Tuesday, 29 October 2013

An Indian Adventure With A Suitable Boy

Over the last couple of years I’ve looked at the Team Reads run by Lynne over at dovegreyreader (an exceedingly good blog – if you’ve never seen it, take a look, now),  and considered joining in, but never quite plucked up the courage. Normally I like to race through a book to discover the ending, then go back for a more leisurely exploration, but I’m ‘slow reading’ Vere Hodgson’s wartime diaries, and thoroughly enjoying the experience, and it’s got me in the mood for a more reflective approach to my reading, so I feel ready to tackle Lynne’s 2013-14 Big Book, which is A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth - a very big book indeed. The size is intimidating, and for ages and ages my (unread) copy has been lying under a bookcase on the landing, and the Man of the House and I both keep tripping over it and stubbing our toes, because it sticks out. So you would think it would be easy to find – but it’s not there! And it doesn’t seem to be anywhere else, which is puzzling… I cannot understand how such a large book can disappear in such a small house! 
I'm immersing myself in all things Indian
with A Suitable Boy (and the cover is brown,
not pink as it looks here).
Luckily, I found a copy in the library (but I cannot keep it for year, so I must locate mine or acquire another), and I’m aiming to Read-A-Long (or should that be Read Along?), finishing two sections every four weeks, and commenting on Lyn’s posts on the last Saturday of each month. It’s an interesting venture, because (as I’m discovering with Vere Hodgson) there’s plenty of time to look things up, and to do background reading, putting things into context with factual books, and strolling through novels which portray the same period and setting. And I love seeing other people’s views: there are common themes, which everyone seems to pick up on but, surprisingly, different readers home in on different aspects of A Suitable Boy, and I think to myself ‘oh, how did I miss that?’, and back I go to take another look, and all those fragmentary impressions somehow mesh together and enrich my reading.

The book starts with a wedding, and revolves around the search for a Suitable Boy to marry Lata, who is torn between the desire to follow her heart and be independent, and the pressure to be a conventional, dutiful daughter making an arranged marriage. The opening lines set the scene:

‘You too will marry a boy I choose,’ said Mrs Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter.

According to DGR, it was those first eight words which sparked the novel, and that Seth recently revealed that his world of India in the 1950s grew out of that single, short sentence. And what a world it is! Here, we have India, just a few years after independence and partition, a fledgling nation struggling to find its way in the modern world. Here we have the city of Brahmpur, a fictional locations which, nevertheless, is a distillation of everything I’ve ever imagined or learned about India. And here, above all else, we have the people: the Mehras, Kapoors, various other families, and (like AA Milne’s Rabbit) all their friends and relations. Two months – and four sections – into the book, and it’s the people and their relationships which matter, but I think that is true of any novel. You can have a cracking plot, an amazing setting, and a truly wonderful writing style, but it all counts for nothing if readers don’t engage with the characters. 
My Elder Daughter brought me back this beautiful silk scarf
when she visited India earlier this year, so I'm resting the book
on it as I read. 
Anyway, back to the beginning, and the marriage between Lata’s sister Savita and Pran Kapoor, a kindly but geekish university lecturer. It was interesting to see the differences between an English wedding, where the service is so important, and this Hindu wedding, where the ceremony seems to play second fiddle to the celebrations, and while the couple are going through the required rites everyone else is singing, dancing, eating and generally enjoying themselves.

During these early chapters I was reminded of Bride and Prejudice, the Bollywood film inspired by Pride and Prejudice, and I think there are similarities between Seth’s India and Austen’s England, although she wrote on a much smaller canvas. There’s the obvious comparison of a mother seeking to marry a daughter off, and the need for girls to make a ‘good’ match (but Mrs Rupa Mehra is more likable than Mrs Bennett, although she is just as obsessed about weddings, equally anxious to prevent an unfortunate liaison or ill-advised decision, and every bit as manipulative).

