Category Archives: Projects

Classic Club Spin: A vicar’s tale awaits me

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Photo by Krissia Cruz on Unsplash

The wheel has spun in the 19th round of the Classic Club Spin.  It landed on number 1 which means I will be reading The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith. Published in 1766, this is the oldest book remaining from my Classics Club list. 

This is in fact the second time this book has been selected in a Classics Club spin. It was the book I was meant to read in April 2015 but I never got around to it for reasons I can no longer remember.

It’s about a vicar (no surprises there) and his family of six children who live an idyllic life in a country parish until he loses all his money. They are forced to move to a new and more humble parish. What ensues is a series of set backs and calamities including fire, abduction and imprisonment before order is once more restored.

Narrated by Dr Charles Primrose (the vicar) in 32 chapters, the novel begins:

I was ever of the opinion, that the honest man who married and brought up a large family, did more service than he who continued single, and only talked of population. 

It’s on my list because it was one of the most popular and widely read of 18th-century novels in Britain.  Encyclopaedia Britannica says the novel’s idealization of rural life, sentimental moralizing, and melodramatic incidents are countered by a sharp but good-natured irony. I was relieved to discover that the tone was ironic because I feared it would be just  ‘comic’, a style which I don’t particularly enjoy.

Have any of you read this? If so, what was your impression? Am I in for an enjoyable read or a bit of a so-so experience?

Classic Club: Spin #19

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It’s time for another Classic Club Spin.  I wasn’t going to participate this time around because I already have a few books lined up to read in the next few weeks. But then I noticed today that we have an extra long period in which to read the selected book.

So here we go with a list of 20 books remaining from my Classics Club list.  I don’t actually have 20 titles remaining from my original list – I am down to the last 13 in fact – so have had to add in a few extras just to make up the numbers.

Here is my list. I’ve tried to go for a mixture across centuries and geographies. The bulk are  from the twentieth century but I’ve included a smattering from eighteenth and nineteenth centuries also. Geographically, it’s a mix of British, French, American and Australian. Just to be patriotic I included  two titles by authors from Wales.

  1. The Vicar of Wakefield  — Oliver Goldsmith 1766
  2. The Black Sheep  — Honore Balzac 1842
  3. Basil Wilkie Collins 1852
  4. Framley Parsonage  Anthony Trollope 1861
  5. The Kill/La Curée – Emile Zola 1871-2
  6. Daniel Deronda  — George Eliot 1876
  7. New Grub Street George Gissing 1891
  8. My Brilliant Career — Miles Franklin  1901
  9. O pioneers —  Willa Cather  1913
  10. Gone to Earth  — Mary Webb 1917
  11. Return of the Soldier  — Rebecca West 1917
  12. Age of Innocence  — Edith Wharton 1920
  13. The Last September —  Elizabeth Bowen 1929
  14. All Passion Spent  Vita Sackville West 1932
  15. Frost in May Antonia White 1933
  16. Old Soldiers Never Die Frank Richards 1933
  17. Turf or Stone  — Margiad Evans 1934
  18. The Grapes of Wrath   John Steinbeck 1939
  19. Never No More Maura Laverty 1942
  20. The Quiet American  — Graham Greene 1955

 

Tomorrow we learn which of these titles I will be reading between now and the end of January 2019. I have a hankering for the Trollope, it seems just the right kind of book to be reading in front of a cosy fire. But otherwise I have no particular favourites.

South Riding by Winifred Holtby #bookreview

South RidingIf I had relied entirely upon the back cover synopsis, I doubt I would have read Winifred Holby’s final novel.

The blurb gave me the impression the focus was on Sarah Burton, the idealistic new head of a girls’ school in a fictional Yorkshire seaside town and her clashes with conservative locals. It sounded rather tame.

Fortunately there are plenty of bloggers around whose opinions I have learned to trust more than a publisher’s synopsis.

South Riding is a novel that evokes the lives of people in a Yorkshire community that is trying to recover from the tumult of the First World War. Former soldiers, local politicians, religious leaders and the working men who struggle to make a living: all are conscious that their world is changing. They just have different ideas about what should change and how.

One of the chief advocates for change is the outsider Sarah Burton. She’s a spirited woman whose idealism is matched with an eminently practical nature.  Faced with a tumble down building and a school that doesn’t have the greatest of academic reputations, she decides her first battle ground will be the toilet arrangements.

