Saturday, 22 March 2014

Oh dear, I know I shouldn't but... Once Upon a Time VIII

It's spring, there are flowers in the garden and friends are posting their lists for Once Upon a Time VIII run by the indefatigable Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings. His dedication in running this and other challenges is hugely impressive, and he always finds the most superbly seductive and beautiful artwork. How can I possibly hold out against the temptation to join in?

Well, you've guessed it, I can't. I'm signing up.

The Once Upon a Time VIII Challenge has a few rules:
Rule #1: Have fun.
Rule #2: HAVE FUN.
Rule #3: Don’t keep the fun to yourself, share it with us, please!
Rule #4: Do not be put off by the word “challenge”.
I'm going to be circumspect and only go for the lowest level, though, The Journey, so I'm not posting a "proper" list. (Isn't the little fox a darling...)

This is really as simple as the name implies. It means you are participating, but not committing yourself to any specific number of books. By signing up for The Journey you are agreeing to read at least one book within one of the four categories during March 21st to June 21st period. Just one book. If you choose to read more, fantastic! 

In a new venture -- for me at least -- I'm going to include audiobooks. It took me a long time to even remotely consider that an audiobook counted as a book -- after all, I'd never counted books adapted for the radio, or for film, as books, but I took to audiobooks to combat insomnia a couple of years ago and, unlike radio adaptations, I actively listen, and I don't buy abridged books. So, I guess, they are books!

It so happens that I've just started listening to Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. It's a "re-read" -- I like rediscovering books I already know -- and it's being an absolute joy. The witch Anathema Device has just appeared. Oh, I so want to change my name to Anathema Device... no doubt one or two of my acquaintances might think it appropriate.

Last month Audible seduced me with a cheap offer, and I found two books by Charles de Lint, Memory and Dream and Widdershins. I've complained here before that some of de Lint's books are quite hard to get in the UK, so I'm really pleased to have these two.

Finally, I still have last year's Christmas present on my bedside table, and all I really needed was an excuse to get started. Not only is it full of fascinating essays, it's beautifully illustrated, in colour. The frontispiece is a double-page spread of the original cover of The Hobbit.

Magical Tales was produced to go with an exhibition at the Bodleian Library in Oxford last year. I couldn't go to that, but I am going to savour every single word of the book. So it will be my "official" read for The Journey, and the audiobooks will be extras.

So, to everyone taking part in Once Upon a Time VIII, I wish you a very happy three months of reading/listening/watching!

Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Runaways by Elizabeth Goudge

I wrote recently about the new Hesperus Press edition of Pollyanna, but what I didn’t mention at the time was that it wasn’t the only children’s classic they reissued in February. The other was one of my childhood favourites, Elizabeth Goudge’s Linnets and Valerians, which they have republished under its American title, The Runaways.

Regular readers of Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf will perhaps have inferred something of my great love for the British countryside, and my resulting enthusiasm for books which portray and celebrate it. And here we have a book which glorifies a very special place, Dartmoor. Elizabeth Goudge lived within sight of the moor for some twelve years, and her writing of Devon is redolent of the rounded, wooded hills of the county, with its glowing sunsets, lush green fields and rich red earth, and the looming tors of the moor ever-present in the background (although they are often present only in the imagination, since it rains pretty frequently).

The four Linnet children have been sent to live with their grandmother in Devon, while their father is abroad with his regiment, and they are Not Happy about it:
They had no wish to live with her, for she was a very autocratic old lady… She believed that children should be instantly obedient and she did not like dogs. She said that Absolom had fleas and must be given away, and if that was not enough, she had arranged for Robert and Nan to go to boarding school while her companion Miss Bold taught Timothy and Betsy at home. The children were in despair.
So they decide to escape.  Over the garden wall, with Absolom, of course, and off towards the sunset, and the moor – though they don’t know that’s where they’re headed because they don’t really have any idea about where they are or where they are going. After a long and tiring uphill walk, they “borrow” a horse and cart from outside an inn, and the pony very obligingly takes them straight home – his home, that is – where they are greeted by an irascible elderly gentleman who announces that there is only one thing he dislikes more than a child, and that’s a dog. Fortunately for the children, this presages their move to High Barton and their discovery of a wondrous, and sometimes frightening, new world.

It is also a world where the presence and absence of boundaries is paramount. The children’s lives are bounded by the necessity to learn – self-discipline and formal education are equally insisted upon by their new-found uncle – but in observing the boundaries they are free to roam the unbounded moor and to discover new experiences and people. This juxtaposition of discipline and freedom is a common theme in  Goudge’s books and leads to beguiling imagery of portals and labyrinths, reminiscent of Aslan’s “further up and further in”. In The Runaways, the maze/labyrinth image of the early Christian mystics links to the theme of being lost, both physically and psychically. Goudge’s Christianity verges on nature mysticism (there’s an illuminating chapter in her autobiography, The Joy of the Snow) and, as in Lewis’s work, animals often play an important, and sometimes nearly omniscient, role, although less so in The Runaways than in The Little White Horse – here, the “wise animal” role is allocated to the bees, who guide the children in moments of extremis; there is a difference, too, in that not all the animals in The Runaways are good (Monsieur Cocq du Noir’s rooster in The Little White Horse might be said to be bad, but to me it seems more neutral than actively wicked like its master).

