Tuesday, 30 November 2010
Quite a while ago I posted a contemporary review of E.M. Delafield's (brilliant) The Provincial Lady Goes Further, from Time and Tide. When I did, I promised I'd post anything similar I encountered - which sadly I haven't done for some time, but today I was reading more reviews of various books, and thought you might be interested in one of the following. Here are reviews of two Stuck-in-a-Book favourites, both on my 50 Books... list: Edith Olivier's The Love-Child and David Garnett's Lady Into Fox:
The Love-Child by Edith Olivier
The Saturday Review (28th May 1927)
T. Earl Welby
‘Miss Olivier, whom I take to be a new writer, has made a hopeful beginning. Indeed, on the strength of this first book, if it really is her first, a brilliant future might be predicted for her if it were not for the consideration that the thing is a tour de force, and that it has yet to be discovered what she can do when dealing with lives lived out soberly under the light of the sun and not with a world of fantasy. Here is the matter of her story. Agatha Boddington, no longer young, and subdued to the routine of a life in which nothing happens, is bereaved of her mother. Her father she lost years earlier. There seems to be an utter emptiness in the years that stretch before her, but in her solitude she begins to remember the secret imagined playmate of her now remote childhood, such a playmate as very many children have invented for themselves. Mused upon, Clarissa, that daughter of imagination, gradually, uncertainly, takes flesh. The situation, should any but Agatha see Clarissa in her intermittent bodily manifestations, would demand more explanation than Agatha can offer. In a state of extreme excitement and anxiety, Agatha goes away from her house, from her bewildered servants, to an hotel at the seaside, where she can have accommodation for her “niece” and herself without arousing curiosity.
‘There Clarissa develops, and there is a period during which Agatha and she, in their flawless intimacy, know perfect happiness. But the visit must end, and having warned her servants that she is returning with a little niece, she and the love child born of her imagination go back to the old house. But, through imagery for which Miss Olivier may conceivably have had a hint from a wonderful passage in Gérard de Nerval, the frailty of the relations between Agatha and Clarissa is now suggested. Reading out of an antiquated pseudo-scientific book, they learn how attraction holds the stars in their courses; but Clarissa now lamentably apt to have ideas independently of Agatha’s promptings, raises the question whether a star might not pass out of reach of that attraction. Clarissa, certainly, is destined to pass out of the range of Agatha’s. Becoming so human, she responds at long last to the love-making of a young neighbour, David, from whom Agatha seeks vainly to keep her. And at the moment when she begins to love a human being other than Agatha, she ceases to be, dissolves into the world of dreams out of which the yearnings of Agatha materialized her. Agatha herself subsides into a fortunate madness, in which she can play games with the invisible Clarissa.
‘Miss Olivier has imagination and the method required by her material. She is careful to provide a matter-of-fact setting, and makes intelligent use of the stolid servants, the blundering policeman, the uncomprehending neighbours. She is also able to insinuate into her fantasy a sense of the pathos of a life so starved of actualities that it must be nourished on dreams. Agatha is not, as with the average writer of fantastic tales she would have been, merely an agent for the production of Clarissa: she is human, and her exultations and sufferings matter.’
Lady Into Fox by David Garnett
The Saturday Review (27th January 1923)
‘Every English country gentleman has, of course, pondered long and seriously what he would do if his wife turned into a fox. Few, however, have been called upon to put their conclusions into practice. To Mr. Tebrick, whose story Mr. David Garnett has told with admirable reticence, the shock came unexpectedly. “The sudden changing of Mrs. Tebrick into a vixen,” says Mrs. Garnet, “is an established fact.” He is not to be drawn aside into speculation on the possible explanations. He has a horror of second-hand or ill-supported embroideries upon the bare and certain story. What, then, are we to say about convincingness? To some narrow folk, Mr. Garnett’s story, despite its sober veracity, will seem as improbable as the elaborate inventions of Mr. Vivian; but not to those susceptible to the charms of style. From beginning to end of ‘Lady Into Fox,’ there is not one false-note. The coherence and harmony are absolute. To apply the vulgar and impertinent test of probability is unthinkable. Mrs. Tebrick was changed into a vixen: at first she preserved many of her human characteristics, desiring out of modesty to wear clothes, and continuing to play cards: but gradually the animal nature asserted itself, and poor Mr. Tebrick’s novel was ever more severely strained, but never gave way, and at the end his wife died tragically in his arms. We have Mr. Garnett’s word for it, in a prose as pure as Addison’s; and I am sorry for those who find it difficult to credit. Mr. Garnett’s woodcuts are corroborative evidence, being wholly in the spirit of the tale. The evidence is welcome, but the corroboration is unnecessary.’
Monday, 29 November 2010
I was quite pleased when my book group decided to read The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas (could someone tell me how to pronounce this, by the way?) because I'd got a copy through Amazon Vine a while ago, and knew I needed an incentive to make my way through all 483 pages of it. That wasn't going to happen off my own bat. Or my own back. I can never remember which it is...
The idea seemed really interesting: at a barbecue, somebody slaps somebody else's child. We see the event and its aftermath from various different perspectives, and an interesting and complex moral question is woven into the fabric of life for a group of Australian young parents.
Or that was the idea.
What Tsiolkas has actually done is so much less subtle that I wanted to shake him. The ingredients for a fascinating novel are in place, and - I'll say it now, because this review might wander into negative territory - Tsiolkas is potentially a really good writer, but it is all wasted. Tsiolkas has gathered together the most loathsome characters imaginable, the most loathsome of the lot indisputably Harry, who is the one to slap Hugo. He is also a wife-beater, a druggie, and someone who despises everybody who is not himself. The chapter we see from his perspective left me feeling nauseous, he was so disgusting a human being. Which Tsiolkas recognises, I think, so it didn't worry me from that point of view - what ruined The Slap was that the slapper in question offered no sort of moral grey area. He enjoys being violent to others, and enjoyed hurting Hugo. Hugo was, at the time, threatening Harry's child - which could have been an interesting angle, especially if Harry were normally a mild-mannered man - but Tsiolkas sweeps this ambivalence away.
