Books read in September

1. Letters to Malcolm by C S Lewis
2. Speaking of Love by Angela Young
3. Crow Lake by Mary Lawson
4. Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott
5. Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson
6. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
7. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
8. The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Fall of the House of Usher and The Black Cat from Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allen Poe

I finished reading a good mixture of books in September. First in the month was Letters to Malcolm by C S Lewis, which was our book group meeting’™s choice. For this group we usually read religious non-fiction, both older and more recent books. Letters to Malcolm was published in 1963, not long before Lewis’™s death. It takes the form of letters on prayer written to an fictitious correspondent called Malcolm in a similar vein to The Screwtape Letters, but nowhere nearly as amusing or as confrontational. He has some interesting comments on different aspects of prayer: petitionary prayer, prayers of praise, corporate prayer, and whether it is right to pray for the dead.

There are some questions he poses that he doesn’™t answer directly, which made me ponder further. Such an example is how can we account for the embarrassing promises made in the Bible that what we pray for with faith we shall receive. I’™ve always found this statement puzzling. So did Lewis: ‘œEvery war, every famine or plague, almost every death-bed, is the monument to a petition that was not granted.’ The difficulty is not why prayer isn’™t answered, but why it is promised and Lewis can only offer guesses. He asks, as I do too: ‘œAre we only talking to ourselves in an empty universe?’

I’™ve already written about Speaking of Love (see here), Crow Lake (here), Ghostwalk (here) and Ivanhoe (here) all of which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Edgar Allen Poe’™s short stories are very short and I’™ve discovered that I don’™t really like such short stories. These are most grizzly and so horrific that they turn my stomach, particularly The Black Cat, in which the narrator kills his wife with an axe and then bricks her up in the cellar. When the police arrive and search the premises they hear the cat howling and wailing and lo and behold when the wall is opened there is the corpse, ‘œgreatly decayed and clotted with gore’ and standing on its head is the cat ‘œwith red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire.’

I had built up in my mind this picture of Poe’™s tales as being really spooky and scary, but reading them proved to be disappointing. The Fall of the House of Usher is a bit better, but it still didn’™t live up to my expectations. It’™s a story of the decay of a family into madness and this time the lady of the House of Usher is buried alive.

I’™ve written about The Murders in the Rue Morgue here. This story too has gory details and is interesting as the forerunner of the modern detective story. I’™m not sure I’™m going to read all of Poe’™s tales, but I am going to see if reading The Pit and The Pendulum is as terrifying as watching Vincent Price in the movie.

Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson is a beautiful book and Alan Bennett’™s The Uncommon Reader is a little masterpiece. I’™ll write about both of these in another post, as this is enough for now.

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

I was surprised to find that Ivanhoe was easier to read than I had imagined, although Scott does use some archaic language and there were a few words that I had to look up. It took me some time to read as it’s nearly 500 pages of quite small font in my copy, but I’™m glad I’™ve read it. It’™s a mixture of romance and historical fiction, although I can’™t vouch for its historical accuracy and Scott admits that ‘œit is extremely probable that I may have confused the manner of two or three centuries, and introduced, during the reign of Richard the First, circumstances appropriated to a period either considerably earlier or a good deal later than that era.’

Set in England in the 12th century, ruled by the Normans it is the story of the continuing conflict, approximately a century after the Battle of Hastings, between the Normans, and the Saxons. There are many characters, including Saxon nobles and peasants; Norman knights and Knights Templar; Jews; and outlaws – Robin Hood and his merry men. Ivanhoe is the son of a Saxon noble, Cedric who has plans to marry his ward, the Lady Rowena to Athelstane, a descendant of the last Saxon monarchs, in an attempt to regain the throne. However, Ivanhoe and Rowena are in love and so his father has banished him.

As the story begins Ivanhoe has returned from the Crusades, in disguise, to his home hoping somehow to win Rowena as his bride and he challenges the Knight Templar, Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert at a tournament held by Prince John. As a result he is severely wounded and cared for by the Rebecca, the beautiful daughter of the Jew, Isaac. With the reported escape of King Richard the Lionheart from imprisonment by the Duke of Austria, Prince John fears that the unidentified Black Knight who is victorious at the tournament is his brother returned from the Crusades.