As in Austen’s time, it’s a very formal, very polite society, with a strict social etiquette governing many aspects of life, especially the relationship between men and women.  A nicely brought up young lady most certainly does not sneak off to meet a desirable young man behind her mother’s back (especially if she is Hindu and he is Moslem)… and secret boating trips with this same young man (at dawn!) are a complete no-no. Actually, I think I would have flipped if either of my daughters had crept out for an early morning river assignation with a lad, and in the circumstances I think Mrs Rupa Mehra’s reaction is really quite restrained! 
I'm not sure that these elephants reflect the themes of the
novel, but it's a photo taken by my Elder Daughter, and to
me it says 'India'.
I was surprised that in public women never mention their husbands by name – even that terribly distant ‘Mr Bennett’ we come across in P&P cannot be used.

Mrs Mahesh Kapoor, for instance, when referring to her husband, often referred to him as ‘Minister Sahib’. Sometimes, in Hindi, she even called him ‘Pran’s father’. To refer to him by name would have been unthinkable. Even ‘my husband’ was unacceptable to her, but ‘my this’ was all right.

Younger women chafe against restrictions, and attend university. Some, like Lata’s friend Malati, even have their hearts set on a career (she wants to be doctor) go out with boys of their own choosing. However, generally speaking women are subservient, dependent on fathers, brothers, husbands, just as they were in Jane Austen’s time: they don’t work, and are expected to keep heads covered in public. Marriage is their only option, and arranged marriage at that. It seems alien to us, but in the early 1950s English women were just as confined.

Like many others reading this for the first time, I'm fascinated by the whole race/caste issue, and the way skin colour seems to matter to these Indians - the lighter the better (you come across the same attitude among the West Indian slaves in Andrea Levy's The Long Song). And the girls jokingly refer to a good-looking young man as a Cad (after Cadbury's chocolate) - think of the outrage if white women used the same terminology! Indian men like that! Did they always have this attitude, I wonder, or is it a hangover from the days of the Raj? Perhaps there is something inherent in human nature which makes us establish hierarchies – after all, servants in big houses had their own pecking order. 
No monkey business please... Another of my Daughter's
Indian photos - was this the type of monkey that Lata fed?
These first four sections are packed with poems, literary allusions, and references to traditional Indian tales and religion. It’s a cultured, mannered society, where people value education, and those involved in the university jockey for power and position. Set against that, however, is a world of squalor and poverty. Seth’s description of a tannery in a poor area is shocking in its intensity, capturing the dirt, the stench and the sights in language that is closer to poetry than prose, which makes the scene even more brutal.

Visiting this malodorous spot is businessman Haresh, who works in the shoe trade, and whose story runs alongside that of Lata, and will prove, so we are told, to be ‘not irrelevant’ to her tale. Haresh is well educated, likes the fine things in life, and has boundless energy and enthusiasm for getting things done. He also has a social conscience and an appetite for change:
… he clicked his tongue, not so much from moral disapproval as from a feeling of disapproval that this should be the state of things. Illiteracy, poverty, indiscipline, dirt! It wasn’t as if people here didn’t have potential. If he had his way and was given funds and labour, he would have this neighbourhood on its feet in six months. Sanitation, drinking water, electricity, paving, civic sense – it was simply a question of making sensible decisions and having the requisite facilities to implement them.
Personally, I like a man of passion who cares about those less fortunate than himself, and as far as I’m concerned Haresh seems a far more ‘suitable boy’ than Kabir, Lata’s current love interest, who is big on charm and good looks but doesn’t seem to have much else to offer – although I may change my mind as I read on. I’m hoping that that there’s a clue in the ‘not irrelevant’ comment, and that Haresh and Lata will get it together, and I’m sure her mother would be pleased that outcome! Anyway, I’ll just have to wait and see what happens. 
I spotted this notebook, with it's lovely Paisley
 design on the cover, and it seemed just the thing
 to write my  thoughts on the novel.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Singing - with a Girdle in her Hand!

