Monday, 31 December 2007

Short Story Monday - Miss Brill by Katherine Mansfield

In this elegant little story, written in 1922, Miss Brill makes her regular Sunday visit to the park, to sit on her regular seat and listen to the band. Her solitary pleasure is to observe the comings and goings around her. We are not told much about Miss Brill directly, but we can infer a good deal; she is a genteel person of limited means who teaches English for her living and doesn't have many friends.

Since almost all the story is told in free indirect speech, we can observe the anticipation Miss Brill has for her day's entertainment. She takes her old but precious fur from its box, strokes and brushes it like a small animal being readied for an outing, imagining its sharp little teeth holding onto its tail. We know her thoughts about her fellow park visitors and her interest in their individual stories. As she watches a sudden thought occurs to her: they are all actors on a stage and she herself is part of the performance. She feels a pleasant sense of importance and imagines herself telling an elderly acquaintance that she has been an actress for a long time. However, when she is joined on her bench by a young courting couple her pleasure is banished; they mock the treasured fur that she has taken so much pride in taking out and brushing that morning. The final two paragraphs describe how – too saddened to buy her usual treat from the baker's – she goes home to return the fur to its box, never, we can guess, to be worn again.

This is a finely honed piece of writing, an example of a story that does exactly what it should. We are given precisely the information we need; the change in mood, from Miss Brill's vicarious pleasure in the lives of others to loneliness and humiliation takes place in a brief exchange in direct speech by the young couple, 9 lines in all, followed by the final two paragraphs of third-person narration which complete our distancing from Miss Brill. Its careful structure is belied by the simplicity and clarity of the writing.

If anyone would like to enjoy this excellent story, the full text is here.

Saturday, 29 December 2007

Temeraire by Naomi Novik

It's a good thing I picked this up during the holiday. It's been sitting on the TBR pile for months, untouched, just in case it didn't appeal after all - I can sometimes find alternate realities a bit disappointing, somehow they seem more likely to fail to engage my attention. However, I promised myself that the next read would be something for the From the Stacks challenge, and finally plumped for Temeraire (which was one of my alternative choices, but never mind). I read it at a sitting, straight through, no pauses. And thoroughly enjoyed it.

The period detail (Napoleonic Wars) is fun – where there might have been errors it was easy to ignore them. It's an alternative reality, after all. Perhaps a legitimate quibble would be that, using dragons in warfare would almost certainly have made the course of history diverge quite widely from our own, so the French Revolution wouldn't have happened, or not in that way, but really, who cares? This is an entertaining novel, and I'm a sucker for dragons. Temeraire's blend of innocence and wisdom is appealing, and his relationship with his aviator Laurence develops and deepens as the book progresses. Although it is the first in a series it doesn't, as I feared at one point, leave the reader with everything up in the air: the plot resolves while leaving a clear direction for the sequel. I liked the Appendices on dragons, a nice touch.

Perhaps the fact that it is a first novel shows a little too clearly – there are some rushed moments, and the whole book moves at a pretty brisk pace. I would like to see a little more depth in characterisation and greater leisure in description and scene-setting. These are things, however, which often come with experience and will, I hope, be more in evidence in her subsequent work. The next two are on order, and they won't be sitting on the shelf for long, that's for sure.

Monday, 24 December 2007

Short Story Monday

As it's Christmas I thought we would have something soothing this week, so I've chosen a story from Tales from Moominvalley by Tove Jansson. She's been getting quite a lot of attention recently with the publications of the Summer and Winter Books, but she's been part of my life since I was very young and my aunt - a wonderful source of good books now as then - sent me a copy of Finn Family Moomintroll. I fell in love instantly with all of the characters: the earnest Moomintroll, the excitable Sniff, Snufkin the wanderer, and the redoubtable Moominmamma, whose bag is the fount of all comforts from raspberry juice to tummy powders.

Moominvalley is populated by a wide variety of creatures and this story concerns a fillyjonk. These are creatures of habit with a strong sense of family ties and an innate love of the beauty of nature. In "The Fillyjonk Who Believed in Disasters", the fillyjonk is unable to derive comfort from her surroundings because of her fear that some terrible catastrophe will befall her. Her summer home is no comfort - she moved into it because she'd been told her grandmother had stayed there in the past, but this turns out to be a mistake, and the house itself is dreary and forlorn, defying all her efforts to make it cosy. Her fears become so great that she struggles to convey them to her friend Gaffsie over the course of a very uneasy afternoon tea, but Gaffsie is unwilling to allow her confidences. During the night a storm blows up and the fillyjonk is forced to leave her house. Crouching behind a rock she finds an unexpected sense of peace: there is no longer any need to fear disaster. It has happened.

