I’ve had a mixed start to the year with my reading. Here are the books that I’ve read so far, in the order that I read them.
The Odyssey, translated Emily Wilson
I read this in January while I was with the family on holiday, during a week away in Canberra and Sydney. I loved it, hence there’s a separate blog devoted to it here. I found it easy to read all in one go; with no interruptions. Which I have found not to be the case with other translations. It’s shorter for starters, with a lot of the usual repetition that becomes quite boring removed. This translation, the first by a woman in English, is wonderfully modern. Its fast paced and the characters come vividly to life experiencing the same human emotions that we do. It really demonstrates why this very ancient poem has stayed relevant through the ages. The language used is contemporary but not colloquial. This is a translation not a complete re-imagining like the Christopher Logue poems relating to The Illiad. So, according to Emily Watson it is faithful to the original, although with some modifications to be more accessible to a modern reader, for example removal of a lot of the repetition. I strongly recommend this translation if you have always wanted to read Homer but been put off by the prospect of tedium or difficulty.
The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald
This has been on my list of books to read for a long while because many critics have suggested it’s the best of Penelope Fitzgerald’s many short novels. It was her last one, written in 1995 and it won the US National Book Critics Award. Therefore I’ve been scouring second-hand bookstores for ages as well as regular literary shops in search of it. When our library didn’t have a copy and discouraged me from trying for an inter-library loan I admitted defeat and bought the ebook from Amazon. I quite enjoyed it, but can’t really understand the big reputation. The introduction, which I only read after the novel itself, calls describes the words masterpiece and genius as inexact and lumpy and their repetition in relation to this novel a burden. So maybe my expectations were too high. I didn’t know it was based on the life of the philosopher and poet Friedrich von Hardenberg who wrote a novel that mentions a blue flower that has some philosophical significance. Not that I think that would have made any difference to my enjoyment or otherwise. I didn’t not enjoy it, just found it slight. We are eighteenth century Germany, and the country and milieu is wholly re-created. The characters are all drawn sympathetically. They are students, Government employees, aristocrats down on their luck, avuncular land-owners. The central character Fritz is at the start of his career and we, along with everyone else observe his infatuation with a young girl with incredulity. All of this is nicely observed, but not completely engaging. All the way through I had a niggling suspicion that I’d read it before. Despite having no recollection of doing so. I’d not had a similar feeling when reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night last year, which I actually had read! Maybe it reminded me of other books; perhaps the Miklos Banffy Transylvania Trilogy which I loved and which has a similar setting amongst the families and government officials of mitteleuropa. But which was also far more compelling than this quite short novel.
Memento Mori, Muriel Spark
The library did come good this time. This is another novel that was on the same list as The Blue Flower. Again, not available in bookstores – new or second-hand. I enjoyed this a lot although it was quite a strange story. Set amongst a group of elderly Londoners who are being harassed by prank phone calls in which the mysterious caller intones only the words: Remember you must die. Quite puts the wind up a few of them, while others are more sanguine. They are a circle of friends who have known each other a long time and whose histories are intertwined in ways that are gradually revealed. The characters are all well drawn and you feel great sympathy for some of them. There’s a famous novelist, her bitter husband, a literary critic, a former housekeeper fallen on hard times, an evil house-keeper in search of a fortune, a friend who is trying to chart their decline scientifically, a ne’er do well son, a young woman making the most of the few opportunities that come her way. There are some very funny moments and overall there is the mystery of the prank caller. Who is he and what does he want. In time we see justice meted out quite satisfactorily. I’m not sure I got the deeper meaning, if any, that the author was trying to convey about the human condition. Perhaps it is that one’s temperament and how one responds to the world will in fact determine how well or otherwise we will grow old and how well or otherwise we will meet our end. It’s certainly true that we must all indeed grow old and die.
Tracker, Alexis Wright
This is a big book in every sense of the work. I’m terribly pleased it won the Stella Prize. It’s very different from her magnificent Carpentaria which I really loved. Like that book though, it is very long! I’m reluctant to call it an important book because that sounds portentous and maybe the kiss of death when I want to encourage people to read it. But it is an important book I believe. It’s a potted history of the black activist movement in Australia. There are some very funny stories of Aboriginal delegations to United Nations meetings in Geneva. And tragic stories of families ripped apart on the basis of the colour of their skin. Tracker and his darker siblings ended up on Croker Island, his paler skinned brother and sisters were sent south. Shocking government policies. And so recent. He denied the trauma but it’s clear from his response to the Apology (he couldn’t attend) that he was strongly affected by this history. The young Melbourne woman who looked after him on the Island is given her rightful due – an example of the difference a single person can have on individual lives. She sounds wonderful, especially given the prejudices which surrounded her.
