All entries for February 2007

February 26, 2007

Bulgarian men are very, very excellent

First day - nervous!My dreams will be forever haunted by the dulcet tones of our ski instructor Daffy shrieking “now put your skis wiiiiiiiider”, “snow plough snow plough snow plough” and “now put your skis parallel” up the mountain to me.

I was quite proud of myself on the first couple of days of our ski holiday in Bulgaria – no tears, and not too much falling over either. I did shout quite a lot of abuse at a ski school of around twenty under 5 year olds who cut me up halfway down a green run, but I felt that this was a perfectly measured reaction to what had, after all, been a bit of a nasty shock.

It was only as we started to try out some of the slightly more challenging routes that I suddenly found myself hurtling into deep banks of snow at great speed, clutching at my instructor’s arm and begging for a piggyback ride down off the big scary mountain, and sitting in the snow wailing like said 5 year olds because I couldn’t manage to get myself upright again.

A ski holiday is most definitely character building if nothing else. Yet in a way it’s curiously relaxing, because the constant fear of plummeting to one’s death or getting run over by a snow plough at least means that there is little time left to fret about the everyday trivia that usually unsettles the mind.

I went from feeling as if I was about to sit an impossible exam at the start of each day to walking into The Happy Duck at its end with a big grin on my face. The terror that I endured each morning never entirely dissipated, but it was good terror, terror that kept me on my toes. You might even say it was character-building terror.

MountainBulgaria comes highly recommended – cheap, high quality ski instruction, tasty food and beautiful mountain scenery. Besides the mysterious vomiting that came over many of us halfway through the trip, the woodsmoke tinged mountain air did wonders for my stress levels and general well-being. And, in the words of Jifko, the man who drove us to and from the ski resort each day, “Bulgarian men are very, very excellent.”

Actually, the ones I saw weren’t, but never mind.

We spent our last day having a posh day of lunching and afternoon tea in Sofia, which was a welcome reprise for the muscles in my legs, bum, stomach, arms, shoulders, feet, back, hands etc. etc. And despite my slightly tongue-in-cheek account of the week and moments of childlike stompiness and fear, I did genuinely love the sensation of racing down a mountain, the wind rushing against my face, the soft swoosh swoosh of my skis moving over the powdery snow.

Beautiful, powerful, overwhelming, emotional, terrifying. I want to go again!

Lots more pictures here

February 25, 2007

Cormac McCarthy – Blood Meridian

2 out of 5 stars

There is no way I would have chosen to read this book were it not for the fact that this is the book that Benedict has picked for book group this month. I am only halfway through it (as Sarah Waters has been distracting me today!) and while I can’t say that I’m enjoying it in the slightest, much of the language and imagery really is quite stunning. Nevertheless, there is only so much apolocalyptic nihilism and violent scalpings I can take, especially on a “school night”. I’ll write a proper review of this once I finish it, hopefully before our book group meeting on Tuesday evening. In the meantime, I’d give this 1 out of 10 for enjoyment, but a 7 or 8 for literary merit (the technical way in which our book group rates the books we read!), giving it an average of 4 out of 10 or 2 stars.

Sarah Waters – The Night Watch

5 out of 5 stars

I emerged from reading Sarah Waters’ latest offering, The Night Watch, desperate to read it again, and read it from back to front this time round.

The novel moves backwards in time from 1947 to 1944 and then back to 1941; the hollow, displaced positions its characters find themselves in at the beginning are gradually explained by the revelation of their history. Just as Kay, the wartime ambulance driver who desperately seeks distraction from the drag of her empty post-war hours, often watches the second half of a film first- “people’s pasts, you know, being so much more interesting than their futures” – so the back-to-front time scheme for this novel imbues seemingly insignificant events with dramatic irony in the light of what the reader knows is to follow.

Unlike Waters’ previous three novels, The Night Watch is set against the dramatic backdrop of the Second World War and its aftermath. The historical framework is as significant as the Victorian period in which her previous novels are set, for it offers rich opportunities for emotional upheavals, character transformations and moments of happenstance, as well as enabling boundaries of class, gender, sexuality and wealth to be transcended.

The post-war years with which the novel opens are a time of exhausted listlessness, a sort of clumsy reshuffling of a world that refuses to fit neatly back into the pre-war order. The wartime landscape appears disconnected from temporal and geographical ties, all conventional markers erased to create a nameless, displaced limbo state in which characters must exist and form connections with one another.

As the city landscape of London is transformed by the night time air raids into a dark, eerie place fraught with both danger and possibility, the characters themselves are transformed as “so many impossible things were becoming ordinary, just then.” As well as death and loss, there are new choices and opportunities available for heroic action, shifts in sexual identity and newfound freedoms.

The characterisation and interaction between characters is what really stands out for me – that and the power of Sarah Waters’ storytelling and the narrative connections that she makes between events and characters.

I found myself identifying with Helen and wishing desperately that there would be some reprise for her at the end of the novel, but ultimately knowing that the unhappy, insecure state of emotional neediness in which we witness her at the end of the first section of the novel is the way it is likely she will remain. The other characters are equally drained and disappointed, struggling to patch up their lives and continue their existence in the aftermath of wartime trauma. In this way the novel lacks what Americans might call “closure”, which is frustrating for the reader but ultimately has more integrity and interest than some neat, facile tying up of loose ends.

The only part of the novel that did not entirely ring true for me was Duncan’s relationship with Alec. Duncan’s character and awkward situation is portrayed beautifully throughout the novel and and anticipation builds throughout his time in prison, but in the end I felt that the dialogue between the two young men and the reason for Duncan’s imprisonment was both false and simplistic.

However, on the whole the weaving together of all these stories against the historical backdrop of wartime Britain works beautifully well, and as such The Night Watch is both astutely and compassionately observed and compelling to read – my favourite Sarah Waters’ novel to date.

February 2007

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