Friday, 31 August 2012

R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VII

If anything were to console me for the rapid decline of this non-summer into damp autumn, it's the prospect of RIP VII. Every year, Carl's readership eagerly awaits the post that kicks it off - many of us have been planning avidly through the final days of August, hoarding books until it begins. So, although the days dawn damp and dreich, and there was almost a nip of frost in the air last night, I don't care! Let it be autumn (or fall, if you prefer) -- I'm going to welcome it!

Yesterday was an auspicious day for perilous books, too, because it was the publication day for Boneland, Alan Garner's conclusion to the series that began with the Weirdstone of Brisingamen, which celebrated its fiftieth-birthday in 2010. It, and the book which followed, The Moon of Gomrath, have long been amongst my favourites; the 50th-anniversary edition of Weirdstone opens with comments by some of the best-known present-day writers of fantasy, including Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, Susan Cooper and Garth Nix -- with authors like that singing his praises and acknowledging their debt to him, you'd know that Garner must be something special, even if you haven't heard of him.

So, I'm starting RIP this year by reading straight through the three books. I spent last night breathlessly accompanying Colin and Susan through the ancient copper mines beneath Alderley Edge - and it was every bit as intensely claustrophobic and terrifying as I remembered it! Then I plan to move slightly further south to the Welsh borderlands and the second of Phil Rickman's series about exorcist Merrily Watkins, Midwinter of the Spirit. That will fulfil the requirements for Peril the First, but I hope to continue reading for RIP after that, because it fits well with much of what I have planned for my Century of Books, where I have found myself rather focusing on crime and mystery -- largely because I enjoy them so much, but it's interesting to see, in an entirely ad hoc way, how the genre develops over the course of the twentieth century. I'm also hoping to join in the group read again, which this time is Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book (you know I can't resist a Gaiman read!)

One of the pleasures of RIP is the wonderful artwork that goes with it, this year by Gothicrow.  If you enjoy gothic images it's well worth following the link for a browse. Meanwhile, I have to see what my fellow Readers are planning, at great risk to personal safety (well, my bank balance's, at any rate)!

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Upside-Down; or, Love Among the Ruins by Denis Mackail

Miss Mary Jesmond was one who on the whole avoided self-analysis. Certainly she thought, and certainly, since she was human, there were many moments when she thought about herself. But she did this simply. Though she had played a very considerable number of different -- or at any rate slightly different -- parts on the stage, in private life she had never considered herself as more than one character. She thought of this character's clothes and food, of her engagements and occupations, and undoubtedly of her responsibilities to others as well. But she had seldom if ever concerned herself with what one might call the character's psychology. She had given little or no time to the contemplation of how an actress must always be living at least two lives.
Today was my 5-year blogging anniversary and I can honestly say that I'd never have thought in 2007 that I'd still be here after 5 years. I have to add that financially it's been ruinous -- so many recommendations, so much good, informed book chat, such groaning bookshelves -- but a huge thank you is due nevertheless to everyone who visits here, and to all the friends I've made, for your comments and your valued company.

To celebrate, I'm in Thirkell mood, but with a difference. Angela Thirkell's brother Denis Mackail was also a novelist, though it's been suggested that there was a degree of rivalry between them. Anyway, like his sister, he was writing throughout the war, and indeed was nearly as prolific as she was, producing thirty-six books between 1920 and 1950. His 1943 book, Upside-Down; or, Love Among the Ruins, was set against the background of London as the Blitz was coming to an end in 1941; and it's interesting that its subtitle was to be used 5 years  later by Angela for one of the more low-key novels in her Barsetshire series (and there's an excellent discussion of that book this week at The Captive Reader).