Although Christian mysticism runs like a silver thread through all Goudge’s books, I don’t think that in The Runaways it will impinge on the enjoyment of the modern reader. It’s true that her books are very popular with Christian readers – though I was intrigued to find one reader who’d abandoned this one, considering the nature mysticism and magic a step too far – but here, the children's adventures will surely captivate the young reader. For the adult reader, it’s only necessary to believe that spirituality of some kind is a fairly fundamental part of the human condition, in order to share the hopes and fears of Goudge’s characters and to wish for a fulfilling conclusion.

And the characters in Goudge’s novels are always memorable. Her children are lovable, but rarely without faults. Robert is wilful, Timothy is inclined to nerves, Betsy is complacent – only Nan is quiet and thoughtful, and even she will have grown immeasurably as a person by the end of the story. The adults are equally striking: wise Uncle Ambrose, wonderful one-legged Ezra Oake, the sad, withdrawn Lady Alicia and her servant Moses, the oddly sinister Emma Cobley… even the animals are unforgettable – Andromache the cat and Hector the owl, Rob Roy and sad, lonely Abednego. And, at the heart of it all, the almost animate, glorious Dartmoor:

“...along the eastern horizon lay the range of blue hills called Dartmoor” 
(E. Goudge, The Joy of the Snow, 1974)
She stood and looked abut her and she wondered if there was any place more lovely and strange than this, poised here halfway between the world of the trees and of the clouds. It was a miniature green valley, almost like a garden, held in a cleft of the rock. The two spurs of rock that contained it on each side were both the same shape, like the paws and forearms of a huge beast, and viewed from this side they were not menacing but protective, as though the beast held the garden in his arms. A small stream ran down the centre of it and fell over the edge of the cliff down to the trees below, and the banks of the stream were thick with water forget-me-nots and green ferns. There were flowers everywhere in the grass and more ferns and little rowan trees grew up the sides of the valley. Nan put her flowers into a pool between two stones at the edge of the stream, to get a good drink, and she had a drink herself, lifting the water in her cupped hands. Then she sat down to rest and for the first time looked up at the rock at the head of the valley and saw it shaped like the chest of the beast and up above it, against the sky, was the huge shaggy lion’s head. Now she knew where she was, between the paws of the lion who kept guard beneath the tor.

What Nan finds below Lion Tor is at the heart of this enchanting book.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

More Than Love Letters by Rosy Thornton

I would love it if you would write to me next time we are apart... It is partly about having the letter to go through again (like Gran always says, you can't re-read a phone call). But it isn't just that, because you can save an email and open it up again whenever you want. or even print it out and keep it. It's also the idea of having the paper that you touched, that you looked at while you thought of the words -- and then the writing itself, telling me how you were feeling by how the words are flowing along smoothly, or scrawled in a great rush, or uneven and halting.
Although this is from a love letter in today's book, it applies equally well to any handwritten letter between friends, and eloquently describes the pleasure I've taken in sending cards and letters in the Month of Letters Challenge (now sadly ended for another year), the ongoing Postal Reading Challenge and now, in Postcrossing, in which complete strangers from anywhere in the world send each other postcards.

More Than Love Letters isn't only about handwritten mail -- the story is told in letters, email, excerpts from the minutes of meetings, even the odd newspaper cutting. It begins with a letter from Margaret, a teacher in her first job, to MP for Ipswich Richard Slater, to complain about VAT charged on sanitary protection -- not a cause he feels immediately drawn to. She follows up with various complaints about lack of bins for dog mess in local parks and so on, and he mentally categorises her as a mad old bat and ignores her, concentrating instead on trying to worm his way into the good graces of the Prime Minister (Ruler of the World, as Richard calls him). All very New Labour. Meanwhile, Margaret is settling into her new home, getting to know her landlady (another letter-writer), joining a local women's collective which runs a hostel for homeless women, and staying in touch with her Gran and with her friend Becs. It's only when Margaret threatens to tell the ROTW -- by now labelled the Rotweiler in Richard's mind -- that he isn't taking his constituents' complaints seriously, that Richard suggests she attend his surgery. And when he meets her, he's smitten.

Although there are moments of high comedy in this very amiable novel, it belies its slightly chick-lit cover. I'd defy anyone not to be moved by the plight of Helen, one of the hostel residents, and there are other sadnesses too. Margaret's Gran is reaching the age when she is finding managing on her own difficult, landlady Cora misses her husband who is absent on the oil rigs -- they all tell their stories through their letters. And if Margaret's idealism and fervour might be too much unadulterated, there are plenty of voices here to vary the tone and pace of the book: for a first novel it's written with a great deal of assurance. Rosy Thornton has gone on to write more challenging books since: amongst others, Hearts and Minds turns the Cambridge academic setting she's familiar with into a thoughtful, Pym-ish human comedy, while Ninepins* focuses on a mother-daughter relationship in an oddly claustrophobic novel, given the wonderfully realised sweep of its fenland backdrop. Both are books to read again.

Although I chose More Than Love Letters as a light (re-)read and with an ulterior motive -- wanting an epistolary novel to finally kick-off my Postal Reading -- it was pleasantly rewarding, not least because Thornton is that rare author, one whose characters can make jokes that are actually funny for the reader!

* Edited later to link to my other reviews of Rosy Thornton's books, just in case people are interested:
Tapestry of Love