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.

26.2.21

A Long Way Home


I went to see the movie Lion when it came out in 2016 and thoroughly enjoyed it, especially Dev Patel's performance (and his outstanding Australian accent!) So I was interested to read the autobiographical book by Saroo Brierley, A Long Way Home, on which the film was based.

It really is an extraordinary story. Aged 5, Saroo wound up on a train that carried him across India to the city of Kolkata. Unable to tell anyone where he'd come from, he survived on the streets for several weeks before entering an orphanage and very shortly being adopted by an Australian couple and taken to Tasmania to begin a new life. Though happy and grateful to his new family, he never forgot his old life and as a student, began a painstaking search on Google Earth for the town he'd left so many years before, with only a half-remembered name and some geographic markers for guidance. 

It was startling to learn that Saroo had vastly underestimated how far he'd travelled to wind up in Kolkata; he was searching the wrong part of the country, and only by chance came across the tiny railway station with the landmarks he remembered. His account of how he managed to reconnect with his family (his mother had never moved, in case he did one day find his way home) and discovered the truth of what had happened that fateful day, is very moving. 

Saroo had garbled the name of his neighbourhood, the name of the town he'd travelled from, and even, most startlingly, his own name -- his family knew him as Sheru. Reading A Long Way Home made me want to go back and re-watch Lion, which brought the lost little boy's experiences so vividly to life.

23.2.21

The Growing Summer

 

I found this copy of Noel Streatfeild's The Growing Summer in Savers in Footscray, where my big girl has moved. While she was hunting for novelty glasses and board games to furnish her new flat, I was scouring the book shelves. 

The Growing Summer is dedicated to Elizabeth Enright, which is a lovely touch. Enright's books often centre on children exploring their environment and developing their independence, and this novel shares that flavour. The rather sheltered Gareth children are abruptly shipped off to their great aunt in Ireland (topically, their father is researching a 'microbe' that 'might start an epidemic' in the 'Far East' and then falls dangerously ill himself).

Great Aunt Dymphna is highly eccentric, lives in a near-ruin of a big old house and leaves the children very much to their own devices, expecting them to cook and clean and amuse themselves; which over the course of the summer, they gradually become capable of doing. There is an added complication in the form of a mystery runaway boy whom the children shelter, and while his presence provides the excuse for secrecy and drama, he is quite peripheral to the heart of the story which concerns the growing self-sufficiency of the family as they learn to cook, to fish, to do laundry and generally look after themselves.

Poetry-loving Great Aunt Dymphna introduces her nephews and nieces to the 'quotation game' where each player in turn recites a line of poetry, and the next player has to offer a quote where the first word starts with the same letter as the last word of the previous player's quote. Weirdly, I was simultaneously reading Jill Paton Walsh's A Presumption of Death, where Harriet and Peter play the same game!  It was the only time I've come across this somewhat esoteric pastime (and I doubt very much that any child of this generation would be capable of playing it -- with the help of Google, maybe!)

21.2.21

Songlines

 

Songlines: The Power and Promise by Margo Neale and Lynne Kelly was an impulse Kindle buy because I couldn't wait to read it. It's the first in a series of six books introducing Indigenous knowledges to a general reader; other titles will explore topics like astronomy, medicine, land management and architecture and design.

Margo Neale, who has co-ordinated the whole series, is a Senior Research Fellow and Principal Indigenous Advisor to the Director of the National Museum of Australia. Lynne Kelly is an Australian academic, an expert on orality and memory systems, and she draws in many other examples of oral and indigenous cultures from around the world, including Native American, Inuit and Pacific Island learning and knowledge systems.

However, the primary focus of the book is on Indigenous Australian knowledge. I first came across the concept of The Songlines in Bruce Chatwin's book of the same name, and though it's an imperfect and incomplete account, it lit a fire in my imagination which has been burning ever since. Neale and Kelly's book might be less poetic, but it is more authoritative, and fills in some of the blanks that Chatwin couldn't access. It sketches out the way that Aboriginal Australians connect landscape, story, dance and song in a rich web of knowledge, weaving together geography, history, morality, obligation, law, plants and animals, water and weather, stars and seas, and have passed on that knowledge through 60,000 years, generation after generation. There are stories which remember the eruption of long-extinct volcanoes and the existence of long-drowned islands.

