Thursday, November 29, 2007

Cross Stitch - Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire

For a change this post is not about books.

I like to do cross-stitching, but one of its disadvantages is that I cannot read and stitch at the same time. Other difficulties are that I cannot do it in the summer as my hands get too hot and at other times of the year I find the light is not good enough so I have to use a daylight lamp, which I don't find very easy. Anyway, now that I've just finished reading The Testament of Gideon Mack, which I'll write about soon, I feel it's time to get stitching again after many months of inactivity. I have quite a lot of different ones on the go, some I've been doing for years. One of them is a kit to stitch Little Moreton Hall. The photograph above shows the minimal amount I've done. It's quite hard as it is such a fine canvas and small stitches - I'm no expert. The Hall, a National Trust property in Cheshire is a beautiful timber framed Tudor building as shown in the photographs below.

Little Moreton Hall is one of the most impressive buildings I know, with its wonderful decorative timber framing and patterned glazed windows. It is marvellous to be able to visit such an historic building and many rooms are open for the public to look at and walk through. It looks top-heavy with its projecting upper storeys. The earliest part of the building dates from the 1440s and 1450s when the Great Hall and the East Wing were built. A third storey was added in 1560-70 during the reign of Elizabeth I, containing the Long Gallery, 68 feet long with a massive arched roof. Cross beams were inserted into the roof trusses in the late seventeenth century to stop the walls from coming apart. The walls are crooked and the floor is uneven, so you experience a truly precarious feeling walking along the gallery. When I visited it quite a few years ago the Long Gallery was not furnished, much as it would have been when it was first built, because the Elizabethans used the room for walking, daily exercise and games. It was very easy to imagine what it must have been like.

I bought the Guide Book, the Cross Stitch Kit and a small bay tree in a pot for the garden as souvenirs. I like to buy Cross Stitch Kits of National Trust houses and properties wherever I can find them. I now have a few including a view of St Michael's Mount near Penzance in Cornwall, and an ornamental gate in the garden of Townend, a 17th century solid stone and slate farmhouse near Windermere in Cumbria.

I also like to buy bookmarks to stitch. They are much quicker to finish and have a practical use. I've decided to start the bookmark shown on the left in the photograph below even though I have several other kits I've started and not finished.

Rolling - Booking Through Thursday

Do you get on a roll when you read, so that one book leads to the next, which leads to the next, and so on and so on?
I don’t so much mean something like reading a series from beginning to end, but, say, a string of books that all take place in Paris. Or that have anthropologists as the main character. Or were written in the same year. Something like that… Something that strings them together in your head, and yet, otherwise could be different genres, different authors…

I suppose my immediate answer to this is yes, very often. I do like to read another book by an author when I've enjoyed one - but that's not the question. Books in the same genre are also easy to think of - I took part in the R.I.P. Challenge, so that was all books with themes of mystery and imagination - I like those, not gory or horrific but books that keep you guessing and make you ponder. I like to vary my reading as well, so I do try to pick different types of books and different authors, ones I've never read before as well as old favourites.

But to answer the question, recently I find that some books I've read have a 1940s theme. I'm thinking of One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, set in England in 1946 just after the Second World War, Playing with the Moon by Eliza Graham lokking back after 60 years to the 1940s and The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning, set in Bucharest in 1939/1940 at the outbreak of the War. Even Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner fits in with that time and Surveillance by Jonathan Raban looks back to the 1940s as Augie writes about his wartime experiences as a refugee from Germany.

When I decided to read these books I had no idea that they were all linked like this.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Cranford - Revisited and Nostalgic Memories

It was the second episode of Cranford on Sunday - see the BBC website here. There were so many scenes that were all totally unknown to me that it was as if I'd never read the book. I was able to watch it without my pre-conceived pictures intruding. It was a mixture of comedy and tragedy, as is life. See the Radio Times website here for more information on the cast and crew, location shots, photos and video clips. I thought Julia Sawalha was just right as Jessie Brown and I was pleased to read in the RT that she is in Lark Rise to Candleford, which is coming to the BBC next year. I read Lark Rise about 10 years or so ago when I was recovering from flu, so I'm looking forward to seeing it. With such a gap since I've read it I'll be able to watch it with fresh eyes - I'm not planning on reading again until I've watched the drama.

Thinking of Cranford has made me think back with nostalgia to my schooldays at Altrincham Grammar School for Girls. I remembered today that the house I was in at school was called Gaskell after Mrs Gaskell (the school houses were named after people with local connections). I got out some old school magazines and read them with great pleasure wondering what has happened to my old school friends. My school has its own website and I had a look tonight. It has changed almost beyond recognition, although the main school building is still the same. I wonder if they still have the same house system.

Cranford is the only book I've read by Elizabeth Gaskell and I must read some more. I'd like to read Mary Barton and Ruth, which sound very different books from Cranford, but as I've got Sylvia's Lovers I'll start with that.

The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning

The Great Fortune is the first in Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy. It tells the story of Guy and Harriet Pringle’s marriage set against the background of Bucharest during the ‘Phoney War’ period of 1939/40. Guy teaches in the English Department of the University and Harriet has to find her place in Guy’s friends’ and colleagues’ university circles in the multicultural city. England and Germany are already at war and tensions are high, as the Rumanians fear a German invasion.

Throughout the novel there are contrasts between the rich ruling classes and the peasantry; between life as it was pre-war and the uncertainties and fears that the war is bringing; between the British community in Bucharest and the Rumanians; and between Guy and Harriet as they both adjust to married life, with Harriet making most of the adjustments.

It’s a richly descriptive book of both characters and place. Olivia Manning vividly depicts pre-war Bucharest. In the following scene Guy and Harriet hire a coach to take them out one evening :

“When the trasura stopped at Pavel’s, one of the largest of the open-air restaurants, there could be heard above the traffic the shrill squeak of a gypsy violin. Within the shrub hedge of the garden all was uproar.

The place was crowded. The silver-gilt glow from the globes set in the trees lit in detail the wrinkled tree-trunks, the pebbled ground, and blanched the faces of the dinners, that damp with excitement of food, gazed about them with deranged looks, demanding to be served. Some rapped with knives on wine-glasses, some clapped their hands, some made kissing noises at the waiters, whilst others clutched at every passing coat-tail crying: “Domnule, domnule!” for in this country even the meanest was addressed as ‘lord’.”

Of all the characters Harriet and Prince Yakimov, or as he refers to himself ‘poor old Yaki’, a Russian √©migr√©, half Irish and half White Russian, are the most memorable to me. Harriet is finding it difficult living in a foreign country amongst people she doesn’t know, feeling isolated among strangers, both British and Rumanian, jealous of Guy’s friends and his relationship with Sophie (who had hoped he would marry her) and his allegiance to other people seemingly over his marriage.

Harriet eventually realises that Guy is “a comfortable-looking man of an unharming largeness of body and mind. His size gave her an illusion of security – for it was she was coming to believe, no more than an illusion. He was one of those harbours that prove to be shallow: there was no getting into it. For him, personal relationships were incidental. His fulfilment came from the outside world.”