October has been a funny sort of month, when I don’t seem to have got into my reading or writing stride at all. I started well, but I was at my Mother’s for a bit earlier in the month, and the Man of the House and I have just been on a last-minute break down to the south coast, where I discovered that despite spending what seems like a lifetime in the Midlands, I am still a southerner at heart. Anything south of London seems like home, even if it’s not my native Surrey. The very air seems different somehow, and don’t let me start on how much I love the accents, or I shall risk offending hordes of people! However nice it is to go away, it’s always lovely to return home, but it takes me ages to get into routine again, and my October reading list has gone totally to pot, and there have been longish gaps between posts, so now I’ll make up for lost time with a clump of them all together! 

I have to admit I am behind-hand with Vere Hodgson’s Few Eggs and No Oranges (it’s much too chunky to take travelling) but I’ve been reading War isn’t Wonderful, the wartime memoirs of novelist, journalist and broadcaster Ursula Bloom, which is much shorter, but just as fascinating. Her diaries are more reflective and introspective than Hodgson’s, and she’s not as detailed or as curious or brave - you wouldn’t catch her venturing into unknown territory to investigate the extent of bomb damage. But she’s very honest, as all good diarists should be, presenting a picture of herself warts and all, as it were.  She suffered from crippling headaches, which lasted for days at a time, and the pain was so excruciating she was often completely immobilised and unable to do anything. She sought advice from various doctors, who diagnosed migraine, but the treatments brought no relief, and it was not until the 1950s that she was found to be suffering from arterial trouble, and underwent an operation which restored her health. But during the war she says:

I was horribly conscious of my own inability to do anything that would really help the war, and, goodness, how much I wanted to do something! This feeling of helplessness possessed me. It was destroying to be aware of a physical weakness, a driving pain which held me back when every single person was wanted so much.

 She makes no secret of the fact that she sat out much of the war in the safety of country hotels, unable to cope with her mystery illness, which was exacerbated by the stresses and strains of life in London – but she and her naval officer husband had always lived in hotels, and considered this quite normal. 
However, they did have a Chelsea flat, which suffered a direct hit, and her account of what happened is so horrendous you cannot blame her for wanting to escape from the city, though it was a luxury thousands of other Blitz victims could only dream of. Describing the events of the raid, on April 16th, 1941, she begins by telling us about the strange beauty of the scene in the sky:

… we saw another awful raid was coming, for the pre-attack planes were overhead, dropping the very pretty chandeliers of coloured lights which lit up everything and showed the way to the followers-up. Their beauty was a snare and a delusion, but they quivered over London in radiant colours, and looking at them they seemed to represent an unreal Christmas night in a highly decorated sky.

Isn’t that a wonderful piece of writing? It seems to bring the view to life, and makes me feel I could paint it, if I could paint, which I can’t. When the bombs start falling Bloom and her husband Robbie lie on the floor of the corridor in the flat, away from the broken glass, but their terrified maid refuses to leave her room.

In the next three hours sixteen land mines fell and all the bombs in the world. I do not think I can ever forget the horror of it, the frantic shock of not knowing what to do, or where to go, and almost wanting to be hit to get it over.

When they are hit she has fallen asleep, curled up on the floor outside the bedroom door. Here are some snippets from her diary as she recounts what happened (the dots indicate missing text):

… I tasted the acrid taste of explosive in my mouth, and was brought round by the raucous sound of people screaming. Beside me in the hall, where the bathroom door had been before, was an enormous jagged hole …

Through this jagged gap, with a broken wall beyond it, I saw Cranmer Court across the back courtyard and it was on fire. The fire brigades had already arrived and had run up their ladders and were bringing people down. You would have thought that the fact that they had had time to get there would have warned me that I had been unconscious for some considerable time, but that apparently did not register.

… the blanket over me had become intolerable heavy, and I realized after a moment that it wasn’t the blanket all but the bathroom door, and most of the bath itself lying about me. Strangely enough, I had not suffered a single scratch.

