Season of the Witch – Natasha Mostert

I first read about this book on Ann’s blog, Patternings and thought it would be one I would enjoy, so when a friend gave me a book token for my birthday I bought it. Many thanks to both of you – this is an excellent book. I’ve read so many good books recently I seem to be saying that a lot.

Season of the Witch is a thrilling, spine tingling story of mystery, mysticism and magic, abounding with symbolism. It’s a modern day gothic epic, mixing computer technology with witchcraft, alchemy and the power of the human mind, in the search for enlightenment.

The book jacket gives a good summary of the Season of the Witch:

‘Gabriel Blackstone is a cool, hip, thoroughly twenty-first century Londoner with an unusual talent. A computer hacker by trade, he is – by inclination- a remote viewer; someone whose unique gifts enable him to ‘slam rides’ through the thought processes of others.

But reading people’s minds is something he does only with the greatest reluctance – until he is contacted by an ex-lover who begs him to use his gift to find her stepson, last seen months earlier in the company of two sisters.

And so Gabriel visits Monk House in Chelsea, a place where time seems to stand still.’

The mystery of Robbie’s disappearance leads Gabriel into breaking into Monk House and there are many passages which I felt I had to race through to prevent him from being discovered; that nervous tension anticipating danger that you feel watching a horror film build up leaving me breathless as I read.

I find it hard when reading a book to take notes at the same time as it breaks the flow of my reading and then I struggle to pinpoint exactly what I particularly liked and where in the narrative things occurred. The pace of this book was making me read so fast that I knew I had to slow down or I’d never remember anything except that I liked it. So every now and then I stopped to take stock and after about 100 pages I did start to jot down some page references.

Minnaloushe and Morrighan Monk (wonderful names), the beautiful mysterious sisters are descendants of Dr John Dee, a mathematical genius, alchemist and secret adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. Minnaloushe similarly is a mathematical genius who constructs a ‘memory palace’ a mental aid to enhance the memory in the Renaissance tradition. Morrighan is the strong, athletic, risk taker. Both of them bewitch Gabriel as he seeks to unravel the mystery behind Robbie’s disappearance.

The connection to Dee reminded me of Peter Ackroyd’s The House of Doctor Dee which moves between London of the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, sometimes with no clear distinction between the two, and is about Dee’s alleged attempt to kill Queen Mary by sorcery and the secrets of love and power. Mostert’s book is also about the power of the mind; and the seduction of obsession and love, combined with the concept of alchemy, not only being used to turn lead into gold but as the means to enlightenment. Morrighan says,

Alchemy is really the transformation of the spirit into a higher form of consciousness. Enlightenment. Coming face to face with God and discovering His motivations for creating the universe and your own place within it.

One of the themes that interested me is that of memory, so when I read ‘ we forget what we’ve read almost as soon as we’ve read it’, I couldn’t agree more. The memory palace was a technique originating with the ancient Greeks, which was later developed by alchemists and Gnostics during the Renaissance. A form of mnemonics. These days we use so many aids to memory that don’t actually involve remembering, so much as finding out where to find information. We don’t commit things to memory so much as people did in the past – our minds are shrinking, a horrible thought. It comes as no surprise to find out that the sisters’ mother had Alzheimer’s, which triggered Minnaloushe’s interest in the subject of memory.

Minnaloushe’s hypothesis is that ‘Man’s soul is inextricably bound to his power of recollection.’ This is a disturbing thought and I remembered my feeling of dis-ease when reading Deborah Wearing’s biographical account of her husband Clive’s amnesia in Forever Today. A virus attacked his brain destroying that part essential for memory, leaving him trapped in a limbo of the constant present. He had been a BBC music producer and conductor and the musical part of his brain seemed unaffected as well as his love for his wife. The constant repetition of the same thing over and over is harrowing, every moment was new and every thought the same. Eventually his memory began to improve.

I’m also reading The Remainder by Tom McCarthy, another novel on the themes of memory, amnesia and identity. I’m finding this hard going at the moment as it seems to be going over and over the same ideas, reflecting the state of mind of the main character as he tries to regain his memory. As I haven’t finished it all I can say now is that it’s a disturbing book and I found myself thinking this is just not real – strange really considering I can easily accept complete fantasy as ‘real’.

Season of a Witch is a book that leads me to thinking of other books, not just the ones I’ve mentioned but also David Shenk’s The Forgetting: understanding Alzheimer’s: the biography of a disease. This is a remarkable book about the wasting away of the mind, inside a still vigorous body. I read this a few years ago when we thought my mother-in-law might have it – she didn’t, but she had dementia which is very similar in its effects. Looking at it today I think I’d like to read it again. Adam Phillips in the preface refers to reconsidering our relationship with time as Alzheimer’s is about living in (and so for) the moment. ‘Out of fear of mortality we have idealised health and youth and competence. The Forgetting reminds us, among many other things, that there is more to life than all that.’

