Sunday, 27 November 2011

Perfect Lives by Polly Samson

Polly Samson, Perfect Lives

Polly Samson’s linked short stories combine beautifully nuanced writing with sharp observation as she dissects present-day life in England. Perfect Lives opens with "The Egg", a portrait of an apparently successful marriage: the Idlewilds are a comfortable, privileged family in a desirable English seaside town but, under the malign presence of a perfectly ordinary egg, we see Celia’s careful edifice shatter, and we become aware that the perfection of her surroundings, too, is marred.

As I read this first story I wondered if there were going to be too many jolts, if the pitch of the writing would be too erratic. I needn’t have worried, because it was followed by "Barcarolle", possibly my favourite in the collection. The power of this story lies in its physicality, as in the contrast between the lines of Anna’s back as she changes a light-bulb and the longer lines of the piano, or the sea outside juxtaposed with the waves of music. The writing is at once delicate and muscular, building image on carefully-chosen image to a sensory climax as the Chopin Barcarolle that Richard has dreamt of all day can finally be played on the third piano. The opulence of the Idlewild establishment, with its valuable, but lightly-owned instrument, is set against Anna’s colourful creativity and the battered instrument she cherishes. Morganna’s home, too, has a richness of detail that contrasts with a paucity of affection, the garish parrot an object of loathing rather than of love, as is the piano that Lola has damaged in her refusal to do her 10 minutes of practice. Only the Idlewilds have the resources to train a pianist, but Laura is competent, not talented, while Anna has the necessary passion but neither the ability not the instrument.

The stories continue, touching on past memories – Greenham Common in the 80s, Bobo’s stories of the war: “Secondhand memories were blowing about the Hamburg streets like litter. Kristallnacht.” –  while in the present day, Claudine finds a father, Tilda discovers that it is possible to love her son. Earth-shattering events only happen offstage: these are the small, daily agonies of ordinary lives, meaningful and worthy of note because we recognise them in ourselves. And therein lies the pleasure, in the main – the careful, elegant enunciation of the trivial, like an embroidery of meticulous stitches, shot through with flashes of brilliance. 

Perfect Lives was reviewed for the Virago Book Club

Sunday, 20 November 2011

A Classics Challenge

It occurred to me this morning that this challenge,which I've come across in various places as people post their lists, might fit in very nicely with another project I have lined up for next year. It is hosted by Katherine at November's Autumn, and the challenge is to read seven classics in 2012. Each month there will be a prompt to encourage participants to write about their current book. Although only three re-reads are allowed, seven suitable books are easy to find, with several coming off the shelves. My chosen books are from the twentieth century, but I might allow myself a brief flirtation with the nineteenth if I feel inclined! In which case, Trollope, Mrs Gaskell or Wilkie Collins would be the most likely candidates. Some classic crime would also be a possibility, or even some classic science fiction!

The books I plan to read are:

Margaret Kennedy, The Constant Nymph (1924): this is a re-read. I read it when I was in my teens, and loved it - having, I think, first seen it referred to in another book, though I can't remember what. But I seem to remember another character measuring herself against Tessa's behaviour, and being very influenced by her, after seeing the stage adaptation. I wonder who it was?

W. Somerset Maugham, The Gentleman in the Parlour (1935): I've read many of Maugham's novels, but had never seen this travel account before. The style looks very readable.

Dorothy Whipple, Someone at a Distance (1953): I'm been saving this up for a while, it's one of the fist Persephones I bought. I think people would agree that, since its reprint, it has achieved modern classic status?

Sylvia Townsend Warner, either Mr Fortune's Maggot (1927) or After the Death of Don Juan (1928) - both are on my shelves.

Barbara Comyns, The Vet's Daughter: I don't think I've read this! I've loved her work ever since I came across a copy of The Skin Chairs and bought it for its title.

Elizabeth von Arnim: I like her writing, and there are several I haven't read. All the Dogs of My Life (1936) appeals to me greatly and, although I'd have to buy it, it would be easy to pass on.

Monica Dickens, Mariana (1940). Another book by an author I like, and another Persephone Classic. Dickens is a wonderfully immediate writer, and I rather expect to fall in love with this one. Also not on my bookshelf.

As an alternate, I'd like to include Rose MacAulay, possibly even a re-read of The Towers of Trebizond, which I adore, but perhaps Told By an Idiot, for the fun of something new.

I'm desperate to get on to my twentieth-century reading! Everything I want to read right now was published before 2000. Everything I ought to be reading, admittedly, because the TBR pile is mostly review books, is recently published and rats! if I haven't missed the publication date. Ho hum. Actually, I'm sure it's better for authors if there's still someone writing about their books after all the hype is over...

