The launch of the Kindle got me thinking about all the things an e-reader can never be. You can't inscribe it to a loved one or press flowers between it's pages. It can never be an object, loved and cherished and passed from person to person, with any history. Your children cannot draw upon the pages and fill it with precious memories. Illustrations look terrible on it, especially art, which needs a grand scale. For these reasons and many more, help me celebrate the real thing: dusty old books!

Saturday, 17 April 2010

The Big Clean-Up

This is one of those child-hood books that sticks in the memory and subtly influences all sorts of every day things, and possibly how I view the world. This is not the very copy I had as a child. That went missing in a house move and I've lamented it ever since. At least until I found this replacement copy.

And everything is exactly as I remember, from the quirky line drawings, to the simple colour, to the understated (and therefore witty text) to the the brilliant concept.

Harvey Weiss has taken the age old theme of a child with a messy room and turned it into an brilliant fantasy of imagination, resourcefulness and (in a modern world) recycling.

When Peter (and his doleful hound Maurice) are told to clean up his bed room, he gets two boxes. One is for things to keep, the other for things to throw away. But like most children (and adults;mysdelf included), letting go proves difficult, especially when you have a good imagination.

Peter conjours all sorts of elaborate contrivences, mostly for the benefit of Maurice, and convinces himself of the usefulness of just about everything he pulls from the pile of "rubbish".

A cotton reel inspires a contraption for Maurice in the event of tha splinter in the paw; a small stick could bne the railing of a veranda on a luxury dog house with pool and heli-pad; while an old rusty key might be just the very key needed to rescue poor old Maurice from a rather gothic and evidently dangerous dungeon prison!

Funny, charming, clever and touching, it's an overlooked masterpiece. It's an American book and I suspect circulation in the UK has always been limited and how I had a copy as a child I have no idea. But I'm jolly glad I did, even though the end result is that I cannot, to this day, bear to throw anything away...

Thursday, 1 April 2010

For those who appreciate Wisteria and sunshine...

Before discovering this book I had never heard of "Elizabeth of the German Garden", as the author - in an attempt to hide her identity from her husband - liked to call herself. That name came from her first autobiographical novel, "Elizabeth and her German Garden". It created a sensation and Elizabeth von Arnim (her real name) was soon being described as a contemporary Jane Austen. She didn't just write witty trifles in the "Diary of a Provincial Lady" style, though. Her novel "Vera" is a dark thriller and this - "The Enchanted April" - is an exquisite novel of manners and social dilemmas, with a darker undercurrent of loss and redemption and forgiveness, all set in the giddy 1920s.

Lottie Wilkins is trapped in an unhappy marriage and is clearly depressed. But a chance reading of an advert in The Times at her ladies club transforms her life. The advert reads: "To those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine". The piece offers a small mediaeval castle in Italy for the month of April. It seems an impossible dream, until she meets Rose Arbuthnot, with a face "like a disappointed Madonna" (Whose husband writes scandalous novels about fallen women under a pen name). What if together they take the castle, share the costs, and escape? Two other unhappy, damaged women, one old and sour, the other a young and beautiful socialite, join them.

Can a place and climate heal their sadnesses? A sentimental thought perhaps but a theme explored with humour and poignancy. More importantly, the book examines the idea that beauty, and escape, can bring an understanding that love cannot be weighed and measured. The experience brings each of them a clarity of thought. Although the this proves cathartic and painful, the overwhelming beauty of San Salvatore transfigures their view of the world. But what about the husbands? Can it redeem them in their eyes as well? Lottie is so overwhelmed with guilt at enjoying herself that she takes the extraordinary step of inviting the very man she has escaped from to join her in Italy. And that's when the fun really starts.

As the old dowager says... in her day, husbands were seen "as the only real obstacle to sin" !

This first edition of the 1924 novel has a particular significance for me, for one of the first dates I took my wife on was to see a film of the novel, starring Miranda Richardson, Joan Plowright and Josie Lawrence. Shortly after we enjoyed our first holiday with her Italian family, in Tuscany during April. The flower pressed in the book - given as a Valentine gift - is from that holiday. It's a dusty old book I reread every April. With it's memories, pressed flowers, associations and above all it's storytelling, it never fails to enchant.