FFB: The Comforters by Muriel Spark

518etwianjl-_sx317_bo1204203200_I have been filling in some of the holes I didn’t even know I had in my readings of Spark on her 100th birthday year. I have not been disappointed. Don’t make my mistake: read everything of hers. Compounding the audacity of The Driver’s Seat (which really every crime writer needs to read especially) I at last got around to her debut novel The Comforters and I am astonished that it is not more celebrated.

Audacious: it’s the only word for it. It seems so now, and yet it came out in 1957. Why it is not a lynch pin of modern novel studies I cannot say: I suspect that in addition to her gender there’s the Catholicism. Literary studies are much more comfortable with dour Protestants, and very suspicious of the magical side of the older faith. But Spark never shied away from engaging with as well as critiquing her adopted faith and it’s part and parcel of her outlook which has as much whimsy as scathing satire, though she’s mostly accounted for the latter.

As Ali Smith writes in the introduction (which does a great job of spelling out the accomplishments of the book), ‘By the time we reach the Typing Ghost, which declares itself to Caroline by its literal repetitions, this style is already embedded; in many ways the narrator is a joke, the narration a mocking of bad literary style–and as we know by the end of the book, it’s been the narrator all along having the joke, and not on us, but with us.’

Of course the main reason you should read it is that it is a delight with a gripping storyline (even when Spark allows us to anticipate what will happen next it’s not at all like we think it is) and enormous fun all along the way. Some fave bits:

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 thing there would be any difficulty with Helena.

“You’re mad,” said the Baron abruptly. Caroline felt relieved at these words, although, and in a way because, they confirmed her distress.

“Neurotics never go mad,’ he said.

“You do not know the madness of scholarly curiosity, Mr Webster. To be interested, and at the same time disinterested…”

‘I think she’s too ignorant to be a witch.’

Check out all the overlooked books at Patti’s blog (on hiatus) Todd’s place.

#FolkloreThursday: #storytime by Joanne Harris and the Storytime Band

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If like me you have not been able to catch the live version of Joanne Harris’ #storytime, you’ll be glad to know that this CD captures the experience rather well (I suspect). Music, song and story blend together to create a magical experience with the freshness of a live performance.

Folktale aficionados will find Harris’ stories to be in a familiar vein that we have all imbibed since childhood. Yet her fairytale narratives offer original takes on those tropes that will surprise and delight you. If you follow @JoanneChocolat on Twitter you know her impromtu #storytime threads are always surprising, often timely and generally hook you quickly.

This CD gives me ideas — always a good sign.

Buy the CD direct for just £5 and get it personalised.

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Seven Books That Made Me

I have been tagged repeatedly in this meme (and the music one, and there ought to be an art one, too).  I hate lists. I hate the inherent [ahem patriarchal, capitalist, etc] need to rank and rate and declare bests, that divides us into endless competition. But as the latest tagger, Helen Grant suggested, it’s interesting to hear what has influenced your friends. So in that light, a random selection of books off the cuff, not the ‘best’ or the ‘highest rated’ but some that have had an impact on making me who I am.

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I don’t remember a lot of the details of this book, but it’s the first one I can remember changing me. Much of my childhood passed in an unremembered Zen state of being, but I distinctly recall excitedly asking my cousin as he got into the car with us (my mother, brothers and I), ‘Do you like fog? I like fog!’ because the book had so captivated me. I still love fog. I am fortunate to live in two areas prone to fog, mist and the haar, so make of that what you will. Books that fired my imagination enough to make me want to live there also included My Side of the Mountain, set in the Catskills. Huh: half the year, I live there.

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Yes, I wanted to be Jo, like so many young women. Her life (and her author’s) gave me a model to believe it could be possible for a girl with no experience to speak of or connections with famous people — that one could just make up the things and write about them and make books. I cannot read the book even now without crying. And I still haven’t totally forgiven Amy. Like the Alice books, indelible.

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My copy was plain: a turquoise cover with the title and Anna Sewell’s name in white, a knobbly texture. It was a book I read and re-read constantly. That kicked off my horse mania: I read every book in the library on horses. Seriously, every book. I still feel angry that the librarians (or my teachers?) forced me and my best friend to read books that were not about horses (did they ever do the same thing to boys? I doubt it). I read a book on Annie Sullivan. It was fine. But then it was back to horses. This is why I trust my obsessions.

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I think there is an age at which many young girls diverge from the common path: some go to Plath. I went to Parker. I liked Plath, but Parker was the one for me. At an age when one is too young to know the truth of her mordant wit, one fancies she does. She is wrong. When she is older, one understands more clearly why Parker hid her sorrow behind wit so it wouldn’t frighten the mens. Also I guess I can’t squeeze in Barbara Pym this time so she’s here too. And Anita Loos. And of course Austen. And Gaskell…every funny woman.

