18.9.17

The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England

A hugely entertaining concept, executed in perfect, chatty style. Ian Mortimer's Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England provides a tourist's handbook to the fourteenth century, focusing on the details of everyday life -- food, clothing, what you can expect to see in a town, the sights of London (mostly gone now), the perils of medical attention, how the legal system works and much more.

This book gives a terrific overview of medieval English society and beliefs, but it's also packed with fascinating titbits. None of those sturdy peasant folk would have worn any knitted garments, because knitting hadn't been invented yet. Rabbits were only introduced to England in the twelfth century! No potatoes, tomatoes or (surprisingly to me) carrots. English wine was made until the end of the century when the weather changed. The Black Death, mid-century, turned the feudal structure on its head as villages were deserted, lords competed for scarce labour, and a whole country mourned the loss of a quarter of the population. Men's clothes underwent a complete transformation over a hundred years, from long formless sacks to tight, short, sexy doublets and hose; meanwhile, women's fashions stayed almost static! That must be the last time in Western history that's happened.

Finally, one of those strange coincidences that often occur in my reading journey: the last chapter, on literature, contained a discussion of the anonymous Gawain poet. As it happens, this poet and two of his poems, Gawain and The Green Knight and Pearl, were discussed on the Guardian reading group thread in the context of Alan Garner's Boneland, which contains many allusions to both poems for those who were alert to them. Funny how these links pop up so unexpectedly!

I raced through this book at top speed, learned heaps and had a wonderfully enjoyable trip to the Middle Ages.

16.9.17

The Chimneys of Green Knowe

Have you ever seen such a spoiler-y cover? Guess what, in the last chapter, the house burns down! In the US, the title is The Treasure of Green Knowe, which is just as revealing.

This book is a very old childhood favourite, first discovered in the Mt Hagen library. It was my favourite of all the Green Knowe books and I re-read it many times. For some reason, the first volume of the series, The Children of Green Knowe, wasn't in the library, and nor was A Stranger at Green Knowe, the one with the escaped gorilla -- many years later, when reading that one to a young Alice, she made me stop reading before the end, because she couldn't bear to hear what was to become of poor Hanno.

But I digress. The Convent book group is reading The Chimneys of Green Knowe because our theme next month is blindness. Young Tolly, staying with his great-grandmother at the ancient house of Green Knowe, is told the story of 18th century Susan, whose sea captain father brings her back Jacob as a companion. After many misadventures, and the final conflagration, the two triumph over their enemies, and Tolly uses what he's learned from their story to save the day.

There are several problematic elements of this book which didn't trouble me too much as a child, but which might make me think carefully before sharing it with a young person today. Jacob is purchased in a slave market in the Caribbean (though the author is careful to tell us that slavery is repugnant, and he is instantly set free -- however, he remains as a servant to the captain and to "Missy Susan" for the rest of his life.) He is described with every well-meaning but racist cliche you can think of: woolly hair, rolling eyes, sooty skin, the lot, and he is mercilessly bullied by Susan's older brother -- dressed in the livery of an organ-grinder's monkey, forced up a chimney and numerous other humiliations. But Jacob is no victim. He exacts his own revenges, both subtle and overt, and his lively spirit is never subdued.

There is a lot of racist language too, never explicitly condemned -- but as a child reader, I got the message that only the unpleasant characters used it. I wonder now if one reason I was so drawn to this book was because it dealt with friendship between black and white children, and at the time I was living in the heavily colonial atmosphere of 1970s PNG. There were black students at my international school, and I had some among my friends, but there weren't many of them. Perhaps unconsciously I was trying to make sense of it all?

One vivid image that stayed with me was the creepy embroidery that Susan's mother creates at the end of the book, made from human hair. That gave me the shivers. And she sews it at the behest of fortune-telling gypsies, who are described, by the way, in unambiguously racist terms that seriously disturbed me this time around. It's odd that Boston clearly feels sympathy for Jacob and the way he's treated, but can't seem to extend this same sympathy to the figures of the dirty, conniving, deceitful, greedy gypsies. Which is a shame.