Monday, 7 November 2011

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt

This is a book of lists and names. In Norse mythology, everything has got a name, from the World Ash (Yggdrasil) to the magical rope, Gleipnir (fashioned by the dark elves from six impossibilities such as the sound of cats' footfalls and bird's spittle) that bound the Fenris wolf. At the start the author points out that there is no standard spelling for names, so she won't apologise for using variants, and I won't either. Lists and names are vital, of course, in mythologies, establishing the order of the world and demonstrating dominion over it,  and as the beginning of the Norse world was marked by the naming of things, so is the thin child's in this book, as she moves from Sheffield to the country at the onset of World War II, discovering and cataloguing her new environment. Reading her bird and flower guides alongside her copy of Asgard and the Gods, she ponders Frigg's journey through the world asking every creature to promise not to harm her son Baldur:
She had bird books and flower books, the thin child, and noted them all, tree sparrow, bullfinch, song thrush, lapwing, linnet, wren. They ate and were eaten, it was true, they faded and vanished as the earth turned, but they came back at the solstice, and always would, whereas Baldur was doomed to die, for all the promises. If her father did not come back, he would never come back. [...]
The goddess called everything, everything, to promise not to harm her son. Yet the shape of the story means that he must be harmed.
For the thin child, the Wild Hunt still traverses the sky, in the form of Nazi bombers, and her father has gone to fight. The story of Ragnarök becomes her protection against the horrors of war, as Byatt put it, a counter-myth, that includes the possibility of renewal and regeneration. But, as Byatt acknowledges, this element of regeneration may be a Christian interpolation - Ragnarök was the end of the world, not the beginning of a new cycle, and a book written at the beginning of the twenty-first century is overshadowed by the knowledge of our destruction of our world. As with the Nazi erasure of other races (which started with replacing names by numbers), we are, with increasing rapidity, erasing other species, and no amount of clever science will bring back a species once lost. At the heart of Byatt's book is Jörmungandr, the Midgard Serpent, whose poison kills Thor in the final battle - her once joyous exploration of the oceans, delighting in her fellow creatures, playing with whales, has become as much a prison sentence as her sister's or her father's - hounded and angered by Thor, she has become so vast that she reaches girdles the earth. The shape of this story means that the flat ocean which is all that will be left after the final battle will be an empty, poisoned waste.

Ragnarök is at once a gripping re-telling of the Norse myths and a warning that, as Asgard was doomed to destruction from its very beginning, so is our world. The feckless gods couldn't prevent their end, for all the promises. Neither, is seems, will we.

A final note: I was gratified to see, among the books cited at the end, under the heading, Warnings, is The Unnatural History of the Sea: The Past and Future of Humanity and Fishing by Callum Roberts- this is a book which, while laying out the damage we have done, offers a thread of hope for the future if we act decisively. I make no apology for mentioning it - indeed, I am proud to say that the author is my brother. I think it's an important book. Ragnarök, too, is both compelling and beautiful addition to the literature of mythology and a call to action. We can learn from Götterdämmerung - not least, that Ragnarök means Judgement of the Gods, and not, as the German has it, twilight of the gods. What will be the judgement on us?

Thursday, 3 November 2011

September, October and RIP VI round-up

  • The Lives of Christopher Chant by Diana Wynne-Jones re-read
  • Charmed Life by Diana Wynne-Jones - re-read
  • Silvertongue by Charlie Fletcher
  • The Duke's Daughter by Angela Thirkell*
  • Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt - review pending
  • Jane Austen by Carol Shields - review to come
  • The American Boy by Andrew Taylor
  • The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  • Arrival City by Doug Saunders (K)
  • Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym - re-read
  • The Pattern in the Carpet by Margaret Drabble - review to come
  • The Girls by John Bowen - review pending
    * Books in blue were non-RIP reads

    During both September and October I was busy reading for the RIP VI Challenge, but there were some good things I didn't have time to talk about, being too caught up in a very satisfying group read of Neil Gaiman's Fragile Things - in the course of which I discovered that the best way to read short stories is to savour them slowly. I got so involved in the group reads of this and Jim Butcher's Storm Front that I did less much reviewing than I intended!, but I had so much fun!

    I did, for the first time, manage to do some suitable viewing: The Corpse Bride was a little disappointing, and I'm not too sure about the first episode of The Dresden Files - mildly enjoyable, I suppose. I also watched a thriller called Page Eight which I might have reviewed had I had more time - it was moody and atmospheric and for once, I wasn't on edge the whole way through waiting for gory deaths. I'll definitely do this part of the challenge again next year.

    Finally, I read sixteen books which could have counted towards the challenge, and managed to review five, so I did complete Peril the First (and three of them were on the original list)! I also read all of Charlie Fletcher's Stoneheart trilogy, which was fun, though there were rather too many pitched battles for my taste (and endurance) - I think they would please a young readership, especially boys. The UK editions of this series start with a London map showing the locations of the most important statues, with a thumbnail drawing. I can't think why they aren't included in the US editions - you can Google all the statues, but that relies on memory while you're reading. The author makes brilliant use of London statues as characters and I don't think it's doing him any favours to leave out the maps - my copy of Ironhand was a Bookmooched US one, and I missed them all the way through.

    Diana Wynne-Jones' Chrestomanci books are wonderful, too, with protagonists who face real moral decisions. They may not be the very best of her books (I'd be hard pushed to choose which were!) but they are full of warmth and humour, splendid cats and some very scary moments. I've gone straight on to volume 2.

    I read Donna Tartt's The Secret History as a book club choice, having avoided her up to now because I don't get on with bestsellers. I was wrong, it was okay.

    I've enjoyed the last two months reading so much that my intention is to carry on with it until the end of the year, perhaps not quite as exclusively as I've done for the last two months, but it's getting dark early now that the clocks have changed, and I'm in the mood for more crime, fantasy and magic. Thanks again to Carl for being such a wonderful host and for putting in so much work to make it such a success!