Saturday, 24 November 2007

The Perils of Minn

The opening chapter of The Honeyman Festival by Marian Engel is a tour de force: not many years intervened between the birth of Minn’s fourth child and my own first, so I found it easy to identify with our leading lady. From her first appearance, ex-starlet Minn is vulnerable: “Minn was in the bath, and filled the bath.” Heavily pregnant, she is alone in her decrepit rented house (despite the presence of her other three children and various hippy lodgers in the attic), preparing for a festival to celebrate the life of her now-dead lover (and minor Svengali-figure), the film director Honeyman. Her vulnerability is what first grabs the reader; her deliberations on the perils of pregnancy (of positively Penelope Pitstop proportions) made me laugh out loud.

Overall, however, this is not an entirely comfortable read. The setting is the end of the 1960s, when women were only just beginning to battle their way out of what seemed a predestined role: education was to get you a good but suitable job such as teaching or clerical work – “helpmeet” roles – until you met a man and settled down to have a family. Intelligent women were starting to rebel, but they were frequently unhappy and occasionally vilified. Minn is just put-upon. Her husband Norman is in Katmandu because it pays the rent. When he does come home to the kind of mess that three very small children can create, he regards it as reasonable to go out to the pictures. The rent is exorbitant because he likes the huge, crumbling house with fourteen-foot ceilings, but he doesn’t have to deal with the bugs or the mould under the lino. The hippies can’t always pay their rent, and Minn would welcome help with the children and around the house instead, but it is not forthcoming, and she doesn’t seem able to insist. Her children are food-throwing monsters, as small children tend to be.

Brooding on the risks to these infants brought about by her hugely-pregnant and exhausted state, Minn takes her only positive action to improve her situation: she demands the services of a social worker. Unfortunately Jane-Regina turns out to be an old enemy from school, who can offer no more constructive assistance than to come and talk about herself. Yet while the reader cannot help but sympathise with Minn in the face of the “mincing” and ghastly Jane-Regina, one is at the same time conscious of frustration at Minn’s inertia. She doesn’t want this baby; she is 37, she conceived while wearing a contraceptive loop, and she has grown up with a (much-loved) Downs syndrome sibling. She wanted an abortion, but her family doctor is condescending and unhelpful, and she has made no move to insist.

We follow Minn through the course of the day of the festival, struggling with preparations, fighting exhaustion to fulfil her role as hostess. By the end of the day (and the book) Minn has scored a minor victory, and has heard from her husband to say he is on his way home, but nothing has really changed. You suspect that her internal monologue will go on around the next baby (and you hope that, unlike the protagonist of The Glassy Sea, she will have a normal child). You feel it would take an upheaval like desertion by her husband to kick Minn into real action, and happily, Engel wrote the book for us to savour: Lunatic Villas, a joyous book about a woman who – even if she hasn’t got it right in the past – is trying to take full control of her own life.

The power of Engel’s writing is in its vividness and immediacy. Minn’s thoughts are compelling and convincing, and a dry humour weaves through the story. The house is as much a character as the people, and all are seen through Minn’s eyes, with irritation, love, despair. So tired by the end of the day that she can’t sleep, Minn wakes next morning in a mood of mild optimism, and it is impossible not to share with her the small hope that she will break through the inertia, or at least that things will get brighter in the future.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Another Reading Meme

I found this meme at Stefanie’s blog, So Many Books but I’ve seen it at a number of other places. While I’m still having connectivity problems it seems a good time to use it, while I prepare myself for battle over the weekend!

Do you remember learning to read? How old were you?
I can’t remember not being able to read. I’ve loved books as long as I can remember, and I think I probably got impatient waiting for people to read to me, so I had to do it myself.

What do you find most challenging to read?
Textbooks, unless I am completely immersed in the subject. If I’ve got caught up by, or disagree strongly with the argument, it’s fine but, if I am not fully engaged with the topic, it can be a tremendous effort to stay focused.

