16.6.21

Madame de Pompadour


 I was very excited to discover a first edition of Nancy Mitford's life of Madame de Pompadour (minus this lovely cover, unfortunately) on the shelves of Footscray Savers recently -- published in 1954, purchased by one Dorothy Cassells, according to the flyleaf, at the Austral Book Shop in Collins St, Melbourne. A little morsel of history.

My knowledge of Madame de Pompadour was confined entirely to the Doctor Who episode, The Girl in the Fireplace, so you can imagine I learned a great deal from this sparkling biography. Despite being a big fan of her novels, I haven't read any of Nancy Mitford's biographies of famous figures from history (the Sun King, Frederick the Great etc). I'm not sure how rigorous Mitford's research might have been by modern standards, though I know she did work hard on these books and she certainly seems very familiar with the people and places she discusses. She has a lovely gossipy tone which makes the book extremely readable, almost as if she were personally acquainted with all the characters involved, and she has no scruples about passing judgement on them, labelling this statesman an incompetent fool, and that lady of the court a silly little miss who should have known better.

From my background of utter ignorance, I can't judge how accurate her analysis might be, but it has certainly given me a sense of the period and the people (though the chapters about wars struggled to hold my interest), and I loved all the little details about hidden staircases, the inside jokes and quarrels and extravagant gifts and building projects, and the insanely complex etiquette of the royal court. And The Girl in the Fireplace does seem to have got some details right -- there were no clockwork assassins, but it really did pour with rain on the day Reinette's body left Versailles for the last time.

14.6.21

The Heart of the Family

 

I had to cave and buy the final installment of Elizabeth Goudge's Eliot Family chronicles on the Kindle, though I hope to pick up The Heart of the Family in material form somewhere, somehow, one day. Perhaps even more than the previous two volumes, The Heart of the Family lacks what you might call a plot -- it consists almost entirely of conversations, some in rooms, many in the woods between the two households of the Herb of Grace and Damerosehay. It's almost like reading a book of sermons as various pairs of characters ruminate on pain and sin, death and love, divine grace, guilt and prayer and penance.

The war is over, and Lucilla, the queen of the family, has abdicated her royal seat at Damerosehay to the family of her beloved grandson David. However David is wracked with self-torture at his recent narrowly-avoided infidelity; his newly acquired secretary Sebastian Weber is carrying wounds of his own, having lost his own family in the war, and hating David for his blessings. The eventual reconciliation between these two men forms the core of the story, but there are ancillary family dramas as Lucilla, at 91, meditates on death, other grandchildren fall in love or decide careers, and another baby is on the way. 

As Susan Green recently remarked, Elizabeth Goudge is not a sentimental writer. Despite the apparent extreme smallness of her canvas, she doesn't spare her characters torment, cruelty or harrowing self-reproach; but she always offers them some redemption. There are huge themes here, but there is also humour, delight and beauty, and as always a keen and appreciative eye for small children and dogs, which helps to leaven the weight of the deeper reflections. This is probably not my favourite Eliot story, maybe I read it too fast for the philosophy to sink in properly, and I should probably return to it when I need to.

7.6.21

The Winds of Heaven

Judith Clarke's The Winds of Heaven was lent to me by my friend Suzanne (thank you, Suzanne!) We have very similar taste in books and I really loved this novel. 

Mostly set in the Australia of the 1950s and early 1960s, The Winds of Heaven traces the story of two cousins, Clementine and Fan (Francesca) who are separated by distance but linked by an unbreakable bond. Clementine, bolstered by loving, supportive parents, is a clever girl who powers through school and ends up at university, but Fan is hobbled by poverty and rural isolation, a cruel mother, and difficulty reading and writing, though she is just as clever as Clementine. The two girls' paths diverge, they lose touch, but they never forget each other.

This is a moving, poignant story. For me, it also contained one of those serendipitous moments that really make you wonder if there is a higher power, a reading god if you will, guiding you from one book to the next... Fan is haunted by a poem by Henry Vaughan which begins, They are all gone into the world of light, which is a line of poetry that I've used for years in writing workshops without ever knowing the rest of the poem. And then the very same day I came across the phrase the world of light again in Elizabeth Goudge's The Heart of the Family.

Fan and Clementine's lives are filled with criss-crossing memories, dreams, and images of each other just like this, often in each other's thoughts though seldom physically together. I think I'll be remembering this book for a long time.
 