It's not just Harry that is horrible. His wife Sandi is; Hugo's parents Rosie and Gary are; the host of the party, Hector, is. In amongst an enormous cast of characters, only two of the central ones seemed at all likeable, especially Richie - more on him later. And - have I lived a terribly sheltered life? - EVERY single character takes drugs. I hate reading books with drug-taking, as it makes me feel ill. I know this is my own faint-heartedness, and I don't expect every modern writer to steer clear of it, but Tsiolkas takes it to ridiculous lengths. Every character, from 14 to 60 odd, dabbles in recreational drug taking. Perhaps Tsiolkas thinks it spices up the book? And don't get me started on the amount of swearing in The Slap. When I raved about Ned Beauman's novel Boxer, Beetle, Lynne asked me what I thought about the swearing - well, I didn't really notice it there. Maybe because it seemed fit for the characters, or was used intelligently. Tsiolkas is under the impression that a sentence isn't complete without some really horrible expletives in it.
The structure of the novel isn't what I expected. I thought we'd see the same incident from various perspectives, which would have been tricky to pull off, but potentially brilliant. Instead, we move between different characters, each chapter giving the viewpoint of a different person - from the party where the slap occurs, through the resultant court case, and then meandering onto some quite well observed chapters (the reminiscences of an old man, and a young man coming to terms with being gay and having a messed-up best friend) which had almost nothing to do with the rest of the plot. The last 200 pages should have been removed, or instead used as the starting point for other novels, as they were the best written sections, but entirely irrelevant. Richie - the young guy - is easily the most affecting character in The Slap, and has the final chapter, which is quite moving. I warmed to him with this sentence:
Richie had a dawning sense that the fact that men loved kicking a leather ball to one another boded ill for the sanity of the human race.
You tell 'em, Richie.
As I said at the beginning, Christos Tsiolkas is a good writer, which is what makes The Slap so annoying. If he'd been a bad writer treating his topic badly, that would have been fine - I'd have thrown the book to one side, and moved on. As it is, he has a brilliant way of capturing a character's voice. Although the sheer number of characters, all arriving in a couple of paragraphs in the first chapter, meant I had to write out a sheet telling me who was married to whom, with which children etc. etc., after a dozen or so pages they all became sharply outlined, and very well drawn. The writing was compelling, and I read all 483 pages more quickly than I read many novels half that length.
But - the flaws in structure and the waste of a potentially interesting topic, not to mention the incessant drug-taking and swearing for effect, made The Slap ultimately fail in my eyes - and (for these and other reasons) in the eyes of those I discussed it with at book group. I can't think of many bad books which yet reveal good writers, but with The Slap Tsiolkas has convinced me to consider reading him again, even when I couldn't appreciate the novel itself.
Sunday, 28 November 2010
This seems appropriate because it is *so* cold here... I was typing away in the freezing computer room at Magdalen, wearing gloves when I was reading, and taking them off to do the typing... anyway, this song's title is appropriate. And it's beautiful, and sometimes makes me cry... I can only find live versions (this one is synced to the original video) but... it'll have to do! Step forward Tori Amos, with 'Winter'.
For all other Sunday Songs, click here.
Saturday, 27 November 2010
1.) The link - is courtesy of The Dabbler, where you can win a copy of the Christmas edition of Slightly Foxed - click here to enter, if you know your Christmas literary trivia.
2.) The blog post - is Harriet Devine's, because this amused me...
3.) The book - is the Persephone Ninety Diary, which Nicola Beauman very kindly gave me as a birthday present. It's beautiful - like the Persephone books, but with a more flexible spine, and has pages with the endpapers from all the Persephone books, alongside the diary pages. The question is, of course... is it too beautiful to use? I haven't made my mind up on that just yet...
Thursday, 25 November 2010
So this is another not-very-time-consuming post: the following list (not in any particular order) has been doing the rounds of blogs and Facebook, and I thought I'd join in. Thanks for everyone who sent it to me. I saw it a few years ago, and it is a bizarre list (including some duplications). It's not the same as the list they came up with during the Big Read - a series I adored, especially the run-down of the top 100; must try and find that video somewhere... ANYWAY, here is the list, with the ones I've read in bold. Do comment on that which I have left unread which I ought to have read...
1. Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
2. The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
3. Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
4. Harry Potter series - JK Rowling
5. To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
6. The Bible
7. Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
8. Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell
9. His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10. Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
11. Little Women - Louisa M Alcott
12. Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare (well, I've read over half...)
15. Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16. The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
17. Birdsong - Sebastian Faulk
18. Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
19. The Time Traveller’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20. Middlemarch - George Eliot
21. Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
22. The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
23. Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24. War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
26. Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27. Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28. Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
29. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
30. The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31. Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32. David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33. Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
34. Emma - Jane Austen
35. Persuasion - Jane Austen
36. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis (I'm leaving in Nancy's comment on this, as I wholeheartedly agree: 'being it's part of the Chronicles, it's stupid this is on the list again')
37. The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
38. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39. Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40. Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne
41. Animal Farm - George Orwell
42. The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
43. One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44. A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving
45. The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46. Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47. Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48. The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood
49. Lord of the Flies - William Golding
50. Atonement - Ian McEwan
51. Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52. Dune - Frank Herbert
53. Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54. Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55. A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56. The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57. A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
58. Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
59. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
60. Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61. Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
62. Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63. The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64. The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65. Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66. On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67. Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68. Bridget Jones’s Diary - Helen Fielding
69. Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
70. Moby Dick - Herman Melville
71. Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72. Dracula - Bram Stoker
73. The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
74. Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75. Ulysses - James Joyce
76. The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
77. Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78. Germinal - Emile Zola
79 .Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80. Possession - AS Byatt
81. A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
82. Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83. The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84. The Remains of the Day - Kazu Ishiguro
85. Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86. A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87. Charlotte’s Web - EB White
88. The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90. The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton
91. Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
92. The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93. The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94. Watership Down - Richard Adams
95. A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96. A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97. The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98. Hamlet - William Shakespeare (as opposed to the complete works... hmm...)
99. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
100. Les Miserables - Victor Hugo
Wednesday, 24 November 2010
I was thinking about my previous weekend of reading novellas, and what fun it was, and musing about what I'd read were I to repeat the experiment... and toying with doing so on the weekend 4th-5th December. So I went around my bookshelves, pulling things off that I wanted to read, and that were around 200pp. or less. And now I have a pile of 13 books... I'm not going to reveal them just yet, because I think that last time it rather spoilt the surprise of what I'd read, and maybe led to book-mention-fatigue (just be grateful Miss Hargreaves isn't under 200pp.! As the bloggers who met Thomas the other day discovered, I can work Miss H. into more or less any conversation.) But the beady-eyed amongst you may be able to deduce one or two...
If I did provisionally put aside that weekend for novella reading, would anyone be interested in joining me?
Obviously I wouldn't be able to read all thirteen, but I daresay I'd make something of a dent, and it would be fun to know that other people were engaging in the activity elsewhere in the country. It might be shortened by a potential trip to Cheltenham to see a musical, but... well, we'll see. December seems somehow appropriate for novellas. Although it also seems appropriate for enormous novels, which is why I have Sarah Waters' The Night Watch earmarked for a dark post-Christmas evening.
Do let me know if you'd be interested, and spread the word. You don't have to give up the whole weekend, of course - maybe just try to read one or two novellas at some point? It certainly demolishes the reading pile a little!
Tuesday, 23 November 2010
A book I forgot to mention the other day, in amongst my haul, is Aloe by Katherine Mansfield, kindly given to me as a birthday present from Claire, known to the blogging world as Paperback Reader. (I still have two other birthday presents to mention, but they're also going to get posts of their own...) Thanks Claire! I think this completes my collection of Mansfield fiction - now I just have to get her letters... I only have the selected letters at the moment.
And the other thing I must do is hand out the prizes for Pillars of the Earth DVD. Thanks for all your fab ideas for film adaptations - either ones which have never been done, or ones which deserve revisiting (and isn't it frustrating when you've loved a book, and see it was filmed in 1930something, not released on DVD, and like as not had the reels destroyed?)
Congratulations to.... Lucy Evans and Janells!
Let me know your addresses (well, I know Lucy's...) and the DVDs will be on their way to you!
Monday, 22 November 2010
I've mentioned on here before that I like to have a diary or collection of letters 'on the go' most of the time - and yesterday I finished the current read. It's Joy Street: A Wartime Romance in Letters by Mirren Barford and John Lewes (ed. Michael T. Wise), and was a gift from my dear friend Phoebe, who always knows what to buy me.
These letters were sent between Mirren Barford, studying at Somerville College in Oxford, and Lieutenant John Lewes, also known as Jock, who was away fighting. They take up less than two years, in 1940 and 1941, but cover a whole spectrum of emotions, thoughts, philosophies, and document the growing relationship between the young letter writers. What starts out fairly cool becomes a romantic exchange - with all the peaks and troughs that might suggest - and eventually more or less an engagement. 'Joy Street' became something of a symbol between them - as a destination for their future, united happiness. From the letters we grow to understand so much about Mirren and John - their differences (they almost split over his intense desire to be a soldier, and her hatred of warfare), their connections, their subtle steps towards one another and their backward glances. This between two people who only had the chance to meet ten times - the reader knows from the outset that John did not return from war. The letter Mirren writes to his parents, months after his death, is quite incredibly moving. I have never lost anybody very close to me, but I shall return to this letter when I do.
It's always a little uncomfortable reading people's private letters, especially without their permission. Mirren was dead when this correspondence was discovered in the 1990s by her son. Here are three interesting excerpts on this topic:
[Mirren] Once I thought I could write a pretty phrase or two, but your letter with its magnificence has shattered all my illusions and makes me feel really weak. It was a fine letter; one day I hope my great-grandchildren will take the trouble to have them published for many people would read them gladly if they had the chance.
[John] Your reception of my letter is gracious and generous; your praise is very dear to me always and on this occasion it could not have been higher than by saying that many people would read my letters gladly if they had the chance. And yet the publication of our correspondence is unthinkable, for it is so essentially private to us as almost to be written in code undecipherable to others. Readers may detect a felicity of phrase and even at times magnificence, but the significance of Penelope's design, wherein surely its chiefest value lies, must inevitably escape them unless they are supplied with a key
[John] It is a very great loss to all who read and write letters and journals that considerations of security forbid the detailed description of the lives that are being led in the multiform war. That is a loss to history and scientific record but it is no loss to literature, for writing is only worthy of that name which submits to a discipline both of substance and of form. and so perhaps, when this war's writing comes to be read and reckoned up as literature, it may be placed in a higher norm than the indiscriminate journalism which is so well thought of now. The things that matter are not the things that happen, but rather things that grow, and literature if it is to live must deal with life directly and not indirectly through its accidents. [...] And so the Journal to Mirren is not for the curious, who would find it dull indeed. It is for a lover of life, and its purpose is to try and present another life as worthy of that love.