A series of events then rapidly follows including the capture of Rowena, Cedric, Athelstane, Rebecca, Isaac and Ivanhoe by the supporters of Prince John. They are held in the ancient castle of Torquilstone, now belonging to the Norman, Reginald Front-de-Boeuf. The Black Knight is of course Richard and he enlists the help of the outlaws Locksley (also known as Robin Hood), Friar Tuck and Alan-a Dale to rescue them.

Scott gives a blow-by-blow account of the siege of the castle and rescue of the captives. I normally gloss over battle scenes as I find descriptions confusing and I admit boring, but Scott won me over completely. Rebecca gives such a vivid description of the battle to Ivanhoe, as he lies wounded on his sick bed, that it seemed as though I was there seeing it for myself. Rebecca of course falls in love with Ivanhoe, who at first seems to be enchanted by her, until she reveals that she is a Jewess.

The racial tension between the Christians, the Jews and the Muslims is one of the themes running through the novel, and is paralleled by the tension between the Normans and the Saxon ‘œporkers’. Rebecca’™s position as one of the despised Jews is contrasted with Rowena’™s with her proud disdain of the Normans. However, lust overcomes prejudice as Bois-Guilbert is infatuated with Rebecca and attempts to seduce her.

The story has many twists and turns. Athelstane is declared dead and then later is found to be alive; Ulrica, the dispossessed Saxon heiress of the castle of Torquilstone dramatically takes revenge on Front-de-Boeuf; and Rebecca is accused of practising witchcraft on Bois-Guilbert. She is condemned to death but pleads for a champion to fight her cause against Bois- Guilbert. Ivanhoe still suffering from his wounds races to the combat and declares himself as Rebecca’™s champion. He is victorious but spares Bois- Guilbert’™s life.

Ivanhoe almost takes backstage being injured and out of action for most of the novel, with the spotlight mainly on the heroic actions of Richard and also on the story of Rebecca. I think Rebecca is actually the star of the book and the scenes of her conflict with Bois-Guilbert reflect the misogyny and racial oppression of the times. ‘˜Rebecca’™ is a good title for a book, yes?

R.I.P.Challenge II The Murders in the Rue Morgue

The Murders in the Rue Morgue from Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. I’m finding these short stories interesting, if not spine chilling, although some of the descriptions (as in this story) turn my stomach.

 

This short story is the forerunner of the detective story, in which an amateur discovers who committed the crime through using his superior skill and logic when the police are baffled.

The key to this story is analysis. It opens with an account of analysis using the games of draughts, chess and whist as comparison. Poe writes:

As the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting in such exercises as call his muscles into action, so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles.

Monsieur C Auguste Dupin is the amateur, the analyst, who discovers the identity of the murderer of an old lady and her daughter. About 3 o’clock in the morning the neighbours in the Rue Morgue, Paris are awakened by a succession of terrific shrieks. The daughter is found on the fourth floor of the house behind a locked door (locked on the inside). The room is in the ‘wildest disorder’, there is a razor smeared with blood and tresses of long, grey, bloody hair, apparently pulled out by the roots. There was no sign of a body, but one was eventually found in the chimney:

and (horrible to relate!) the corpse of the daughter, head downward, was dragged therefrom: it having been thus forced up the narrow aperture for a considerable distance.

The body of the mother is found in the yard at the rear of the building ‘with her throat so entirely cut that, upon an attempt to raise her, the head fell off.’

Both bodies showed signs of brutal mutilation, vividly described by Poe. There are several people who gave evidence all differing about the nationality of the voices that they heard coming from the building. There is seemingly no way that the murderer could have either entered or left the room, or indeed the building. Dupin with his superior analytical skill manages to uncover the fantastical sequence of events that resulted in the murders and establishes the identity of the killer.

Poe’s style is detailed and to match the character of Dupin is detached and dispassionate. Apart from the horrific details of the state of the bodies there is nothing macabre in this tale. I could guess the identity of the murderer, but I think that’s because I’ve seen films and read books with a similar storyline – lifted from Poe, I now suspect. Dupin is not a particular likeable detective, but he uses his little grey cells in a manner much like Agatha Christie’s Poirot and, of course, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

Lewis Carroll … Again

Whilst in Stratford last week I browsed the bookshops, one of my favourite pastimes, and couldn’t resist buying The Complete Stories and Poems of Lewis Carroll. I have my old and well-worn copy of Through The Looking Glass but I don’t have the copy of Alice in Wonderland that I read as a child. So I was delighted to see this book with the Tenniel illustrations and other stories and poems by Carroll that I haven’t read before.