Sadly, Rosa the maid was so traumatised she was sent to a convent to be cared for, and we never learn what happens to her, but Bloom and her husband Robbie were unhurt, although she tells us that the following morning as she walked up the street to take a bath at a relative’s home: 
… I suddenly realized that I wasn’t normal. I wore a siren suit and carried my clothes under one arm, whilst with the other hand I swung a girdle by a suspender. I was singing. I imagine I looked dotty. 
Like Hodgson, Bloom is always delighted by small, unexpected pleasures – she too finds that the sight of a daffodil flowering in the park lifts her spirits. And the lack of eggs and oranges (or, come to that, of any other fresh fruit) is a constant refrain with both women. Actually, Bloom did better than many people when it came to food, because more was available when she was in the country and even in London she was able, on occasions, to get extra items from her regular shopkeepers, and from ‘the Hen’, who is so much my idea of a cheery Cockney char, that I almost wondered if she really did exist. 

And Bloom mentions other shortages that I hadn’t thought about before. Shoes for example, disappear from the shops as soon as they arrive, and by the end of the war she cannot walk on a gravel path because the soles of her shoes let it in! In fact, as far as she is concerned, the end of the war seems to be an anti-climax. She writes:

There had been none of the eager rejoicing of 1918 when we really believed that war had been removed for ever. Now we never thought that for a moment. Perhaps this was the most wretched part of a victory that was ice-cold. There is a limit to human endurance and we had had too much; we were not the same people who had gone out to fight. Perhaps the best of us had gone. 

I think Bloom’s response to the war was very much determined by her experiences during the First World War, and her sense of horror that only two decades after the ‘war to end all wars’ had ended, another generation of doomed young men went off to be slaughtered in another conflict, and that there would be other wars in the future, when other young men would lose their lives. The constant pain she suffered from her debilitating headaches must also have affected her perception of the world.

She realises that it’s not just lives which have been lost, but a whole way of life; that things have changed, and will never be the same again, so she mourns the loss of old values and beliefs, as well as the deaths. She is more despondent and fearful about the war and its outcome, and about what the future will bring than Vere Hodgson, However, she’s really not doomy and gloomy – she has a wry, self-deprecating sense of humour, and is well aware of her own strengths and weaknesses.

Overall, I must confess I didn’t warm to her in the way I did to Vere Hodgson, and I’m not sure I would have liked her as a person – I suspect I would have found rather snobbish and patronising, and she certainly brought my socialist principles to the fore! There were times when I wanted to give her a good shake, and say ‘for Heaven’s sake woman, pull yourself together – on the whole you’re very lucky because you’re leading such a nice cushioned existence and are in a much better position than most people’.

But I was gripped by her marvellous descriptions of the Blitz, of the hellish scenes in Tube shelters, of being caught in London’s streets during a bombing raid, and by the way she brings small unimportant things to life – those thin soled shoes for example, and a much-anticipated egg, which shot off its spoon during a raid and was never seen again.

*The illustrations from the book which, sadly, have not reproduced at all well here, are by Douglas Hall.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

A Story That Never Really Got Under Way...

I’ve finally got round to posting my thoughts on Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Carousel which, if you remember, I won in a draw organised by Pam over at The Travellin’ Penguin, and read while en route to my Younger Daughter in London. I’m the first to admit this is not quite my usual literary fare, and it was my first encounter with this author. So… what did I think? Well, it won’t win any literary prizes, and the names of the characters didn’t stick in mind afterwards (although the story and their roles in it did). I wouldn’t want to read it again, but it was a pleasant, enjoyable read for a journey – a fairy tale with a happy ending, and you know much I enjoy happy endings!

