Thursday, 23 March 2017

The Fifth Letter by Nicola Moriarty

published 2017

Fifth Letteer

Joni drummed her fingers on the bench top as she waited while Trina tightened her laces. She’d been up since 5 am, unable to sleep, still feeling uneasy about what had happened at the pub the previous evening.

As soon as Trina’d emerged from her bedroom, Joni had pounced on her. ‘Come for a run with me! I need to get out.’

Trina had shrugged and agreed and Joni had immediately dressed in fluoro striped leggings and Nike singlet, while Trina changed into a much more casual outfit of casual tracksuit pants and an old t-shirt.

‘One sec,’ said Trina, as she stood up from doing her laces and then headed around to the kitchen to grab a glass of water and wash down a tablet before she and Joni headed off.
commentary: My book selection skills have been a bit off lately – I feel I’ve said several times, politely, ‘this was not the book for me, but others will probably love it’. And here we go again.

This time it was a definite category error: I thought this was a crime novel. My bad. The story, set in Australia deals with four young women, friends since school, who go on a weekend away and make a plan to each write a letter revealing a secret. The four letters are written, and discussed and pored over – but it turns out there is a fifth letter, with much deeper and darker revelations, and the question is: which of the women wrote it? A good setup – but I thought this would be a proper thriller, with a crime either lost in the past or else brought on by the whole letter business. But that isn’t really the case. The book is pretty much unabashed chicklit: it’s about relationships and feelings and friendships, and about the scars and traumas of childhood.

I thought it was a big error for us to see the action through the eyes of one of the women, because that knocked her out as a possible writer of the fifth letter, and reduced the tension. And there was a lack of balance, an unevenness about the book – some matters were taken seriously and others dismissed too easily. The actions of some of the women seemed very strange, and they all seemed rather dim, and they didn’t in fact seem to like each other all that much.

But Moriarty kept the story going, it was certainly an easy read, and it was all rounded off at the end. But I didn’t believe a word of it. (Not necessarily a deal breaker.)

Not to make too much of this – it’s plain that Nicola Moriarty is the sister of blog favourite Liane Moriarty. It would be unfair to compare the two writers – especially as, despite superficial similarities, their books are quite different.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Wonders Will Never Cease by Robert Irwin

published 2016

set in the 1460s

Wonders will Never Cease 1

[Anthony Woodville is riding through London at night]

Anthony thinks that the windows of those houses on Cheapside whose interiors are lit up with a dull yellow light resemble the eyes of goblins and he says as much to William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, who is riding beside him.

The Earl’s response is surprising, ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Did I ever tell you that I was once on a goblin hunt? It was in the marchlands of Wales. The whole area was infested with these horrid creatures and they were attacking children. So their numbers had to be brought down. Their glowing eyes used to give them away. Also the hounds found it easy to follow their peculiar smell. The little creatures resembled humans so much, particularly Welshmen, that it seemed cruel to kill them, but we did and we cut off their ears for the tally. Looking back on it, perhaps we should not have held so many meets, for I believe that there are very few goblins left in England or Wales. They may even be extinct.’

Wonders will Never Cease 2

commentary: This is my favourite passage from this book, I think -  though there are many other candidates.

So 2017, whatever it might hold in other areas, looks like being a good year for books. I’ve already read two that I think will be among my best all year – this one, and George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, on the blog recently.

The trouble with Wonders is that it’s hard to describe it in a way that doesn’t sound off-putting. Whatever algorithm prompted amazon to recommend it to me did work out (and makes it worth all the annoyingly wrong ideas they normally have about what I’d like): I tried a free sample and after reading the first chapter I instantly downloaded the rest, and ripped through it ravenously. It was truly a joy to read.

It’s a historical novel about Anthony Woodville, the brother of Elizabeth Woodville: she was the silver-gilt beauty who married Edward IV. But this is his story, not his sister’s – and it has supernatural elements. But these are side-by-side with the historical facts. They are ever-present, but not overtaking the story. Does that make any sense…? I thought it was going to be a mixture of alternate history (but no, the outline of facts is correct) and much-loved author Terry Pratchett (but no, this is set in the actual world). Is it more like Hilary Mantel crossed with JK Rowling? I don’t know. I just know that I loved it.