Yaki, a raconteur and joker, who is said to “have a peculiarly English sense of humour” uses every opportunity to sponge off anyone who will ‘lend’ him money, give him a meal or a bed for the night. He is forever “waiting for m’remittance from m’poor old ma”, promising to repay the loan when it arrives, only to spend it as soon as it does without repaying anyone.

Guy decides to put on a play, Troilus and Cressida, using the students, friends and the “chaps at the Legation” to act the 28 speaking parts. Whilst seeming at first to be over-ambitious and divisive the play is the means of consolidating the Pringles’ relationship and it is a success. However this coincides with fall of Paris and the despondency and fear that this brings. The book ends with the realisation that Rumania will also fall and that the Pringles’ survival depends upon their leaving:

"We’ll get away because we must. The great fortune is life. We must preserve it."

I found the book interesting and informative about the start of the Second World War. It is also an entertaining book working on different levels, exploring the nature of marriage, friendship, patriotism and the attitudes and beliefs of the pre-war period. It’s written in a style that is slightly detached yet energetic and sympathetic. I think I’ll re-read it, as I’m sure there is much that I missed at this first reading. The next book in the trilogy is The Spoilt City. I’ve reserved it at the library and hope it won’t be too long before it arrives.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson - the Opening Chapters

I’ve just started to read Gideon Mack this morning and must write about it. I’m enjoying it so much that I’ve had to slow my reading down to make sure I read every word. I’m reading this book as part of the From the Stacks Challenge, and cannot think why I haven’t read it before now.

I first came across this book in my local library at the beginning of this year. It was on display on the “Quick Choice” stand. I started to read it and was enthralled. I was disappointed that I couldn’t renew it as someone else had reserved it, so I had to take it back, largely unread. Because I liked what I had read, I decided to buy a copy. However, by the time I could get a copy I was well into reading other books (which ones I can’t remember now), so “Gideon Mack” sat in a pile and gradually got further and further down until I almost forgot about it.

Thanks to the Challenge I remembered that this was a book that I’d wanted to read, or rather had felt compelled to read. So when I finished The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning (post on this to follow when I have time) I picked it up. I’m so glad I did. I’m sure already that it’s going to be one of those books that I’ll be enthusing over for a while yet.

Just a small taster. Gideon Mack, a faithless minister is writing an account of what happened to him. Here he is describing how he feels about running:

“I was somewhere in between – an escapee from my professional hypocrisy, a minister off the leash, a creature neither wholly real nor wholly imagined, hurrying through an ancient landscape. Yes, even then I suspected what I now know to be true: that life itself is not wholly real. Existence is one thing, life quite another: it is the ghost that haunts existence, the spirit that animates it. Running, whether in the rain or sun, felt like life.”

There is so much on a variety of different themes that I’m interested in packed into the opening pages of this book! References to other books (some I’ve read and others I'd like to read); what is life and what is real; belief or non-belief in God; the nature and importance of evidence and facts, that can be misleading or just plain lies, and the slipperiness of truth; the pleasure to be found in the doing of something and not in its completion; reminiscences of one’s early life; not to mention the pleasure of “the glide and flow of nib and ink on paper” and the benefits of writing with a pen over writing on a computer!

I can’t wait to get back to it.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Remainder by Tom McCarthy

From the back cover of Remainder - “McCarthy has a precision, a surreal logic and a sly wit that is all his own. It will be a long time before you come across a stranger book, or a truer one.” Rupert Thomson, The Observer.

Yes, a strange book indeed. I started to read it in August and at first I was interested because it explores the nature of memory, identity, human nature and behaviour. There is very little plot and the main character is a man who, after an accident, is suffering from amnesia and brain damage. We never find out any details of the accident that nearly killed in and left him in a coma and somehow it’s unimportant, because what is important is what happens to him when he recovers. He receives eight and a half million pounds as compensation and embarks on a series of actions in an attempt not only to regain his memory but also to feel natural when he does things.

I think this is fascinating part of the book. The way we perform our actions is spontaneous without thinking how we actually move and do things, but as that part of his brain that controls the motor functions of the right side of the body had been damaged he had to learn how to move by first visualising a movement, then understand how the tendons, muscles and joints work and in what order, before actually performing a movement. What is even more fascinating is that having done this he realised that his actions and movements weren’t seamless and natural – he was having to think each movement through before he could perform them.

I was fine with this and felt the book was going to be really good, but gradually as he goes over and over everything in his mind and tries to reconstruct his former life from fragments of memory it became tedious. Then it moved into realms of fantasy, but dull, banal fantasy in which he hires people to act or rather re-enact time after endless time certain scenes, cats falling off a roof, a woman frying liver and a pianist practising a piece of music etc, etc. It becomes increasingly unreal as he tries to be more real.

McCarthy explained the title in a press release: “The hero, his body and his mind are a remainder, what the accident leaves,” explains McCarthy. “The world he reconstructs is a remainder, made up of fragments left over from his ideal ‘remembered’ world. And I love the provocation of calling a book Remainder.”

I cannot say I enjoyed this book. I found it tedious and disturbing as he descends into what I consider to be madness. I stopped reading it twice and went back to it as I did want to know what happens at the end. The ending is like the rest of the book; it’s madness and endless repetition of the same actions over and over again and then right at the very end – well, there is a completion of sorts.

Would I read it again? No.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Connecting Words Booking Through Thursday

Okay, today’s question is going to be a little different. First, I’m posting it early because Thursday is Thanksgiving here in the U.S. and I’m going to be busy making and eating turkey as I’m sure some of you will also be, so I want to give everyone time to play. And two, because I’m basically going to link you through to somebody else’s blog with a question that I thought was pretty interesting.

Joanna and Brad are asking about “connecting words,” and they don’t mean conjunctions like “and” or “but.” No, what they’re looking for are unique, or treasured words that we’ve found out and about in our daily travels, words that might not be common usage, or often heard, but which struck a chord for some reason.
This is unorthodox, of course, but here’s the thing: if you link back to
Joanna’s post (which is where the rules are written), you’re eligible to win a prize. Not to mention joining in some great conversation about interesting words.

I'm not sure that I've understood what "connecting words" are. I'm struggling to think of words that are unique or treasured etc or words that may not be in common usage as well. I don't know how common these words are, but in the northwest of England where I'm from originally people use words such as "mither", eg "don't mither me" meaning don't bother/pester me and another one is "mardy" eg You're such a mardy" meaning you're so soft and weak, pathetic.

A word that I like just now is "pooter" as that's what my grandson used to call the computer before he could say the whole word. I use it regularly, eg "I'm going to use the pooter now".

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Three Books for Christmas

Soon it will be Advent and we will be preparing for Christmas. I know that other people start long before I do, but for me 1 December really starts the build up (and even that is a bit early!). The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder, A Feast for Advent by Delia Smith and Skipping Christmas by John Gresham are three very different pre-Christmas books, offering different perspectives on the season.

The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder is a good book to read during Advent. Gaarder Is a Norwegian writer, formerly a philosophy teacher. I first came across him a few years ago with Sophie’s World, a marvellous book about the history of philosophy.

