14.5.21

Macbeth Through the Ages


I've hung onto so many books over the years just in case my children wanted to read them (nuh, they read Harry Potter instead) or might need them for school or uni (alas, all my feminist classics still languish on the shelf untouched).

But this year, Ms 16 is using my old school copy of Macbeth for Year 11 Literature! I can't remember which year we studied Macbeth. It may have been Year 11 as well, because we did Antony and Cleopatra in HSC and I'm pretty sure Romeo and Juliet was Year 10 (I have fond memories of reading Mercutio in class). The margins of my copy are well covered in pencilled notes from almost forty years ago (I just wrote thirty, and had to recalculate -- can I really be that old??)

Ms 16 says some of my notes have been very useful. There is a list of themes on one of the back pages which has proved handy, apparently. Other notes have been merely amusing (I'm starving!!) or cryptic (Jim 4 PD). I like the idea of my 16 year old self communicating across the gulf of years with my unimagined daughter. 'Yeah,' says Ms 16. 'That is kind of cool.'

10.5.21

The Serpentine Cave Revisited

 Just a quick note to say that anyone interested in the artists of St Ives, especially Alfred Wallis (as discussed in my previous post on Jill Paton Walsh's The Serpentine Cave), should check out episode 2, season 1 of Tate Britain's Great British Walks, which sees host Gus Casely-Hayford and guest Miriam Margolyes visit the town and its landscapes, and discuss Wallis's art and his legacy. Available on ABC iView now!


How do you like that for synchronicity?


Wintering

 

I love this cover, I would happily hang it on my wall. Katherine May's Wintering is another recommendation from Susan Green. We don't often disagree on books and Wintering is no exception. It's true, not all of us are in a position to be able to retreat and hunker down when times are tough, but it's also true that often that is exactly what we need. I think of all those antique novels where the protagonists are sent away to "rest" in the country (usually at the farmhouse of some elderly former nanny or a distant relative) or to "recover" by the seaside. Long walks, fresh air, plenty of fresh food usually does the trick and our sufferer is back to their old selves.

I liked the descriptions of northerly winters with their snowy landscapes and cosy firesides, though seasons in our hemisphere don't follow that stark course (thank goodness -- I remember my sole Scottish winter when the sky seemed to press on the top of my head like a leaden lid and daylight only lasted about four hours, I couldn't stand it and had to run home to Aussie summer). I liked the account of restorative winter swimming, which is apparently extremely beneficial for both physical and emotional health, and something I heard recommended a couple of years ago by Wim Hof devotees at a mind-body-spirit festival. I'm not brave enough to take the plunge, though I am trying feebly to at least briefly douse myself in cold water under the shower most days.

I even liked that Katherine May ended the book by admitting that she hadn't managed to include everything she'd planned -- she didn't travel as far or interview as many people as she intended. But adjusting our expectations of ourselves is part of "wintering" too, something that many of us experienced during last year's lockdown. (And I'm very aware that having a "good lockdown" is also a highly privileged experience.) But maybe it's time to see that slowing down, just hanging out at home rather than rushing in all directions, finding time for slow activities like cooking and knitting and jigsaws, can be healthy, rather than lazy and self-indulgent. I'm all for wintering. 

6.5.21

Maisie Dobbs


It's interesting to compare this (early) cover of Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs with later editions which blazon MAISIE DOBBS in huge font and print the author's name in much smaller type. Because after almost twenty years and fifteen books, Maisie Dobbs has become a brand.

Susan Green alerted me to this series and as we share a similar taste in books, I lost no time in checking out this first volume from the library. It's obviously well-thumbed, always a good sign, and I thoroughly enjoyed the story, though I was glad Sue had warned me that Maisie's improbable backstory takes up more space in the pages than the mystery itself. Unlikely as our heroine's rise from housemaid to university student to psychologist/detective in between-the-wars London might be, I'm willing to suspend disbelief because it's such a cracking premise and full of possibilities. 

The 1930s has always fascinated me, ever since I got hooked on All Creatures Great and Small and Love in a Cold Climate as a teenager. It was a time of intense political passions, looming danger and uncertainty, reaching into the future but also rooted in a simpler past. I look forward to seeing where Maisie's adventures will take her.

