Tuesday 31 January 2012

(In the spirit of yesterday's post, and to declare my upcoming brief absence):

Adieu, adieu, I'm leaving you,
It's sad to say goodbye.
I'll still be stuck in books (of course)
I'm off to Hay-on-Wye!

Monday 30 January 2012

Deadline Poet - Calvin Trillin

When I wrote recently about his disengagement with poetry, and asked for your help (much appreciated!) I didn't expect my next dalliance with poetry to be something quite like Calvin Trillin's Deadline Poet.  I have Thomas to thank for introducing me to Trillin, and Nancy to thank for mentioning Deadline Poet on this post back here.  And now it has filled one of the tricky 1990s spots on A Century of Books.

Given my disinclination to read poetry, it was perhaps a surprising choice for me.  Even more surprising is that it's about Trillin's time writing weekly 'doggerel' (his word) for The Nation about contemporary political figures. Contemporary being, in this case, the 1990s.  Trillin always refers to his boss as 'the wily and parsimonious Victor S. Navasky', whose one condition for offering Trillin $100 a week for his verse was: "Don't tell any of the real poets you're getting that much." - "Your secret is safe with me," I assured him.

Now, I know nothing about politics in 1990s America.  Indeed, I know nothing about politics in any place, at any time, up to and including 2012 Britain...  Thankfully Deadline Poet isn't simply a collection of verse - Trillin knows that, if a week is a long time in politics, a year is an eternity.  Light verse published in a newspaper necessarily relies upon topicality - so even those who know who Zoe Baird, Clarence Thomas, Robert Penn Warren etc. are (sorry, I don't) might not remember the intricacies of various campaigns and speeches.  So Trillin prefaces his poems with explanations - or, rather, the poems occupy a lot of a journalist's memoir.  The poetry and prose take up about equal amounts of page space, so it doesn't feel like a collection with notes, nor like a traditional memoir, but a really engaging and funny combination of the two.

And the poetry itself?  Well, Trillin probably isn't being unduly bashful when he calls himself a doggerelist.  There isn't a lot of it that would make Wordsworth uneasy.  Scanning and syntax tend to fall below rhyming in Trillin's list of priorities (then again, that never did Tennyson any harm) and even there he prefers an abcb rhyme scheme, rather than abab, which is a little lazy - still, there is plenty of ingenious rhyming and wittiness throughout.  Here's one I enjoyed.  (I should add, I have no idea who Ross Perot is.  I don't even know which is Republican and which is Democrat, since the words mean the same thing.  So sorry if Perot is 'your' party... you probably know by now that I am not seeking to offend.)

The Ross Perot Guide to Answering Embarrassing Questions

When something in my history is found
Which contradicts the views that I propound,
Or shows that I am surely hardly who
I claim to be, here's what I usually do:

I lie
I simply, baldly falsify.
I look the fellow in the eye,
And cross my heart and hope to die - 
And lie.

I don t apologize. Not me. Instead,
I say I never said the things I said
Nor did the things that people saw me do.
Confronted with some things they know are true,

I lie.
I offer them no alibi,
Nor say, "You oversimplify."
I just deny, deny, deny.
I lie.

I hate the weasel words some slickies use
To blur their pasts or muddy up their views.
Not me. I'm blunt. One thing that makes me great
Is that I'll never dodge nor obfuscate.

I'll lie.

I imagine those of you who were politically aware in the 1990s will enjoy Deadline Poet greatly (especially if you agree with Trillin's views, which I think are liberal).  It is testament to Trillin's humour and drollery that even I, entirely ignorant, found Deadline Poet a really entertaining read.  Perhaps it isn't quite how I saw myself engaging with poetry, and political verse certainly isn't an avenue I'll be exploring further, but as the memoir of a weekly journalist and light verse writer, I found it a whole heap o' fun.

Saturday 28 January 2012

Blindness by Henry Green

Normal weekend posts are suspended, since I failed to write my review of Blindness (1926) during weekdays of Henry Green Reading Week (run by Stu) - indeed, I didn't finish reading the book until last night.  But let's hope the weekend counts, and get on with the show!  And it's going to be quite a long show, as I ended up having a lot to say about Mr. Green...

I decided to start with Blindness because it was Green's first novel, and I've never read an author chronologically before.  Blindness was great, and so I'll be reading the rest of Green's novels chronologically... over the course of many years, I suspect.  I wasn't sure I'd like him, based on excerpts I had seen around the blogosphere - perhaps he has to be read in context, rather than piecemeal?  Perhaps the first novel is different from the others?  I don't know, but I do know that this novel has left me keen to try more.

Blindness starts with the diary of John Haye, a privileged boy at a posh school.  He is something of a dandy and an aesthete, pontificating on art and culture and how to best the boys who try to best him.  He's not unpleasant, but nor is there much depth to his diary.  Even though orphaned (with an attentive stepmother who has been 'Mamma' for nearly all his life) it seems that nothing of great emotional moment has ever affected his life.  Here's a sample diary entry:
Bell's, across the way, have bought as many as seven hunting-horns.  Each possessor blows it unceasingly, just when one wants to read.  They don't do it all together, but take it in turns to keep up one forced note.  Really, it might be Eton.  They can only produce the one note during the whole day.

In addition to this trifling detail, it is "the thing to do" now to throw stones at me as I sit at my window.  However, I have just called E.N. a "milch cow," and shall on the first opportunity call D.J.B. a "bovine goat," which generally relieves matter.  These epithets have the real authentic Noat Art Society touch, haven't they?
Contrast that which the first paragraph of the second section.  In between there is a brief letter, from B.G. to Seymour, which tells the reader what they have suspected from the title onwards: John has been blinded.  I shan't tell you how (it's good to have some specifics left for the reading experience) but immediately we drop out of the self-conscious intimacy of John's diary, and into this paragraph:
Outside it was raining, and through the leaded window panes a grey light came and was lost in the room.  The afternoon was passing wearily, and the soft sound of the rain, never faster, never slower, tired.  A big bed in one corner of the room, opposite a chest of drawers, and on it a few books and a pot of false flowers.  In the grate a weary fire, hissing spitefully when a drop of rain found its way down the chimney.  Below the bed a yellow wardrobe over which large grain marks circled aimlessly, on which there was a full-length glass.  Beyond, the door, green, as were the think embrasures of the two windows green, and the carpet, and the curtains.
The buoyancy has gone; the repeated word 'weary', and 'tired', drag the writing down with heaviness which doesn't need to be overstated.  Green is excellent at conveying emotion through simple thoughts, allowing the reader to interpret the characters and their states of mind without giving too much overt direction.

John is at home, now, and the main characters change.  They are too well written to be accurately described in brief, but I'll give a vague sketch.  John's stepmother, Mamma, is of huntin'-shootin' stock, doesn't understand her arty stepson, but would (and does) do everything for his sake.  Nanny has cared for him from infancy.  And then there is Joan - the daughter of a local defrocked clergyman.  She isn't particularly intelligent, although she has greater depth than her conversation suggests... and her relationship with John is as awkward as it is enlivening.  This is John's thoughts after first meeting her:
Voices as become his great interest, voices that surrounded him, that came and went, that slipped from tone to tone, that hid to give away in hiding.  There had been wonder in hers when he had groped into the room upon them both; she had said, "Look."  But before she had opened her mouth he had known that there was someone new in the room.