I don’t really mind a hall the size of a cupboard, a pitch dark cellar-gymnasium and laboratories housed in a broken-down conservatory; but these beetle-hunted cloakrooms I will not have. They’re enough to constipate any child for months. I will have those altered.

Sanitary provisions are but a step towards her greater goal of a world from which disease, poverty and ignorance have been eradicated. In her opinion that will take government  intervention.

Opposing her is the book’s representative of the gentility; local squire Robert Carne. He’s conservative by nature, opposed in principle to the idea that local government should expand its sphere of influence. Carne is very much a man of the past not the future. He sticks to traditional methods of farming but despite his best efforts he cannot make his estate pay its way and his manor home is crumbling about his ears.

His conservatism also puts him at odds with  other members of the local county council, Alderman Snaith and Councillor Joe Astell, who connive to push ahead with their own plan for change. But their desire to replace a slum area with a new town, complete with new job opportunities, is not motivated entirely by altruistic principles.

The clash between the forces of tradition and progress is played out in the chamber of the county council. This is where decisions are made affecting the lives of everyone in South Riding:  whether roads will be built, slums cleared, a new maternity hospital established. But anyone expecting to hear lively debates about critical issues, quickly gets their ideas squashed. When young journalist Lovell Brown witnesses his first meeting of the county council, he discovers it is far from an exciting spectacle.

Without emotion, without haste, without even, so far as Lovell could discern, any noticeable interest, the South Riding County Council ploughed through its agenda. The General mumbled; the clerk shuffled papers, the chairman of committees answered desultory questions.

It’s a testament to Holtby’s skills that she makes us care about what happens in this mundane world of local politics.

Politics aside, South Riding is a very human novel. Holtby isn’t afraid to show life as it really was in the 1930s and that there are no easy answers.  Sarah declares she wants her pupils “to know they can do anything,” but the case of one girl, Lydia Holly, shows the gulf between her desire and what is possible. Lydia is a bright and intelligent girl who lives in “the Shacks” – a set of disused railway carriages. She dreams of a scholarship and learning but her ambitions have to be set aside  when she is required to become a substitute mother for her many younger brothers and sisters.

All of human life is depicted in South Riding. Almost every character in this novel (there are some 160 of them) has a problem. Cancer for one, poverty for another, a loveless marriage for a third. We feel for all of them but Winifred Holtby shows that a happy ending is possible for only a few. Rather than the plot it’s the way Holtby brings these characters to life and shows them as distinctly human with their shortcomings as well as seams of goodness, that makes South Riding such an enjoyable read.

 

Bookends #10 November 2018

This week’s Bookends post features an author whose books about a fictitious community in Quebec, Canada have become a favourite. I’m also giving you a challenge to name which author you would choose if you could read only one author for the rest of your life.

Book: Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny

Louise PennyI’ve posted multiple times in the last few years about Louise Penny and how much I enjoy her series featuring Armand Gamache, Head of Homicide at the Sûreté du Québec.  There is another Gamache novel due out from Little Brown on November 27.

Kingdom of the Blind takes us back to the community of Three Pines, a village so small it barely features on a map. Gamache is called to an abandoned farmhouse outside the village where he discovers that an elderly woman, a stranger, has named him as an executor of her will. The bequests are so wildly unlikely that he suspects the woman must have been delusional – until a body is found, and the terms of the bizarre document suddenly seem far more menacing

But it isn’t the only menace Gamache is facing. In the last novel Glass Houses he was suspended from his role as Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec, pending an investigation. That investigation has dragged on, and Armand is taking increasingly desperate measures to rectify previous actions.

One thing you can be sure of with  Louise Penny is that this novel will have a strong plot. What interests me far more than that however is the way she has developed the character of her protagonist. He’s a very thoughtful man with a good understanding of human nature (how many other detectives do you find quoting Marcus Aurelius?). He makes mistakes but also has the humility to accept when he is wrong.

Blog Post: Which author could you read for the rest of your life

I wish I could get to the book club meetings that Anne at Cafe Society talks about on her blog because they have such interesting and thought-provoking discussions. In one recent meeting she says “someone asked whom we would choose if we could only read the works of one author for the rest of our lives.” Some choices were inevitable: Dickens and Trollope.

In her recent post, Anne reflected on the criteria for her own selection.