27.4.21

A Parcel of Patterns


It's so strange, the threads of connection that run between books and between books and life. I didn't know that A Parcel of Patterns is about the plague: fear and contagion, ignorance and suffering before a mysterious sickness. I didn't expect to read the same Biblical quotation that featured in The Serpentine Cave: He that shall lose his life shall save it. (Same author, though, so maybe not that surprising.) EDITED TO ADD: I forgot, there was also a mention of herb-of-grace ('herbygrass') in this book, too.

Jill Paton Walsh's novel (apparently a YA novel, but though the narrator Mall is young, this book doesn't seem to be especially pitched at young adults to me, let alone children!) covers the same story as Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders, but in a more straightforward way (and with far fewer pages!) Dare I say, I prefer Jill PatonWalsh's version? (And I wonder if Brooks ever read it.) This is a short but very moving book, which of course carries extra resonance at the moment, mired as we are in the midst of a global plague of our own.

Mall's home, Eyam, is a real place, and the story she tells is true. In 1665, plague was brought to this isolated rural village in an infested packet of clothing patterns (hence the title) and struck down so many its inhabitants that the villagers decided to cut themselves off from the rest of the world. Perhaps as many has eighty percent of Eyam's people died before the pestilence passed. The horror of the sickness is intensified because the villagers have no idea what causes it, or how to protect themselves -- they light fires, sweeten the air, try charms and prayers. Some live and most die, but can you blame them for seeing God's judgement in the random outcomes? There is no gore here, but the sudden illness and deaths are all the more powerful for being simply recounted. Jill Paton Walsh's ability to tell her story in 17th century style prose is masterful.

But it's worth remembering that even with all our modern scientific knowledge and understanding, plague and viruses still have the power to strike terror and anguish over us all.

23.4.21

Henrietta's House


I adored Elizabeth Goudge's books as a child -- The Little White Horse and Linnets and Valerians were two of my especial favourites, but I also had Smoky House (due for a re-read actually) and enjoyed The Valley of Song. I don't think I have ever read Henrietta's House before, though I was familiar with the characters from the Torminster books, like The City of Bells, which were written for adults, though I read them as a child too. Girls Gone By, who have published this reprint, thoughtfully supplied a précis of The City of Bells to bring forgetful readers up to speed.

As usual with Goudge, there is not a huge amount of plot in this book. Most of the action takes place over the day of Henrietta's adopted brother Hugh Anthony's birthday picnic (Hugh Anthony is another variant of the strong-willed red-haired child who so often appears in Goudge's fiction -- surely based on a real person??) Various parties wind their way up into the magical hills, become lost, encounter strangers and eventually end up safe and happy in Henrietta's dream house which has been kitted out by her father. 

I can imagine as a child, I would have been utterly enchanted at the idea of a house of my own, furnished to my exact specifications -- in fact I remember I used to spend many happy hours picking out furniture and drawing floorplans of my ideal house, so I really would have loved this story. It has a deliberate fairy tale flavour, a book to escape into and be comforted. Henrietta's House is not a challenging read, but it is a warm and happy one.

19.4.21

The Serpentine Cave


 Thwarted in my efforts to find Jill Paton Walsh's books for younger readers, A Parcel of Patterns and Goldengrove, I settled on this 1990s adult novel, The Serpentine Cave, instead. It's another story of mothers and daughters, and the conflicts between art, love and motherhood. As the book opens, Marian's mother Stella is dying; Marian and her own adult children, Toby and Alice, must deal with what Stella has left behind -- a muddled legacy of debts and secrets and lots of (mostly unsuccessful) paintings. Most pressing of all is the secret of Marian's father -- who was he, and is he connected to a traumatic childhood memory?

A few clues lead Marian to the Cornish town of St Ives, which was a fishing town and an artists' colony. It also happens to be the place where my cousin and her family live! It has amazing light, Caribbean-looking beaches and surf, and I believe it's still a hub for artists and musicians. Would you believe this is the UK?

I had a lovely time googling images to match the setting of the novel. Though it's primarily a fictional story, The Serpentine Cave also contains true events, centring around a lifeboat tragedy in 1939 that killed twenty-one men and devastated the community -- not just those who lost husbands, sons, fathers and breadwinners, but men who declined to take their spot in the boat and were thus saved, and had to carry the burden of survivor guilt thereafter. I'm not sure whether including real people, speaking in their own words, in the novel distorts or enhances the integrity of the story. However, as with all Jill Paton Walsh's books that I've read so far, The Serpentine Cave is beautifully written, and insightful on the costs and joys of creativity and love.

