Lenten Fast

If you have followed or read any previous posts, you may know that in Lent I eschew fiction. So far, my copy of the Archbishop’s Lent Book has failed to arrive, though according to the publisher has been sent. So in the meantime, I have been flitting between the Middle Ages in Britain (and France); nineteenth century poetry and painting through the life of Edward Lear and the twentieth century through the lens of Stalin.

Weir Queens 1So in that order. Queens of the Conquest (1066-1167) is the first part of Alison Weir‘s study of the female counterparts to England’s kings from William the Conqueror presumably to Richard III. The first volume begins with Mathilda, wife of William I, she was regent for him in Normandy while he was conquering England, and she was then crowned in her own right in 1068 in Westminster Abbey. It concludes in 1167 with The Empress Maud (also sometimes called Mathilda as these names were interchangeable, as were Mathilde and Mahaut). I have a slight failing here, as I find Maud endlessly fascinating and frightening. Her life spent fighting against Stephen for the right of her son Henry (II) to succeed to the throne led to a civil war in England that caused famine and destruction on a vast scale, a time which contemporary chroniclers described as “a time when Christ and His saints slept”. [Incidentally also the title of a book by Sharon Penman which describes in fiction this whole messy period – see my posts written in July 2013 and January 2014 ].

LearWhen not immured in the lives of the queens, I travel forward several centuries to Edward Lear, poet and artist through a new biography by Jenny Uglow. Mr Lear A life of Art and Nonsense is infinitely readable and enjoyable. Lear lived in a golden age, a man of great simplicity and charm whose rhymes have enchanted children for years, and for years to come but who was also an accomplished water colourist, a traveller and adventurer in Egypt, Corfu, Italy, Palestine and India; contemporary of  Darwin and Dickens; teacher to Queen Victoria to whom he gave drawing lessons; and friends with Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites. But he fits uneasily into all these categories. His nonsense verses and limericks set a tone of frivolity not usually associated with Victorian England; his paintings are naturalistic, empty of humans – exquisite renderings of landscape – but devoid of any hidden message, so neither romantic nor mysterious, in a age of photography they would be described as photo-realism.

Stalin 2Both these volumes might be described as frivolous compared to the other book I am reading, of which I can only read around one chapter at a time. This is the second volume (and there is at least one more volume pending) of Stephen Kotkin‘s magisterial and forensically researched biography of Josef Stalin. This volume Stalin Waiting for Hitler 1928-1941 covers probably the bloodiest, most unforgiving section of Stalin’s dictatorship: ruined by paranoia, betrayals, executions and gulags. It brings us teetering upon the German invasion. Two terrible dictators pacing their rooms, playing the waiting game. Each entrapped in their own logic and about to descend into the furious, destructive and, ultimately, final stages of the Second World War.

MaiskyAnother marvellous volume, The Maisky Diaries, edited and compiled by Gabriel Gorodetsky fits neatly into this period and expands the horizons. Ivan Maisky was the Russian ambassador to London at this time, 1932 to 1943.  At a time when most people even remotely associated with the Stalin regime kept no written records of their activities for fear of reprisals, the Maisky diaries are remarkably frank and intact and shine a searching light upon a volatile and crucial period of European history.


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Not such sweet dreams

Two rather hallucinatory novels here.

The Room by the LakeThe first is a new novel by Emma Dibdin, daughter of the slightly more famous Michael. A young girl flees from a dire situation in the UK to New York. She has never been before and it soon becomes apparent that she is pretty lost, pretty and lost actually, and ripe for plucking …

She gets unsuitably plucked by the fascinating and seductive Rory and ends up in a mysterious cult. She does not at first realise the situation she is in, and so continues to imbibe some heavily doctored cider which messes with her mind.

So fight or flight? Be careful what you wish for.

This is a bit of an airport/beach read but if that is what you want, go for it because it does work even if the true situation dawns on the reader many, many pages before it dawns on Caitlin, it can still take you to some pretty uncomfortable places.

