To savour, and to save

The Human Eye (credit: http://thegraphicsfairy.com/vintage-clip-art-eye-diagram/)

Joan Aiken: A Bundle of Nerves:
stories of horror, suspense and fantasy

Cover illustration Peter Goodfellow
Peacock (Penguin) Books 1978 (1976)

Nineteen short stories are collected here, the majority originally appearing in Argosy — a British magazine which appeared between 1926 and 1974 and for which Joan Aiken was Features Editor (from 1955 to 1960). They are indeed ‘stories of horror, suspense and fantasy’, and though rather mild — if occasionally racy — by today’s tastes they were, and still are, perfect for the young teenage readership the collection aims at.

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Metamorphosis

Kleeblatt: Eva Braun's monogram as a four leaf clover (vierblättriges Kleeblatt)
Kleeblatt: Eva Braun’s monogram as a four leaf clover (vierblättriges Kleeblatt) on a fork handle

Phyllis Edgerly Ring The Munich Girl:
a novel of the legacies that outlast war

Whole Sky Books 2015

It is the mid 1990s. Anna is stuck in a loveless and childless marriage with Lowell. In the New Hampshire house left to her by her mother she feels like a mere adjunct to his academic life, his forthcoming study on the Second World War and his publishing business which issues The Fighting Chance, a military history magazine. An adjunct, that is, until he invites her to contribute an article about Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress; it is to furnish the female angle for the forthcoming special issue of the magazine designed to coincide with the publication of Lowell’s book. And it is at this point that everything changes for her: she gets a chance to become a butterfly on the wing instead of a lowly caterpillar crawling beneath.

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Starling taught to speak

starling-bewick
Starling woodcut by Thomas Bewick (1809)

Eva Ibbotson The Morning Gift
Macmillan Children’s Books 2015 (1993)

I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak …
— Shakespeare Henry IV Part 1

Here is a publishing curiosity. The Morning Gift was originally written in the 1990s for an adult readership but then, to the author’s surprise, reissued as a teen read in 2007 (presumably slightly revised then by the author, as a copyright notice suggests). I can see how the temptation to repackage may have arisen: it’s a sort of Rags-to-Riches story, with the young heroine (she’s around twenty, I should add) playing a Cinderella role until she and her Prince Charming finally get together. But within the Boy Meets Girl trope, where the course of true love rarely runs smooth, there is so much more to enjoy. For a start, there’s a generous dose of autobiographical detail that lends both honesty and authenticity to the narrative. Continue reading “Starling taught to speak”

All in the cards

Queen of Hearts card

Anne Spillard The Cartomancer Pan Books 1989 (1987)

It’s odd how, re-reading this twenty-five years later, I find that I recall neither characters nor plot from that first reading other than that the narrator tells people’s fortunes from an ordinary deck of cards. That and the fact that there are a few obscure Arthurian references thrown in. This second rather more careful reading reveals there is a little more subtlety than at first appears from a cursory perusal, making it more satisfactory yet, curiously, curiouser.

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Feeling is the leitmotif

Regency young man (2)
http://www.sellingantiques.co.uk/243352/fine-regency-oil-portrait-of-a-young-man/

Charlotte Brontë The Professor Wordsworth Classics 1994 (1857)

Despite the fact that this is, by modern standards anyway, a very uneven novel and that the protagonist is a bit of a prig, there remains much to enjoy over its twenty-five chapters. The story of William Crimsworth’s struggles to find his métier and eventual happiness echoes parts of Charlotte Brontë’s own experiences but also points up her own unfulfilled hopes for combining a loving marriage with a successful career as an independent woman. The fact that aspects of this novel — unpublished in her own lifetime — were recycled in Villette (published in 1853) suggests that she knew that those experiences were worth recording, even in fictional form.

A bald outline of the plot reads almost like a fairytale.
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Consciously naïve

"Wingfield Castle, Suffolk," etching, by the British printmaker Henry Davy. 268 mm x 330 mm. Courtesy of the British Museum, London (Wikipedia Commons)
“Wingfield Castle, Suffolk,” etching by the British printmaker Henry Davy (1827), courtesy of the British Museum (Wikipedia Commons)

Dodie Smith I Capture the Castle
Illustrated by Ruth Steed from sketches by the author
The Reprint Society 1950 (1948)

This is the most perfect novel. I can perfectly understand the esteem it’s held in by those who have fallen in love with its characters, its story and its language. Told as though by the 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, I Capture the Castle catches perfectly the introspection and sensitivity of a teenager on the cusp of adulthood; extraordinary that the author, then in her early fifties, was able to portray such an individual with exquisite insight, deliberately echoing the conscious naivety that Cassandra is accused of with an older woman’s own conscious assumption of naivety.

Dodie Smith in the 1930s, photograph by Pearl Freeman (Wikipedia Commons)
Dodie Smith in the 1930s, photograph by Pearl Freeman (Wikipedia Commons)

The background to the novel’s birth is easily sketched in: successful playwright Dodie and her husband Alec Beesley moved to the US during the war because Alec was a conscientious objector, and she wrote the novel partly out of homesickness, setting it in a ruin based on the real-life Wingfield Castle in Suffolk. Wingfield is here transformed into Godsend Castle, hired by the Mortmain family, and is where father James Mortmain struggles unsuccessfully to commence the “difficult” second novel that plagues many writers. The family gradually descend into genteel poverty until the arrival of new landlords from America, when everything changes utterly.

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Many meanings

cropped-stars.jpgPrimo Levi A Tranquil Star
Translated by Ann Goldstein and Alessandra Bastagli
Penguin Modern Classics 2008 (2007)

‘A Tranquil Star’ — the last of seventeen short stories which gives its name to this selection of previously unpublished pieces in translation — is as good a place as any to start a consideration of this collection. It begins with a discussion of the inadequacy of superlatives (immense, colossal, extraordinary) to give indications of comparative size, especially when it comes to stars. Al-Ludra is the now not-so-tranquil star when it comes to its convulsive, cataclysmic end; how to describe an event which is beyond the comprehension of most, an event that is measured “not in millions or billions of years but of hours and minutes”? All we can do is relate its death to the impact it has on a human being, something we can more easily understand. On October 19th 1950 Ramón Escojido, a Peruvian married to his Austrian wife Judith, notices something unusual in photos taken from his mountain observatory. His dilemma is this: does he assume it’s a blemish on his photographic plate of the night sky, or does he cancel the planned family excursion to double-check if, in fact, it’s really a supernova?

While some stories may seem impersonal at first sight, underlying them all is the all-too-human individual. Continue reading “Many meanings”