Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Juvenile Criminal Literary Acquisitions...

Dearly Beloved has started some contract work this week with very long hours. So he was gone this morning before I was up and I have come home from work, shopped en route for dinner things, made said dinner and have just had a phone call to say he's still going. Sixteen isn't here tonight, so I have an empty house, control of the tv remote (NO junk TV!!!) and my book....

Which, is, sad to say, none of the things I should be reading. Although, given that I am not studying for anything, having an attack of the shoulds about reading matter seems a bit daft really. In amongst the current stack of books I've been reading is a much loved book that goes back to my primary school days when my financial skulduggery was always motivated by books. I have a vague memory of being sent to buy something at the local shops by my mother - can't remember quite what, I just remember it was during my primary school years - and 'losing' the money... A little while later, I miraculously had enough funds to put an order in from the latest Scholastic Books catalogue (anyone remember those?). Then there was the extremely sticky conversation with my mother who spotted the stack of new books... I don't have an innately criminal mind, unfortunately, and sins like this usually caught up with me pretty quickly. However, having a book junkie for a mother, I didn't lose the books themselves - she punished me in other ways - and this particular book was part of the bounty on that particular occasion.

The Far Distant Oxus, by Katherine Hull and Pamela Whitlock, is one of those classic children's adventure stories and I adored my copy, which was a paperback that very soon became very battered. Three children are sent to spend their school holidays on a farm where they are given a pony each for the duration. Very soon, they meet two local children and a mysterious boy who lives on the moors - and then starts the adventure...befriending a local wild mare and her foal and rescuing them from a roundup; building a hut in the woods as headquarters; a magnificent expedition down the river to the sea that lasts for a week; bonfires on the hills to finish up....and I wanted, every time I read it, to be able to climb into the book, choose my pony and join them!

Years and years later, I - the totally never-join-groups type - joined a book club (that's a whole other series of blog posts that I'll probably get to some time...) and met a group of amazing women. The club was based around one particular series of girls books, but everyone - apart from collecting those books - had really interesting collections of other kid's books. One had been a specialist children's librarian, and dealt in second hand children's literature. In conversation at an early meeting, I mentioned this book, which at some point in one of many house moves, I'd lost. Nothing loth, she tracked me down a copy. Not just any copy either. She found me a facsimile hardcover of the first edition - which was a total revelation.

Point beloved original paperback had been massively abridged. When I read my new copy for the first time, there were parts of the story I'd never even known existed. I have nothing against abridged books, in that, if it means they're out there and people read them, that's a good thing. read the whole, original book...such bliss. My father collected Readers Digest books for years and they were my intro into all sorts of books - every month a new book with three or four books within it arrived and I read them from cover to cover as soon as he'd finished them. There are, now, many full length versions of books in the bookcase that I first met via those volumes of condensed novels.

Point 2...this book was written by two teenagers. By hand. During their summer term at school. When they should have been doing their homework. And one of them did the illustrations as well. Somehow, they never got caught. And then, when they had finished it, they packaged it up and sent it to Arthur Ransome - author of Swallows and Amazons - to read, having already written to ask him whether his next book in the Swallows series was going to be water or land based because they didn't want to clash with him... Their chutzpah still amazes me. Ransome was so impressed with the book that he sent it to his own publishers recommending that they read it with a view to publishing - which is what happened. There are two sequels that I - and my friend who found me this copy - have never been able to source - Escape to Persia and Oxus in Summer that I would dearly love to get my hands on but have yet to find.

The girls wrote it turn and turn about - one writing a chapter then handing it over for the other to continue. One of the quite remarkable things is that there is no marked clash in styles and the character development is incredibly consistent. Pamela Whitlock did the simple ink drawings, which have none of the refinement of other illustrators - I have whole sets of books I've collected just for the illustrations... - but they have a simple charm that fits completely with the story. the children are real and unaffected and there is absolutely nothing to suggest that it was written by two teenagers... In this facsimile edition is a long foreword by Arthur Ransome, which is delightful in itself.