The Christmas Mystery is a story within a story, intertwining the present and the past. The book is divided into 24 chapters, one for each day up to Christmas Eve. It’s the story of Joachim, a young boy who has been given an old faded Advent calendar. But this is no ordinary calendar. It has a beautiful picture on the cover, showing Joseph and Mary bending over the baby Jesus lying in the manger. The Three Wise Men kneel in the background, whilst the shepherds and their sheep are outside the stable with angels floating down from the sky. Each day Joachim opens a door revealing a picture and a sheet of paper falls out on which there is a chapter of the story of Elisabet who disappeared in 1948. Joachim is anticipating Christmas with great excitement and his wonder and amazement at the Christmas story grow throughout the book. As the days follow on towards Christmas Day the story travels back in time and place to Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus. A magical book.

Delia Smith is better known for her cookery books and TV programmes and also for her interest in Norwich City Football Club. She has also written spiritual books. In A Journey Into God she writes about prayer and her own experience and in A Feast for Advent she writes reflections on Christmas for every day in Advent, together with Bible passages and prayers. As she writes in the introduction she has come to understand that “prayer and contemplation, while utterly necessary, do absolutely nothing to ease the pressure and that on Christmas Day I will always end up horizontal! “ In A Feast for Advent Delia offers help in escaping for a few minutes each day to contemplate the meaning of Christmas, providing a journey through Advent, illustrated with photographs and reproductions of Quidenham Cards from the Carmelite Monastery in Norfolk.

Thinking about the pressures of Christmas reminded me of a very different book I read a few years ago – Skipping Christmas by John Grisham. This is not the usual Grisham legal thriller, but a very funny little book about the horrors, commercialisation and expense of Christmas. A middle-aged American couple Luther and Nora Krank estimated that the previous Christmas they had spent $6,100 and that was not all it had cost – there was their time, the stress, worrying, bickering, ill-will and sleep-loss as well. So, as their daughter will not be home for Christmas they decide that this year they will skip Christmas and fly off to the Caribbean. They will not have any lights, tree, gifts, parties, hassles, or expenses. I must admit that I was very tempted by the whole idea.

However, when their neighbours, friends and family find out there will be no celebrations and no annual Christmas Eve party that the Kranks normally hold, they are horrified and pile on the pressure. The Kranks find that it’s not going to be as easy as they thought. Then they receive a surprise phone call and realise that Christmas is not just about material things after all. I really enjoyed this book.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Cranford TV Drama or the Book?

Last night I watched the first episode of the BBC’s dramatisation of Cranford. I liked it. Last week I read Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford. I loved it. They are two different things. If you haven’t read the book Cranford, don’t think that the BBC’s version is the same – it isn’t. Someone once said to me “Do you have to be so precise?” Well, yes I do. It’s important to me to be accurate, to get the facts right; opinions and interpretations are different. I should have known better than to expect the drama and the book to be the same. After all, I’ve been disappointed by most televised or film versions of books when I’ve read the book first. In this case the cast with so many well known actors is a very strong point in favour of the programme. I enjoyed all their performances, although at one point it did feel a bit like spot the stars.

As I watched Cranford I kept thinking that’s not in the book, but that is in the book. The dramatisation is not pure, unadulterated Cranford – it’s an amalgamation of three books - Cranford, Mr Harrison’s Confessions and My Lady Ludlow. I haven’t read either of the other two books, but from a quick look on Amazon I see that Mr Harrison's Confessions, is indeed about a young doctor who is invited by his father’s cousin to join his country practice but it is in Duncombe, not Cranford. My Lady Ludlow appears not to be connected to Cranford either. So my picky mind says this is not Cranford, but I can see that to enjoy the dramatisation on its own merits I need to stop myself from thinking, “yes that’s in the book” or “no I don’t know that, it must be in one of the other books”.

Cranford (the book) is a beautifully written and amusing story, centred on the lives of Miss Deborah Jenkyns and her sister Matilda, known affectionately to everyone except her sister, as Miss Matty. I was interested to read in the introduction to my copy that:

“Most of Cranford is founded on fact – the hairless cow that went to pasture in a grey flannel jacket, the fashion displays in the little draper’s shop – all the rules of etiquette of the Cranford ladies were part of her [Elizabeth Gaskell’s] early life, and the skill and delicacy with which she draws upon her memories to build up her story proves how deeply rooted was her love for the old town and for its inhabitants who believed in the old order of things and hated change.”

Elizabeth Gaskell portrays life in Cranford and its inhabitants sympathetically and whimsically, without making fun of the characters. It made me chuckle as I read it and this came over in the TV drama - D said to me he hadn’t realised it was a meant to be a comedy. The sight of the ladies trotting along side the sedan chair was very funny.

Elizabeth Gaskell was a friend of Charles Dickens, so I found the episode where Captain Brown and Miss Jenkyns have a "literary dispute” over the relative merits of Dr Johnson and Mr Boz to be amusing. Captain Brown sings the praises of The Pickwick Papers, whereas Miss Jenkyns asserts that she does not think “they are by any means equal to Dr Johnson. Still perhaps the author is young. Let him persevere, and who knows what he may become if he will take the great doctor for his model.”

Cranford is a quiet tale of everyday events. Some of the characters have to overcome disappointments - bankruptcy looms and matrimonial hopes fail to materialise for some, but overall it’s a story of friendship, peace and kindliness. The last sentence in the book sums it up for me: ”We all love Miss Matty, and I somehow think we are all of us better when she is near us.” Dame Judi Dench is an absolute joy as Miss Matty.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Sidmouth Letters by Jane Gardam

The Sidmouth Letters is a collection of eleven short stories. It’s a short book of just under 150 pages, so it doesn’t take long to read the whole book. With a collection of short stories I tend not to read from the start to the end, picking and choosing which ones to read, but with this one I read the stories in the order they are in the book. I was glad I did as I think the last one is the best. The stories are nicely varied in style and content with convincing and authentic characters. I liked some more than others.

The first story is “The Tribute”, a perceptive and amusing study of a trio of Kensington widows exposing their small-minded attitude to a former nanny, when they receive news of her death.

I wasn’t too keen on “Lychees for Tone”. It is written in the present tense, which I find irritating. A lonely mother lives with her son. As she waits for him to bring home a new girlfriend she ponders what she will be like and her isolation and prejudices become apparent. I thought the ending was disappointing with a predictable play on words.

“The Great, Grand, Soap-Water Kick” is a story about a tramp, Horsa looking for a house in which he can have a bath, which only happens every second year or so. You can imagine the state he is in and the state of the house by the time he has finished. I liked the idea and the structure of the story. Although I liked the imagery and the style of writing does reflect the character, I found it jarring and disjointed. But then I don’t think you’re actually meant to like Horsa.

“Up steps smelly Horsa.
Rings bell no answer.
Ringsgain no answer.
Ringsgainturns look updown. Not living soul. Not motor car. Not bike. Only cat gatepost watch through yellow slits. Cat stands, stretches on four fat sixpences, turns round, curls upgain, goes sleep.”

In “Hetty Sleeping” a married woman on holiday with her two children meets a former lover, and wonders what her life could have been like.

In “Transit Passengers” two young students are leaving Greece and go their separate ways. Will their love survive, or is it as transitory as their journey?

“The Dickies” are a married couple. Mrs Dickie is neurotic and has to suffer her husband’s infidelities. All is not as it seems, however.