I felt overwhelmed with envy reading this book. What an incredible way to live! Imagine being wrapped in such a deep, rich culture, accessible to every member of the community to some degree through performative dance, song, art and story. That is surely the way that humans are supposed to live, in a world drenched in meaning and deeply connected in every facet, moving securely through the universe. And all that knowledge, all that meaning, is still there for all of us to plug into if we choose. What an amazing privilege to be born in this ancient land.

19.2.21

The World of Elizabeth Goudge

 

I ordered The World of Elizabeth Goudge from Girls Gone By. Goudge was one of my favourite authors as a child (The Little White Horse, Linnets and Valerians, Smoky House) and I also read some of her adult titles which my mother must have borrowed from the same library. I enjoyed them too, though some of the  content would have gone over my head; but I do remember the lovely atmosphere of the Cathedral books. More recently I got hold of The Dean's Watch, a masterpiece which I think I must have also read when young, as so many bits chimed in my memory.

Elizabeth Goudge is such a joyful, sensitive writer, and her later books are deeply spiritual, compassionate and forgiving. Perhaps it's not surprising that the daughter of a clergyman would be preoccupied with spiritual matters, but note that I'm using the word spiritual rather than religious. In Goudge's work, solace is often found in churches and wisdom in vicars, but there is surprisingly little overt religiosity -- it's the tranquillity of ancient buildings, the beauty of nature, the faithful love of animals and the very human qualities of kindness, laughter and forgiveness that ultimately give salvation.

The World of Elizabeth Goudge is part biography, part travel guide, part personal reflection, as Sylvia Gower journeys around the various towns and counties where Goudge lived and worked. Elizabeth Goudge enjoyed a relatively peaceful and uneventful life, embarking early on her writing career, but she did live in various parts of England, as well as visiting Jersey where her mother's family lived. She took deep inspiration from all these places, in fact the notion of place and belonging is particularly strong in her work and one of the elements that drew me in, even as a child. 

This book has convinced me to go Goudge hunting. Many of her books are still in print and I think I might try to collect as many as I can.

16.2.21

A Presumption of Death

 

I enjoyed A Presumption of Death very much. I think was the first of Jill Paton Walsh's forays into Lord Peter Wimsey territory and it's excellent. Sensibly Paton Walsh realises that Harriet Vane is the better part of Wimsey-world, and for most of the book, Harriet is detecting alone at Talboys during the war while Peter is off doing mysterious Top Sekkrit spying stuff in Europe. 

During the war, Dorothy Sayers wrote various magazine columns purporting to be letters between members of the Wimsey family, discussing their wartime activities; Paton Walsh has used this material as a canon source for their whereabouts and attitudes, which provides a solid foundation for the story. There is lots of well-researched detail about rationing, black market shenanigans, spy fears, evacuees and so on -- the one nit I would pick is that Peter refers openly to sending a coded message to Bletchley, at a time when Bletchley was super-secret and I doubt he would have mentioned it even to Harriet and Bunter (though Bunter no doubt knew all about it already -- hm, perhaps it is excusable? No secrets from Harriet, obviously!)

Elements of the central mystery were enjoyably guessable, and the relationship between Harriet and Peter is beautifully depicted. It's so nice to see them working together, very much in love but not sickeningly so; it's the rock solid partnership hinted at in Busman's Honeymoon, and thoroughly satisfying.

14.2.21

The Stones of Green Knowe

 

First published in 1976, too late to make it into the Mt Hagen library, The Stones of Green Knowe remained unknown to me until adulthood, and rounds off the series with a look forward rather than backward in time, as young Roger d'Aulneaux, in 1120, becomes the very first child to live in the brand new house that will become Green Knowe.

He discovers the two immeasurably ancient stones on the hilltop which will take him briefly forward (or once, terrifyingly, backward) in time, so he can see what will become of the new stone house of which he is so proud. He meets Linnet and Toby and Alexander, Susan and Jacob, and Tolly, and there is a lovely scene where all the children are able to gather together across time.

However, there is a melancholy undertone to this final book. Moving forward to Tolly's time, Roger is dismayed to notice the devastation of the wildlife -- so few birds and animals, hardly any insects, the wild profusion of plants disappeared. If it was this bad in 1976, one can only imagine how horrified Roger would be in 2021 (unless there has been some rewilding at Green Knowe). And the books ends on an abrupt, brutal note as the ancient stones are uprooted and carried away. It's not a comforting note to end on, rather like the catastrophic ending that The Last Battle provided for the Narnia books. And like The Last Battle, I think if I'd read The Stones as a child, I would have avoided re-reading it. But I do enjoy the glimpse of twelfth century life, seeing the first carving of St Christopher and the newfangled wall-fireplace, and Roger is a worthy ancestor.