What are your library habits?
Most of my life I’ve visited the library regularly. These days when I arrive I head for the SF/fantasy shelves and browse there; then I drift down non-fiction through gardening to the various crafts in case there are any new or interesting books, then on to the Crime section. By the time I’ve finished there I have usually picked out four or five books, which I’ll then supplement with three or four general fiction. I had a phase of reading very fluffy chick lit (the kind with pastel covers) a while ago, but now I can’t read it at all – I think it was because I was suffering quite badly from anaemia, although I didn’t realise it at the time, and I just didn’t have any energy for serious reading. A course of iron pills and my reading returned to normal!

Have your library habits changed since you were younger?
When I was growing up I lived in a very small town and the library was open most evenings. I spent a lot of time there, so that, when I later lived in a city and was out of work, the reference library was where I spent my days, reading folklore. Soon afterwards, however, and married, we moved to the country, and visiting the library is no longer a spur-of-the-moment decision. Now I go once or twice a month.

How has blogging changed your reading life?
Instead of reading whatever the library has to offer, I am much more selective, looking for titles that have been reviewed by other bloggers, and requesting books if they are not available on the shelves. I also read more attentively, and make notes. And, because I’ve joined a number of reading challenges, I plan my future reading in much more detail. In the past I’ve only noted titles of books I want to buy, or particularly enjoyed; now I am keeping a list of everything I read.

How often do you read a book and not review it on your blog? What are your reasons for not blogging about a book?
I’d rather be reading than blogging about a book that I didn’t find particularly engaging, although I originally set out to review everything. I do try to write brief comments about books I’ve enjoyed, but time often overtakes me. I’m hoping to achieve a balance somewhere along the way.

What percentage of your books do you get from new book stores, second hand books stores, the library, online exchange sites, online retailers, other?
I think I probably buy about half my books from online secondhand sites. The library supplies the next largest chunk, I guess, then most of the rest come from online retailers, though a small number come from secondhand bookshops and high street bookshops. Online exchange sites aren’t much use to me, since I re-read nearly all of my books – once I’ve bought it, it’s a permanent part of my library.

What are your pet peeves about the way people treat books?
I’ve blogged before about the thing which really upsets me: defacing library books. I think it’s unforgivable. Apart from that, I don’t really mind what people do to their own books, but I like my secondhand copies to be unmarked if possible.

Do you ever read for pleasure are work?
I’ve always read during coffee and lunchbreaks; since I started working from home for most of the month, I quite often read for 15 minutes after lunch, to give my brain time to unknot (though sometimes it has an unravelling effect).

When you give people books as gifts, how do you decide what to give them?
I generally only give books to people I know very well, and bear in mind their preferences. I think there are few things more disappointing than receiving a book you don’t really want, so I try to avoid putting people in that position.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Birthday books

I’m delighted that, following a series of broad hints (could printing out details from Amazon be broader?) this year’s birthday netted the book I most wanted: Mervyn Peake: the man and his art, compiled by his son, Sebastian Peake, and Alison Eldred. Peake has been one of my favourite authors, artists and poets since I first read him aged 14 or so, and fell in love with Gormenghast and its gruesomely captivating inhabitants. The new book is beautiful, lavishly illustrated, and contains 11 chapters with contributions garnered from Peake’s friends, family and others. The book arrived in the same week as a much-longed-for DVD of Mr Pye, perhaps these days one of Peake’s lesser-known works; filmed in 1986 as a series by Channel 4, it starred Derek Jacobi as Mr Pye, and is a delight. More on both anon – although so much has been written on Peake since I first dreamt of owl-infested towers that I feel unqualified to utter a single word.

The birthday also brought Roger Deakin’s Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees. This is another work I have wanted to read since it came out, and should provide much food for posts on Cat Musings, where I am now restricting myself to “country matters”, although perhaps not quite in the sense which Hamlet meant.

Finally, sheer indulgence, in the form of a comic book: from my younger son came the first instalment of Joss Whedon’s sequel to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As in the television series, overall control will remain with Whedon, ensuring the integrity of the series. Apparently Buffy and the Slayers are now based in Scotland – I can’t wait!

