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The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa

13 Feb

The Bearwood Bookworms decided that we should read ‘The Leopard’ by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa and Archibald Colquhoun (ISBN-10: 0099512157)
So, after making enquiries at the local library, and several phonecalls, the request was unsuccesful. I resorted to Amazon for my copy, and thought that £2.05 was a bargain for a difficult to find book.
I looked at the front cover, and was impressed by the design and layout. The smell, of the pages as I flicked through, was musty but acceptable. I read the first page and looked forward to a fictious piece of history…

Set in the Spring of 1860, the Prince of Salina, Fabrizio, rules over thousands of acres and hundreds of people, including his own family. Then Garibaldi arrives, and the socio-political climate changes…

Although the story was very well written, a rich tapestry of detail, describing palaces, chambers, the appearances of characters and episodic events combined with the inner thoughts, anxieties and feelings of the main protagnist, I found the whole book laborious and irritating. Many critics have lauded it, calling it a “modern masterpiece” and a “classic tale” but I felt it was too concerned with the minutae of detail and not enough substantial content to allow the reader to be brought in and ‘feel’ or understand the core of the tale. The characters flit in and out and the plot does not really advance forward. It seems like the Prince is recollecting life events and how he felt at the time, but his passions and power over the local population holds him in high esteem although he himself feels indifferent. Somewhat symbolic and semi-autobiographical, it comes across as a pleasant romp through a turbulent political time of upheaval.

The only highlight or real sub-plot is the “love affair” between his nephew, Tancredi, and Angelica, the daughter of another rich landowner. It transpires that the landowner is really the descendant of a peasant, but the dynamics of that storyline is not explored. There is also an element of jealousy. scorn and bitterness when Fabrizios’ own daughter, Concetta, mistakenly believes that Tancredi is to ask for her hand in marriage.

The chapters are snapshots or presented as written tableaux of life at the time, but it ends at the early part of the 20th century when we are left with the three daughters of the famed Prince, who are now elderly Spinsters and living in a home filled with religious relics, some genuine, some fake.

I can’t imagine how ‘The Leopard’ has earned it’s reputation as a “classic” as it is a relatively unknown novel and was the only book Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa had published before he died.

The Learned Kat


Shadows of The Workhouse by Jennifer Worth

1 Feb



This is the sequel to ‘Call The Midwife’ by Jennifer Worth. A keen story -teller and obviously she had an eye for detail, a great passion for her vocation and the people she met. I was expecting a similar line of nostalgia as detailed in the first book, but this tackled darker themes of childhood abuse, incest and the horrors of war. Once again, set in the docklands of the East End in the 1950’s, it is another piece of social history  which tells the stories of the people Jennifer encountered as a midwife.

There is Jane, who appeared to be the general cleaner and helping hand at Nonnatus House who was left at the workhouse as a child. Siblings Peggy and Frank who are left to fend for themselves after their parents die and not only do they also find themselves in the workhouse but separated for a number of years before being “rescued”, only to seek solace in each others arms and so begin a seemingly unquestionable relationship, the eccentric yet philosophical/ Spiritual Sister Joan accused of shop lifting, the Reverend Thornton-Appleby-Thornton, a missionary from Africa who is unwittingly matched up to Jane as a suitable wife, and Joe Collett, an Old Soldier who recalls the pain and agony of War.

There are some light and amusing lines wrapped around dark and heavy themes and plots. The no holds barred approach to inform and explain in explicit detail the plight of the poor, the poverty, the abhorrent living conditions (compared to todays standards) the forms or different levels of abuse and the history of each individual leaves one shocked, saddened, bemused and glad or grateful to be living today.

What stands out to me is when Joe, the Old Soldier said that the young men were nothing but “cannon fodder”. I can’t help but feel that in todays political climate and the way of the world, this phrase still rings true….

Although Shadows of the Workhouse offers another fascinating and insightful look at a slice of history, I couldn’t help but feel that in the stories, especially Joes, the facts were too well-researched or clinical and in parts, it didn’t seem to ring true. To me, it just seemed to lack the warmth, humour  and empathy that was so evident in  Call The Midwife…but as we know, fact is stranger than fiction.


The Learned Kat


The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach

1 Feb

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I didn’t think that I would say this, but for the first time in my life, I can actually say that the film version of a novel was far superior in it’s telling of the story itself rather than the written word.

I know this is probably wrong but I watched the film first and was inspired to read The Best Exotoc Marigold Hotel purely based on the fine performances and sentimental performances of Maggie Smith, Judi Dench et al.

Originally published in 2004 as a novel called These Foolish Things, I was expecting the written word to be more “Indian” in its story telling and description of what modern day India has to offer retired, caucasion citizens from the UK. Instead, what I read was a somewhat contrived depiction of Brits in India, and the same old thread of trying to recreate a “Little England” in a vast sea of brown faces.