The story is beautifully told. Jansson brings her delicate observation of the discomforts people feel to bear on the teatime conversation:

"This calm in unnatural. It means something terrible is going to happen. Dear Gaffsie, believe me, we are so very small and insignificant [...] Mrs Gaffsie, have you felt it? Tell me that you kmow what I'm talking about! Please!"

Gaffsie was very red in the face and sat twirling the sugar bowl in her paws and wishing that she had never come.

"There can be very sudden storms at this time of year," she said at last, cautiously.

The fillyjonk fell silent from disappointment.
These may be stories for children, but Jansson always tackles complex feelings in her lucid style. The fillyjonk's liberation from her fears has as much meaning and relevance for an adult as for a child. Indeed, this story makes a companion piece to the previous one in this collection, "A Tale of Horror" in which an inconsiderate child understands for the first time what it means when he frightens others. In all the Moomin books Jansson tackles big themes in a microcosm, and the stories are told with such delicacy and simplicity that you are hardly aware of reading about loss, or loneliness. They are
lovely books to read to children, who love their humour and wonderful characterisation, but their gentle poignancy also offers real pleasure for the adult reader.
Towards morning the gale was blowing itself out. The fillyjonk hardly noticed it. She was sitting in deep thought about herself and her disasters, and her furniture, and how it all fitted together. As a matter of fact nothing of consequence had happened, except that the chimney had come down.

But she had the feeling that nothing more important had ever happened to her in her life.

Saturday, 22 December 2007

The Pure in Heart by Susan Hill

Although this is the second of Susan Hill's novels about Detective Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler, it is the first I have read. It won't be the last, though. Set in an imaginary cathedral town, it follows Serrailler through a difficult patch: the death, previously, of someone he'd cared about, the illness of his disabled sister, and a distressing case. A 9-year-old boy is missing from home, an event which upsets the whole town. There are no leads, and the police must cope with increasingly distraught parents and, inevitably, a hostile press.

What I liked about this book is that it's not really a detective story - it's a novel in which the protagonist happens to be a detective. Actual crime detecting is a relatively small part of the story, and I finished The Pure in Heart wanting to know much more about Serrailler's relationship with his family. His parents marriage is a - convincing - combination of chilly and close; was it always like that? Was it, even in part, the result of having a severely disabled child? One of the pleasures of writing a series must be that you don't have to reveal everything at once. As long as a character is rounded enough to be convincing, shaping that person can take place at a much more natural pace, and the author has leisure to say of Serrailer's sister Cat that she didn't feel she knew her brother. And while we are party to some of Simon's thoughts, it can be made clear that he doesn't necessarily know himself why he behaves in certain ways.

I found the portrait of the mother of the missing child rang particularly true, notably in the ways in which her attempts to cope with her pain actually manage to exacerbate it. Early on, she runs herself a hot bath and then adds cold water to it because she cannot be allowed to enjoy anything while her son is lost. Her husband, on the other hand, cannot even begin to deal with his grief and withdraws from his family to bury himself in work, so we only see him through others' eyes. One of the tragedies of this family is that, although they had seemed content on the surface, they quickly prove to have no resources for coping with disaster. I remember complaining when discussing one of the Midsomer books that the juxtaposition of the detectives' families with the victim family offered no real insight into either; here there is nothing extraneous about the separate threads.

A satisfying book, therefore: I liked the characters, and the story was absorbing. I see from Susan Hill's blog that she has just completed a fourth book in the series. I look forward to reading it and the other two.

Monday, 17 December 2007

Short Story Monday

"The Ladies of Grace Adieu" by Susanna Clarke. After a quote from a female magician about the nature of magic, the opening of this story seems at first to be familiar territory. We are firmly in the Regency world of Jane Austen or, as it seemed to me, Georgette Heyer: "Cassandra Parbringer at twenty was considered an ideal of a certain type of beauty to which some gentlemen are particularly partial."

If this were Heyer, we would confidently expect that, by the end of the story, Miss Parbringer will be well on her way to happy-ever-after marriage. Instead, however, the story moves swiftly into Gothic territory with a description of the house in which Cassandra's friend Miss Tobias is governess, and to her small charges' fear of owls. With the arrival of a wicked and dissolute guardian and his entourage we are in a sinister world where all may not be not as it seems.