Please note: this is currently an image-free - and almost post-free - zone, since my broadband connection will allow me only the most limited and fragmentary contact with the outside world. Full details of my woes on Cat Musings.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

A Deathful Ridge by J.A. Wainwright

In 1924 George Mallory was a member of a British expedition to climb Mount Everest. Following two failed attempts to reach the summit, Mallory and Andrew Irvine made a final attempt, intending to use oxygen to help them. The last time they were seen was on 8 June 1924, when climber Noel Odell reported he had seen them “going strong for the top”. For much of the twentieth century the question was, did they make it? And what happened, since their bodies were not found.

New Brunswick author J.A. Wainwright takes an unusual angle on the story. In a novel which seeks to examine the mythologising of Mallory’s attempt at Everest and of his life in general, he suggests that Mallory did not, in fact, die on Everest. In this version, Mallory – horribly scarred - is found by his fellow-climbers, and tells them, “I killed him.” This is the last thing he says. Believing he may indeed be responsible for Irvine’s death, a small group hustles him back to England in secrecy, where they decide to hide him in a Welsh cottage. Decades later, the unnamed Canadian narrator follows the story to Wales, where he finds a 104-year-old climber who says he has Mallory’s journal.

The strength of this book is not in the mystery of Mallory’s death or his possible survival – the back cover tells you that this is the plot. The interest is in its consideration of the nature of what we now call “celebrity”. Mallory and his colleagues were heroes before they left for Everest – the climber who led a successful attempt on the summit could be certain of a knighthood on his return. Well-educated and well-connected, they were the cream of their generation but, significantly, they had were also survivors of the horror of the First World War. Amongst his contemporaries Mallory was known as “Galahad” and they held a chivalric code of bravery in the face of impossible odds. Wainwright suggests that his colleagues convinced themselves that their golden boy could not return as a murderer; he would be better dead. So they hid him away and returned instead to a glorious failure. Mallory and Irvine had “stepped through the veil” – a recurring image in the Grail legends – leaving this symbol of the fading British Empire unsullied.

Mallory’s body was, of course, discovered on Everest in 1999, though the question of whether he made it to the top remains unanswered. None of this affects the book, since it is about an idea, rather than the facts surrounding his death. The Canadian viewpoint is, I think, necessary – some British ideas of Empire are entrenched whether we like it or not. I found it a little difficult to read a book set in Britain but written in Canadian English, and I wish it had been better proofread. However, those were minor irritations in a book I’ve been meaning to read for some years, so I’m grateful that the Canadian Book Challenge provided the incentive to do so.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

From the Stacks

"Last year, as a result of enjoying Carl's RIP Challenge so very much, Overdue Books created the From the Stacks Reading Challenge. We had an amazing response! So this's back. The rules are the same: If you are anything like me your stack of purchased to-be-read books is teetering over. So for this challenge we would be reading 5 books that we have already purchased, have been meaning to get to, have been sitting on the nightstand and haven't read before. No going out and buying new books. No getting sidetracked by the lure of the holiday bookstore displays."
I have to admit that this does seem like the perfect challenge in the approach to Christmas. The "to be read" pile is threatening to take over on my bookshelves (all double stacked, oh horror) and, while I shouldn't really need an added incentive to start working my way through it, I have made in the last year or so a rather alarming discovery about my book addiction: I begin to feel quite panicked if the height of the pile sinks too low. I lie awake at night wondering what I will do if there isn't an unread book waiting for me. Or, more exactly, a choice of unread books. I don't think this is entirely healthy, though I do make excuses about the difficulty of getting to the library and the inadequacy of choice when I get there. One of the problems is the internet, of course - giving me access to the largest second-hand bookshop in the world is dangerous; combining it with book blogs, author sites, complete bibliographies and advance warning of new books is fatal. The government worries about online gambling, but they should be looking out for me. Where will the dogs sleep when I replace the pile of books I'm reading now? Will the chickens have to share their coop with the overspill of gardening books?