Usually, reading collections of letters, there are all sorts of meetings or 'phone calls which we only hear about in passing; visits which are referred to, or the building blocks of a relationship which the reader cannot grasp decades later. With Joy Street, although there are a few meetings between the couple, we are privileged to witness the majority of their growing attachment. Almost everything that was built between them was built through these letters. And because they are real, they naturally have an authenticity that no novelist could fully craft.
In a letter which John never read, sent but not received before his death, Mirren writes:
Indeed, I want you to go on being alive. Maybe we'll never marry, but that isn't the most important thing. You'll go on, and you'll give of yourself to the world, for you have the power. And I'll go on too. If I'm ever capable of loving someone more than I love you, then there is no reason why my little ideal should be wrecked. If you die before we have had time to be together, at least I shall have the faith and love you have given me, deep rooted and eternal in my soul. And with that knowledge, I'll never be defeated; I may fail to do as much as I hoped but I'll never be defeated. And if I'm killed and you still love me as you do, then - I don't know how you'll feel. But I do know John, that you have given me something, and I, perhaps, to you, that no man or god can ever destroy. We call it faith, ideals, hope, but do we really and truly know what it is? I don't think so, and I don't think it matters, either. But it does matter that it is present, unforgettable, a part of my own self.
Books to get Stuck into:
-In the Springtime of the Year by Susan Hill: the best book about grief that I have read, or can imagine reading.
-Love Letters by Leonard Woolf & Trekkie Ritchie Parsons: the letters between Leonard and the woman he loved after Virginia are perhaps more revealing than Leonard would have liked, and a fascinating portrait of an unusual coupling.
Sunday, 21 November 2010
For all previous Sunday Songs, click here.
Saturday, 20 November 2010
My week has been slightly confused, since I've spent all day convinced that it was Saturday... which has essentially given me an extra day in the week. How could I have thought it was the weekend without my weekend miscellany? Book, blog post, and link coming up...
1.) The blog posts - are myriad. I mentioned earlier in the week a little blogger meet-up to welcome Thomas to our sceptr'd isle, and I thought I'd point you in the direction of the various reports of the day. Especially of interest if you like to see photos of the people behind the blogs... Here are links to the reports: Thomas, Polly, Miranda, Claire, Hayley.
2.) The link - a friend of mine mentioned that the Paris Review Interviews were now available online - here. I've bought the collected interviews they've published over the years, but now I can have a skim through for any author. Here's some ideas for you: interviews with A.S. Byatt, E.M. Forster, Graham Greene, Milan Kundera, Iris Murdoch, P.L. Travers, Rebecca West, and P.G. Wodehouse.
3.) The book - isn't really a book... but Mills and Boon (Heaven knows how they got my email address) sent me this image earlier in the week:
Friday, 19 November 2010
33. The Good Earth - Pearl S. Buck
I still have three birthday books to mention - my bounty is seemingly unending! - but I've just finished a library book, and wanted to write about that before returning it. This is quite unusual, and it seems I currently wait until all memory of a book has faded before attempting to blog about it... those who can spot a flaw in this plan, you're not alone. This one is going straight into my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About.
I am usually wary of that common book group phrase: "Well, that's the point of book groups, isn't it - to make us read things we wouldn't normally read." This is almost invariably said when people have hated a book... and, to be honest, there's usually a reason I don't read the books that I 'wouldn't normally read'. BUT I was forced to use this very expression at book group on Wednesday, concerning Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth.
I don't know why I'd heard of Buck - possibly because she won the Nobel Prize, and this 1931 novel was a huge bestseller - but there was nothing about this novel which appealed, aside from publication date. Not realising that Buck was brought up in China, I thought this would be akin to a travel guide; the mentions of poverty, peasants, heartbreak, and deception in the blurb made this sound like a tiresome specimen of misery lit; bestselling books, let's be honest, tend not to equate with great books. But it all just goes to show that all the signs can point in one direction, and yet the novel turn out to be completely unexpected. In the case of The Good Earth, it turned out to be unexpectedly brilliant.
The novels tells the story of a Chinese farmer, Wang Lung. The land is everything to him; it provides or withholds; it is a sign of wealth and status; it is his livelihood. This is the strongest theme of the novel, and one that survives all the human interaction. In bare bones, The Good Earth documents the descent into poverty, and raise into riches, of Wang Lung and his expanding family. They travel south to avoid starvation, begging to survive - always with the intention to return to the land they own. When they do, and when they become rich, there are other intrusions and temptations which mar their good fortune. Across 350 or so pages, the narrative eye does not wander from this family's experience - Buck decides, wisely in my opinion, to show the state of China in the 1920s and '30s through the world of a few individuals, rather than great political swathes.
Wang Lung lives with his father, and early in the novel he has decided to get himself a wife. This is no Austenesque tale of courtship: it has been decided before the narrative begins that Wang Lung will be married to a slave from the house of the area's great family - meekly, uncertainly he enters these courts to collect O-lan, who is described thus by the Great and Ancient Lady of the house:
"This woman came into our house when she was a child of ten and here she has lived until now, when she is twenty years old. I bought her in a year of famine when her parents came south because they had nothing to eat. They were from the north in Shantung and there they returned, and I know nothing further of them. You see she has the strong body and the square cheeks of her kind. She will work well for you in the field and drawing water and all else that you wish. She is not beautiful but that you do not need. Only men of leisure have the need for beautiful women to divert them. Neither is she clever. But she does well what she is told to do and she has a good temper. So far as I know she is a virgin. She has not beauty enough to tempt my sons and grandsons even if she had not been in the kitchen."The blurb of my borrowed copy tries valiantly to turn The Good Earth into a feminist text, but it is not that. It is true that O-lan is ultimately the means of raising the family's fortunes; it is true that she sacrifices much for her family, and is one of few in her family to remain steadfastly loyal, wise, and unselfish. But Buck doesn't paint O-lan as a paragon, or hold Wang Lung up to disapprobation. It is the brilliance of The Good Earth, and Buck as a writer, that there is almost no sense of the author at all. Sometimes an author is evident in every word of a novel, through style or voice - and this can be either wonderful or dreadful. But I think it takes an even greater talent for the author to fade behind the characters and events, so they do not intrude at all. And this certainly isn't because the characters' minds take centre stage - Buck resists giving any sort of psychological insight, and instead allows events and dynamics between family members to have the most impact. Even the dialogue rarely wanders from the surface of characters' thoughts and feelings - and while Wang Lung, sometime into marriage, 'had learned now from that impassive square countenance to detect small changes at first invisible to him', O-lan remains a closed book to the reader for much of the novel. A closed book psychologically, that is - it would yet be impossible not to be moved by O-lan's life, including one moment where I gasped aloud.