It follows the fortunes of Prue, who abandons a trip in Scotland with her boyfriend (a suitable prospective husband according to her aspirational mother) for the delights of Cornwall (what’s not to like there!) caring for her scatty artist aunt who has broken her arm. On the train she meets lonely, unwanted, 10-year-old Charlotte, who is headed for the same village, to stay with her unloving grandmother, because the school boiler blew up, her mother is on holiday, and her father can’t (or won’t) look after her. All suitably scatty I thought - and I rather liked the idea of reading about a train journey while I was on a train journey. Note to Self, as the Provincial Lady would say, to find more train books for future journeys. There's always The Railway Children, one of my childhood favourites, which I still read, but does anyone have any other recommendations?

Oh dear, I got distracted (again), so back to the book in hand. Once in Cornwall Prue meets curmudgeonly famous artist Daniel, who is back after a 10-year gap. Prue instantly falls head over heels in love with the stranger, but there is a mystery in his past which he will not talk about. So far, so good, I thought.

But it’s a very slender book, and the scene is barely set before everything is tidily wrapped up – I did feel a little short-changed, as if the story never really got under way at all. And, since everything is compressed into such a short period (less than two weeks, which is nowhere near long enough to fall in love, overcome all obstacles, and accept a proposal of marriage) there is no time for plot development or growth of characters. The story and its people arrive fully formed – well, as formed as they are ever likely to be. It means the action, such as it is, is rather predictable, and the characters, engaging though they may be, never step out of their allocated roles, and remain caricatures. It’s almost like an embryonic idea for a story which hasn’t been worked up into a proper novel, and there are no emotional depths, and no universal truths, but I’m not complaining (even though it sounds as if I am), because what you see is what you get, and it makes no pretence to be anything other than a light, fluffy read, and it was great fun, and I did enjoy it.

I’m curious to see how it compares to Pilcher’s longer work – The Shell Seekers, perhaps, which is also set in Cornwall.

Anyway, I’m grateful to Pam for introducing me to an author I might not otherwise have read, and I hope she doesn’t mind, but I’ve passed the book on  to my mother, who will read it, then give it to the little ‘library’ run by residents of the sheltered flats where she lives, so it will get well read in the months ahead.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Lost Love and Eternal Triangles...

This Art Deco figure by Demetre Chiparus
captures the feel of the book as Nigel and
Caroline seek love.
Not knowing anything about Violet Trefusis, beyond the brief fact that she eloped with Vita Sackville-West and was the daughter of Alice Keppel (favourite mistress of King Edward VII) I had no idea what to expect from her 1937 novel Hunt the Slipper, especially as her work seems to have been overshadowed by other members of the Bloomsbury set - I don’t know if she’s actually considered to be part of the group or not, but she certainly moved in their circle, and it’s interesting to see read her work in this context. She wasn’t an innovative writer, like Virginia Woolf – this a bright, witty, satiric comedy of manners (actually, I think romantic comedy may be nearer the mark) which is, nevertheless, something of a tragedy, and I loved it.

According to the blurb on the back of my Virago 1983 edition, it’s a ‘she-loves-me-she-loves-me-not story’, where love is like ‘the treasure hunt of childhood, with the longed-for object of pursuit forever tantalising, forever just beyond reach’. And, just for once, the description is spot on. Nigel Benson is 49, wealthy, cultured, rather plump, attracted by women – and attractive to them. Over the years he’s had a succession of love affairs, but the one constant in his life is his sister Molly, who seems to have sublimated her own desires in caring for him, and persists in treating him as if he were still a small, enchantingly naughty, small boy.

His life is untroubled, filled with pleasure: he doesn’t have to work (all the central characters seem to have unearned incomes) so can indulge his passion for paintings and objets d’art, and spend months abroad in France and Italy. But everything changes when he meets Caroline, the wife of his neighbour Sir Antony Crome. Initially there is no spark between them, then they meet again in France: Caroline, young and lonely, on the rebound from a failed love affair, is ill in bed, and Nigel is on hand to provide solace and entertainment…

The pair fall in love, but Caroline seems curiously heartless in her dealings with him, just as she is with her husband and small daughter. When they are apart he suffers pangs of jealousies, and fears she does not love him at all. Restless, distracted, unable to settle, he loses weight, and recaptures the appearance of his youthful self. But when they are together he is just as tortured by his feelings, and by the strain of keeping up with a woman who is half his age. He’s infatuated with her to the point of obsession, but he knows that eventually she will abandon him for someone new.