I particularly liked “A Spot of Gothic”. A young army wife living in the remote countryside is driving home alone late one night when she encounters a woman standing in her garden waving to her. It’s the loneliest part of the road and she is shaken and frightened at the sight. She wonders if she saw a ghost. When she returns to the road the next day she feels she is being watched and sees a woman who asks her the time and walks away, leaving the young wife feeling terrified: “The dreadful sense of loss, the melancholy, were so thick in the air that there was almost a smell, a sick smell of them.” Who has she seen?

The last story “The Sidmouth Letters” deals imaginatively with Jane Austen’s love life. Annie meets a former professor who had claimed credit for her work when she was a student. He has discovered that love letters, supposedly written by Jane Austen have been found and he sends Annie off to Sidmouth with instructions to buy the letters. The story reveals how Annie gets her own back on the professor. The question is – did Jane Austen write the Sidmouth letters? This story was the reason that I read the book and it didn’t disappoint.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Second World War

Sometimes I’m amazed at the links between the books I’m reading. I read the following books by choosing them individually without realising that they all had similar themes. Recently I read One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, set in England in 1946 just after the Second World War had ended. Then I read Playing with the Moon by Eliza Graham set in 1943/4 up to the present day and now I’ve just started The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning, set in Bucharest at the start of the War (currently I’m in the “Phoney War” period. I’m also joining a local book group my friend goes to and the book for discussion is Surveillance by Jonathan Raban. I picked up that book yesterday and started to read it. To my surprise, although it’s set in Seattle post 9/11 one of the characters, a journalist has been assigned to interview a historian, who had been “an orphaned child caught up in the worst barbarities of World War Two”, spending his boyhood “among the displaced and terrorized people of central Europe, overrun now by Hitler’s, now by Stalin’s armies”.

I didn’t plan on reading books about the War at all and it was quite by chance that it was near to Remembrance Sunday, but it all seems so appropriate. I decided I should know more about the War and so went to the library. There were so many books that I decided to get a couple of books specifically about D-Day as my father took part in the Normandy landings and also a huge book called Chronicle of the Second World War. I then went to a bookshop and was spoilt for choice with an enormous range of books to choose from. In the end I bought Wartime Britain 1939 – 1949 by Juliet Gardiner. Juliet was the editor of History Today for five years, a research fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, author of several wartime books, and historical consultant for Channel 4’s The 1940s House and The Edwardian Country House. Thank you to Litlove who recommended this book. I thought it looked a good place to start.

So, I’ve now got lots to get me started on my search to know more about the War.

Page 161 Meme

Tara and Nan have posted a little meme, which I thought I’d do as well.

Open up the book you’re currently reading to page 161 and read the sixth sentence on the page, then think of 5 bloggers to tag.

I’m currently reading My Cleaner by Maggie Gee and the sixth sentence on page 161 is:

‘Vanessa - I think I will not cook on Sunday.’

Vanessa an English creative writing tutor, has asked Mary, a Ugandan, who was previously employed as Vanessa’s cleaner, to live with her to help her son Justin through a 'depression'. The balance of power in the house is changing and here Mary tells Vanessa what she will and will not do. I’m enjoying this book, which reflects the prejudices and snobbery in our society.

I won’t tag anyone else to do this as maybe you’ve already done it. If not and you would like to do this please do, and let me know. I love knowing what people are reading.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Preservatives Booking Through Thursday

Today’s question comes from Conspiracy-Girl:

I’m still relatively new to this meme so I’m not sure if this has been asked yet, but I’m curious how many of us write notes in our books. Are you a Footprint Leaver or a Preservationist?

I'm a Preservationist who occasionally leaves Footprints. At one time I would never, ever write notes in a book. It was considered a desecration. I'm a bit less strict these days and occasionally bring myself to underline in pencil or add a little asterisk next to a passage I like.

Having said that when I looked at my copy of Reformation Europe 1517 -1559, which which I was given as a prize at school one year I see that I have underlined sentences in red biro. I can't believe I did that!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Playing with the Moon by Eliza Graham

Playing with the Moon is Eliza Graham’s first novel and it’s very good. She has her own blog Staring out of the Window and there is an account of how she came to write the book here.

It begins when Minna and Tom, who are staying at a cottage in an isolated village on the Dorset coast east of Lulworth, discover a human skeleton on the beach and dog tags inscribed LEWIS J CAMPBELL and a number. American military officials confirmed his identity as Private Lew Campbell, believed to have died in 1944 during training exercises for the Normandy landings.

Minna and Tom are trying to come to terms with the death of their baby. Tom is struggling to carry on with his business, which is in financial difficulty, and Minna, who is recovering from a breakdown, is unable to talk to him about her grief. She becomes absorbed in finding out what had lead to Campbell’s death, when she meets Felix an elderly woman who had lived in the village during the war. A fascinating story slowly emerges. Moving from 1943 to the present, the story of Felix and the American GI is interwoven with the story of Minna and Tom and the events that lead to the death of their son. Each story is mysterious and tragic. Both Minna and Felix are overcome by their grief and as they tentatively get to know each other they pour out their stories and draw comfort from each other.

The book deals with memory, the power of memory, with loss, grief and bereavement. It’s also about war, the legacy of war, and of how to make sense of our lives. I found it a compelling book to read. Although it deals with tragic events it does so gently and with compassion.

It seems to me that Playing With the Moon captures what life was like during the 1940s.It was quite by coincidence that I read this book just before Remembrance Sunday and not long after I’d read One Fine Day. There is a recurring theme here and it has set me off on a trail to find out more about the Second World War.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Shoes or the Difference between Left and Right

I have a little difficulty when talking about "left" and "right". I know the difference but somehow I say turn "left", when really I'm thinking turn "right" - it just comes out wrong. I have the same difficulty with "east" and "west". Both can cause problems - we end up going the wrong way if D believes me, but he's known me long enough to ask me do I mean my "left" or his "left"? It was more serious at work, when I described in a newspaper advert the direction of footpath "running in a south-easterly direction" when it should have been "south-westerly" and we had to re-advertise it.

Our youngest granddaughter who is nearly 2 years old and a determined little person knows about right and left but thinks they're the other way round. Just now, she insists on having her shoes on the wrong feet and if you try to suggest that the right shoe goes on her right foot she cries and won’t have it – no, no, no. If you manage to get them on the right feet off they come and she puts them on how she likes them. We were taking her brother and sister to school recently and she decided she wanted to wear her Dora wellies even though it wasn't raining. She was adamant about which wellie went on which foot even though we showed her how everyone wore their shoes.

D showed what his shoes looked like on the wrong way round - well nearly - he didn't take them off.

From the Stacks Challenge

This Overdue Books Challenge is just what I need. The idea is that during the next three months you read 5 books from those you have already purchased, have been meaning to get to and haven't read before. No going out and buying new books. No getting sidetracked by the lure of the holiday bookstore displays.

