The Magician's Book


I found out about The Magician's Book from my Facebook friend Neil Philip (expert on myth and folklore, poetry and Alan Garner, among other subjects) and bought it impulsively on Kindle because I couldn't wait to read it. Now I almost wish I'd been more patient and ordered a paper copy (I guess I could still do that).

I am a sucker for books about Narnia. Planet Narnia by Michael Ward (another Kindle impulse I wish I owned non-digitally) reshaped the way I read the Chronicles. The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia was less revolutionary, but still contained much food for thought and plentiful insights for lovers of C. S. Lewis's creation.

Like many of us, Laura Miller fell head over heels in love with Narnia as a child, but became disillusioned as an adolescent when she recognised the 'Christian propaganda' embedded in the stories. But as an adult, she has returned to the books with a more thoughtful eye and acknowledged that they can offer joys and wisdom beyond that obvious 'message.' There is a lot of material here about Lewis and Tolkien, their friendship and the relationship between their respective works and beliefs -- probably slightly more material, if I'm honest, than I really needed (not a fan of Middle Earth); but I did learn a lot and the discussion was illuminating.

I'm going to keep my eye out for a hard copy.




Robert Macfarlane is one of my very favourite current authors (he just writes beautifully about nature and history and science), so when I heard that his latest book was about underground stuff, I was slightly dismayed. I don't like underground. Even going into the little mine at Sovereign Hill makes me nervous; I can't help being conscious of the weight of all that stone and rock hovering above my head. However, I am such a fan of Macfarlane that I reserved a copy from the library anyway.

There was a long reservation queue. There was Covid. I had to wait months to get my mitts on Underland. And boy, it was worth it.

I suppose I had expected a series of visits to mining tunnels or scary caves, and there are indeed some hairy passages where Macfarlane is squeezing through narrow gaps in the dark, deep underground; but he also visits the icy wastes of Greenland; parties deep in the extensive limestone catacombs dug out beneath Paris, inhabited by a whole community of explorers; discovers the wood-wide web life creeping beneath the forest floor; and pays a surprisingly hopeful visit to a nuclear waste facility where people are trying to find a way to communicate the danger of this material ten thousand years into the future, when we will be long gone from the face of the world. Upsettingly, everywhere he goes he comes across plastic waste, even on the shores of the remotest northern islands.

But Macfarlane is not just an adventurer, he is also a philosopher and a deep thinker about the meaning of what he sees below and within ground -- burials, forgetting, hiding, safeguarding, sacred art. His journeys under the surface inevitably become journeys within ourselves and into our own deep past.  

Underland is a wonderful book, and gorgeously written. Here is just a taste:

That night the Northern Lights appear for the first time. A scarf of radar-green flutters in the sky. the mountains shoot jade search-lights into space.

We lie on our backs on the cold black air and watch the show, amazed into silence.




This is the only image I could find of my edition of Persuasion, my favourite Jane Austen novel. It's a very dull cover, it's not surprising that it was replaced, but it does show a view of the Cobb at Lyme Regis, the scene of the most dramatic incident in the book, where Louisa Mulgrave falls and injures her head. 

I may be one of the few people in the world to visit the Cobb without thinking of poor Louisa, because I hadn't yet read Persuasion (however I did think of Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant's Woman, also set in Lyme. Here she is, looking suitably melodramatic:


Anyway, the reason I was in Lyme with my parents was because my father went to boarding school there. He showed us the secret spot in the woods where they used to sneak off and smoke, and we were able to explore the corridors filled with glass cases of stuffed birds -- it was very creepy!

None of which has anything to do with Persuasion, but it may explain why I approached it with a feeling of proprietorship from the get-go, and I was quickly drawn in by quiet, uncomplaining Anne Elliot, disappointed in love -- no, cheated out of love by her meddlesome friends and relatives, who are some of the most unlikeable characters in Jane Austen's universe. But it's the most satisfying of Cinderella stories, as Anne's patience and steadfastness is ultimately rewarded by a man whose own loyalty shows that he deserves her. Although I have my doubts that in real life, Captain Wentworth would have remained so faithful.

Persuasion is a very comforting book for troubled times, but its razor-sharp observations save it from sentimentality.


The Conversations


The Conversations: 66 Reasons to Start Talking is an odd but strangely absorbing little book. Novelist, mother of five sons, and ex-probation officer Olivia Fane loves to talk -- not small talk, but big discussions about provocative and person topics, what we used to call when I was young 'deep and meaningfuls.' 

Here she collects 66 short essays, only a couple of pages long, on various topics (fame, violence, jealousy, forgiveness, mirrors, cooking, sex), lets us know her thoughts on the matter -- Fane might be open to debating, but she is quite decided in her opinions, she reminds me of an English aunty with full confidence in her own conclusions -- and then poses a list of questions for us to explore with a conversational partner, perhaps a friend, a spouse, or a stranger at a party or a bus stop.