12.2.21

A Nursery in the Nineties

 

I ordered A Nursery in the Nineties because someone in the Antonia Forest Facebook group mentioned it, and it turns out that the pertinent section comprised just one short chapter out of 53 in this memoir by Eleanor Farjeon.

Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965) is best known as the author of The Little Bookroom (after which our beloved Melbourne children's bookshop was named) and also the words to the hymn Morning Has Broken (which I sang regularly at school assemblies), but she also wrote poetry, plays, history and biography. Much of A Nursery in the Nineties tells the stories of her father (emigrated to New Zealand, admired Dickens, worked as a journalist), and her mother (from an American theatrical family) before and after their marriage; the last part deals with Nellie's own childhood. Her family moved in theatrical and literary London circles, and many of the names she drops are forgotten now, but she enjoyed a happy, secure and creative upbringing along with her three brothers. She includes plenty of fascinating quotidian detail about Edwardian life which is worth reading (though the family histories drag on a bit).

The chapter that most interested me (and the whole reason I bought the book) is called TAR, standing for Tessie-and-Ralph, a game she and her older brother played (with occasional input from their younger brothers) for over twenty years. She and Harry would pace for hours, narrating and acting out stories of their own invention based on their favourite characters -- originally Ralph and Tessie, from a children's play they saw when Nellie was five. Harry would announce, 'We are X and Y' (perhaps from The Three Musketeers, Greek myths, or any other story that had gripped their fancy) and then he and Nellie would plunge into absorbing parallel lives, until Harry was forced to halt the game by declaring 'We are Harry and Nellie' again.

Farjeon says that this private game absorbed so much of her attention and emotional life that it really became her life, far more real and vivid than her everyday existence, and reflects that ultimately it was quite unhealthy.

I had no desire for new adventures, friends or experience, outside this powerful game. When I should have been growing up, it was a harmful check on life itself, for its imaginative extension did not include natural knowledge. Because of it, I was never aware of my own sex until I was nearly thirty years old, and it took least ten years more for emotional crudeness to get abreast of mental ripeness.

What an extraordinary admission! Though Farjeon credits TAR with turning her into a writer and giving her 'flow of ease,' it's notable that she never married or seems to have had any adult relationship. The Facebook reference came up during a discussion of Antonia Forest's Peter's Room, which also deals with a group imaginative game which spirals out of control, and which in turn references the Bronte's Gondal games and writing.

This is a topic of particular interest to me. Though I didn't share it with anyone else, all through my childhood and teenage years I had a similarly absorbing and addictive private fantasy life. Unlike Eleanor Farjeon, I deliberately renounced it at eighteen (though there were many later lapses), I think because I realised that the potential dangers that she describes above might be lying in wait for me. I'm trying to write about this experience now. If anyone knows of any similar stories, I'm all ears!

10.2.21

An Enemy at Green Knowe

 I'm reading faster than I can blog at the moment! An Enemy at Green Knowe is probably my least favourite of the Green Knowe books (I was interested to see that someone in the comments nominated it as one of their favourites). Frankly I find it quite creepy, and I don't like the idea of sinister spirits hanging round Green Knowe. The book made from a dead bat that flaps and rattles in a closed drawer; the invisible something that slithers down an outside wall; the battle between the maggots and birds, birds and cats, cats and snakes (though I love the scene when Ping calls up the ghost of Hanno the gorilla to help them); the washing line pegged with dead birds... Horror piles upon horror as Tolly, Ping and Grandmother Oldknow are besieged.

Perhaps the most disquieting episode is when Mrs Oldknow falls into a trance on the river, the hypnotic spell only broken when the boys hang the druid's stone around her neck. I hate the thought of Green Knowe and Grandmother being so vulnerable, even if she and the boys triumph in the end. Incidentally, it's the scholar Mr Pope who finally banishes the demonic Melanie, which is perhaps another reason why I don't enjoy their victory as much as I might.

It's very well done, and someone who enjoys horror and witchcraft more than I do would probably relish the battle between good and evil; but I prefer Green Knowe to be safe and impregnable!

7.2.21

The Attenbury Emeralds

 

Having discovered Jill Paton Walsh, I've found myself stymied in my search for her children's books. But I did discover (I think I was vaguely aware of these before but steered clear because I didn't realise how good a writer Paton Walsh is) the three books Lord Peter Wimsey books she wrote, using the characters of Dorothy L Sayers. The Attenbury Emeralds is actually the last in the series, but it doesn't matter.

