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One From the Archive: ‘Mossy Trotter’ by Elizabeth Taylor ****

First published in 2015.

The 633rd book on Virago’s wonderful Modern Classics list is Elizabeth Taylor’s only book for children, Mossy Trotter.  First published in 1967, the new edition comes with lively Tony Ross illustrations, and an introduction written by Taylor’s son, Renny, who says: ‘… some of it is based on my childhood…  She must have made notes of  things that I got up to because you’ll read about some of my adventures in Mossy Trotter‘.

The blurb of Mossy Trotter – which has been praised by prolific children’s authors Jacqueline Wilson and Kate Saunders – says that within its pages, Taylor ‘perfectly captures the temptations and terrors of a mischievous boy – and just how illogical, frustrating and inconsistent adults are’.  It then goes on to compare the book to such classics as Richmal Crompton’s Just William, and Clive King’s Stig of the Dump

The premise of the book is almost Roald Dahl-esque, and it is sure to appeal to both adults and children: ‘When Mossy moves to the country, life is full of delights…  But every now and then his happiness is disturbed – chiefly by his mother’s meddling friend, Miss Silkin.  And a dreaded event casts a shadow over even the sunniest of days – being a page-boy at her wedding’.

Mossy is a curious, likeable and amusing child, whose inquisitiveness often gets the better of him, and leads him into sticky – sometimes quite literally – situations.  He is particularly fond of tar, and finds himself playing in it when the workmen have been, despite knowing that his mother will be cross with him: ‘… to begin with, he would stand in the tar-splashed grass at the side of the road; then he would drop a few stones on to the tar to see if they stuck; then he would put out his toe and prod an oozy patch, and in no time at all he was stamping in it, picking bits up and rolling them into rubbery balls, and his legs would be smeared, and so would his jeans and his shirt’.

An understanding Taylor bestows the role of confidante upon her young audience almost immediately: ‘Where things had been was what grown-ups worried about all the time.’  She outlines, in the tale’s very beginning, the vast differences which exist between children and adults.  The character of Miss Silkin opens proceedings by talking about her concept of paradise: ‘Standing where she was she could not possibly see the beautiful rubbish dump among the bracken.  This had been his private paradise from the moment he discovered it.  It was a shallow pit filled with broken treasures from which, sometimes, other treasures could be made…  If he could only find two old wheels, he could build himself a whole bicycle, he thought’.

I was reminded throughout of Astrid Lindgren’s charming Pippi LongstockingMossy Trotter feels almost as though it was written by the same author, just with a more masculine young audience in mind.  Mossy’s adventures, much like Pippi’s – a birthday party, a visit from his grandfather, and being a page boy, for example – are lovingly relayed by Taylor, and are certain to leave children wanting more.  The whole has been so well crafted, and interlinking tales wind through from one chapter to the next.  Mossy Trotter is rather a charming read, which is sure to drum up childhood nostalgia in the adults who come across it due to Virago’s reprint.

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Penguin Moderns: Italo Calvino, Audre Lorde, Leonora Carrington, and William S. Burroughs

9780241339107The Distance of the Moon by Italo Calvino ** (#22)
I have not really been a fan of what I have read of Italo Calvino’s work thus far, but went into this collection of ‘exuberant, endlessly inventive stories’ with an open mind nonetheless.  The tales collected here – ‘The Distance of the Moon’, ‘Without Colours’, ‘As Long As the Sun Lasts’, and ‘Implosion’ – were published between 1965 and 2009, and have been variously translated by Martin McLaughlin, Tim Parks, and William Weaver.  I found Calvino’s work interesting enough, particularly with regard to the metaphors which he uses.  There is some really imaginative imagery to be found here too.  Overall, however, I found this collection – which hovers between the classifications of science fiction and fantasy – peculiar, and not to my taste.  It is nothing which I would have chosen to read had it not been included in the Penguin Moderns Collection.

 

The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House by Audre Lorde **** 9780241339725(#23)
This collection of ‘soaring, urgent essays on the power of women, poetry and anger’ was my first taste of Audre Lorde’s writing.  The majority of the essays collected here were first given as conference papers between 1978 and 1982.  The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House includes the titular work, as well as ‘Poetry is Not a Luxury’, ‘Uses of the Erotic’, ‘Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism’, and ‘Learning From the 1960s’.  Throughout, Lorde writes with confidence and intelligence.    The 23rd Penguin Modern is an accessible book, which explores feminism and the issues which it poses for minority women, and those whose identify as anything other than heterosexual.  Lorde weaves in elements of black history and lesbianism.  Each of these essays is thought-provoking, and I would definitely like to read more of her work in the near future.

