Sunday 26 February 2012

Sunday Sunday Sunday...

This week has been very weird. I've spent the past few nights not sleeping well because of some health issues which have (finally) been resolved today after a twenty hour wait for a call back from NHS direct, so I'm feeling lots more relaxed this evening and hopefully ready to dive back into the blog in the coming week. Although things will still probably be a bit quiet for a while due to the thing I'm can't mention, I do hope to be around  a bit more than I have been! As the hubby is watching football (groan), I thought I'd take the chance to write one of those rambling 'here's what I haven't achieved this month' type posts.

I signed up for the Year of Reading Shakespeare pretty much purely because I wanted to read Macbeth. Despite years and years of studying Shakespeare, I've somehow never managed to get around to this, and I really really want to. I have a giant adoration of Shakespearean tragedy - I used to quote Hamlet at people randomly and was pretty addicted to the Kenneth Branagh film for a while - but despite that and the fact that February has actually been a pretty good reading month for me, I've still not read it! In fairness, I blame Louisa Alcott, because after reading The Woman Behind Little Women, what else was I supposed to do but re-read Little Women? Of course that inevitably leads to a re-read of all four books (I'm currently at the beginning of Good Wives and can never stop until I finish Jo's Boys) but I refuse to feel bad about the disruption to my February schedule, because Louisa Alcott is great, and Little Women is even more so.

I've read some brilliant books in February, and despite my deviations I've still got a fair amount of challenge reading done, now I just need to get some reviews written! I'm not 100% sure on when that will happen as I'm participating in Adam's Magical March event and have some pretty big titles lined up for that, but I will do my best - I hate getting this behind! The books I've read this month are; Kick-Ass, Fables Vol 3: Storybook Love (for the Graphic Novels Challenge), A Wedding in December, Bleeding Kansas (for the 50 States Challenge), The Magician's Nephew (for the Narnia Reading Project), Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, Little Women (for my Year of Reading Louisa May Alcott) and The Year of the Flood because Margaret Atwood is great.

So not a bad reading month, terrible reviewing month, but on the plus side I did just make cherry and dark chocolate muffins and raspberry jelly as well as starting on roast dinner. Then we're going to watch the '70s film of Jesus Christ, Superstar! because my siblings are doing a youth performance of it and I've had the music in my head all week. Hopefully watching it will exorcise it from my head! 

Hope you're all having a brilliant Sunday!

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Review: - Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen

I know this is my blog and I shouldn't feel like I have to apologise if I've not managed to post anything for a couple of weeks, but I do and so here I am, apologising yet again. In the past two blog-free weeks I've read quite a lot, but just been generally too exhausted to function outside of work. Today is my first free day off in aaaaaages, and I just finished The Woman Behind Little Women - the first book I've read for my Year of Reading Louisa May Alcott.

Here's a quick synopsis of the biography from Goodreads:

A vivid, energetic account of the life of Louisa May Alcott, whose work has delighted millions of readers
Louisa May Alcott portrays a writer as worthy of interest in her own right as her most famous character, Jo March, and addresses all aspects of Alcott’s life: the effect of her father’s self-indulgent utopian schemes; her family’s chronic economic difficulties and frequent uprootings; her experience as a nurse in the Civil War; the loss of her health and frequent recourse to opiates in search of relief from migraines, insomnia, and symptomatic pain. Stories and details culled from Alcott’s journals; her equally rich letters to family, friends, publishers, and admiring readers; and the correspondence, journals, and recollections of her family, friends, and famous contemporaries provide the basis for this lively account of the author’s classic rags-to-riches tale.
Alcott would become the equivalent of a multimillionaire in her lifetime based on the astounding sales of her books, leaving contemporaries like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Henry James in the dust. This biography explores Alcott’s life in the context of her works, all of which are to some extent autobiographical. A fresh, modern take on this remarkable and prolific writer, who secretly authored pulp fiction, harbored radical abolitionist views, and completed heroic service as a Civil War nurse, Louisa May Alcott is in the end also the story of how the all-time beloved American classic Little Women came to be. This revelatory portrait will present the popular author as she was and as she has never been seen before.