It is a very funny book, and I think anyone who reads anything about British history will enjoy this:
‘By the five wounds of Christ! This is the curse of the English aristocracy. We lords and ladies are so brainless that we cannot think of any names for our children except Elizabeth, Anne, Katherine, Henry, Richard, Edward and John. And then again Henry, Elizabeth, John, Katherine, Richard, Edward and Anne. So we are in a constant muddle as to who is who. The lower orders have more sense and imagination, for they take names like Hodge, Poyns, Garth, Alfred, Marigold and Beverley. By God, I am heartily tired of my own name, John, and I believe that I shall have myself called Actaeon, Zoroaster, or perhaps Fabrice.’
The book starts with the grim Battle of Towton, the engagement in a snow storm on Palm Sunday 1461, with the highest casualty figures of any battle on British soil. This is the Wars of the Roses. Anthony is almost killed, or perhaps he is killed and comes back to life. Everything in his life is just a little off-balance ever afterwards. He has a terrific interest in the world around him, and he is not sure what to believe. Life for everyone is a convincing mixture of un-reformed religion, weird superstitions, a whole set of Arthurian myths and legends, and a vague feeling that not too long ago there might have been some very odd creatures and realities and people around, and these matters are just out of memory, just beyond catching.
After much thought and the consultation of old chronicles, the Abbot has succeeded in conclusively demonstrating that most of the centuries between 600 Anno Domini and 900 Anno Domini have been invented by a tenth-century Chronicler…. It has struck the Abbot and the Chronicler of Crowland that it was most suspicious how very little happens in those phantom centuries and, once they have been done away with, the Abbot’s chronology works perfectly. Anthony, reading this, is doubtful, but when he tries to think of anything that happened in those three centuries, he cannot.
There is a scene where Anthony is trying to conceive a child with his wife, and they find themselves surrounded by spirits of the dead: ‘Hell is too crowded. So we have come to live with you.’ It is terrifying: I make notes as I read, and here there is this ‘!!!!!!’

In the book there are Wagner plots, and the Erl-King, and the memory system Mantel mentions in Wolf Hall, and the Red-Headed League, and possibilities of gentle anachronisms. There is a discussion of Noah’s Ark in terms of jousting:
The Abbot found that the top deck alone would be large enough to accommodate twenty-two tilting grounds – not that Noah and his sons would have had time for jousting, since they would be too busy feeding the animals.
When Anthony takes part in some major jousting there is this striking sentence about the men in their armour:
Anthony and the Bastard advance slowly towards each other like silvery lobsters moving under water.
Anthony knows how his story is going to end, because the truly horrifying Talking Head has told him. (I would quite like to forget about the Talking Head, but it won’t leave my mind.)

It’s a book about stories and the way we react to them. It’s about changes in the world, about religion, about knowing what is real and what isn’t. It’s about something in the distance that we can’t explain, something glimpsed out of the corner of our eyes.

Religion features a lot – I liked Anthony’s associate, Ripley, saying ‘I think that the Bible is very badly plotted. I could do better’. It made me think of a historian’s claim that magic, witchcraft and superstition were common in Pre-Reformation England, mixed in with a poor grasp of Christianity.

There is an extraordinary claim about some religious types:
‘What are the Brothers and Sisters of the Blessed Vespers?’ Anthony had never heard of such a group before.
‘They profess an evil heresy…The adherents of the Blessed Vespers are dedicated to coupling in churches.’
‘What do they do that for?’
‘It is not one thing. As far as I can understand it, some do it in hope that such a blasphemous act will put them beyond any hope of redemption in the afterlife and thus thereafter they may worship God without any expectation of reward and that is the purest form of worship there is, for they envisage themselves still offering up prayers and thanks to God from the flaming pits of Hell.’

The reader’s mind really has to fight to get hold of some of the ideas in Wonders Will Never Cease

In a most unlikely way, the book reminded me of George Herbert’s beautiful poem about Prayer, the one that ends:
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

It has the same level of visuals, imagery and mystery. But at the same time it is a most entertaining read. It is a wonderful book.

The pictures show Anthony Woodville. In the second one he is presenting his book to Edward IV – he helped produce some of the first books printed in English, having translated European works.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Dress Down Sunday: Hamlet, an adventuress in a nightie, and a book of 1937



Hamlet, Revenge! by Michael Innes

published 1937

Hamlet Revenge!

[The middle of the night at Scamnum Castle: a performance of Hamlet has been interrupted by a murder, and the investigation is ongoing.]

