Book Snobs: Down With That Sort of Thing

Book Snobs: Down With That Sort of Thing

Alternative Title: I Learned Everything I Know From the Novels of Marian Keyes.

In the midst of the never-ending clearout of my possessions, I re-organised the bookshelves and took stock of all the stories I have loved. I had the usual array of Nabokov (girls love Nabokov: true fact. Boys should know this) and a well-worn copy of Ulysses. I also had 10 Marian Keyes novels – the whole lot. And you know, it was the cutesy covers of the Keyes novels that I was most excited about, because I knew I had a whole lot of joyousness right there to re-read my way through.

I started with Last Chance Saloon when I was 15, and I was besotted. Behold, the original secret style icon, Katherine the accountant, a character who lived in London, owned a ‘powder-blue Karmann Ghia’, went to the cinema by herself and had matching pyjama-and-dressing-gown-sets. She was everything I wanted to be (except an accountant).

Keyes provides big chunky books that just carry you along – tender, compassionate portrayals of people going through just the worst – bereavement, alchoholism and rehabiliation, illness.. and actually surviving. And, they’re all very funny.

If we are in any doubt about her genius, I’d like to present exhibits A and B.

A) Marian’s take on feminism (and the bad rep that it has had): “As long as you believe you’re entitled to the same rights as everyone else (i.e men) you’re a feminist. See, that’s not so bad, is it? In the words of that bard and visionary, Adam Ant: There’s nothing to be scared of’.

B) In ‘Rachel’s Holiday’ (clue: the book is not about a holiday), there is a side-plot about a group of Irish men who hang around in the same New York bars as the title character, and are all fairly poor studenty types, who share between them their favorite pair of leather trousers, which they believe to be incredibly cool and quite the hit with the ladies (these men are supposed to be pretty abysmally lacking in judgement). They actually have a time-share on a pair of trousers. There is no reason for that to be in the novel. It just is. Amazing.

So- to get back to Book Snobs – it seems obvious that while I studied English, some of the books I hold dear wouldn’t ever see the far side of an Eng Lit reading list. Book Snobbishness is rife in this world.

But. It works both ways.

In my own dream reading list, there would be Rachel’s Holiday, and there would be The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, and there would be Ulysses. Has ever a book been so savaged as Ulysses? It’s unreadable nonsense, written for critics, the witterings of a madman…

To be fair, it is a battle. It takes steely determination to get through some of it. There are whole chapters that I just couldn’t read. But it is also a deeply compassionate book, expressing the real horrors of life, both public (the anti-semitism in 1920s Dublin, brilliantly, scathingly picked apart by Joyce, as a rebuke and a warning…) and personal (Bloom’s painful, diffused, utterly secret feelings about his wife’s infidelity). All kinds of hypocrisy are laid bare. As well as the horrors, there sublime and the beautiful (Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy, her enduring love for her husband).

Tiny excerpt: Bloom gets into bed, his wife is already asleep: ‘the presence of a human form, female, hers, the imprint of a human form, male, not his’. In such a huge book this is the only statement of certainty about whether or not she’s been unfaithful. Later Bloom lies in bed and thinks of ‘the inanity of extolled virtue: the lethargy of nescient matter: the apathy of the stars’. He has forgiven her, and feels that she doesn’t really need to be forgiven anyway (the pointlessness of ‘extolled’ virtue – he thinks it would be wrong to hold a moral argument over her) and then he thinks of ‘the apathy of the stars’; that none of this really matters, in the context of the world, the stars, all of life.

Phew. It’s brilliant, is all. Here’s a picture of a Karmann Ghia. WANT.

1969 was a Wonderful Time to be a Child

Why 1969 was a wonderful time to be a child (and other gorgeous storybook illustrations)

While searching through the bookcases in search of tutoring materials, I pulled out a beautiful 1969 print of Edward Lear’s The Owl and The Pusscat. It’s so utterly beautiful and of-its-time that I want to frame every single page. Except that I can’t bear to rip the book up to do so. Weren’t the sixties great? Dreamy, trippy – even the fish in the sea are absolutely gorgeous.

I was on a roll by then, and found some other delights, most of them from the 70s. The World of Uncle Peter deserves a place in my heart for featuring a protagonist (Uncle Peter, naturally) who is an ex-art school dude who frequently has daydreams that looks suspiciously plant-based… (this was 1979).

There is also a definite Royal Tenenbaums feel to the list of characters. I love that mix of old staid portraits and sleepy cartoon animals.

Another gem was ‘The Witch’s Hat’, which was one of my favourite books when I was a little critter. The bat-print on the inside cover is exactly what I’d like in a t-shirt these days…

And the illustrations (from 1980) have a certain Pink Floydd appeal to them!

Lastly, ‘Magic’ and ‘I thought I saw’ used to haunt my dreams as a little one. There was something about bright colours with sparseness of illustration that really got to me – I have no idea why. Now I think they are an inspired bit of art.