Here is my selection of books for the From the Stacks challenge:

The challenge requires five to be read, but I've included Austerlitz, Stamping Butterflies and Temeraire as alternatives, not least because I may get stuck with Cloud Atlas for a second time. However, I plan to tackle most of the reading over Christmas, when I have every intention of being utterly self-indulgent and doing nothing but read for two weeks. The wonderful thing about having grown-up sons is that they don't require entertaining (they will spend their spare time playing with and on computers), they help with the washing up, they will cook lunch if no-one else feels like doing it, and they regard reading and writing about books as relatively normal activity. So, if the dogs and I really apply ourselves to leisure, we may get through the whole pile. I've just realised, there should have been a box of yoghurt drops atop the stack.

The only thing wrong with this scenario is that, if I read these eight books, plus books for Outmoded Authors and the Canadian Book Challenge, and I start my first book in the Young Adult Challenge on January 1st - which is quite likely - that will have made a significant dent in the TBR pile. "Hurrah," I hear you cheer. Not so, Jon Courtenay Grimwood's
butterflies are stamping away in the pit of my stomach, and I can feel the urge to have just a quick look at Abebooks. I've been thinking of adding to the Barbara Pym collection, and I haven't got any Agatha Christie - oops, watch that pile of books, it's tilting alarmingly...

Sunday, 11 November 2007

The Country House by John Galsworthy

Prior Park, Bath

I was interested to read something by Galsworthy that wasn’t part of The Forsyte Saga, which I am also reading, so that I had a comparison.

I can’t exactly say that The Country House has been an enjoyable read, because it – intentionally, I hasten to add - made me angry, but it has been interesting. Although not part of The Forsyte Saga, it shares one of the themes of the first book of the saga, Man of Property, in that it is about a divorce. Here, it is the main focus of the book and the legal ramifications of divorce, and its effect upon the three people most closely involved, and their wider family circle, is anatomised.

The country house of the title is inhabited Mr Horace Pendyce, with his wife Margery and their two youngest children. The eldest son, George, lives in London, where he divides his time between his Club and his racehorse; his father considers that he should be a home, learning to manage the estate, but George’s attentions are fixed on Mrs Jasper Bellew, a woman of great beauty with an alcoholic husband. Helen Bellew is a distant cousin of Mrs Pendyce, and is the ward of another cousin, Gregory Vigil.

The book begins with a shooting party given by Mr Pendyce, and the arrival of his guests. Mr Pendyce himself is originally of yeoman stock, his family having married into money and, we are given to understand, his wife is rather better bred than he is. He is an old-fashioned landlord: “It was his individual conviction that individualism had ruined England, and he had set himself deliberately to eradicate this vice from the character of his tenants.” To entertain their guests Mrs Pendyce gives a dance, and it is at this event that the vicar, the Reverend Hussell Barter, sees George kissing Mrs Bellew in the conservatory.

This is 1891, and Mr Barter immediately decides Mrs Bellew is no better than she ought to be, “no more than a common baggage”. So when some time later Vigil suggests that she should divorce her husband, from whom she has been living separately, Mr Barter officiously decides that it is his duty to intervene, on the grounds that Jasper Bellew is one of his parishioners. Helen finds herself being served with divorce papers, with George cited as co-respondent; however, if George will promise never to see Helen again, proceedings will end. George immediately announces that he will deny there has been anything between them, so that the divorce may proceed; the expectation of his family is that, if it does, George and Helen will marry. From this point, the complacent security of the Pendyces is shattered. Horace announces he will have nothing more to do with his son, and cannot bear the though that “that woman” should ever live in his house. Margery, the perfect wife, who has nonetheless never really loved her husband, leaves him to go to London and support her son through the ordeal.

What made me angry while reading this book, perhaps not surprisingly, is the reminder of the injustices perpetrated by our divorce laws until comparatively recently. Helen, who wants a divorce, must dissemble, her lawyer tells Vigil:
“We shall want evidence of certain things. Have you got any evidence?”
Gregory ran his hand through his hair.
“I don’t think there’ll be any difficulty,” he said. “Bellew agrees – they both agree.”[…]
Mr Paramor drew his breath between his teeth.
“Did you ever,” he said drily, “hear of what’s called collusion?” [. . .]
“Two unhappy persons must not seem to agree to be parted,” he said. “One must be believed to desire to keep hold of the other, and must pose as an injured person. There must be evidence of misconduct, and in this case of cruelty or of desertion. The evidence must be impartial. This is the law.”
So Helen, who is desperately unhappy with her husband, cannot seek a divorce unless she is able to demonstrate that she is the injured party (and there is a reason, which reflects well on her, why she cannot), but her husband, citing George, can start proceedings.