Without warning the door flew open and Anna Merkalova swept into the room. ‘Gervase,’ she demanded tragically, ‘have they found out?’ And she tossed a small metallic object on the bed.

Gott wondered if too much concentration on Hamlet was inclining him unwarrantably to assess things in terms of stage effect. The Merkalova’s entrance had been excellent theatre…

Noel twisted his neck to contemplate the exhibit which the Merkalova had cast on the bed and then straightened it to observe the more compelling exhibit of the Merkalova herself. She was not very adequately clothed; she was a maturely and unambiguously attractive female, her Russian eye underlined for emphasis, and lit up, at the moment, with the most lovely intimations of passion. The lady, he said to himself, is about to throw a temperament.

Hamlet Revenge 2

commentary: This is my book of 1937 for Rich Westwood’s Crimes of the Century meme over at Past Offences.

I was planning to illustrate the entry just with pictures of performances and costumes for Hamlet, very respectable and serious – but in the end, who can resist an adventuress in her nightie? (My book for 1929 in this meme featured Agatha Christie’s Seven Dials Mystery, in which ‘The Countess flinched and sat up. She drew the folds of a very transparent negligĂ©e closer around her. It was a mere veil of orange chiffon.’)

This was the second of Michael Innes’s Appleby mysteries, and has an excellent set up: a semi-amateur production of Hamlet at a lordly Gothic castle, featuring members of the family and entourage as actors alongside a professional actor. One of the amateurs is the Lord Chancellor of England, who is carrying a most important document of state, one that would be very valuable to unfriendly governments. A murder is of course staged to occur during the performance, and the vital paper goes missing.

Hamlet Revenge 3

I must say, Innes does not go to much trouble to tell us what this doc could possibly contain – I can’t be bothered to copy down how the Prime Minister describes it (‘organization – industrial interests – international’ oh I’ve fallen asleep), but it’s rather hard to believe in. I think the author learned here from the mistress of the ignored detail – Agatha Christie never bothered much with telling us what was in the Secret Plans, she expected us to take it on trust. And Innes was definitely a reader/fan – one character in the book wants a private detective to be brought in: ‘There is a very good man whose name I forget; a foreigner and very conceited – but, they say, thoroughly reliable.’ Not much doubt that this is Hercule Poirot.

But Appleby does his best: I guessed who did it before he did, but only because of long experience of reading detective stories.

My criticism of the book is that there were far too many indistinguishable characters (well Hamlet does have a large cast…) -  many of them had a title, and a name, and a part they were acting, and Innes used them interchangeably and confusingly.  And the book took too long to get going.

The mystery I couldn’t solve was: who was Noel, an important character, featured above? He is described as ‘a scion of the house’, but he is not the son of the Duke nor of his brother, and he is not the heir, and he has a different last name from everyone else. And talking of names - the Duke’s name is Teddy Crispin, and his brother is called Gervase. Could it be that this is where crime writer Edmund Crispin got his pseudonym and sleuth’s first name? His real name was Bruce Montgomery.

There were many other felicities about the book, once you got used to the hundreds of names on offer. I liked the all-purpose question to engage an academic in conversation, no matter what his subject: ‘And what do you think of this young German school?’

There is a theory put forward that since the advent of the talkies, an audience can cope with fast speaking – ‘they bring the ear up with the eye again’ – and so these actors can perform Shakespeare’s lines much faster.

Innes was obviously very interested in psychology, which features a lot in the book in a rather heavy-handed way. But then there is a fascinating disquisition by an advertising copywriter on selling chocolates – she wants to get women to buy them for other women rather than waiting for men to buy them – the whole section could come from a book of today. (The author, writing under a different name, was also very interested in the psychology of advertising in this book, The Last Tresilians.)

As a book of 1937 – there is a lot of vague political talk, and the secrecy, the spies and the important affairs of state are all indicative of the long slide into war. Meanwhile the social structure remains untouched with the frightfully quirky and eccentric toffs. Viva la revolution.

Hamlet has featured on the blog a lot – click on the label below to see the many posts. I did an article for the Guardian on the many many crime books with titles taken from Hamlet. (This is not one of them – the phrase ‘Hamlet, Revenge!’, as the very erudite characters in the book know, is not from Shakespeare’s play.) And there are posts on books influenced by Hamlet, or about performances of the play.