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It’s a bit unfair to make Marie stand in for a whole host of medieval books, but there it is. You’d have to understand my distaste for what I thought of as ‘medieval’ once upon an ignorant time — this is why I have such sympathy for my students’ eye rolling. Oh, but you don’t know, I tell them — and then of course I show them. My madeleine-in-the-tea moment might have been Beowulf, but Marie made me change my mind about the stereotypes. Medieval romance seemed the least interesting thing out there. It’s still not my favourite thing, but Marie told her tales — even the wretched Arthuriana — with such verve and a lack of sentiment that I even decided to retell her tales. Likewise many medieval women — Hrotsvita and Silence and Christina of Markyate and more…

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Likewise standing in for all the great crime dames like Patricia Highsmith and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Hughes’ masterpiece is a genius dissection of a serial killer that predates the much more lauded Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson. Where the latter gives a (surprisingly shallow) insight into the mind of a serial killer with a great deal of sympathy for him — Thompson seems to admire Lou Ford’s smug disdain for the world — Hughes lays open the brutal mind of Dix Steele with insight and understanding. There is a kind of sympathy for the mess of desires and ambitions he has, but there is no doubt about his chilling nature from page one. Hughes was way ahead of her time and still doesn’t get the acclaim she deserves. If she’d written only this book I’d call her a genius — but she’s written several excellent books.

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Seven tomes already and I’ve barely scratched the surface. This is why I don’t like lists. They are always inadequate. So this last one stands in for all the books of the fantastic I have read and loved. It’s also to make plain that the influences go on. While we gild the memories of some books from childhood to give them lustre, books can continue to change life. I’ve written conference papers and essays on this immense novel — and finally admitted I am probably writing a book on it. I love its world, I love Clarke’s loving scholarship of it. You never know when a book will sneak up on you and nudge you to another path. This one’s put me to work in a delightful way — I even get to use my medieval scholarship a bit.

Review: Je Christine

Thanks to Robert forwarding me an email, I ran off to catch this performance at Bard yesterday. I always wish that Bard were better about letting folks know about things happening on campus. I hate hearing about them afterward!

A small but appreciative audience shared the experience and stayed to talk with Suzanne Savoy (who has an impressive list of accomplishments beyond television work!). She had been intrigued long ago by that wonderful image of Christine writing away in her chamber and while working on a very ‘painful’ television series (hmmm, wonder if it’s this one) decided to create a one-woman show in order to enjoy having complete control.

Savoy worked on the translation of Christine’s writings herself; having grown up in Montreal, she was inspired by the older nuns she knew there and their particular cadences of French. The play begins with the very medieval notion of Dame Fortune’s changeability and traces the ups and downs of her life and times from favoured child of her philosopher father to desperate woman in exile. Savoy has skilfully knitted together Christine’s texts with a few augments for context to bring to vivid life this extraordinary woman with passion, humour and grace. Moving around the compact yet evocative set, she gave a moving performance that made Christine’s skill and conversational style so clear, engaging the audience directly at times. The power of her delivery–even under thundering rain that started falling during the performance–made Christine’s timeless words reverberate. And we all agreed afterward that when she declared the storm would be over in war-torn France the rain actually seemed to slow at that moment.

And she’ll be at Kalamazoo, talking about her translation with the Christine de Pizan Society.

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[Yes, I know I need to write up my two conference trips for your vicarious pleasure — soon!]

Interview: Madonna of the Wasps

dvnrqmpuqaazeskFor those not on the ‘book, you can still see my interview with Chris Roy at Scream Hard Reviews here. I may be giving too much away with that picture of the outline of Madonna of the Wasps in my notebook, but I trust my handwriting is so bad that it’s pretty much indecipherable. 😉 (Also note Stephanie’s SpeakEasy design mug, Karen Jolly’s Anglo-Saxon charms book, Heyer’s Arabella, and the eyes of Hello Kitty).

Also The Blood Red Experiment has gained a few reviews, including a nice one here.

Review: Girl from the North Country

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Image via London Theatre Guide

I’ll be honest: I really really wanted to see Mosquitoes. I queued twice to try to get tickets. But I was denied the two Olivias (sob!). So I went to the Tkts booth intending to maybe see Hamlet but there being only obstructed view, I decided to go with Girl from the North Country. Advertising worked: I had seen that poster everywhere. Besides, the trip had picked up a musical theme somehow so it fit.