Another reason this has piqued my interest again is Shenk’s account of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s senile dementia, and because of Stefanie’s posts on Emerson at So Many Books I know more about him than when I read Shenk’s book.

This post has digressed from its original topic but I’m so glad I read Season of the Witch – a compelling read, which has given me much to ponder and led me back to other books and forward to yet others. I see that Natasha Mostert has written other books – see here for more information. This is the first book of hers I’ve read but it will not be the last.

The House at Riverton, by Kate Morton

It’s with a sense of loss that I finished reading The House at Riverton. I felt as though I’d now lost contact with the characters and the worlds they inhabit. I say worlds because this novel is split into two time zones, so widely different in all aspects that they could be separate worlds.

The novel opens in 1999 (reminsicent of Du Maurier’s Rebecca) with Grace’s dream of the night in 1924 when Robbie Hunter, a poet, committed suicide at Riverton Manor. Grace’s memories are revived after Ursula, an American film director who is making a film of the suicide had asked for her help as the only person involved who was still alive.

Grace had worked for the Hartford family during the period 1914 – 1924 , first as a housemaid at Riverton Manor house, then in London as lady’s maid to Hannah, one of the Hartford sisters. The social life of the upper classes during the Edwardian period is the setting for this part of the novel, vividly bringing it to life and contrasting with life and society in the 1990s. The secrets concerning both Grace’s past life and her relationship with the two sisters, Hannah and Emmeline are told in a series of flashbacks as Grace records her memories on tape for her grandson, Marcus (and there is a mystery surrounding Marcus too).

This is a richly descriptive book, well located both in time and place, indentifying the differences in the social classes in 1914 on the eve of the first world war and the immense changes that followed. The characters are well-drawn and believable. The tension and the pace of the novel held my attention throughout, so much so that I had to concentrate on reading just this one book, instead of picking up several as I normally do.

This is a book about strong characters, about families and relationships within the family, particularly between sisters; about privilege; effects of war and change within society; and there is a mystery as well. Definitely a book worth reading.

 

Books To Be Read?

I finished reading The Amber Spyglass today (more of that in another post) and have been wondering which book to read next. I started Remainder last week and so far it’s okay, but after the Pullman books I need something extra. I looked at my books on LibraryThing and found to my great surprise that I have 77 books tagged “tbr” – I can’t believe it! And what’s more I’ve not got all my books entered in yet. And I’ve got 15 books out from the library.

Things have got out of hand. So my project for some time is to sort through the “to be read” books and decide some order of reading, but I know from previuos attempts to organise my reading I won’t stick to it and some other books will call out to be read and I’ll have even more waiting to be read …

Booking through Thursday

Indoctrination

Using a suggestion from Erin today:Indoctrination

When growing up did your family share your love of books? If so, did one person get you into reading? And, do you have any family-oriented memories with books and reading? (Family trips to bookstore, reading the same book as a sibling or parent, etc.)

My love of books is down entirely to my parents. My Dad read to me every night and made up stories for me as well. Both my parents encouraged me to read and Dad made me a bookcase which I still have today. It was always a treat to go to the bookshop and choose a book and books have always been the presents I would choose if my aunties asked what I wanted for Christmas. My mother was always reading as well. I’d come home from school to find her reading and I’d pick up a book too.

She used to take me to the branch library, first when I was very small, on a little seat on the back of her bike and later on we went every Saturday on the bus to the bigger library in the town nearby. There was also a travelling library that came round the road where we lived and we borrowed books from that too. I suppose that it was inevitable that I became a librarian – that was my Dad’s suggestion and it was ideal for me, surrounded by books at home and at work.

Outmoded Authors

I’ve been engrossed in looking up authors for the Outmoded Authors challenge I’ve joined. This is the first challenge I’ve actually joined, so it’s exciting too.

Imani has set up the challenge, which will last for six months ending on February 28th 2008. During that time the challenge is to read however many books by however many authors you like from a good long list. I’ve never heard of some of them, so that’s another opportunity to broaden my reading. I decided to limit my choice to books I already have or can borrow from my local library.

So far I think I’d like to read:

G K Chesterton, The Complete Father Brown
I’ve read some of Chesterton’s books before, but none of the Father Brown books. There’s a copy in my local library – in the Reserve Stock.