3.6.21

The Essex Serpent

I think The Essex Serpent is the only example of me seeking out and reading a book purely as a result of reading a Twitter rant from the author (Sarah Perry). I stumbled across an impassioned thread by Perry about women and science and the nineteenth century and how critics had scoffed that her novel was implausible... that was enough for me to track down The Essex Serpent (and just check out that gorgeous cover).

Apparently this novel is to be made into a TV adaptation, starring Claire Danes (who, I'm sorry, is too delicate to be forthright, tramping Cora Seaborne, but hey) and that's something to look forward to. Cora is newly widowed, with an eccentric young son, when she relocates to a village in Essex and befriends the family of the local vicar, Will Ransome. The lives of the two households and Cora's London friends (including gifted surgeon Luke Garrett) intertwine and become uneasily influenced by the legend/rumour of the 'Essex serpent,' a Loch Ness monster-style beast which may or may not be lurking off the coast, a long-lost dinosaur or a manifestation of half-formed fears and desires.

The Essex Serpent was certainly an atmospheric, haunting read, and a perfect candidate for TV, with its rich cast of characters and multitude of ideas. I was particularly touched by the portrait of tubercular Stella Ransome, with her collection of blue objects and her otherworldly euphoria. And if the casting of the series doesn't match my own personal imaginings, that just makes it more interesting.

 

1.6.21

Watching the English

 

Published in 2004, anthropologist Kate Fox's tongue in cheek book, Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour was an entertaining and enlightening read. My father is English, so I'm not sure if some of these 'rules' were passed to me genetically or through upbringing, but a lot of this book rang very true. I think some of these social rules have been transmitted to Australian society, but other aspects seem to apply specifically to the English (as distinct from the Scots, Welsh etc). 

Fox theorises that much of what she terms the English 'social dis-ease' (her central defining characteristic of the English) derives from living on a crowded island. An obsession with privacy, rigid rules of fairness and courtesy (an overuse of please, thank you and sorry; a notorious obsession with queueing), a preference for understatement and modesty, all might plausibly spring from a need to protect oneself from the proximity of others. (Indeed, Fox sees interesting parallels with Japanese society, also a crowded island.)

This is something that probably hasn't travelled to Australia -- with plenty of room to spread out, Australians can afford to be more friendly (not a universal rule, I am well aware, and one mostly applied to 'people like us.') But an emphasis on humour, which Fox sees as a distinctively English way of being in the world, I think has travelled down under -- self mockery, taking the piss, irony, wordplay, all seem just as characteristically Australian as characteristically English.

Some aspects seem more uniquely English, such as a preoccupation with class markers (not defined by money or occupation, but by language, taste and attitudes), and a tendency to 'Eeyorishness' (as indicated by the phrases 'Typical!' and 'Should have known...'). But the typically English social awkwardness and discomfort with expressing emotions publicly, certainly seems to have been passed down through my family. Typical. Should have known.

18.5.21

The Gaps

 

Reading Leanne Hall's superb young adult novel, The Gaps, was a multi-layered experience for me. Set in a girls' private school, Balmoral, The Gaps explores the effect of the abduction of one of the students, Yin Marshall, on two of her classmates, popular Natalia (who used to be Yin's best friend) and newcomer Chloe.

The Gaps is sensitive and nuanced, tracing the ripples of Yin's abduction on the school community, the survivor guilt, the pain of uncertainty, the prurient horror, and the trauma of loss. Hall is especially good at sketching in the wider social background through which these teenage girls move -- the white noise of stranger danger, unsolicited male attention, body policing, social media pressure, advertising. Chloe and Natalia are two very different characters but their responses to Yin's disappearance are truthful and powerful. 

The extra layers for me came from the fact that Leanne Hall and I went to the same school (a few years apart), and the geography of 'Balmoral' was intimately familiar to me -- the quadrangle, the walkways, the bathrooms near the science labs, the Great Hall. (In fact, my house was called Balmoral...) And our school did experience a tragic abduction some years after my time. Even though I'd left the school and didn't know anyone involved, I did feel a particular stab of horror and protectiveness around that event  just because we'd worn the same school uniform. 

Maybe that awareness gave The Gaps an added depth for me, but even without that shared background, this is a very accomplished, layered and heartfelt novel, perfectly pitched and perfectly timed. Highly recommended.

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!