This should help me keep to my resolve not to buy any more books for a while - until at least after Christmas. After all, I've got lots of books that I haven't read yet. My bookshelves are full too overflowingand the books are double stacked. There's just no more room for another bookcase and there are piles of books on the computer desk and next to the chairs in the lounge, in fact there are books everywhere. When I bought them it was because I wanted to read them, not just to sit on the bookshelves and on the floor. So here's my provisional list. It's provisional because I could easily choose others and I want to give myself the option of not reading the ones I've listed. That may sound strange, but the odd thing is that previously when I've decided I'll read this book and then that book I then find I resist reading the book. Contrary or what? I don't know. Anyway here's my list (in no particular order):

  1. Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie
  2. Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bowers
  3. The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson
  4. Winter in Madrid by C J Sansom
  5. The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers

I'm currently reading Cranford by Mrs Gaskell and thought of including it for this challenge, but as I have read it before when I was at school it doesn't really qualify. I heard last night that the 5 part serial Cranford is starting next Sunday evening on BBC One. Although I did read it many years ago and remember the characters it's like reading a new book so maybe it does qualify for the Challenge after all.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Remembrance Sunday

Today is Armistice Day.

From For the Fallen by Lawrence Binyon

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 19 September 2004.

Today I've been thinking of my father, who was in the Green Howards Regiment and he took part in the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944. He was discharged from the Army in December 1944 as his Army Service Book records for "ceasing to fulfil Army physical requirements". He didn't talk about it to me at all . My mother told me that he suffered from shell shock and was in hospital immediately after D-Day for quite a while. She moved to Lancaster to be near him in the hospital. During the war she had worked in a factory where they made parachutes. The effects of shell shock lingered quite a while, as my mother told me he was very depressed. He did recover and I never would have thought my dad was ever depressed - when I knew him he was always cheerful and never seemed to worry about anything. Both my parents are dead now and I wish now that I had asked them more about their lives.

This makes me think I should know more about the war. There are many books and we have just a few. The Second World War: a narrative history by John Ray covers the campaigns and theatres of war. I have started to read this but am only a short way into it. Then there is the Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose about the Easy Company, 101st Airborne Division, of the US Army, covering the period from 1942 to D-Day and victory. We watched the televised series of this and have it on DVD, definitely one to revisit.

For fiction there are Melvyn Bragg's books The Soldier's Return, A Son of War, and Crossing the Lines, although covering the period from 1946 up to the 1950s are wonderful books and look back at the war period as well as showing what life was like in the aftermath of the second world war. Another book set in the period just after the war is One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes (which I wrote about here). I've also recently read Eliza Graham's Playing with the Moon, a novel about the legacy of war, looking back over 60 years from the present day to the time when the Americans were training on the Dorset coast in preparation from D-Day and local people were evacuated from their homes. I'll write more about this book in another post. BBC's Countryfile this morning also covered these events in its film about Exercise Tiger on Slapton Sands when US landing crafts for D-Day were intercepted by German U-boats and two were sunk. The 1940s and 1950s are years that I really want to look at in more detail.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Charles Dodgson/Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll: a biography by Morton N Cohen (1995)

It has taken me a long time to read this biography of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll). At times I nearly stopped reading it as Cohen makes so many assumptions and speculates seemingly with little evidence to support his interpretation of the facts. His account of Charles Dodgson’s life is basically chronological, but because he also looks at different aspects of Charles’s life it is a bit repetitive. As biographies go this is not one of the most straightforward or readable. It’s extremely detailed and at nearly 600 pages it is not a quick read.

Cohen uses many sources, including the published Diaries and Letters of Lewis Carroll, along with earlier biographies and magazine articles. There is an extensive index and the chapters are extensively annotated. It is also a very well illustrated book, including many photographs taken by Charles Dodgson as well as reproductions of illustrations from his works and facsimile copies of his letters.

I'm reading Hermione Lee's Body Parts: essays in life-writing and she quotes a passage from Virginia Woolf on the reductive effects of biography, which I think, is very apt. Woolf compares the writing of biography to the examination of species under a microscope and considers that we arrange what we see about a person and read into their sayings all kinds of meaning that they never thought of. Because of the mass of material available this means that Cohen has inevitably had to select what to include and what to omit and there many places in his biography where he has hypothesised and interpreted the events in Charles Dodgson's life. For me there are too many questions that Cohen asks and suggest answers which he uses to pyschoanalyse Dodgson's personality. The parts of the book that I liked best are those about the production of the Alice books, Charles's interest in photography, his beliefs, and love of games, puzzles and inventions.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was born on 27 January 1832 at Daresbury in Cheshire and died on January 14 1898 at Guildford. He was tall and slim, had a stammer, was deaf in his right ear, was generous, sociable and had many friends. Charles told one correspondent that he used the name “Lewis Carroll” rather than his own name “in order to avoid all personal publicity. “ Charles attended Rugby School from 1846 to 1849, went to Christ Church Oxford University where he was awarded a BA with First Class Honours in Mathematics in 1854, eventually becoming the Mathematical Lecturer (until 1881). As well as the books he published as Lewis Carroll, Charles also wrote and published many mathematical works.

Cohen recounts the story of how Charles came to write the Alice books. In 1862, he and his friend Duckworth were rowing on the river at Nuneham with the three Liddell sisters, Ina, Alice and Edith. Charles told them the story of Alice down the rabbit hole and Alice liked it so much that she pestered him to write it down for her. It was two and half years later that he completed his manuscript, illustrated with his own drawings. The book was eventually published in 1865, with the well-known illustrations by Tenniel.

I was interested to read how Charles went about writing:

"Sometimes an idea comes at night, when I have had to get up and strike a light to note it down - sometimes when out on a lonely winter walk, when I have had to stop, and with half-frozen fingers jot down a few words which should keep the new-born idea from perishing ... I cannot set invention going like a clock, by any voluntary winding up ... Alice and Looking-Glass are made up almost wholly of bits and scraps, single ideas which came out of themselves. Poor they may have been; but at least they were the best I had to offer."

He was ordained as Deacon in 1862 but never took full orders as a priest. He was deeply religious, but took a moderate and tolerant view of others’ beliefs. He was not a “High Churchman”, was repelled by ritualism, did not believe in eternal punishment, and refused to exclude non-Christians from salvation. Side by side with his religious beliefs Charles was also interested in psychical research and was a charter member of the Society for Psychical Research along with Conan Doyle, Gladstone, A J Balfour, Frederic Leighton, Ruskin and many more. He took a particular interest in ghost stories and ghost pictures, spiritualism, thought transmission and supernatural phenomena. He was also a keen photographer and theatregoer and was acquainted with the Terry family.

Charles had many other interests. He loved games, puzzles and gadgets and was very inventive. He invented amongst other ingenious objects, a chessboard to use when travelling; a Nyctograph for taking notes under the covers at night – this was in the days before the college rooms at Oxford had electricity; a variety of word games and games of logic, a game of circular billiards, a rule for finding the day of the week for any date; new rules for elimination for tennis tournaments; new systems of parliamentary representation; a device for helping a bedridden invalid to read a book placed sideways; a new sort of postal money order; and many other things. He was an accomplished conjurer and a collector of toys, games and puzzles and mechanical and technological inventions as well as music boxes, fountain pens and pencil sharpeners.