Sample questions: At a party, do you often feel an outsider and want to go home?

    Do you believe in ghosts?

    Have you ever tried to change your behaviour to please a partner?

    What has been the loneliest time of your life?

    Have you ever been a feminist? (Der!)

    Can you think of an act of free will which has changed your life?

Well, you get the gist. I enjoyed Fane's company through these chapters, though I certainly didn't agree with her on everything, and I did actually use some of her questions to start conversations with my husband. At the end of each chapter I did stop and think about the questions. Some were easy to answer (like the one about feminism), some were much harder (like the act of free will).

As someone who struggles for small talk at the best of times, I'm planning to tuck this book away for long car drives or boat trips (one day...) with the hope of sparking some really meaty D&Ms in future.


Down in the Cellar

I've been returning to some old favourites from my bookshelf lately. Down in the Cellar stands up brilliantly, sixty years after its first publication. 

The story is told by the oldest sibling, Bruce, in a style reminiscent of E. Nesbit's masterful narrator, Oswald Bastable. It begins as a fairly straighforward kids' adventure -- the four brothers and sisters discover a wounded and delirious escaped convict in a quarry and decide to shelter him in the rambling cellar of their uncle's rectory. But before long supernatural elements begin to creep into the narrative -- mostly things seen by the youngest sister, five year old Deirdre, whose creepy pronouncements about green lanterns and invisible malevolent 'Spoilers' would surely have her instantly referred to a child psychologist in these more enlightened days.

Poor Bruce can't see any of these weird phenomena, though his twin Julia and younger brother Andrew both get glimpses of other-worldly happenings. As the net tightens with the arrival of sinister witches, as well as prosaic police searching for the helpless Stephen, the children find themselves under siege. Deirdre's friend, the mysterious Lady of the Hill, is their only help -- if she really exists.

Down in the Cellar is honestly a masterclass in writing a subtle and unsettling narrative, rendered all the more powerful by the fact that Bruce himself only witnesses the magic indirectly, and doesn't believe in it himself. I get shivers whenever I read it, I wonder if it's too scary for sensitive children? I've never been able to acquire Nicholas Stuart Gray's other books, The Seventh Swan and The Stone Cage, but on the basis of Down in the Cellar I think he is an unjustly neglected talent.



Jane and I


Jane and I: A Tale of Austen Addiction by Susannah Fullerton was an impulse buy on the Kindle after my friend Suzanne mentioned that she'd been reading it in a comment on my Mansfield Park post. See how one thing leads to another? Apparently Susannah Fullerton shares my admiration for the much-maligned Mansfield Park. That was enough to get me clicking the BUY button (also it was only $3!)

In truth, Jane and I is a very slender but engaging memoir, containing much more about Fullerton than about Austen. It traces Fullerton's early introduction to the works of Jane Austen, her growing obsession, membership of Austen appreciation societies in Australia and abroad, and ultimately the way in which she has managed to create a whole career out of her love for Austen and her novels -- as a writer of books like A Dance with Jane Austen, Jane Austen and Crime and Happily Ever After: Celebrating Pride and Prejudice; as a literary tour guide; and a popular lecturer on literary subjects (not just Austen).

It's incredible to reflect that Jane Austen is so enduringly popular that she makes such a career not just possible, but profitable! I'm sure Jane herself would be astonished. But I know if I come across any of those other Fullerton-penned Austen celebration books, I won't be able to resist.



A few years ago I read John Lanchester's brilliant memoir Family Romance and thoroughly enjoyed it, so when Capital popped up on Brotherhood Books, I pounced. For some reason I thought it would be non-fiction, but it's a huge door-stopper of a novel, Dickensian in scope if not in style.

Capital is set in London just before the 2008 financial crisis, and its cast of many characters is centred around Pepys Rd, a once nondescript street where the inexorable rise of property prices has left the inhabitants sitting in houses now worth millions of pounds. The main plot thread concerns a mysterious campaign of anonymous messages to the residents, saying We Want What You Have. Is it the faceless artist, Smitty? Smitty's grandmother, fading Petunia Howe? Greedy Arabella Yount or her obscenely overpaid financier husband Roger? Their gorgeous nanny, Marta? The Kamal family who run the corner shop? Hard-working Polish builder Zbigniew? Senegalese soccer star Freddy Kamo? Or political refugee Quentina, illegally working as a parking officer?

Divided into short sharp chapters, these multiple points of view are brisk and entertaining, but the sheer multiplicity of characters means that the story takes a long time to get going. It's not until about two thirds of the way through that the individual threads begin to tie together, and while most of the plot threads are resolved, there are some left dangling (I was particularly cross about Quentina, who was really left in limbo -- but that was probably the point.)

Capital is a sprawling, generous, funny saga about money, property and the things that have true value. I really enjoyed it.