The top picture is from Kristine’s photostream.

The second one is from the Library of Congress and combines two themes from the book – it is meant to be Ophelia, ‘dressed in a flimsy negligee’ as the helpful caption says.

Hamlet himself is John Gielgud, from the NYPL – they have a collection of Hamlet photos to lose yourself in.

Friday, 17 March 2017

St Patrick’s Day: a look at Anglo-Irish history…


Troubles by JG Farrell

published 1970

Troubles St Patricks

[Set 1919-22 in Co Wexford, Ireland: a young man, Padraig, is visiting the twin girls who live in the dilapidated hotel. They all  play a dressing-up game]

So the tour got under way. Padraig followed with a twin on each arm.. and had an enormous success with the old ladies [the hotel guests]. What a fuss they made of him! It was wonderful, they thought, how he seemed to know what to do just by instinct, keeping his knees together and sitting up straight and so forth.

Then it was time for Padraig to go home for his supper and so he had to get changed back into his other clothes. But he would come again on the following day; there were still lots of dresses for him to try on…

For a few days they continued playing their game of dressing up Padraig as a girl. All Angela’s clothes were spilled out of their trunks cupboards and packing-cases; the dresses that suited him were put in one pile, those that didn’t in another. For a while they found this engrossing enough, but presently the job was finished. Just as interest was once again beginning to subside Viola remembered that they still had to consider the rest of Padraig’s clothing, his underwear, petticoats, corsets and so forth. Soon they were all bubbling with hilarity as they struggled with eye-hooks and tugged on the strings of Angela’s corsets – not that Padraig’s shapely body needed any artificial correction of course.

troubles 2

commentary: Thinking in advance about St Patrick’s Day, I picked up this one as a good Irish book, and noted it would take me a while to get through – it is 445 pages long. And I read it (this is hard to believe for me too) in a day. I couldn’t put it down, I ditched other things I should have been doing, and stayed up late to finish it. It is a masterpiece, it has instantly found a place in my ever-changing Top-10- books list.

It’s the first of Farrell’s Empire trilogy – the others are the Booker-Prize-winning Siege of Krishnapur, and The Singapore Grip. This book won the Lost Booker Prize (awarded in 2010 for the best book of 1970) and rightly so. I think Farrell, despite that sudden re-surfacing, isn’t much thought of now – I said as much in a Guardian piece on book titles –  ‘The Singapore Grip is now largely forgotten, except by journalists in search of a gripping headline.’ One person tried to argue with me, but I wish it had been 100 people saying ‘bestseller – much-loved – cult classic – taught on courses’, but no.

Troubles St Patricks 3

Troubles is a glorious book – hilariously funny but also very sad, surreal at times, with weird scenes of great charm, and others of bizarre violence (the cat who attacks a hat comes to a bad end…) Major Brendan Archer comes to a once-grand hotel in County Wexford to meet up with a young woman he is apparently engaged to, though he is rather vague about that. He met her while on leave from his service in WW1, but seems happy enough to go along with her plans for marriage. Her father, Edmund, owns the hotel. The Major becomes one of those very novelistic characters who mysteriously can’t leave a place, for no apparent good reason (cf recent blog read The Magic Mountain) – though at one point he goes away and comes back again. It becomes clear that the wedding isn’t going to happen, but still he lingers, infuriated by much that goes on, aghast and mystified by the political life outside the hotel. Some of the Irish are fighting a War of Independence – but who are they, and what do they want, and surely they can’t really hate the British…? The Major’s own background is never spelled out, but there are hints that he is Anglo-Irish too, part of the Ascendancy.

The months go by. There are the hilarious twins, Faith and Charity (no Hope…?) from the excerpt above - they are like schoolgirls from St Trinian’s and with them ‘everything has a habit of beginning amusingly and ending painfully.’ There are the old ladies and the strange Irish servants, and Sarah, the young Catholic woman from the local town. One character elopes, and ends up taking the same train twice, to the mystification of the station master.

It is remarkably like a bigger and more dilapidated Fawlty Towers, and it is equally funny, from small moments such as Edmund talking about the garden:
‘Planted by my dear wife.’ After a moment, as if to clear up a misunderstanding, he added: ‘Before she died.’
- to the riotous and horrendous ball, along with the cameo of the man come to make breakfast the next morning.