The heroine of Upside-Down is Miss Mary Jesmond, actress, who may never have "soared" to the classics, but who has had a very successful career on the West-End stage, always in leading roles. Now in her early forties (albeit four years older than her entry in The Dramatic Directory) she has a slightly uneasy feeling that her career might be flagging just a little. Her last run was a mere eight weeks, and there's nothing new to look forward to, unless the rather unreliable Roy Vincent can be persuaded to write a new comedy for her. Meanwhile, her daughter Laura (because the Miss is as misleading as her age: Mary is actually a widow), of whom she had considerable hopes, has abandoned what might have been a promising future on the stage for war work. Mary had rather expected that she might live on vicariously in Laura's career, and is rather disappointed, but she's determined to remain in London with Laura, taking rooms ("with a fine view of the balloon-barrage") in a rather unprepossessing block of flats when their home is rendered unsafe by the bombing.

If some of the characters seem rather flat when compared with those of Angela Thirkell, that's partly because the theatrical types in Upside-Down are appropriately rather shallow. No-one, not even Mary, has quite the warmth and vivacity of the celebrated Jessica Dean of AT's later books, though Laura comes closest to it. The most engaging scenes are between Laura and her boss at P.S.3, Humphrey Knowles (incidentally, AT would never have given a government department as nondescript a name as P.S.3) and Mary and Laura's visit to the country with Humphrey is a delight. At first, Laura's relationship with Mr Knowles is shy and rather restrained, on both parts, but after Laura brings him home during an air-raid, he finds himself gravitating more and more in the direction of Cadwallader Close. When his mother comes up to town for the day he asks Laura about a good place for lunch, and she recommends the Evergreen Club, popular with the theatrical set. Of course, when they all happen to meet up, entirely by coincidence, Mrs Knowles and Mary and Laura take to each other immediately and an invitation is issued.

The wartime atmosphere, as you'd expect from a novel actually written during that period, is vivid -- nights camping out in the shelter with cushions and drinks, the anxiety that undermines relationships when no one knows where they'll be stationed next, let alone whether they'll survive:
In this sort of uncertainty it soon seemed that another twenty-four hours had passed, bringing, of course, its fresh anxieties and irritations, so that no individual could ever catch up with what was happening, and again, perhaps, the immediate foreground was all with which one could hope to deal. Had there ever been peace? Or would there ever be peace again?
As with AT's wartime books, there's little, really, to assuage the anxiety at the end, although there's a resolution of sorts. My copy contains this logo on the frontispiece

and I found myself thinking about its war-weary readers, settling down with a book about how fictional people were coping with the very real circumstances that those readers were experiencing daily. It must have been both comforting -- the feeling that you weren't alone -- and sustaining, a reassurance that everyone was getting on with things despite the difficulties. Yet this book also contains, at almost its mid-point, a genuine -- if very British -- exchange about the bombing itself. It takes place between two of the less lovable characters, both of whom, one feels, are almost equally misguided, but nonetheless there is a very clear, humane message behind the mild hilarity with which it's treated. I don't think Mackail can equal his sister at her sparkling best -- although Greenery Street (reprinted in 2002 by Persephone Books) is well-thought of, and a very pleasant read -- but for Thirkell lovers there's a lot to like in Upside-Down, and it displays much quiet wisdom and humour about rather ordinary people. Sadly, I think there's little hope of it being reprinted, and it probably doesn't really merit it, even as social history, but Mackail's work is certainly worth looking out for in charity and secondhand book shops.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Angels and Men by Catherine Fox

Published 1995
The City is a galleon sailing on the river. Listen to the wind thrumming in the trees and singing round the chimney pots. High on the crow's nest of the cathedral hear the ping-ping-ping of rope against flagpole. This is where the angels pass by. These are the angel paths, the windy walkways. They are clothed with polished air and their faces are the faces of statues, bright as sunlight off water. No one sees them.
I'm going to file this under Northumbrian Books - okay, I know it's not, it's Durham, but I said I was going to apply the category loosely. And, to be fair, I found it during my hunt for books set in Northumberland, so it occupies that place in my mind. And I am so glad I found it, because it is terrific!