Voices had been thickly round him for the past month, all kinds of them.  Mamma extracted them from the neighbourhood, and all had sent out the first note of horror, and some had continued horrified and frightened, while others had grown sympathetic, and these were for the most part the fat voices of mothers, and some had been disgusted.  She had been the first to be almost immediately at her ease, when she spoke it was with an eager note, and there were so few eager people.
It is an interesting coincidence that I am reading this so soon after reading Helen Keller's The World I Live In.  Of course there are differences (not least fact and fiction) but, although I can't really know, I think Green writes a plausible narrative of dealing with sudden blindness.  And it certainly gives Green restrictions which he approaches impressively: to use, from John's perspective, no visual descriptions.  I jotted down a line which I thought summed up much of the novel, and later (because I always read introductions at the end) discovered that Jeremy Treblown had begun his with the same quotation:
It was so easy to see and so hard to feel what was going on, but it was the feeling that mattered.
That's a pretty good summary of any author's task.  It's essentially 'show: don't tell', isn't it?

Many of the novelists I love from the interwar years have spent the subsequent decades hovering between 'canon' and 'non-canon'.  The Leavises et al may not have welcomed them, but they have been reclaimed by later critics - or left out in the dust.  Ivy Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth von Arnim, E.M. Delafield... to my mind, von Arnim is every bit as good as Taylor, but the latter has risen in critical appreciation where the former has not.  These seemingly arbitrary decisions can be found everywhere.

As for Green, he is a curious case.  You'd be hard-pressed to find a literary critic who didn't think him significant - but equally hard-pressed to find one who'd bothered writing about him.  His style is often compared to Woolf's or Joyce's (although I don't think those two authors should be grouped together) - what struck me is that Henry Green writes like James Joyce would if Joyce were a lot less arrogant, and more concerned with making his prose enjoyable as well as experimental.  There are several pages from Nan's perspective, meandering hither and thither, reminiscing and wondering, that Joyce would have given his back teeth to be able to write.

Does Henry use stream-of-consciousness?  Yes, I suppose he does.  But whereas Woolf (whom I love) incorporates beautiful imagery and stylistic wanderings like waves on a shore, Green does the opposite.  He never uses a word or a metaphor that the character wouldn't speak aloud.  It is beautiful, but it is resolutely simple.  And thus probably incredibly difficult to write - especially for a 21 year old.  Yes, Green was 21 when he finished this novel - and at school when he started it.  Sickening, isn't it?

Blindness isn't just from John's perspective, though.  In fact, the perspective is a bit like a butterfly - flying about, settling for a few paragraphs on one person, then moving onto another - dipping in and out of people's minds, and giving their thoughts, feelings, and worries in an honest, perceptive manner.  Green builds character so well, from the inside out.  Nobody is considered too insignificant for this treatment - the reader hears from the nurse, the cook, even a cockerel, alongside the principal cast.  If that feels dizzying, don't worry, it is not - simplicity always remains Green's mantra.  Sometimes this flitting between different consciousnesses does, though, create intriguing uncertainties.  Take this excerpt, during a conversation between John and Joan - Joan is speaking:
"Yes, an' there's the chicks that get lost in the grass, I love them, an' there's a starling that nests every year in the chimney, and my own mouse which plays about in my room at night, an'..."

G-d, the boredom of this.

"... but sometimes I hate it all."
With my apparent knack for pre-empting Jeremy Treglown's introduction, he also quotes this section - although unambiguously attributing the mental interjection to John.  That's certainly the most likely reading, but I like the ambiguity that Green does incorporate.  It could easily be Joan's thought (it would certainly match the other thoughts we've heard from her in this scene) or even a shared moment of bored despair - connecting mentally where they do not connect verbally.

I daresay I have delighted you long enough, so I will conclude.  Blindness is such an interesting novel, written so well.  As a first novel by a very young man, it demonstrates astonishingly maturity; I'm very excited about reading his later works.  This wouldn't be a great choice for those who prize plot above character and style, but for anyone who likes the idea of modernism, but struggles to enjoy it in practice, Henry Green's style (on the basis of Blindness, at least) is perfect for you.

Do head on over to Stu's blog to see what he and others have read during Henry Green Reading Week.  And thanks, Stu, for giving me the incentive finally to read up my Greens!

Friday 27 January 2012

Bent Objects - Terry Border

I don't think I've ever mentioned a funny little book I once bought for my housemate, and which I flicked through the other day with renewed amusement - it's Bent Objects by Terry Border.  Border has his own blog here, and is rather ingenious - he takes everyday objects, often food, and uses wire etc. to make them seem animate.  He doesn't actually animate them, but does give them life - through seemingly simple construction and brilliant placement.  I love him.  What reminded me of the book was the ereader/book debate, and this image:

 Here's another of my favourites:

It's a great silly book, and there are a few others in the series, I believe.  It's not the right time of year to mention stocking fillers, but... oh well, any time of year is good for a laugh, isn't it?

Thursday 26 January 2012

The World I Live In - Helen Keller

I was trying to remember who told me about The World I Live In (1908) by Helen Keller, when I realised that none of you did.  This joins Yellow by Janni Visman and Alva & Irva by Edward Carey (both wonderful novels) in being a book I happened upon at work in the Bodleian, and decided to buy for myself.  And, like them, it turned out to be a good reading experience - although rather different.

I had heard of Helen Keller, of course, although I must confess to having thought her British rather than American.  For those who don't know the name, Keller lived from 1880-1968 and at 19 months' old had an illness which left her completely blind and deaf.  She spent seven years with barely any proper communication with others; she describes it as a period during which she was not alive - then, when Keller was seven, 20-year old Anne Sullivan became her teacher.  With Sullivan's patient assistance, Keller used hand-spelling to communicate, and became rather more eloquent than most other young women.  She wrote The Story of My Life in 1903, which I have not read; the essays collected within The World I Live In were written during Keller's twenties, and make for fascinating reading - and certainly not for some sort of novelty value, but because Keller is, in her own right, incredibly intelligent, something of a philosopher, and entirely an optimist.  Indeed, the NYRB Classics edition I have includes Optimism: an essay written in 1903, which includes this excerpt:
I, too, can work, and because I love to labour with my head and my hands, I am an optimist in spite of all.  I used to think I should be thwarted in my desire to do something useful. But I have found out that though the ways in which I can make myself useful are few, yet the work open to me is endless.  The gladdest labourer in the vineyard may be a cripple.  Even should the others outstrip him, yet the vineyard ripens in the sun each year, and the full clusters weigh into his hand.  Darwin could work only half an hour at a time; yet in many diligent half-hours he laid anew the foundations of philosophy.  I long to accomplish a great and noble task; but it is my chief duty and joy to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble.  It is my service to think how I can best fulfil the demands that each day makes upon me, and to rejoice that others can do what I cannot.
 When I say that Keller's worth as an author is not merely as a novelty, I mean that she should not be patronised, nor her writing viewed as some sort of scientific experiment.  She is too good and perceptive a writer for that.  But, of course, Keller offers a different understanding and interaction with the world than most writers would.  The sections I found most fascinating were towards the beginning, where Keller writes about hands.  She divides this into three sections: 'The Seeing Hand' (how she uses touch as her primary sense); 'The Hands of Others' (how hands reveal character), and 'The Hands of the Race' (where the explores hands in history and culture.)  Her perspective is not entirely unique, I daresay, but I certainly haven't encountered documented elsewhere, nor can I imagine it done more sensitively, or with such a good-humoured demeanour:
It is interesting to observe the differences in the hands of people.  They show all kinds of vitality, energy, stillness, and cordiality.  I never realised how living the hand is until I saw those chill plaster images in Mr. Hutton's collection of casts.  The hand I know in life has the fullness of blood in its veins, and is elastic with spirit.
I read that a face is strong, gentle; that it is full of patience, of intellect; that it is fine, sweet, noble, beautiful.  Have I not the same right to use these words in describing what I feel as you have in describing what you see?  They express truly what I feel in the hand.  I am seldom conscious of physical qualities, and I do not remember whether the fingers of a hand are short or long, or the skin is moist or dry. [...] Any description I might give would fail to make you acquainted with a friendly hand which my fingers have often folded about, and which my affection translates to my memory.
As I say, it is these early sections which I found most captivating; similarly, the essay on smell gave a wonderful insight.  I hope it is obvious that I intend no offence when I say it reminded me of Flush by Virginia Woolf, where the dog's primary sense is smell, and the world is focalised through this perspective.  Keller does not feel that her experience of life is any less full than anybody else's - the senses of touch, smell, and taste give her a vivid comprehension of the world and, what is more, a deep appreciation of it:
Between my experiences and the experiences of others there is no gulf of mute space which I may not bridge.  For I have endlessly varied, instructive contacts with all the world, with life, with the atmosphere whose radiant activity enfolds us all.  The thrilling energy of the all-encasing air is warm and rapturous.  Heat-waves and sound-waves play upon my face in infinite variety and combination, until I am able to surmise what must be the myriad sounds that my senseless ears have not heard.
I have to confess that the second broader section of The World I Live In left me cold.  In it, she describes - at length - her dreams, since it is often 'assumed that my dreams should have peculiar interest for the man of science.'  Well, perhaps they do.  But I am allergic to people describing their dreams, it is utter anaethema to me (as my housemates now know!) and I skipped past this section.  If you have a greater tolerance for dream-descriptions than I do, perhaps it is just as interesting as the first section.