When he heard that Charles Babbage had invented a new calculating machine in 1867 he met Babbage, who showed him over his workshops. Charles then bought a calculating machine and in 1877 an “electric pen”, recently invented and patented by Edison. In 1888 he bought an early model of the “Hammond Type-Writer” which he used to write letters and entertain his child visitors. In 1890 he went to the London exhibition of “Edison’s Phonograph”, which he thought was “a marvellous invention”. When he heard the “private audience part”, he recorded that

Listening through tubes, with the nozzle to one’s ear, is far better and more articulate than with the funnel: also the music is much sweeter. It is a pity that we are not fifty years further on in the world’s history, so as to get this wonderful invention in its perfect form. It is now in its infancy – the new wonder of the day, just as I remember Photography was about 1850.”

Much of the book is taken up with Charles’s writings as Lewis Carroll, his relationship with the Liddell family and his friendship with many children, apparently mainly young girls. The relationship between Charles and the Liddells has been the subject of some controversy and there is a mystery surrounding the disagreement that led to a breakdown of the friendship. Cohen analyses and speculates for many pages on this and on the implications of Charles’s friendship with young girls. I didn’t like it, nor did I like the chapters on Charles’s interest in child photography. Morton quotes from a letter Charles wrote to his sister in1893, in reply to her letter about the gossip she had heard:

“You, and your husband have, I think, been very fortunate to know so little by experience … of the wicked recklessness with which people repeat things to the disadvantage of others, without a though as to whether they have grounds for asserting what they say. I have met with a good deal of utter misrepresentation of that kind.”

He went on to explain that he applied two tests when having a particular “girl-friend” as a guest. These were first his own conscience, whether he felt it to be entirely innocent and right, in the sight of God and secondly, whether he had the full approval of the friend’s parents for what he did. He continued: “Anybody who is spoken about at all, is sure to be spoken against by somebody: and any action, however innocent in itself, is liable, and not at all unlikely, to be blamed by somebody. If you limit your actions in life to things that nobody can possibly find fault with, you will not do much!” Enough said, I think.

Charles Dodgson had enormous energy, worked extremely hard in all he did, was concerned and engaged in many of the topical and political issues of his times, was deeply and sincerely religious and produced the Alice books, that have been widely praised and acclaimed since they were first published. He had a great many friends and his generosity was boundless, both to his family and to others wherever he saw a need. He loved giving presents (unbirthday presents, like Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass), and gave away many copies of his books to children’s hospitals, mechanics institutes and village reading rooms. He was known and welcomed for his gift for making people laugh. Morton Cohen writes: “Humor and its concomitant laughter are surely minor miracles, overflowings of a mysterious inner force, momentary flourishes like lightning or a rainbow. They come from where we know not where and last but a fleeting second. Charles was one of those rare artists who could create those flashes, and did, to divert and amuse others.”

This book has increased my interest in Charles Dodgson. Other writers have written biographies, giving a different interpretation of his life from Cohen’s. In particular I would like to read In the Shadow of the Dreamchild by Karoline Leach – see also the website The Carroll Myth.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Set in Darkness: an Inspector Rebus novel by Ian Rankin

It’s taken me some time to finish writing about the books I read in October. Set in Darkness completes the set. I made no notes as I read, as I did not want to pause and interrupt the flow of reading. I devoured rather than read this book, which is the first “Rebus” book I’ve read. Because I watched the TV series I was familiar with the character of Rebus and the setting in Edinburgh. As I was reading it I vaguely remembered that I’d watched this particular story, but as I often fall asleep watching TV I couldn’t remember the details.

I read an interview with Ian Rankin on line in which he explained that “the title comes partly from the setting: it's winter in Edinburgh, where it's dark when you go to work and it's dark when you head home. It's also part of a line from an obscure American poem: ‘Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light.’ I thought the title worked well, because the new Parliament could be leading Scotland into the light after 300 years of being linked to England. And Rebus, you know, has his moments of darkness, but always he seems to finally reach a point of light.”

Set in Darkness takes place in Edinburgh when Queensbury House was being incorporated into the new Scottish Parliament. Rebus is assigned to a group set up to advise on security matters for the Scottish Parliament and whilst being shown round the building a mummified body is discovered bricked up in a fireplace. A tramp jumps off the North Bridge and is found to have a building society passbook showing a balance of over £400,000. Then the body of Roddy Grieve, a Scottish MP is found in a summerhouse in the grounds of Queensbury House. How and why these crimes are linked is revealed as Rebus and his colleagues investigate.

Rebus works with his colleagues, Wylie and Hood, aided against Rebus’ wishes by DI Linford. Linford is the blue-eyed boy, in his late twenties, keen to impress with a result, fast tracked and headed for big things in the police force, in contrast to the hard smoking, hard drinking, independent Rebus, who is out of favour with his superiors. As you would expect there are many twists and coincidences, and a whole host of characters and sub-plots to keep track of. It’s compelling reading, and I read it straight through as it’s not a book to put down and leave for a few days.

As it is the 11th Rebus book there are characters that have obviously been in the earlier books but I didn’t find it difficult to follow who was who and their relationships. Big Ger is one such character. He is a “Mr Big” in the Edinburgh crime scene and his relationship with Rebus is complex, both hostile and aggressive and yet they work in partnership in Set in Darkness, with Big Ger helping Rebus.

I like Rankin’s writing style. It’s precise and yet vivid, it moves at a fast pace with a distinctive rhythm and lyricism:

“Darkness could make you forget what was in front of your face. Darkness would swallow the caravan site, the old putting green, and St Rule’s Tower. It would swallow crimes and grieving and remorse. If you gave yourself to darkness, you might start to make out shapes invisible to others, but without being able to define them: the movement behind a curtain, the shadows in an alleyway.”

I’ll be reading more Rankin soon.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Volume - Booking Through Thursday - on Friday

Would you say that you read about the same amount now as when you were younger? More? Less?Why?

Deb was late posting this because she took Monday and Tuesday off for her birthday and then completely lost track of what day it was. I'm late posting too, because yesterday was our wedding anniversary and I had a very self-indulgent day. I had my nails and hair done and we went out for a meal last night.

Anyway, I've certainly read a lot more this year than last year and the reason is that I left work in April and can now spend time during the day to read. Before I just had time to squeeze in half an hour at lunch time some days. I always take a book with me when I'm out in case there's an opportunity to read. When I was at work I had to wait so long for the lift I'd sometimes get out my book and read for a few minutes. So it really is luxurious to be able to sit down with a cup of coffee or tea and have a good long read.

As to when I was younger, I really only have an impression of how many books I read. I did keep a record when I was about 10 but I don't have the list any more. I just read as many books as I could.

It's only been in the last few years that I've been more organised in my reading. I started to keep a list of books I've read in 2002 but at first I didn't record everything, sometimes I just wanted to get on to the next book, so my records up to 2006 are a guide really, showing the tip of the iceberg. from January 2006 I've noted all the books I've read in a little Book Journal.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

An ordinary day, an ordinary family, ordinary lives, but an extraordinary novel.

I read One Fine Day fresh from reading The Verneys, moving from England in the seventeenth century to England in the twentieth century; from one century dominated by the English Civil War to a century divided in two by the Second World War. I enjoyed the contrast between the books, one non-fiction and the other a novel. I'm also very fond of the cover of my copy of One Fine Day.