Part of me really wants all this stuff on my walls – some of it is so perfect. But I don’t think I’ll ever be able to dismantle the books. They’re all little works of genius.

Secret Style Icon(s) No.7: Redheads

Secret Style Icon(s) No.10: Redheads

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a redhead…

When I was 11, there were only a few things I wanted in life: some green frog hairclips from Bow Bangles (now Claire’s Accessories!) the Friends apartment as my own living space (this was 1997) and red hair. Tight corkscrew curls of a deep red colour, to be precise.

It didn’t really matter that I was enjoying the last days of my long blonde hair (I got it all chopped off at 15 and, sadly, it never grew back. Bye bye blonde). All I wanted was that fiery red – because everybody knows, redheads have the best fun of all.

Here is my personal hall-of-fame of beautiful, beautiful hair. Some of it looks like it fell straight out of a pre-Raphaelite painting. Lily Cole makes me feel a little queasy with jealousy for having such heavenly curls (and the winning combination of a slightly deranged Playboy shoot and a double first from Oxford).

Charity Shop Love: Shoooooes

Charity Shop Love: Shoooooooes.

These Carvela beauties came in at £3.99 in Oxfam the other day… I bought them because I found I couldn’t physically let go of them once I had them in my grasp.

They’re both wonderfully high and really, really comfortable, and oh those straps looks so fantastic. I like to call them my ‘But Officer…’ shoes. Yes, I name my shoes sometimes. Judge me!

So far these shoes have had two outings: one to the dancefloor of a 1980s themed club, which, frankly, ended in disaster in many ways (a sticky dancefloor, regrettable dance moves, demanding George Harrison songs from a bemused DJ) but the shoes remained disaster-free. I also went high-brow and took them out to the ballet for a bit of culture. They rose to the occasion magnificently. They’re so well made that there is no wobble when you stand in them – a properly aligned heel is a joy indeed.

Anyway, in other shoe news, I picked up these ACTUALLY MAGIC* glittery heels in topshop for a tenner in the sale, and I have yet to let them outside because they’re just too darned precious. Maybe by Christmas I’ll be ready. These shoes need to see the world.

*Not actually magic.

Champagne and Roses Everyday (and handmade stationary!)

Roses and Champagne Everyday (and handmade stationary!).

Rainy Sunday (again!) so I caught up with some card-making. The inspiration for vintage-style greetings cards was a big pack of old wrapping paper that I picked up in a charity shop for free (does nobody else want chintzy relics?) In the pack were some fantastically kitsch paper patterns – fluffy white kittens, wearing top hats, sitting in champagne glasses, was a particular highlight. Some gorgeous painted floral paper too. I did another round of the charity shops and picked up a few old women’s magazines (from 1939, 1966 and 1977) and bought a few old Jackie annuals on Ebay. Voila: I was ready to assemble all of this cultural flotsam into something new and shiny.

I absolutely love the out-dated bizarreness that is dotted around these old magazines – in 1939 a chunky knit was a ‘recipe for charm’. 1970’s Jackie contained casual, friendly warnings not to fall in love with ‘married men’, accompanied by a picture of a man with shades and a moustache looking like, frankly, an ominous prospect (was this really aimed at teenagers?) In another 1970s magazine I found an alarmingly blithe ‘Are You Poisoning Your Family?’ nestled amongst the cooking pages. Hours of happy reading.

Secret Style Icon No.6: Kiera Knightley in Atonement

Secret Style Icon no.8: Kiera Knightley in Atonement

A ‘colossal’ heat on a summers day in 1935, a green dress, a private library – this film ticks all the boxes of movie catnip, as far as I’m concerned. I put it in the same category as The English Patient. That would be the Beautiful-People-and-their-Stoical-Posh-Misery category. Oh, it is a dream.

As befitting the fact that we are not really seeing this particular day, but Briony’s memory of this day (rarified and strange) everything is stunningly, unnaturally beautiful. The costume design is out of this world, the Kiera Knightley gets to wear everything amazing. How could James Macavoy resist her? In her white swimsuit and cap she looks like the sort of painting that accompanied 1930s ads that said things like ‘Torquay: The English Riviera’.

She also manages to depict how very oppressive the heat is in this one oufit, which just wilts around her body. Its a dress for lounging around in with nothing to do, ever, and a cocktail in your hand. Somehow, a faded flower-print tea-dress looks utterly sexy on her. Pfft, go away Kiera.

Lastly, as befitting a tryst in a library, she wears a green dress in the evening (for dinner – imagine, putting a dress like this on just for dinner). When I first saw Atonement I thought, oh, that’s nice, I’d like that for my wedding dress one day, in imaginary-land. Rippling green silk = awesome. Then I read this interview with the genius costume designer Jacqueline Durran, who was responsible for this creation:

“We found all the green silk and organza fabrics in London and ended up with three green choices: a lime- green silk, a black and green organza and another green chiffon. Then we took the swatches to a master dyer in London and had him special dye 100 yards of plain white fabric into that rich green. The dress was the composite of those three hues.”.