The final parts of the book were added from elsewhere, for the NYRB edition: the optimism essay, mentioned above, and 'My Story', written when she was 12, and quite astonishingly mature for that age - let alone for a girl who had only learnt language from the age of seven.
That is what astounds me most about Helen Keller's book: that someone who came late to language should progress in it so quickly and maturely.  Regardless of the reasons why she could not speak, read, or listen, the fact that she had seven years without language, overcame this, and wrote so beautifully and intelligently  - well, it's astonishing.  Keller is wise, sensitive, generous, and philosophically fascinating.  I'm grateful to NYRB for bringing The World I Live In back into print in 2003, and would recommend this to anybody interested in intelligent, lovely writing.  Here's a wonderfully insightful paragraph from Keller to finish:
It is more difficult to teach ignorance to think than to teach an intelligent blind man to see the grandeur of Niagara.  I have walked with people whose eyes are full of light, but who see nothing in wood, sea, or sky, nothing in city streets, nothing in books.  What a witless masquerade is this seeing!  It were better far to sail forever in the night of blindness, with sense and feeling and mind, than to be thus content with the mere act of seeing.  They have the sunset, the morning skies, the purple of distant hills, yet their souls voyage through this enchanted world with a barren state.

Another book to get Stuck into:

Halfway to Venus by Sarah Anderton
If this were in a thesaurus it would be listed under 'antonym' rather than 'synonym' - Anderton had one arm amputated early in life, and Halfway to Venus is a very interesting book that combines memoir with an overview of the absence of hands in art, religion, literature, and history.  As such, it makes a fascinating comparison with Keller's writing on the primacy of hands in the same.

Wednesday 25 January 2012


I started writing a book review (1908 ticked off the list, if that's any clue) when I realised I was far too tired.  So, instead, here's a picture of a donkey!  I dragged my friend Dave to a local donkey sanctuary last Saturday - it's the third time I've been.  After cats, donkeys are my favourite animals, and I could (and do) spend hours stroking them and informing them that they are handsome.

Maybe it's no surprise that Eeyore is my favourite character in Winnie-the-Pooh?

But I shan't just show you that gorgeous donkey.  I shall pre-empt my Weekend Miscellany and point you in the direction of two very brilliant blog reviews which have been posted lately.  Claire is just as enthusiastic as I am, maybe more, about The Element of Lavishness: Letters of William Maxwell and Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Darlene writes a really beautiful, personal post about Nicola Beauman's excellent book A Very Great Profession.

Hope you're all well - tomorrow's another late night, so might be a couple of days before I get to grips with reviewing the 1908 book.  If you fancy guessing, it's non-fiction, and the author's initials are HK...

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Oh, hello again, Miss Hargreaves!

I've been reading Mr. Allenby Loses The Way by Frank Baker, author of my much-loved Miss Hargreaves, and I've even been able to call it work - hopefully it'll be useful for the chapter I'm writing at the moment.  It's about a man who is given five wishes by a fairy... but nowhere near as twee as that sounds.  Anyway, this isn't a review of the novel (not least because I've only read the first 50 pages) but something else entirely.  I was merrily reading along, when I came across this seemingly incidental piece of dialogue:
"All snatches of overheard conversation have something of interest in them.  I once listened to an elderly lady who travelled with me in the same carriage from Bath to Cornford, telling her neighbour about a creature called 'Agatha.'  But who, or what, was Agatha?  I never discovered; I never wanted to discover."
Does that mean anything to you?

Perhaps, even probably, not.  You haven't read Miss Hargreaves six times; you don't love its every word with the passion that I do.  But maybe you do remember that it was set in Cornford; that Miss Hargreaves arrived on a train from Bath; that Norman made up Agatha and was told she was "sinking", without ever knowing what sort of animal/person Agatha was...

Sorry if that was gibberish for those of you who haven't read Miss Hargreaves (if you haven't, I'll want to know a VERY good reason why you haven't).  But I can't tell you how thrilled I was to see her mentioned in this novel, published six years after Miss Hargreaves.  It's my favourite novel, and she is my favourite of all characters - any small sign that she broke out of the bounds of her book delights me.  It was so unexpected, and a treat for those with keen eyes and a good memory.  Or, y'know, a borderline obsession with Miss H.

Have you ever come across this?  A character slipping outside their book and popping up in another?  Not in a series, that's no surprise, but a brief waft past, like this - a little gift from the author to the observant reader.  Hmm?

Monday 23 January 2012

Maestro by Peter Goldsworthy

I wasn't intending to join in Australian Literature Month, because I didn't have any unread Australian novels, nor did any of the suggested titles fill me with longing.  I'm trying to be sensible with money this academic year, since I'm no longer funded, and (believe it or not) I'm even being more circumspect when it comes to book purchases!  (Keep that in your mind when you read the following...)

I bought Maestro (1989) by Peter Goldsworthy because I liked the colour of the spine.  Ok, that's not quite true - it was the minty-turquoisey colour which made me take it off the shelf; when I discovered that it was Australian, and sounded interesting, I decided it was worth £2 of my money.  I'm glad I did - not just because I get to join in with Kim et al, but because it was rather good.

Although it's Australian - written by an Australian, set in 1967 Darwin, Australia (the location of choice for characters leaving Neighbours, incidentally, if they're not going to London) - much of the impetus is tied to Europe.  Eduard Keller is a Viennese refugee who teaches piano to fifteen year old Paul Crabbe (already an experienced pianist) whose family have recently moved from South Australia to the dry heat of Darwin.  Except Keller doesn't teach piano in any traditional sense - he forbids Paul to use the piano for the first few weeks, instead instructing him in the importance of each individual finger...
Keller waggled a forefinger in front of my nose.  It was our second lesson?  Our third?

"This finger is selfish.  Greedy.  A... a delinquent.  He will steal from his four friends, cheat, lie."

He sheathed the forefinger in his closed fist as if it were the fleshy blade of a Swiss army knife and released the middle finger.

