Voyage upriver

The ‘Roi des Belges’, the Belgian riverboat Joseph Conrad commanded on the upper Congo, 1889

‘BB’ (D J Watkins-Pitchford):
The Little Grey Men
Oxford University Press 2012 (1942)

“This is a story about the last gnomes in Britain,” begins the author’s introduction to this story, winner of the Carnegie Medal in the dark days of the second world war. The author, long the art master at Rugby School in Warwickshire, clearly based his tale on a countryside he knew well for not only is this an affectionate piece of nature writing set on and around a brook, ‘BB’ himself illustrated the text, and included a handful of songs with piano accompaniment credited to, perhaps, his father.

Two gnomes, Baldmoney and Sneezewort, set off one spring morning up the Folly Brook in search of the long-lost Cloudberry who, a year before, had himself gone in quest of the stream’s source. They leave behind the older, rather grumpy, Dodder who’d lost a leg to a fox many years ago; thus begins a voyage upriver, full of delights but also fraught with danger and mortal perils.

The Little Grey Men is charming and old-fashioned (with all that implies), a mini-adventure for us but a hardy expedition for the gnomes that undertake the journey. Will they achieve their goal or will it all end in disaster, not least from the prying eyes of Giants?

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The Alps, the Arctic and the Creature

Aurora Borealis (WordPress Free Media Library)

John Sutherland: Frankenstein’s Brain,
Puzzles and Conundrums in Mary Shelley’s Monstrous Masterpiece
(including John Crace’s ‘Frankenstein Digested’)
Icon Books 2018

Frankenstein is, despite its iconic status, so full of inconsistencies and plot holes that it’s a wonder it holds together at all. In fact, those weaknesses have meant that subsequent treatments of the narrative — in film, on stage, in comics, in parodies and retellings — have tried to gloss over, patch up or even reconfigure Mary Godwin Shelley’s story, with the result that those reading the novel for the first time are often confused, their expectations confounded. Where is the laboratory? Why are we caught up in Arctic ice? How come the monster isn’t called Frankenstein?

Literary critics of course have the answers, editors give lengthy details of history, chronology, context, differences in text and so on, but usually in academic language buttressed by obscure scholarly papers and archived documents. Up steps John Sutherland, an academic with a light touch making the inaccessible accessible with bite-size chapters, contemporary references and online links, and using humour to demystify a two-centuries-old classic.

Add to that an appendix with one of Guardian writer John Crace’s digested reads, meaning that if you’re still resistant to Mary Shelley’s original you can pretend you know all about it with a handy (and very funny) cheat.

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Good to go

Framework

Another year starts, and we’re all encouraged to plan ahead… Well, I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. I don’t have targets. I don’t set challenges.

What I have instead are goals: something to generally aim for but no pressure other than satisfaction at reaching them or even making the initial effort.

A better metaphor might be a framework: something that provides shape but the cladding for which is more random and the amount of cover more arbitrary. Imagine a big wide open goalmouth, the posts set wide apart and the crosspiece high, the netting a patchwork of different materials and loosely spread over. It’s pleasing to get the ball in the net but, heaven forfend, I’ve never had dreams of being a Premiership player…

So, Reading Goals. (No, not Reading Gaol, that was Oscar Wilde.)

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Bookmarking

As we tread our way to the end of November, with the finish line for Twenty Eighteen nearly in sight, I feel the urge to begin a series of retrospectives—as is traditional for this time of year. This brief post (as brief as anything I ever promise to write) is intended as a snapshot of where I am just now.

First things first, however. The Classics Club blog has just revealed the Classics Spin number for the title members have to read over the next two months, and that number is…

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Classics Club Spin 19

Image credit: WordPress Free Media Library

Thanks to the Classics Club blog I (along with many others) have until Tuesday 27th November to create a post listing twenty books of my choosing that remain ‘to be read’ on my Classics Club list. I have to read just one of these twenty books on this ‘spin list’ by the end of the spin period.

They invite me to try to challenge myself by, for example, listing five Classics Club books I’ve been putting off, five I can’t wait to read, five I’m neutral about, and five free choice (favourite author, re-reads, ancients, non-fiction, books in translation — whatever I choose). In the absence of any alternatives of my own to offer I aim to follow this schema as much as possible.

On Tuesday 27th November, a number between 1 and 20 will be posted. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on my spin list by 31st January, 2019.

But wait! There’s a twist (apt enough for a Spin):

This is an extra special, super-dooper CHUNKSTER edition of the Classics Club Spin. We challenge you to fill this spin list with 20 of those HUGE books you’ve been putting off reading because you didn’t have enough time. With this spin we are giving you the time – nearly 10 weeks in fact – to tackle one of those imposing tomes on your classics shelf.

Erm … I’m running out of those CLUNKING HUGE books on my list, so I’ll just have to fill in with teenier ones (eg 10, 15 and 20), to which I may add a related title or two to make up the bulk.

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In praise of innocence

Botticelli’s Primavera (1482), Uffizi, Florence

Henry James: Daisy Miller: A Study.
An International Episode. Four Meetings.
Penguin English Library 2012 (1879)

First published in magazine form in 1878, Daisy Miller is a novella that must strike modern readers very differently from their counterparts a hundred and forty years ago. Now, the very idea of a young lady seeking the company of pleasant young men seems unremarkable in Western society, but then for one such as Daisy to do so unchaperoned, and especially against all advice and convention, would have been regarded as not only unrespectable but also reprehensible.

In the outraged reactions of those who observed Daisy’s unconventionality James may have expressed closet anxieties over his own acceptance as an American in Europe, for he had only recently settled in England; his many extended stays in Europe — which included Switzerland and Italy — had given him plenty of opportunity for observing how New World visitors were received in the Old World. But of course Daisy Miller is much more than autobiography dressed up as fiction.

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Going for a spin

Image from WordPress Free Photo Library

Though under new (but still enthusiastic!) management, The Classics Club have announced another of their eagerly expected Classics Spins for August. A random number between 1 and 20 is generated and whatever is on my personal list is my selection for reading in that month.

I’m genetically programmed to be lazy so I’ve rustled up a previous list, and with appropriate replacements for titles already read these are they:

1. Apollonius: Jason and the Golden Fleece
2. Petronius Arbiter: The Satyricon
3. J M Barrie: Peter Pan
4. Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Return of Tarzan
5. Charlotte Bronte: Shirley
6. Frances Hodgson Burnett: A Little Princess
7. Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Secret Garden
8. Thomas Carlyle: Sartor Resartus
9. Anton Chekhov: Early Stories
10. Charles Dickens: Pictures from Italy
11. Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist
12. George Eliot: Middlemarch
13. Hermann Hesse: Steppenwolf
14. Charles Kingsley: Hypatia
15. Rudyard Kipling: Kim
16. D H Lawrence: The Princess and other stories
17. Niccolò Machiavelli: The Prince
18. Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca
19. George du Maurier: Trilby
20. L M Montgomery: Anne of Green Gables

The number generated will be announced on August 1st and hopefully I’ll have read and maybe even reviewed it before the end of the month. (That’ll be a tough call if it turns out to be Middlemarch or Sartor Resartus!)

Update

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