Walter Scott, Ivanhoe
I’ve never read any Scott and as I have a copy of Ivanhoe, I’ll start with this. My copy is an old hardback book, one of a set of classic books published by Odhams Press that belonged to my father-in-law. I also fancy reading Scott’s Waverley.

Somerset Maugham, Books and You & The Moon and Sixpence
I used to love watching Maugham’s plays, when they used to show them on TV, but have never read anything by him. The library has copies of both of these. Books and You sounds intriguing from its title.

John Galsworthy, The Forsyte Saga
I’m surprised to find that I’ve never read any Galsworthy either, but as The Forsyte Saga was recently serialised on TV I know the story. I’ll be interested to see how faithful the series was to the book. Sometimes, I don’t like a film or TV dramatisation if I’ve read the book first, but it’s usually ok the other way round.

Olivia Manning, The Balkan Trilogy
I know nothing about Manning’s books. The on-line catalogue of my local library lists this one volume book comprising The Great Fortune ; The Spoilt City ; Friends and Heroes.

Italo Svevo, As a Man Grows Older
I know absolutely nothing about this author and have never heard of him before, so this may or may not be a good choice. The library has a copy of this.

D H Lawrence, Sons and Lovers
I have read Women in Love and The Virgin and the Gypsy, but not Sons and Lovers. I’ve had a battered secondhand copy of Sons and Lovers sitting in a bookcase for years, so now is the time to read it.

I don’t know whether I’ll manage all these but I’m looking forward to alternating them with other books I’d like to read.

Booking Through Thursday

It’s Booking through Thursday time again.

Monogamy

One book at a time? Or more than one? If more, are they different types/genres? Or similar?
(We’™re talking recreational reading, here’”books for work or school don’™t really count since they’™re not optional.)

Definitely more than one book at a time. I like to have a few going at the same time, although recently I did try reading just one book – Harry Potter. I thought when I finished it I would carry on reading only one book, but there are so many books I want to read that I just had to start others as well. I also like to mix up the genres and read some non-fiction as well as fiction. At the moment the non-fiction is biography.

Currently I’m reading four – see on the left. Lewis Carroll is breakfast time reading, then The House at Riverton whilst I have coffee (and a bit longer too) and at night, as it’s really a good book – I could drop the others for a while maybe to finish this. The other two I fit in now and then – the Michael Palin Diaires goes nicely in short doses. I’ve only just started Remainder – in preparation for finishing The House at Riverton.

It helps to have more than one on the go at once, because sometimes I hit a time when nothing fits the bill and even though I’ve lots of books waiting to be read, I can’t find just the right one.

Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk

I finished reading Arlington Park over a week ago and I’ve been pondering since then why I found this book so interesting when it is about an ordinary day, when nothing much happens, in the lives of bored, suburban housewives.

This book starts off well for me with the opening sentence: ‘All night the rain fell on Arlington Park.‘ The entire chapter is then devoted to a description of the rain falling on this English suburb contrasted with the neighbouring city. This was very apt because as I started to read the rain was falling and continued to fall for some considerable time. Rachel Cusk’s writing is most impressive in this description of rain.The monotony of it is emphasisied by the numerous repetions of “It fell…“; its sound is reproduced: “like the sound of uproarious applause. It was if a great audience were applauding. Louder and louder it grew, this strange unsettling sound … as if a dark audience had assembled outside and were looking in through the windows, clapping their hands.

This was only one of a few books that I was reading, so I hadn’t finish it when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published and that was just one book too many to add to my piles of reading. Unusually for me, I decided to concentrate on reading just one book at a time and read Harry Potter straight through.

Then I decided to finish, one by one, the other books I’d started. Surprisingly, this worked quite well and as I was away from home I did have more time to just sit and read. The weather was good too, so that helped. I sat on the patio at Twilles Barn enjoying the sunshine, cups of tea, glasses of wine and my books. The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman was next as I was two thirds of the way into that – more about that in another post.

Then I picked up Arlington Park again and when I began to read I wished I’d not put it down. I was about half way through it and the rain had stopped falling on Arlington Park and the sun was shining there, bringing people out from their cars, houses and streets down the paths into the park. This section reminded me of Virginia Wolfe’s short story Kew Gardens with its descriptions of people in the park on a sunny day. Location is important in this book, with vivid well-drawn descriptions of places as well as the people who live there and their relationships. It’s a well-written, easy to read book that makes you want to read on, which is amazing really as it’s about an ordinary day in the lives of several women, their relationships and the everyday minutiae of life.