Caroline herself remains a bit of a mystery. When we first meet her she is rather dull, insipid almost, awkward, and not outstandingly pretty. However, she changes during her affair with Melo the Chilean, and turns out to be fascinating, attractive and witty – but she’s cruel and self-centred. Did she become like this as a result of that first affair I wonder? Or did that bring out some latent quality within her? And does she love Nigel? Indeed, is she capable of love at all? Does she even think she is in love, or does she just like being adored? According to Molly:

Caroline is a one-man’s job. She would like to be made to darn socks, to be ordered about, and to live in a two-roomed cottage like a woman in a Lawrence novel. Unfortunately for her, Fate has ordained otherwise. She’ll always be attracted by anyone who is the antithesis of Anthony – and Crichley.

This ties in with Caroline’s own comments about herself and, as if to prove the theory, she finally runs off with a man who thinks Picasso is a Mediterranean fishing-village… but even then there’s a twist to tale, as Nigel discovers when he reads her farewell letter, for it’s all a ploy to get him to go off with her. But it is too late, because he has waited too long to open the letter.  And, ironically, he finds himself supporting the devastated Anthony, the husband he has wronged.

Oddly, Nigel has more in common with Anthony than he does with Caroline. The two men, as she herself observes, are both collectors, and I think they both see her as a trophy to be acquired. Neither tries to view her as a person in her own right. Nigel appears very emotional, and Anthony is passionless. Trefusis had a field day describing him:

…his mind was beautifully laid out, like a garden a la française, geometrical, disciplined, gracious. It was full of amiable diversions; one forgot it was based upon an inflexible plan, and that, like the gardens of Versailles, its construction had necessitated the laying waste of innumerable acres. It was perpetually ‘on show’. It is to Anthony’s credit that the public seldom realised that it had paid for admission.

I was surprised at the role houses play, and the way each has a clearly defined character of its own, and how that character reflects is owners. Anthony’s home, Crichley, is filled with rare, valuable objects, and is well ordered, but it’s a chilly place, cheerless, comfortless and sterile. Even the food is boring and tasteless.

On the other hand, Caroline’s family home, Random, is as disorganised as the name suggests. Here, according to Nigel, ‘teacups and tracts battled for supremacy with peacocks’ feathers and leopard-skins’. It’s chaotic and untidy, with no routine, and even the food is peculiar, with strange, unpalatable ingredients.

The one perfect home is Ambush, where Nigel and his sister live in surroundings which are comfortable and luxurious, but not ostentatious, and where the food is exquisitely cooked and tastes superb.

Trefusis wrote about milieu she knew, and she did it superbly well, and from a position of
Violet Trefusis pictured in 1920.
privilege and wealth she is able to poke fun at the English aristocracy and the upper classes. It’s written in the 1930s, but there’s no mention of the political situation in Europe during this period, although much of the novel is set on the Continent, and somehow I get the impression it is set a decade earlier, before Trefusis left England to live in France.

And, despite the lightness of tone, and the humour, and the satire, I still keep thinking of this as a tragedy, and for some reason eternal triangles keep running through my mind, and the story of Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot, which is odd, because if I was asked to think of a literary parallel for Caroline I would have said she was more like Emma Bovary, or Anna Karenina, bored by her marriage to a dull man, seeking love and excitement based on ideas gleaned from stories.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Peas, Bears, Birds and Stars...

Pea tendrils sweeping the air for lattices.
(Pic from Anglia Farmer).
Peas are clocky children who become spoony adults. Once they grow long-limbed, they start to teeter, because they possess more self than they can support. Then they grow madly wending tendrils to sweep the air for lattices – just as marionettes will grow marionette cords to sweep the air for marionetteers. Yearning begets yearning: the pea plant yearns for a lattice, so it grows tendrils – then every tendril too yearns for a lattice. Yearning draws tendrils out of the spindly green pea-shoot only to find itself compounded, elephantine. 