This is not a hagiography; we get to know Tracker warts and all. Sometimes through what’s not said as well as the stories told. He clearly had issues with women. And his desire to command attention by saying outrageous things and shocking people, especially those to whom deference was the norm, for example Government Ministers, but also colleagues, would have been challenging for those around him. This reminded me of Wally Curran. Often this behaviour is a sign of insecurity; although to the people insulted it doesn’t seem so.
Telling Tracker’s story through the testimony of people with whom he dealt was a great idea. The different perspectives on things is interesting, including arguments between the activists involved about how to respond to legislative and other initiatives; especially land rights. All of the contributions are valuable and add to what has gone before or to what we think we know about issues and events that are on the public record. They include bits from people I know – Martin Ferguson, Michael O’Conner, Gerry Hand – and I can attest that it’s their authentic voices, and opinions, that you hear. It must have been a massive job to distil all of these anecdotes, and Tracker’s own opinions about what was achieved and what was missed, into a coherent story that flows easily from one topic and one period to another. But that’s what has been achieved here. This is an easy read for people wanting to understand the history of, and continuing struggle to achieve true, national reconciliation between black and white Australia.
Saga Land, Richard Fidler & Kari Gislasen
I’m keen on Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle and therefore interested in Norse sagas; hence this book. However it was a bit disappointing. A personal quest to understand his own heritage by Kari Gislasen is interspersed with retellings of the Icelandic sagas. I didn’t find either very compelling. There are interesting observations and facts about Iceland along with descriptions of its amazing landscapes if you are interested in that. There are photos but they are not reproduced well enough to inspire awe. For my purposes – to gain a greater understanding of the Norse myths on which The Ring is based – it was disappointing. The Icelandic sagas are pretty awful; full of murders and familial betrayals. But just not that interesting.
Mary Shelley, Muriel Spark
Its 200 years since Mary Shelley’s famous horror story Frankenstein was published and there are all sorts of commemorations occurring. Including a new biography of Mary, In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein, by Fiona Sampson. I’m not sure, on the basis of this review that I will bother with it. But the review gives you an overview of key bits of Mary’s life.
I bought Muriel’s highly regarded biography of Mary, written in 1951 (Child of Light) and revised in 1987 (Mary Shelley) a while ago and now seemed a good time to read it. I’m quite familiar with the story of Mary’s life, mostly through Richard Holmes’ Footsteps which I read years ago and the Daisy Hay biography I refer to below. And I’ve always loved Shelley:
Ode To The West Wind
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red …
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?.
This book didn’t add anything new and it is a bit old fashioned in the telling. But what a life! Hooking up with Shelley at such a young age – 16 – bearing and losing (3 of 4) babies, travelling to and from the continent, and around Italy. Dealing with her step sister Claire and her disastrous liaison with Byron – another baby and eventually another death! Managing her mad father. Then later dealing with Shelley’s father who refused to have any of the poems published. Nurturing her husband’s literary legacy after his death. Its all quite tragic really.
In the early days with Shelly, no money, constant travel, setting up homes here and there and then taking them all down again, managing all these different households. All the time engaged in the literary debates and progressive causes of their day. As Muriel mentions in the book, it is amazing to think that they were so young – early 20s – while doing all of this. Shelley comes out of their story quite well. It’s tragic that he died so young (25). I’m pleased that Mary had no time for Byron. She was clearly an amazing young woman.
This biography also takes us past the period immediately after Shelley’s death and on into her old age. Her son was not at all literary or progressive in his politics, which disappointed his mother, and he pleased his curmudgeonly grandfather. So finally Mary was able to live in material comfort, happily with him and his wife. This biography was the start of having her true literary contributions recognised more fully which is what the second part was designed to do. It critically examines all of her novels, largely re-telling the story of one that was out of print. Frankenstein, which she wrote when she was 18 and which has never been out of print gets a rave review. This led me to read it for the first time. It comes up pretty well. Beautiful descriptions of places and great psychological insight. I would have liked a bit more in this part of the book, on her writing about Shelley’s poems. For those wanting a more modern take on Mary’s life I would recommend Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron And Other Tangled Lives by Daisy Hay.
