18.6.18

The Little Prince

Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince is one of those classic children's books that is probably more popular with adults. Its romantic allure is enhanced by the fact that the author, a fighter pilot, was killed in action during WWII, not long after writing it. Saint-Exupery was primarily an essayist and writer for adults, but The Little Prince has proved to be his enduring legacy, with an animated series and countless translations. We are reading it for the Convent Book Group, under the theme of Philosophy.

Can I make a confession? Not really a fan. I won a copy, picked up cheap at a library book sale, because it is a classic and I felt I ought to have it. But it just doesn't do it for me. Twee. Sentimental. Vaguely misogynist. I find the illustrations just badly drawn rather than naively charming. Him and his devotion to his bloody rose and his volcanoes and his boababs. It's all a bit try-hard for me. It comes across as a book written to order, by a publisher who said, hey, Antoine, why don't you write something for kids, mate? Something whimsical yet profound? Which is exactly how it happened.

Not for me, thanks.

12.6.18

Love in a Cold Climate

One of my favourite books of all time, I've read Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate (and its predecessor, The Pursuit of Love) so many times that the pages have acquired a soft, worn texture, almost like cloth.

I haven't read them for a long time, though. I decided that A might enjoy a dose of Mitford, as I was about her age when I fell in love with her books, so I started reading her The Pursuit of Love. But she found Davey Warbeck irritating, and when she realised that the children grew up and married, and didn't spend the whole book being hunted across country by their father, she lost interest. However, she has required my company while she studies from time to time lately (it's the SAC time of year), so I took the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the story of beautiful Polly, terrifying Lady Montdore, creepy Boy (aka the Lecherous Lecturer) and flamboyant Cedric.

Reader, I remembered almost every word. It was like sinking into a deliciously scented, decadent warm bath with a bottle of champagne and a box of chocolates on the side: pure, slightly guilty delight. I know from reading her letters that Nancy Mitford worked hard on her novels, but they read as if they were effortless, like an amusing, politically incorrect friend telling you an endlessly entertaining story. Mitford might be an acquired taste, but she has sunk into my reading DNA and I doubt I will ever be able to dig her out.

11.6.18

The Nine Tailors

Photo from kidbucketlist
Now this is a good Lord Peter Wimsey novel -- I read this several times in high school (though I still couldn't remember whodunnit!) As Lawrie Marlow says when she finds her twin reading this novel, 'Sewing?' To which Nicola replies, 'No -- bell-ringing,' which leaves Lawrie more perplexed than before.*

When I last read Dorothy L Sayers' The Nine Tailors, I had no idea what the art of change-ringing was, and happily allowed all the novel's complicated references and descriptions sail over my head. These days, thanks to Google, I was better able to inform myself. Change-ringing involves ringing a set of bells in an ever-changing sequence -- it's more to do with mathematics than music, running through every possible permutation of the order in which they can be rung. To me, the ringing of church bells is one of the most glorious sounds in the world: I cherish the memory of hearing bells ring out on a cloudless autumn's day in Avignon. But apparently change-ringing is a particularly English obsession!

This is perhaps the ultimate 'cosy' English mystery, centred on a country church in the fens of East Anglia. (As an aside, I note that Kevin Crossley-Holland's Waterslain Angels, which also featured cherubim on -- along? under? -- a church roof, was likewise set in the Fens. Is this a peculiarity of East Anglian churches? Google has thus far been unable to answer this question.) Several volumes in to the series, Lord Peter has thankfully shed most of his annoying mannerisms and become good company, though he has acquired yet another improbable skill to his repertoire -- he is an accomplished (though rusty) bell-ringer, as well as an amazing cricketer, expert on old books etc etc. But I forgive him.

No Harriet Vane in this book, though she first appeared several novels ago in Strong Poison. I don't think we had Strong Poison in our school library, though I certainly remember Gaudy Night (from which book, along with Brideshead Revisited, I formed all my ideas about life in Oxford. Oh dear.)

I think I must get my hands on Strong Poison. Perhaps Harriet Vane has already mellowed him? Also I want to read Murder Must Advertise, which has a cricket match in it. Lots of catching up to do!


*The nine tailors, or nine single strokes of the bell, are tolled to mark the death of a man. For a woman, it's six.