I’ve been thinking about this on and off since I saw her post. It’s not an easy question at all. I have many authors I consider favourites but if they were the only author I could read, would they be enough to sustain me? I’m coming around to putting Emile Zola as my choice – his novels are strong on plot but they are even stronger on ideas. There are 20 of them in his Rougon-Macquart series covering multiple aspects of life in 19th century France – from alcoholism, prostitution, industrial disputes and poverty to the birth of the department store. Plenty of variety to keep me engaged.

Now my challenge to you all – what would your choice be? And of course, why?

Article: Facing down a book Goliath

A couple of days ago I heard of a rumpus involving Abe Books which is an online book re-seller owned by Amazon. Apparently Abe decided it would no longer list booksellers from the Czech Republic, South Korea, Hungary and Russia. The company didn’t really explain its decision beyond the fact it was changing to a new payment service provider.

What they never anticipated was the reaction. Hundreds of secondhand booksellers around the world united in a flash strike against Amazon. More than 400 booksellers in 26 countries not affected by the decision retaliated by marking any of their stock listed on Abe as being “temporarily unavailable”.

Such was the strength of opposition that Abe has now backed down. I suspect that the senior management at Amazon stepped in when they saw what was happening.

Read about the issue here and  here . 

What struck me about this scenario was that it was all completely unnecessary. The objectors didn’t question the right of Abe to make a commercial decision about how to operate its business. But they did object to the way this was implemented. Little warning given to the booksellers who would, as a consequence, see their business severely impacted. Little consideration given to the fact this would mean a loss of jobs.

If Abe had been less high-handed and insensitive they would not have faced a protest that has damaged their reputation.

It’s a lesson that all big companies need to understand. Treat your customers and business partners with respect and they will remain loyal. Disregard them at your peril.

 

And so that’s a wrap for this episode of Bookends. Have you found anything new exciting and to read this week that might entice me?

Bookends #10 Oct 2018

October already? What an odd Autumn this is turning out to be.  Thursday afternoon I was able to sit in the garden soaking up the sun (yes it was that warm). Today I’ve been sitting wrapped in a thick sweater and waiting for the heating to kick in.

This week I bring you an article about the elements of a good story, a blog post about the importance of context in our reading and a book written by a woman who for eight years was hardly out of the media spotlight.

Book: Becoming  by Michelle Obama

Becoming michelle obamaI rarely read autobiographies. Those by ‘celebrities’ are instant turn offs (they’re usually rushed out on the back of some recent success in a TV series or film and have little content of substance). I’d rather go for a memoir or an autobiography by someone who isn’t well known except outside their immediate circle of expertise and experience but who has an interesting story to tell.

Michelle Obama is of course extremely well known in the sense that for the eight years she was America’s First Lady she was hardly out of the public eye. I’ve always wondered how someone with her level of intelligence coped with the accepted wisdom that First Ladies are not meant to have opinions of their own. How does it feel to have every aspect of your appearance scrutinised and dissected?

Her forthcoming memoir Becoming will I hope answer some of those questions.

According to the blurb, Becoming is “a work of deep reflection and mesmerising storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her-from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address. With unerring honesty and lively wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private, telling her full story as she has lived it-in her own words and on her own terms. Warm, wise, and revelatory, Becoming is the deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has steadily defied expectations – and whose story inspires us to do the same.”

The book is due out in the UK in November.

Blog Post: Frame of reference for reading

Simon at Stuck In A Book wrote recently about the experience of reading a particular book is affected by lack of knowledge about the ‘rules’ for certain genres or of the historical and social context. His example relates to his own experience of reading a novel which uses magical realism and is set during the civil war in Mozambique.

This post chimed with my experience of reading some of the books I selected for my World of Literature project. I struggled for example with The Tree of Life by Maryse Conde because I knew little about the history of Guadeloupe. The same thing happened with The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (I gave up on that one because it was too confusing).  I know I could get info easily enough from the Internet but I don’t like interrupting the experience of reading the book.

How does everyone else deal with this situation? Do you just plough on and hope things fall into place? Or do you press pause, do some background reading and then come back to the novel?

Here is Simon’s post 

Article: What makes a good story – 

Talking of ‘rules’ apparently Anton Chekhov had some clear views about the elements that needed to be in place for the story to work effectively.

