This summer, in summary

Back at the beginning of June I opted to do Cathy Brown’s summer reading meme. This involved listing either ten, fifteen or twenty books one aimed to complete between the beginning of that month and the end of August.

Ever cautious I went for just ten titles, but in complete confidence that I would over the 93 days be close to not only reading but reviewing 20 books.

So how did I do?

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Globetrotting, bookwise

I’ve not thought of myself as particularly insular where history, geography and politics are concerned but I have been aware that for some years the literature I’ve tended to gravitate towards has been firmly Anglocentric, with occasional forays in the direction of North America.

There are many reasons for this sad state of affairs but no excuses — all I can say is that it’s particularly shameful to me that a childhood growing up in what was then called the Far East, plus a subsequent sprinkling of study in some of the so-called Romance languages of Europe, hasn’t led to a broader familiarity with world literature.

So . . . Reading All Around the World. I’m not actually doing this challenge, but a recent-ish post by Lory caught my eye and I thought I’d check where, bookwise, I’ve already travelled in this year of grace, two-thirds of the way through twenty-twenty, with 52 titles under my belt.

Not far, it turns out.

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Shadow play

Claud-Joseph Vernet, Genoa Lighthouse and the Temple of Minerva Medica (Bristol Museum): https://wp.me/p2oNj1-4bm

Tempest-Tost
by Robertson Davies,
in The Salterton Trilogy.
Penguin Books 2011 (1951)

“The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together: our virtues would be proud, if our faults whipped them not; and our crimes would despair, if they were not cherished by our virtues.
All’s Well that Ends Well

The first volume in Robertson Davies’ Salterton Trilogy is a provincial Canadian comedy of manners with a universal appeal, in which despite errors being compounded all’s well that ends well, which is as we like it.

From this corny introduction you’ll have gathered Tempest-Tost is a novel with a Shakespearean theme, and so it is. In the middle of the 20th century The Little Theatre company, an amateur group, is attempting to put on an open air pastoral of The Tempest, unaware that they are as much the dramatis personae in a real-life play as the characters they are hoping to portray. Except, as I hope to argue, the fictional parts they play in the comedy are not those they live during the course of the novel.

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An unattainable ideal

Credit: WordPress Free Photo Library

A Legacy of Spies
by John Le Carré,
Penguin Books 2018 (2017)

“I’m a European, Peter. If I had a mission — if I was ever aware of one beyond our business with the enemy, it was to Europe. If I was heartless, I was heartless for Europe. If I had an unattainable ideal, it was of leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason. I have it still.”
— George Smiley. Chapter 13

It is the second decade of the 21st century. Peter Guillam, retired spy, contemplates events in the mid-1990s, not long after the MI6 building was completed in 1994, and also earlier on in the Cold War, in the late fifties and early sixties. He himself is in his mid-eighties but his memories of twenty and sixty years before are as sharp as ever.

But old habits die hard. For someone who has been in the secret services for so long, he is careful to mix in disinformation as well as misinformation into his accounts to his interrogators, and to us. And the author too, also with a background in the secret services during the Cold War: we have to beware over which parts of his narrative are ‘real’ and which parts are unreliable.

The clue, after all, is in the title. Are we to imagine the novel is to do with a remnant of retired spies from an earlier period? Is that the legacy, rather as the erstwhile ‘Circus’ building has been superseded by Vauxhall Cross? Or is it the sins of yesteryear’s spies that have come back to bite them on the bottom? Is the ‘legacy’ in fact both of spies and of spying? Or is the author having his own little joke?

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The force of destiny

Fantasy is a Marmite®™* genre for many readers: though there is often a middle ground of those who can take or leave it, there are plenty for whom it is anathema and others who regard it as the only true reflection of their hopes, dreams and, occasionally, nightmares. I myself enjoy many manifestations of the genre but not all appeal to me, by any means.

I often wonder what the sticking point might be for those who are anti-fantasy. Not enough realism? Magic too arbitrary or illogical? Aimed mainly at children or the childish? Too full of clichés? Or is there a deeper root that irks the sceptical?

Much of so-called Epic or High Fantasy is predicated on a sense of Fate or Destiny, with prophecies about someone (a Chosen One, if you like) who will bring about changes to a world order. The term Chosen One was used humorously of Harry Potter, but Lyra’s prophesied role in the worlds of His Dark Materials was specifically hidden from her.

But the whole notion of Fate is a controversial one involving whether free will truly exists, or if there is a Being who has their hands on the controls. I don’t intend to get into the philosophy behind the arguments — it’s beyond my wit, let alone my remit here — except to say that bloody wars have been fought over this very issue.