Included in the book are Sylvie and Bruno, The Hunting of the Snark, as well as early verses and college rhymes, and acrostic and other poems.

The Tenniel woodcut illustrations are brilliant. Here is the Mad Hatter, singing:

“Twinkle, Twinkle little bat!
How I wonder what you’re at!
Up above the world you fly,
Like a tea-tray in the sky.”
Tenniel sounds like a stickler for perfection and the first edition of Alice had to be re-printed because he was not satisfied with the printing of his pictures. Most of the copies of the original edition were recalled but some survived and are now worth a fortune.

When Through the Looking Glass was being produced Tenniel sent Carroll his drawing of the Jabberwock for the frontispiece. Carroll was concerned that children would be frightened by the monster and sent copies of the drawing to thirty mothers asking their opinion. They agreed that it was too frightening and so the drawing of the White Knight was used at the front of the book and the Jabberwock was relegated to the text. I like the White Knight, but actually when I was a child I was fascinated by the Jabberwock and didn’t find the drawing the slightest bit frightening.

Looking at it now it does look terrifying and I can understand how a parent would find it alarming – strange how one’s perception changes.

My love of words probably stems from Through The Looking Glass. I remember learning and reciting the Jabberwocky as I enjoyed the sounds, without understanding exactly what it means:

“‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogroves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jujub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch.”

“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.'”

Brilliant!

Stratford and Twelfth Night at The Courtyard Theatre

D and I have been away for a few days. We went to Stratford to see Twelfth Night at The Courtyard Theatre. Although we have stayed in Stratford several times over the last 10 years and watched several plays performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company we had never been to The Courtyard Theatre before. We were quite surprised that it was some distance away from the main theatre and in what looks like a large rusty metal box. Fortunately the inside is nothing like the outside and the auditorium is impressive, seating over 1,000 people, with the audience seated around three sides of the stage. We were in the stalls and had a really good view of all the action on the stage.

On previous visits to Stratford it has been crowded with tourists and we’ve never visited Shakespeare’s birthplace. We didn’t make it this time either, but when we walked up to The Courtyard theatre in the morning before the matinee we followed the signs to Holy Trinity Church where Shakespeare was baptised in 1564, where he worshipped and where he is buried. Holy Trinity Church is a beautiful church dating back to the 13th century, set in a lovely, peaceful position by the River Avon. Perhaps next time we’ll manage to visit Shakespeare’s Birthplace and the Shakespeare Centre.

We stayed at the Alveston Manor Hotel. We’ve stayed here before, as it is just a few minutes walk from the River Avon and the RSC Theatre and also because the original timber-framed house is a beautiful Tudor building, full of atmosphere – leaded Elizabethan windows, panelled walls lined with paintings of Shakespeare and characters from the plays and photographs of old playbills. It is set in gardens with an ancient Cedar Tree under which, it is rumoured, the first performance of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was given.

Twelfth Night

We went to the matinee performance. The theatre was full and as we waited for the play to start we overheard from the seats behind us: ‘Well Mother, this is going to be different. I’m hoping a lot of this will pass you by.’

At the end of the performance we overheard a conversation from a couple following behind us as we walked away from the theatre: ‘I thought Feste and Malvolio were the best.’ ‘Oh no’ came the friend’s reply ‘I didnt like Feste at all – ‘far too modern and the microphone! Her friend: ‘I didnt like Sir Toby, a woman doesn’t have enough stature to play a man.’ The cross-dressing was not to everyone’s liking, although I think the teenage element of the audience found it hilarious.

This was the second performance of Twelfth Night that we’ve seen by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. The first time was in the RSC theatre, now closed because a new auditorium is being built (due to be completed in 2010). That was a traditional performance, complete with Feste, the fool dressed in motley, playing a lute, an Elizabethan set and was very colourful and funny. This performance was different. The setting was black; nearly all the actors were dressed in black Edwardian costumes and not a box-tree in sight. Feste was a dissolute musician in evening dress, playing a grand piano, and using a microphone into which he drawled at the opening of the play ‘Twelfth Night – or What you Will ‘ –  and the scene was set. On came Viola, shipwrecked, barefoot and in a nightdress and shawl, and obviously a man.