If I had to choose one word to describe The Good Earth, it would indisputably be the word 'authentic'. Presumably because Buck lived many years in China, she knew the culture inside out. Even reading it as an outsider, I felt enveloped by the culture - details I didn't know (for example, wearing white for mourning) were mentioned, but subtly, not drawing attention to the reader's ignorance. Somebody at book group commented that it occasionally felt as though it had been translated from Chinese - that's how accurate the language and insights felt. Where a modern writer might feel they had to explain their own views, or condemn the sexism inherent to 1930s rural China, Buck bravely allows the characters simply to exist - without approval or disapproval. Instead there is simply the most involving and, yes, authentic narrative I have read for some time. Not a novel I would have imagined responding to thus, but I am very grateful to Yoanna for suggesting we read it - and hope to have encouraged you to do the same.
Wednesday, 17 November 2010
Today I'll be talking about a fun outing on Saturday, and some more birthday books which have found their way to me, courtesy of my brother - I think I've had 19 or 20 books for my birthday, which is more or less the same number as I've bought all year. Famine really does make you appreciate the feast.
But first - one of the nicest, and most unexpected, pleasures of blogging is meeting bloggers in person. I must have met at least 25 or 30 now (including 20+ at the UK meet-ups) and it's always been great fun. What's even better is when we can form some sort of welcoming party for those visiting from distant shores. So when Thomas (My Porch) put up an open invitation for UK bloggers to assemble in London and meet him, of course I was delighted and excited.
A group of us (Polly, Hannah, Claire, Hayley, Miranda, and Donna) met Thomas at the Persephone bookshop, then went for a fabulous afternoon tea at the British Museum...
Thomas, being the lovely guy that I suspected he would be, had brought us all books as presents - chosen to suit us, by careful examination of our blogs. I was so, so pleased to get Tepper Isn't Going Out by Calvin Trillin - it was in my Amazon wishlist ever since I saw Thomas call Tepper his favourite fictional character. Little did I suspect that I'd get the book from the man himself - always a bonus when a book has what the Bodleian calls 'notable provenance'.
And these are the lovely books my brother got me for my birthday - courtesy, once more, of that Amazon wishlist. Such a good idea:
- Exercises in Style - Raymond Queneau
- Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Girl - Jenny Wren
- Rereadings - ed. Anne Fadiman
- Beowulf on the Beach - Jack Murnighan
Monday, 15 November 2010
Another quick post tonight - tomorrow you will hear about my London exploits, if you haven't already spotted them on other blogs, but for today there is a competition to win one of two DVDs of Pillars of the Earth, originally a novel by Ken Follett. It's got Ian McShane, Donald Sutherland, and Rufus Sewell in it. I haven't actually been watching the series, since my television watching seems to be taken up by Emmerdale and Neighbours, but I know some of you are definitely interested. You can watch a trailer here - and, if you're in Region 2 area (Europe, I assume?) feel free to enter the draw for a copy - courtesy of Momentum Worldwide.
To enter, just write in the comments which book you'd most like to see adapted...
Sunday, 14 November 2010
I'll give an update on yesterday's fun activities soon - but for today let's have another Sunday Song.
Quite a few of you probably know the actress Minnie Driver - what might be less well known is that she's released two lovely albums: Everything I've Got in My Pocket and Seastories. This is the title track from the former:
For all previous Sunday Songs, click here.
Saturday, 13 November 2010
Thanks everyone for the welcome back - it's nice to be blogging again, even if I seem to be lingering with a cough that won't be away... and my eyes not quite up to reading much yet, so I'm quite behind in those stakes too. Oh well... let's have a weekend miscellany to cheer ourselves up, eh?
Oh, and the above picture is the park at the end of my road, from the other day. I looked out the window and the mist was amazing. The jogger appeared after I clicked to take the picture, but I quite like his mysterious inclusion...
1.) The book - is Nella Last in the 1950s, which Profile Books kindly sent me, after seeing my rave review of Nella Last's War. They also accepted my cheeky plea for Nella Last's Peace, the book covering the period between these books. Although I finished Nella Last's War back in February, it's still my favourite book read this year - can't wait to read the next two.
2.) The blog post - is Becky's lovely review of Miss Hargreaves, which is just as enthusiastic as I could wish!
3.) The link - is to The Persephone Post which, with the entry for 12th November, has shown off Our Vicar's Wife's photography skills! And do keep visiting Mum's blog for more news from the South West, not least the activities of lovely Sherpa.
Thursday, 11 November 2010
Hello there - sorry I've been absent for so long; the cold I had on my birthday got worse, and then a bit better, and then worse, and then rather better - so now I'm just coughing a lot and waking myself up. Ho-hum. Worse things happen at sea, as Our Vicar's Wife is apt to say. There are quite a few things I've been meaning to blog about, including some reviews etc., but I'm going to be returning at a steady pace - hope that's ok. And there's an exciting meeting this Saturday, which I daresay you'll hear about in time...