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Hopeless, hapless, helpless

Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolaño,
Chris Andrews translator 2010
Picador 2011 (1999)

Paris, April 1938
Young widow Madame Reynaud approaches Pierre Pain, war pensioner and mesmerist, with an unusual request. Would he attend to César Vallejo who is dying in a Paris hospital? The doctors have no idea why he is expiring, nor why he is hiccupping. Perhaps Monsieur Pain, with his unorthodox skills, can help?

Thus begins this novella by the late Roberto Bolaño, and the reader is soon plunged into a world of paranoia and mystery set in a miserably wet capital on the eve of war. Can we believe what we read when it’s told by such an unreliable narrator? Especially when he doesn’t seem to know what’s going on either?

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A clowder of cats

Back cover illustration by Fritz Wegner

Carter is a Painter’s Cat
by Carolyn Sloan,
with pictures by Fritz Wegner.
Longman Young Books 1971

A book bought to read with our first child (and, in due course, subsequent children) has remained a firm favourite, at least with me, for nearly fifty years. The irreverent text by British author Carolyn Sloan and equally irreverent illustrations by Fritz Wegner are a perfect marriage, quirky and deeply satisfying in a way that’s not easy to put one’s finger on.

But I shall try, so — deep breath — here goes.

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The whole sky ablaze

The Tulip Touch
by Anne Fine,
Puffin Books 1997 (1996)

Everyone thinks they can see things when they look back. It’s nonsense, really, I expect.

This award-winning teenage novel — it was the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year in 1996 — is a hard-hitting psychological portrayal of an abusive friendship which poses the eternal question, are people ever born evil? It also asks whether it is enough for people to shake their heads and pass judgement while assuming it’s somebody else’s responsibility to deal with the root causes of antisocial behaviour.

But it wouldn’t be enough for a work of fiction to be preachy, it has to engage the reader in personal stories and relationships, and to put that reader in the position of thinking, would I behave like this or act like that, especially if they were an impressionable youngster like the narrator.

And adult readers may also pause to consider how even grown-ups can be powerless to change situations, either because of their own inadequacies or because systems aren’t in place to allow justice to be done. Through moral ambiguities, challenges and personal courage we are led along the narrative path this novel hastens to take us.

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Battles lost and won

SS Normandie 1932-46

Chess by Stefan Zweig
(Schachnovelle 1941),
translated by Anthea Bell.
Penguin Modern Classics 2017 (2006)

I had projected the chessboard and chessmen into my mind, where I could now survey the positions of the pieces on the board by means of the formulae alone, just as a mere glance at a score is enough for a trained musician to hear all the separate parts of a piece and the way they sound together.

Chess is a taut psychological tale, fascinating for both its narrative and for its almost autobiographical character. Set on a liner going from New York to Buenos Aires in 1941, this is a novella of triumph and tragedy depicting a battle of wits between mismatched players, a parable of its own time and for all time. Knowing that this was the last fiction by the author before his suicide Chess takes on an extra piquancy, but the reader doesn’t need to be overly aware of this detail to appreciate the story for its own sake.

In this edition the novella is a scant eighty-odd pages, which allows one to see how the composition is structured, the major themes that are employed, the counterpoint which is brought into play and the key instruments, each with their own tone colour, that come to the fore as in a piece of chamber music.

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The Ruin of Books and Sarcasm

Cover generator: https://nullk.github.io/penguin.html

Alex, who blogs on fantasy and science fiction at Spells and Spaceships and tweets as (at)BlogSpells, posted this fun tweet recently:

Create your YA novel title:

The _______ of ________ and _______

1) type of place you like travelling to most — forest, church, castle etc.
2) Last thing you held in your hand other than your phone
3) thing you’re most scared of

Mine, as you can see, came out as The Ruin of Books and Sarcasm which I fondly thought had the enigmatic feel of titles like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainance.

I also used this cover generator to produce a suitably official-looking Penguin Classics title using a photo of part of a mural I saw in Bristol.

Here is a summary of the imagined blurb on the back cover, which may or may not encourage you to go out and buy it — virtually of course!