What a cast! Shirley Henderson, Ciarán Hinds, Bronagh Gallagher, Ron Cook, Jim Norton, Sheila Atim, Arinzé Kene. Of course, the underlying strength of Dylan’s songs had to count for a lot too: and then there was the script and direction by Conor McPherson.

For me, it just didn’t work. There was so much that seemed like it would be right: the Great Depression setting, the diverse cast of singers, the potential for drama inherent in the songs. The performances were a knockout: the songs were wonderful to hear in a completely different way. Thoughtful interpretations of old favourites — though I could have done without the bros next to me singing along with Jokerman. Hearing Dylan’s songs in a new way that was more bluesy than the usual Broadway show tunes style made them a new experience. The cast, especially Atim, brought the tunes to life. All of them were wonderful in the songs and the arrangements were innovative and interesting without feeling like they were going for deliberate novelty. The band was tight!

The script on the other hand — ugh! When you start out the play with a character introducing and setting up the scene, then saying ‘but I don’t come along until later’ — well, you’ve started out on the wrong foot. Theatre should throw you into a world, make it live. I’m hoping this is a work in progress because it definitely feels like one. The ideas are there but I didn’t believe even one of the characters. They felt like plot points. It’s to the credit of the stellar cast that they poured themselves into these characters. I felt for the actors but I never much felt for the characters.

Everything about it felt anachronistic. There’s so much here with potential: the economic hardship, the precarious difficulty of being a carer — Henderson’s character seemed to be as ‘crazy’ as the plot required at the moment though she wrung a good bit of sympathy out of this difficult woman, while the characterisation of the apparently autistic boy felt too much like a plot idea that never came to life — and the racial tensions which are brought up and then kind of sidestepped. I realise in a musical people might want to avoid getting too dark but seriously, it’s the Great Depression. You’re going to have to embrace the dark.

But I seem to be in a minority here, so see it for yourself and tell me what you think.

FFB: Porterhouse Blue – Tom Sharpe

porterhouse_blue_bookI have been thinking about academic novels lately because I am — much as I swore never to do so — working on a roman à clef called Hire Idiots (the topic of which ought to be abundantly clear). I taught Lucky Jim in my senior seminar and enjoyed my students’ reactions to it. I’ve been thinking of re-reading Waugh’s Decline and Fall, but I can’t seem to find it. I’m not sure it’s even possible to write satire anymore as reality outstrips it, but now that I’ve started I want to finish.

I had not read Tom Sharpe’s novel of a fictional college at Cambridge. He’s probably best known for the Wilt novels. There’s no Jim Dixon or Paul Pennyfeather to fasten our sympathies to in this novel: everybody is kind of awful in a cringingly realistic way. There is the poor post graduate student Zipser who commands our pity if not sympathy, but alas, he exits the story rather early on. There are some great comedic scenes.

What’s fun about this book is the horrible way the petty politics quickly ascend to the heights of absurdity as the new Master of Porterhouse arrives and intends to make big changes. In the cyclical nature of politics (which I suppose ought to give us some hope at the moment) this 1974 novel gives us a college of hidebound tradition faced with the liberalising force of a reformer. Sharpe makes all the partisans ridiculous, but not without sympathy. The bullying Master is bullied by his wife (women are either harpies or sexpots if they appear at all, alas), the deaf Chaplain is mostly kind, the put-upon Bursar leaps from frying pan to fire, and the snobby porter has been grossly misused.

Anyone who has been in academia (or academia adjacent) will appreciate the humour here — especially when the score-settling tv host who’s also an alum arrives. Sharpe’s humour mostly rests in good and bad intentions going madly awry. I’ve got the mini-series based on it to watch when I get the time. Some quotes:

‘As far as the College Council is concerned I think that the best policy will be one of…er…amiable inertia.’

‘There’s nothing like prevarication,’ the Dean agreed, ‘I have yet to meet a liberal who can withstand the attrition of prolonged discussion of the inessentials.’ [ouch]

With the experience of hundreds of hours in committees behind him, the Master anticipated the arguments that would be raised against him by the Fellows…It was precisely on such divisions of opinion that he thrived. The original issue would get lost in argument and he would emerge as the arbiter between divided factions.

But first he needed an ally. He ran through the Fellows in search of a weak link.

‘We shall muddy the issue until it is uncertain…If there must be dirt let there be lots of it.’

‘Trouble with you academic wallahs,’ said Sir Cathcart finally…,’is you take things too seriously.’ [cringe]

‘In my opinion genius is by definition a capacity to jump the whole process of taking infinite pains, but then as I say, nobody listens to me.’

There was something perverse about English political attitudes that defeated logic.

His had been an intellectual decision founded on his conviction that if a little knowledge was a dangerous thing, a lot was lethal.

See all the neglected books over at Patti Abbott’s place.

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