I just love that image of teetering pea plants, and the idea of them possessing ‘more self than they can support’, which could apply equally to humankind. It’s a perfect description of teenagers, desperately trying to come to terms with the new ‘me’, bewildered by their size and appearance as they shed their childhood skin and head for adulthood. And quite apart from the physical aspect, what about the emotional implications of possessing too much ‘self’? There’s an identity crisis here I fear, just as there is if you have too little ‘self’.

And that comparison with marionettes is so apt. On a first reading I thought, how odd, but when I considered it I realised it was spot on, and it will make anyone old enough to remember string puppets see that the way pea plants grow and stretch out their curling, quavery tendrils really is very like the tottery movements of marionettes, and the way their limbs waver and tremble.

Add caption
The passage comes from Things That Are, Encounters with Plants, Stars and Animals, by Amy Leach, which held me so enthralled when I came across it in a bookshop that I ended up sitting on the floor so I could read it. Then, of course, since I couldn’t stay there until I’d finished, I had to buy it. Budgetary restrictions mean I don’t often buy brand new hardback books, so when I do it has to be something pretty special that I really, really want, and that is what this is. 
It’s a series of essays on Life, the Universe and Everything (divided into two sections, Things of Earth, and Things of Heaven), in which Leach reflects on the natural world and makes observations which, as I said earlier, could just as easily be applied to people. She’s not at all introspective, and certainly isn’t preachy. She may be examining individual creatures, plants or stars, but she takes a broad view as she meanders from topic to topic, reaching out from one thought to another to another, making her comments, drawing conclusions, but leaving readers free to make their own minds up and imbue the subject in hand with any meaning they choose.

Leach rejoices in the quirky and unusual, in little known facts. Back to the peas again, did you know the tiny plant produces two minute matching leaves every four and a half days, regular as clockwork, until it reaches that point where it starts to topple under its own weight and height, and starts producing those stretching tendrils.

Then there are other plants, like the mouse-eared cress, which suddenly go ‘batty-bat; and send their shoots burrowing down into the ground, while their roots rise up into the air (a phenomenon known as gravitropic mutation), which prompts Leach consider, among other things, losing one’s way, lilies, water lettuce, a hippopotamus, lotus plants and seeds, and what it feels like to lie dormant for a thousand years. See what I mean about one thing leading to another?
And how about the blackpoll warbler, just four inches long, weighing a third of an ounce (that’s forty-eight to the pound) that does not winter on earth at all. Instead, it flies 2,000 miles from Nova Scotia to Venezuela, then back again (another 2,000 miles) pursuing the sun from season to season. Leach writes:

We winter, we summer, we winter, we summer; while the warbler flies from summer to summer to summer to summer.
The tiny blackpoll warbler chases the sun so it never has
to face a winter.
Some of the tales are so fantastical you wonder if they can be possibly be true, but they are. Initially I kept looking things up, then decided Leach is obviously correct, and ended just taking her word for it: truth, after all, is stranger than fiction. It’s not only the snippets of bizarre information that sent me scuttling off to do some research, for Leach is as fond of odd words as she is of odd facts, and a decent dictionary is a huge help, along with an encyclopedia.

But she uses words and language like a poet, with lists, descriptions and stories that cry out to be read aloud, creating images that make you look at things in a new way. Take her account of the constellation Ursa Major which, she says, is sometimes mistaken for a ladle or a prawn, although personally, I think it looks like a saucepan. Anyway, she tells us:

The big starry bear is trailed by a little starry bear, about the same size as an autumn cub padding around on plantigrade paws. Late autumn is when Earth bears and their children run out of fresh apples and honey, when they might come across a heap of fermented apples, and devour them, and lose their bearings. Bears on the ground are the most sweepable bears off their feet.