14.9.17

The Anchoress

Robyn Cadwallader's The Anchoress has been on my radar since its release a couple of years ago. I love reading about nuns; one of my favourite books at high school was This House of Brede by Rumer Godden.

The anchoress of the title is a kind of super-nun, not just committing herself to poverty, obedience and chastity, but renouncing the world entirely, vowing to live out her life of prayer and contemplation alone in a tiny, windowless stone cell attached to the side of the church. I must admit that when the demands of family and the modern world become too much, I can totally see the appeal of such a solitary, scholarly life!

But Sarah has other reasons apart from piety to wish for enclosure, and she doesn't find it so easy to separate herself from the outside world, or the demands of her body. Paradoxically, the sensory deprivation of her cell leads to enhanced sensitivity, from the subtle tastes of her bland food, the noises of village chatter and birdsong, to the touch of stone and paper. Like it or not, she is part of the village. Forbidden to speak to men (apart from priests), she is sought out by the village women for counsel or just a sympathetic ear. She is also haunted by the imagined ghosts of her predecessors -- holy Agnes and rebellious Isabella, who broke her vows. In the end, Sarah finds a middle way somewhere between the two.

You might think that reading about a woman shut up in a room would be about as interesting as watching paint dry. How wrong you would be. The tiny details of Sarah's daily existence become as significant to the reader as they are to her, and we are also privy to the wider politics of church and estate that make Sarah the centre of power struggles. I did wonder whether the 13th century villagers would be able to articulate their sense of unfairness with their lot as openly as they do here; but perhaps it's impossible to reproduce a medieval mindset that a modern reader would be able to comprehend.

A great, and unexpectedly absorbing read from an Australian author.

13.9.17

A Likely Lad

A birthday present for myself from Brown and Bunting! This poor old paperback from 1973 (first published in 1971) is foxed and mottled and probably lay in a cardboard box in somebody's garage for the last forty years. But I welcome it gladly into my collection.

I hadn't read A Likely Lad before, and it's set in the familiar late 19th century Gillian Avery milieu. Avery does a wonderful line in diffident children, which appeals to me hugely as a diffident child myself. Her protagonists are tormented by domineering adults, mortified by impudent siblings, and agonise over their own perceived failings. This time our hero is Willy Overs, a quiet, school-loving boy who is saddled with an ambitious father who dreams of Willy ascending the social ladder as a bumptious 'thruster'. Poor Willy knows that he doesn't have it in him, but while the adults around him feud and squabble, Willy's own innate kindness and sense of fairness end up winning the day in unexpected fashion.

I really enjoyed looking up the streets and suburbs of Manchester where this book is set. I discovered I could even see the imposing Manchester Town Hall, which plays an important symbolic part in the story, in impressive 3D! What did we do before Google Earth? I've consulted it for Boneland, Call the Midwife and now this novel, and it's added to my reading experience immensely -- not quite as good as visiting the setting, but still pretty satisfying.

11.9.17

Call The Midwife

The television series of Call the Midwife, based on the memoirs by Jennifer Worth, was dropped into an early evening weekend time-slot on the ABC -- the traditional home of quirky, sentimental dramas. And while the world of Call the Midwife does have its share of quirk, and sentiment too, it also contains much grimmer social realism and a glimpse of a life that has now disappeared (in the UK at least).

Worth writes of two neglected subjects. Firstly, she describes the hardships of daily life in the dockland suburbs of post-war London, places like Poplar, the Isle of Dogs, Millwall, Stepney and Limehouse, where tenements housed families of ten or twelve in two rooms, some without running water or sanitation. And secondly, she writes in fascinating (some might say gruesome) detail about the vocation of midwifery. As she asks in her introduction, why are there not more memoirs by midwives? There are plenty by doctors and nurses, but few dealing with this most intimate, joyful, and dangerous of professions. Perhaps because it's still seen as 'women's business'?

While there are humorous stories here, and characters familiar from the TV series, like towering, posh Chummie, earthy Sister Evangelina, and dotty Sister Monica Joan, Worth doesn't shy from the darker side of her work in the slums -- prostitution, violence, the legacy of the workhouse, deprivation and despair. The mixture of light and shade is utterly engaging; Call the Midwife is a thoroughly readable memoir, and I'm not surprised it's been so successful.

