Calla and a blessing

© C A Lovegrove

How to be Brave
by Daisy May Johnson.
Pushkin Children’s Books 2021.

Good Sister Christine nodded. “People who tell you what not to read are generally not good people,” she said.

‘The Secrets of Good Sister Christine’

When a book begins ‘This is a story about three things’ and lists them as being brave, an Amazonian duck, and footnotes, you know this is no common or garden novel. Yes, if you’re a fan of Enid Blyton, Elinor Brent-Dyer and Angela Brazil, and have expectations that How to be Brave will be in the mould of classic girls boarding school fiction, you won’t be disappointed — but it’s so much more than that.

It’s a satisfying tale of how adversity of all kinds is overcome, but in place of the magic associated with fantasy we have a kind of heightened reality — because The School of the Good Sisters at Little Hampden has no ordinary curriculum and no ordinary teaching staff: here the subjects on the timetable include not just cooking but also welding, survival skills, helicopter maintenance and sundry surprising topics, and the teachers here happen to be what’s called a Blessing of Nuns.

In addition the school has two extra advantages in its favour: it has a library stocked with the most appropriate literature — books by Eva Ibbotson, Noël Streatfeild and Elizabeth Goudge for example, even The Lord of the Rings — and shelves, cupboards and drawers storing cakes of every kind, exquisite pâtisseries and biscuits including pink wafers. And of course architecturally it has all the best bits of Malory Towers, Hogwarts, and The Turrets.

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How to modernise classics

There’s a fashion for rewriting literary classics in modern dress, whether Shakespeare’s plays or Victorian novels, just as Ancient Greek plays were fair game for such treatment in the past, and as Norse mythology has provided such inspiration in recent years.

But much more remains to be exploited, not least the possibilities suggested by title manipulation. Here are some examples, offered gratis to anyone who feels they want to run with them.

Provided they include the acknowledgement “from an idea by …” on the title pages. Or not.

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Classics updated

When so-called non-essential shops open

Classics date, don’t they? The archaic language can obscure meaning, contemporary references often require intensive research to make sense, and social customs can seem more irritating than quaint.

Time then to bring them bang up to date, to make them relevant to the period we live in. Here are some title rewrites suited to a time of crisis. I invite you to reimagine the texts for yourselves but, please, there’s no need to share your full adaptations here.

As before, I offer suitable cover designs for Penguin Classics and Oxford World’s Classics courtesy of this online app where you may wish to avail yourselves of endless hours of amusement or, indeed, frustration.

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Desperado philosophy

Inverted Commas 15: a vast joke

There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.
Moby-Dick, Chapter 49

When I’ve recently mentioned that I found Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick humorous I’ve received quizzical responses, as though this was a distinctly novel if not idiosyncratic concept. It may, as far as I know, be both, but I can’t help thinking that if not guffaws then wry smiles can only follow many of Melville’s passages.

And the passage quoted above only helps to confirm my view. How else but to view this vast literary exercise, like life itself, as a vast literary joke, though not all apparently discern the wit Melville invests it with?

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Muddling through

Penelope Lively: Uninvited Ghosts
Illustrated by John Lawrence
Puffin 1986 (1984)

This delightful collection of eight short stories aimed at young readers is perfect for a quick diverting read by those of more mature years too. At between ten and twenty pages each in this edition they share humour and fantasy in equal measure in ways that remind me of writers like Joan Aiken and E Nesbit — which should be all the recommendation needed.

The plentiful line illustrations by John Lawrence, heading as well as littering each story, are simple yet effective; in a style reminiscent of Peter Firmin’s cartoons they succeed in conveying a typical child as protagonist confronted by abnormal situations; they perfectly complement the author’s narratives in which it’s touch and go whether all will turn out well or not.

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About children

1953 Coronation mug

Jan Mark: The One That Got Away.
Thirty Stories from Thirty Years
Roffo Court Press 2020

How have I not come across the fabulous Jan Mark before? I look over some of the titles of her children’s books, all written and published over some three decades from 1974, and find that not one rings a bell. Maybe they weren’t what I was avidly consuming then, or what our children brought back from the library, but I now find she represents a significant lacuna in my reading experience.