4.6.18

The Five Red Herrings

Photo from UK Rivers Guidebook
Another Dorothy L Sayers title from my Peter Wimsey omnibus, The Five Red Herrings is set in Scotland, and we are never allowed to forget it for a moment! This is a picture of the river where the body is discovered, the Minnoch, where the unfortunate victim seems to have tumbled down a bank while painting the scenery. But it soon transpires that foul play is afoot, and the presence of a half-finished painting on the easel suggests that the murder could only have been performed by a fellow artist. The five red herrings of the title refer to the six other artists in this little community, all with motive, opportunity and wonky alibis (of course, one of them is no red herring, but the real deal).

I must admit I struggled with this novel at first -- I've only read it once before, as a teenager, and I remember feeling inordinately proud of myself for spotting the first vital clue, thus proving myself to be the 'intelligent reader' referred to by Miss Sayers, who would guess what was missing from the crime scene.

I do adore Scotland, but the constant rendering of dialogue in dialect became a little distracting. "She's troubled in her mind aboot Mr Farren. And nae wonder, wi' him mekkin' a' that disturbance and gaeing aff that gate an' never comin' back for twa nichts." Eventually I relaxed into it, but it took quite an effort at first! And in the first third of the novel, there was a LOT of guff about bicycles and train tickets and timetables that I frankly couldn't be bothered to keep track of, though it was significant in the end. I also (dear me!) had trouble telling our six suspects apart.

So, not my favourite Wimsey, despite the alluring Scottish setting. But it did come home with a rush, and a most entertaining re-enactment sequence, which made up for its other shortcomings.

31.5.18

Marianne Dreams; Marianne and Mark


How thick am I? I was about a quarter of the way through Marianne and Mark before I twigged that Marianne was the same character as the central figure in Catherine Storr's creepy classic, Marianne Dreams. So I went back to the first book and re-read that before finishing Marianne and Mark.

In some ways I don't blame myself for not connecting the two, because they are very different books. Marianne Dreams haunted me and I only read it once as a child because I found it so unsettling. Re-reading as an adult, I think it's utterly brilliant. Marianne, ill in bed for months, finds that the drawings she makes in the daytime come to life in her dreams. This is all very well when she draws a crooked house and a boy inside to let her in (Mark, a real boy, also ill with polio and sharing her tutor), but not when she loses her temper, scribbles over the windows and draws rocks with eyes to keep watch over him. THEY are truly frightening, and the psychological depth of the story is finely drawn (pardon the pun).

Marianne and Mark is set several years later and is a more realist story, though it does have subtle fantasy elements, and discussions of fate, magic and destiny. Mark himself doesn't appear until quite late in the piece, and when he does he is almost too alpha male: intelligent and respectful, but definitely taking charge and at times condescending. However, for most of the novel, Marianne is on her own, wandering through Brighton on an enforced holiday, striking up casual friendships with unsuitable people (there is an unspoken class divide at play here). 

Storr, herself a psychiatrist, has some fun with the character of Marianne's psychiatrist uncle, who relentlessly analyses his niece and allows her more freedom than she is really comfortable with. If I'd discovered this book as an adolescent, I would have found it incredibly comforting. Marianne is worried, at fifteen, that she's not normal because she doesn't have a boyfriend; she feels naive, self-conscious, unattractive, doesn't understand the rules, and when a boy does come along (not Mark), she finds herself miserably out of her depth. That was me -- only for me, those feelings lasted till I was about twenty-five!

Looking for a cover image to post here, I was startled to find a second hand copy of Marianne and Mark listed for over a thousand pounds! If anyone really wants it, I'd be happy to sell for considerably less than that. Or maybe I'll just keep it!

24.5.18

Brave

In prehistoric times, a feisty girl and a clever boy join forces to survive together, away from the protection of their tribe, and undertake a perilous journey... Hang on, have I read this somewhere before? I guess there are only so many plot lines possible in a children's book set in prehistoric times!

Wendy Constance's Brave was written a few years before Tarin of the Mammoths, and I think any similarities are pure coincidence -- but at times they did tread the same territory. Dangerous encounters with wild creatures, being swept away by a raging river, escape from hostile warriors, appeals to the nameless Spirits, all appear in both books.

Brave is aimed at a slightly older audience and contains a hint of romance. There's also a pretty high body count, which is realistic. I appreciated that the frequent hunting scenes glossed over the most gory aspects! But I think coming hot on the heels of Tarin, it was an overload of prehistoric adventure for this reader.