Broken RiverThe second novel in this posting, the eighth novel by J.Robert Lennon is also set in the USA, it is far more satisfying, although equally gruesome in its way. The hallucinatory aspect is an outside “Observer”. This is a literary jiggle in order that the connecting tissue of the story can be told without too much logistical improbability.

The central locality is a house near Broken River, where a double murder has occurred. The house stands empty, or occupied by vagrants and vandals, until a sculptor from New York arrives to purchase it; while he is fully informed of the reason for its low value, he chooses not to share this immediately with his family.

It does eventually come out though, and both the wife and their daughter secretly become obsessed with the story, both scanning online reports and then blogging about their findings. That neither realises that they are actually communicating with each other, plus scores of other readers who have joined in the internet search, including incidentally the original murderers, leads to the rest of the novel…

The existence of the Observer has its uses and is not over-worked, but while it gives the reader a fuller picture of the various different threads, it does at the same time slightly weaken the central core of the book.

But do not let that put you off. It is a book that might keep you up at night to finish it.

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Raw Nature

Two very different novels that pit humans against the forces of nature.

FerencikThe first is a rather melodramatic adventure story.  Four women, who have been friends “forever”; led by Pia, they embark on a wild river adventure into the wilderness of Maine. Pia is always the leader on these occasions and on this one she has excelled herself. So, in spite of misgivings on the part of the other three, they set off to meet their guide.

The first meeting is not encouraging, but now they are committed.  So the next morning they pile into the off road vehicle to get to the river. The road, which the guide, Rory, finds astonishingly muddy after two weeks of rain proves challenging enough, but then there is a long hike through difficult terrain to the first camp site…

The group fragment somewhat before they have even hit the river, as for the first night in their tents, three of the women are subjected to the full opera of a sexual fling between the fourth women and Rory. So sizzling with a mixture of contempt and envy the first full day starts rather badly, not least because racoons have got into some of the provisions…

It gets worse and instead of being about sniping at each other, it becomes a trial of strength as to which of them will survive. Think The River Wild, a film in which Meryl Streep takes on a white water adventure with two escaped convicted murderers & extract the convicts.

Did no one realise that a river swollen by two weeks of rain might be dangerous?

Erica Ferencik is a screenwriter and novelist based in Massachusetts.

TreloarThe second novel is set in South Australia, always my beloved country.  It flips between Hester Crane, neé Finch, now living in Chichester, England in the 1860s and her memories of a hard and difficult life on Salt Creek some ten years earlier. The Finch family take up a lot on The Coorong, a lagoon some distance from Adelaide on the southern coast. Led by their father from the settled life in an almost civilised city, they arrive to find a shack built from old ships’ planking, branches and mud daub.

The facts are slowly revealed, the patriarchal Finch is a loser, gambling on making money from one scheme after another, he has failed and this is the last ditch attempt to regain everything.

So Mama, four boys and two girls are towed along in his wake. His rectitude or hypocrisy knows no bounds and extend outwards towards the Aboriginal families that live on the land already. He aims to civilise them…

The family he meets and mixes with include a young man who they name Tull, although not specifically clear, it can be assumed that Tull or Tully is a half caste. As with all interventions and relationships between the white settlers and the original dwellers there is the inevitable conflicts, including: disease, depredation of the land and the watering holes. But Tull, who speaks English already, and his mother, Rimmilli, who also speaks English, are different and Tull gradually joins the Finch family, learns to read and flourishes.

There are some lovely passages in this book, beautiful descriptions of the land and the light but the story itself is a harsh and unforgiving look at parental control and downright cruelty. The Finches perch on the land, taking from it in ways that are incomprehensible to Tull and to his family, and he wavers between the two different cultures. We do not see his life with his natural family, but only learn that he often goes away for several months.

Meanwhile, other relationships are few and far between and of those that exist in such an unpopulated area, some are of more consequence than others…

This is Lucy Treloar‘s first novel, though she is already well known for award winning collections of short stories.

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thought for today?


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December 17, 2017 · 2:18 pm

Christmas shopping anyone? Look no further…

ScanThere is one present suitable for all ages, not too expensive, inexpressibly beautiful and an joy forever – a book, but not just any book. The Lost Words by Robert MacFarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris.