I suppose this counts as fan fiction, but it's definitely superior fan fiction. In some ways I preferred The Attenbury Emeralds to the later Wimsey novels, which to my mind became a bit arch -- all those bits in untranslated French! Harriet and Peter's love talk! But Paton Walsh takes a sensible, down to earth approach to Sayers' characters, keeping the best bits (Harriet's intelligence and compassion, Peter's wit and sensitivity) and ditching the embarrassing excesses. And if the mystery itself is a little lacking in Sayers' ingenuity, it's a bargain I'm happy to make.

The Attenbury Emeralds is divided into two parts. In the first, Peter and Bunter re-tell Wimsey's first case to Harriet (a wartime story, featuring the horrific bombing of the Cafe de Paris during the Blitz); in part two, highly coincidentally, the emeralds re-emerge in a continuation of the old mystery. The coincidence is awkward, but the setting is really well done -- after the war, when social norms have been upended and the lines between staff and employers are blurring. Bunter and his wife sometimes eat at the same table as the Wimseys, and their children are friends; the elite conventions of wealth and title are more burdensome than ever. It's the personal story of Harriet and Peter's adjustment to circumstance rather than the mystery itself which hooked me into this book. I can't wait for the next two.

3.2.21

A Stranger at Green Knowe

In some ways, even though it involves no magic at all, A Stranger at Green Knowe is the most extraordinary story of the whole series. While I was re-reading it, ten years after I read it aloud to her at the age of nine, my elder daughter picked it up and said, 'Oh, Green Knowe! So sad.' I read her this novel when she was in the grip of an obsession with gorillas, and she made me stop reading before the inevitable tragic end, so that in her imagination, Hanno the escaped gorilla would stay safe and happy in the garden of Green Knowe forever (as it seems he might, in ghostly form, according to the next book).

Displaced child Ping returns to Green Knowe at the invitation of old Mrs Oldknow, and he serves as a surrogate great-grandson to her in place of Tolly. As always, the easy, playful, respectful relationship between the very old and the very young is touching and delightful. And Ping's loyalty and empathy with Hanno, another creature displaced from his proper home, is beautiful.

Of course there can be no happy ending to this book (in fact the last three books in the Green Knowe series are all quite melancholic) but when Ping declares, 'It's all right. I saw him choose,' most readers will accept a fitting conclusion. Not Alice, though. And her solution has its own magic.

1.2.21

The River at Green Knowe

 

The third of Lucy M Boston's Green Knowe books, The River at Green Knowe, takes the story away from the old house and out onto the river. There is no Tolly in this book, and no Grandmother Oldknow -- instead, the house is leased for the summer (ooh, I just realised the first three books go winter, spring, summer) to two ladies and three displaced children, Ida, Oskar and Ping.

Evidently the magic clinging to the house extends to the river, because the three children have numerous magical experiences -- from flying horses to encounters with a giant. Oskar shrinks to the size of a field mouse, they meet a hermit, and go back in time to a moonlight ceremony older even than the ancient house itself. But there is also the everyday magic of swimming, rowing, picnicking, and shooting through the locks in flood.

As a child, I didn't read The River as often as the other books, being at heart in indoor rather than an outdoor person, but I enjoyed it this time more than I expected. The friendship between the three children is lovely. 'There isn't anything real except thoughts,' says Oskar, so I suppose the magic in this book might be created by the children themselves, just as they create the long river map on a roll of wallpaper. But that's a very grown up attitude, just like Dr Maud Biggins, who refuses to recognise a giant even when she sees him with her own eyes, so I think I'll side with the children instead and say it's all real.

28.1.21

Farewell Little Bunny

In a piece of heavy-handed symbolism that you could never get away with in a work of fiction, my daughter's childhood rabbit has died in the very week that she's moving out of home. 

Maya lived with us for almost eight years, a pretty good innings for a Netherland Dwarf. He was a pretty little rabbit, so cute when he cleaned his face with his paws. He wasn't much of a cuddler, but he would hop over eagerly at the sound of the fridge opening, and allow us to pat his soft brown fur. Originally he and his brother Momo lived in Al's room, but they kept her awake at night -- especially Maya, who would naughtily leap from his enclosure and hop around her room -- so a few years ago we moved his hutch into the living room, where he lived ever since. (Momo died in mysterious circumstances quite early on. I don't want to speak ill of a departed rabbit, but we did wonder...)