I can’t imagine very many people reading The Country House unless they have a particular interest in the period. It is, of course, well written (Galsworthy won the Nobel prize for Literature in 1932), but it lacks some of the beauty of structure evident in the Saga, although it was published a year later than Man of Property. In fact, I find myself wondering if he felt he had glossed over the miseries of divorce in that, and wanted to present a different viewpoint. If so, he succeeds, both in presenting the hypocrisies of the law, while also drawing a picture of three very different marriages. The novel’s characterisation is good, particularly in displaying the pomposity and inflexibility of Horace Pendyce and the loathsomely self-righteous vicar. Even so, while exposing their faults, he allows some humanity and vulnerability to creep in from time to time, as when the vicar’s wife is giving birth to their eleventh child. I have to admit to nearly giving up quite early on when a (condemnatory) comment on hunting made me wince sharply, and wonder if casual brutality towards animals might be a feature of the book. The carelessness of Pendyce’s love for his dog – and his wife – does indeed emerge: he continually trips over or treads on his poor spaniel, who is unswerving in his love for his master. The pace, just a little slow at first with the introduction of the dramatis personae, picks up, and offers a rewarding read.

Cross posted from Outmoded Authors.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Traveller's Prelude by Freya Stark

Robert Stark, Freya's father, painted by his wife, Flora

Traveller’s Prelude is, the author Freya Stark tells us, “a bare jumble written with no arrangement of words or style or matter”, written in haste during a lull between her travels in Cyprus and published in 1950. Although she admitted that she had subsequently tidied it up for publication, much of her beautiful prose must stand as originally put down. She writes candidly and fluently, relating the story of her childhood and young adulthood in Devon and Italy.

Born in 1893, Freya was the elder daughter of cousins Robert and Flora Stark. Robert and Flora were never, by the sound of it, ideally suited; Robert was happiest outdoors, building houses, landscaping gardens, and tramping the moors, while the charming 19-year-old Flora basked in London society, playing the piano for polite charity events and moving with ease amongst the artists of St John’s Wood. Raised in Tuscany, when they moved to a series of houses on Dartmoor she was ill-equipped to cope with cold, and wet, and Victorian attitudes which endlessly constrained the actions of young women. Freya said of her parents’ marriage:

Half the marriages that go wrong are destroyed by too much amiability at the outset; each human being has things that in the long run he cannot assimilate or forgo – and to try to do so only means a slow accumulation of disaster. It is far better to know the limits of one’s resistance at once and put up as it were a little friendly fence around the private ground.

The adult Freya expressed her sadness at remaining unmarried, despite all the efforts of family and friends to find her a suitable man. She said that the men concerned didn’t get round to proposing until she had lost interest in them; the impression, perhaps, is that, having observed the pain and loneliness of her parents’ marriage, her own “little friendly fence” might have been too readily obvious to her suitors. Her beloved sister, Vera, entered somewhat reluctantly into the married state with her mother’s business partner. Although this relatively brief marriage was not entirely happy (Vera died very young), and was marred by Vera’s mother living with the couple, it was nonetheless clear that her husband loved her, and tensions eased when Freya finally managed to persuade her mother to leave.

By the time Freya was eight her parents seem effectively to have drifted apart and, while Robert remained at their home near Chagford (in a house which holds a special place in my own life), Flora took herself and the girls to Asolo in Italy, a place which was to be important to Freya all her life. Here, though fortunately provided with a governess who undertook to deal with the gaps in their education, the girls seem to have lived an idyllic existence, with freedom to wander and explore at will. A serious accident at 13 brought Freya close to her mother, a relationship they managed to maintain despite, at times, severe tensions between them.

