Brown & Bunting. I hadn't read this since high school and I quickly remembered why I'd loved it so much.
First, the setting. 1930s Oxford would be just about top of my list for a visit in the TARDIS, and to make things even better, Gaudy Night is set in a (fictional) women's college, a community of dedicated female scholars. This is what I thought university life was going to be like; alas, it didn't exactly live up to my expectations. Gorgeous, gorgeous Oxford with its spires and punting and naughty students climbing walls after hours... well, maybe some aspects of college life are eternal, after all...
Second, the romance. I love the fact that this is really Harriet Vane's book; Peter Wimsey doesn't even appear until halfway through. She takes the lead in the detecting, and we see her gradually falling in love with Peter in his absence, until the lightning bolt of realisation in the boat on the river (sigh). Both Harriet and Peter become truly rounded characters in this novel, and while Peter has become too perfect to be true, his perfection includes some weaknesses -- he is so sensitive, don't you know. Maybe I was expecting to find my own tall, fair haired Peter at university, too... oh, God! A most sinister retrospective ray of light has just fallen on an otherwise inexplicable relationship!
Third, the philosophy. Central to the mystery, and the subject of many conversational and internal debates, is the question of how women are to reconcile the demands of work and family, career and caring, scholarly truth and personal needs. This book was written in 1935, and eighty-three years later, we are still wrestling with this dilemma. Lucky old Harriet, though tempted by academic seclusion, is able to have it all -- a loving and supportive partner who treats her as his intellectual and emotional equal, and who not only wants her to pursue her own work, but encourages her to a higher standard. Good on you, Wimsey.
I was stunned to discover that Gaudy Night is disparaged in some quarters as a 'women's book' (huh!) and because there is no murder at the heart of the story, a deficiency that I hadn't even noticed until it was pointed out. For me, it's a most satisfying combination of mystery and relationship story. I'll be coming back to this one.
I adored all E. Nesbit's books and I read Five Children and It many times. Five Children on the Western Front is a worthy successor, but I can't imagine there would be many contemporary children who are familiar with the original. I tried reading Five Children to my daughters when they were young; I forced them to sit through The Railway Children; I tried The Treasure-Seekers on them, too. But they just didn't take. Perhaps the gap between Nesbit's early 1900s world and mine of the 1970s was just about bridgeable; but the chasm of a hundred years was too wide. So perhaps the audience for this book is nostalgic adults like me.
Like the Psammead itself, this book didn't quite recover the all the magic of the original stories. But it had just about enough to enchant me. Sweet and sad.
Sayers herself worked at an advertising agency, and the book is filled with the minute detail that only an insider would know -- the feuds between copywriters and the art department, the irritating clients who think they know best, the row of errand boys playing with yo-yos and catapults while they wait to be sent out on jobs. Peter Wimsey slots into this milieu as if he were born to the job, naturally.
I think it's around this time that Sayers really began to fall in love with her own hero, because Wimsey is too good to be true. A brilliant mind, an exceptional cricketer (with the 'exceedingly characteristic late cut' quoted by Nicola Marlow in The Cricket Term) and also (urgh) at forty-five, mind you, diving from the tops of fountains in a harlequin outfit. Now that is where I draw the line, I'm afraid.
These quibbles aside, and the odd regrettable hint of casual racism, Murder Must Advertise is a great romp which I raced through much more quickly than I planned.
I don't know how I came to neglect The Witch of Blackbird Pond when I was younger. Maybe because it was American, and I tended to favour English stories? But I must say I thoroughly enjoyed it. Poor Kit, born in carefree Barbados (let's overlook the sticky slave-owning aspect of dear departed Grandpa) finds herself marooned in a settlement in Connecticut, surrounded by joyless Puritans and eligible young men. She befriends harmless Hannah, a Quaker, who is ostracised by the rest of the community, and Prudence, a down-trodden child, and manages to improve both their lives. Of course such charity cannot go unpunished!
There have been a gazillion editions of this book since it first won the Newbery Medal in the 1950s, though I'm not sure how often it's read now. One small thing irritated me for a while, which was Hannah's habit of saying thee when she meant thou. I knew that Quakers used these informal pronouns (though paradoxically they sound more formal to a modern listener) to underscore their belief that all people are equal before God, but hearing Hannah say, Thee must go now grated on my ears. BUT Professor Google reassures me that indeed, Connecticut Quakers did use thee for both forms of address... so I guess I just have to wear it.
Annie Dillard won the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim in 1974; she was only 27 years old, and indeed, as she admits herself, the book does show the exuberance and boldness of youth, with all the strengths and faults that implies. I had to consume it one bite at a time, lest I become overwhelmed with the rich, showy extravagance of Dillard's writing. However, this extravagance is appropriate, because the author's project is to explore how the unnecessary, profligate exuberance of creation might reflect the magnificence of a Creator; and how the blind suffering and decay of the natural world is the essential dark side of that rich and teeming light.
This is a deeply spiritual book cloaked in the guise of a nature study, struggling to make sense of a world at once so beautiful and so harrowing. Dillard traces a year at Tinker Creek, from the first stirrings of hopeful spring to the return of a clean, sparse winter. Her keen eye observes insects, ripples, the shrivel of a leaf, the horrific death of a frog, the secretive muskrat, the force of a flood. I really loved immersing myself in her world, and I wish I could find an Australian equivalent of this powerful, thoughtful, complex meditation on life and death. Thank you, Cathy, for introducing us.