Who else would draw such an analogy between the Great Bear and the Little Bear shining high in the sky, and a mother bear and its cub down on the Earth below? And what a wonderful picture it evokes, of a bear gorging on fallen apples, which are beginning to rot, giving off that winey smell they develop, and being toppled by the alcohol, losing their bearings, teetering like the pea plants, or losing their way, like the mouse-eared cress. And, in case you wonder, yes, bears do eat fermented apples, and yes, they do get drunk as a result… 
Bookmark bears...  I love these Earth Bears with their
Starry Bear kites linking
Heaven and Earth. (Big Bear, Little Bear by Kristiana Parn for Oxfam)
I must mention that the book is published by Canongate, because that’s the company which produces that lovely series where modern authors retell old myths, including The Penelopeiad, Margaret Atwood’s slender but superb account of the story of Odysseus’ wife Penelope, and her maids.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

October's Book Stack...

Well, this year seems to have gone very quickly, and we’re into October already, so here’s a picture from the 15th century Book of Hours known as Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, showing people ploughing and sowing, because I love the rich colours, and the detail. Ahead there's Hallowe’en to look forward to, a visit from Elder Daughter and her Boyfriend and, of course, the clocks go back – and what better way to spend a dark, winter night than to curl up in a comfy chair with a good book!

So I’m sitting here writing out a Book List for the next few weeks, and looking back at September. The Brickbat Award for the Worst Read of the month went to Mr Petre, by Hilaire Belloc, while the Bouquet for Best Read had to be Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper, and I still think this is should be re-issued so lots more people can enjoy it.

On the whole I didn’t do too badly with my September Book Stack, but it went a bit awry towards the end. I didn’t quite finish Amy Leach’s  Things That Are, Encounters with Plants, Stars and Animals, but I’ve read it all now, and hope to post up a review on Friday. And I didn’t quite complete Hunt the Slipper by Violet Trefusis, but I’m almost there, and so far I think it’s fantastic. So that only leaves one book that I have yet to make a start on:  The Edwardians, by Vita Sackville-West.
But I did read my prize copy of Rosamunde Pilcher’s Carousel while travelling to London and back to meet my Younger Daughter, and very enjoyable it was. Not the greatest literature in the world, but easy, undemanding reading. And I made a start on Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, having plucked up courage and decided to join the team read over at dovegreyreader. Which all goes to show that lists, like resolutions, are made to be ignored!

Sitting waiting to be opened is Bring Up The Bodies, by Hilary Mantel, which I spotted in the library and pounced on before anyone else could beat me to it – I’ve been waiting ages and ages for this and, having read and loved Wolf Hall, I can’t wait to begin and see how Thomas Cromwell is weathering the storm as Henry falls out of love with Anne Boleyn and becomes even more obsessed with the need for a legitimate male heir. This is another chunkster, and it’s a good job I can tackle A Suitable Boy in bite-sized pieces, because I am not sure I would want to read two ‘doorstep’ books together!

Still in historic mode, I picked up a second-hand edition of Rosemary Hawley Jarman’s novel The King’s Grey Mare, about Elizabeth Woodville, who is probably better known these days as Philippa Gregory’s White Queen. I must admit I gave up on the TV adaptation after the first episode, and I wasn’t overly impressed with Gregory’s book, but I’m curious to see how this compares.
And there’s the Arthur Quiller-Couch’s essays On Reading, kindly sent by Pam at Travellin' Penguin, and for light relief I’ve got two Mary Stewart novels on the TBR pile, Thornyhold, and This Rough Magic.

In addition I’m still working myway  through a selection of Short Stories for Sundays, investigating my favourite Gardening books, and following Vere Hodgson as the Second World War continues, food shortages get worse, and the news from Europe looks bleaker than ever. So you can see, I’ve got plenty to keep me busy – in fact, I’m sure the Book Stack will keep me going well beyond the end of October!