going to break whilst others flourish.

The meeting of Natasha and Andrei was set in spectacular scenery, and it was beautifully shot but I am still having issues identifying Natasha as this person who inspires desire from people. Desire for women to be like her, desire from men to love her. She is portrayed as a sickly sweet teenager and I can't say I'm set alight by Andrei either. He is emotional honest, somewhat detached from life and is generally unable to forge lasting meaningful relationships with people, so I find him a difficult character to read. As two of the main characters of the story, I can't help but feel that they are completely out-shined by the likes of Helene, Dolokov, Nikolai and Denisov, even when they have a whole opulent scene to themselves! It seemed rather bizarre that in such a short space of time, a man who is so void of emotion can suddenly fall head over heels in love with a giggly school girl he's just waltzed around a ballroom with. I felt so sorry for Pierre in the closing scenes as those slight flickers in his eyes betrayed him as he spoke with Andrei. As Andrei declared his undying love for Natasha, we realised how much Pierre, who has grown up with Natasha, has undeclared feelings for her too!

Roll on next week! I have to say I am now loving the series, episode three has definitely brought me around, and I'm sure episode four will bring with it some fantastic surprises.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

War and Peace (BBC Drama)

I'm conflicted. I'm in a quandary as to whether I love or hate the BBC's latest foray into War and Peace. I think my problem stems from the fact that the book took me by complete surprise. We've grown up hearing the phrase "it's not War and Peace you know!" It's a phrase that strikes horror into the mind of the potential reader; looking at that lumbering great tome brings thoughts of an onerous task ahead and it means that many people are unacquainted with the text. Yes it's a long book, but once you start reading it you get submerged into this world of love, betrayal, politics, war, even strategic military planning. It is a beautifully written book and one that took Tolstoy six years to write. He invested his time researching the history and politics that went into the book and left us with a wonderful legacy, a book that is both historically enlightening, merged with a love story showing the folly of the human heart. Sadly the BBC has chosen to ignore some of the quintessential elements of the book and decided to give us a six hour romp through the Russian aristocracy instead!

The BBC is renowned for making spectacular period drama's, but sometimes I get disheartened that it is just about costumes and exquisite interiors!  I was somewhat concerned for this production when I heard that it was going to be sexed up and just about the love stories; let's be honest, sex sells and the BBC needs a hugely successful moneymaker. I think this is why I am in a quandary, it is stunning to look at, but I can't help bleating "they've missed this bit out of the book". Quite frankly it doesn't feel particularly Russian, it's just another costume drama that keeps me entertained for an hour.

War and Peace has a lot of characters and if you don't understand what they are about it is easy to get lost in this adaptation. Trying to get the book into six episodes is a near impossible task, even if you do only concentrate on the love angle of the book. We are whisked away from the grandiose houses of Russia to a battlefield with limited explanation before being whisked back to high society, so the waters are muddied and plot lines cease to make sense. Andrew Davies, the man the BBC charged with bringing this adaptation to the screen, read the book and automatically assumed that the viewing audience would be able to follow the story, but this is far from true. It is not obvious who the people we are watching are, or indeed why we are watching them. I started watching the 1970's version as a comparison; it is already outdated, it is rather theatrical with "period speak", so to take a more modern outlook at the text is commendable and I am thoroughly on board with the idea, but watching the first two episodes I feel that so much has been omitted that the characters have suffered. Bar some outstanding performances by the actors involved, most of the characters seem rather insular and that is a tragedy because when you read the book, they become your friends and you go through many painful journeys with them.

The three main characters are Pierre, Andrei and Natasha. So far I have not been engaged by their performances. They have not commanded my attention at all. Paul Dano is good as Pierre, but I didn't imagine Pierre to be as pitiful as the one on my TV. I'm not sure whether it is the actor or the writer who is at fault, but I always thought of Pierre as this educated, somewhat self-absorbed man, but he is  just portrayed as an insipid cuckolded fool.

Andrei is a nobleman fed up of the shallowness of high society. Despite his wife being pregnant, when war starts, it is his excuse to get away from it all and to find some purpose to his life. The first foray into battle however makes him open his eyes, it isn't the answer he is looking for. The reasons for this are not shown in episode one as the writer has cut large elements in respect of the build up to the first battle from his script. We don't see Andrei's perspective on the war, nor the ineptitude of General Bagration, so we need James Norton to fill in the blanks for us, but he doesn't in the first episode. Andrei has a big story arc in the book, in six weeks we are not going to get his full story. We really need James Norton to engage us with the character as much as possible so that we can get emotionally involved in his story. I am pleased to say he did begin to show some emotion in the second episode, and I did see the conflict he faced regarding how he had treated his wife, and I hope that he grows during the rest of the series.

Natasha has appeared to be an ordinary, silly, shallow little girl, practically invisible to all. She is meant to be central to the plot, so hopefully as she ages in the series, she will blossom into a charismatic, captivating, all knowing woman, with a sophisticated charm. I look forward to seeing if Lily James can pull this performance off.