But, of course, I have to share my birthday bounty with you. This year, for the first time, I used an Amazon wishlist. It helped with Project 24 - instead of impulse buys, I put things on my wishlist, and removed them later if they no longer appealed. So it had built up to quite an extent when I emailed it to those wondering what I wanted for my birthday... Which actually made a really nice compromise between surprise and gratification. I didn't just tell people what to get me, so I had lovely surprises as I opened the presents - but at the same time I knew that I'd really want everything I received. Some gems here, which I'm really excited about. One missing, which was from my housemate Debs, and which you'll see in more detail later...
- The Mystery of Mrs. Blencarrow - Mrs. Oliphant
- The City & The City - China Mieville
- Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks - John Curran
- The Winds of Heaven - Monica Dickens
- Highland Fling - Nancy Mitford
- The Joke - Milan Kundera
- At Large and At Small - Anne Fadiman
- The Restraint of Beasts - Magnus Mills
- Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs - Jeremy Mercer (about Shakespeare & Co. bookshop)
- A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen (from Susan in TX, thanks Susan!)
- A Reader on Reading - Alberto Manguel
- And Furthermore - Dame Judi Dench
- Talking of Jane Austen - G.B. Stern and Sheila Kaye-Smith
Sunday, 7 November 2010
Friday, 5 November 2010
I haven't been feeling very well today, so have postponed more thoughtful posts in lieu of continuing the short story theme for the week. Whenever I write about short stories, the number of comments go down - they're not as popular as novels with you folks, are they? - but I thought you might enjoy this, from A.A. Milne's collection of stories and essays called Happy Days.
THE LUCKY MONTH
"Know thyself," said the old Greek motto. (In Greek—but this is an English book.) So I bought a little red volume called, tersely enough, Were you born in January? I was; and, reassured on this point, the author told me all about myself.
For the most part he told me nothing new. "You are," he said in effect, "good-tempered, courageous, ambitious, loyal, quick to resent wrong, an excellent raconteur, and a leader of men." True. "Generous to a fault"—(Yes, I was overdoing that rather)—"you have a ready sympathy with the distressed. People born in this month will always keep their promises." And so on. There was no doubt that the author had the idea all right. Even when he went on to warn me of my weaknesses he maintained the correct note. "People born in January," he said, "must be on their guard against working too strenuously. Their extraordinarily active brains——" Well, you see what he means. It is a fault perhaps, and I shall be more careful in future. Mind, I do not take offence with him for calling my attention to it. In fact, my only objection to the book is its surface application to all the people who were born in January. There should have been more distinction made between me and the rabble.
I have said that he told me little that was new. In one matter, however, he did open my eyes. He introduced me to an aspect of myself entirely unsuspected.
"They," he said—meaning me, "have unusual business capacity, and are destined to be leaders in great commercial enterprises."
One gets at times these flashes of self-revelation. In an instant I realised how wasted my life had been; in an instant I resolved that here and now I would put my great gifts to their proper uses. I would be a leader in an immense commercial enterprise.
One cannot start commercial enterprises without capital. The first thing was to determine the exact nature of my balance at the bank. This was a matter for the bank to arrange, and I drove there rapidly.
He assented and retired. After an interminable wait, during which many psychological moments for commercial enterprise must have lapsed, he returned.
"I think you have it," he said shortly.
"Thank you," I replied, and drove rapidly home again.
A lengthy search followed; but after an hour of it one of those white-hot flashes of thought, such as only occur to the natural business genius, seared my mind and sent me post-haste to the bank again.
"After all," I said to the cashier, "I only want to know my balance. What is it?"
He withdrew and gave himself up to calculation. I paced the floor impatiently. Opportunities were slipping by. At last he pushed a slip of paper across at me. My balance!
It was in four figures. Unfortunately two of them were shillings and pence. Still, there was a matter of fifty pounds odd as well, and fortunes have been built up on less.
Out in the street I had a moment's pause. Hitherto I had regarded my commercial enterprise in the bulk, as a finished monument of industry; the little niggling preliminary details had not come up for consideration. Just for a second I wondered how to begin.
Only for a second. An unsuspected talent which has long lain dormant needs, when waked, a second or so to turn round in. At the end of that time I had made up my mind. I knew exactly what I would do. I would ring up my solicitor.
"Hallo, is that you? Yes, this is me. What? Yes, awfully, thanks. How are you? Good. Look here, come and lunch with me. What? No, at once. Good-bye."
Business, particularly that sort of commercial enterprise to which I had now decided to lend my genius, can only be discussed properly over a cigar. During the meal itself my solicitor and I indulged in the ordinary small-talk of the pleasure-loving world.
"You're looking very fit," said my solicitor. "No, not fat, fit."
"You don't think I'm looking thin?" I asked anxiously. "People are warning me that I may be overdoing it rather. They tell me that I must be seriously on my guard against brain strain."
"I suppose they think you oughtn't to strain it too suddenly," said my solicitor. Though he is now a solicitor he was once just an ordinary boy like the rest of us, and it was in those days that he acquired the habit of being rude to me, a habit he has never quite forgotten.
"What is an onyx?" I said, changing the conversation.
"Why?" asked my solicitor, with his usual business acumen.
"Well, I was practically certain that I had seen one in the Zoo, in the reptile house, but I have just learnt that it is my lucky month stone. Naturally I want to get one."
The coffee came and we settled down to commerce.
"I was just going to ask you," said my solicitor—"have you any money lying idle at the bank? Because if so——"
"Whatever else it is doing, it isn't lying idle," I protested. "I was at the bank to-day, and there were men chivying it about with shovels all the time."