The play continued – Viola, believing her twin brother, Sebastian has drowned in the wreck ‘disguised’ as a boy, Cesario, goes to the court of the Count Orsino, who is besotted with unrequited love of the Lady Olivia, who repels his wooing as she is in mourning for her dead brother. Everything is topsy-turvy in this play and this performance certainly demonstrated that, with Sir Toby Belch (Olivia’s uncle), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (a foolish foppish knight) and Fabian (a servant) all played by women, giving a pantomime performance and reminding me somewhat of the hobbits in Lord of The Rings – small in size but yet full grown and different from adult men. I could suspend my disbelief to enjoy their performance, even though I found it a bit bizarre, but I’m sorry to say that I found the performance of Viola/Cesario (Chris New) was just not convincing – even though I know that originally women’s roles were played by boys, there was no way that I could conceive he was a woman disguised as a boy, nor that Olivia could possibly find such an effeminate young man attractive, let alone fall in love with him and this grated and irritated me throughout the play.

I did like Feste (James Clyde); his foolery, his bored condescension and his singing were superb. I also liked Olivia (Justine Mitchell) and her housekeeper Maria (Siobhan Redmond) who both gave spirited and convincing performances. Malvolio (John Lithgow) was magnificent in his portrayal of the ridiculous steward driven into seeming madness, wearing cross-gartered yellow stockings and smiling grotesquely. The grand piano had to stand in for the box-tree, so that this was where the tipsy Sir Toby (Marjorie Yates in tweeds) and the others hid to watch Malvolio find the letter written to fool him into believing Olivia loves him and it worked quite well, as the actors popped up and down commenting on and sniggering at Malvolio’s conceit and self importance.

Twelfth Night relies on the use of language and wit and is essentially a comedy about deception and disguise, about illusion and reality, about what is sane and what is rational and above all about love, the irrationality and unruliness of love.

Like the lady behind me I thought Feste and Malvolio were the best and I’d add Maria and Olivia as well – they were all excellent and made the play one that I enjoyed and will remember.

An added bonus was that whilst in Stratford I bought a hardback copy of Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare: the Biography for the bargain price of £3.35.

Lewis Carroll, Photography and Memories of Childhood

I’™m reading Lewis Carroll: a biography by Morton N Cohen. Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, two of my favourite books from childhood, was the pseudonym for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832 ‘“ 1898), a Victorian mathematics don at Oxford University.

In this post I’™m concentrating on Charles’™s keen interest in photography. This developed from his early drawings and sketches illustrating verses and short stories he wrote in the family magazines and booklets. By the time he was 24 in 1856 photography had become an absorbing pastime for him, encouraged by his uncle and fellow students at Oxford. He bought a camera, the necessary chemicals and the extensive and cumbersome equipment needed to take photographs. It was very different from photography today, when all you need is a small digital camera that goes easily in a pocket or handbag (unless you’™re a professional photographer, or very keen amateur) and the results can be instantly seen.

He arranged his photographs in albums, all indexed and listed in registers. He took landscapes, architecture, drawings and sculptures ‘“ but his main interest was in portraits of people, his family, friends and Oxford colleagues. Photography gave Charles entry to the Oxford social world through his portraits, mainly of small children. He introduced himself to Alfred Tennyson, as a result of simply arriving uninvited when Tennyson was visiting friends in Coniston and proposing to take photographs of his children.

His main focus was the Liddell children. Henry Liddell was the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, where Charles had become Mathematical Lecturer in 1855. The Liddell family included Alice and her older sister Lorina. Charles was a great favourite with the Liddell family and the stories he told to them and in particular to Alice were later published as Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. He became well known as a portrait photographer and took many photographs of friends’™ families, enjoying the theatricality of dressing up, using props and composing scenes for his set pieces. He was particularly interested in the composition of his photographs for proportion and balance, and examined other photographers’™ work at the Exhibition of he British Artists in London in 1857 ‘œ’¦ chiefly for the arrangement of hands to help in grouping of photographs.’

Photography in the 1850s was a complicated and intricate business. You needed a darkroom to prepare the ‘œplate’ ‘“ film didn’™t come into use until the 1880s ‘“ by pouring a gummy solution of collodion onto a glass plate. This had to be carefully prepared so that it wasn’™t smudged or spoiled by dust particles and then carried to the camera. Once the plate had been exposed you then had to rush back to the darkroom to develop it and then it had to be fixed, varnished and allowed to dry.

