The sound down low, the impossible blue of the Water Cube in Beijing filling the screen. A young diver stands on the board, toes spread wide, heels edged over the brink. His ribcage billows out and in as he lifts his arms into an arrowhead. I take my daughter and hold her close, hug her to me until I don't know where my body ends and hers begins – as stream joins river, river meets sea – until we are back where we started; the aqueous cradle I know neither of us can ever really leave. Headlights send their beams across the ceiling. Back in Beijing, the boy arcs through air, spinning like a bobbin on a loom. Slices the water with hardly a splash.
Illustrator Svabhu Kohli celebrates the splendor of the natural world with intricate works of art. The multi-layered images depict the oceans and cosmos.
My Reading the World series brings us to the lovely country Belgium. I first visited whilst still rather a small child, for the purposes of visiting Centre Parcs, and have been back many times since. Despite this, whilst scouring my shelves, I realised that I haven’t actually read much fiction or non-fiction set there. Despite this, I have four books to recommend to you, and will happily take any of your recommendations to the library catalogue with me!
1. Marcel by Erwin Mortier
‘The debut novel by the great Flemish writer Erwin Mortier, Marcel vividly describes the history of a family in a Flemish village, bowed by the weight of history. Written from the point of view of a ten-year-old boy, Marcel is a striking debut novel describing the vivid history of a family in a Flemish village. The mysterious death of Marcel, the family favourite, has always haunted the young boy. With the help of his schoolteacher, he starts to discover the secrets of Marcel’s ‘black’ past. The story of his death on the Eastern Front, fighting with the SS for the sake of Flanders, and the shame this brought upon his family gradually become clear. Erwin Mortier unravels this shameful family tale in wonderfully sensitive and evocative manner.’
2. The Book of Proper Names by Amelie Nothomb
‘From France’s ‘literary lioness’ (Elle), The Book of Proper Names is the story of the hapless orphan girl, Plectrude. Raised by her aunt, and unaware of the dark secret behind her past, she is a troubled but dreamy child who is both blessed and cursed by her intoxicating eyes. Discovered to have enormous gifts as a dancer, she is accepted at Paris’s most prestigious ballet school where she devotes herself to artistic perfection, until her body can take no more. In a brilliantly succinct story of haunted adolescence and lost mothers, Nothomb propels the narrative forward until Plectrude is forced to take command of her own fate.’
3. The Professor by Charlotte Bronte
‘The Professor is Charlotte Brontes first novel, in which she audaciously inhabits the voice and consciousness of a man, William Crimsworth. Like Jane Eyre he is parentless; like Lucy Snowe in Villette he leaves the certainties of England to forge a life in Brussels. But as a man, William has freedom of action, and as a writer Bronte is correspondingly liberated, exploring the relationship between power and sexual desire. William’s first person narration reveals his attraction to the dominating directress of the girls’ school where he teaches, played out in the school’s ‘secret garden’. Balanced against this is his more temperate relationship with one of his pupils, Frances Henri, in which mastery and submission interplay. The Professor was published only after Charlotte Bronte’s death; today it gives us a fascinating insight into the first stirrings of her supreme creative imagination.’
4. Villette by Charlotte Bronte
‘Based on Charlotte Bronte’s personal experience as a teacher in Brussels, Villette is a moving tale of repressed feelings and subjection to cruel circumstance and position, borne with heroic fortitude. Rising above the frustrations of confinement within a rigid social order, it is also the story of a woman’s right to love and be loved.’
Every so often, I create a post detailing those books which I have abandoned for whatever reason. A lot of the following are tomes which I have checked out of the library and have felt no obligation to finish; perhaps if I had purchased them myself, I would have had more staying power, and would have ensured that I read at least half – who knows? It is a widely-documented bookish fact, though, that life is too short to waste on books you’re not enjoying. With that said, here are the books which I have put down in the last couple of months.
Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts
Being a British Library Crime Classic publication, I thought I would very much enjoy this; it seemed not. The storyline was peculiar, and felt very far-fetched.
Marrying Off Mother and Other Stories by Gerald Durrell
I very much enjoyed My Family and Other Animals when I read it some years ago, and found the recent ITV production of ‘The Durrells’ both charming and funny. That said, I decided to check this volume of short stories out, expecting to very much enjoy it. Sadly not. I found that a lot of the scenes and characters had been recycled from Durrell’s memoir, and put it down before I got too frustrated.
Death on the Riviera by John Bude
Another British Library Crime Classic which did not wet my whistle. I had hoped that a crime novel centered around a beautiful place would be just the thing for springtime reading, but I just couldn’t get on with Bude’s slow-moving style.
Jonathan Unleashed by Meg Rosoff
It is perhaps not cool to admit that I was a big fan of Rosoff’s ‘young adult’ novels in my teenage years, but I was. It is perhaps even less cool to say that How I Live Now is still one of your favourite books… But it is. I was, understandably, quite looking forward to reading Rosoff’s first adult novel, but found it badly stylised, and, ultimately, a little boring.
Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson
I abandoned a Persephone, ladies and gentleman, and now have to live with myself over doing so. I really enjoyed Ferguson’s The Brontes Went to Woolworths, but this was rather clunky, and I just couldn’t immerse myself into it without feeling as though I was back in a rather dry undergraduate history lesson.
The Cost of Lunch, Etc. by Marge Piercy
I hadn’t heard of Piercy before I checked this out, and then found out how prolific she was. None of the opening pages grabbed me, so I gave up.
When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson
I shall be honest and say that I haven’t got on all that well with Robinson’s fiction over the years, and that the only book of hers which I have enjoyed is Housekeeping. I felt that a volume of essays would be more up my street. Sadly not. Everything led back down the road to religion, and whilst I respect Robinson’s belief, it’s not something which I feel should be forcibly shoehorned into every possible essay, regardless of the central theme.
Have you read any of these books? Would you recommend that I try to read any of them again?
Written in April 2012
Known almost solely for her wonderfully varied short story collections, Mansfield’s style, storylines and subject matter are always carefully chosen and compulsively readable. Her stories are often sarcastic and satirical, but some are hopeful and bright, thus creating an incredibly well-balanced oeuvre.
Over her writing career, Mansfield published four short story collections, beginning with the publication of In a German Pension in 1911 when she was just twenty-one years old. A further fifteen stories, collected together in The Dove’s Nest and Other Stories, were published after her untimely death from tuberculosis in 1923.
Something Childish and Other Stories encompasses the nine-year period between the publication of her first and second collections, and features several of her earlier efforts. It includes twenty-five separate stories, all of which feature a medley of diverse characters. It seems to be one of the least well-known of her short story collections, despite the fact that the power the stories have is just as strong as in her later writing.
Mansfield successfully evokes a complex tapestry of human emotions throughout Something Childish and Other Stories. This is particularly vivid in the title story, ‘Something Childish’, which follows a young man named Henry as he meets a “simply beautiful” red-haired girl named Edna on an otherwise monotonous train journey out of London. A wealth of emotions are peppered throughout the story – timidity, wonder, comprehension, misunderstandings and utter adoration. Throughout this particular story, the reader simultaneously feels hope and sympathy for Henry, as there is a sense of continuous foreboding that a poignantly depressing ending is just around the corner.
‘The Tiredness of Rosabel’, Mansfield’s first published story, creates an evocative picture of London as viewed by a young girl working in a milliners. Along with a past-tense narrative which conjures up Rosabel’s seemingly mundane job and the echoes of poverty apparent in her lodgings, there is an interwoven sense of perpetual daydream which gives the story an almost magical feel. In ‘A Suburban Fairy Tale’, the reader is presented with the adorable character of an inquisitive child named ‘Little B’, constantly asking questions of his parents who more often than not ignore him. A sense of fantasy and magical realism has been employed in this particular story, as the ending sees Little B turned into a sparrow, joining the birds which he is so enthralled with watching on the lawn.
Even in these earlier stories which Mansfield herself was never content with, the writing style seems incredibly polished and there are elements within each that truly surprise the reader in terms of their clarity. Tiny moments in the day-to-day existence of so many characters are portrayed as being paramount in defining their lives – from a small girl intent on pleasing her Father who is rewarded with a rap across the knuckles when the construction of his birthday gift goes horribly wrong in ‘The Little Girl’, to ‘Pénsion Seguin’ which deals with a woman intent on finding a room to let who is suddenly catapulted into frantic family life.
Many different settings have been used throughout, from the bustling city of London to colonial New Zealand life which is starkly portrayed in ‘Millie’ and ‘The Woman at the Store’. Whilst many other short story writers may have one or two stories within a published collection which do not seem to fit with the themes of those which precede them, the balance of Something Childish and Other Stories is near perfection.
The way in which Mansfield carefully selects the words she uses ensures that her writing is always striking. As well as mastering the elements of the short story and creating a wonderful wealth of work which can be dipped in and out of or read continuously whilst still holding the reader’s full attention, Mansfield is also a master of the narrative voice, using both first and third person perspectives. This collection includes two short plays which show how polished Mansfield is at creating believable dialogue. Slight dialects are suggested throughout – the country boy and girl in ‘See-Saw’, for example – which build up an even more three-dimensional picture of the characters which are infused within the stories themselves. This adds yet another dimension to Mansfield’s prose.
Mansfield’s work is heartrending, poignant and simply beautiful. Some of the exquisiteness of her writing comes from the way in which she presents ordinary beings in everyday situations, thus making her stories incredibly easy to relate to. Her stories can be read multiple times over the span of a lifetime and a wealth of different elements are guaranteed to be picked up by the reader on each separate occasion. The stories grow with us, and encompass the main elements of life – from birth to childhood, from courting to marriage, from naïvety and innocence to a heightened sense of experience.