I loved every minute of the book, with its clear and careful yet not hammered-home status as a metaphor or an allegory for the relations between the UK and Ireland, the hotel standing in for a crumbling empire. We know from the first page that the hotel is going to burn down (like many a big old house in Ireland in that era) – and the Major is constantly finding new disasters in the building before we reach that point: plants growing in the wrong places, wildlife everywhere.

We never really feel that we know the Major well, but he is a haunting and memorable character, and this is a haunting and memorable book, with a lot to say about the relations between locals and the gentry.

The man with the dog could be either Edmund or Brendan – it’s from the National Library of Ireland, which has a most wondrous collection of pictures generously on offer. The group on the steps of a grand house is from the same source, dated 1922. The Rosslare Hotel in the 4th picture isn’t nearly as grand or as dilapidated, surely, as the Majestic in the book, but the photo has a feel for it. You could find an illustration for every page of Troubles from this collection…

Thursday, 16 March 2017

The Trophy Child by Paula Daly

published 2017
Trophy Child

At Reid’s the students wore exactly the kind of uniform you would expect them to: the prefects black, billowing gowns; Years 7 to 11 brightly coloured striped blazers, the girls long pleated skirts. They used to wear straw boaters in the summer months but these were jettisoned after a series of stealth attacks from the kids at the local comprehensive school in which the hats ended up in a variety of places – once, on the head of a boarding mistress’s horse, its long ears sticking out through holes that had been cut in the top. For the most part the pupils of Reid’s stayed out of trouble and the school was able to maintain its untarnished reputation.

For the most part.

commentary: What a joy to find a great new author – I loved this book. The Trophy Child is a cross between a police procedural and a domestic thriller, with some unexpected joys and surprising characters, and it made me laugh when it wasn’t making me wince, and worry for the protagonists. It’s like a cross between the books of blog favourites Elly Griffiths and Liane Moriarty – and that is very high praise.

Meet the blended family of Noel and Karen Bloom: each has a child from a previous relationship, and they have one child together, a daughter Bronte. Daly sets this going very quickly and clearly – we see that Karen is a Tiger Mother, pushing Bronte to endless achievements and new subjects via a terrifying schedule. She has more or less given up on the other children, teenagers Verity and Ewan, but there has been an incident in the recent past, involving violence. Now, as the family re-groups, Verity takes Bronte out for a walk. And – every parent’s nightmare – Bronte disappears.

It would be wrong to reveal more of the linear plot than that (though I will just offer the reassurance that this is not a gruesome book, and the danger to children is done in a very careful way) – but it’s a complex and satisfactory story. It’s also quite a cheeky one, for a reason that would be a spoiler… So: very clever plot. At times I thought it was sinking too much into giving us a domestic story, but Daly triumphantly brings it all back in the end – I had been truly bamboozled.

And the picture of life for the characters is wondefully well-done, and hilarious.

Karen, the pushy parent, is a cartoon figure really – she is the least convincing as a real person, but she’s such a joy for Daly to write about that we can forgive her. At one point another pushy parent, Pia, is trying to find out if her son has taken drugs with Karen’s son:
As far as Karen knew, Hamish was too much of a goody-goody to smoke even tobacco, but she went right ahead and said ‘I’m sure it was only once or twice…’
Poor Hamish, thought Karen. The kid could deny it for the rest of his days and Pia still wouldn’t believe him.
Her husband Noel is a great creation too: he is so far from perfect that he has a charm of his own. When his in-laws are coming on an urgent desperate visit because of the various disasters that have struck the family, he
wondered idly if perhaps [mother-in-law] Mary would bring a fruit cake
- this was possibly, weirdly, my favourite line in the book, because it IS how people really think and behave. Whereas in most books it would be a clear indication that Noel is a narcissist or a sociopath or possibly a killer, in this case it is just another sign of his general outlook of life. (He may well be a guilty party – I’m not spoilering – but the cake incident is not a clue either way.)

The investigating policewoman is Joanne Aspinall, another terrific character, who is thunderstruck to find she has an unexpected connection with the case, but soldiers on bravely. (The book wanders among different points of view, and all of them are very enjoyable and well-done – but this means we don’t get as much of the investigators’ views as in a full-scale police procedural.)