One Fine Day is a beautiful, poetic novel about England in 1946 after the Second World War had ended. It was written in 1946 and published in 1947 and although it recalls an England that had disappeared with the war it also looks forward with optimism to the future. It’s a novel vividly evoking life in the post-war period. I was fascinated and drawn into this book right from the start. Part of my fascination was because it made me think of what life was like for my parents, picking up their lives together after the war and part was because of the wonderful imagery and sense of time and place.

Not a lot happens and yet so much is conveyed of the changes in society as the novel recounts the events of a hot summer’s day in the lives of Laura and Stephen Marshall, a middle class couple struggling to manage the house and garden without the servants they had before the war.

“Meanwhile, here they were awkwardly saddled with a house which all those pleasant years, had really been supported and nourished by squawks over bread-and-cheese elevenses, by the sound of Chandler’s boots on the paths, by the smell of ironing and toast from the nursery. The support, the nourishment, had been removed. Now on this summer morning, when doors and windows stood open, it was possible to hear the house slowly giving up, loosening its hold, gently accepting shabbiness and defeat. Nature seemed to realize its discomfiture. Birds hopped boldly through the front door, evidently meditating a lodging; Laura’s dusting hardly discouraged the bold machinations of the spiders. As she sat drinking her tea, a yellow butterfly came in and settled on the faded plum-and-white pattern of the curtains as though it could no longer distinguish between outside and in.”

It’s not only the house that has changed. Laura feels life is passing her by, that she is getting grey and dull and like an old sofa. She pictures her life “From being a measureless room with endless arches stretching away, away, contracting to a span the size of a hearthrug.” Such a powerful image of the contrast between youth and age.

Life is also changing in other levels of society. The young people are leaving the village, for the cities where there is work. George, who she hopes would take over from their old gardener is off to work in a garage in Coventry and the girls who previously would have be live-in help are also leaving: “Ethel and Violet had disappeared squealing into the big bright world where there were no bells to fun your legs off, where you could go to the flicks regular, and where you worked to the sound of dance music pouring out continuously, sweet and thick and insipid as condensed milk dripping through a hole in a tin.”

During the day Laura meets several people when out shopping (food is still in short supply and rationed), talks on the telephone with her mother, still harking back to the days of the British Empire and goes out on her bicycle to look for Stuffy, their bitch who has escaped she thinks to go the gypsy’s dog on Barrow Down. On her way to look for Stuffy, she meets Edward Cranmer. The Cranmers, whose family have lived in the old manor house for generations are giving up the house, as they can no longer afford its upkeep. Edward’s mother and aunt will still be living in a flat over the stables wing, whilst the house is going to be used partly as a holiday hostel and partly as an agricultural training centre for boys. Yet, another reflection on the changing times.

Laura continues on her search for Stuffy and finds her with the gypsy on Barrow Down hill. In contrast to the Marshalls and the Cranmers his life is unaffected by change, living in an old railway carriage in a rough field, unencumbered by possessions and property. Laura is envious of him and when she finds the dog instead of going home she spends the rest of the afternoon and evening on the hillside, leaving Stephen and Victoria wondering and worrying where she can be. From Barrow Down she looks out over England. I could quote many passages where Mollie Panter-Downes so beautifully captures the essence of the English countryside, but here is just one quote:

“The country was tumbled out before her like the contents of a lady’s workbox, spools of green and silver and pale yellow, ribbed squares of brown stuff, a thread of crimson, a stab of silver, a round, polished gleam of mother of pearl. It was all bathed in magic light, the wonderful transforming light in which known things look suddenly new.”

Although there is nostalgia and a tragic sense of all that has been lost, Laura realises how lucky they are, lucky to be alive and all together and what it would have meant if England had lost. She ponders that life will go on: “We are at peace, we still stand, we will stand when you are dust, sang the humming land in the summer evening.”

A memorable novel about England in the aftermath of war.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Broken - One Resolution and One Pair of Glasses

A few weeks ago I resolved not to buy any more books for a while. My resolve lasted until this weekend when we went shopping. Unfortunately Waterstones sells coffee as well as books, so this was the cause of my downfall when we went in - just for a coffee. The coffee shop is upstairs and although I looked round at the books up there I resisted buying any. But on the way downstairs I decided to clean my glasses and succeeded in breaking them in two. I'm short sighted so I can see close up, but distance is terrible. I was OK in the shop and D left me there whilst he went into the Panasonic shop opposite to look at speakers for the TV.

Big mistake - one of the books that caught my eye in the 3 for 2 was Mary Lawson's The Other Side of the Bridge and as I loved Crow Lake I thought I'd just have a look. Well, of course I couldn't leave it there and when I saw Paul Auster's Travels in the Scriptorium (I loved Oracle Night) I had to look for a third book.

The Savage Garden by Mark Mills looked the ideal book, set in Tuscany (one of my favourite places) and a story of love, revenge and murder separated by 400 years. The Sunday Telegraph quote on the back cover clinched it "An intriguing puzzle, elegantly written ... the atmosphere of an Italian summer and of the mysterious garden are beautifully captured." What could be better for a November read? I've never read anything by Mark Mills, but my choice was confirmed when I got home and read Roberta's post as she recommended it.

Now I have to wait until next Tuesday for my glasses to be repaired and as my old glasses are so different I can't wear them and only have my computer glasses that are any good at all. They're great for close work, but the rest of the world is all blurred, out of focus and fuzzy round the edges and I feel a bit woozy and detached from everything - quite nice really.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

October's Feast of Books

The books I have read this last month have been varied in style and subject matter, including a number of short stories, mainly about ghosts; a murder mystery; a Christmas fantasy; and one non-fiction book. They are all very entertaining and as I read one good book after another I began to think my luck could not last and that I was bound to start one I did not like. But no, I enjoyed them all.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
The Man Who Died by D H Lawrence (short story)
Sons and Lovers by D H Lawrence
Set in Darkness by Ian Rankin, the11th Rebus novel (and the first that I have read)
Christine Kringle by Lynn Brittney
The Verneys by Adrian Tinniswood
The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke
One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes
Crossing To Safety by Wallace Stegner
Five short stories from Great Ghost Stories –
1. Berenice by Edgar Allan Poe
2. Keeping his Promise by Algernon Blackwood
3. Honolulu by Somerset Maugham
4. The Hostelry by Guy de Maupassant
5. The Murder of the Mandarin by Arnold Bennett
and The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allan Poe in Tales of Mystery and

I have already written about Sons and Lovers, Christine Kringle, The Verneys, The Ladies of Grace, Crossing to Safety, the Ghost Stories and The Pit and the Pendulum. Clicking on the titles links to my posts on these books.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho and The Man Who Died by D H Lawrence.

The Alchemist is a short novel, the story of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy who travels from his home in search of treasure. It’s a symbolic book about following our hearts and dreams, and reading the omens we encounter in our lives. Santiago sells his sheep and travels to Tangiers on his journey to the Pyramids following his dream that he will find hidden treasure there. On his travels in the Egyptian desert he meets an Englishman who introduces him to alchemy and together they search for the alchemist.

Eventually Santiago, guided by the alchemist, learns that alchemy is about “penetrating to the Soul of the World and discovering the treasure that has been reserved for you.” He also learns that “Love is the force that transforms and improves the Soul of the World. … It is we who nourish the Soul of the World, and the world we live in will either be better or worse, depending on whether we become better or worse. And that’s where the power of love comes in. Because when we love, we always strive to become better than we are.”