My overall view of Arlington Park is that it is a book about angry, discontented women who are feeling either inadequate, or as though something they cannot identify is missing from their lives, blaming their discontent and frustration on their husbands and children. We meet Juliet first, who is a part-time teacher, married with two children. It is morning and Juliet is upset, feeling that she is the person who does everything, angry at men and the way she perceives they treat women, ‘All men are murderers’, Juliet thought. Juliet and Benedict are invited to the Langhams for dinner in the evening.

Then there is Amanda, a perfectionist who appears cool and detached (she loves her car) and in control of her life, whereas she actually feels that she is inadequate and boring. She has invited other mothers for coffee and is preparing for their visit, when her sister phones with news that their grandmother has just died. She appears to be in the novel as a link, as one of the mothers who visits her is Christine Langham (who gives the dinner party in the evening) and it is Christine who is next in the spotlight, when she, Maisie and Stephanie drive to Merrywood Mall, the shopping centre three miles from Arlington Park. I would have liked to know more about Amanda and how she dealt with her feelings on hearing of her grandmother’s death.

We see the shopping expedition mainly from Christine’s point of view. She contrasts the refinement of living in Arlington Park with the surrounding areas they cross to get to the Mall. She is afraid of ‘inauthenticity which seemed to reveal to her the vulnerability of her grasp on the real, the authentic life.’ The Shopping Centre makes her feel good, that life is full of possibilities – but how it makes her feel good and what these possibilities are seem also to be beyond her grasp. I particularly like the description of the shopping mall:

It was like an illustration of the heart: people were carried upwards by the escalators, eventually to re-emerge, oxygenated by shopping.  The place was full of people, on the escalators, all along the glass-fronted galleries milling on the broad avenues that led off the main hall, yet the acoustics and saturating glassy light deadened the sense of human congress so that they seemed almost to be swimming or floating rather than walking.

The there is Solly, who has no connection with the other women apart from the fact that she also lives in Arlington Park. She too feels she’s a failure – ‘a sack stuffed with children, a woman who had spent and spent her life until there was none left‘. She’s pregnant and dreading the birth of yet another child. Children are either ignored or considered to be a nuisance or a hindrance to most of the women in this book.

Back then to Juliet and her boredom with life. It is now late afternoon and she is taking the after school Literary Club. Juliet’s disillusionment with life is expressed in her thoughts on the pointlessness of it all:

And what was it all for? What was the point of it? In what sense did the girls, even the scientists, profit from their hard work and their grades? Sooner or later they would meet a man and it would all be stolen from them. The girl with her chemistry textbooks would meet a man and little by little he would murder her.

More doom and gloom follows when we enter Maisie Carrington’s house and are confronted with her melancholy. She feels divorced from life, as a character in a play, seeing herself ‘always animated by a nameless dissatisfaction.’ She is driven by her needs into her marriage, her job, house and children, but always feeling ‘not right, like a boat in a harbour where the tide has gone out, lying helplessly on her side in the mud with the neutered fin of her rudder drying in the air.’

This sense of the hopelessness of these women’s lives concludes the book with the dinner party in the evening at the Langhams, where Juliet and Benedict Randall, Maisie and Dom Carrington and a new couple Dave and Maggie Spooner meet. By this time Christine is at the end of her tether, preparing for the dinner party (reminders of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway?) and feeling that all life is work and that she has to do it all, Joe, her husband arousing feelings of mutiny within her. I did enjoy this description, needless to say I’m glad I was reading it and not having to eat the end result:

With a knife Chrisitine slit open a chicken breast and forced the herb
butter into the jellied flesh with her fingers. It was hard to get the butter to
stay in. It kept coming away on her fingers. She prised open the slit and wiped
her fingers all over the veined insides. Liquid ran out and coated the gobs of
butter and made them slippery.

Christine, like Juliet is an angry, self-centred woman, dissatisfied with her life. ‘You’ve got to love just – being alive’, she says more in despair than in hope, it seems. Yet the final paragraph in this book does hold out some hope for Christine, but only through Joe. She looks at him and ‘sees his face as a form of safekeeping, the whole world of herself concentrated on this little stage.’

To me this is a book about the depression, discontent and the despair some women feel trapped in lives that they find meaningless and futile. I am amazed that such topics can be made so entertaining and enjoyable. I think I like it because of Cusk’s style of writing – the descriptions of people and places so that they are real, I can see and hear them in my mind. At times I laughed out loud and at other times I was irritated by the attitudes and prejudices, but at all times I was entertained. It was nominated for the Orange Prize, but lost out to Half a Yellow Sun, which I have waiting to be read. I only hope that I enjoy it as much as Arlington Park.