The final characters to arrive are Jonathan Strange and his wife, familiar to readers of Clarke's superb novel, Jonathan Strange and and Norrell. Here I have a slight quibble about this story, in that it could just as easily be a missing chapter from that book. Indeed, I am not certain how successful any of the stories in this collection would be if the reader is not already familiar with the novel, since a great deal of the background about the nature of magic in Clarke's alternative England comes from that source. For the prepared reader not much scene-setting is actually needed. However, in the structure of its plot this does work as a enjoyable standalone, and the world she has created offers a wonderful vehicle for a modern and original take on the fairy tale.

Clarke's style of storytelling is very quiet and unshowy, the details dropped in quite limpidly, but those details combine to create a vivid setting, and a good deal of information is conveyed in short conversations. The village setting is atmospheric and convincing. The wicked guardian calls to mind Helen's husband in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall most effectively.

I enjoyed this story very much - part of my comfort with it derives, I think, from its adherence to the conventions of the fairy tale, a genre I grew up reading avidly. I haven't read the rest of the collection yet, but I look forward to them.

This week I am hosting Short Story Monday. If you have posted about a Short Story today and would like to leave a link to it in the comments, please do so!

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Struggling with short stories

John at The Book Mine Set has very kindly invited me to host Short Story Monday here next week. I wrote last week that I have reservations about short stories, which are regarded by some as the perfect art form. Despite being brought up on the stories of O. Henry and, late, Guy de Maupassant, my attitude to most short stories tends to be, "Okay, so what?" even when I've read some critical appraisal telling me how good this particular gem is. And I do enjoy some: I quite like the stories of Alice Munro (more so after a friend told me to read them straight through as a novel), and enjoy those of Neil Gaiman. I even have a favourite, Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener", which I find intriguing.

I meant to persevere, however, and will be reading a variety of classic short stories, writers to include Chekhov, Borges, Lovecraft...not Hemingway, I had to read him at school and he's not my cup of tea. It shouldn't be hard to find material - a quick check on my Library Thing catalogue tells me I have 14 collections of short stories amongst the books I have already listed there. Suggestions will be welcomed, especially if you tell me why you're recommending the story.

Monday's post, I've decided, will be on the title story from Susannah Clarke's collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu, which I've been looking forward to for some time. If you feel like joining me on Monday, find a short story, settle down and try to enjoy!

Thursday, 13 December 2007

The Man Who was Thursday: A Nightmare by G.K.Chesterton

"The work of a philosophical policemen," replied the man in blue, "is at once bolder and more subtle than that of an ordinary detective. The ordinary detective goes to pot-houses to arrest thieves; we go to artistic parties to detect pessimists. The ordinary detective discovers from a ledger or a diary that a crime has been committed. We discover from a book of sonnets that a crime will be committed. We have to trace the origin of those dreadful thoughts that drive men on at last to intellectual fanaticism and intellectual crime. We were only just in time to prevent the assassination at Hartlepool, and that was entirely due to the fact that our Mr Wilks (a smart young man) thoroughly understood a triolet."

Thus is Gabriel Syme introduced to the investigations of the Secret Police Service into the Central Council of Anarchists, an organisation he infiltrates to become The Man Who Was Thursday. Led by its vast and terrifying President, Sunday, the Council of Seven Days plans an atrocity, and despatches one of its members to Paris with a bomb. Syme must avoid exposure as a spy while in pursuit. But all is not as it seems and, amid contradiction and confusion Syme must learn to distinguish what is real. Are other members of the Council friend or foe? And, most urgent of all, who and what is Sunday?

Throughout this absorbing fantasy, Chesterton turns expectation on its head. One of the ways in which he achieves this is by a subtle reversal of normality: if I were to ask you what is a hornbill, you would probably answer "a bird with an enormous bill". Thus Chesterton: "he remembered a hornbill, which was simply a huge yellow beak with a small bird tied on behind it." The reader's viewpoint is that of Syme, and such strange reversals confuse and obfuscate so that reality is impossible to pin down and safety looks a forlorn hope.

The book reminds me both of The Magic Flute, with its theme of trial by ordeal, and of the writings some twenty-five years later of Charles Williams, which share similar elements of a peculiarly English kind of mysticism. Yet Chesterton denied the revelatory interpretation, drawing attention to the book's subtitle "A Nightmare". In an article published the day before he died in 1936 he says,

It was not intended to describe the real world as it was, or as I thought it was, even when my thoughts were considerably less settled than they are now. It was intended to describe the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date; with just a gleam of hope in some double meaning of the doubt, which even the pessimists felt in some fitful fashion.