When my mum first read Little Women to us I remember telling her that I wanted to be Jo, and I remember her telling me that Louisa Alcott was the basis for the character of Jo, but I didn't realise quite how much that was true. As I was reading this book so many scenes and event in the lives of the Alcotts were just straight out of Little Women or one of its' sequels. The lives of the four March sisters are the idealised versions of Louisa's own life. The reality of Louisa's childhood was in reality often a lot closer to the experience of the Hummels, the German family the Marches feed and take care of in Little Women. Louisa's father, Bronson Alcott was one of the major founders of the Transcendentalist movement and originally a teacher along the kind of lines of Mr Bhaer, however his ideas about equal education, even allowing a black girl into his classroom alongside his white pupiles, were way ahead of their time and led to failure after failure and to the Alcott family fleeing their debts and moving time after time. Throughout her life, Louisa's father was much more of a man of ideas than of action. Early on he befriended such greats as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, both of whom provided Louisa with inspiration for numerous characters. Although Louisa has made a better version of her father in Mr March, his ideas of childraising are still clear throughout the books. Plumfeild is based on Fruitlands, meant to be a kind of transcendentalist commune but eventually a great failure and some of the hardest years of the Alcotts lives.

I was also happy to see the chapter where Beth dies in Good Wives described as "among the most affecting scenes in all fiction" (p272), as people always have to repress a snigger when I tell them that that scene is pretty much the only one in a book that is guaranteed to make me cry every single time. The character of Beth is an immortalisation of Louisa's sister Elizabeth (Lizzie), who also died young, although not as young as Beth March. The last time I read Jo's Boys I found a note I'd never read before about how the real life version of Amy had died prior to the book being written, which is why she doesn't feature so much in the last volume. Basically, the Little Women books are Louisa's life with the bad bits taken out. 

There were a lot of things I already vaguely knew in Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, but to have the detail behind them made a huge difference. For example, the entire early part of Louisa Alcott's writing career was spent in her writing thrillers and the 'blood and thunder' tales that Jo March eventually becomes so ashamed of in Good Wives. I also solved my issues with the episode of Friends where they go on and on about how Beth dies in Little Women when I was always convinced she dies in Good Wives. Apparently that's a geographical thing, as in the States the two volumes are published as one, under the title Little Women, whereas in the UK they are more often published in the original two volumes under two seperate titles. This is good as it means I can finally forgive Friends and move on with my life... 

I'm glad that I read this before diving into any of Alcott's major works, as I now feel that I have a solid grounding of knowledge going in. It's also the kind of book I'm going to be pushing into the hands of everybody I know who has even a vague enjoyment of Little Women, and yes, I've come away from it with quite a reading list, not only of particular Alcott titles I want to read (particularly Transcendentalist Wild Oats, Louisa's account of the Fruitlands episode), but also a renewed desire to read Thoreau's Walden, which I picked up a gorgeous copy of in a charity shop back in January. This was always a book I was going to want to read, and I'm glad that it was so well written, well presented and engaging. Yay for Louisa Alcott, breadwinner of her family, crusader for justice, and creator of the Marches! :-)

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Happy Belated Birthday, Mr. Dickens!

I have a difficult relationship with Charles Dickens. On the one hand, I find his work heavy going and often difficult, and I really really have to psyche myself up to face one of his novels, but on the other hand, the ones that I have stuck with have been incredibly rewarding and I have ended up loving them! It was the 200th anniversary of his birth yesterday, and I saw this survey on Jillian's blog and thought I should mark the occassion by filling it in, as it will be probably at least another 50 years before I'll have as good a reason to feel bad about the lack of Dickens reading I've done again. Hopefully by that point, I'll have read a lot more! Also, I just really enjoy surveys!

How were you first introduced to Charles Dickens?
In terms of knowing the stories, I had a tape of Oliver Twist when I was quite a young child - probably about seven or so. I also don't remember the first time I watched Oliver! (which I still persistently refer to as 'Oliver-exclamation-mark' so as not to get it confused with other, more serious film versions..), so it was probably before I was three, atlhough I know that I was completely unaware (somehow...) of pretty much all of the more sinister undertones until I was about ten or so. Yes, I was a deliberately oblivious child...

Which Charles Dickens novels and stories have you read? Which are your favorites?

 Not as many as I would like...Hard Times (after much debate and forcing myself through the incredibly boring first half of the book... eventually I loved it!), Great Expectations which was awesome, and A Christmas Carol which was even more awesome and so easy to read!

Which Charles Dickens novel(s) do you most want to read?