(Serpentine refers not the shape of the cave (or the shape of memory) but to a greenish kind of local stone. So there you go.)

9.4.21

The Searcher

 

There are five reserves at my local library on Tana French's latest novel, The Searcher, so I'd better hurry up and return it. Like her other books, the Dublin Murder Squad series and The Wych Elm, The Searcher centres on a dark mystery -- in this case, what has happened to Trey's missing brother, Brendan? Trey enlists the help of Cal, our narrator, an ex-Chicago cop who has retired to the Irish countryside to rebuild his life after a stressful career and a broken marriage, and reluctantly Cal agrees to assist.

Even French's most urban novels always have one eye on the power and mystery of the natural world, and Cal's chosen village, Ardnakelty, is remote, rural, and overlooked by brooding mountains. The young people are fleeing the area, and most of those left behind are either tough, bitter old men or relentlessly gossipy and communal women. Cal tries to fit in but he's never quite sure how well he's doing; as he grows closer to desperate Trey, and closer to the heart of the mystery, the gaps between his world and the village world begin to widen.

This is a book about gender, about being outcast and the price of conforming. Expectations are flipped. There is unexpected and inexplicable violence. As always with Tana French, while the mystery is the engine that keeps the story pumping, the true satisfaction lies in the careful, vivid evocation of place and the deep exploration of character. There are things we need to know about Cal's past that we don't find out until quite late in the story; he has thrust down some uncomfortable truths far out of our sight, and his own.

Slowly, Cal works on the abandoned house he is renovating. Whether he will ever succeed in making a home there, or in the village whose secrets he has uncovered, we will never know for sure.

6.4.21

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland

 

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is a LOT of fun! I was alerted to its existence a few years ago but couldn't find it anywhere, until it popped up recently (while I was searching for something else entirely) on Brotherhood Books, and I giggled and cringed my way through it.

Diana Wynne Jones knows the world of high fantasy backward, upside down and sideways, as revealed in entries like this:

SCURVY: Despite a diet consisting entirely of STEW and WAYBREAD, supplemented only by the occasional FISH, you will not suffer from this or any other deficiency disease. It is possible that, while on the Tour, you absorb vitamin C through the pores of your skin.

 She  mercilessly skewers not just the tropes of the genre but also the writing, pointing out OMTs (Official Management Terms) throughout, eg galley overseers will be brutal, monastery libraries will smell mustily of old books, and Runes of Power will glow in the air

It's all very funny, but I was mortified to realise how many boxes I had ticked in my own forays into fantasy. To name a few, I included LEATHERY-WINGED AVIANS, a TALENTED GIRL who SAVES THE WORLD with MUSIC, MIND-SPEECH, an OLD RUINED CITY which is also an ANCIENT ENGINEERING PROJECT, PIRATES, an OTHER CONTINENT, and a TEMPLE with ornate pillars (OMT) and an elaborately tiled floor. Oh dear!

Highly recommended. However, if I'd read this before I embarked on the Chanters of Tremaris, I don't think I would have finished one volume, let alone four 'brochures', as Wynne Jones calls them. I would have died of shame!

30.3.21

Inheritance

 

I have wanted to read Carole Wilkinson's Inheritance since it was published in 2018, particularly as it shares some common ground with Crow Country. Both books are upper middle grade time travel stories set in rural Victoria, both dealing with family secrets and crimes committed against the Aboriginal people -- in my book, a murder, in Inheritance, a massacre -- both featuring young female protagonists who make friends with Aboriginal boys to explore the past together. But Carole Wilkinson's spin takes the story in an intriguing direction of its own.

In Inheritance, the ability to travel through time has been passed down through the women of Veronica's family, using a magical handful of stones and a special place (a weak spot in the fabric of space-time). I absolutely love the idea of generations of women criss-crossing through time and the story of Nic's mother was especially surprising (though I did find myself wanting a clearer resolution at the end). I also loved the huge, neglected mansion of Yaratgil which is Nic's more tangible inheritance. After a slow-ish start, the story gathers pace once Nic discovers the mysterious boarded-up Rose Room and cracks the secret to time travel, and it gains immense gravitas with the horrific massacre of the local people around which the plot revolves.

