Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Once upon a time...

...there was a woman who couldn't stop reading. Every minute of the day her nose was in a book. Her children looked sadly at the dry crusts on the table, her dogs gazed at their empty bowls, her husband threatened to find a witch to brew up a potion to effect a cure, but to no avail. "Oh dear," the woman sighed, "just let me finish this page..."

Which is a longwinded way of saying that I have succumbed to yet another challenge. Or, as Margaret at BooksPlease would have it: "Oh No, Not Another Challenge!" Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings ran this challenge last year, and is reprising it for 2008. It is just so exactly my kind of thing, encompassing myth and fairytales, that I can't resist. I'm going for Quest the Second, one book from each of the four categories that comprise the challenge, and they are:

Fairytale – Andrew Lang, Chronicles of Pantouflia
Mythology – Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad
Folkore – Diana Wynne Jones, Fire and Hemlock
Fantasy – Connie Willis, Passage

The Andrew Lang book is a re-read, but I haven't read it since I was young – I only found my copy recently, it's been hiding ever since we moved here a mere 14 years ago! It was out of print for a long time, so I was rather pleased to see it again.

Spem in alium

One of my favourite pieces of music is Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis. I've known this piece for many years, but I truly fell in love with it in Canada, in a completely unexpected way.

I was visiting the National Gallery, which I always try to do when I visit Ottawa, to get my fix of Group of Seven paintings. Since I wasn't in a hurry, I allowed myself to wander more widely, and found myself in front of a rather uninviting doorway to what appeared to be an installation, with a thready stream of sound issuing from it. Under the glare of a fierce-looking guard (the guys in the National Gallery always seem to look at me as if they think I'm going to spit at the paintings – most off-putting) I drifted in, and found myself in heaven.

Well, not heaven, but Rideau Street Convent Chapel. This was once part of the Convent of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Ottawa, which was demolished in 1972. Local protest, however, saved the exquisite chapel, which has been reconstructed within the National Gallery. Despite being completely enclosed by the gallery, the stained glass windows give the impression of daylight shining in, bathing the glorious wood and gilding in gentle light.

At the time of my visit the chapel was being used for the installation Forty-Piece Motet by Jane Cardiff. Forty speakers encircle the central space, each one being used for one of the forty individual voices for which Spem in alium was written. The effect is as if you are surrounded by the 8 choirs which sing the work, with the sublime sound weaving and soaring around you and into the vaulted roofspace. At times a single voice peaks and holds your attention, at others you are enveloped in a wash of music. On that first occasion I sat entranced through the work twice, and went away only to return half an hour later. I visited the chapel three times in the week I was in Ottawa, and my first thought on returning home was to search for the perfect recording. At the moment my favourite is that sung by Magnificat, and directed by Philip Cave, which I chose because the separation is the voices is particularly clear (presumably because it was recorded in the round) and with a wonderfully warm and natural sound. Versions heard in the past simply sounded like a choral work and failed to catch the attention, whereas this almost gives the effect of listening to a new work on each occasion, depending on what thread you choose to follow, with unexpectedly rich and complex harmonies, or the single ribbon of melody from a soprano. This is one of the most lovely and remarkable works of English church music.

Spem in alium was sung at the memorial service for Ted Hughes in Westminster Abbey, a poet I admire greatly and once knew very slightly. It must have been a magnificent and moving occasion. The intimacy of Rideau Street Convent Chapel, however, provided a beautiful setting for this exquisite music, and I am profoundly grateful that I visited at the right time.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

A bit of catching up . . .

Dark Companion is a volume of two novels by the prolific Andre Norton. The first, Dark Piper, takes place at a time when the planets that comprise the Four Sectors have been beset by a long war. Beltane, a planet of largely rural communities and huge areas of reserve inhabited by strange mutated animals, agrees to give asylum to a ship of refugees. It's a Trojan Horse, though – attack and retaliation follow, and population and aggressors are swiftly devastated by a plague-type illness, leaving only a tiny group of survivors who have been trapped in a cave. The story relates their fight to survive and to discover what has befallen their world.