A while back I posted about Robert MacFarlane’s book Landmarks, [May 9 2013] and commented on one of the saddest paragraphs I had ever read. He was writing about words that were being dropped from The Oxford Junior Dictionary. Space obligations were creating a demand for some words to be left out in order to make way for new words that children would need to know and MacFarlane listed some of them: adder, willow, ivy, fern, wren…

and so on. But now he has rectified this terrible omission by creating an alternative, an illustrated book of these lost words.

Each word used and illustrated comes out in stages: the opener is a beautiful picture threaded with letters, but the observant reader will spot that some letters are a different colour and spell out a word; turn the page and there is the word and a “spell”, a short or long semi-poetic evocation of the meaning by MacFarlane and on the next full page and double spread – an exquisite painting of the subject/object by Jackie Morris.

Only picking up this book and looking through it can you even begin to capture its essence and its joy. But if you are wondering what to give a partner, a godchild, a grandparent, a parent, a difficult aunt and above all – any child you know…you will have in your hands the answer.


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Dancing on the head of a pin

There is an old philosophical argument about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Some of the answers lie in the twelve-part chronicle of the twentieth century in Anthony Powell‘s series Dance to the Music of Time, itself an homage to Nicolas Poussin‘s painting of the same name in The Wallace Collection, Manchester Square, London.

spurling 1Now Hilary Spurling has brought out her biography of her great friend and mentor Anthony Powell, called unsurprisingly, Anthony Powell Dancing to the Music of Time.

There are other novels by Anthony Powell, as there are other books by Hilary Spurling. But this one is a marriage made in heaven, with plenteous angels dancing on pins.

Early on in her career, when she had only one book published, she was invited by AP to compile a sort of dictionary/encyclopaedia companion to Dance to the Music of Time which he had completed in 1975 with Hearing Secret Harmonies, the final volume of the series. This admirable little volume is called Invitation to the Dance, it is a handbook to the characters and situations found in the long series.spurling 2

Powell lived a typically literary life of the twentieth century, sometimes radically short of money and often hard pressed for the next payment; he had a wife, Violet and two children. Violet is described by a contemporary and friend as “the right-arm of Tony’s imagination”. This I suspect, exactly represents their long relationship and intense marriage. Violet, born of a great literary family herself, the Pakenhams, had a marvellous memory for the detail in the sequence, and was always the first reader of any of Anthony’s books; but this came into its own once he began the series, which was first of all to be a trilogy, but then extended almost by its own volition into a twelve volume sequence which took almost twenty five years to write, a new volume coming out at almost two yearly intervals.

The delight of this biography is that it puts names of real characters to their fictional avatars in The Dance. Some fall straight from life on to the page, others are a combination of characteristics drawn from life and combined in fiction and a few characters in The Dance are completely original.

In the three volumes that cover the war years, more characters fall straight from life into fiction and Anthony Powell had a nervous lunch with one of them when his commanding officer invited him to lunch; AP was expecting a dressing down and possibly a legal action, but to his relief the Colonel had mis-identified himself with another much more likeable and congenial military figure, actually based upon a Major in Anthony’s unit of the Welsh Regiment.

In this biography, we meet more literary giants than you can imagine.  The Powells were well connected through Violet’s family and had a web of literary friends through Anthony’s other work as a reviewer, variously for Punch and The Daily Telegraph and other papers and periodicals. So parties and country weekends seem to burst with talent:  Evelyn Waugh, Malcolm Muggeridge, T S Eliot, Philip Larkin, John Betjemen, Graham Greene and many others; not confined to the literary arts they were also friends with the painters Edward Burra, Edward Bawden, Henry Lamb, Osbert Lancaster, Adrian Daintrey, John Banting and Augustus John; through their friendship with Constant Lambert they mixed with the ballet crowd, including Margot Fonteyn and Michael Helpmann and through the Pakenhams (Lords Longford et al) they were connected with many other strands of society, both literary and nobility, and were often found to be staying with the Duke of Wellington in Granada, Spain, with the Sitwells at Renishaw, at Pakenham Hall in Ireland (in case you have not made the connection Lady Antonia Fraser, later wife of Harold Pinter is one of many) and the Mitfords.