There were some lovely scenes in introducing the main characters and their minor interactions or exchanges. But I felt that the film version did the right thing in editing what appeared to be unnecessary scenes or characters that did not add to the plot. The stories or relationships of the sons and daughters of the elderly citizens within the Residential Home did not move or stir any emotions in me.  Too many characters and sub-plots made the novel feel a bit clumsy and laborious to read in parts. I was more inclined to know more about the history and dynamics of the residents who were finding new found respect, hope and love amongst the delapidated hotel than their offspring which consisted of a New Age Travelling daughter, a suspicious “businessman” , a middle aged Englishman who felt suffocated by his marriage to an American, a young. gay man and a frustrated English housewife married to an Indian.

What the film did not portray so well was the use of Dev Patel as Sonny Kapoor, part owner and mnager of the hotel. I wasn’t struck by his performance and felt he was out of place as a young character  of this relatively majestic accomodation. So, when I was reading the novel, I was expecting his character to be the same young, swaggering, ‘people-pleaser’. I was to read that his character was more of a mature man in his 50’s who appeared to be dominated by his wife and cajoled by others around him. I think that would’ve been a better option to keep his character the same in the celluloid version too!

There were aspects of this novel that reminded me of novels by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, like Heat & Dust or E.M. Forsters’ A Passage To India. But then, I suppose that’s to be expected when dealing with all things Indian, especially when we know that the landscape and demographics of India are changing…Hence, the introduction of the call centre to depict how times are a-changing. Hey Man! India is finally moving with the times, Old Man!

I would usually say the book is so much better than the film  but not in this case.

The Learned Kat

Call The Midwife by Jennifer Worth

11 Jan


From the minute I saw the trailer of ‘Call The Midwife’, a new BBC drama, I was swayed to watch it as it appeared to be a sweet and sentimental journey down memory lane. It was only on seeing the credits, that I saw that it was based on the same titled book by Jennifer Worth  ( published by Orion House ISBN 978-1-4072-2804-4)

So, I managed to find a copy in my local charity shop and couldn’t wait to read it, expecting it to be as whimsical or nostalgic as it appeared on the screen. How wrong I was!

The paperback version of  ‘Call The Midwife’ states on the front cover that it is “A true story of the East End in the 1950’s”. I didn’t realise that although the television series comes across in a slight dewy-eyed , soft focussed light, the elements of certain scenes in the book are written with  much more explicit detail and real-life characters are depicted as being more practical, robust, naive, ignorant, cruel and needy in the cold harsh light of reality.

Jennifer starts by questionning her decisions or reasons as to why she chose to become a midwife, and immediately you can almost hear the warmth and good nature of her being in her voice. She then describes the landscape, her workshift with a soon-to-be mum and the eventual birth. This then leads to how she came to Nonnatus House,  a private hospital run by nuns, her introductions to the Sisters and other trainee midwives…

Most of the people Jennifer wrote about appeared to have have “heart and soul” and as a reader, you feel for their plight or situation. Each chapter introduces you to either the members of staff she worked and lived with, her patients and her working relationship with them. Jennifer writes with passion and sincerity. She has the ability to draw you in and then, just when you wonder what happened to the person, like a good medical practitioner, she fills in the outcome of each individual story with as much information she can provide before moving onto the next segue.

Each chapter gripped my imagination and fired my thirst to read more. The style of writing is not sentimental, and does not hold back on  describing birth scenes, the stench and decay of homes and the inhabitants, the sordidness of brothels, the exposure of one young girl named Mary to prostitution, the social stigma associated with unmarried or single mums and racial tensions of the time. Discrimination rears its ugly head in many guises and the author does not gloss over the issue. There is dry humour as well as drama and tragedy in some cases.

Her observations of life in the East End of London accurately described the poverty, the conditions of living in tenement blocks, the home and work life of individuals. As well as interspersing the story telling with timely, professional information and how midwifery has changed since then, Ms Worth also wryly observed how bureaucracy, medical advances, technology has either improved the way in which hospitals and medical staff relate to one another and their patients  or seemed to have reduced the kindly, friendly, compassionate caring nature of the medical profession.

What started off as reading a book about one womans’  journey into the realms of training to becoming a midwife, became a wonderfully engaging piece of social history.  An evocative, thought-provoking book which led me to re-assess my own professional aspirations and my place in the caring profession.

I can only hope that if I were to write about my own experiences, it would be as worthy as ‘Call the Midwife’ by Jennifer Worth.


The Learned Kat

Paul O’Grady – The Devil Rides Out: An Autobiography

25 Dec

I’m not a fan of Paul O’ Grady but I am familiar with his female creation Lily Savage. a drag act inspired by his working class roots. I’d read his highly praised autobiography “At My Mother’s knees and other low joints” out of sheer curiosity and at the time, I was not impressed. I decided to follow it up with this second instalment, my expectation was  that it would prove to be more eventful and provide a strong sense of what motivated Paul to enter showbiz.