I haven't quite finished it - it's been on my bedside table and I've been managing a few pages each evening. Tonight I have read a couple of chapters and have been totally engrossed, because it's really that good. I'd love to know what happened to those two girls - as well as finding the other two books. It's also a bit of a reality check - there is truly nothing that can get in the way of someone who has a story to tell...if these two girls could put a whole novel together in one term, and have backing from someone of Ransome's stature...what is stopping any of us???

Monday, 20 February 2012

Literary Musings

It's been a bit of a week, with little time to read or write - apart from the dreaded must-do-assignment writing, and I think that the whole burnout thing is hitting pretty hard. We did make it down to the storage unit to retrieve my portfolios which had mistakenly ended up there, so another stage with my room has been achieved:

I haven't had a room where I can just stick things on the wall with tape since I was a teenager! It felt just a little bit bad while I was doing it, but lots of fun. Now need to get the big table and the easel in here and I'll be sorted.

I finished The Postmistress and this time, read the author's note at the end. Right at the end is this:
It is the story that lies around the edges of the photographs, or at the end of the newspaper account. It's about the lies we tell others to protect them, and about the lies we tell ourselves in order not to acknowledge what we can't bear...
It resonated, for so many reasons. And it has stayed with me. Within the context of the novel, it's about the news - how it travels, how it is delivered, what is told and how it is told - and the choices all the way along that chain. But, it struck me that it's about the choices we make in how we deal with each other on a daily basis - not just the big things, not just bad news, or good news for that matter. It's about the editing we choose to do or not do every time we communicate with each other - even those, maybe particularly those, closest to us.

I have a new book, a gift - which are the best books of all! Dearly Beloved doesn't do Valentine's Day...apparently. Particularly in the light of our current tight finances - he made a great point of instructing me NOT to spend anything on getting something for him. It comes two days after his birthday - and he'd made a big speech about money not being spent on presents for that too - so it's always a bit of a challenge in any case, but as I said to him, he'd shot himself well and truly in the foot. He told Sixteen and I we weren't to spend any money at Christmas time - so we were both quite circumspect....and then got showered with gifts from him. So, this time, I told him I wasn't listening to him. I - with great skullduggery - covered the bed with Lindt chocolates bought the day before (it's terrible working just down the road from their shop...) and then headed off to work. And waited...all day for a message from him, which never came... He managed to go into the bedroom at some point during the day and change clothes before heading out, and didn't see them... Amazing. So, still no word by the time I got home, and then, while I'm making dinner, he presents me with a tiny parcel...and a card with an elephant and hearts - so I sent him to the bedroom forthwith!

The book is just gorgeous - one of those literary treasures... Letters to a Young Poet - ten letters from Rainer Maria Rilke to Franz Xaver Kappus, a young student at the school where Rilke had gone. They cover a two year period when Kappus, initially writing to send his poems to Rilke for critiquing, becomes part of a much broader correspondence about art and life. They are just beautiful. It's so hard to get hold of Rilke - I have a tiny volume of poems in amongst my mother's poetry collection that I dip in and out of, and they're always as thought provoking as they are lovely. I first came across him via Drusilla Modjeska (remember, I said she was central to much of my writing...?) quoting him in Poppy.

Otherwise, it's back to Catcher - which should have been a relatively quick read and hasn't been, due to being too over committed to fit much reading into the schedule, WHICH MUST CHANGE!!

Friday, 10 February 2012

Back to the Classics

Well, I've done it...picked up a copy of Catcher in the Rye this afternoon, so my other reading will have to be put to one side so I can read it before I see my student on Tuesday. He is in Sixteen's class, so is also studying it. It has, therefore, become imperative that I update my very hazy recollections of the book so we can have discussions that are rather less bluff on my part!

