Room

Christine lent me Room by Emma Donoghue, after we had both read The Lovely Bones. Room has a similar feel with a (younger) child narrator, but who grows up for five years in a single room with his mother, who was abducted as a teenager and kept hidden. I found the plot far more interesting after they were freed from the room, but the careful detail of how they lived/survived in the room in the first part of the book is important for the success of the second part.  The end of the book was a complete surprise for me and I found myself suddenly in tears. I wasn’t expecting that!

I enjoyed this as a page turner: after reading this and The Lovely Bones I need to tackle something a bit more challenging (thinking Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelaise).

The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury tales

Geoffrey Chaucer; Oxford University Press 2008

I really enjoyed this modern verse translation, by Peter Levi, of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It’s taken a while to read my way through, I started the book in January, but well worth the effort. Levi’s verse is excellent and colourful, Some fun quotes (just realised they are all rather focussed on getting old…)

The Reeve’s Prologue

There’s life in the old dog yet; It’s long ago
Since first my tap of life began to flow;
For surely it was Death, when I was born,
That drew the tap of life and let it run,
And it’s been flowing ever since, so fast
There’s little left in the neat empty cask,
A few drops only, on the barrel-rim.

The Reeve’s Tale

And, as her pedigree was a bit smirched,
She stank with pride, like water in a ditch;
Was full of supercilious disdain
Because—or so it seemed to her—what with
Her family and her convent education,
A lady ought to keep herself aloof.

Introduction to the Sergeant-at-Law’s Tale

I tell you, sirs, that Time wastes night and day
And steals from us in secret while we are sleeping,
And through our carlessness when we are waking,
Just like a stream that never turns again,
Descending from the mountain to the plain.
Seneca and many a philosopher
Laments for time lost more than treasure;
For, as he says, lost wealth’s reparable,
But time, once lost, is irrecoverable.
It won’t come back, any more than Molly
Gets back the maidenhead lost by folly;
And so let’s not get mouldy doing nothing.

The Prologue of the Wife of Bath’s Tale

But age, alas, that cankers everything,
Has stripped me of my beauty and spirit.
Let it go then! Goodbye, and devil take it!
The flour’s all gone; there is no more to say.
Now I must sell the bran as best I may;
But all the same I mean to have my fun.
And now I’ll tell you about my fourth husband.

The Pardoner’s Tale

O paunch! O belly! O you stinking bag!
Filled full of dung and rotten corruption,
Making a filthy noise at either end,
What an enormous labour and expense
To keep you going! These cooks, how they pound
And strain and grind, and transform and transmute
One thing to another, to placate
Your greedy, gluttonous lustful appetite!

London Triptych

A very enjoyable book and impressive debut. Three stories set roughly 50 years apart in London. All involving rent boys as significant characters. The book is well written and the characters well developed. The story from 1894 was one of the young rent boys involved with the trail of Oscar Wilde. The handling of this story reminded me of the Sins of the Cities of Plain (which is acknowledged in the afterword). The 1954 story about the late coming out of an artist inspired by his muse, who is a rent boy. This was the most enjoyable of the threads as the Jonathan Kemp captured beautifully the writer’s internal struggle and its repercussions. “1998” Was the story told by a lad in prison about falling in love (with a rent boy) which was mesmerising at the end and written with great passion.

The afterward was also a great read and probably reflects the authors academic roots. I discovered Polari Journal [An International Queer Creative Writing Journal, currently on Issue 2] and a few books to add to my wish list (or to request from the library)

  • The Victorian Underground, Kellow Chesney
  • The Verdict of You All, Rupert Croft-Cooke
  • London and the Culture of Homosexuality, 1885-1914, Matt Cook

“London Triptych” (Jonathan Kemp)

Lucky

Jenna lent me “Lucky”, following on from the two Alice Sebold novels I read earlier this year. She warned me it would be a hard read. It was. It is an autobiography that deals frankly and personally with rape, written with all the skill and control of an expert author. Sebold never seems to give in to self-pity, and is ruthless in exploring her emotions and those of her friends and family around her. Exhausting stuff. The trauma comes through clearly throughout the book. I’m left with a great respect for her strength and determination.

I found the opening chapter personally disturbing: the language and atmosphere didn’t convey a horrific rape and at times became erotic. Not a comfortable mix. I’m tempted to say this was the language used and the gentle pace. but I’m not going to analyse this too much. The final chapter deals with Sebold’s life after university—it give me quite a different impression to that which I had from her earlier novels. The links between this book and her two novels are very clear, and support one another. I’m glad I read this on lots of levels.

“Lucky” (Alice Sebold)

Imperium

Michael lent me Imperium, a historical novel set in Rome, following the rise to Consular status of Cicero, narrated by his salve/aide Tiro. The book is sold as largely accurate for history, fleshing out the human side. This was a potent mix and the book was a pacey page turner. Rome was certainly full of political intrigue towards the end of the Republic and I got a keen sense of the political collapse.