  1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature
  2. Total objectivity
  3. Truthful descriptions of persons and objects
  4. Extreme brevity
  5. Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype
  6. Compassion

I’m with him wholeheartedly on the first rule – I really don’t want to feel I am being given a lecture if I am reading fiction. Originality? Yes but not if this is just for the sake of being original and where the author is having more fun than the reader ( as in Will Self and his unpunctuated paragraphs).

But I’m not on board with his direction of extreme brevity.  What about ideas that start off as a kernel but by allowing them space to blossom they end up with even deeper meaning? I don’t see a virtue in an author thinking how quickly they can get the scene or the episode wrapped up.

Here’s the article. See what you think….

And so that’s a wrap for this episode of Bookends. Have you found anything new exciting and to read this week that might entice me?

Bookends #9 Sept 2018

For once I am not racing to get the Bookends post done before the weekend disappears. Maybe it’s the Indian summer we are currently experiencing in the UK that has stimulated my productivity?

This week I bring you an article about one woman’s bid to read 200 female writers by 2020, how to tackle the challenge of reading challenging books and a novel

Book: Ash by Alys Einin..

AshMy book choice today comes from Honno, an independent women’s press based in Wales. This is the second novel by Alys Einon who somehow finds the time to write in between her work as an associate professor in midwifery and women’s health and a part-time lecturer for the Open University.

Ash is the story of a woman who runs away from an abusive marriage in Saudi Arabia with her four sons and infant daughter, Aisha. She finds sanctuary with a community of women at Blossom House but is always fearful that her husband will come looking for his children.

It’s a while since I read anything by Honno but this is a good opportunity to make up for lost time.

 

 

Blog Post: Unhappy experiences reading assigned books

CurlyGeek has been making good progress with a ReadHarder challenge this year but the latest requirement, to revisit a classic that she hated, has her thinking back to other unhappy experiences with classics.  In her latest update she names Jane Eyre as her nemesis but also still bears scars from being made to read Crime and Punishment, The Grapes of Wrath and The Scarlet Letter.

I bet everyone has their own bête noires from their time in the education system.

Mine would be:

Comus by John Milton. Can you imagine anything more unlikely to interest a bunch of hormone-charged sixteen-year-olds than a 17th century masque in honour of chastity? I have no recollection about the plot or the characters – I simply remember it as being deadly dull.

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev. This was something to do with a student and the gulf of understanding between him and his father. I had my usual difficulty with Russian novels – the way that characters seem to have more than one name, making it doubly hard to keep track of who each person is.

The Rover by Aphra Behn. This was a set text on an Open University literature course, selected I strongly suspect because it was felt there should be a recognition of women writers. Even seeing a production starring Daniel Craig (many many years before he became famous as James Bond) did nothing to increase my enjoyment of this text.

Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I know that for some people, my inclusion of this novel is tantamount to heresy. Sorry everyone but I just don’t get what all the fuss is about. It’s ok but nothing more. I’ve read it three times and get the same reaction each time.

What would be on your list??

Article: 200 books by women writers

Sophie Baggott was shocked to learn that male authors account for two thirds of the translated fiction market. Three months ago she set out to change her own reading habits by embarking on a project to read 200 books by women authors from around the world by the year 2020.

Her starting point she says was ” a realisation that anglocentric and male-dominated reading habits were blinkering my worldview.”

She’s now 10% of the way to achieving her goal and has put a list together of books she has read so far, and the countries she has yet to visit. The Guardian article in which she explains her project  is here.  She has also created a blog where she lists the books she has read and the countries she has yet to visit.  I’m going to watch this with interest because in my own world of literature project (one that is considerably more modest in scale than Sophie’s) I have struggled to find authors from some countries and I wasn’t giving myself the added hurdle of only reading female authors.

And so that’s a wrap for this episode of Bookends. Have you found anything new exciting and to read this week that might entice me?

Classics club spin falls on Mitford

The anticipation is over and the result of the latest Classic Club Spin is in. The roulette wheel fell on number 9. Which means that from the list I put together earlier this week I will be reading………

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The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

Published in 1945 it is the first in a trilogy which satirises  an upper-class English family in the interwar period. Mitford of course knew this world intimately since she came from aristocratic stock herself. She put that to great effect in her portrayal of the unconventional, exuberant Radletts of Alconleigh.

Mitford’s wickedly humorous narrative traces the family  through misguided marriages and dramatic love affairs. Although a comedy, the story has a darker aspect because the shadow of World War II begins to close in on the Radletts and a world that will rapidly vanish.