We whinged freely about having to clean out his stinky enclosure, about cutting his nails, and having to feed him with a syringe when he got sick a couple of years ago. But he was part of our family, and yesterday we all had a cry when we said goodbye.

27.1.21

Cosmo Cosmolino

 

I was spurred to re-read Helen Garner's 1992 novel, Cosmo Cosmolino, after reading her references to wrestling with 'my angel novel' in the latest volume of her diaries, and also how its publication lost her a treasured friendship (not permanently, I believe). 

I read this novel when it was first published, living in a share house in the inner suburbs, quite lonely and probably depressed, working alone on my own writing but not feeling as if I was getting anywhere (like Maxine, the artist/carpenter, I was working in a glorified backyard shed). Cosmo Cosmolino did little to cheer me up at the time. I remember my response being bafflement and a vague disappointment; I didn't get what Garner was aiming at, and parts of the novel upset me deeply.

Reading it again, I have a greater sympathy for her portrait of three lost souls, drifting past each other in an empty house, accidentally hurting and misunderstanding each other, all craving meaningful connection but struggling to achieve it. It's not until the very end of the book that hope arrives in the form of Alby, who manages to draw them together (with a long, perhaps invented story) and ends up joining them in what the reader senses will now be a household, rather than just a house with random inhabitants. It's really a novel about faith, belief and connection, and how hard it can be to trust -- to trust oneself, to trust others, to trust in a greater pattern or power. 

At the time Garner was widely derided for talking about the 'mighty force' she had experienced, described in the novel as haunting Janet (who is surely a thinly-veiled Garner) in the shape of a dark column hovering behind her shoulder. It's a powerful image, whatever it represents. In her diaries, Garner seems to accept Tim Winton's characterisation of it as the Holy Spirit; but in the novel, Janet resists its power with all her being and finally seems to defeat it.

In many ways, Cosmo Cosmolino is a deeply bleak novel. But the ending is a joyous blast of hope.

26.1.21

The Chimneys of Green Knowe

 

The Chimneys of Green Knowe was far and away my favourite of Lucy M. Boston's Green Knowe series as a child; I read it so many times I still know it almost by heart. In contrast to The Children of Green Knowe, which has a dreamy Christmas atmosphere and almost no plot at all, Chimneys is set in spring and absolutely brims with exciting stories -- Jacob's escape from slavery, his and Susan's juju ceremony, Jacob being sent up the chimneys by Sefton, the fire, the gypsies, young Boggis's narrow escape from the press gang in which Tolly plays a helping hand, the lost jewels...

Alas, some aspects of the novel haven't aged well. The N word is used (though never approvingly) and racist attitudes are well to the fore, albeit with the explicit disapproval of the author. Jacob is dressed up as a monkey, his black hands are regarded as dirty by the servants etc; but his character is utterly admirable, he is brave, resourceful, loyal and inventive, and his friendship with intelligent, adventurous, blind Susan is delightful. On the other hand, the description of the gypsies at the very end of the book has no redeeming qualities; the sympathy and understanding extended to Jacob apparently doesn't apply to these stereotypical villains.

Despite these reservations, I still thoroughly enjoy Chimneys and the interweaving of past and present: Tolly's part in the rescue of young Boggis which I mentioned above, the way Susan and Jacob in 1799 hear 'the ghost boy' Tolly singing his sea shanties in the treetops a hundred and fifty years later. The relationship between Tolly and his great-grandmother is lovely, and the motif of the quilt patches which tie past and present together is clever and satisfying. One of my favourites of all time.

(I first read Chimneys as a child in colonial PNG. I think, I hope, that the portrayal of quick-witted, fierce Jacob helped to counteract the racist attitudes to the 'locals' that surrounded me every day.)

23.1.21

Stravinsky's Lunch


I have read Drusilla's Modjeska's Stravinsky's Lunch before, but not for many years. I wrote above (below, actually!) about the anecdote which sparked her thinking around this subject, at a dinner with Helen Garner and other friends, mostly writers. Stravinsky's Lunch is a biography of two Australian women artists, but it is also a mediation on the clashes between the demands of any creative practice, love, family and the world that women artists experience particularly acutely. (Rachel Power's The Divided Heart is another excellent book on this topic.)