It is probably wrong of me to pick out specific actors who I am loving, but I can't help it. Frankly I am surprised by how much I love Adrian Edmondson in his role as Count Rostov. He loves life, he is warm and caring and tries to brush problems under the carpet! I am of the generation that thinks fondly of him in The Young Ones playing the violent Vyvyan; who knew he could be such a great character actor! I love him as Count Rostov, he plays the role just the correct side of eccentric and I wish he was on screen a bit more. Someone I do know to be a great actor is Jim Broadbent, but I wasn't sure if he was the right person to portray Bolkonsky. On the face of things Bolkonsky is a difficult man to live with, he is rude and arrogant, especially to his long suffering daughter Marya, but behind that closed door he was a different person. He put in a heart wrenching performance in the second episode when he received news that his son Andrei was dead. He brought such vulnerability to this hard-hearted man, and it was a scene that was powerful to watch.

Dolokov is my favourite character in the book, but then the anti-hero is often the most interesting character to follow. He has a blase attitude about everything, but as he isn't one of the main characters in the book, many of my questions about him remain unanswered! In the TV adaptation, Dolokov has even less airtime then he does in the book, so we could have been given a comic pastiche of this larger than life character. Tom Burke however dominates the little airtime he has to bring us a memorable performance of a complete psychopath straight from the pages of Tolstoy's book. People may just think of Dolokov as the "baddie", but on the battlefield he is the man you want by your side, he runs wild eyed at the enemy cutting and slashing them to bits without any thought about his own mortality. If you have a wife however, you wouldn't trust him, or your wife, as far as you could throw them; he will seduce and they will succumb! He takes great joy in announcing his conquests, his gaucheness as he sat at dinner had me squirming in my seat, and then the final insult as he disrespectfully drinks a toast to wives and their lovers with inscrutable calmness! I loved the manner that Tom Burke accepted the challenge of the duel. The acceptance is inferred in the book, not spoken, but that response, with a slightly devious twinkle in the eye, was mesmerising. Tolstoy may not have written that line, but Tom conveys the psychopath that I love in the book and it is obvious that he is enjoying ownership of the role. I particularly loved it when Helene told him to make himself at home and he said "I will" and proceeded to follow her out of the room with a depraved look in his eyes! That said, there is so much more to Dolokov's character and I really hope that we are treated to this in episode three, especially for those who have not read the book and are unaware that this bully has an affectionate, loving side.

All in all, I am enjoying watching War and Peace. The spirit of the book is there, but I think it is pacing itself just a bit too quickly. Maybe eight or ten episodes would still keep the series edgy, but it would allow for some clarity and deeper characterisations to develop. So I think I have concluded that I need to throw the book away for the next four episodes and just sit back and enjoy the programme for what it is. A stylish piece of BBC drama, full of stunning camerawork, beautiful costumes and some phenomenal acting!

Saturday, 9 January 2016

What secrets lie in Venice? (The Venetian Contract by Marina Fiorato)

I saw The Venetian Contract in a second hand bookshop and only bought it because it was about Venice, my second favourite city in the world!

My first trip to Venice was in 2007, it was a couple of days after my dad had died, and my brothers refused to allow me to sit and wallow in self-pity. I went in February, the time of the Carnevale and I was swept up in a world of mystery, costume and masked beauty. Obviously my mind kept wandering elsewhere, so a year later I went back, once again to take in the sights of the Carnevale, a must see wonder for anyone who loves costume and history. I have subsequently returned to Venice, not at Carnevale time, and the place still holds a special magic and place in my heart.

This book is set in 1576 and tells the story of a Turkish stowaway who arrives in Venice. With her arrival, the Turkish ship also sets down an unpleasant gift to the city, the bubonic plague. In order to treat the city, the Doge of Venice commissions the architect Andrea Palladio to build a great church so that God will save the city. (Palladio gave his name to the ubiquitous archetectural style in the world, Palladianism).

Prologue. "Sebastiano Venier, Doge of Venice." Oh you have to be kidding me! Those first five words already inform me that he was the Doge during the time of the Battle of Lepanto as shown in this painting by Tintoretto.

Where else have I heard about the Battle of Lepanto?  Scenes From An Execution by Howard Barker, a play Tom Burke starred in! I remember years ago playing the game "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon", these days the game seems to be "One Degree of Tom Burke!"

A couple of pages later, the six plague doctors of the six sestieri's (areas of Venice) arrive at the Doge's palace with remarkable medical advice such as putting a live pigeon in a patients groin. The Doge found the physicians to be charlatans, buffoons, each one thinking that they were more important than the next one! "These doctors could not help Venice. They would dispense their potions and remedies , make gold along the way, and some citizens would live and some would die." These doctors sound like those in the Dr's Dilemma (George Bernard Shaw) and yes, I do believe Tom was in that too!