Chatting with an old high school friend today, I mentioned this blog and he said he'd read it if he got a special mention... So, I hereby mention you - but not by name, you know who you are - and I encourage you to contribute to the discussion on J.D. Salinger by letting me know your memories of Catcher in the Rye, since we'd have studied it together. I'm sure we were in the same English class - you can let me know that too!

Reading The Postmistress this morning with my breakfast, I was struck again by how much I enjoy coming back to a book (and please let it be so with Catcher...). As I mentioned in my last post, this is a new book that I've only read the once. My tendency with most new books is to read through them in one fell swoop - Twentysix said to me once, when he was in his teens that I "eat books" and he's probably not far off with that description. There's something about a new book that means I just have to get to the next page, and the next, and then next - and then all of a sudden, I'm on the last page and I've run out of story. I remember some books when I've forced myself to read more and more slowly, conscious that I'm nearingthe end and not wanting them to finish. I think it's why I get so frustrated with short stories. 

The bookshop this afternoon was a place of huge temptation. It's the first time I've been in there for ages - it was our small local one that I love. I was looking for a small gift for Dearly Beloved - it's his birthday tomorrow. The main gift is coming next week, but there has to be something to open on the day, so I was hunting through the various shops we have near to us waiting for that small, quirky, right thing to jump up and say 'I'm what you're looking for', and nothing did. So, I took me to the bookshop... I think I combed every last shelf. I was holding a mad little thing in my hands for ages - one of the small books they have all over the counter, you know - books with no categories, the nonsense books. This was a pocket sized colouring in book of Yves St Laurent fashion sketches, complete with swatches of the original fabrics printed on the pages for inspiration. Great fun, but not quite right. There was another colouring in book in the children's section that I contemplated for a mad moment - with drawings by Andy Warhol - this is a truly cool little bookshop! And then, in the art section I found it - or it found me - a delightful little book called David Hockney's Dog Days. It's just a little landscape format paperback, and didn't cost very much, but Dearly Beloved has this thing about miniature dachshunds - I don't know why, but there you go - and David Hockney had two dachshunds. The whole book is sketches and paintings he did of them. I don't think they were ever intended as serious paintings - there is a comment he makes that's in the introductory text to that end - rather that they were his dear and loved companions, and they were he drew and painted them.

All in all, not a bad day. Not much reading, a lot of writing - all the week's freelance work done - a good long walk this morning and some highly successful shopping. So now, with a clear conscience, I can go curl up with Catcher and feel virtuous even, since reading it is also work, given I need to have a more current familiarity with it to keep up with Sixteen and my student!

Thursday, 9 February 2012

A Room With A View

Look at this:

Sunshine outside my window!! It wasn't taken today - I took the photo last Sunday thinking I'd get a chance to write, but the marathon of extra freelance assignments precluded that. There have been brief moments of the yard outside looking bright and sunny today, but the weather gremlins are conspiring to keep Sydney's summer wet and grey, so it has become somewhat rare to look outside and see that lovely dappled sunshine filtering through the trees.

However, it did, inevitably, send my thoughts to windows with views, and associated books, so I started reading E.M. Forster's A Room with a View again. I have four books on the go now... I'm still reading A Room of One's Own. I started re-reading (a second reading only, this is one of my newer books) The Postmistress by Sarah Blake - a WWII novel set simultaneously in London during the Blitz and Cape Cod in the USA. It's one of those lovely gentle pieces of writing that focus on the dynamics between people and the events that can grow out of random meetings. It reminded me a little of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - not the story itself, but the feel of the text. And then, a colleague offered me Bryce Courtenay's Matthew Flinders' Cat yesterday, rather than lugging it home after having had it returned from its previous borrower!