7.9.17

Gay & Lesbian, Then & Now

Gay & Lesbian, Then & Now, by Robert Reynolds* and Shirleene Robinson, is very topical, with the "voluntary postal survey" hanging over us (at the time of writing, the High Court is due to decide this afternoon whether it will go ahead). It's based on a series of oral history interviews, ranging from Merv in his eighties to Alex in her early twenties, and traces the evolution of Australian society from a world where homosexual acts were illegal (for men) and gayness was seen as either a crime to be prosecuted, or at best, an illness to be "cured," to a world where it's possible to grow up gay without experiencing any significant stigma at all. (Mind you, the last is possible only in the enclaves of the socially progressive inner suburbs -- which is where we happen to live!)

Through thirteen individual stories, the interviewers skilfully explore a variety of histories and personalities to build a fascinating picture of the differences and similarities in the gay and lesbian experience. For most interview subjects, the overwhelming desire is to be accepted as 'normal' and 'ordinary' -- a desire which is starkly articulated in the campaign for marriage equality. However, as a person on the fringes of the queer scene in the 1990s, I well remember a time when that desire would have been seen as a betrayal of the radical queer agenda -- why settle for normal and ordinary when you could start a revolution? The authors do touch on this dilemma, but it doesn't seem to be shared by many of their subjects.

This is a totally engaging and illuminating read.

*Full disclosure: Robert and I were close friends who met at college and later shared a house for several years.

6.9.17

Falconer's Lure

It's only a year since I talked about Falconer's Lure, so I won't rabbit on about it again at any length. It's not my favourite Antonia Forest book, but it provides so much background to the books that follow that it's essential reading. It's a summer holiday book, with falconry instead of ponies -- well, actually there are ponies, too!

The reason I've been re-reading it is because Michelle Cooper has been doing a wonderful read-through on Memoranda. Highly recommended!

And I'll take any excuse to read Antonia Forest. I can't wait till Michelle tackles End of Term, which is where the Marlow series really takes off.

4.9.17

The Game of Silence

After reading Bruce Handy's Wild Things, I rushed to track down Louise Erdrich's Birchbark House series, which tells a Little House on the Prairie-style story from the Native American point of view. Annoyingly, my local library doesn't hold any of Erdrich's children's titles (though they have four or five of her adult novels). And when I tried the Kindle, they had the whole Birchbark House series -- except the first one! Why???

So because I'm impatient, I settled for buying the second book, The Game of Silence, just to get an idea of what they are all about.

Nine year old Omakayas (Little Frog) is part of a nineteenth century Ojibiwe community living in what is now Minnesota. Though the story mostly deals with the daily chores, seasonal tasks and special events of the year, the background is sombre -- four representatives have been dispatched to discover the white government's policy and whether their treaty will be honoured. No surprise at the end of the book when Fishtail returns to report that the promises have been broken and the Ojibwe must leave their traditional lands.

This novel did remind me very much of the Little House books, with their positive outlook on the small struggles and victories of daily life, with a grim backstory. And they are a necessary corrective to the one-sided account of the Ingalls Wilder tales, where the "Indians" are at worst a terrifying threat, and at best, exotic aliens. One of the most striking scenes of the Little House series occurs at the end of Little House on the Prairie, when a long line of Osage ride past the Ingalls' cabin, proud, silent and utterly alien. The Birchbark House series gives a lively voice to those silenced people, and in these books, it's the chimookomanag, the white people, who are the alien strangers.

31.8.17

Boneland

Many, many years ago, Alan Garner visited Melbourne. With a handful of classmates, I was lucky enough to be taken to The Little Bookroom to meet him. He was the first author I'd ever seen in the flesh and I was completely dumbstruck with awe. My friend Fiona, braver than I, asked the great man if he believed in 'a God, no God, or gods plural.' How I wished I'd had the courage to ask such a good question! He was diffident and modest, and shocked us by saying that when he'd got stuck at one point in the story, he'd written, 'Then the children ran away home and lived happily ever after.' I didn't realise then that authors, those inspired superhuman creatures, could get stuck, or despair, or choose the ridiculous as a means of escape from a tight corner.