"Mr. goody-goody," he said, banging the finger down on middle C repeatedly.  "Teacher's pet.  Does what he is told.  Our best student."

Last came the ring finger.

"Likes to follow his best friend," he told me.  "Likes to... lean on him sometimes."

He lifted his elbows upwards and outwards.

"Those are the pupils.  This is the teacher.  The elbow..."
I have an ambivalent relationship with novels about music.  I enjoyed The Well-Tempered Clavier by William Coles (although I was glad that Maestro didn't follow it down the Notes on a Scandal-esque path, not least because of the sixty year gap between Keller and Paul, but also because it's not a very original course to take.)  I loved The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart, which is non-fiction.  But novels leave me cold when they rely upon the ethos that music is the highest of all forms.  I played the piano from the age of seven onwards, and although I later became friends with my piano teacher (the lady who first told me of Miss Hargreaves) and eventually grew to like playing the piano, for many years I passionately hated it.  The best feeling in the world (and my brother agrees with me) was when you rang the doorbell for a piano lesson... and the teacher didn't answer!  The worst feeling was when you thought the piano teacher wasn't going to answer, and then, after a long gap... she did.  So, anyway, this has given me an odd relationship with stories about learning instruments, and my dislike of elitism comes into play with musical maestros.

I'm sure it's possible to be a musical expert without being arrogant and rude, of course, but Keller is not one of these.  He is one of the most rude, supercilious characters I've ever encountered - but he is battling his own demons, and the love and respect Paul feels towards Keller are contagious.  Even so, I found it arrogant rather than inspiring when he said things like this:
"Perhaps you could play one of the exam pieces, Paul," my father suggested.  "A private concert for the three of us."

"The Brahms?"

"The Beethoven," Keller injected, "might be preferable."

I played Beethoven that night as well as I had ever played, and turned afterwards, smiling, ready for praise.

"Beautiful," my mother breathed.  "Don't you agree, Herr Keller?"

"An excellent forgery," he said.

"I'm sorry?"

"Technically perfect," he said.

He drained his wineglass before continuing.  It was to be his longest monologue of the evening:

"At such moments I always remember a forged painting I once saw.  Each violent brushstroke was reproduced was painstaking, non-violent care.  The forgery must have taken many many times longer than the original to complete.  It was technically better than the original."

He rose from his chair and walked a little unsteadily towards the door: "And yet something was missing.  Not much - but something."

At the door he paused, and turned: "And that small something may as well have been everything."

I find music snobbery intensely irritating - no, that's not quite true, I feel desperately sorry for people who are only content with perfection, in any field.  Doubtless it is a form of discernment, but if your discernment reaches the level that you castigate and despise almost everything you encounter, you're setting yourself up for a miserable time.

But Keller is miserable for other reasons... it gradually becomes clear that he was more involved in the Second World War than he originally admits.  I shan't give the game away, although it isn't a big twist and doesn't come as much of a surprise to the reader.  If you're rolling your eyes at yet another long-shadow-of-war novel, then don't.  It's only one element in the interesting construction of the interaction between Keller and Paul - which is the really interesting central focus of Maestro.  Their relationship isn't romantic or fatherly or even particularly close.  Keller resists any sort of emotional connection, and Paul is far too full of youthful insensitivity to do anything but blunder into conversations in which he is too immature to participate, even if Keller were willing.  But what Goldsworthy builds between Keller and the Crabbes is still somehow beautiful.  The connection between people who never open up to one another; the legacies left behind a relationship which could not even be called a friendship.  Goldsworthy has done this beautifully.

One of the things I'm realising, doing A Century of Books and stepping further outside the interwar period, where I am happiest, is the way a decade colours each novel, even without the author intentionally following the zeitgeist.  A bit like people who claim not to follow fashion, until they look back at old photographs and see how much they were unwittingly influenced by the style of the day.  So Maestro is filtered through the lens of the 1980s, whether Goldsworthy likes it or not.  I certainly wouldn't read that people 'made slow, muffled, reckless love' in the pages of an Elizabeth von Arnim novel, for instance.  Indeed, the whole coming-of-age storyline (although much less irritating in Maestro than it is in some book) is very 1980s, and rather incidental to the main thrust of the novel - but perhaps it's main purpose is to demonstrate that Keller does not completely occupy Paul's thoughts.  He is not obsessed by Keller, but their relationship will alter a great deal in his life.

Maestro is a difficult little book to write about - it is wise, original, and rather beautiful.  I would love it a great deal more if someone could translate it into the sensitivities of the 1940s, say, but of course that cannot be done.  It reminded me a bit of Hallucinating Foucault by Patricia Duncker and Virginia by Jens Christian Grondahl, but I'm hard-pressed to say quite why - the influence of genius, for the former?  The lifelong effects of a brief connection, for the latter?  Perhaps, truth be told, Maestro isn't quite like anything else I've read before, but does bring together themes and traits I've seen in many other authors, writing both before and after Goldsworthy.

As for whether it's a representative Australian novel - well, of course there's no such thing.  Goldsworthy conveyed the heat of Darwin very well, but aside from that... I'll have to see which other novels are picked up across the blogs during what's left of Australian Literature Month.  Thanks, Kim, for indirectly encouraging to find, buy, and enjoy a novel I would otherwise have left in the shop.  And thanks for helping fill 1989 in A Century of Books!

Sunday 22 January 2012

Song for a Sunday

Happy Sunday, everyone!

Let's go old school today, with a bit of Kate Bush and her wonderful song 'Running Up That Hill'.

Saturday 21 January 2012

A quick plea...

Does anyone have access to US magazine Time online archives?  There's an article I want to read - the July 28th 1930 review of The Love Child, to be precise - but I can only see the first two lines without paying a big subscription.  Chuh.  So if anyone had access to it and wanted to send me the review in full, you'd have my eternal appreciation...

(Sorry there was no Weekend Miscellany... long day yesterday.  Get ready for Australian Literature Month AND Henry Green Reading Week colliding next week.  I've read one for the former, and started one for the latter...)

Thursday 19 January 2012

Adrian Mole

It's the 30th anniversary of Adrian Mole today - can you believe it? - and the good people of Penguin offered me their new editions of all the books.  Knowing that my brother Colin is an Adrian fan, I thought I'd suggest him as a more suited recipient.  They sent off a set, and he wrote me a fab review.  Whenever I feature other people's posts I want to say COMMENT, COMMENT, MAKE THEM FEEL WELCOME!  The new comment system may scupper this, but if it does, go and say hello on Facebook(!)  Over to you, Col.

It is 30 years since Adrian Mole leapt into the national consciousness from the pen of Sue Townsend, and to mark the occasion Penguin are re-issuing all eight volumes of the Mole saga.

Eight volumes? Really? The first surprise to many readers who loved Adrian in the seminal The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 ¾ - even the title is funny – and perhaps Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years, which was televised for the BBC, is that Townsend has been quite so prolific in writing about her best-loved creation. If for nothing else, then, this re-issue is a fine reminder that there was life after high school for the poet of Ashby-de-la-Zouch.

Adrian Mole is, to my mind, one of the finest comic creations in English literature. The diary format is perfect for exposing his lack of self-awareness, utterly delusional nature and inability to understand the world around him (a trick played many years before in The Diary of a Nobody) but, like many of the finest comic characters, we cannot help but empathise with him and hope that maybe, this time, he’ll get it right. Maybe Pandora, the woman Adrian is pathetically in love with for the majority of the series, will return his affections; maybe one of his literary efforts (Longing for Wolverhampton; Lo! The Flat Hills of My Homeland; Plague!) will get the respect it so richly doesn’t deserve; maybe his parents will cease to be a constant source of embarrassment and anguish. But then again, of course, maybe not.