Looking forward to reading part 2 of of the planned three parts of Cicero’s life. Lustrum


“Imperium” (Robert Harris)

Almost Moon

After reading Choke I was a bit dismayed to be reading a second book touching on dementia and elderly mums. This book is almost as unsettling as The Lovely Bones. The novel covers 24 hours, watching a middle aged mother go to pieces after she kills her mother.

It took me a moment to remember her current boyfriend’s name, but as I reached up to touch the branch of the dogwood tree, I remembered its fill-in-the-blank quality. Joe or Bob or Tim. A one-syllable, easily replaceable name, like Jake.

Jenna will lend me Alice Sebold’s biography, which sounds to be the most most unsettling of all her books!


“The Almost Moon” (Alice Sebold)

The Song of Hiawatha

This set of verse stories by Longfellow has an undeservedly bad reputation for being naff. There are some painful passages of tortured verse, but also some wonderful, descriptive, uplifting verses. The Song of Hiawatha is a good read, the tales are based on indian legend and while they are romanticised pastoral of Indian life, written by a westerner, they also introduce the culture and fable in an easy to access way. I still have in my mind whenever I read them of the *fabulous* Incantations (Mike Oldfield) with Maddy Prior: see 6 min,8 secs onwards in this video for a taster:

From the brow of Hiawatha
Gone was every trace of sorrow,
As the fog from off the water,
As the mist from off the meadow.
With a smile of joy and triumph,
With a look of exultation,
As of one who in a vision
Sees what is to be, but is not,
Stood and waited Hiawatha.
Toward the sun his hands were lifted,
Both the palms spread out against it,
And between the parted fingers
Fell the sunshine on his features,
Flecked with light his naked shoulders,
As it falls and flecks an oak-tree
Through the rifted leaves and branches.
O’er the water floating, flying,
Something in the hazy distance,
Something in the mists of morning,
Loomed and lifted from the water,
Now seemed floating, now seemed flying,
Coming nearer, nearer, nearer.


“The Song of Hiawatha” (Henry W. Longfellow)

Don Juan

It’s a year tomorrow that I started reading Don Juan, and I finished it today. I’ve struggled with it as times (1, 2) and been enchanted at times (3) which is a good summary of the book as a whole. The Wikipedia summary looks good, as is the introduction to the Riverside Edition that I read. I’m very glad I read it, maybe a break before I start on some Pope!

Byron wrote the novel in part to shake off the popular image of him as his Childe Harold, from his earlier epic poem. Byron’s Don Juan screen-capture-1.png isn’t the libertine and seducer of legend, but is himself seduced and his story follows his path between six women: Donna Julia (who seduces him rather outrageously), Haidée (innocent young love), Gulbeyaz (who buys him for her harem but he resists her and falls for one of her maids, Dudu, instead), then as he grows more worldy wise (blame that on the harem) he becomes one of Catherine the Great’s lovers, before coming to England as an observer of the social mores of the time and double standards, finally in Canto 17 having a two-stanza fling with the Duchess of Fitz-Fulke. Byron died of a fever part way through Canto 17 so we won’t know where the night of passion led to (she was dressed up as the ghost of a monk, so that’s far from conventional).

screen-capture-2.png

Finding of Don Juan by Haidée

The most difficult part of the book is the dreary Russian siege of Ismail in 1790 in Cantos 6–8. There are quite a few other digressions, some of which are great and others lost me quite effectively. I kept a note of some of the fantastic stanzas: The description of Don Juan’s parents I’ve already written about (from the First Canto),

From the Second Canto (LXXV–LXXVII and further) where, shipwrecked, Don Juan and his shipmates have to resort to cannibalism is amusingly written:

The lots were made, and mark’d, and mix’d, and handed,
In silent horror, and their distribution
Lull’d even the savage hunger which demanded,
Like the Promethean vulture, this pollution;
None in particular had sought or plann’d it,
‘T was nature gnaw’d them to this resolution,
By which none were permitted to be neuter–
And the lot fell on Juan’s luckless tutor.

He but requested to be bled to death:
The surgeon had his instruments, and bled
Pedrillo, and so gently ebb’d his breath,
You hardly could perceive when he was dead.
He died as born, a Catholic in faith,
Like most in the belief in which they ‘re bred,
And first a little crucifix he kiss’d,
And then held out his jugular and wrist.

The surgeon, as there was no other fee,
Had his first choice of morsels for his pains;
But being thirstiest at the moment, he
Preferr’d a draught from the fast-flowing veins:
Part was divided, part thrown in the sea,
And such things as the entrails and the brains
Regaled two sharks, who follow’d o’er the billow–
The sailors ate the rest of poor Pedrillo.