There can never be too many books that help to uncover the shameful, almost forgotten history of the 'settlement' of Victoria, in reality a swift and bloody invasion. This is a terrific story, both enjoyable and uncomfortable, as all the best fiction should be.

25.3.21

The Herb of Grace

 

The Herb of Grace continues the story of the Eliot family a few years on; the war that was looming in The Bird in the Tree has ended, leaving pain and exhaustion in its wake. Nadine has left David and gone back to her husband and children (not that she ever actually left them) and this time the story centres not on Lucilla's old house of Damerosehay, but on the equally lovely and historic inn, the Herb of Grace, which Nadine's war-weary husband George purchases almost on a whim. Poor bloody Nadine has no say in the decision, obviously. 

The old inn welcomes and protects the whole family, including eventually Nadine herself (she just has to accept and surrender, like she did in the last book) and the two mysterious newcomers, Annie-Laurie and Malony, who are hiding some very dark secrets. I do feel for Nadine, the mother figure, who has sacrificed so much for a life that she doesn't really enjoy. I would love to see her have some outlet for her creativity beyond beautifully decorating the rooms and being a perfect hostess! (She does gain some fulfilment in her friendship with Annie-Laurie, but still.)

I think I've worked out why the Eliot Family trilogy is so peaceful to read -- there is no action at all! Almost every scene is someone thinking about their life, or people talking to each other, usually in a beautiful woodland setting or a lovely old room, described in minute detail. The drama comes from the interaction of different personalities or from an inner struggle. Even Annie-Laurie's very dramatic backstory is given to us in conversation, in retrospect. I don't say this in a disparaging way, it is a real gift to carry a whole novel (let alone a trilogy) without leaning on action and plot, and it's clear that these novels are much loved and often returned to. They are meditative to read and spiritually refreshing, a great source of comfort and strength for many readers, including me.

22.3.21

Mythos

 

Every generation needs its own re-interpretation of these ancient stories of the Greek gods and goddesses, which, together with the Bible, form the bedrock foundation of Western culture. Who better to hold your hand through this complicated landscape than Stephen Fry, erudite, funny, articulate, a lively companion who is quite prepared to throw in a footnote about language development or his own personal history if it will illuminate the stories he is telling? Prometheus stealing fire for humanity, the war of the Titans, Pandora's box (or jar) of evils, Midas' greed backfiring as literally everything he touches turns to gold, Pygmalion falling in love with his own creation, Narcissus and Echo -- these stories are part of the fabric of our history and art, a common language of the West.

Mythos was such a hit with the younger daughter that she has gone on to devour the follow-up volumes, Heroes and Troy. Even as I write this, I'm thinking that I can see a gap in the market for Fry to re-tell Bible stories in the same way -- I would have loved my kids to have the same basic knowledge of Biblical myths and stories as the younger one has been able to gain about Greek myths from this book, though I was too wary of the religious baggage that goes with them to do much about passing them on myself. The stories of the Garden of Eden, Noah's Ark, the wisdom of King Solomon, David and Goliath, the parables of Jesus, are also part of the assumed knowledge that's been carried through our European cultural history, reference points for art and literature that a lot of secularly-raised kids today won't understand. Or maybe that's just my children.

How about it, Stephen?

11.3.21

Eleanor and Park

 

It's taken me a long time to catch up with Eleanor and Park. I enjoyed Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell's second novel, but Eleanor and Park is even better. I should say that my younger daughter had already read it and wasn't too enthusiastic -- she found Eleanor unlikeable and the ending anti-climactic -- so I was a bit wary going in; but I was completely sucked into Eleanor and Park's story, their friendship that turns to romance, and their family difficulties.

I enjoyed the fact that neither of them are conventionally gender conforming -- Eleanor is a big girl, and wears quirky men's clothing, while Park experiments with eyeliner and hair gel. But their clear appreciation of each other's physicality is delightful. I also enjoyed the mid-80s setting and music, which reflected my own adolescence. Eleanor has a frankly ghastly home life, with the sinister presence of her step-father, Richie, a catastrophe waiting to explode. Park, in contrast, has a loving and supportive family, though his father struggles with Park's seeming lack of typical masculinity.

This is a really good, moving, YA romance. I'm not surprised it's been such a hit (though not with my daughter). The cover of my copy, seen above, is not great -- there is no way that neat, slim silhouetted girl could be Eleanor! Read the bloody book, cover designer!