In the second novel, Dread Companion, Kilda takes on the role of governess to two children, only to discover that the elder has a "invisible friend" who traps them all in a parallel world. While the children quickly assimilate, gaining an understanding of their new environment, Kilda resists, only gradually learning the rules of a world which resembles the legends of Faerie; this both hampers and assists her effort to save the children, one of whom has changed into a faun.

Rather to my surprise, since I often like stories which subvert the conventions of fairytales, I preferred the more conventional scifi world of Dark Piper. This was a very straightforward account of events, although the young survivors must infer the fate which has beset their world, since almost no direct information is available to them. Dread Companion, on the other hand, follows the convention of a fairy tale in that the protagonist must learn the rules as she goes; even the provision of a companion who has been trapped in there for much longer leaves her struggling to avoid her own transformation. Both books are very short, and rather dated (they were published in 1968 and 1970 respectively); they would have benefited from a more leisured pace and, despite my preference, I would judge the second the better in formal terms. Certainly both worth a read – bearing in mind their age, there are some original ideas here. When I was young I was particularly fond of another of Norton's books called Cat's Eye; her writing of the relationship between humans and other animals was unusual and sympathetic for the time, this and her inclusion of legend paving the way for more recent authors such as Liz Williams.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Outmoded Authors Challenge - summary

I thoroughly enjoyed my reading for this challenge. My initial choice was made on the basis of accessibility, but even so it was over-ambitious – the library had almost none of the authors listed and in the end I had to buy anything that wasn't already on my shelves, so I limited myself to those I was reasonably confident about enjoying, and none of the authors I read was completely new to me. I had one complete failure: Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children was there on the shelf, I had started it once before and, when I couldn't get any further this time, gave up. It simply doesn't appeal to me. Similarly, I couldn't seem to get to Malcolm Lowry, though I will give him another try. Maugham's Of Human Bondage, which was a re-read, and which I loved when I was younger, remains, for the time being, unfinished; however he was well-served by other Challenge readers, so I don't feel too bad about it.

I read two books by G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Man Who Was Thursday, and plan to read more of his work over the course of this year. His blend of the political with the spiritual appeals to me very much, and his sense of fun is ever-present. I knew the Father Brown stories from when I was young, but look forward to a further encounter with the little priest. I notice, too, that they were adapted for television, with Donald Pleasance starring.

One of my books by Marian Engel, Lunatic Villas, was a re-read, as it's a long-time favourite. Another, The Glassy Sea, has achieved favourite status, a beautiful and utterly absorbing story of a woman's efforts to find her place in a changing world. Because I was reading Engle for this challenge, I included The Honeyman Festival in my list for the Canadian Book Challenge and found a witty polemic on the theme of motherhood which sat well with the previous two. Her work is very much of its period, and my impression is that her place in the CanLit canon is now largely historical, despite her status as Governor General's Award winner (for Bear). Anyone interested in the history of feminism, though, should have Engel on their reading list.

The Country House and The Forsyte Saga (A Man of Property, In Chancery and To Let) by John Galsworthy (the latter completed within the time but not yet posted on) continued my approach of reading more than one work by an author. In both he is concerned with a woman's role in an unhappy marriage, and with the legal constraints on her escape from such a situation. Galsworthy's style is distinctive, and weighty with detail rather than action, but his subject matter - the transition from the Victorian to the modern world – is sharply observed and sympathetically chronicled. I shall be returning to Galsworthy and the rest of the Forsyte story over the summer, after which I'm planning to borrow the television series from the library and watch it from start to finish!

Finally, Traveller's Prelude by Freya Stark was a pleasure for the fascinating story of her childhood and for her lovely writing, and led me to the short biography, Freya Stark by Caroline Moorehead. I have two of Stark's travel books still to read, and I dipped into some of her letters; I find that when I start reading I can't tear myself away, her voice is so immediate and compelling. Through much of her life she battled with ill-health, which makes her travels to parts of the Middle East where almost no Europeans had ventured all the more remarkable; in old age she could be autocratic and was undoubtedly eccentric, but the candour of her writing is often disarming and compels respect and admiration.