For outdoor photography all the equipment, including a darkroom tent and water for rinsing the plate when there was no fresh water available, had to be transported to the countryside. There was so much equipment that Charles had to hire a porter and a carriage or horse-drawn van to carry it all. It was a major expedition and not surprisingly Charles didn’t take many landscape photographs.

Photography is no longer such a difficult process, so much so that we take it for granted. My grandchildren are used to instant digital photographs and have no idea of what it was like when I was a child, anymore than I had any idea of what photography was like when my parents were children, let alone in the 1850s. My dad had a Kodak Box Brownie camera and I remember waiting for what seemed like ages for our black and white holiday photos to arrive back from the chemists. You had to be careful with loading the film not to expose it and had to remember to wind it on between photos. Later we had colour film and then the excitement of Polaroid cameras when you could hold the print in your hand as it developed ‘“ instant photographs!

This has sent me on a trip down memory lane and here are some photos taken on the Box Brownie. I was about three in the photos on the beach. I think it’s amusing to see what my Dad wore on the beach – a jacket and with his trousers rolled up for paddling.

I’m perhaps a bit older in the photo with my Mum, looking at lots of sandpies. We used to go to New Brighton in the summer, so I think these photos were taken there.

Here I am in the garden at home looking very fed up at having to pose in front of the raspberry bushes for the photo. The last photo is of me and my Taid (Welsh for grandfather) – my mum’s dad. Granny and Taid came to live with us when I was 6.

Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott – R.I.P. Challenge II

On the cover Iain Pears describes Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott as ‘a compelling contemporary love story and a fascinating historical investigation.’I’ll add to this that it is a tale of the supernatural concerning two mysteries – one from the present day and one from the 17th century, where the past and the present are seen to overlap.

As indicated by the title the book is haunted by ghosts. It’s also full of alchemy, mysterious figures, quantum physics and animal liberation campaigns. All of which make a potent mixture. This is the second book I’ve read recently with alchemy as a theme – see The Season of the Witch, here.

It is set in Cambridge, following the death of Elizabeth Vogelsang, a reclusive historian, found floating in the river that runs through her orchard, clutching an antique glass prism in one hand. Was it suicide, or was she murdered? Cameron, her son a neuroscientist, asks Lydia Brooke (formerly they were lovers) to finish writing his mother’s book about the 17th century and Isaac Newton’s involvement with alchemy. Lydia moves into Elizabeth’s house – a strange house full of light moving upon the walls, flickering, appearing and disappearing for no apparent reason. Lydia explains:

Light that looks like water- as if it’s reflected off a bowl of water. Rainbows that appear in little stubs that stretch out till they disappear, really slowly. I’ve tried photographing them but my camera doesn’t seem to be good enough to catch them.

The book moves in time between the present day and the future as well as the past. Life is seen as a palimpsest, layers of time overlapping and interweaving. It’s narrated by Lydia, who finds herself heading back into a relationship with Cameron, as she looks back on the events that lead up to a court case and into a series of mysterious deaths in the 17th century. At first I found it somewhat puzzling and fragmentary – who was being addressed and who is on trial, how did the animal liberation campaign fit in, what was Newton’s involvement, who was responsible for the deaths and how or if they were connected to the present day?

The image of ground elder with its tenacious roots joining a ‘great network of root systems underground’ indicates the connections that will be revealed as the story unfolds, once Lydia starts digging into the past. The paranormal is added to the mix through Elizabeth’s friend Dilys Kite, a psychic, who reminded me of Hilary Mantel’s character Alison in Beyond Black, who Lydia consults in an attempt to find out more about the past than is revealed in written sources. The interconnection theme is continued in the theories of quantum physics, with the mystery of how particles of light and energy, and time and space are intricately entangled.

The setting is brought to life through Stott’s beautiful descriptions of Cambridge, invoking the smells of the medieval fair, the colours along the River Cam and the landscape of the Fens. Colour and light play a large part in the book; a description I particularly like is this of the river:

Reflected colours ran from the brightly painted barges into the water. Greens – so many greens all around us: the silver-green of the underside of the willow trees, the emerald of the grass along the bank, the mottled grey-brown-greens of the scrubland on the common over the other side. Virginia Woolf had described the riverbanks as being on fire on either side of the Cam, but there was no such fire here now. Or at least not yet. There was red – rowan berries, rose hips, pyracanthas – but the red sat against the astonishing palette of autumn green like the sparks of a newly lit fire, like drops of crimson blood in the hedgerows.

A book to read and savour on many different levels.