"Well, how much have you got?"
"About fifty pounds."
"It ought to be more than that."
"Well, what did you want to do with it?"
"Exactly. That was why I rang you up. I—er——" This was really my moment, but somehow I was not quite ready to seize it. My vast commercial enterprise still lacked a few trifling details. "Er—I—well, it's like that."
"I might get you a few ground rents."
"Don't. I shouldn't know where to put them."
"But if you really have fifty pounds simply lying idle I wish you'd lend it to me for a bit. I'm confoundedly hard up."
("Generous to a fault, you have a ready sympathy with the distressed." Dash it, what could I do?)
"Is it quite etiquette for clients to lend solicitors money?" I asked. "I thought it was always solicitors who had to lend it to clients. If I must, I'd rather lend it to you—I mean I'd dislike it less—as to the old friend of my childhood."
"Yes, that's how I wanted to pay it back."
"Bother. Then I'll send you a cheque to-night," I sighed.
And that's where we are at the moment. "People born in this month always keep their promises." The money has got to go to-night. If I hadn't been born in January, I shouldn't be sending it; I certainly shouldn't have promised it; I shouldn't even have known that I had it. Sometimes I almost wish that I had been born in one of the decent months. March, say.
Thursday, 4 November 2010
Since we've had three posts about short stories this week, let's have another! I didn't plan to do any sort of themed week, and I rather suspect the theme will screech to a halt after this review, but for today... step forward Frank Baker and Stories of the Strange and Sinister.
I've mentioned a few times before that, although Frank Baker wrote one of my very favourite novels (Miss Hargreaves) I have only read one other of his books. It was Before I Go Hence, which I quite enjoyed - but it was nowhere near the standard of Miss H., and I worried that I'd like his work steadily less and less... so stopped. But it's been three years since I read that, and short stories is moving the goalposts a little, so I tried again, with more reasonable expectations.
Stories of the Strange and Sinister was published over forty years after Miss Hargreaves, in 1983, the year Baker died. It was also his first work of fiction for twenty-two years, although including stories written between 1947 and 1983. The stories - as the title suggests - all touch upon the strange and sinister, but I don't think any of them were intensely frightening. Which is good for me; I'd rather read strange stories than horror stories - which is why M.R. James has remained on the shelf for now.
Intense repugnance. That is one definition of horror to be found in the dictionary. Or, power of exciting such feeling. I think it is more. It is also what is totally unexpected: the long sunlit lane that has only a brick wall at the end, the worm in the rose, the sudden ravaged image of one's own tormented face in a window pane. That which has sudden power to corrupt and defile. A stench where sweetness should be; darkness where light should be; a grin where a smile should be; a scream searing into a night where silence should be. An old withered hand where a young hand should be... And no escape from whatever it may be that has suddenly come upon the visitant. No escape.
This is the beginning to perhaps the creepiest story in the collection, 'The Chocolate Box', about a man who finds a severed hand in - you guessed it - a chocolate box. But, thankfully, it is a definition Baker doesn't keep to. Even in his darkest moments, he can't help introducing a touch of that whimsy which makes Miss Hargreaves so irresistible. For instance, in the middle of my favourite story in the book - 'The Green Steps' - the narrator refers to the disturbingly insane character as 'about as talkative as a Trappist monk in Holy Week.'
In 'The Chocolate Box' the narrator writes:
But this is not a story about music. I must keep it out, otherwise it will flood the pages and consume me.Baker suffers from the same predicament. He is obviously too great a music lover to allow it far from his mind. There is a story about warring partners in a music shop; one about a singer who morphs into a bird; a haunted piano...
But there are moments of terror too - the sack which follows its victim around the house; the presentiment of a steam-room murder... In Baker's hand, we never wander too far into Gothic territory - but the sinister undertones to Miss Hargreaves have become much more alarming, and much less balanced out by humour. The whimsy still - as I said - hides in the corners, but there remains much to chill, even if not give nightmares.
As always with short story collections, I find it impossible to outline many of the stories, or give a proper feel for the collection as a whole - but I think Stories of the Strange and Sinister has convinced me not to abandon Baker just yet. It's pretty expensive to track down, and probably isn't really worth the £20 or £30 that various online sellers are requesting, but there are some interesting and original ideas and thoughtful writing - especially in that first story, 'The Green Steps'. I'll leave you with an excerpt from early in that story, which is both evocative of Baker's atmospheric tone, and so many coastal villages in Cornwall (a county Baker loved) with their mysterious, historic and ambling paths:
I had observed him often and I had good reason to know where he lived, for it was very close to our cottage, up the cliff path, that bends sharply uphill over the harbour and the boatmasts that swing and sway in the gales; a path too narrow for any traffic, with rows of cottages, different sizes, shapes and colours, on one side. From the windows of our living-room which overlooks an area - a waste bit of land where kids keep rabbits in hutches and women dry clothes and men saw wood in winter - I would often, and still often see, the Scavenger. Above the area there are steps, the Green Steps they are called, worn away dangerously, all uneven, ground by the feet of many generations, the stone crumbling, little weeds growing from the cracks. I'd always had a curious familiar feeling about the Green Steps; they brought back a hint of the past to me, a paragraph of my boyhood, as though I'd been there years ago; and I knew I hadn't.