Mara is a postgraduate at Durham University, researching women in cults for her Master's -- a topic she's chosen because she had a disturbing experience with a sect which sucked in both her and her twin sister. It quickly becomes evident that she was emotionally frail anyway, but is now deeply scarred, and she's arrived at university determined to stay aloof from her fellow students and to concentrate on her work. Her detachment is read as contempt by those around her, particularly by her neighbour in her hall of residence, whom she has immediately named "the polecat". Two of the undergrads, however, May and Maddy, both, like Mara, clergy daughters, refuse to be put off by by her manners, and set out to befriend her. In their wake are clean-cut Rupert and local boy Johnny, both ordinands, both wildly attractive, and the disturbingly insidious Joanna, whose religion is of the charismatic kind. Mara finds herself, albeit against her will, caught up in college life and struggling to maintain the defences she's built to protect herself from further damage.

Does this sound oppressive? Well, it might be, except that Mara is cursed -- for someone who wants to stay angry all the time -- with a sense of humour. She can be disarmed by wit. The story as it unfolds is by turns funny and painful, but always compelling, and even when she's accused of histrionics, Mara's pain is plausible and convincing. Despite her prickliness, though, it's clear to the reader that she is capable of the active process of healing, however reluctantly she embarks on it. The other students both help and hinder, of course.

The intensity of college life is wonderfully depicted against the background of cathedral and castle -- Fox's portrait of the city reminds me a little of Elizabeth Goudge's portrayal of Ely and Wells, perhaps in the way that they both linger on rock and stone, the cathedrals rooted in the earth but soaring upwards. The river runs a constant course through the novel too, while behind the massive city sprawl the industrial wastelands of Johnny's birthplace.

I ache for a sequel to Angels and Men. Fox has written two other books which I'll be reading just as soon as I get my paws on them (warning: the third, Love for the Lost, is hard to find if you get hooked, and expensive). Meantime, I shall be busily imagining futures for all the characters...

Monday, 13 August 2012

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

I'm a bit wary of post-apocalypse books. I've had The Road on my bookshelf for some time, courtesy of elder son, and I can't quite make myself read it. So when I was offered something that seemed to be along those lines by the publisher, my response was a little tentative. I certainly wasn't about to commit myself to finishing a book if I didn't like it -- on the other hand, the American reviews sounded favourable and suggested that a little effort might be in order.

And it wasn't an effort at all. Peter Heller's book The Dog Stars is about an essentially cultured man forced into an alien role when most of the population has been wiped out by some sort of plague. Only infected people and marauding gangs remain. On the Colorado airfield to which he's retreated (and from which he still flies his two-seater plane), Hig will do what he has to to survive, but he's not going to seek out trouble for its own sake. As he tells his story, often terse and sometimes contemplative, we learn that, although by necessity capable of self-defence, he's no tough, unimaginative outdoors survivalist and he is unapologetic about his affection for his dog, Jasper, who is a much better and more appreciated companion than the man he shares the airfield with. Bangley is a survivalist, weaponed up and ruthless, but he and Hig each gain from having someone else to watch their backs and have weathered a number of attacks. Hig is haunted, though, by a faint message that suggests there are other healthy survivors, and he sometimes wonders whether he'll settle Jasper on his special quilt in the front of the Cessna and set out to look for them. But mostly he's as content as it's possible to be with the day-to-day routines of his life, growing vegetables, lying out under the stars at night, and flying, which offers detachment from the "sticky details" of everyday existence. Until something happens to spur him into action...

In this very plausible depiction of post-apocalyptic America, the action alternates with lyricism to make something much more than a run-of-the-mill adventure story. There are echoes of Saint-Exupery, not just in the transformative nature of flight but in an essential innocence in the hero. Even while aware of the need to be mistrustful of other people, Hig can still feel warmth towards them, and he grieves for the animals that are gone, and the trout he used to catch. In Hig's relationship with the world that is left, the author's love of the outdoors is palpable -- here is no imagined wilderness, but one that is real and intimately known. And hope remains. If this is a parable of our impending and self-inflicted apocalypse, Heller is telling us that it's not yet time to give up.