I particularly enjoyed her thoughts about increasing obesity in the world:
Most of Joanne’s colleagues today couldn’t run; they were short of breath after climbing the station stairs. And for a time this had concerned Joanne. How on earth would they catch anyone? That was until she realized that most criminals were also too fat to run away from the police. She’d watched some footage recently of the miners’ riots in the 80s. Men as old as 50 hightailing across fields, vaulting over fences. That would never happen today.
The setting in the Lake District is nicely done and very real too, and there are some interesting comments on child-rearing and how we position our children with regard to outside activities.

So all in all – nothing but praise for this one. I am looking forward to reading more by Paula Daly.

The school the children attend is old-fashioned, but not - obviously – quite as old-fashioned as the picture above, which was taken in 1930. But I couldn’t resist this portrait of Australian schoolgirls: ‘St Mary's College tennis team at Charters Towers. The girls hold tennis racquets and are dressed in school uniforms with blazers, ties and hats’. It’s from the State Library of Queensland.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

published 2017

set in 1645



[Alice has been forced to accompany her brother, the witchfinder Matthew Hopkins, on a journey through East Anglia looking for witches]

The next weeks were like one of those nightmares, the ones from which you cannot wake. I searched women, gently, and reported as little as I could to Matthew. But those who drew a discontented crowd, hungry for what proofs had been found against them, there was little I could do for them. Each one of them had a different tale, fit to break your heart; but what they had in common was loneliness, and too many nights spent listening; loose flesh where they had given birth or gained weight in other, better summers. What they had in common was fear.

We moved up through Suffolk from village to village, Matthew writing ahead to seek information and a welcome in each new place. The back of my neck burned and peeled and burned again. Often I thought of leaving, of sitting down in the road and refusing to move. But in the end I thought it better to stay, and try to work against my brother: for, as I tried to gather my courage back, I saw that I was well placed to do it, without him even realising that it was being done.

witchfinder 1

commentary: This book left me conflicted: it doesn’t have much in common with recent read The Roanoke Girls (except that each is by a woman and about women, with a female narrator) – but in both cases I thought the novel might be a lot more appealing to other people than it was to me.

It started off really well - it’s a proper, well-researched historical novel, and beautifully written. Matthew Hopkins is a notorious real-life figure, who took it upon himself to be a witchfinder. As Alice says in the book:
The number of women my brother Matthew killed, as far as I can reckon it, is one hundred and six.
The story is horrible – the methods of search, the allegations and counter-allegations, the glimpses of sad lives and desperate women, the cruelty and intransigence of the witchfinders. Not much is known about Hopkins’ life, so Underdown has given him a half-sister. In the book, she is widowed after several years in London, and comes back to her brother’s place in Manningtree, Essex. She gets drawn into his dreadful deeds, and worries that the whole scheme is aimed at a former servant, Bridget, with whom Alice has close ties.

There were good things about the book – the emphasis on women’s lives and problems, the details of how things were managed (chamber pots feature a lot), the seriousness with which Underdown has approached the subject matter. But as the book went on, I found the truly sickening detail of the witch-finding too much, I felt queasy after reading it. And if I had chosen to read a non-fiction book I would have no complaint. But I found it an awkward fit that the book has added its own plot about the past, concerning Alice and her parents and step-mother. That didn’t seem to mesh well for me. The last section of the book is obviously extremely well-planned and worked out, but seemed to me to skim over a lot, with a surprising amount of action rushed through completely off-stage, with our heroine not involved. The final twist was deeply predictable, but somehow satisfying.

There is a lot to commend in this book, it is a very good historical novel, and I’m sure many readers will enjoy it – especially as it gives voices to women who have not been heard over the years.

There were more recent, and more light-hearted, witches on the blog last month, in Lucy Fisher’s excellent Witch Way Now?, while Elly Griffiths featured the Pendle witches in her modern crime book Dying Fall.

Elizabeth Goudge’s The White Witch is set in the 1640s, as is The Witchfinder’s Sister. Lolly Willowes, in the Sylvia Townsend Warner book, is an admirable witch: and there are many more witches on the blog: click on the label below.

Sarah Perry’s wonderful Essex Serpent is another historical novel set in the county.

The dramatic scene is a Victorian picture called An Arrest for Witchcraft in the Olden Time by John Pettie, from the Athenaeum.