Cut to nearly forty years later and I discover this book, misfiled on the children's book shelves in Berkelouw in Oxford St. I didn't even know it existed -- what a find! 

Boneland is the final part of a trilogy that began over fifty years ago with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. I tried to re-read Weirdstone a few years ago and recoiled in dismay from the elves-and-pixies-and-wicked-witches vibe; I can't really even remember the story. Some readers who loved Weirdstone and Gomrath have likewise recoiled from this mature, dense, dark conclusion of the trilogy. I say again: Boneland is not a children's book.

Boneland finds Colin, one of the two child protagonists of the earlier books, adult and damaged, condemned to forget (everything that happened before he was thirteen) and to remember (in eidetic detail, everything that's happened to him since). He's searching for his missing sister, which is perhaps a way of making himself whole. Meg, his psychiatrist, is helping him with his quest, but she may not be all she seems. Interwoven with Colin's story is that of an isolated, prehistoric shaman, who fears his ritual responsibilities will die with him, and thus spell the end of the world. He is also searching for a woman, this time to make a child to inherit his sacred knowledge. His prayers are answered, but not in the way he expects.

If I hadn't discovered the Guardian's reading group discussion of Boneland, I would have struggled to catch about nine tenths of the references and resonances in this slim but densely packed novel. With the aid of Google maps, I can trace the geography of Colin's home on Alderley Edge in Cheshire, the site of most of Garner's work. With the help of the internet, I can interpret the poetic allusions, the echoes of medieval legend, and the callbacks to the earlier novels.

Is this a flaw? Should I be able to read the novel simply, on its own terms, without help? I would argue not. With the help of the learned Guardian readers, sharing their expertise in local archaeology, herbs, Gawain and the Green Knight, particle physics, astronomy, the threefold goddess, and much more, the experience of reading Boneland becomes infinitely deepened and enriched.

I first read most of the book fast, on the plane on the way home. I'm now reading it again, more slowly, line by line, stopping to check references and consult maps. Both ways of reading have been exhilarating in their own way.

Alan Garner is the writer I admire and revere above all others, in his spare, scalpel-sharp style (next door to reading poetry in prose), in his wise, dense, important subject matter, in his light-footed wit and humour. There is no other writer like him; his books can be hard work, but my god, they are so rewarding. He has said that Boneland may be his last novel. I hope it isn't, but if it proves to be, it would be a worthy farewell.



30.8.17

Indigo's Star

I found myself in Sydney last weekend (happy birthday, Bridget!) and because we were flying Jetstar and had to watch our luggage weight, I only risked taking one book with me. Who was I kidding? Of course one book was nowhere near enough. So a rummage through local secondhand bookshops was in order!

First stop was Gould's Book Arcade in Newtown, a glorious warehouse-sized conglomeration of books, records, CDs and magazines. Only two of the hundred or so bookshelves was devoted to children's books, but I still found several titles to tempt me. The one I bought was the second volume of Hilary McKay's Casson series, Indigo's Star, which I hadn't succeeded in finding anywhere -- it's gone from our library, and this is the first time I've found it secondhand.

This filled in a few gaps for me -- I found out who Tom was, and why Rose loved him, where Indigo got his guitar, and more about the gradual disengagement of Bill from his family (which I must say his wife Eve seems to accept with almost supernatural placidity). Indigo is being bullied at school, while Tom has fled from his father's new family. Stars, music, high places and Rose's drawing combine for a bittersweet ending.

I've read the Casson books all out of order, and I'm not sure even now which ones I've missed, because some of them have similar names (Permanent Rose, Forever Rose, Caddy Ever After, Caddy's World) which is quite inconsiderate of Hilary McKay. Also they weren't even written in sequential order, which makes sorting out events even tougher!

Personally, I enjoy the warm, loving muddle of the Casson family. But Diana Wynne Jones wrote a rather scathing review of Permanent Rose where she classifies the family's dysfunction as more desperate, insecure and actually quite threatening to the well-being of the children. It's a fine line.