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A jug of wine, and thou

ساقی| Cup bearer (Saghi)

The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayaam
translated by Robert Graves and Omar Ali-Shah.
Appendix: Edward Fitzgerald translation.
Penguin Books 1972 (1967)

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse — and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness —
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.
— Fitzgerald, 11 (1859 edition)

The collection of quatrains, or rubaiyat, attributed to Omar Khayaam (‘Omar the tentmaker’) have been made famous by Edward Fitzgerald’s English version, published in the middle of the nineteenth century, so much so that his rendition is what English-speakers usually think of whenever Rubaiyyat is mentioned. But it has long had a controversial aspect as misrepresenting what the poet is supposed to have both written and indeed meant.

And there is more. Fitzgerald, who wasn’t a Persian scholar but largely taught himself, working from dictionaries to produce the work associated with him, wasn’t as assiduous in conveying the sense of the quatrains as he may have been, and mixed and matched texts as suited his tastes, even stitching together lines from different quatrains. And when he couldn’t understand a word or phrase, he liberally interpreted it.

In the middle of the twentieth century the poet Robert Graves and the Sufi Omar Ali-Shah (Graves had worked with his brother Idries Shah) produced this annotated text in English, claiming it to not only present the original more accurately to an English-speaking audience but also to restore the poet’s Sufic credentials. Have they been successful?

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An unscrupulous passion

Inverted Commas 17: a Lust for Books

Freddy recognised the truth of what he said. She herself was a victim of that lust for books which rages in the breast like a demon, and which cannot be stilled save by the frequent and plentiful acquisition of books.

Freddy is the 14-year-old Fredegonde Webster from Robertson Davies’ 1951 novel Tempest-Tost, the first volume in his Salterton Trilogy. She has heard that the late Dr Savage’s library of “4300 volumes of Philosophy, Theology, Travel, Superior Fiction and Miscellaneous” is to be offered gratis to clergy of all denominations on a particular day, with the proviso that they must remove books personally. And now her lust for books has been fired up.

As well as being the date of Tove Jansson‘s birthday every 9th August is designated Book Lovers Day. I cannot let any further time pass without belatedly marking the occasion with further relevant quotes from the sixth chapter of the Canadian writer’s novel.

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A light in the darkness

Sophia Jansson with Signe Hammarsten (circa 1968 image: Margareta Strömstedt)

Moominvalley in November
written and illustrated by Tove Jansson,
translated by Kingsley Hart.
Puffin 2019 (1971)

Set as autumn is on the turn towards winter in Moominvalley, this last of all the Moomin novels is, as expected, a bittersweet tale of friendship, absence, loss and hope. Six disparate individuals feel a yearning to visit the Moomins in their valley, but when they all get there they find the family gone and the house empty. How do they react when they realise that and how do they get on with each other while they wait for the Moomins’ return?

I loved this for so many reasons — the apparent whimsy hiding psychological insights, the individual quests the characters found themselves on, the autumnal atmosphere beautifully recreated with hints of hibernation and the faint promise of spring, and of course for the delicate line drawings that delight the eye.

While it’s common knowledge that the author wrote this after losing her 88-year-old mother Signe, and that a deep sense of loss pervades the novel, most readers will be intrigued by the interaction between the six characters in search of a meaning for the empty home they visit, and of their reasons for undertaking their quests.

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Werewolves and nightmares

Stockton and Darlington locomotive 1840

“An adult reader […] greets the arrival of common plot turns, descriptive tropes, and matched good-evil characters with pleasure, like old friends showing up suddenly at the door.”
— John Crowley, ‘Forget Harry Potter, Adults Should Read Joan Aiken’s Wolves, Boston Review

In this post, part of a series looking at details of Joan Aiken’s Midwinter Nightingale (one of the Wolves Chronicles featuring Dido Twite) we shall be looking at some of the personages met in the novel’s pages.

Many are only given the briefest of mentions, so don’t be too alarmed at what seems a rather lengthy cast list (though for reasons of brevity it’s split between a couple of posts). Along with details of individual characters and functions, a few entries will call for some discussion of the meaning or joke implied in names.

Many readers will of course by now be familiar with the customary advice: beware of spoilers.

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Somewhere to go

Those lovely bloggers at Reenchantment of the World, Ola and Piotrek, were recently gifted the Real Neat Blog Award because, I’m guessing, their site is regarded as real neat (which it is). As part of these types of blogging awards one is often required to answer a series of questions, which Piotrek and Ola in tandem duly did here.

You may know that I eschew such exercises if ever I am nominated, sometimes because an additional requirement is to nominate more bloggers in a kind of virtual pyramid scheme, other times because the questions just don’t appeal, but mostly because I prefer to generate posts from a stimulus I myself have chosen.

But just occasionally, regardless of whether I’ve actually been nominated, something indefinable about the questionnaire does appeal, and that was the case here.

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