Wednesday, 3 November 2010
He had begun to read the novel a few days before. He had put it down because of some urgent business conferences, opened it again on his way back to the estate by train; he permitted himself a slowly growing interest in the plot, in the characterisations. That afternoon, after writing a letter giving his power of attorney and discussing a matter of joint ownership with the manager of his estate, he returned to the book in the tranquillity of his study which looked out upon the park with its oaks. Sprawled in his favourite armchair, its back toward the door – even the possibility of an intrusion would have irritated him, had he thought of it – he let his left hand caress repeatedly the green velvet upholstery and set to reading the final chapters. He remembered effortlessly the names and his mental image of the characters; the novel spread its glamour over him almost at once. He tasted the almost perverse pleasure of disengaging himself line by line from the things around him, and at the same time feeling his head rest comfortably on the green velvet of the chair with its high back, sensing that the cigarettes rested within reach of his hand, that beyond the great windows the air of afternoon danced under the oak trees in the park. Word by word, licked up by the sordid dilemma of the hero and heroine, letting himself be absorbed to the point where the images settled down and took on colour and movement, he was witness to the final encounter in the mountain cabin. The woman arrived first, apprehensive; now the lover came in, his face cut by the backlash of a branch. Admirably, she stanched the blood with her kisses, but he rebuffed her caresses, he had not come to perform again the ceremonies of a secret passion, protected by a world of dry leaves and furtive paths through the forest. The dagger warmed itself against his chest and underneath liberty pounded, hidden close. A lustful, panting dialogue raced down the pages like a rivulet of snakes, and one felt it had all been decided from eternity. Even to those caresses which writhed about the lover’s body, as though wishing to keep him there, to dissuade him from it; they sketched abominably the frame of that other body it was necessary to destroy. Nothing had been forgotten: alibis, unforeseen hazards, possible mistakes. From this hour on, each instant had its use minutely assigned. The cold-blooded, twice-gone-over re-examination of the details was barely broken off so that a hand could caress a cheek. It was beginning to get dark.
Not looking at one another now, rigidly fixed upon the task which awaited them, they separated at the cabin door. She was to follow the trail that led north. On the path leading in the opposite direction, he turned for a moment to watch her running, her hair loosened and flying. He ran in turn, crouching among the trees and hedges until, in the yellowish fog of dusk, he could distinguish the avenue of trees which led up to the house. The dogs were not supposed to bark, they did not bark. The estate manager would not be there at this hour, and he was not there. He went up the three porch steps and entered. The woman’s words reached him over the thudding of blood in his ears: first a blue chamber, then a hall, then a carpeted stairway. At the top, two doors. No one in the first room, no one in the second. The door of the salon, and then, the knife in hand, the light from the great windows, the high back of an armchair covered in green velvet, the head of the man in the chair reading a novel.
Tuesday, 2 November 2010
Oh, and Spots of Time, I haven't heard from you yet in order to get your copy of The Love-Child to you. Hope to hear from you soon - otherwise this weekend I'll draw another name. Make sure you (ahem) spot this in time!
Monday, 1 November 2010
Ages ago I won Andrina and other stories by George Mackay Brown on Hayley's blog Desperate Reader. So enthused was she, and so keen that I read it, that I got it to the top of my pile in surprisingly quick time for me (putting this in perspective, I'm currently reading a book someone gave me over three years ago) - but then didn't blog about it, and now am looking back in my memory to see what I thought. As such, I'm probably more likely to give impressions about the book as a whole, rather than individual stories.
Every time I write about short stories, I say how difficult it is. The themes will be so sprawling, the characters so diverse, that trying to find a unifying voice is tricky. Hayley suggests, in her review, that GMB is drawn to 'time, tide, season, poetry, and faith' - which is pretty wide, but probably fairly accurate. From the beautiful island photograph on the cover of my copy, I was expecting something from the same stable as Tove Jansson - with chilly descriptions, unsentimental characters, lots about the minutiae of human interaction, etc. etc. So I was a little surprised when the first story was all about a whaler, with some quite wordy letters being sent to a woman with the improbable name Williamina. I can't say I was smitten.
But I persevered - and what I will say is that the collection is mixed, but mostly on the good side of that! George Mackay Brown is very interested in fables and legends, and the whole book feels a little as though it had been translated from Old Norse or Icelandic or a language with a similar oral tradition. What do I mean by that? I suppose it's his odd choice of language - the sort of things we encounter in Anglo-Saxon literature, with turns of phrase relating to the most primitive forms of existence. This can be incredibly effective - I especially loved this line:
Days, months, years passed. A whole generation gathered and broke like a wave on the shore.On the other hand, for those of us who never read historical fiction - which I recognise is a failing in myself, not the genre - it sometimes grates a little. Or, if not 'grate', does wear a little thin occasionally... but only occasionally.
The title story 'Andrina' is one of the best, and one of the few which felt more in the traditional mould of beginning-middle-twist-end. If I had to pick a favourite story from the collection, it would be 'Poets', which is actually a group of four stories, set in different times and places, carefully displaying four poets (some creating written poetry; some more metaphorical). In 'The Lord of Silence' within this group, Duncan is a poet who never utters a word:
He grew up. He was a young man. He learned to hunt, to herd, to plough. He learned to drink from the silver cup, pledging his companions in silence. His father went once on a cattle raid into the next glen, and did not return. They managed to get his body from the scree before the eagle and the wolf made their narrowing circles. The women of the glen, who mourned in a ritualistic way, had never seen such stark grief on a human face: the mouth of Duncan opened in a black silent wail.Maybe it is when GMB's own interest in poetry overrides, that I lose my way sometimes. As someone who has an admiration for poetry, but rarely an enjoyment, I think I was occasionally left on the sidelines with some of the stories. I could see that they were beautiful, and with many of them I could relish that beauty and engage with the characters, writing, themes - but with others I could only sense beauty, not feel it. There is no doubt that GMD is a talented and evocative writer, when he finds the right reader - and whilst I certainly wasn't completely the wrong reader for Andrina and other stories, which I'm very glad I've read, and mostly enjoyed - I think there could be ideal readers out there for whom this would be an incredibly special book.