21.8.17

Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Literature as an Adult

I gobbled down this book like a handful of lollies (though it's actually much more nourishing than that). At first I had reservations because it was very American-focused, but it turns out I seem to have read most of the important works of American children's literature anyway. Yay for me.

Bruce Handy, who writes for Vanity Fair, is the most delightful reading companion, confessing his personal blind spots and passions with engaging flair. He has structured Wild Things in roughly reading order, from the infant picture book Goodnight Moon (one book I have never read!) through the works of Maurice Sendak and Dr Suess, through Narnia and The Wizard of Oz, right up to the 'girly' books he never read as a child (Little Women, Little House on the Prairie), finishing with books about death and the masterpiece that is Charlotte's Web.

This book was so much fun to read, but also thoughtful and sometimes argumentative. I loved that Handy (like me) admires rather than 'gets' Maurice Sendak; also that (very much unlike me) he only got thirty pages into Anne of Green Gables before throwing the book across the room! He fell in love with the Narnia books, then felt betrayed when he discovered their Christian agenda. He had only intended to read the first Little House book, but found himself eagerly devouring all nine in the series. However, he is not uncritical, and suggests Louise Erdrich's The Birchbark House series for a corrective Native American perspective (a suggestion I intend to take up as soon as I can).

The book ends with a list of other intriguing 'book pairs' for further reading, and a comprehensive bibliography. Pure pleasure.



18.8.17

Pippa Passes

Anyone who has followed this blog for a while will know how much I adore and admire Rumer Godden's writing. So you can imagine my delight when I discover a novel of hers that I haven't read yet.

Alas, Pippa Passes (after a poem by Browning) is not one of Godden's masterpieces. Shy, naive Pippa has come to magical Venice as a member of the company's corps de ballet. They are only staying for a fortnight, but what a crowded two weeks for Pippa, who is disgraced, promoted, wooed, falls in love, almost raped, adopted by the aristocracy and finds she can choose between two vocations, dancing or singing!

The descriptions of Venice are gorgeous, though they felt dated to me, even though the novel was published in 1994, four years after my last visit (that is so sad). Pippa's marvelling at Italian panini and tiramisu, her timid reserve, her shocked response to a lesbian advance, all felt more like a fifties novel than one set in the 1990s. And yes, sadly, there is a wicked lesbian character who can't be trusted to be around young girls ever again -- I groaned, which is not something I often do when reading Rumer Godden!

I'll keep it in my collection as a hymn to Venice, but this one is not going to be a favourite.

17.8.17

The Bletchley Girls

Bletchley Park was the  centre of Britain's wartime code-breaking -- a country house filled with mysterious machines (the foreruners of today's computers), boffins and hundreds of efficient service women who tended the machines and sorted the coded messages, all wrapped in an impenetrable cloak of absolute secrecy. It wasn't until the 1970s that details of Bletchley's activities began to emerge.

The Bletchley Girls collects the reminiscences of fifteen surviving women who worked at Bletchley Park. Now in their nineties, they recall their various experiences living and working at BP. For some, it was the defining period of their lives; for others, a mere blip in a long and interesting career. Everyone's Bletchley was different. Some found it friendly and relaxed, others intimidating or dull.

This sounds like a wonderful idea for a book. Unfortunately, the material for The Bletchley Girls ends up being a little, well, thin. The author quotes from interviews with her subjects, comments on what they've said, and editorialises and theorises about it. This means that the chapters become rather repetitive (not unlike the work of Bletchley itself!). And sadly the actual daily work these women undertook was mostly very boring. Though the image of BP is glamorous and exciting (code-breaking! espionage! winning the war! top secret!), in reality, the women had very little idea what they were actually doing there until decades later. They functioned as unwitting cogs in a giant machine. Though the stories of the interviewees' individual journeys to BP and their lives afterwards were marginally interesting, I didn't feel that I learned much I didn't already know, and the author's style is journalistic rather than academic (not a plus for me!)

So my World War II binge has ended on a rather anti-climactic note, I'm afraid.