The young woman is a 1645 picture: Girl Holding a Fan by Hendrick Cornelisz van Vliet, also from the Athenaeum.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Dress Down Sunday: Moonglow by Michael Chabon

published (in the UK) 2017


Moonglow 2

[The young Michael unexpectedly goes to stay with his grandparents, because his mother is ill]

My father rang the doorbell. My grandmother opened the door. It was the middle of the afternoon, but she was still wearing her housecoat. This was a kind of slender tent with a Nehru collar that buttoned up the front and fell to her ankles, violently patterned with red and purple op-art. Today it would seem like the relic of an audacious moment in the history of mid-century design, but at the time I simply accepted it as routine loungewear for a grandmother.

‘Go in.’ The bangles on her wrists clinked as she waved me into the apartment. ‘Put your things in the cabinet in the bedroom. In the chest of drawers.’

My father handed me the valise. ‘It’s just a couple of days,’ he said. ‘Grandma will take you to buy a Matchbox car.’

moonglow 1Moonglow 3

commentary: In the usual disclaimer at the front of Moonglow, Michael Chabon says: ‘Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Scout’s honor.’

But we are not really expected to believe this: He is playing with the reader throughout. The book is narrated by Michael Chabon, and he is telling the long and complex story of his maternal grandparents. At the end of the book, and in the publicity for the book and reviews, we are told that this is partly fiction. Or a lot of fiction. Or a pack of lies. It is, apparently, up to the reader to decide what is true and what isn’t. This is extremely tiresome and pointless, but it seems to be quite a common trope in books these days.

I have loved some of Michael Chabon’s books very much: on the blog I have covered Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Telegraph Avenue, while his masterpiece (in my view) is Wonder Boys – two blog entries, an invented book for an April Fool’s entry, and high praise for the film and also the Bob Dylan video featuring footage from the film… ‘Truly Michael Chabon is a Wonder Boy’, I said. And there is also the marvellous Yiddish Policemen’s Union. (We have also featured his wife Ayelet Waldman and a couple of her books.)

So I’m putting off saying that I didn’t really like this book all that much. It was, of course, beautifully well-written, and funny at times, and there was an interesting story in there. But it was told at SUCH length, and in such a convoluted jumpy way, and with such long dull diversions – I couldn’t get on with it. We all have grandparents and they all have stories, but they don’t need to be told in such detail. I didn’t find it quirky and charming, I had to fight off that feeling of ‘How dare you assume I will be interested in this?’, and it is difficult. On it goes – not helped by his always referring to characters as ‘my grandfather’, ‘my grandmother’, ‘my mother’ – no names given. (One fact revealed early on in the book is that the grandfather is in fact no blood relation to Michael Chabon.)

I cannot emphasize enough how annoying is the whole business of its maybe being true, maybe not. I am truly not interested in any more novels like that.

ADDED LATER: **** My good friend Sergio takes me to task in the comments below for not saying why I didn’t like the true/false dichotomy. He is quite right to call me on this, and he forced me to think  about it harder, and I now would like to add this:

The book deals with a lot of very important real events of the mid-to-late 20th century, and features some of the worst crimes against humanity ever perpetrated. There is room for fiction about these events, and of course there is an obligation for there to be non-fiction accounts of these events. But to mix the two is, I think, wrong, pointless and dangerous – especially given that there are people who deny that some of these events happened. If the book describes some particularly awful war experience, am I supposed to believe in it or not? It is important to know whether this was something that really happened. ****

Moonglow 4In its favour: Chabon is very good at telling you what people are wearing. I particularly liked the grandfather in his shorts, polo shirts, and sandals and socks - ‘he looked like the retired director of a Zionist summer camp.’

And I loved the housecoat – which as it happens has been a subject much discussed on the Clothes in Books twitter timeline this week. Not this book, the whole idea of housecoats, along with that other great CiB favourite, bedjackets. So that is why I picked out this part of the book to illustrate.

Naturally on Twitter I was lecturing:
Housecoats can vary in formality and glamour, but the key element: no corset or stays underneath.
They have often featured on the blog –
‘the graceful full-skirted blue velvet housecoat’ in this 1950s book, the surprising orange one at a party here, and a splendid discussion of housecoats – and the original use of this picture to the right – in the blog entry on Margery Sharp’s blissful book The Innocents.

Michael Chabon once wrote a children’s book on baseball, Summerland, which is as close to unreadable as any book I have ever attempted, so I have hopes that yet again I can ignore one book and like his next…