A Tale of Two Cities
Oliver Twist
Nicholas Nickleby
The Pickwick Papers - mostly because of the references to it in Little Women

What are your favorite Charles Dickens quotes (up to three)?

I am terribly, terribly bad at remembering quotes. I'm trying to start up some kind of system for marking the passages I really like again but so far I'm failing. Any tips are greatly appreciated!!

Who are your Top 3 favorite Dickens heroines? and why?

I don't think she counts as a heroine, but I kind of love Estella from Great Expectations, despite the fact that she's kind of a bitch..

Who are your Top 3 favorite Dickens heroes? and why?

Bob Cratchit!! Also Pip, but only off and on, when he's not being lame...and Fagin, although he's also not a hero, and I'm speaking here strictly of the Ron Moody 'I'm Reviewing the situation' Fagin. Currently I know no other...

Which three Dickens villains do you most love to hate?

Bill Sykes (again, as played by Oliver Reed in Oliver! He terrified me as a child... Still does, if I'm honest) and Miss Havisham although I'm not sure if she's strictly considered a villain. Clearly I'm not too good at this whole categorising of characters thing!

Which Dickens characters (up to three) do you find the most funny?
Funny isn't really a word I'd associate with Dickens from what I've read so far....

If you could authorize a new film adaptation of one of Dickens’s novels, which would it be and why?
To be honest I think any of them aside from Oliver Twist  and A Christmas Carol, as it would help the stories to become better known - especially with children.

If you could have lunch with Charles Dickens today, what question would you most like to ask him?

Why, oh why, did you die without writing down somewhere what your intentions were for the ending of The Mystery of Edwin Drood??

I'm scared to read it now because I know it will frustrate me not knowing how it ends!!
Have you ever read a Dickens biography or watched a biographical film about him?

Not yet, but I'd like to!
How many Dickens adaptations have you seen?

Oliver!, The Muppet Christmas Carol, A Christmas Carol (animated Jim Carrey version), a fairly awful animated version of A Tale of Two Cities, also Oliver! on stage in the West End.

Which Dickens adaptation is your favorite?

Oliver! In case you hadn't guessed from my pretty much continual mentioning of it.

Have you seen multiple versions of A Christmas Carol? Which version is your favorite?

The Muppets of course! Michael Caine is brilliant!

Who is your favorite Dickens villain and (if applicable) who does your favorite portrayal of them?

I don't really have a favourite portrayal yet...

Have you seen any musical adaptations of any of Dickens’ stories? If so, which is your favorite song from it?

Either I'd Do Anything or Oom-Pah-Pah from Oliver!

So this survey has made it abundantly clear that I really, desperately need to actually read Oliver Twist!! It's also clear that when it comes to Dickens I prefer the loud, musical and often irreverant versions to the by the book adaptations... I think I need to work on my levels of classiness.... :-/

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Epic Giant Review Fail...

So here I am, once again, with one of those 'here are the reasons why I totally fail and am a suckface at keeping updated with my reviews' type posts. I have (once again) been reading a lot, but the past couple of Sundays have been spent going back and forth between Kent and London, so my regularly scheduled review writing time has gone out the window, hence why things have been a little quiet lately. 

However on the plus side I went to see my first ever ice hockey game on Sunday and it was AMAZING. As kids my siblings and I were (who am I kidding, we still are) massive fans of The Mighty Ducks movies, featuring really young Joshua Jackson with giant hair and Emilio Estevez who never aged, and I just thought ice hockey looked like the coolest sport. Due to the serious shortage of proper ice in the UK though, it took me another fifteen years or so before I managed to get to a game, and granted the Guildford Flames aren't quite on the same level as the Ducks, but you know. We do what we can with what we've got. And I think I have discovered a new love :-)