As a teenager, Adrian Mole has a few themes that he returns to with unabated zeal: how much he loves Pandora (“Pandora’s father is a milkman! I have gone off her a bit”); his manifold sufferings (“I will be a latchkey kid, whatever that is”) and, unfailingly, the fact that he is an intellectual (“I have written to Malcolm Muggeridge, c/o the BBC, asking him what to do about being an intellectual”; “I am an intellectual but at the same time I am not very clever”). Then, of course, there is the Norwegian Leather Industry, knowledge of which – based on his score in a single school test – Adrian carries around with him like Bertie Wooster with his Scripture Knowledge prize. Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction begins with a reference to meeting Tony Blair at a 1999 conference on the topic.

When the series begins, Mole is – of course – 13 ¾, and by the final volume (so far; Townsend’s only comment about the future is her hope that Adrian go “onward, ever onward”) he is 40 and a grandfather, and it is a great tribute to the series that the child is still recognisable in the adult. From the first few pages of book one you could tell that he is the kind of person who would engage in a lengthy correspondence about the existence of WMDs, simply in order to get a refund on his travel expenses. Some of his traits are diminished a little by time: Mole no longer has such a heightened view of his importance in the world, and is not so blithely unaware of his surroundings as he once was. This is all to the good; a teenager whose reaction to Animal Farm is to ponder becoming a vet (later amended to boycotting bacon) is amusing; a grown man – and father to children from various different mothers – showing such vapidity would just be sad. Townsend is obviously fond of her hero, and he is not designed to be simply a figure of fun; it is genuinely touching when, in Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years, ‘The Top Secret Diary of Glenn Mole (13)’ begins “When I grow up I want to be my dad.”

As well as being an excellent character study over thirty years, the Adrian Mole series always has its finger on the political pulse, starting under Margaret Thatcher (“I was looking at our world map. I couldn’t find the Falkland Islands anywhere. My mother found them; they were hidden under a crumb of fruitcake”) and self-evident in The Weapons of Mass Destruction. Just the unlikely fact that Adrian’s only published work (actually ghost-written by his mother) is ‘Offally Good! – The Book!’, the companion to his TV cooking show, is an indictment of celebrity culture in Tony Blair’s Britain. Of course, the most overtly political entry in the Mole canon is The Secret Diary of Margaret Hilda Roberts Aged 14 ¼, which forms part of True Confessions of Adrian Mole.

As the series develops, so do the cast of characters in Adrian’s life (helpfully detailed in the back of these editions). Pandora becomes a prominent MP; school bully Barry Kent becomes a successful poet; Adrian’s best friend Nigel becomes a blind, gay, Buddhist van driver (though not necessarily all at the same time). Townsend also introduces a host of new characters, including the excellently-drawn Flowers family, one of whom becomes Mrs Daisy Mole in Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction. It is at this point that Adrian Mole lays down his pen, saying that “Happy people don’t keep a diary”, only to pick it up again in Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years (the title taken from the fact that Adrian has problems with his prostate and, true to his nature, is chiefly annoyed by people pronouncing the word with an extraneous ‘r’) to record the fact that “it is two months and nineteen days since I made love to my wife, Daisy”. In the Q&A accompanying this new edition of the books, Townsend says that her favourite book in the series is The Prostrate Years, because she herself had suffered serious health problems and wanted to tackle the subject in a comic manner. I applaud the sentiment, but I must confess that I wish she hadn’t gone down the path she chose; while Adrian’s pursuit of Pandora was always amusing for its hopelessness, his relationship with Daisy appeared to be the true romance of the series, and its collapse was unfortunate. I would rank the first two and the penultimate books as the highlights of the series, but the central character is so strong that I re-read them all with enjoyment.

So that’s the books themselves: what about this re-issue in particular? I feel sorry for Roderick Mills, who was tasked with designing the new covers, because the original cover (the bathroom mirror with a shaving kit and Noddy toothbrush, beautifully demonstrating the dichotomies inherent within a youth becoming a man) is rightly iconic – something that is tacitly admitted by including it on the inside cover of the new Secret Diary. The designer opted for pastel shades for each book in the series, which strikes me as a little odd given that I would normally associate the colour scheme (though not the overall effect, I admit) with chick-lit. Perhaps it is an attempt to emphasise that Adrian Mole can be read and enjoyed by men and women of all ages, and is not the preserve of teenage boys, even given that David Walliams’ foreword to The Secret Diary (in which he finds space to name-check his own book for children) says “boys who were proud to say they had never read a book in their life read this one”.

The new editions also include a Q&A with Sue Townsend, Adrian Mole’s CV and literary CV, the Mole story, a roll call of principal characters and the first chapter of Townsend’s new book (this last I must confess I haven’t read, but having read The Queen and I and Rebuilding Coventry, I can assert that her skill with her pen isn’t limited to residents of Leicestershire). This is a generous set of add-ons, many of which help to give a sense of continuity to the chronicles of Adrian’s surprisingly eventful life and the array of characters who enter and exit it.

When asked if she regards Adrian Mole as a millstone round her neck, Townsend was emphatic in her response: “authors who complain about the success of their most well-known characters are fools”. If she chooses to continue his run, I won’t be complaining either.

Wednesday 18 January 2012

Oh frabjous day!

Over my blogging years (nearly five!) I have spent hours trying to add features that Blogger didn't offer.  It took me an age to add a third column (now available as standard); I spent a long time adding a search box (now available as standard), but the area I've spent the most fruitless hours is in trying to add inline comments.  And it never worked properly.

Until now!  Blogger have FINALLY done something about it, after years and years of blogspot-users begging them to do so.  I spotted on Lyn's blog that she could reply to comments, and she kindly pointed out where I could do it.  Hurrah!  Hurray!  (The page wouldn't load, naturally, but I looked at a cached version through Google.)

Now, of course, this is Blogger... so it might not work.  (If it doesn't, tell me via Facebook or email...)  I had to move comments down to be imbedded, rather than a separate window, which has caused all manner of drama before... but this time I'm hoping it'll be fine.  No longer will I have to reply to your lovely comments in lengthy boxes far below the initial comment.

Thanks, Blogger.  All is forgiven.

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Firefox... Schmirefox, more like.

I don't know about you, but my Firefox is being awful.  It crashes every five minutes, which would be really bad in a car, and is also pretty bad (though not as bad) in a whatever-you-call-internetty-things.  Umm... wow.  Sometimes I pretend to be more Luddite than I am, in the curious belief that it makes me seem endearing, but right now I can't remember what you call IE, Firefox, etc.  Hmm.  This must be how computer geeks feel when they can't remember if it's 'Jane Austen' or 'Jane Austin'.  That's the sort of question which keeps Bill Gates awake at night, I imagine.

So, anyway, I've switched to Google Chrome, and I'm desperately trying to remember all the passwords that Firefox had kindly (and probably unsecurely) been memorising for me.  Nymeth helped me over Twitter to put in a bookmarks toolbar and, in lieu of anything else bookish to say tonight, I thought I'd show you a screenshot of my bookmarks.  You might well have to enlarge it somehow...  If your blog isn't there, it's not because I don't love you... it's because I love these guys more (heehee!)

Actually, I've already added someone since I took this screenshot.  So... it's probably you ;)

Oh, I did have one book-related thing to say.  I've got hold of an Australian novel!  I'll be joining in Australian Literature Month!  Are you?