Anyway, back to the book, the Venetians had beaten the Ottoman's at the Battle of Lepanto, and this book is set a few years later and the Ottomans wish to wreak revenge on Venice. This is a beautifully written book which transports you back to the calles of Venice. You can sense the confusion of the Turkish heroine as she tries to make her way around the city, getting lost down dead end passageways and walking around in circles! It also gives you a taste of the historical Venice, at Carnevale people walk around wearing the Dottore's Mask (doctor's mask shaped like that of a birdman) the beak of which was stuffed with herbs to ward away the miasma of the plague, but more likely the smell of putrefaction. There are many islands surrounding Venice, some well known, Murano the glass island and Burano the lace-making island, but this book also tells us of the lesser known island of Lazzaretto Novo, or the quarantine island. In the 1570's, known as the Plague years, the Venetians were terrified of the disease being brought to their shores. Crews from boats would disembark at the island, walk through a lime pit, and the items on board would be removed and smoked to kill any chance of the Plague. The crew would live in almshouse for forty days (hence the origin of the word quarantine) and once they were declared healthy, they and their goods were allowed to continue into the city of Venice.

As Plague takes hold of the city, the Doge commissions the architect Palladio to build a church on the island of Guidecca. One that would be so magnificent God would save Venice! In order to keep Palladio alive, the Doge also commissions the greatest doctor in Venice to keep Palladio alive. Whilst he has a greater knowledge of medicine than his fellow doctors, he finds that the Turkish stowaway who crosses his path can teach him that the medicines of east and west work better when both sets of knowledge are combined!

Whilst this is a piece of fiction, it does take in historical elements, and it has made me want to return to Venice so that I can visit Palladio's church on Guidecca, and perhaps to swish around St Marks Square at Carnevale in a costumed dress and mask!

Whilst reading the historical notes and acknowledgements at the end of the book I couldn't help but chuckle, the lady responsible for the historical accuracy of the costumes was Hayley Nebauer, the same lady responsible for designing the costumes in the third series of The Musketeers. So the book begins and ends with a link to Tom Burke, you just couldn't write it!

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami.

I love Murakami, his novels have this sense of impending danger, it's as though you are pulled into the pages of a nightmare which actually feels it could be plausible at the start. Obviously the stories are not real, but he takes everyday scenario's and turns them into an evil nightmarish situation . In this one we start off in a lift. Is it going up, is it going down, is it moving, will the doors ever open?

Over the festive period I have been thinking of finishing off a couple of pieces of artwork. One is a series of photographs of coloured paperclips to turn into fabric to make scarves with, the second is a Venetian mask. (I bought three blank masks in 2007 and finally started decorating them this summer. I have done a cat inspired by Gustav Klimt and a dark burgundy feathery number, this final one is to be all white, with feathers and a unicorn skull.) 

So in a mind-boggling moment I picked a book at random from my bookcase and started reading. Then I became slightly unnerved when paperclips and unicorn skulls started featuring on the pages I was turning! When I got to page 76 I laughed "I couldn't shake the feeling that things weren't normal. Was I being staked out by paperclips?...First animal skulls, now paperclips." As I read on I started to realise that this book was dealing with streams of human consciousness, OK what was that book I read last month? The Conspiracy Against the Human Race...which dealt with streams of the human consciousness! This was probably more mind-blowing than any other Murakami novel I have ever read and I thought whether we like it or not odd things do happen which have a resonance within ourselves. 

Anyway, once I had recovered from the fact that this random book had so many similarities to things I'd be up to recently, I started looking at what the book was actually about. It was an interesting read, and one that provokes deep thought. Hard-Boiled Wonderland is one world, the End of the World is another. When you think about it, everyone has an End of the World. It is not necessarily our death bed moment either, it can be the end of one thing before we start on a new journey. Any event can lead to an End of the World moment; how many times do we hear the phrase "it's not the end of the world" when a mistake is made, maybe it is, maybe it's the end of one world as we know it and the start of a new one! The mind is full of chaos, we try self-improvement, but this is in our conscious state, what about our other world, our unconscious one? Can we alter that too? Can we have two states of mind, can we have two worlds in our head?

The book unites the thoughts of the East and West, at times there is a sadness and other times farcical situations. The human condition is shown on all levels, from deep kindness and compassion, to being underwhelmed and detached from the materialistic components of life. There are some very poignant passages. I've heard people tell me they are no good at anything. This is untrue. everyone is good at something. "Everyone must have one thing that they can excel at. It's just a matter of drawing it out, isn't it? But school doesn't know how to draw it out. It crushes the gift. It's no wonder most people never get to be what they want to be. They just get ground down." 

The above remark is made following a discussion about whether school made a difference to a person's life; that you could go to school and come out unable to speak foreign languages, play musical instruments, play the stock market or even ride a horse! It makes you question whether only the popular children benefited from school, and the run of the mill children came out with a general education but no life affirming skills. Would you be better off if you learnt from growing up in the real world instead? 

If you like to philosophise about matters this is the book for you. I love books which are a little strange, that make me think, that make me disappear to the dark depths of my mind. An animal can live happily without being consciously aware of death, but as a human we need it, or do we? Can we survive if our conscious state has been removed. I found this a beautifully written novel at times imitating sci-fi and in parts describing a wonderful Utopian life. I was more than happy to be "led around, even led astray, by my own mind."