23.5.18

Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading

Books about childhood reading habits are my catnip (Francis Spufford's The Child That Books Built; The Book That Made Me, edited by Judith Ridge (note the very similar cover...) No sooner had I read a brief review of Lucy Mangan's Bookworm in The Week than I was on the Kindle, downloading it. Bang! No sooner had I downloaded it than I was gobbling it down. Bang! Day and a half, tops. Loved it. (Suzanne, I think you will love it too.)

If Lucy Mangan and I ever meet, we will become friends. I know this because we read and adored exactly the same books as children (albeit about a decade apart). Like me, she identified with clever Kate from The Family From One End Street; like me, she struggled to come to grips with Tolkein; like me, she worships at the altar of Antonia Forest, wished herself into Narnia, and inhaled Noel Streatfeild. The Railway Children -- check. What Katy Did at School -- check. Tom's Midnight bloody Garden -- double check! There was a bad moment when I thought she was going to hate Anne of Green Gables, but luckily, she saw the light on re-reading. Phew.

Our paths diverge when it came to teenage reading (she had more choices). And she doesn't seem to have read Susan Cooper or discovered When Marnie Was There. But otherwise we are totally simpatico. Which means that I really need to check out The Summer of My German Soldier and Fireweed, because if Lucy loved them, I'm pretty sure I will love them too.

One very minor quibble -- I think she has misremembered Cynthia Voigt's Homecoming as Dicey's Song, which is a different book in the same series. Otherwise, top marks. If you're ever in Melbourne, Lucy, come round for a cuppa. We've got lots to talk about.

21.5.18

You're Wearing That?

As a mother of daughters and sharing a house with my own mother, and as a long time guilty fan of pop psych hand books, how could I resist You're Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation by Deborah Tannen when it appeared on Brotherhood Books?

All my life, if things were going right or if they were going wrong, it's been my mother I'd long to talk to about stuff. As this book points out, who else is going to be equally interested in your new pair of socks or your broken heart? Now we live together and our paths cross daily, it's even more important to carve out time for conversation (I like to sit down for a morning coffee with Mum before our days begin). Luckily for me, the three contentious issues that often arise between mothers and daughters, according to Tannen, namely hair, clothes and weight, have never posed a problem for us. My mother is smart enough to know when to keep her mouth shut -- mostly.

The only time I didn't really tell my mother in excruciating detail what was happening in my life was as a young adult, partly to safeguard my new-found independence, partly because I didn't want to worry her. I can already see my own daughters' impulse to protect me from concern. And honestly, perhaps there are things I would rather not know.

The chief source of conversational conflict between mothers and daughters is a contradictory pull between control and connection. This makes a lot of sense to me. Mothers tend to underestimate their own power over their daughters -- maybe not to actually influence their behaviour, but certainly to affect how they feel. At the end of the day, most daughters are seeking their mother's praise, acceptance and approval -- not their advice, no matter how sensible, and not their unvarnished opinions! I think I would be wise to remember that.

18.5.18

Reading Richard

Since I've been on a slight Shakespeare run lately, it seemed appropriate to comment on a work that, strictly speaking, falls on A's reading list, not mine. Her reading has improved immensely in recent years -- in fact, she's taking English Lit instead of straight English for VCE -- but it's still hard work, so sometimes I read her texts aloud for her (I wonder how many hours parents of dyslexic students spend on this? I can't tell you how many parents have contacted me after reading Crow Country aloud to their dyslexic kids).

So far this year, I've read her Kafka's Metamorphosis, we've started Cold Blood (that's going to be a slog), and now Richard III. And frankly, I have to say that I'm not impressed! I've only seen the play performed once, years ago in the UK, and I was lucky enough to catch the original WWII-inspired production by the Royal National Theatre, which was adapted into a film in 1995. That was gripping, so it just goes to show how much depends on imaginative staging and strong performances.

On the page, the words are less exciting (maybe it's the way I read them...). 'It's just exposition, punctuated by slaughter,' was A's analysis. There are a lot of characters, many of whom appear on stage only to be executed in the next scene. The relationships are confusing. People sprint on and off the stage, shout something, die. It feels like a student play, an early play. It's clunky. Not one of your best, Will. Though now that Richard's body has been discovered, at least we know that Shakespeare wasn't lying about the hunchback -- he really did have one.