Monday 16 January 2012

Time Importuned - Sylvia Townsend Warner; or, Why Do Poetry and I Not Get Along, Wherein our Reader Struggles With Verse

Well, I can tick off 1928 on A Century of Books, because on Saturday I read Time Importuned by Sylvia Townsend Warner.  This volume of poetry was published two years after Lolly Willowes, an excellent novel about which I'll soon be writing a chapter of my thesis - but which I only wrote about very briefly on SiaB.  I intended to write another post last year, when I reread it.  I worry that, if I tried, I would end up writing ten thousand words... well, perhaps I'll give it a go one day, since the review I wrote doesn't do it justice.

Anyway, I read Time Importuned hoping that there would be something useful to include in that chapter (which, incidentally, there was) but I can't say I've converted to a poetry lover.  This isn't going to be a proper review, because I don't really know how to write blog posts about poetry.  I can analyse them in a doing-an-English-degree sort of way, and I used to quite enjoy doing that, but blogs are chiefly about reading for pleasure.  The activities of the student are not those of the ardent reader - I enjoy both aspects, but they are distinct in my head.  You don't want to know what I think of Warner's use of syntax.  You might want to know whether or not I enjoyed reading Time Importuned - and the truth is, I don't know.

Some poetry I hate.  If it doesn't make sense to me on three readings, I'm not interested.  If the poet name-drops all manner of classical mythology, I raise my eyebrows; if they name-drop 21st century technology, I raise them still more (these were both frequent crimes in the Magdalen poetry society I occasionally visited.)

Some poetry I enjoy.  But mostly comic verse, or things which are probably considered doggerel by those in the know (does Longfellow fall into this category?  Does Walter de la Mare?)

Oddly enough, I enjoy writing poetry - but I'm under no illusion that it's very good, and I do it entirely for my own amusement or catharsis, as case may be.  Since I rarely read poetry, I feel wholly unqualified to write it, and a little ashamed that I have the audacity to put pen to paper...

Something like Time Importuned... I just don't know.  The topics covered tend towards hopeless love and countryside matters, often combined, and with an atmosphere almost as though they are old wives' tales, passed down in small villages for many years.  Which was nice, but I did end up reading the poems mostly as though they were paragraphs of prose laid out in an unorthodox manner.  Perhaps that is a valid way of reading poetry... but perhaps it also misses a lot?  I don't know how else to benefit from verse.  I deliberately slow myself down, by mouthing the words (I'm quite a fast reader of prose, in a manner which loses poems completely) but I still can't imagine reading a volume of poetry for pleasure.  It's not that I need prose, because often I read plays for pleasure - and that's more or less as unusual a trait as poetry-adoration, so I'm led to understand.

Well, I'm going to type out a couple of the poems which I did quite enjoy, although I am far from the ideal reader for them.  Poetry washes by me, enchanting others who dip in their toes, and merely splashing me slightly.  So, before I get to some excerpts, I have a question... which poet/poetry would you recommend to the prose lover?  How would you go about converting me to the possibilities of poetry?

Over to Warner...

The Tree Unleaved

Day after day melts by, so hushed is the season,
So crystal the mornings are, the evenings so wrapped in haze,
That we do not notice the passage of the days ;
But coming in at the gate to-night I looked up for some reason,
      And saw overhead Time's theft ;
For behold, not a leaf was left on the tree near by.

So it may chance, the passage of days abetting
My heedless assumption of life, my hands so careless to hold,
That glancing round I shall find myself grown old,
Forgotten my hopes and schemes, my friends forgotten and forgetting ;
      But all I can think of now
Is the pattern of leafless boughs on the windless sky.

Walking and Singing at Night

Darkened the hedge, and dimmed the wold,
We sang then as we trudged along.
The heart grown hot, the heart grown cold,
Are simple things in a song.

The lover comes, the lover goes,
On the same drooping interval,
Easy as from the ripened rose
The loosened petals fall.

Between one stanza and the next
A heart's unprospered hopes are sighed
To death as lovely and unvexed
As 'twere a swan that died.

Alas, my dear, Farewell's a word
Pleasant to sing but ill to say,
And Hope a vermin that dies hard ;
As you will find, one day.

Sunday 15 January 2012

Song for a Sunday

Happy Sunday, everyone.  The cake was nice, thanks, although we had run out of icing sugar - so I couldn't have it at work.  Instead, I had it whilst watching Miranda on DVD.  Chocolate cake with orange butter cream filling mmmmmmm....

Anyway, almost as nice as cake is this song from Rebecca Ferguson, 'Nothing's Real But Love'.  If you live in the UK you might have heard of Lovely Rebecca (as she's known in my head) from the X Factor - a lot of people judge singers from these sorts of shows without hearing them.  So... have a listen!  She has a lovely, soulful voice.  Over to you, Lovely Rebecca...

Saturday 14 January 2012

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

I started a new part-time job this week (still as a librarian, but this time in a Special Collections reading room, so the materials are suddenly much more fragile and valuable!) and I'm pretty tired.  Back to work today (Saturday) but with the not-very-valuable books instead... and mostly reshelving.  Such is the ignominy of being a library dogsbody!  Still, I made a chocolate cake this evening, so at least I'll have something delicious in my lunch, though I says it as shouldn't.

I seem to have wandered away from the book/blog post/link format of my Weekend Miscellanies of late, but that's because each week seems to be bursting at the seams with goodies.  But I'll try to remember to keep all three in somewhere...

1.) For those of you who can't get enough of me here (ahem) you can read some of my writing somewhere else this week!  My review of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, The Hogarth Press, and the Networks of Modernism (phew) ed. Helen Southworth is in the CILIP Rare Books Newsletter.  Have a gander here (it's in Issue 91) if you fancy it.  In summary, it's a good book!  And my review starts by quoting E.M. Delafield.

2.) Linda Gillard's A Lifetime Burning is a very good, strange, wonderful book.  I said that, in a few more words, back in a rather speedy review here.  It's now available on Kindle here at the ridiculously cheap price of 88p.  It's not the most comfortable read ever, but it is Linda's masterpiece. Twenty-six reviews on Amazon; all five-star - that's got to mean something.

3.) Peirene's Short Story Month competition (PeiShoStoMo), which I mentioned here, is done and dusted.  Lots of congrats to Rose Rankin-Gee and her great story 'London', which you can read here.

4.) Some other lovely bloggers are joining in A Century of Books: see what Fleur Fisher, Read the Book, Geranium Cat and Harriet Devine have planned, and let me know if you post your own plans on your blog.  (Sorry if you've already told me and I forgot!)

5.) I keep linking to Claire's reviews, but she keeps reviewing wonderful books wonderfully well!  I can't believe another blogger has read Miss Elizabeth Bennet by A.A. Milne - read Claire's lovely review here.  My plan for people to read and love AAM's obscure adult plays/sketches/novels/essays is finally coming to fruition!  He wrote so, so much, I could fill up a third of A Century of Books with Milne alone...

6.) Finally, I was delighted with Slightly Foxed sent me the latest of their Slightly Foxed Editions: it's Dodie Smith's autobiography Look Back With Love.  One of her autobiographies, I should say, since I think she penned a fair few.  I've been wanting to read this for a while, since I love I Capture the Castle, and this beautiful edition is perfect.  I hope to get onto it soon, but for now - more info is here.

Friday 13 January 2012

"Books are like people..."

Last quotation from Stop What You're Doing And Read This!, promise.  Well, there definitely won't be more than one after this, anyway.  Probably.  Back to Mark Haddon's wonderful essay, definitely the jewel in this crown, and more book thoughts which both strike a chord and make me think more deeply about my reading.  I seem to have run out of bookish paintings very quickly, so instead here is a musical painting by one of my favourite artists: it's Raoul Dufy's Tribute to Mozart.