Naturally this is a subject close to my own heart, as I try daily to juggle writing with the multiple needs of family, domestic responsibilities and self-care. The two artists Modjeska writes about, Stella Bowen and Grace Cossington Smith, took very different approaches to the compromises and conflicts they both endured for their art. Bowen left Australia to pursue her artistic studies, but ended up sacrificing her own work for many years after falling in love with the much older writer, Ford Madox Ford, who was supportive of her work (up to a point) but took it for granted that his writing should come first, barely conscious that a quiet house, regular food, and the pleasures of domestic comfort (including children) require work by someone (not him). Eventually they separated and she enjoyed late success as a war artist, but she died relatively young and under-appreciated.

Grace Cossington Smith never married, and in fact, never left her parents' home. Her middle class family supported her financially through the ups and down of artistic recognition, though again she didn't receive the accolades she deserved until late in her long life. Cossington Smith doggedly followed her instincts, painting mostly in isolation and suffering the derision of male critics, and eventually amassed an incredible body of work. But again, her independence was bought at a cost -- in this case, her sister Madge, who kept house and cared for their ageing parents, and then for Grace herself. Modjeska is careful to acknowledge Madge's presence and sacrifice which made Grace's achievements possible.

Annabel Crabb's The Wife Drought makes the same point -- any individual who wants to combine a demanding career (in any field) and a fulfilling personal life (family, children, love) needs a WIFE to do the endless, tedious, draining, time-devouring work behind the scenes. Or a Madge, or a faithful servant, or a partner who is willing to sacrifice a bit of their own time or success or leisure to share the load. Only some us are lucky enough to score one of those.

18.1.21

The Mirror and the Light


I asked for the final volume in Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy for my birthday back in September, and I've been reading it off and on ever since. The Mirror and the Light is over 800 pages long -- does that mean the whole trilogy comes to about 2000 pages?? The length alone would make this series of novels about the life of Thomas Cromwell a magnificent achievement; but these books are also wonderfully written. I'm not really surprised the judges of the Booker Prize didn't feel they could award Mantel a third gong, but this book deserves it just as much as the previous two.

Reading this book, I felt deeply immersed in Cromwell's life -- we see every event through his eyes, and he sees everything. In this final volume, he is especially reflective about his hardscrabble childhood on the mean streets of Putney, and the envy and resentment of his nobly-born fellow courtiers begins to bite as they constantly remind him that he has no 'great family' to back him up, and that his common birth means he doesn't deserve the honours and riches with which Henry has rewarded him (or let's be honest, with which Cromwell has rewarded himself). 

There is a growing sense of dread as we know that Cromwell's life is inexorably moving toward its unhappy end. Cromwell has plenty of blood on his hands, and he is quite stoic in the face of his own downfall, still planning how best to save his household and protect his family until the very end. All the threads of this remarkable life draw together in this moving conclusion.

I must say reading these novels has piqued my interest about the Tudors in general, I've even started watching The Spanish Princess which deals with the life of Catherine of Aragon, who is not portrayed terribly sympathetically by Mantel -- the TV series certainly makes her a much more glamorous figure than the novels do! And it's been fun spotting other characters in this earlier story -- a dour Wolsey, not yet a cardinal, and a very dashing young Henry, but also the scheming Pole family who will make so much trouble for Thomas Cromwell in coming years. I don't think Cromwell himself will even appear. But I'll know he's there, lurking in the shadows, ten steps ahead of everyone else, even if we can't see him.

14.1.21

The Children of Green Knowe

 

Lucy M. Boston's Green Knowe books were among my very favourites as a child and it's such a delight to return to them. They had an atmosphere like no others, partly because of the etching illustrations by Peter Boston, the author's son, which had an eerie, other-worldly feel, very appropriate to a story about a young boy meeting ghostly children in his great-grandmother's house.

However, The Children of Green Knowe is never frightening. When Tolly meets Toby, Alexander and Linnet, it is the most natural thing in the world; the house and garden welcome Tolly and peacefully hold layers of history which occasionally intersect. There is very little plot to this first book in the series, but the magical house of Greene Knowe (based on Boston's real home, The Manor in Hemingford Grey), Tolly's wise and comforting great-grandmother, and down-to-earth Boggis, create such a delightful setting that story becomes irrelevant. 

This was a book that I returned to many times, a book to dwell inside.

11.1.21

One Day I'll Remember This

Reading Helen Garner's diaries is such a treat. I had to ration myself to twenty pages at a time or I would  have gobbled up this volume in a single sitting. One Day I'll Remember This covers the years between 1987 and 1995, when I was in my twenties: living in share houses, going to uni, travelling overseas, single. 