I'm already looking forward to more Outmoded Authors in six months' time, and impatient to see who will be new on the list.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Why didn't they ask Evans? by Agatha Christie

When Bobby Jones finds a dying man during a game of golf, he doesn't realise that it's going to be a life-changing, and nearly life-ending, event. Standing guard over the injured man, Bobby hears his last words, before relinquishing his post to passer-by Roger Bassington-ffrench. Within days Bobby has narrowly escaped death by poisoning, to the mystification of the local police force, who attribute the attempt on his life to a passing lunatic! However, Bobby and his friend Lady Frances Derwent (Frankie) are sure that Bassington-ffrench's appearance so soon after the stranger's death cannot be by chance, so they stage an accident to gain access to his home in order to find out more about him.

Bobby is a young man slightly prone to diffidence, particularly since he has recently had to leave the Navy because of his poor eyesight, an event which has left him at rather a loose end, and subject to the mild disapproval of his father, the Vicar (some of their exchanges are a joy). Distinctly "keen" on Frankie, Bobby nonetheless fears that their class difference makes her unattainable, and he misinterprets her friendly overtures as condescension. Frankie is a forceful young woman, however, and is determined that between them they will solve the mystery of the dead man, and the significance of his dying words.

The story moves at a briskly entertaining pace, and the two young people (and Bobby's rather shiftless friend Badger) are appealing. You know that, without Frankie's driving force, Bobby would simply have drifted along, accepting the police verdict, and would probably have been the victim of a second, more successful, attempt on his life. The denouement is typical Christie, a long exposition and, in this case, not perhaps her most convincing. In fact, I thought I spotted a distinct hole in it, but decided to ignore it in the pursuit of straightforward enjoyment of an amusing story.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

February's book round-up and another challenge

This satisfying pile is of books acquired in the last month, some of them via Bookmooch, as I continue to add to the collection of books set between the wars (which, like the long sixteenth century, extends beyond WWII to allow a range of reactions to it).

Joy at Thoughts of Joy, who already hosts the Young Adult Challenge, has started another: the Anything Agatha Challenge. Joy posted about reading The Tuesday Murders, the first of the Miss Marple stories and met an enthusiastic reaction from regular readers. Wonderful woman that she is, she decided to start a challenge: to read any 10 works by Agatha Christie in 2008, no advance list required, which makes it easy to raid the library shelves, rummage in the charity shops and negotiate a discount for bulk in your favourite secondhand bookshop. Having just decided to conduct a serious survey of the English detective story (no, not really, I just love a good murder) I immediately signed up. Good thing I recently acquired a couple of Christie's books.

February's booklist looks very short, but then it is a short month and I've been very busy at work, as well as a weekend in Devon, not to mention reading most of The Court of the Air twice (it was very good and I didn't want to finish it).

  • Why Didn't They Ask Evans? by Agatha Christie
  • Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford – re-read
  • Lady Friday by Garth Nix
  • Thurber Carnival by James Thurber - re-read
  • The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt
  • Selected Tales by Jacques Ferron
  • The Book of Lyonne by Burgess Drake - re-read
  • They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell
  • August Folly by Angela Thirkell

Canadian Book Challenge (ends 1 July 2008): 5 of 13 completed (1 review -still - pending)
Outmoded Authors Challenge (ends 29 February 2008): 8 of 9 completed, 2 reviews to write.
Young Adult Challenge (runs 1 January-31 December 2008): 2 completed, 1 review posted.

I started to read for the From the Stacks Reading Challenge but haven't done too well at this; I read 4 books out of 5, but was having such trouble posting about one of the books I rather lost heart! It's become something of a private challenge, as I am determined to read the fifth book, and to post about the first (The Fisher King). I just need to get my thoughts together.
I'm also participating in the Short Story Reading Challenge, extending my six months' of story reading to a year.
Graphic Novel Challenge: I haven't posted anything yet, but I'm reading! After a while though, I need a solid block of text to focus on.

Last year's books are here. Links are mainly to reviews on this site; the occasional book on country topics (including novels and cookery books) is reviewed on Cat Musings.