"What I didn't yet understand was the importance of taste and timing.  Books are like people.  Some look deceptively attractive from a distance, some deceptively unappealing; some are easy company, some demand hard work that isn't guaranteed to pay off.  Some become friends and stay friends for life.  Some change in our absence - or perhaps it's we who change in theirs - and we meet up again only to find that we don't get along any more, an experience that I had when I returned to both Gravity's Rainbow and Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City.  Unlike people, one can at least dump them or hand them to a friend without causing offence or feeling guilt.  Indeed, we forget sometimes that a vital part of loving literature is hating certain books and certain writers, just as hating Spurs is an important part of supporting Arsenal; and the embarrassing truth is that I have probably got far more satisfaction out of trying to persuade friends that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a tawdry piece of misogynistic torture porn than I have out of discussing the reasons why Wolf Hall is a masterpiece."

--Mark Haddon, 'The Right Words in the Right Order'
Stop What You're Doing And Read This!

Thursday 12 January 2012

The Poisonwood Bible: other views

I meant to include links to other bloggers' views yesterday, but I was too tired by the time I finished exploring my own!  So today's post is a little addendum to yesterday's...

The world, it seems, is filled with bloggers who have written about The Poisonwood Bible.  I've just picked some of the bloggers I already know and love.  If you have an insatiable appetite for reviews, I recommend you check out Fyrefly's wonderful blog search engine.  It's invaluable!

"The writing was exquisitely well balanced, the story was absorbing and the Congo was portrayed as though it were another character rather than merely a place." - Old English Rose

"It's a story about religious beliefs, a story of the disintegration of a family, and a story about forgiveness." - Bibliophile by the Sea

"Recommended to anyone with the patience to read a long, slow novel." - Jackie, Farm Lane Books

"The Poisonwood Bible is a brilliant, heartfelt and passionate love letter to Africa and the problems it faces. Kingsolver manages to combine a family saga, a political treatise and a love story into a wonderful book." - Sakura, Chasing Bawa

"The setting is all-important in The Poisonwood Bible. The Congo is as much as character as any of the Prices." - Curious Book Fans

"But then, after all of that emotion, everything petered out and the book just kept going." - Eva, A Striped Armchair

"It’s a book that has stuck long in my memory, maybe because it paints such a remarkable picture based on reality and truth." - Margaret, Books Please

Wednesday 11 January 2012

The Poisonwood Bible - Barbara Kingsolver

Well, I finished The Poisonwood Bible (1998) with a couple of hours to spare before book group... and, having worked out what I think about it, I am ready to write my review.  It's quite difficult to formulate my thoughts on this novel, because these thoughts do not all lean in the same direction.  Reviews feel like they should be unified, and that's rather tricky when I have both positive and negative responses to a book.  So... bear with me.  I'll bear with you bearing with me.  Hopefully by the end of the page we'll understand one another, no?

First things first, The Poisonwood Bible ought to be about 200 pages shorter.  I don't mean that careful and judicious editing throughout is needed, to compress the narrative (although this wouldn't be a bad idea) - I mean that it should have ended on p.427.  There are 616 pages in the edition I read (rather more than the supposed 350 page upper-limit of book group choices) and there shouldn't be.  I am astonished that any editor let Kingsolver keep going for those final 189 pages.  It was self-indulgent and unnecessary.  But, now I've got that off my chest, I can return to the review proper.  It gets more positive soon, promise.

The Poisonwood Bible follows the Price family from 1959 to the 1990s - Nathan is a Baptist minister from Georgia (the US state, not the country), and has brought his wife Orleanna and daughters Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May to the Congo.  They are there as missionaries, but all is not going to go entirely to plan... to say the least.  This is the basic premise of Kingsolver's novel - and from such a simple idea, she weaves a long and complex novel.  Complex in terms of emotions, interactions, and gradual self-discovery, that is.  Not a lot really happens.  (Another reason why The Poisonwood Bible is difficult to write about.  Honestly, Barb!)

Five voices make up the narrative, each in the first person.  Orleanna Price speaks briefly at the beginning of each section  - which are named after Biblical (and Apocryphal) books - Genesis, The Revelation, The Judges, Bel and the Serpent, Exodus.  She speaks wearily, always in retrospect, and keeps her cards close to her chest.  Doubtless this is partly so plot points aren't revealed too early, and her melancholy ambiguity includes one momentous hint which kept me gripped and guessing for hundreds of pages.

But it is the four daughters who are the mainstay of the novel.  The narrative is passed between them, and Kingsolver constructs their four voices brilliantly, distinctly, and consistently.  Her fellow American novelist, Marilynne Robinson, hugely impressed me with Gilead because of her ability to 'capture' a voice - and while Kingsolver has a rather different slant on a minister, she certainly writes beautifully for his daughters.  Since they are so thoroughly depicted, it's difficult to summarise their characters - but, broadly speaking, I'll try.
  • Rachel is the eldest, a white-blonde ingenue whose Malapropisms ('never the train shall meet') and simple, unimaginative nature are initially endearing, but eventually rather concerning.  She never loses the all-American slang expressions she brings with her to Congo, and I rather liked her indefatigable sassiness, even if it is accompanied with a lack of cultural awareness.  
  • Leah and Adah are twins - Leah desperately seeks the approval of her father, and carries with her the guilt that, in the womb, she 'caused' Adah's disability.  Adah limps badly, and almost never speaks.  She also has a fascination with seeing things backgrounds, and especially palindromes.  Silent to others, her narration reveals her cynicism and bitterness, but also her humour.
  • Ruth May, finally, is the youngest - and the simplest.  Not in terms of intelligence, but in the simple, contented way she adapts to her surroundings, making friends amongst the neighbours, and doing her best to understand her father's teaching in their new environment.
For Kingsolver is not subtle about the clash of cultures.  Here, the welcome party for the Prices is interrupted by Nathan:
"Reverend and Mrs. Price and your children!" cried the younger man in the yellow shirt.  "You are welcome to our feast.  Today we have killed a goat to celebrate your coming.  Soon your bellies will be full with our fufu pili-pili."
At that, why, the half-naked women behind him just burst out clapping and cheering, as if they could no longer confine their enthusiasm for a dead goat.[...]"Nakedness," Father repeated, "and darkness of the soul!  For we shall destroy this place where the loud clamour of the sinners is waxen great before the face of the Lord!" 
No one sang or cheered anymore.  Whether or not they understood the meaning of 'loud clamour,' they didn't dare be making one now.  They did not even breathe, or so it seemed.  Father can get a good deal across with just his tone of voice, believe you me. 
This is, firstly, a great example of Kingsolver's exceptional ability to convey individuals' voices through minor verbal tics.  Perhaps it isn't clear from just this excerpt, but only Rachel's narrative would have that 'why' in the second paragraph; only Rachel would finish 'believe you me'.  If Adah's sections have the most obvious stylistic identifications, the others are subtly tied to their narratives too.  That is the greatest strength of The Poisonwood Bible, and the strength that encourages me to read more by Barbara Kingsolver - the ability to create a character's voice.