The Poets Daughters: Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge, Katie Waldegrave
This is another book that I bought some time back. Having immersed myself in Mary Shelley, it seemed an appropriate time to read it. I quite enjoyed the experience. That sounds as though I am damning it with faint praise but I’m not. I love some of Coleridge’s poems; especially:
Frost At Midnight
The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud – and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully …
I now understand the irony of Coleridge writing so lovingly about an infant – he was shocking to his family, including his daughter Sara! I’m not all that keen on Wordsworth at all – probably too many recitations of I wandered lonely as a cloud in my school days. But I did enjoy reading about these women. And you don’t need to know the poetry; it’s barely referred to. The two poets were friends who fell out and Coleridge left his family to live in London but the lives of the two women continued to be entwined. The period in which they lived, the expectations on women and their constrained choices are all very vividly depicted. Poor Dora to have such a father! Both fathers were monstrous in their different ways. Sara was stronger and succeeded in having some sort of literary life despite the obstacles placed in her way.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark
Back to Muriel. I snapped up a first edition of this well known book at the Gold Street Primary School Fete a couple of years ago. Worth a couple of hundred dollars says Google but who’s selling? Not me. I haven’t seen the famous film starring Maggie Smith, but I had her in mind while I was reading. I loved it. So cleverly written. There is something about how writers in years gone by manage to tell a story elliptically – that is by omission rather than being explicit. You sort of come at the nub of the story at a slant (as Emily Dickens would say). So you read about incidents or descriptions of places or things and later understand their significance in demonstrating the nature of a character or propelling the story to its conclusion. This is what I felt here. You meet the characters as school children but there are flash forwards to what they become, so there is no tension in the story telling. From the start you know how it ends for the main characters; Ms Brodie after her prime, the girl who becomes a nun etc. The only matter not revealed is who was responsible for Miss Brodie’s downfall. But by the time you get to that it barely matters. It’s the characters and their stories that are beguiling. I really, really enjoyed this novel.
Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng
This was on a number of Best books of 2017 lists, but I’m increasingly wary of these lists given the number of disappointments experienced from reading from them. But positive reviews and a chance find in our local second-hand shop Ied me to it. And I really liked it. Its about belonging and not belonging, a coming of age story and a story about reconciling with your past. Contemporary small town America. Two families, two very different circumstances – one footloose and unconnected, one pillars of the community. We follow the kids in these families; one an only child, the other three siblings. And we find out about their mothers – as they were and as they are now. They’re nice characters. But events and expectations get in the way. There’s a big fire in the opening pages, fanned by lots of little fires we’re told. The book then proceeds to explain how we got here. Nicely conceived, nicely written.
More Work For The Undertaker, Margery Allingham
Another oldie. I discovered Margery Allingham after she was praised by someone on twitter who recommended The Traitor’s Purse which I read and enjoyed. This was also good. There’s a big and confusing cast of characters who mostly live together in a down at heel boarding house in a down at heel street in London. We’re between the wars. Everyone is down on their uppers, everyone has a history. An elderly lady from the boarding house is murdered. What could be the possible motive; no money, no vices. She has a brother and sister – both mad as hatters – as was she. Why does the landlady keep them on when they can barely afford to pay? The landlady and another resident are former actors which gives another patina to the whole show. Our detective, a thin, tall fellow is quiet and observant. Careful not to get in the way of the policeman in charge of this part of town, and of this investigation who is large and loose limbed. I love the way personalities are revealed through odd observations about how they sit, move their hands, wear their clothes. The murder gets tangled up with another mystery about the street – why don’t the regular low life crooks come here anymore? We are in the era of hansom cabs and there is a Sherlock Holmes moment towards the end. All is resolved quite satisfactorily.
Packing My Library, Alberto Manguel
I really enjoyed Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading, a long time ago. Published in 1996 it was an erudite meander through lots of literary works all associated with the writing and reading of books. And I have dipped into his Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey: A Biography (2007) and enjoyed it’s observations and anecdotes about the writing of those two classics. His latest book, described as An Elegy and Ten Digressions, is a slight read. The digressions, all encircled by black borders to distinguish them from the body of the text, cover things like our need for company, the creative spark behind classics (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is the result of a dream), the enduring myth that misery leads to artistic success, how dreams defy description, the purpose of literature etc. But they don’t ever come together in a coherent way to mean anything. They are exactly as labeled – digressions. But digressions from what? Just other jumbled thoughts and ideas about libraries; both personal and public. Reminiscences about childhood, family, people, places. Literary quotes liberally sprinkled throughout; from familiar figures – Borges, Kafka, Homer. The whole book has a bit of a thrown together feel to it. I felt as though I’d heard many of the anecdotes before; maybe from his other books. Overall there was not enough back story or context for these meanderings to mean much. We don’t learn why he was packing up his much loved library; that’s in the realm of sordid bureaucracy. – or why his last years have been difficult (a throw away line amongst his acknowledgements). Google couldn’t help regarding removal from France but revealed a stroke a few years ago and current hostility and controversy about his role as Director of the National Library of Argentina.
I Love Dick, Chris Kraus
My daughter recommended this and at first I thought it was the stupidest thing I’d ever read, but it improved. Indeed it became a very clever and compelling feminist critique of art criticism and the whole decision-making process about what becomes great art and what is ignored. Mostly stuff by women falls into the ignored and under-appreciated category. Cleverly done and very persuasive.