This makes for fascinating reading because it is a glimpse into the lives of writers, artists and others that have figured enormously in the lives of anyone between the ages of 95 to 65, because these were the writers of modern fiction when we were “growing up”.

This large and talented group were the social opposite of the other famous, not to say legendary, literary giants of a slightly earlier period, the Bloomsbury Group. While the later group were all equally “well connected”, their lives were predicated upon the different mores that followed the First World War and during and after the Second.

If you have never read anything by Hilary Spurling, there are twelve other books to choose from, ranging from biographies of Ivy Compton-Burnett to Pearl Buck, taking on Matisse and Paul Scott and the Raj Quartet as well and if you have not read Anthony Powell – I sort of envy you, because you have such a treat in store. The Dance to the Music of Time is one of the very few re-reads I make, and I follow through by re-reading Marcel Proust The Remembrance of Things Past, for they are enduringly fascinating, wonderfully revealing and each time make the reader feel differently, as you perceive more layers and meaning in the increasingly familiar texts.

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Greek tales with Irish twist

The woe-begotten stories of the House of Atreus are familiar to many people. Even if we do not know who wrote the original story or the exact reference, nearly everyone knows the expression ” a bit of a Cassandra” meaning someone who always predicts the worst; and the names Electra and Agamemnon generally ring bells even if you cannot remember exactly who they were.

In one of the more infamous moments of this family mythology, Agamemnon sends to his wife, Clytemnestra to bring his daughter for marriage to a place where he is waiting. But there is no marriage, Iphigenia is to be sacrificed to the Gods in a hope that the Gods will send a fair wind so that he and his warriors can sail off to the Trojan War. A story which I think pretty much everyone has heard of even if they do not exactly remember it.

ToibinColm Tóibín in his new novel, House of Names, has re-worked this whole ghastly story into a shockingly vivid narrative of betrayal, fury, lust, revenge and tragedy. It had all these elements already, but it is in the finer detail that Tóibín makes us look at this again.

He describes the smell of blood and death, the flies and the stink; he dresses his characters in fine robes and we can hear the rustle of silks as they sweep the floor; we feel the hunger and fear of the captured Orestes and we rejoice when he and Leander escape. It is in the detail that we begin to properly understand the horror.

We do not begin at the beginning of this sorry and sordid tale, but at the point when Clytemnestra has taken her revenge on Agamemnon after his return triumphant from the wars; bringing with him his new mistress Cassandra, the voice of doom. While he has been away, Clytemnestra has been disporting with Aegisthus and between them they have cooked up a deadly revenge. Clytemnestra has had woven a deadly garment, the poison in its threads will hold the victim paralysed but aware, while his lovely welcoming wife slits his throat. Clytemnestra then kills Cassandra for good measure.

Meanwhile, her other daughter Electra is locked up downstairs and her son, Orestes hurried off to a place of safety.

We then go back to the moment she has prepared her beloved daughter in the finest wedding clothes for marriage. as she thinks. to the hero Achilles. So she is a bit amazed when he denies it, but still unsuspecting, for who could imagine the truth. And although she does not witness the sacrifice herself, having been tied up and thrust into a hole, we learn later that Iphigenia went bravely forward, pleading with her father not to do this awful thing and it was only when she threatened to curse them all that they tied and gagged her before cutting her throat. But the detail that her black hair was cut short, and her neck nicked in the cutting so that she cried out, is entirely Tóibín’s addition, part of the added detail that makes all this so profoundly real.

But, of course, this is Greek tragedy so nothing goes quite according to plan and one act of murder follows another until the final gore-fest ends steeped in blood.

I suspect that an Irish writer, more than most, would understand the nature of the festering wounds that are inflicted generation after generation as families divide and fall apart in a welter of blood and revenge. The Troubles, in real life, mirrored some of the more horrible aspects of Greek tragedy. Not that I am imagining that they were provoked by an effort to appease, placate or influence the Gods, but one murder led inexorably to another until the country was steeped in blood in a war just as profound as that on the cliffs of Troy.

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