Collected here are some thirty short stories arranged by alphabetical order of titles; they represent a selection of varied narratives, from school stories to family vignettes via ghost tales and humorous anecdotes, speculative short fiction and flashbacks to life in the mid-20th-century, and everything else in between.

I can’t possibly comment on them all so I’ll point out the real highlights for me, the ones that lingered even more than others as I read through the collection over a month, though to be honest that could still be a lot more than the representative sample I was intending.

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A sense of entitlement

Troutmark Books, Castle Arcade, Cardiff

No, not a comment on certain politicians — my word, aren’t there a lot of candidates for this epithet at the moment! — but a lovely pot boiler of a prompt otherwise called ‘My Life in Books 2019’ which was passed on by Annabel:

Using only books you have read this year (2019), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title.

  1. In high school I was—
  2. People might be surprised by—
  3. I will never be—
  4. My fantasy job is—
  5. At the end of a long day I need—
  6. I hate—
  7. Wish I had—
  8. My family reunions are—
  9. At a party you’d find me with—
  10. I’ve never been to—
  11. A happy day includes—
  12. Motto I live by:
  13. On my bucket list is—
  14. In my next life, I want to have—

Of course, this presupposes that like any assiduous bookworm you’ve actually read over fourteen books.

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Charlotte has a laugh

A romantic ruin by Emily Brontë

[…] At eighteen the true narrative of life is yet to be commenced. Before that time we sit listening to a tale, a marvellous fiction; delightful sometimes, and sad sometimes; almost always unreal. Before that time, our world is heroic; its inhabitants half-divine or semi-demon; its scenes are dream scenes; darker woods and stranger hills; brighter skies, more dangerous waters […]

At that time—at eighteen, drawing near the confines of illusive, void dreams, Elf-land lies behind us, the shores of Reality rise in front.
— Chapter VII

I’ve mentioned before now about humour in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (here) and I want to expand a bit on that in this post, but I also wish to draw attention to a curious feature in this novel that I’m not aware of being discussed elsewhere (though I’m happy to be corrected on that): fairies.

The adult novels of the Brontë sisters are not, as far as I know, associated with either humour or faërie, so you may understand why these two features stuck out like the proverbial thumbs in what is otherwise a romantic but realist historical novel, set before Charlotte was even born.

I hope to persuade you that, despite some appearances to the contrary, Shirley (1849) has much about it of the fairytale, and contains more laughs than expected even though Charlotte recounts all with a straight face: the passage of 170 years hasn’t hidden all its impish secrets.

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Titles in search of books

I’ve often got book titles muddled in my head before wondering what they would be like if they had really existed.

How, for example, would these presumed lost works stand up as literature, as classics?

  • A Timely History of Briefs: possibly a soft-porn title to be kept under the counter?
  • Shady Gifts of Feys: a fairytale of bondage and more, perhaps.
  • The Unbearable Importance of Being Lightly Earnest: a lost title by Oscar Kundera — or was it Milan Wilde? I get confused.
  • Noh Country for Omens: Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens adapted by Cormac McCarthy for the Japanese stage.
  • You Rang, M’Lord? A lost episode of Downton ghost-written by Tolkien, originally titled The Rings of the Lord.
  • Scents and Sensitivity: Jane Austen’s handbook on allergic rhinitis and other aspects of hay fever, edited by Noel Coward.
  • Tender Is The Knight: prequel by Sir Walter Scott Fitzgerald in which Ivanhoe gets saddle-sore.
  • A Room of One’s Own with a View: the tale of Rapunzel re-imagined by Woolf and Forster.
  • The Angry Caterpillar: the diary of a butterfly larva with IBS.
  • Alice threw the Working Class: how Dodgson’s heroine rose above her humble origins to graduate from Oxford debt-free.

Suggestions below, please, as to the kind of mash-ups you wouldn’t mind seeing on bookshelves.