I found The Alchemist to be an entertaining tale of how to live our dreams. It appears to be a simplistic tale on the surface but it is a meditation on the question of fate versus free will, love, luck and spiritual enlightenment.

I was surprised by The Man Who Died by D H Lawrence, published in 1929, less than a year before Lawrence’s death and originally called The Escaped Cock. It is the last story in my copy of D H Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and other novels. Wikipedia recounts that Lawrence himself summarized The Escaped Cock in a letter to Brewster (a friend):

“I wrote a story of the Resurrection, where Jesus gets up and feels very sick bout everything, and can't stand the old crowd any more - so cuts out - and as he heals up, be begins to find what an astonishing place the phenomenal world is, far more marvellous than any salvation or heaven - and thanks his stars he needn't have a mission any more.”

It starts with an account of a cock, held captive by a string tied to its leg, breaking free from the cord with a wild strange squawk. At the same time a man, who is not named, awoke from a long sleep, numb and cold. The cock is a symbolic representation of the man who died. His agonising return to life and his remembrance of what happened to him filled him with nausea and pain. Bandages fell off as he moved and seeing his hurt feet he moved painfully out of the carved hole in the rock in which he was entombed and “filled with the sickness of disillusion” he walked away passing the sleeping soldiers, away from the town. “He was alone; and having died, was even beyond loneliness.”

In the garden where he had been betrayed and buried he met Madeleine and forbidding her to touch him because he was not yet healed and in touch with men he told her not to be afraid because “I am alive. They took me down too soon, so I came back to life”, implying to me that he had not actually died. But, there is ambiguity here as at another time he said: “I have not risen from the dead in order to seek death again.” Whatever the truth is, his mission has changed and he cannot return to his friends, “Now I belong to no one and have no connection, and mission or gospel is gone from me."

He must learn to be alone. The story has clear references to Biblical characters and events but it departs from the Christian version as the man travelled on and found rest in a temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess, Isis. There he fell in love with the temple’s priestess, whose mother, a widow, owned the shrine. He showed the priestess, who believes him to be Osiris, the wounds in his hands, feet and side. She anointed them with oil and he felt he was made whole again. They made love and she conceived. He knew then that the time had come for him to leave: “In the name of property, the widow and her slaves would seek to be revenged on him for the bread he had eaten, and the living touch he had established, the woman he had delighted in. “ He went on, alone with his destiny, and laughed to himself: “I have sowed the seed of my life and my resurrection, and put my touch for ever upon the choice woman of this day … Tomorrow is another day.”

I was surprised because despite its title I didn’t expect it to be about the death and resurrection of Christ. My reaction on realising that it is was mixed and I have wondered whether or not to write about it. I thought it was well written and that the concept was an interesting version of the resurrection. It is just that, a story and it gave me food for thought. There are two more stories in the book - St Mawr, which I have never read before and The Virgin and the Gypsy, which I read a few years ago, but is very vague in my memory. I'm looking forward to reading these and wonder if Lawrence has yet another surprise in store for me.

The other books I finished reading in October are Set in Darkness by Ian Rankin, One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, which I'll write about in another post.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Crossing To Safety by Wallace Stegner

Crossing to Safety was Wallace Stegner’s last novel published when he was 78 years old. It’s a beautiful, and thought provoking novel and I loved it. Unusually for me I read it straight through, on its own, abandoning the other books I’m reading to concentrate on just this one book. It was well worth it. I was engrossed in the story and felt as though I was part of it – such is the power of Stegner’s writing.

Crossing To Safety is a story about love, marriage, friendship, relationships, ambition, illness and death; in other words it’s about life and death. I’ve read a lot of good books recently, but without a doubt this is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It has so much to say on many different themes that I’m lost where to start in describing and considering its impact on me.

In essence, the novel recounts the lives of two couples who first met during the Depression in 1930s America and the joys and difficulties they encounter throughout their lives. Larry Morgan is the narrator and the events are seen through his eyes. Both he and Sid Lang have jobs in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin and their lives are intertwined from the moment they meet, when both their wives are pregnant. At the start of the novel we are told that Charity, Sid’s wife is dying. Sally and Larry have travelled to Battell Pond in Vermont for a reunion with the Langs. Sally is in a wheelchair and from that point Larry looks back over their lives. Whereas in Angle of Repose Stegner depicts the American West, Crossing To Safety is set mainly in the landscape of northern New England, where the wilderness is seen as no less dangerous than in the West, particularly in the camping trip the Langs and the Morgans take. I had to get the atlas out to see where Wisconsin and Vermont are, as I had no idea of the distance between the two, nor the difference in the landscape.

Charity and Larry are the dominant characters. The Morgans’ lives are changed by Sally’s illness and at different stages in the book I thought, “this is what happened to Sally”, but it’s not clear until about halfway through the book precisely why Sally is paralysed. Charity is the strong, ambitious, self-confident organiser, not only of her own life, but also those of her husband, children’s and friends’ lives. She take the direct “compass” direction in whatever she does and her confidence is not undermined by others’ doubts or different ideas. She knows what she wants and imposes her ambitions on Sid. However, she is also generous and wants her friends to share in their success and helps Larry and Sally both financially and socially.

As well as the low points of their lives the novel also recounts the happy and joyful experiences the couples encounter. The novel explores the complexity of human nature and meditates on the drama of everyday experience in quiet “ordinary” situations – the stuff of life, how to live through the difficulties that life and death throw in all our paths. Most poignant, to me at least, are the descriptions of how the couples deal with ambition, the disappointments of failed ambition, illness and death.

Larry meditates: “Ambition is a path, not a destination, and it is essentially the same path for everybody. No matter what the goal is, the path leads through Pilgrim’s Progress regions of motivation, hard work, persistence, stubbornness, and resilience under disappointment. Unconsidered, merely indulged, ambition becomes a vice; it can turn a man into a machine that knows nothing but how to run. Considered, it can become something else – pathway to the stars, maybe.”

Larry also provides some interesting insights into writing itself. He loves writing but also writes to help boost his income, whereas Sid wants to write poetry and is held back and criticised by Charity as she does not think this will help to advance his career. Larry and Sid discuss why writers write. Larry thinks writing "has to be free, it has to flow from the gift, not from outside pressures. The gift is its own justification, and there is no way of telling for sure, short of the appeal to posterity, whether it's really worth something or whether it's only the ephemeral expression of a fad or tendency, the articulation of a steroptype."

The scenes where Charity explores how to approach her death not just for herself, but also for Sid and her family are touchingly realistic and heart-rending. She seemingly pushes Sid away as she prepares for death because she cannot cope with his reaction to her death; she knows she is not only Sid’s support - she is his life. One of the most difficult questions we face is how we deal with the facts of death and the fear of death. When Sid is faced with the inevitability of Charity’s death he asks Larry “Could you survive without Sally?” Whether Sid can survive without Charity is left unanswered. Although Larry hopes he will I’m not so sure.

My copy is a library book; maybe this is a book I should buy as I would like to read it again sometime.The painful honesty of this book in portraying life’s happiness, joy, pathos and sorrow is what touched me the most and makes it a book to remember and treasure.