I started reading the Courtenay last night in self-defence when the television choice (dictated by the hand that was surgically attached to the remote) was not to be borne... I didn't get very far with it, although I might end up reading it, if only because it's the only book currently in the house that I've never read before. However, I get impatient with Courtenay's work. Don't get me wrong, I am enormously impressed with what he has achieved. His books have all made best seller lists, and he's no doubt drawing a very solid income from their sales. I'm sounding horribly arrogant and condescending here and I don't mean to - I AM impressed with what he's done, and I am deeply envious of someone who is earning what he's probably earning via his writing...  I read The Power of One, along with everyone else, when it came out. I read the sequel, and began to feel a little less excited. Then I read April Fool's Day - which I own and re-read - his story about his middle son Damon, who died of AIDS after receiving contaminated blood when being treated for haemophilia as a child. I read Tandia, which had its moments but not enough of them, and then I gave up. Courtenay is a very successful writer who has identified a style of story telling that sells extremely well. But, I don't like them. In April Fool's Day, there is something very different happening - because that book is Damon's story, not something made for the market. There is poignancy and honesty, and I love it.

So this morning, I was back with The Postmistress. It's making me crave Marge Piercey's Gone for Soldiers - which I gave to a friend of mine. Of all the genre of WWII fiction, it is, in my opinion, the most amazingly broad, sweeping telling of multiple stories but, for all that, it has an intimacy within each person's tale that goes straight to the heart so that the characters stay with me for a long time after reading. My friend was studying WWII history, so I gave it to her to read while she was travelling. I'm not sorry I did, and she really enjoyed it, but I do want to read it again so I will definitely have to track down a new copy.

A Room With A View, on the other hand, has me craving Florence. I spent four weeks in Florence in July 2005. The apartment in the medieval building where I was staying didn't have a view per se, as it was tucked away on a side street just off the Via dei Calzaioli facing the hotel opposite. The pensione in Forster's book is right on the Arno, with a view up to San Miniato and the hills above the city. However, the apartment was right in the middle of the old city, our alarm clock was Giotto's bell tower and the superb Mercarto Centrale was only a few blocks away so I could shop like any Florentine housewife on a daily basis for perishables, and walk my goodies home with ease. There was a marvelous tiny enoteca around the corner where I became a regular. I had classes on Renaissance art history in the afternoons, so I was free in the mornings to wander wherever I wanted. I'm a terrible tourist. I don't tend to head for the blockbuster sights of a place first up, and I didn't in Florence either. It's fortunate that Florence is such an inherently Renaissance city and my course took me into many of the major museums and galleries, or I may not have actually seen them. I found myself, instead, prowling tiny back streets away from the tourist trails, meeting local people, and drinking coffee standing up in tiny hole in the wall cafes.

My Florence is a city where I could return and feel at home. It's not a place I breezed through in five minutes, cramming the important galleries and one or two overpriced restaurants. I know where to buy milk and toilet paper. I can go and ask at the bakers for enough bread for the day to be sliced off a huge loaf of chewy unsalted Tuscan bread that will be hard and stale the next day because it isn't full of horrible chemicals to keep it soft and moist for the next two weeks. I even know which wine shops to hit on if I crave a big solid Australian red instead of the lighter more astringent Italian table wines. As Lucy traverses the streets of Florence on her discoveries of the city's treasures, I recognise the street names, I can see the corners she is turning, and I want to go back...

On my one day in Rome, I did throw coins into the Fontanta di if the legend is right, I will return one day.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

The Nature of a Room

Halfway through today's minimum target for the freelance work, so because it's miserable outside - definitely NOT walking weather - I shall let my fingers do the walking (as it were) here instead! Which brings me straight to my thoughts for the morning... 

It is supposed to be summer in the southern hemisphere, which means for Sydney balmy, humid, sunny days, wearing as little as possible. Not many layers, including wool socks, because it's so darned cold as well as wet today! It's been the wettest summer in a long time, and I can deal with the rain, but it's really cold today on top of that and I'm finding out that this will be a very cold house come winter - and my room is going to have some additions...a heater, some curtains to keep the heat in, a comfier chair that I can have cushions in and on - and I need to get my ugg boots out of storage!