Nostalgia revisited

Image credit: WordPress Free Photo Library

Roddy Doyle: Two Pints
Jonathan Cape 2012

It’s 2011, going into 2012, a tumultuous year or so in Europe affecting everyone from the great and the good down to the two old soaks in a Dublin bar. The Eurozone crisis, a succession of deaths in the pop world, visits to Ireland by the Queen and Barack Obama, the London Olympics, other sporting events, tribal loyalties—they’re all up for discussion by these worldly-wise observers meeting up for the odd jar or two.

Nameless, though with individual voices, this middle-aged pair come together to chew the fat on family, fame, news and other miscellanea in short conversational vignettes. In some ways they are a modern equivalent of Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon: the spotlight is totally on them and their inconsequential chat full of what might or might not be of meaningful significance: always humorous, sometimes poignant and for us now, at a few years’ remove, it’s even somewhat nostalgic.

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The affectionate author

Dungeness shingle beach, southwest of Dymchurch (Kent)

E Nesbit: New Treasure Seekers
Puffin Classics 1982 (1904)

The well-meaning but accident-prone Bastable siblings are given another outing by Edith Nesbit, following on from the success of The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899) and The Wouldbegoods (1900). We reacquaint ourselves with the ‘anonymous’ author Oswald, with all his familiar malapropisms and self-proclaimed modesty, along with his siblings Dora (the sensible eldest) and then, after Oswald, Dicky (his frequent lieutenant), Alice, Noël (a wouldbe poet), and Horace Octavius (or H. O.).

The thirteen episodes often reference exotic places (including Rome, China, Italy or the Golden Orient) though we never leave the confines of Kent: they also ‘big up’ the protagonists (‘The Intrepid Explorer and His Lieutenant’), suggest dastardly deeds are afoot (‘Archibald the Unpleasant’, ‘The Turk in Chains; or, Richard’s Revenge’) or feature the Bastables’ charitable but doomed attempts to remedy the scrapes they have got themselves into (‘The Conscience-Pudding’ and ‘The Poor and Needy’). As ever, you sense their hearts are in the right place even if their steps constantly lead them astray. Even when they are involved in revenge (at least twice!) you feel they are attempting to right wrongs to the best of their imagination, ability and reasoning.

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Cynical but insightful

Nick Yapp: Bluff Your Way in Teaching
Ravette Publishing 1998 (1987)

This fell out of the bookshelves recently where it had somehow got wodged in and unnoticed. I didn’t ignore the irony as I myself had somehow got wodged into school education, only managing to extricate myself many years later by the skin of my teeth (and with my heart in my mouth, just to mix metaphors). I couldn’t finish this when I first came across it for it was much too painful — despite its deliberately humorous take on the state of pedagogy it was too close to the madness that pertained in British teaching at the time, and no doubt still does. Would a revisit bring back the pain?

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Manual for men

Credit: https://www.penguin.co.uk/series/LBGU/ladybird-books-for-grown-ups/

J A Hazeley and J P Morris,
How It Works: The Husband.
Ladybird Books 2015

My guess is that this book is designed for anyone who is not a husband — the wife, the fiancée, the boy in need of a role model, extraterrestrial visitors and the like — but, speaking as a husband, I found much to enlighten me within these pages. Like many practical manuals it describes the subject’s strengths and weaknesses, gives insights into his interior workings and pictures him at work and play, following lone pursuits and attempting to socialise. What it doesn’t do, however, is to suggest ways to improve or maintain the husband; quite the opposite — in its otherwise comprehensive thoroughness it seems to implicitly advise a take-it-or-leave-it approach. It’s a rather fatalistic and bleak picture that’s painted.

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Sister blogs

I’d like to give a quick shout out for Calmgrove’s two sister blogs. MyNewShy is a photoblog, while Zenrinji has a mix of micropoetry and flash fiction, humour and seriousness.

I am planning revamps of both blogs in the next little while, both in appearance and in frequency of posts (which have been rather irregular in recent months) though not much in content.

Do feel free to visit these sites and look through the archives, but fear not — the chief virtue of the posts are their brevity. I’ll leave verbosity to Calmgrove.