Reading The Man Who Was Thursday 100 years on, in a world of equally characterised by wild doubt and despair I, for one, find the "gleam of hope" quite comforting and was happy to interpret the ending as revelatory and mystical. The book is also a classic, witty and elegant while remaining a fantastical adventure, and deserves prompt reinstatement as part of the canon.

Cross-posted from Outmoded Authors.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Short Story Monday: The Gospel According to Mark by Jorge Luis Borges

Borges in the Hotel Beaux, Paris, 1969

This story exemplifies the problem I have with almost all short stories, in that I tend to find them inherently unsatisfactory, while demonstrating those qualities which intrigue others. In the introduction to this collection Borges states "I have done my best – I don't know with what success – to write straightforward stories." Further, he refutes the necessity for surprise endings, preferring instead, he says, to meet the reader's expectations. Although he denies that this makes his stories of necessity simple, the effect is nonetheless to create the effect of simplicity, as also his practice of setting his stories in the past, thus creating a sense of distance and objectivity.

This quiet little story is of a young man, lacking in application and direction, who finds himself stranded at a ranch in the owner's absence. Surrounded by floods, the young Espinosa makes at first unsuccessful attempts to communicate with the gaucho family who work the land. None of his efforts really succeed until he begins to read St Mark's Gospel to the illiterate family. This apparently catches their imagination, and they begin to hurry their meal in order for the reading to start. They also begin to pay attention to Espinosa, following him around, and even picking up crumbs that he has left on the table.

At the end of the gospel he offers to continue reading with the next, but the family requests that he repeat that one, in order that they may understand better, enquiring whether Christ had allowed himself to be killed in order to save all men. "Espinosa, who was a freethinker but who felt committed to what he had read to the Gutres, answered, "Yes, to save everyone from hell."

At which point the reader, who has carefully read the Introduction before beginning this first story in the collection, knows what is to come. And, in Borges' laconic voice and understated but elegant prose, that is exactly what does happen, though we are offered no more Espinosa's realisation of what is to come.

I've said I find short stories unsatisfactory and I do, though to be truthful I cannot express what I could possibly find lacking in this one. We are given all the information we need, the scene is set sparingly, but effectively, there is no "baroque" (Borges' word) extraneous detail. I am afraid the lack is in me, that this is a world in microcosm and that Borges, an acknowledged master of the form, has created a small gem.

So I shall persevere – I shan't set in stone an undertaking to read a story a week, but I shall do my best, and take stock in perhaps six months' time, to see if I have learnt to appreciate, if not necessarily to love this art form.

Friday, 7 December 2007

A Friday Poem

I've always been fond of the poems of A.A. Milne - they were read to me when I was small, I read them first to younger brothers, and then to my own children. The combination of Shepherd's wonderful drawings and Milne's characterisation create perfect stories and present complex human (or bear-ish) behaviour in a way that is accessible to small children while remaining engaging to adults. I would be at a loss to decide which was my favourite of his poems (although it's the long ones I like best) but, indulging the Christmas spirit (I've just posted my responses to the Christmas meme here) I thought we would have this one. The phrase "a hopeful stocking" is so poignant!

King John's Christmas

A.A. Milne

King John was not a good man —
He had his little ways.
And sometimes no one spoke to him
For days and days and days.
And men who came across him,
When walking in the town,
Gave him a supercilious stare,
Or passed with noses in the air —
And bad King John stood dumbly there,
Blushing beneath his crown.

King John was not a good man,
And no good friends had he.
He stayed in every afternoon ...
But no one came to tea.
And, round about December,
The cards upon his shelf
Which wished him lots of Christmas cheer,
And fortune in the coming year,
Were never from his near and dear,
But only from himself.

King John was not a good man,
Yet had his hopes and fears.
They’d given him no present now
For years and years and years.
But every year at Christmas,
While minstrels stood about,
Collecting tribute from the young
For all the songs they might have sung,
He stole away upstairs and hung
A hopeful stocking out.

King John was not a good man,
He lived his life aloof;
Alone he thought a message out
While climbing up the roof.
He wrote it down and propped it
Against the chimney stack:
And signed it not “Johannes R.”
But very humbly, “JACK.”

“I want some crackers,
And I want some candy;
I think a box of chocolates
Would come in handy;
I don’t mind oranges,
I do like nuts!
And I SHOULD like a pocket-knife
That really cuts.
And, oh! Father Christmas, if you love me at all,
Bring me a big, red india-rubber ball!”