4.3.21

The Bird in the Tree


I think I must have read Elizabeth Goudge's Eliot Family Trilogy at some point, because parts of this book did seem familiar; or perhaps it's just a sense of familiarity with the world of Elizabeth Goudge. The first thing that Goudge's adult books demand of the reader is to slow down. Her pace is leisurely, her descriptions rich and detailed, but never in purple prose; she layers her portraits of characters and pictures of landscapes in deceptively simple brushstrokes that build up a vivid, vital image.

A random example: 

As Caroline stood gazing the Japanese anemones were like fallen moons beyond the grey trunks of the oak-trees and there was a soft mist of mauve where the autumn crocuses were growing in the rough grass. The fires of autumn had already touched the leaves over her head, and spun from twig to twig and from bush to bush was that exquisite silver filigree of dewy spiders' webs.

The isolated old house and its garden, the marshes, the shipbuilding village of the Hard, the woods and fields are all painted for us with such loving attention that we are forced into mindful imagining (although there will be some readers who turn away in boredom, I suppose). And her character portraits are equally tender, compassionate and clear-eyed.

Having said all that, the central story of The Bird in the Tree strikes the contemporary reader as somewhat bewildering (it's set in 1938). George and Nadine's unhappy marriage has broken down; their three children have gone to live with their strong-willed grandmother, Lucilla, in her lovely old house of Damerosehay; meanwhile Lucilla's adult grandson David and Nadine have fallen passionately in love. Lucilla, when she discovers this development, is determined to put a stop to the relationship and persuade Nadine to return to George. A modern reader will find this inexplicable. Why should Nadine and David's proposed marriage mean that George will lose his children? Why should David have to give up Damerosehay, which he loves? Why the hell shouldn't David and Nadine be happy together? Why should Nadine have to return to a marriage that makes her miserable, just because Lucilla did, long ago?

However, once one accepts the premise of the conflict, the exploration of self-sacrifice, selfish passion, pain, duty, faith and the demands of love is carefully and sympathetically laid out. As Susan Green commented here recently, Goudge is 'not a fluffy writer.' She is not sentimental; she recognises the agony of grief and the torture of doing the right thing, which applies in so many circumstances, even if the situation of this particular novel might not seem to justify the pain required. Life is not easy, but it can contain moments of joy. And there is always a sprinkling of humour in Elizabeth Goudge.

'Life is rather an unhappy affair, dear,' said Lucilla. 'And it's just as well to face the fact. It's essentially sad, woven of grey stuff; yet embroidered with such bright flowers.'

One thing I discovered from reading The World of Elizabeth Goudge is that Damerosehay is based on a real house, now sadly demolished. Thank heavens its beauty has been preserved in these loving books.

1.3.21

The Late Scholar

 

The Late Scholar, the fourth of Jill Paton Walsh's novels based on Dorothy L. Sayers' characters, returns Peter and Harriet to Oxford, the setting of perhaps their best-loved adventure, Gaudy Night (it was definitely the one I loved best), the book where Harriet finally allows Wimsey to persuade her to marry him. With Harriet teetering on the acceptance of love, Gaudy Night was more romantic than Busman's Honeymoon, where they sickeningly consummate their long courtship.

Anyway... it's always lovely be back at Oxford, even with murder victims dropping like flies, and what seems like a very personal connection to Harriet, as each murder echoes a plot from one of her books, which in turn echo Wimsey's previous cases (this neatly absolves Paton Walsh from having to come up with a murder method of her own). The plot turns on a choice St Severins college must make, between selling a valuable medieval manuscript to buy land, or keeping the manuscript and going broke; the members of the college are evenly divided and Peter, as Visitor to St Severins, must help them decide, as well as stem the growing body count and track down the missing Warden.

The subtext of the book concerns what is most valuable: knowledge, property, money, truth? Tradition and duty or personal preference? Harriet and Peter's eldest son has decided not to follow in Peter's footsteps and go to Balliol; instead he chooses the much more practical option of agricultural college. I must admit I didn't really see what the fuss was about with this one, since their second son seems pretty keen to go to Oxford, and as Peter is a second son himself, it's hardly smashing a family tradition if the eldest son doesn't go. But in general I enjoyed the philosophical musings.

The only Walsh/Wimsey I haven't managed to find so far is Thrones, Dominations. I've relished these extensions to the Dorothy Sayers universe, so I'll definitely keep an eye out for that one.