When Freya was 21 World War I started, and she trained as a nurse. Working at a field hospital close to the Italian front line, she talks in matter-of-fact tones of the horrific injuries she saw, and of a frantic escape retreating in front of the German artillery. She celebrated the end of the war by indulging her passion for mountaineering with her old family friend, W.P. Ker, but peace left her at a loose end, and without an income. Although money was a constant worry she bought a house on the Italian Riviera, near Menton, and moved there with her mother. She established a small vineyard and gradually began to earn a living, but illness dating back to the war began to tell on her. A serious operation followed and, during the time she had to spend convalescing – a very slow business, and full of setbacks – she started to learn Arabic, with a view to eventual travel. Her love of adventure is evident throughout the book, from childhood escapades which would have been the death of most mothers, to traversing icefields, and to smuggling household goods into Italy from France on her shopping trips. When her bank balance reached £300, she decided, she would leave; and so she did, setting sail for Beirut in November 1927.

This is probably the most neglected of Stark’s books, her later travel writings being better known. Here, Freya’s candour about her family and herself shine out of every page. Letters from family members and friends offer a different viewpoint from time to time, but Freya’s intelligent voice seems to speak directly to the reader throughout, capturing the events of the past with a freshness and clarity which is immediately engaging. I recommend it as a fascinating record of a period more often documented by men, but also as a work of literature, and would like to end with another quote which, I hope, shows the quality of her writing:

At night the fishing boats set out into this quiet sea with strong lanterns at their prow to fish for anchovies and later sardines, which both made an annual progress eastwards from Gibraltar round all the Mediterranean coasts. Word of their coming would go round before them. Each lighted boat had a dark sister ship that laid a net around it, enclosing the crowd of flickering fish that danced in the green water below the lighted prow. Gradually the two ships neared each other, the circular net drew in, and the catch was lifted up between them. I always thought of these two ships, the light and the dark, as life and death, working together.
Cross-posted from Outmoded Authors

Thursday, 1 November 2007

The Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

Because it was Halloween on Wednesday I decided that I would mark the occasion in an appropriate fashion. Part of the previous week's library haul was The Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill. There seemed to be an unusual amount of hype about this book, until you realise that Joe Hill is the son of Stephen King, but what really persuaded me was that it came with enthusiastic comments, both on the book cover and his blog, by Neil Gaiman who, in my eyes, can do no wrong.

Now, I have to say at the outset that I think it was vastly over-hyped, but perhaps expectations are lower when we're talking horror novels? I don't read many, but some of those I have read have been excruciatingly badly written. I'm certainly not saying that's the case here, but it does read like a first novel. There is too much action and not enough explanation, and it is hard to fully engage with the characters.

It's about cynical, ageing rockstar Jude Coyne, who, disaffected and beyond the need to earn an income, decides to add to his collection of "noir" memorabilia by buying a ghost. I expect if Jude hadn't had an unhappy childhood (see American Gothic) he would have thought twice about the whole question, and, of course, when the ghost does show up, it turns out to be a set-up anyway. This ghost was all for him. A car chase ensues, with Jude, his girlfriend Georgia (he has the endearing habit of calling his goth girlfriends by their home state) and his two German Shepherds, fleeing south away from the ghost, who is rather handy with a razor. For about half the book I was hampered by the fact that only characters I liked were the dogs, but things did look up a bit towards the end.

It's not possible to say much about the plot without giving anything away, but unhappy childhoods do feature. There's not much explanation offered for them, some folks is just mean, I guess. The action has too much gore for my taste, but it doesn't really make you care much. Pacing is better, it's a fairly quick read anyway but, because so much is action, you do find yourself turning over just one more page. On the other hand, if someone had taken it away when I was half-way through, I am not sure I would have been desperate to finish it.

I did like the relatively leisured ending, which reminded me of Gaiman's writing, as did some earlier moments, and I wondered whether that was why Gaiman had been so positive about it. My response is distinctly lukewarm but maybe this is one for horror fans only?

October's booklist

Canadian Book Challenge (ends 1 July 2008): 1 of 13 completed
Outmoded Authors Challenge (ends 29 February 2008): 3 of 9 completed
Young Adult Challenge (runs 1 January-31 December 2008)

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.