The sailors ate him, all save three or four,
Who were not quite so fond of animal food;
To these was added Juan, who, before
Refusing his own spaniel, hardly could
Feel now his appetite increased much more;
‘T was not to be expected that he should,
Even in extremity of their disaster,
Dine with them on his pastor and his master.

The shipwreck leads to Don Juan being the only survivor and being found by Haidée on a beach. The next quote from Canto 5 (LXIII–LXXV) is when Don Juan has been sold into salvery and bought by a seemingly very rich man for a mysterious purpose—

Baba eyed Juan, and said, ‘Be so good
As dress yourself-‘ and pointed out a suit
In which a Princess with great pleasure would
Array her limbs; but Juan standing mute,
As not being in a masquerading mood,
Gave it a slight kick with his Christian foot;
And when the old negro told him to ‘Get ready,’
Replied, ‘Old gentleman, I’m not a lady.’

‘What you may be, I neither know nor care,’
Said Baba; ‘but pray do as I desire:
I have no more time nor many words to spare.’
‘At least,’ said Juan, ‘sure I may enquire
The cause of this odd travesty?’–‘Forbear,’
Said Baba, ‘to be curious; ‘t will transpire,
No doubt, in proper place, and time, and season:
I have no authority to tell the reason.’

‘Then if I do,’ said Juan, ‘I’ll be-‘–‘Hold!’
Rejoin’d the negro, ‘pray be not provoking;
This spirit’s well, but it may wax too bold,
And you will find us not too fond of joking.’
‘What, sir!’ said Juan, ‘shall it e’er be told
That I unsex’d my dress?’ But Baba, stroking
The things down, said, ‘Incense me, and I call
Those who will leave you of no sex at all.

The dressing up turned out to be because he was was being prepared to met the great Princess Gulbeyaz whose harem her slave-master Baba had bought him and he was to be sneaked in dressed as a woman so as to be undiscovered by the Prince.

Even in the dreary Canto 8(LXXIII), there were some great atmospheric stanzas about the Ismail siege—

And scrambling round the rampart, these same troops,
After the taking of the ‘Cavalier,’
Just as Koutousow’s most ‘forlorn’ of ‘hopes’
Took like chameleons some slight tinge of fear,
Open’d the gate call’d ‘Kilia,’ to the groups
Of baffled heroes, who stood shyly near,
Sliding knee-deep in lately frozen mud,
Now thaw’d into a marsh of human blood.

Once Don Juan is in England, Byron has a lot to say about English culture and restrictions. Byron had an unhappy marriage (for money) and his thoughts on the marriage game are interesting—

A young unmarried man, with a good name
And fortune, has an awkward part to play;
For good society is but a game,
‘The royal game of Goose,’ as I may say,
Where every body has some separate aim,
An end to answer, or a plan to lay–
The single ladies wishing to be double,
The married ones to save the virgins trouble.

I don’t mean this as general, but particular
Examples may be found of such pursuits:
Though several also keep their perpendicular
Like poplars, with good principles for roots;
Yet many have a method more reticular–
‘Fishers for men,’ like sirens with soft lutes:
For talk six times with the same single lady,
And you may get the wedding dresses ready.

Perhaps you’ll have a letter from the mother,
To say her daughter’s feelings are trepann’d;
Perhaps you ‘ll have a visit from the brother,
All strut, and stays, and whiskers, to demand
What ‘your intentions are?’–One way or other
It seems the virgin’s heart expects your hand:
And between pity for her case and yours,
You’ll add to Matrimony’s list of cures.

I ‘ve known a dozen weddings made even thus,
And some of them high names: I have also known
Young men who–though they hated to discuss
Pretensions which they never dream’d to have shown–
Yet neither frighten’d by a female fuss,
Nor by mustachios moved, were let alone,
And lived, as did the broken-hearted fair,
In happier plight than if they form’d a pair.

Finally, I enjoyed this stanza (Canto 16, XXXIV)

Lord Henry, who had now discuss’d his chocolate,
Also the muffin whereof he complain’d,
Said, Juan had not got his usual look elate,
At which he marvell’d, since it had not rain’d;
Then ask’d her Grace what news were of the duke of late?
Her Grace replied, his Grace was rather pain’d
With some slight, light, hereditary twinges
Of gout, which rusts aristocratic hinges.

Quotes above from Project Gutenberg  


“Don Juan (Riverside editions)” (Lord George Gordon Byron)

The Lovely Bones

Christine sent me this book through the post after reading it, and it’s one of he most original books I’ve read for a while. The idea of a dead person watching their family cope with their bereavement is not a new one, but the narration of the story by the murdered girl is disarming and the opening chapter shocking in her quiet, accepting approach to her murder, I loved the tone and pace of the book until near the end, when there is a supernatural occurrence that I think the book would have been stronger by omitting. Just about to add Alice Sebold’s other two books to my Amazon wish list!

“The Lovely Bones” (Alice Sebold)