Things may be a little quiet around here in the next month or so due to some family events and also the fact that I'm currently entirely exhausted all the time for no discernable reason at all, and generally not feeling too great so I'm hoping to get myself back to full strength by snuggling in bed and reading The Chronicles of Narnia! To cheer myself up, I'm going to make a list - because I love lists - of the books I've read since my last review, and I'm not going to let it be an insurmountable pile of pressure, but more a triumphant list of achievement. Here it is:
  • The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings (for the 50 States Challenge. I ADORED this book & have been trying to finish my review since January...)
  • The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (serious eeeeeeeeekkkkkkk!!!! Is Margaret Atwood ever not awesome?)
  • Kick Ass by Mark Millar (for the Graphic Novel Challenge)
  • Fables Volume 3: Storybook Love by Bill Willingham (for the Telling Tales Challenge and also just for awesome. Also I found out that my local comic shop has a graphic novel loyalty card where you get a stamp every time you buy a graphic novel and when you have ten stamps you get £10 off, which pretty much equates to a freeeeeeeeee book!!)
  • A Wedding in December by Anita Shreve (for the 50 States Challenge. My first Shreve although she's been staring at me accusingly from the library shelves for years now and I will most definitely be taking the proper advantage of this from now on!)
So that's it. Where I've been and what I've been doing. I'm off to Narnia now, hope you're all enjoying the snow/rain/horrible ice wherever you are!

Thursday 2 February 2012

The Telling Tales Challenge February Review Link Up!

We're one month in to the challenge, and I'm completely overwhelmed by the amount of participants we have - I thought it would be just me and Esther but we've got more than 20 of you awesome fairytale lovers!! We are so glad to have you all and your brilliant suggestions of fairytale related reading! Last month I only managed to read one book for the challenge, but this month I have The Chronicles of Narnia on my list, plus I plan on reading some of my Complete Grimms Fairytales, so February should be better!!

If you still want to sign up to join the challenge, we'd love to have you and you can do so here!

There is a list of what people read in January here.

Here is the place to link up your reviews for the challenge in February. As well as being a great way for you to keep track of what you've read, they also provide the rest of us with inspiration!!

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Some book - related babble, but mostly not...

So far in 2012 I've been really book - focused on the blog, and been reading a lot and such, which is obviously great, but in order to feel like An Armchair by the Sea is a proper representative of my interests like I want it to be, I thought I'd write a quick little post about some of the other things going on around these parts... 

Some of you will have read about how I never ever finish anything I start, and obviously my first Blogoversary recently was a big boost in that direction, but I have another project which is along the same vein of finishing projects nobody ever thought I would. Last year, I learned to knit. For a year I just knitted - I decided early on that I couldn't teach myself to purl from the book I was using (Stitch n Bitch by Debbie Stoller), so I resigned myself to making purely scarves until I started getting left with all these random little bits of wool so I started to think wouldn't it be cool to use them all up making a patchwork blanket, and so that's what I've been doing. The other week, my mental block towards purling finally cleared so I'm moving on to some more advanced projects really soon hopefully, but yesterday I finally sewed together the first half of my blanket and I feel really proud of myself so I wanted to show you guys a picture!

The colours are entirely random, but I love it, and it gives me something to do with my hands when I'm watching hours of mindless Greys Anatomy and Gossip Girl! When it's finished it will be at least twice as big as this, depending on if I make another two 7x7 blocks for it or four... For those of you who are not at all craft minded, feel free to not read the knitting posts, but I would like to post a bit more about my craft activities on the blog. There aren't usually a lot of them, but it would be cool to keep track of the big achievements! 

The other thing I've been gradually easing myself back into since Christmas is the acquisition of new music. As a teenager music was my obsession (along with books, obviously!), and a lot of my time was spent listening to music, talking about music, and discovering new music. Lately I'd kind of got into the habit of listening to the same old stuff over and over. I love jazz and blues - Ella Fitzgerald is a big favourite of mine, and for Christmas my husband got me Hugh Laurie's album, which is surprisingly great. I'd forgotten how it is to listen to an album and immediately find a song that you just want to listen to over and over again. The last album I bought before this was The Red Hot Chili Peppers' By the Way, so it has definitely been tooooo long! While obsessing over Laurie's version of Hallelujah I Love Her So (which I orginially heard him doing as a duet with Jamie Cullum - excellent!), I discovered that I already have a version of the song by Ray Charles, which led to much more listening to Ray Charles. Basically, I've spent a few evenings browsing around HMV lately, and I am remembering how great finding new music is! :-) Anybody got any music in this sort of genre (I do have very broad tastes outside of jazz!) they think I should listen to? I'm always up for suggestions!! 
Anyway, that's my rambling over for now, I just felt like I needed to get these non book related things out of my system. Now I'm going to go back to ruining my February reading plans with The Year of the Flood. It's not on my list, and has made me want to do loads of Margaret Atwood re-reading!!