This is a book that I have been intending to read for years. Now I just have to find my copy. I know the cover looks nothing like the ones shown above. Isn’t that middle one awful?

 

 

 

Reviving the Classic Club project – Spin #18

classicsclub3The Classic Club is entering a new era with a changing of the guard (in other words we have a new set of moderators). They’re fired up with bags of enthusiasm and some of that has clearly rubbed off on me because it’s prompted me to revisit my Classics Club list.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Classics Club the idea is that we list 50 classics that we’d like to read over the course of 5 years. The definition of ‘classic’ is very fluid so there’s no compunction to be reading Tristram Shandy if it doesn’t appeal.

I put my list together in August 2012 and made good progress for the first few years. But I’ve neglected it for the last twelve months. I read only two from the list last year and so far it’s just been one – The Ladies Paradise by Emile Zola  So naturally I didn’t make the “deadline’ of completing 50 by the end August 2017. I still have 14 titles to go. But really it doesn’t matter. It’s a self imposed deadline and I can’t imagine any of the club moderators are going to throw me out as punishment.

To coincide with the ‘relaunch’ of the club, we get to play in the Classics lub spin where the idea is to choose 20 titles from our Classics Club, number then in sequence starting with 1. On August 1, 2018  the wheel will turn and reveal the winning number. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on my Spin List, by 31 August 2018.

The moderators would like us to put the list together in four categories:

  • 5 books you are dreading/hesitant to read
  • 5 books you can’t WAIT to read
  • 5 books you are neutral about
  • 5 books which are free choice

I don’t really understand the point of creating a reading list that includes books I am dreading to read. So I don’t have any in that category. Nor do I have any that I can’t wait to read – if I truly couldn’t wait then I would have read them long ago. So I’m going to have to go with just a free choice list. Since I don’t have 20 titles remaining, I’ve had to add in a few to the original list just in case a number between 15-20 comes up on Wednesday.

My list is as follows: it’s a mixture of eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I’ve included two Welsh authors and an Australian to bring a little diversity

  1. The Vicar of Wakefield  — Oliver Goldsmith 1766
  2. The Black Sheep  — Honore Balzac 1842
  3. Basil Wilkie Collins 1852
  4. Framley Parsonage  Anthony Trollope 1861 
  5. New Grub Street George Gissing 1891
  6. Lord Jim   Joseph Conrad 1899
  7. Age of Innocence  — Edith Wharton 1920
  8. All Passion Spent  Vita Sackville West 1932
  9. The Pursuit Of Love  — Nancy Mitford 1945
  10. The Quiet American  — Graham Greene 1955
  11. My Brilliant Career — Miles Franklin  1901
  12. O pioneers —  Willa Cather  1913
  13. The Last September —  Elizabeth Bowen 1929
  14. Old Soldiers Never Die Frank Richards 1933
  15. Troy Chimneys  — Margaret Kennedy 1952
  16. Gone to Earth  — Mary Webb 1917
  17. Never No More Maura Laverty 1942
  18. Return of the Solider  — Rebecca West 1917
  19. A Kiss Before Dying  — Ira Levin 1953
  20. Turf or Stone  — Margiad Evans 1934

If I had to choose a few that I would most like to read it would be Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton whom I read many years ago but don’t feel I appreciated her enough at the time. I would be quite happy with some of the Virago classics too such as the Mary Webb or the Maura Laverty.

All will be revealed on August 1.

The Danger Tree by Olivia Manning

The Danger TreeOlivia Manning’s best known work, The Balkan Trilogy, juxtaposes world-changing events with the domestic concerns of the newly-married Guy and Harriet Pringle.  She revisits that narrative device  in The Danger Treethe first novel in her Levant Trilogy,  following the fortunes of the Pringles together with a hotch-potch of refugees from a Europe under the control of Hitler’s forces.

In their new home in Cairo they are no more secure than they were in Europe. The German forces are advancing through Egypt, creating tension among the ex-pat community.  Some choose to make their escape before the rumoured planned evacuation of Cairo. Others who cannot leave become increasingly worried. The Egyptians barely tolerate them and the Americans are more concerned with saving themselves than anyone else.

Nevertheless nothing, not even the threat of capture will deter this odd assortment of characters (many of whom are egocentric idlers) from their cocktails and parties or the occasional trip into the desert where they clamber into the burial chambers of the Pyramids. Anything to relieve the monotony and the daily battle with stultifying heat.