Instead, what I read was the story of a young man, coming to terms with his sexuality/sexual orientation, managing to father a child at the age of 18 with a young woman whom he did not even love and anecdotes about his experiences of moving from one menial and despised  job to another, in the hope of earning enough money to go out clubbing or drinking in the many gay bars of London.  There were elements of his story that I could relate to. For example, accepting himself as a gay young man, and falling by default into a caring profession.  But, apart from that, it left me feeling that Paul, for all intents and purposes, came across as a bit of a social parasite. I know it sounds harsh but despite his poverty stricken working class background, he managed somehow to socialise with more wealthy and affluent individuls, many unnecessary details were spent on  describing luxurious homes, hotels, flats and bars with so-called “friends” whom he never saw again after some time for irrelevant reasons and conversations which I thought, quite trivial.

This autobiography made me think that Paul was just another “Scene Queen” who managed to cobble together a drag act without any professional training or acting background and happened to have been, to use a cliche, “in the right place, at the right time”.  What does puzzle me, however, is that it appears convenient that Paul, like his fellow comrades Peter Kay and Alan Carr, are not able to recall the “life-changing” Act or performance which changes their destiny or course of action, which I would consider an important element of their story, yet are able to remember more mundane issues or incidents that don’t seem to hold any bearing on their lives at all.

A simple, easy to read autobiography which touches on gay culture in the 70’s and 80’s but does not offer anything new or unusual. This book never really answers any questions and just appears to be random recollections of life events in order to try and make yet another celebrity seem more appealing or interesting than what they really are.

Maybe I am biased but I would say this is an unimpressive account of Pauls’ young adulthood and is definitely a book just for the fans.

The Learned Kat

Bram Stokers Dracula

13 Dec

I’ve always been an avid fan of Dracula movies, ever since I was a child. I have watched many versions, from those which starred Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee to Leslie Nielson and Marc Warren. Funnily enough though, I have no interest whatsoever to watch True Blood, Vampire Diaries or the global phenomenon that is Twilight.

You might think that with this fascination, I would’ve read the novel already. But no, it’s only taken me all these years to actually read the book from cover to cover and I must say, I had mixed feelings about it. As I have watched so many film versions, I was expecting it to be a darker tale with a  lot more blood guts and gore. But instead, what I read, was a relatively camp, theatrical story. I didn’t even realise that the novel was written in journal/diary form and taken from the different perspectives of the main characters involved!

The first part was quite lightweight and I was quite impatient to read how Dracula was to be introduced. When he did appear, the first sighting at Whitby, he was almost an illusion. It was very “romantic” in a sense, and the sense of gothic-horror was foreboding. I enjoyed reading about the young Miss Lucy and the several proposals. I liked the strength of Mina Harker and how she appeared to have intuition and foresight, I empathised with her husband Jonathan who felt entrapped in Draculas castle. I wasn’t keen on the many descriptions about the man eating flies and spiders and understand why some directors would choose to edit him out in the film versions. I don’t really think it added to the plot.

What did surprise me, however, is that although Dracula and his ship is first sighted at Whitby, the majority of the drama or where he is based, is London. So that in itself was disappointing. Another thing which irked me slightly is that when Van Helsing arrived, I felt the story became somewhat disjointed and his speech was almost like riddles (or maybe that was due to the fact Bram was trying to capture the speech and mannerisms of a foreign man?)

Draculas three “Muses” alluded to some form of eroticism, glamour and  fantasy. They appeared and disappeared like exposed women in a harem. Only to be staked to death at the end…

In  effect, we only see or know Dracula exists because several of the main characters mention him in their journals. More than one witness and we know he is “real”. Dracula doesn’t really do anything more than just appear and disappear like a bad villain in a Victorian pantomine. He might as well be twirling his moustache and swishing his cloak about…It comes as no surprise that the author had a fairly theatrical background.

In comparison to todays more grahic novels, Dracula as a piece of literature is quite tame. The manner in which Van Helsin et al planned, plotted and spoke about Dracula, other characters, events and incidents  left me feeling bemused. They would have deep, meaningful conversations and the next sentence will be about what to have for breakfast!

It really was a case of light and shade in the telling of the drama. From being secretive, providing molonogues, shock, shame. love. betrayal, passion, hatred, death…Touching on themes such as Womens Rights, immigration, superstition and spirituality/religion, Dracuala the novel had it all! but I suppose when it was written, it entranced and enchanted the readers…  and since then, it has done the same, including me, and no doubt, will continue to do so for millions of readers today and for many years to come.

The Learned Kat