I haven't got much further with Virginia Woolf, and I don't remember if she goes into any detail about the necessary accoutrements of a room. I did finish What Katy Did and then What Katy Did Next, and it's interesting how much rooms figure in both stories - unless it's just that I'm particularly focused on rooms at present.

Initially, Katy's main impulse if in a room, is to leave it as quickly as possible for the freedom of outdoors. The rough and tumble of the way she approaches life is ill fitted to the constraints of the inside rooms of her day. The outside rooms she and the other children construct in the orchard and the woodshed fit her madcap style much more comfortably.

When disaster strikes and, through her own disobedience, Katy is confined to bed with a back injury, the first weeks are spent in darkness, in a room that becomes unfriendly, dark, dreary and messy through her misery and lack of interest. A visit from her invalid cousin, Helen, provides a lesson for her in creating a space where she can be, if not happy with her lot, content and comfortable, and that is attractive for visitors. Eventually, Katy's room becomes the hub of the house; a bright, airy space with comfortable chairs, pretty pictures, fresh flowers and a welcoming hostess.

Mended and walking, Katy is sent with Clover for a year of boarding school to experience something other than the domestic cares that have made them grow up too fast. Their first bedroom is on the end of the row, quite the pick of the floor, with a lovely outlook, sunny aspect and congenial, if comically scrape-prone next door neighbour. With the support of their father, the girls have a washstand installed - beginning a fashion as all the other girls write home asking their parents to organise the same for them, and ending a system of communal bathing in the school. Katy's genius for creating a pretty, homey space means she and Clover have lots of visitors and become hostesses to a regular group of close friends. When - as emerges right at the end of the book - another girl plants a note to a college boy signed by Katy that is discovered, the girls are moved, as punishment, to a much less salubrious room back down the corridor that doesn't overlook the neighbouring boys college because they are unable to convince their headmistress that Katy is innocent. Their first day is spent in tears due to the injustice, and bemoaning the dark pokiness of the room in comparison to their previous chamber. Its, seemingly, only asset is the heater in the hall immediately outside the door, which will warm the room during the coming winter - which proves to be a small benefit, given the severity of the winter they experience.

Living too far away from home to make returning there for the holidays possible, they go with their cousin Lilly, who is also at the school, to stay with her family. After being given a tour of their aunt and uncle's very grand house with imposing and lavishly decorated rooms, they are ushered by Lilly into a small back bedroom which is where her mother always puts friends who stay, saying it is good enough for schoolgirls. It is, of course, a perfectly lovely room by Katy and Clover's standards, but indicative of Lilly's inherent snobbery.

The year over, the girls travel joyfully homewards to an excited and happy welcome from the rest of the family. When it comes time to go upstairs, they are much surprised to be ushered towards the door of 'The Blue Room' (the best spare room) which has been freshly redecorated as a room suitable for the young ladies they have become, with many little touches provided by the other children and family members, making it a uniquely personal space for both girls.

As the only girl growing up in my family I always had my own room, so I never thought about what it might be like not to have a space of my own. It wasn't until I was in a house with my own family where the available study had gone automatically to the man of the house because he was studying at the time, that I found I had no space that was just mine. The rest of the house, except that of then infant No.1 son, was shared or communal space. The fact that most of his father's study time was spent at the university was, apparently, irrelevant. The study was his. When I set up a table and bookcases in the spare room - that was supposed to be left set up for house guests - it sparked a major domestic battle.

During subsequent relationships, this occurred over and over from house to house. Later, living just with the children, we all had our own rooms again, and living by myself for a short period of time meant the issue was a moot point. It wasn't until I moved in with Dearly Beloved and Sixteen that I, once again, found myself without a room. Until this house.

And, you know what - however basic it is, however many issues there are to resolve to make it comfortable, if I have to bundle myself up in every stitch of clothing I own come winter, it's mine. My space, where I can do whatever I like, when I like it and other people have to knock to gain entry.