Into this melting pot comes a fresh-faced British officer, Simon Boulderstone. He’s clearly an innocent abroad, a young man who is a loner desperate to make friends.  Those he made on the ship bringing in reinforcements seem to have disappeared, leaving Simon feeling adrift on his arrival in Cairo. 

Waiting for a taxi, he breathed in the spicy, flaccid atmosphere of the city and felt the strangeness of things around him. The street lamps were painted blue. Figures in white robes, like night-shirts, flickered through the blue gloom, slippers flapping from heels. The women, bundled in black, were scarcely visible. The district looked seedy and was probably dirty but the barracks, he thought, would be familiar territory. He hoped Major Perry would be there to welcome him. 

It’s through the eyes of this naive young officer that we see the disarray of the Allied war effort. Put in charge of part of a convoy to take vital supplies to the battle lines, he has no real idea how to conduct himself or the men under his command.  Everything that was familiar has already disappeared and as the trucks drive mile after mile through a landscape rendered featureless by sandstorms, his feeling of unreality continues. Even when, after long stretches of inactivity, he is suddenly confronted with the brutal realities of war, he acts as if he is in a trance. Manning skillfully deals with this in a matter of fact style, the very lack of sentimentality only serving to reinforce the grim nature of the experience.

Back in Cairo, Harriet is similarly dislocated. Guy takes himself off to Alexandria ostensibly for his work with some nebulous educational entity called the Organisation. While he’s occupying his time dreaming up lectures and cultural activities, she is left alone, feeling under-used in her own job and neglected by Guy. 

What an obnoxious figure of a man Manning has created in Guy. He’s very much an absent husband who “loves everyone,” not just his wife. He’s never happier than when surrounded by friends and cooking up schemes for a play or some musical event. While Harriet has to endure the discomfort of a room in a pension, and her job in the American embassy where she is left in no doubt about  her outsider status — he’s swanning about in Alexandria. Harriet begs him to leave Alexandria when the situation gets more fraught, but Guy decides that a course he’s running for just two students (who might not turn up anyway) is more important.  Understandably Harriet feels isolated, confused and fearful for her marriage, especially when she begins to suspect his affections lie elsewhere. Guy of course is oblivious to the reasons for her distress.

He found it difficult to accept that his own behaviour could be at fault. And if it were, he did not see how it could be changed. It was as it always had been, rational, so if she were troubled, then some agency beyond them – sickness the summer heat the distance from England – must be affecting her. …. That she was unhappy concerned him yet would could hero about it. he had more than enough to do as it was…..

Harriet has far more patience with this self-centred insensitive man than I would have but whether they go their separate ways we never get to discover because the book ends without a resolution. It’s an unsatisfying end because young Simon’s future is also left uncertain. If it wasn’t for the fact I knew there were two more books to follow I would have got to the end of The Danger Tree feeling very short changed.

I hadn’t planned to read the whole trilogy but I was so taken with Manning’s skill in evoking the atmosphere of Egypt at this time in World War II that I now have to get my hands on the next title in the series.

About the author:

Olivia Manning was an English novelist and short story writer whose life bore a number of similiarities with that of her character Harriet Pringle. Olivia married just weeks before the invasion of Poland triggered the Second World War. Her husband’s job  as a lecturer for the British Council in Bucharest took them to Eastern Europe, but they had to flee, first to Athens, then to Cairo. Given that experience it’s not surprising that she can write so convincingly about the sensation of feeling dislocated and uprooted. 

About the Book

Manning began writing The Danger Tree in 1975. For a time she described it “The Fourth Part of the Balkan Trilogy”. A biography Olivia Manning: A Life, by Neville Braybrooke, indicates she found it a struggle to write apparently because she wasn’t confident of her ability to imagine the world of the soldier in a military campaign. Despite some early criticism that the desert scenes were lacklustre, The Danger Tree was well receive on publication in 1977.

Why I read this book

1977readingclubThis was my one and only contribution to the 1977readingclub #1977club hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’sbookishramblings and Simon at StuckinaBook. I’m also counting it towards my Year of my Life reading project.

The Comforters by Muriel Spark #bookreview

The ComfortersThe Comforters was Muriel Spark’s first novel. She went on to write a further 21, gaining a reputation for blending wit and humour within darker themes of evil and suffering.