King John was not a good man —
He wrote this message out,
And gat him to his room again,
Descending by the spout.
And all that night he lay there,
A prey to hopes and fears.
“I think that’s him a-coming now,
(Anxiety bedewed his brow.)
“He’ll bring one present, anyhow —
The first I’ve had for years.

“Forget about the crackers,
And forget about the candy;
I’m sure a box of chocolates
Would never come in handy;
I don’t like oranges,
I don’t want nuts,
And I HAVE got a pocket-knife
That almost cuts.
But, oh! Father Christmas, if you love me at all,
Bring me a big, red india-rubber ball!”

King John was not a good man —
Next morning when the sun
Rose up to tell a waiting world
That Christmas had begun,
And people seized their stockings,
And opened them with glee,
And crackers, toys and games appeared,
And lips with sticky sweets were smeared,
King John said grimly: “As I feared,
Nothing again for me!”

“I did want crackers,
And I did want candy;
I know a box of chocolates
Would come in handy;
I do love oranges,
I did want nuts.
I haven’t got a pocket-knife —
Not one that cuts.
And, oh! if Father Christmas had loved me at all,
He would have brought a big, red india-rubber ball!”

King John stood by the window,
And frowned to see below
The happy bands of boys and girls
All playing in the snow.
A while he stood there watching,
And envying them all...
When through the window big and red
There hurtled by his royal head,
And bounced and fell upon the bed,
An india-rubber ball!


Monday, 3 December 2007

Not buying books! well, nearly...

I think I may have mentioned elsewhere that I buy most of my books online. This week I received an email asking if I would post about a new site, the UK version of, which offers comparisons on book prices. I thought for some time about this, since it isn't a site I've used, and I would be most reluctant to recommend anything I hadn't tried myself. And in the run-up to Christmas, I am trying very hard not to buy any books!

So, with my teeth nobly gritted, I conducted a number of searches on the new site, to see if it would be useful. I tried to look for a representative selection, searching on Murakami, Barbara Pym and Michael Innes, as well as for a couple of young adult books I am looking for. And I very nearly didn't buy a book! (Only I found that The Book Depository now has copies of a book I've been looking for unsuccessful
ly for a couple of months, that I need for the YA Challenge...)

Readers will have gathered from the above that my book searching experience was a positive one. The comparisons took me to several of my regular sites, on which I would have had to conduct separate searches, but also widens the scope, since it covers sites I don't normally look at. The user interface is particularly straightforward, and lets you, should you wish, search on new books only, as well as offering the price in your chosen currency. Searches can be performed on Author, Title or ISBN and multiple ISBN searches are possibl
e. A price comparison allows you to look at several books and then gives you the price for ordering from one bookseller or several.

All in all, I think is a useful site, and worth taking a look at if you regularly buy online. I've bookmarked it, and rather hope that I'll be able to add it to the search box in Firefox before too long.

And I'd better come clean: here's the book I bought. I'm looking forward to reading it.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

November's booklist

This month hasn't been a good one for posts - there are quite a few unreviewed books in this list. The Madeleine l'Engle books will all be reviewed together when I've finished the quintet that make up The Wrinkle in Time, so I don't feel too guilty about those, but I do want to catch up on some of the others, which are too good to pass over. I may have to do a very untidy batch review, and try to Do Better in December - but then everyone knows what December is like!
  • The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson (Canada Challenge)
  • Snail Eggs and Samphire by Derek Cooper
  • Lunatic Villas by Marian Engel (Outmoded Authors)
  • The Honeyman Festival by Marian Engel (Canada Challenge)
  • Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman
  • Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker
  • The Diamond of Drury Lane by Julia Golding
  • The Young Unicorns by Madeleine l'Engle
  • In the Country by Kenneth Allsop
  • The Wind in the Door by Madeleine l'Engle
  • Dark Fire by CJ Samson
  • Nine Layers of Sky by Liz Williams
  • The Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
  • The Pure in Heart by Susan Hill
  • Diary of a Victorian Gardener: William Cresswell and Audley End
  • Espresso Tales by Alexander McCall Smith
  • Untold Stories by Alan Bennett
Canadian Book Challenge (ends 1 July 2008): 3 of 13 completed
Outmoded Authors Challenge (ends 29 February 2008): 4 of 9 completed
Young Adult Challenge (runs 1 January-31 December 2008)

October's Books are here
September's books are here
August's books are here

Links are mainly to reviews on this site; the occasional book on country topics (including novels) is reviewed on Cat Musings.