Which makes it all the more frustrating that, in Nathan Price, she has done nothing of the kind.  The women of The Poisonwood Bible are drawn so well, so cleverly.  And, in the midst of them all, is Nathan.  He never comes alive, he is scarcely more than a Bad Man Who Does Bad Things.  His motivations aren't addressed, he has no depth whatsoever - it is a shambolic waste of an opportunity.  I don't think it's simply my Christianity (and the fact that I know a lovely, hard-working, deeply loving missionary in D.R. Congo) that makes me feel this - others at book group certainly agreed.  Nathan is angry, selfish, insensitive, violent... it was when he started hitting his children that my eyes rolled so much that I felt a little dizzy. Doubtless there are other novels where one meets ogres - Barbara Comyns' The Vet's Daughter, for example, or any novel by Dickens - but in those books they are in the midst of the surreal and exaggerated.  Nathan Price is not, and, though all his attributes are individually believable, as a composite, without any redeeming features, they are not.  It is such a pity that Kingsolver allowed herself this laziness.  Had she made Nathan a character, rather than a two-dimensional face of Wicked Colonialism, The Poisonwood Bible would have been more interesting.  Then again, perhaps she just wanted Nathan as a catalyst to explore the reactions of the female characters?  That's the most charitable conclusion I can draw.

As I said before, very little happens.  We see the daughters try to adjust to their situation - their interactions with neighbours, who are variously kind or antagonistic and endlessly curious - and the gradually altering politics of Congo.  Pages and pages go by without anything particularly occurring, but they are somehow engaging.  Ruth May introduces 'Mother May I' to local infants; Rachel's hair is a spectacle to all; Adah is presumed eaten by a lion (but is not); Leah grows more and more interested in the teacher Anatole... mostly Kingsolver attempts the miracle of winding a narrative through emotions and thoughts without hanging them on events - and she succeeds.  It is beautiful writing.  It is also nigh-on impossible to review.  There is one odd thing... usually I jot down resonant or stand-out quotations whilst I read, or excerpts I think will help structure a blog post.  For The Poisonwood Bible, I wrote down nothing.  Kingsolver's writing is all even and constant - it all weaves into one.

But, as I noted at the top, something very weird happens.  The Prices' time in the Congo comes to an abrupt, tragic end.  And then, p.427, they leave.  After that it is as though it were another novel.   We follow the various daughters at occasional intervals for another couple of decades.  It is tedious and politically heavy-handed.  The points Kingsolver had previously shown through her story are now told through dialogue.  Show, don't tell, Barb.  All the unsubtlety in her portrayal of Nathan sweeps across the others.  I still can't believe that a novel can peter out quite like this one did.

So, there you are.  A confusing review, I daresay, but also a confusing read.  At its best, The Poisonwood Bible is phenomenally good.  Barbara Kingsolver is obviously an exceptionally talented writer.  The Bean Trees, which I read years ago, is also testament to this.  But at its best, The Poisonwood Bible is lazy, clumsy, unsubtle and poorly edited.  Overall I will say that Kingsolver's talents outweigh her occasional mismanagement of them, but it is always a shame when a novel could have been great (and, to be fair, a lot of people do consider it great) but, to my mind, failed to reach its potential.

Monday 9 January 2012

"Memory is talismanic."

I'm on the home straight with The Poisonwood Bible, so expect a report on that later in the week.  For today, as the publishing date of Stop What You're Doing And Read This! draws ever nearer, I shall tantalise you with another excerpt - this time from Jeanette Winterson.  Today's painting is Carl Larsson's 'Woman Reading'.  [EDIT: Pat, thanks for reminding me that the book is Radio 4's Book of the Week this week!]

"A medium other than the book could not achieve the effect of this book [The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd] nearly so well.  A book lets you follow a writer's mind.  Reading does not move in linear time in the way that a movie or even a radio piece does.  Of course there is a beginning, a middle and an end, but in 'good' books that is irrelevant.  We don't remember the books that have mattered to us by the chronology of their story-telling, but by the impression and effect of the story and of the language used to tell it.  Memory is talismanic.  We hold on to what we need and let the rest go.  Just as in our lives events separated in time sit side by side in memory, so the effect of a book is to let us live nearer to total time than linear time allows."

-- Jeanette Winterson, 'A Bed. A Book. A Mountain.'
Stop What You're Doing And Read This!

Sunday 8 January 2012

Song for a Sunday

And now the first Sunday Song of 2012!  But before we get to that, something I forgot to post in my Weekend Miscellany.  Katie posted the following on the SiaB Facebook page, and I drew a blank, but perhaps you can help?
In my early twenties I read a book that referred to a family as "The Gannets" because this family loved to eat, go on picnics with copious ampunts of elaborately prepared food and enjoyed every moment, including the last lick of their fingertips. The family were all rotund. I think the book was written by a British writer and I read the book in 1980ish.  It would be super fun to reconnect with it. I recently travelled to New Zealand and watched the gannets as they enthusiastically torpedoed into the water to catch their dinner - this reminded me of the book and I laughed all over again thinking of that family.
So... can you help?

Now over to Richard Hawley and his simply beautiful, gentle song 'For Your Lover, Give Some Time'.  Happy Sunday!

Saturday 7 January 2012

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

It's the first Weekend Miscellany of 2012, and I hope you've got a pen and paper to hand, because there's all sorts going on...

1.) Firstly - I do love a surprise book through the post!   Christmas was surprisingly low on bookish gifts (my parents and brother tried, bless 'em, but ended up giving me the same book... oops!) so it was a total and unexpected delight to get What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell.  It came from lovely Heather, who knew that I adored the letters of Maxwell and Sylvia Townsend Warner (well, it's no secret) and thought I'd love these too.  I always forget that I've read a novel by Welty (The Ponder Heart) because I don't remember anything about it, but it's definitely time I revisited her - and I'm thrilled to have this collection!  I tend to read books of letters very gradually, so it could be an age before this appears again on SiaB, but it certainly will do at some point.

2.) You won't have missed my enthused posts about Stop What You're Doing And Read This - well, the day is drawing ever closer when you can go and get your hands on a copy.  Even better than that, you can attend a launch party!  Mark Haddon (who wrote the best essay in the book) and Michael Rosen, along with people from the wonderful Reading Agency, will be discussing reading on Monday 23rd January, 7pm, at Canada Water Library.  It's free, but you have to book - which you can do here.  The book also has its own blog, now: here.

3.) Increasingly, I get emails from publishers or authors saying "I don't know if you have an e-reader, but..."  Well, as you probably know, I don't.  But I'm happy to be an enabler, and so wanted to mention that Macmillan created Bello, their imprint of e-book reprints.  I'm all for access to neglected gems, even if only electronically, and so I'll point you in the direction of their website.  They've wisely started off with a select few authors - Gerald Durrell, Eva Ibbotson, Frances Durbridge etc. - and, most excitingly to my mind, Vita Sackville-West.  The Heir, one of the titles they're doing, is one of the loveliest novellas I've read, and I heartily recommend that that's where you start.

4.) If you've somehow missed Kim's Australian Literature Month, you're already a week behind guys!  See what Kim has to say about it, and have fun.  I've hunted through my tbr shelves for an Australian author without luck, so... not sure if I'll be joining in, but I'll certainly be cheering from the sidelines.

5.) Don't forget - Stu's Henry Green Reading Week is coming up super soon.  You've got about a fortnight to get prepared...

6.) There have been so many wonderful reviews around the blogosphere since I last drew your attention to some.  Of course there have, there always are!  But I will send you off to read what Claire had to say about Rose Macaulay's Crewe Train, what Tanya had to say about E.H. Young's Miss Mole and E.F. Benson's Secret Lives, and what Jane had to say about G.E. Stern's Ten Days of Christmas.  I'll even point you in the direction of Darlene's thoughts on my much-beloved The Slaves of Solitude, even though I don't agree with her.  That's new year benificence for you.