It contains two broad plot lines.

Once concerns the suspicions of Laurence Manders that his elderly grandmother Louisa Jepp is heavily involved in a diamond-smuggling operation. The other focuses on his on-off girlfriend Caroline Rose,  a writer who is a recent convert to Catholicism. While working on a book about 20th-century fiction called “Form in the Modern Novel” she is visited by what she calls a “Typing Ghost”, an invisible being that repeats and remarks upon her thoughts and actions.

Every time Caroline has a thought, it gets echoed by the Typing Ghost. One day she writes:  On the whole she did not think there would be any difficulty with Helena. 

“Just then she heard the sound of a typewriter. It seemed to come through the wall on her left. It stopped and was immediately followed by a voice remarking her own thoughts. It said: On the whole she did not think there would be any difficulty with Helena.”

Most of the novel is connected to the differing reactions of Laurence and Caroline to these mysteries. Laurence is excited and intrigued when he discovers jewels hidden in a loaf of bread at his grandmother’s cottage and finds her in a conflab with three mysterious figures. Mr Webster the baker and the Hogarths, a father and his crippled son could, he surmises be “a gang … maybe Communist spies”.

Caroline on the other hand is is frightened by her mystery.  Her friends cannot hear the noises of typewriter keys being tapped and a voice that sounds “like one person speaking in several tones at once”. Nor do they manage to record them on tape. Caroline thus fears the worst, that the visitations mean she is going mad. This adds to the isolation she feels because of her religious beliefs and the fact other converts she encounters are either distasteful or a bit dense.

With the aid of Laurence, her friends, and her priest, Caroline comes to see that another writer, “a writer on another plane of existence” is writing a story about her. She, and everyone around her, exist as characters within a fictional realm of an unknown author’s imagination. The Comforters is thus about the question of reality versus truth using a variation on the device of a novel within a novel.

I’m conscious that this summary of the plot doesn’t truly convey how complex and convoluted this is as a novel. As it progressed I found it more and more confusing. I reached the final third hoping all the pieces would fall into place but they never did so I abandoned the book.

I noticed that The Comforters was lauded by Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, both of whom saw a manuscript of the novel and encouraged Muriel Spark to find a publisher. Greene called it “One of the few really original first novels one has read for many years” while Evelyn Waugh deemed it Brilliantly original and fascinating.’ Waugh did however seem to suggest that the first part of the book worked better than the latter sections.

That was also my reaction.

I enjoyed the light comedy opening where we’re introduced to Granny Louisa and Laurence, a young man which a lively imagination who sees nothing wrong in opening letters addressed to other people or rummaging through the drawers of their cupboards.

 

There were times when I thought this part of the novel wouldn’t have been out of place in an Ealing comedy film. We get a part-gypsy old lady who relies on pigeons for communicating with her ‘gang’ members, diamonds smuggled inside plaster casts of saints and transported to a London-based fence in granny’s home-made pickles.  Stanley Holloway would have been perfect as a gang member with Katie Johnson (from The Ladykillers) as Granny Louisa.

The plot line involving Caroline’s hallucinations was an interesting meta-fictive element but the rest of the book was way too jumbled. I couldn’t work out the point Spark was making through the Baron (a bookseller friend of Caroline’s) who is obsessed by a man he thinks is England’s leading Satanist or the oppressive, malevolent figure of Mrs Georgina Hogg, a former servant to Laurence’s family. Other, more astute readers, will probably have understood the significance but it went over my head, and I wasn’t so deeply engaged with the novel otherwise that I wanted to expend any more energy in trying to work it all out.

Footnotes

About the book: Muriel Spark finished writing The Comforters in 1955 but it was not published until 1957. It quickly became a commercial success, though not to the same extent as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, published in 1961.

Why I read this book:  Ann at Cafe Society has embarked on a project to read something from every year of her life. I’m dipping my toe in these waters too. Since 2018 is Muriel Spark’s centenary and her first novel was published in my first year on this planet, I thought The Comforters would be as good a place to begin as any. I’ve also enjoyed the two other Muriel Spark novels I’ve read (Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means) so expected I would be similarly entertained by this one. Hmm.

Other opinions: Other reviewers have enjoyed this far more than I did. Take a look at reviews by HeavenAli  (who is hosting a#ReadingMuriel2018 project) and piningforthewest. 

 

 

 

 

 

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