14.8.17

Jambusters *UPDATED*

I seem to be in the middle of a World War II binge -- partly because of the Convent book group theme, partly because I went to see Dunkirk recently (which was excellent by the way). I pounced on Jambusters when I saw it pop up on Brotherhood Books (yes, I'm now checking it daily, don't judge me). This book by Julie Summers inspired the development of the TV series Home Fires, which Michael and I loved. We were extremely cross that ITV cancelled it after only two seasons, and on a massive cliffhanger, too. But that is a topic for another day!

Jambusters is the story of Women's Institutes during the Second World War. Though it was a voluntary and notionally pacifist organisation, its immense reach and breadth meant that it became the focus of many home front activities, from welcoming and housing evacuees, to making millions of jars of jam to prevent food wastage, to knitting garments for servicemen, even doing laundry and mending for local battalions. Salvage, growing vegetables, making toys, skinning rabbits -- all this on top of the usual work of caring for the family and often running a farm or business, with the men absent, as well as keeping up morale by running village entertainments like dances and choirs -- and enduring the terrors and privations of war with a calm and cheerful demeanour!

I came away from this book breathless at the sheer amount of work (all unpaid, mind you) that these incredible women were expected to shoulder. And many rural women were living in housing without electricity or even running water! Bloody hell. I can tell you, I was counting my blessings after this one. Full of wonderful details of daily life in war time, this would make a fantastic research resource. And it highlights the value of friendship and community which was the silver lining to all the suffering that they endured in six long years of war.

EDIT
PS I forgot to say that I was particularly intrigued to discover that one of the founders and stalwarts of the WI was a woman called Grace Hadow, who came from the Gloucestershire village where my aunt lives, South Cerney. My aunt tells me that the Cirencester branch of the WI that Hadow founded was unique in being based in a town rather than a village. And my grandmother was secretary of the WI in Crudwell for many years. No wonder I enjoyed this book so much! It's in me blood.

9.8.17

Goodnight Mister Tom

I couldn't find an image of the edition I bought from Brotherhood Books, which has a 20th anniversary sticker on it. I'd never read Michelle Magorian's Goodnight Mister Tom, first published in 1981. But when it was mentioned at my ladies' book group, and they all in unison sighed and smiled, I knew it would be a winner.

Reading this book was like sinking into a comfortable old armchair. In some ways, it's an old-fashioned odd couple story: A shy evacuee is billeted with a crusty old countryman, and as their friendship deepens and young Will settles into the community, he discovers gifts and strengths he never knew he had. So far, so predictable. But in other ways, this is quite a dark and disturbing tale. The background is the outbreak of World War II, with bombing raids and the threat of invasion in the air. More troubling is the character of Will's abusive, mentally ill mother. The severe abuse Will suffers at her hands is balanced by sunny excursions to the woods and the scenes of childhood friendship (though this too is touched by darkness).

I have previously read Magorian's later novel, Back Home, and there were shared themes with Goodnight Mister Tom -- the wartime setting, the saving power of art, an abused or neglected child, even the charms of an isolated cottage in the woods, are common to both books. I also really like the unconventional minor characters, who could so easily have been stereotyped figures -- like the trouser-wearing, smoking doctor's wife, or colourful Zach, the flamboyant child of theatrical parents.

8.8.17

Maus


I first read Art Spiegelman's Maus a year ago, by accident, because I mistakenly thought we were doing it for book group. Finally, we are actually officially doing it as part of our Jewish Experience theme, so I got to read it again.

It was just as good the second time around: punchy, powerful, pacy. The inexorable slide from prejudice to genocide is just as terrifying, and Vladek's refusal to surrender, his determination to survive, is astounding. This time I noticed more of the details of Vladek's story, the twists and turns along the way: a betrayal here, a bargain there, friends who appear and disappear, acquaintances who inexplicably manage to survive, relatives who are equally inexplicably slaughtered.

Alice had to read this for school and though she is not usually a fan of graphic novels (she finds them confusing and distracting to read), she thought Maus was great. It packs a hell of a wallop into an easily digestible package. A modern classic.