They also laser-cut the bodice.

All the silk in London? A completely new hue of green invented just for this dress? A laser cut bodice? Yep, that’s do for the big day. Ta.

Literary Hotties: Juliet

Literary Hotties: Juliet

Well yes, we have no idea what she might have looked like originally when she was probably a young and pretty boy dressed as a girl on the London stage (16th century London: original den of sin and good times).
However, since I am newly in love with Claire Danes in Homeland, here she is, perfectly cast, as a young, wholesome Juliet with a cheeky glimmer about her.

I’ve been working on tutoring prep tonight for my students’ exams next week, which meant re-reading Romeo and Juliet. I now feel I could sit an exam on this play. I mean, I may not get an A, but I think I could pass. Reading Shakespeare for my uni finals made me fall, big time, for his cynical political wranglings (Julias Caesar) and eccentric, liberal, cross-dressing comedies (12th Night! Love) but I’d always thought of Romeo and Juliet as a bit gaudy and shallow. How shallow I was. Its amazing (I know, everyone knows that already). Juliet is a character with some serious poker face: assured, duplicitous, determined. Her declarations of love for Romeo are eerie and lovely:

‘Come, loving black brow’d night, give me my Romeo, and when he shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night, and pay no worship to the garish sun’.

It’s all very intense, just as star-crossed loving should be. Just before Romeo sets eyes on her for the first time, his friends tell him that he talks of love as if it wasn’t tender. ‘Is love a tender thing?’ he asks. We can just feel some bloody demise on its way…

Toward the end a minor character sombrely warns, ‘for now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring’. Its a shivery moment.

Here’s the moment that starts it all:

Hollywood Makeovers are the Best

Hollywood Makeovers are the Best

Sometimes, the Hollywood makeover is Hollwood at its absolute worst – examples: the Cinderella/prostitution-redemption epic that is Pretty Woman, the way they just took the glasses off a pretty girl in ‘She’s All That’…

But, sometimes Hollywood makeovers are the best.

Audrey Hepburn carried off this trope with gorgeous dignity: in Roman Holiday, she runs away from royal duties, cuts her hair off, and hangs out with Italian crooks and a drunk American journalist for a couple of days. She eats ice-cream, its sunny… we know she made the right choice.

In Sabrina (the 1954 romance, not the teenage witch) Audrey goes through one of the loveliest make-overs ever seen. Its sort of sweet and quaint and old-fashioned, with just a little hint of revenge… She begins the movie as the young daughter of the chauffeur on a wealthy American estate, in love with William Holden, the rich playboy son of the family. It’s all very inappropriate and everybody with a stiff upper lip is terribly embarrassed. She mopes around in a very child-like chequered dress with long sleeves and a swingy ponytail. Eventually Sabrina is ‘sent’ to Paris to get over her obsession, study how to make a good souffle, and learn to be ‘in the world, and of the world’, as she so carefully puts it.
Ofcourse, when she gets home she is devestatingly chic (which happens in Paris, like osmosis).

William Holden is now very interested indeed, and Audrey tries to play it cool and be all grown-up (although she’s secretly delighted). The little flurry of romance between them leads to a scene in the family’s tennis courts, in which Audrey waits for him in a spectacular Givency gown for some night-time champagne. Alas, it’s Humphrey Bogart (the older brother) who shows up instead…

Honorary mention must go to Brittany Murphy in Clueless: my original inspiration for many an early teenage make-over (I was probably about 10 when I first saw that film. I knew no better). The severing of the t-shirt, the blood-red dying of the hair, its just feral in the way that only a peer-pressured adolescent acceptance ritual can be.

The £16 Dinner Party

The £16 Dinner Party

A little while ago I read an article in a magazine about hosting a £50 dinner party, booze and all… and I kind of thought, what? Is that hard? I mean, if I had £50 to spend obviously I would be buying a bottle of champagne and maybe a packet of twiglets (no, I jest) but really, is it so hard to feed 6 people? Today I just so happen to have bought dinner for six of the fambly, and it came to a princely £16.27. Including flowers. Here’s how:

1. Flowers (from marks and sparks) £4. (with added daffodils and some little purple flowers from the garden).

2. Main course: Roasted vegetable tagliatelle with parmesan and garlic bread for six.
(2 packs tagliatelle, sundried tomato paste, tenderstem broccoli, a red pepper, aubergine, runner beans, red onions, rye, barley and wheat bread: £9.25, Morrisons).

3. Pudding: rainbow jelly cocktails with strawberries (3 packs jelly £1.02, stawberries, £2, Co-op).

(From the cupboard: garlic paste and parmesan cheese).

And if you were trying to do the whole thing for £50, you now have a splendid £33.73 to spend on BEER!

The moral of the story is: dinner is about the company y’all. And if you have friends who get insulted by a lack of sirloin steak at the dinner table, you need new friends. Also, magazines are kinda full of rubbish.