16.5.18

Whose Body? and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

I couldn't find an online image of the particular Dorothy L Sayers omnibus I bought from Brotherhood Books, so I've chosen a picture that most closely corresponds to my private mental picture of Lord Peter Wimsey, the titled detective -- this is from a 1987 BBC adaptation which somehow passed me by completely! (I was at uni in 1987 and not paying attention, clearly.) This photo shows Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter as Lord Peter and Harriet Vane. It looks well cast -- I think I'll have to do some digging.

Back to the books. When I was at high school, in the thick of my Brideshead/ Nancy Mitford/ All Creatures phase, I absolutely adored Lord Peter Wimsey and read all his adventures I could lay my hands on (there are eleven novels in total). This omnibus contains the first four,* and I raced through Whose Body? and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club while I was in Ballarat recently, doing a two-day school visit. There could be nothing better to relax with after an exhausting day, though Lord Peter himself in his earliest iteration is quite irritating at times -- Sayers toned him down as the series went on.

Of course the books are terribly dated in some ways. Again with the gratuitous anti-Semitism! What's the story? And Lord Peter is the very peak of white male privilege (but at least he knows it). But the puzzles are clever, and I always enjoyed all the literary and historical allusions. No dumbing down for Sayers; these mysteries are an intellectual pleasure, not a gritty or violent peek into the criminal underworld.

The best novels are the ones after Wimsey meets and falls in love with Harriet Vane, whom he saves from a murder conviction. They are a fantastic pair. As a writer of detective fiction, she is as smart as he is, and he loves her character as much as her looks. As a smart but horribly plain adolescent, I found this wonderfully comforting. They are the kind of couple who do the crossword together in bed!

Despite their shortcomings, I'm thrilled to have rediscovered the Wimsey novels, and I will be devouring them all over again (in order this time, hopefully).

*EDIT: So it turns out this omnibus doesn't contain the first four novels -- it's four random ones. Between these two books fall Clouds of Witness and Unnatural Death. So now I'll have to try to fill in the gaps myself. Grr!

15.5.18

Tarin of the Mammoths

Our theme for the Convent book group this month is Prehistoric! We kicked off with Australian author Jo Sandhu's Tarin of the Mammoths (Book 1: The Exile), which follows the adventures of young Tarin, whose twisted leg means he can't take part in the mammoth hunts on which his tribe depends. When Tarin spoils a hunt, he is sent to take an offering to the Earth Mother on a distant mountain in atonement -- but will he make it before winter descends?

I thought the pace of the story picked up when Tarin ran into another pair of travellers, brother and sister Kaija and Luuka, who have escaped a deadly illness that has struck down their own tribe. Book 2 is already out and it looks as if this may the start of a long series. There are certainly plenty of Ice Age hazards to keep our heroes busy. And while this is not The Inheritors, there is a passing encounter with a Neanderthal boy which promises further interaction in the future.

14.5.18

We Are At War

Subtitled The Diaries of Five Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times, We Are At War arose out of a (still-ongoing) UK project called Mass Observation, where citizens from all walks of life were encouraged to keep detailed diaries of their daily lives. From this wealth of raw material, editor Simon Garfield has crafted a chronicle of the beginning of the Second World War as it appeared to five British observers. Tilly is a middle-class mother of young children; Maggie a bohemian writer; Pamela a sceptical Glasgow office worker; Christopher a highly strung Catholic notepaper salesman; and Eileen works as a London evacuation officer, overseeing the removal of children to safety in the country.

Today, with the narrative of WWII so firmly decided (Churchill's a hero, Hitler the epitome of evil, Dunkirk a miracle), it's almost unsettling to read these diary extracts written in the muddle and confusion of unfolding events. Particularly early on, some of our diarists maintain that Hitler has his good points and that Britain could do with a dictator of their own. There is open anti-Semitism, even toward refugees from the Nazis, and Italians living in the UK have their shops smashed. Dunkirk, now familiar to us by its shorthand name, is referred to as 'the evacuation' (remember 2001, before we decided to call the bombing of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon simply '9/11'?)

This volume only covers the first year or so of the war, ending just after the Blitz sets in. And for our diarists, despite the fear and uncertainty, it's often domestic concerns that preoccupy them -- how many tins to buy, how to protect their windows from the possibility of bombing, whether it's worth getting out of bed when the air raid siren sounds, how to repay money owing. Life goes on.

