18.5.18

Reading Richard

Since I've been on a slight Shakespeare run lately, it seemed appropriate to comment on a work that, strictly speaking, falls on A's reading list, not mine. Her reading has improved immensely in recent years -- in fact, she's taking English Lit instead of straight English for VCE -- but it's still hard work, so sometimes I read her texts aloud for her (I wonder how many hours parents of dyslexic students spend on this? I can't tell you how many parents have contacted me after reading Crow Country aloud to their dyslexic kids).

So far this year, I've read her Kafka's Metamorphosis, we've started Cold Blood (that's going to be a slog), and now Richard III. And frankly, I have to say that I'm not impressed! I've only seen the play performed once, years ago in the UK, and I was lucky enough to catch the original WWII-inspired production by the Royal National Theatre, which was adapted into a film in 1995. That was gripping, so it just goes to show how much depends on imaginative staging and strong performances.

On the page, the words are less exciting (maybe it's the way I read them...). 'It's just exposition, punctuated by slaughter,' was A's analysis. There are a lot of characters, many of whom appear on stage only to be executed in the next scene. The relationships are confusing. People sprint on and off the stage, shout something, die. It feels like a student play, an early play. It's clunky. Not one of your best, Will. Though now that Richard's body has been discovered, at least we know that Shakespeare wasn't lying about the hunchback -- he really did have one.

16.5.18

Whose Body? and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

I couldn't find an online image of the particular Dorothy L Sayers omnibus I bought from Brotherhood Books, so I've chosen a picture that most closely corresponds to my private mental picture of Lord Peter Wimsey, the titled detective -- this is from a 1987 BBC adaptation which somehow passed me by completely! (I was at uni in 1987 and not paying attention, clearly.) This photo shows Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter as Lord Peter and Harriet Vane. It looks well cast -- I think I'll have to do some digging.

Back to the books. When I was at high school, in the thick of my Brideshead/ Nancy Mitford/ All Creatures phase, I absolutely adored Lord Peter Wimsey and read all his adventures I could lay my hands on (there are eleven novels in total). This omnibus contains the first four,* and I raced through Whose Body? and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club while I was in Ballarat recently, doing a two-day school visit. There could be nothing better to relax with after an exhausting day, though Lord Peter himself in his earliest iteration is quite irritating at times -- Sayers toned him down as the series went on.

Of course the books are terribly dated in some ways. Again with the gratuitous anti-Semitism! What's the story? And Lord Peter is the very peak of white male privilege (but at least he knows it). But the puzzles are clever, and I always enjoyed all the literary and historical allusions. No dumbing down for Sayers; these mysteries are an intellectual pleasure, not a gritty or violent peek into the criminal underworld.

The best novels are the ones after Wimsey meets and falls in love with Harriet Vane, whom he saves from a murder conviction. They are a fantastic pair. As a writer of detective fiction, she is as smart as he is, and he loves her character as much as her looks. As a smart but horribly plain adolescent, I found this wonderfully comforting. They are the kind of couple who do the crossword together in bed!

Despite their shortcomings, I'm thrilled to have rediscovered the Wimsey novels, and I will be devouring them all over again (in order this time, hopefully).

*EDIT: So it turns out this omnibus doesn't contain the first four novels -- it's four random ones. Between these two books fall Clouds of Witness and Unnatural Death. So now I'll have to try to fill in the gaps myself. Grr!

15.5.18

Tarin of the Mammoths

Our theme for the Convent book group this month is Prehistoric! We kicked off with Australian author Jo Sandhu's Tarin of the Mammoths (Book 1: The Exile), which follows the adventures of young Tarin, whose twisted leg means he can't take part in the mammoth hunts on which his tribe depends. When Tarin spoils a hunt, he is sent to take an offering to the Earth Mother on a distant mountain in atonement -- but will he make it before winter descends?

I thought the pace of the story picked up when Tarin ran into another pair of travellers, brother and sister Kaija and Luuka, who have escaped a deadly illness that has struck down their own tribe. Book 2 is already out and it looks as if this may the start of a long series. There are certainly plenty of Ice Age hazards to keep our heroes busy. And while this is not The Inheritors, there is a passing encounter with a Neanderthal boy which promises further interaction in the future.

14.5.18

We Are At War

Subtitled The Diaries of Five Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times, We Are At War arose out of a (still-ongoing) UK project called Mass Observation, where citizens from all walks of life were encouraged to keep detailed diaries of their daily lives. From this wealth of raw material, editor Simon Garfield has crafted a chronicle of the beginning of the Second World War as it appeared to five British observers. Tilly is a middle-class mother of young children; Maggie a bohemian writer; Pamela a sceptical Glasgow office worker; Christopher a highly strung Catholic notepaper salesman; and Eileen works as a London evacuation officer, overseeing the removal of children to safety in the country.

Today, with the narrative of WWII so firmly decided (Churchill's a hero, Hitler the epitome of evil, Dunkirk a miracle), it's almost unsettling to read these diary extracts written in the muddle and confusion of unfolding events. Particularly early on, some of our diarists maintain that Hitler has his good points and that Britain could do with a dictator of their own. There is open anti-Semitism, even toward refugees from the Nazis, and Italians living in the UK have their shops smashed. Dunkirk, now familiar to us by its shorthand name, is referred to as 'the evacuation' (remember 2001, before we decided to call the bombing of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon simply '9/11'?)

This volume only covers the first year or so of the war, ending just after the Blitz sets in. And for our diarists, despite the fear and uncertainty, it's often domestic concerns that preoccupy them -- how many tins to buy, how to protect their windows from the possibility of bombing, whether it's worth getting out of bed when the air raid siren sounds, how to repay money owing. Life goes on.

I'm convinced that Anthony Horowitz  must have studied the Mass Observation diaries when he was researching Foyle's War. They provide a unique and vivid snapshot of the immediate experience of a nation at war -- not remembered afterwards, distilled into anecdote or agreed attitudes, but as they felt at the time. Fascinating and sometimes disconcerting stuff.

7.5.18

Station Eleven

I'm not a huge fan of dystopian novels (though I did enjoy The Girl With All The Gifts), but Station Eleven, by Canadian author Emily St John Mandel, was recommended (and lent to me) by Kirsty Murray, whose judgement I trust. As usual, she knew what she was talking about!

I may not be fond of dystopias, but I do love interlocking stories, and novels where characters brush past each other and wander in and out of each other's lives. It was a strange echo of King of Shadows that Station Eleven opened with a performance of King Lear, in which the lead actor, Arthur Leander, dies on stage. This event occurs a few days before a real catastrophe hits -- an outbreak of a deadly flu which spreads so swiftly that it soon extinguishes almost every human on Earth. The novel follows several characters who are all connected to Arthur in some way -- his first ex-wife, a child actress in the same play, the man who tries to save his life, his old friend. Their experiences weave in and out of the narrative, crossing and re-crossing, tied together strangely by a comic book created by Arthur's first wife.

As apocalypses go, the "Georgia Flu" is a relatively gentle one. Death is swift and not too painful, and while it's hinted that the first year after the epidemic was brutal and horrific, we don't see much of that. Violence intrudes only at the end of the novel. Mind you, this is set mostly in Canada; I can imagine that south of the border, things might have been a lot worse: all those guns and doomsday preppers! It was good to read a story set in an unfamiliar (to me) landscape -- Toronto and the Great Lakes -- which was an excuse to run to Google Maps and orient myself.

An excellent read, but if you're looking for horrors, look elsewhere.