Garner was negotiating a very different stage of life: mired in an affair with a married man ('V'), then marrying him herself; moving to Sydney to be with him; working on the screenplay of The Last Days of Chez Nous, about the breakdown of her own previous marriage, and writing the 'angel' novel, Cosmo Cosmolino. This volume of the diaries ends with the publication of the hugely controversial non-fiction book, The First Stone, about allegations of sexual assault at Ormond College. This was the book that has poisoned her reputation with young feminists (though not with me), as she was seen to be way too sympathetic to the man in the case. I'm guessing most of the fallout will appear in Volume 3.

Garner has always grappled with relations between men and women, in a way that might seem old-fashioned and almost deterministic to a younger generation. I was excited to read one entry where V recounts an anecdote about Stravinsky: that when the great composer was working on a piece, he would demand that his wife and children remain absolutely silent at lunch, so as not to wreck his mental concentration. Later, this story is repeated at a dinner with friends (including Garner's writer friend 'E'). All the men are admiring or at least understanding of Stravinsky's demands -- this is what Art requires. All the women are up in arms -- why didn't Stravinsky eat his lunch in his room, on a tray? How dare he impose his own whims on his whole family in this arrogant way? Why couldn't he prepare his own damn lunch? It goes without saying that a female artist would find it extremely difficult to impose herself on the rest of her household in this way. 

The reason I was thrilled to read about this discussion is that I had recently bought (to re-read) the book Stravinsky's Lunch by Drusilla Modjeska (who is surely 'E'), who also tells the same anecdote in the introduction and says it came up at a dinner with friends. Stravinsky's Lunch tells the story of two Australian women artists and the struggles they faced in carving out space for their work -- a struggle that most female creatives must still grapple with.

Reading about Garner's own difficulties with 'V' made my blood boil. He assumes that she will leave their tiny flat when he is working, even if she is also writing. She finds herself tiptoeing around his feelings, yet he accuses her of being 'moody' and 'hypersensitive.' I wanted to give him a slap and give Helen her own flat.

The saddest episode concerns a long-standing friendship, with R and O, which is wrecked after Garner hurts 'O' by using him as a character in Cosmo Cosmolino. When the volume ends, a tentative rapprochement seems to be taking place; I hope the friendship can be rescued. Overall, these mid-life diaries seem to be wrestling with the price of making art, the cost in independence, in love and friendship, in money, in time. The costs are huge, and yet the need to keep writing is a compulsion that refuses to be denied.

7.1.21

Knowledge of Angels

 

I'm embarrassed to say that it took the death of Jill Paton Walsh late last year to bring her to my attention. I had never read any of her books before, though I've since been assured that Goldengrove/ Unleaving and A Parcel of Patterns will be right up my alley (now on the hunt), and I'm also looking forward to reading her Lord Peter Wimsey novels.

I wasn't aware, either, that she'd almost won the Booker prize for Knowledge of Angels, which despite being an established author, she had to self-publish. This is a beautiful, cruel and shining book that chimed well with Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light (where heretics are also tortured for their beliefs) and also, oddly, with the jigsaw I was working on at the time:


Escher's Cascata captured the austere, medieval feeling of the book perfectly. At first I read with delight of this Mediterranean island, with its olives and snows, its sparkling seas and serene nuns, each image as rich as an illuminated manuscript. I was intrigued by the discovery of the wild wolf-child and the arrival of the civilised stranger, naked from the sea. For a while, all unfolds peaceably. The stranger, an atheist, disputes philosophy with the learned ruler and the scholar; and the snow-child is slowly tamed.


But then the inquisitor arrives, and everything turns dark and senseless and brutal, and I read reluctantly, knowing what the inevitable end was going to be. 


Knowledge of Angels was written under the shadow of the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, but it takes faith seriously. Neil Philip has said he doesn't consider this book her finest work, because it lacks humour, and I could see what he means. Still, this is a novel that will haunt me for a long time.

          

 

4.1.21

Beyond the Vicarage

 

This was a sneaky last minute Christmas present for myself, and I enjoyed it so much! Noel Streatfeild wrote three volumes of fictionalised autobiography: A Vicarage Family was one of my very favourite books as a child; Away From the Vicarage covers the years of her acting career (including a tour of Australia in the late 1920s!); and Beyond the Vicarage (1971) describes the war years and Streatfeild's writing career. I still need to get hold of Away From the Vicarage, but Beyond the Vicarage was a huge treat.