I'm convinced that Anthony Horowitz  must have studied the Mass Observation diaries when he was researching Foyle's War. They provide a unique and vivid snapshot of the immediate experience of a nation at war -- not remembered afterwards, distilled into anecdote or agreed attitudes, but as they felt at the time. Fascinating and sometimes disconcerting stuff.

7.5.18

Station Eleven

I'm not a huge fan of dystopian novels (though I did enjoy The Girl With All The Gifts), but Station Eleven, by Canadian author Emily St John Mandel, was recommended (and lent to me) by Kirsty Murray, whose judgement I trust. As usual, she knew what she was talking about!

I may not be fond of dystopias, but I do love interlocking stories, and novels where characters brush past each other and wander in and out of each other's lives. It was a strange echo of King of Shadows that Station Eleven opened with a performance of King Lear, in which the lead actor, Arthur Leander, dies on stage. This event occurs a few days before a real catastrophe hits -- an outbreak of a deadly flu which spreads so swiftly that it soon extinguishes almost every human on Earth. The novel follows several characters who are all connected to Arthur in some way -- his first ex-wife, a child actress in the same play, the man who tries to save his life, his old friend. Their experiences weave in and out of the narrative, crossing and re-crossing, tied together strangely by a comic book created by Arthur's first wife.

As apocalypses go, the "Georgia Flu" is a relatively gentle one. Death is swift and not too painful, and while it's hinted that the first year after the epidemic was brutal and horrific, we don't see much of that. Violence intrudes only at the end of the novel. Mind you, this is set mostly in Canada; I can imagine that south of the border, things might have been a lot worse: all those guns and doomsday preppers! It was good to read a story set in an unfamiliar (to me) landscape -- Toronto and the Great Lakes -- which was an excuse to run to Google Maps and orient myself.

An excellent read, but if you're looking for horrors, look elsewhere.

30.4.18

Stranger In The House

Stranger In The House makes an interesting companion read to Julie Summers' book on the Women's Institute, Jambusters. This earlier book is shorter and less densely packed with research, but makes up for it with its moving first-hand stories from women who had to cope with either the loss of their men during World War II, or their return, irreparably changed: mothers, widows, wives, children and grand-children. Some men were physically wounded, most were psychologically affected. Some couples found the disruption of the war years impossible to adjust to. Hardest hit were the prisoners of war, particularly the prisoners of the Japanese.

Every year when Anzac Day rolls around, I'm prompted to reflect on what those big wars mean to me. I don't have a relative who fought or was any way involved in combat. It's startling to realise that when I was born, the end of WWII was far closer than my university years are to me now -- and they seem like only yesterday.

Sometimes it feels as if Australia's participation in the First and Second World Wars (especially the First) is our nation's only history -- or at least the only portion of our history which we are prepared to face and explore head-on. Pre-settlement history is largely a blank to most Australians; the post-invasion century is largely too painful to be honestly examined. But we can be proud of our diggers, and more proud, weirdly, when they lost (eg Gallipoli) -- because they were valiant without actually defeating anyone? I don't know.

Anyway, these British women were certainly valiant too, and so were the Australian women who shared the same experience, shockingly without any official support or assistance. Most suffered and coped in silence. Speaking of university days, it was nice to see the work of a friend from long ago, Dr Joy Damousi from Melbourne Uni, cited by Summers.

Lest we forget.

22.4.18

King of Shadows

For some reason, it hadn't really occurred to me that Susan Cooper might have written other books after she finished the superb Dark Is Rising series. Luckily for me, she did, and the first one I've laid my hands on is King of Shadows. Time slip! Shakespeare! Two of my favourite things! So I knew I was onto a winner.

And it is. Nat Field, a young American actor brought over to London to play in the 'new' Globe theatre, wakes up one morning to find himself not just in Shakespeare's London, but part of Shakespeare's company. Cooper manages with a light touch to evoke the atmosphere of Elizabethan times and the bustling but much smaller city, and also weaves in Nat's emotional journey with a gently political plot.

It was a little disorienting to read yet another version of William Shakespeare, having recently re-read Antonia Forest's The Players and the Rebels, which covers much of the same ground and characters (the clown Will Kempe, distinguished actor Richard Burbage etc), and even watching the Doctor Who episode, The Shakespeare Code, filmed in the Globe itself. All these different versions of Will's world, overlapping, contradicting, reinforcing, much as the different iterations of Shakespeare's play echo down the centuries. But I can't help feeling that Will himself would approve.