Saturday, 4 April 2009

March's books

Here is the book list for March:

* Dead Cold by Louise Penny
* A House and Its Head by Ivy Compton-Burnett
* A House Like a Lotus by Madeleine L'Engle
* Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett - re-read
* Summer Knight by Jim Butcher (L)
* The Cat Who Brought Down the House by Lilian Jackson Braun (L)
* Doomsday Book by Connie Willis - re-read
* Still Life by Louise Penny - re-read
* Pride and Prescience by Carrie Bebris (L)
* Agatha Raisin and the Love from Hell by M.C. Beaton (L)
* The Cat Who Talked Turkey by Lilian Jackson Braun (L)
* A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett
* The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett - re-read

It's pretty obvious that March was a month of comfort reading: 3 Pratchetts could never be described as intellectually challenging, although they were great fun, and served to keep my mind of work in the rare moments when I wasn't in front of a computer preparing conference rooming lists and programmes. I've already written about the Austen sequel and the Agatha Raisin here, so no more about them here, except to add that they were the lowest points of the month's reading.

Those who know her work may find it strange that I class Ivy Compton-Burnett's A House and Its Head as a comfort read, and indeed, the pater familias in question, Duncan Edgworth, sets the teeth on edge every bit as effectively as, say, Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park - he is opinionated, arrogant, inconsiderate and chauvinistic, dominating the lives of his extended family and shedding crocodilian tears at the untimely death of his first wife. I writhed with delighted rage. In truth, I find it very difficult to comment critically on Compton-Burnett, her writing is so mannered, her dialogue and situations so unreal - do they have anything to tell us about life? Oddly, I think they do: she anatomises the kind of bad faith that can exist for years within a family where one member seeks to control the lives of others, and yet no-one dares to challenge them. Duncan's two daughters are tyrannised, not by direct threats or physical cruelty, but by the withdrawal of approval and the sense of continually shifting parameters. The defence of Nance, the elder, is to provide a constant and deprecatory commentary on events while Sibyl, until her final act of defiance, is a cowed puppy, avoiding reproach by her readiness to cast herself at her master's feet with declarations of affection. "We are not touching any real truth," says Sibyl at the end - but she knows that the truth is that which is absent from their talk. These novels, and the plays of T.S. Eliot, are the last instance of high melodrama in British writing, and there is much satisfaction in a beautifully turned sentence used to good effect. There is material for comparison here between the self-absorbed Edgworths and the family at Wishwood, brought together in Eliot's play The Family Reunion to regale each other with their internal (and interminable?) commentaries which never advance the action. Happily, in A House and Its Head, although Nance's commentary is never exactly a spur to action, it is ironic enough to amuse the reader. An otherwise unattributed quote on Compton-Burnett from The Times reads: "The heights and depths of character are laid bare in the drawing room: Aeschylus has been transposed into the key of Jane Austen." Quite.


  1. I saw the picture of the Penguin book in my side column (the bit that shows updates of other bloggers) and thought 'Hello, that's a book I don't know". That's because I read the title as a Mouse and its Head. Such a wonderful vision conjoured up by that!

  2. Oh, I do love blog comments! I would so love to read A Mouse and Its Head...there was The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban, which was rather nice, I think.