I knew that Streatfeild had written novels for adults as well as her huge output for children, but I hadn't realised how many she'd written. Several of her adult titles were lost when her publisher's warehouse was bombed during the war and the printing plates were destroyed, so I guess we'll never know exactly what they were like. It surprised me that Streatfeild was rather dismayed by the sudden success of Ballet Shoes, which has of course remained immensely popular and really set herself up as a children's author. In the fifties she decided to give up writing for adults, sensibly understanding that her style of adult novel was going out of fashion in an over-supplied market, and from then on focussed entirely on writing for children.

Like Nancy Mitford, Streatfeild's writing strategy was to write in bed for a few hours before getting up -- that way, naughty friends couldn't entice her out on excursions until she'd done her work for the day. It was fascinating to read about her experiences in London with the WVS during the war, running a mobile canteen which travelled around to bomb shelters providing hot drinks and food. She saw some terrible sights and her lovely flat was completely destroyed. I must say, reading about the horrors of wartime London (and, as Streatfeild points out, things were far worse in Europe) puts our pandemic whinges about border closures and isolation into perspective.

Beyond the Vicarage ends with Streatfeild sliding into comfortable old age. She was to live for another fifteen years, dying at the grand old age of one hundred: a pretty good innings.

1.1.21

Reading Round Up 2020

 

Thank God that year is over -- though 2021 might be just as difficult, who knows. Getting through 2020 for me was all about comfort reading, jigsaws, knitting, and riding my bike through empty early morning streets. So last year featured lots of children's books and lots of re-reading of old favourites, both of which I am completely unapologetic about.

For most of the year I had three books on the go simultaneously -- one children's or YA, one adult fiction and one non-fiction book. I think my concentration was a bit all over the place and it was easier to hop from book to book, chapter by chapter, than try to maintain my focus for a whole book. Maybe this is just modern life, maybe it was COVID, anyway it seemed to work. I read a total of 85 books this year, seven fewer than last year.

Kids/YA vs Adult


I read 30 children's and YA books, and 55 adult titles (which does work out to about a one third/two thirds ratio, as mentioned above). Mostly I read children's books, I wasn't really in the mood for YA this year, I needed comfort and reassurance, and the majority of those children's books were plucked from my own shelves. (Oddly, I read 9 fewer kids books this year, though I felt as if I read more!)

Author gender


Another one third/two thirds split! 56 books were by female authors and 29 by males, and about one third of those were by one author, Alan Garner. It did work out to slightly more books by blokes this year, but the proportion is fairly steady.

Fiction/non-fiction

My impression was that the need for escape drew me toward fiction this year, and again the three-books strategy led to a rough one third factual, two thirds fictional split. Actually, comparing to 2019, I'm surprised to see that I actually read more non-fiction in 2020! Fiction was 51 (down from 63), non-fiction 34 (up from 29).

Book source

I bought only two new books this year (I actually bought a lot more than that, mostly for my children) (down 12 from 2019); my daughter and I invested in a mystery box of books from Book Grocer which actually ended up being pretty poor value, for me, at least. Oh well, it was still exciting to unpack the box!

33 books were purchased secondhand (down 7), all from Brotherhood Books, some leftover from last year and some bought through the year. I managed to borrow 13 books from the library, despite lockdown (down from 24). A whopping 24 titles were re-reads that I already owned (up 20!). I borrowed 6 books from friends (down 3), and bought 7 e-books on the Kindle (up by 5 -- instant gratification was particularly important this year!)

Nationality


Because of all the old favourite re-reads, UK authors were heavily featured this year with 38 titles. Next came Australian authors on 23; US writers with 15 books; one Irish author, Tana French, with five titles; and four authors from assorted other countries (Finland, Germany, Japan). I haven't done a very good job of reading foreign books lately!

Notable books of 2020

The year began with the tail end of a Noel Streatfeild binge, and progressed with binges of several other authors, notably Tana French (5) and childhood favourite Elizabeth Enright (6). I had intended to re-read all of Alan Garner's books this year but I didn't quite manage it -- I read nine of his works and still have a couple to go which I'll finish off this year. I had a Jane Austen mini-binge as well, starting with a biography that sent me scurrying back to her novels. (I'm looking forward to re-visiting Pride and Prejudice when my remaining school age daughter studies it this year.)

In spite of all the comfort reading and re-reading, my standout reading experiences were actually mostly non-fiction, and mostly by Australian authors. Sarah Krasnostein's The Trauma Cleaner and Chloe Hooper's The Arsonist both made a deep impression early in the year. Judith Brett's From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage was both educational and thoroughly enjoyable. I lost myself in Richard Fidler's Ghost Empire, and as usual was bewitched by Robert Macfarlane as he took me Underland.