 

9780241339169The Skeleton’s Holiday by Leonora Carrington **** (#24)
Leonora Carrington’s The Skeleton’s Holiday is one of the books which I have been most looking forward to in the Penguin Moderns series.  I read her novel, The Hearing Trumpet, last June, and very much enjoyed its brand of absurdity.  The titular story was written as part of a collaborative novel in 1939, and the other stories – ‘White Rabbits’, ‘Uncle Sam Carrington’, ‘The Debutante’, ‘The Oval Lady’, ‘The Seventh Horse’, and ‘My Flannel Knickers’ – have all been translated from their original French by the likes of Marina Warner and Carrington herself.  The writing here is characteristically Carrington’s; each tale is filled with oddity, and surprises the reader at every grotesque turn.  Throughout, Carrington has a wonderful knack of vividly setting scenes, and her prose is at once odd and beguiling.  There is a dark, startling humour throughout, and an otherworldly sense to her stories.  The author clearly had such an imagination; this collection has left me eager to read more of her work.

 

The Finger by William S. Burroughs ** (#25) 9780241339077
These stories – ‘The Finger’, ‘Driving Lesson’, ‘The Junky’s Christmas’, ‘Lee and the Boys’, ‘In the Cafe Central’, and ‘Dream of the Penal Colony’ – have all been taken from William S. Burroughs’ Interzones (1989).  Of his work to date, I have read only Naked Lunch, which I found quite odd.  These stories, however, were far stranger.  As a collection, I did not feel as though there was a great deal of coherence between them, despite an overlap of characters.  Some of them also felt rather brief and unfinished.  I do enjoy Beat writers on the whole, particularly Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, but I find Burroughs’ work far more difficult to get into.  Whilst the tales here were readable enough, I found that some of the descriptions made me feel rather sick, and I did not enjoy a single one of them.  On the whole, there did not seem to be a great deal of point to any of these stories.  Not for me.

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Lit Titbits (4)

I’ve not made one of these posts for ages, having been concentrating on writing my thesis, but I thought that I would collect together several interesting literary links for your perusal.

  1. The Telegraph‘s list of the ‘top ten most famous books we never finish’ (here)
  2. Charlotte Moore’s lovely review of Mansfield by C.K. Stead from 2004 (here)
  3. Buzzfeed’s ’20 Literary Facts to Impress Your Friends With’ (here)
  4. ‘The Author’s Bookshelf: Jonathan Safran Foer’ from The Strand (here)
  5. Olivia Laing’s Guardian article about Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca eighty years on (here)
  6. 5 Cornish Literary Highlights to work into future trips on Visit Cornwall’s website (here)
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The 1944 Club: ‘The Case of the Gilded Fly’ by Edmund Crispin ****

Hurrah!  I have finally been organised enough to be able to participate in one of the wonderful yearly clubs run by Simon and Karen.  The year which they have chosen for bloggers to read books from this week is 1944, and I was so pleased that I could read and review the first book in the Gervase Fen series, The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin, for the occasion.

9780099542131The Guardian praise Edmund Crispin’s series of crime novels as ‘a ludicrous literary farce’, and The Times call the author ‘one of the last exponents of the classical English detective story… elegant, literate, and funny.’  In this, the first novel in the series, a ‘pretty but spiteful young actress’ named Yseut Haskell, who has a ‘talent for destroying men’s lives’, is discovered dead in a University room ‘just metres from unconventional Oxford don Gervase Fen’s office.’  In rather an amusing aside, the blurb says: ‘Anyone who knew her would have shot her, but can Fen discover who could have shot her?’

The Case of the Gilded Fly begins in early 1940, in a typically British manner: ‘To the unwary traveller, Didcot signifies the imminence of his arrival at Oxford; to the more experienced, another half-hour at least of frustration.’  On such a railway journey is where we first meet English Language and Literature Professor Fen – ‘And as his only distraction was one of his own books, on the minor satirists of the eighteenth century, which he was conscientiously re-reading in order to recall what were his opinions of these persons, he became in the later stages of the journey quite profoundly unhappy’ – as well as the other protagonists.  This cast of characters is rather a diverse one.  After brief sketches of their personalities and professions, Crispin discusses them for the first time as a group: ‘By Thursday, 11 October, they were all in Oxford.  And within the week that followed three of those eleven died by violence.’

Crispin controls his writing and characters wonderfully.  The opening description of Yseut gives her character a complexity, and sets the reader – like her acquaintances – against her rather quickly.  Crispin writes: ‘To a considerable extent we are all of necessity preoccupied with ourselves, but with her the preoccupation was exclusive, and largely of a sexual nature into the bargain.  She was still young – twenty-five or so – with full breasts and hips a little crudely emphasized by the clothes she wore, and a head of magnificent and much cared-for red hair.  There, however – at least as far as the majority of people were concerned – her claims to attractiveness ended.  Her features, pretty enough in a conventional way, bore little hints of the character within – a trifle of selfishness, a trifle of conceit; her conversation was intellectually pretentious and empty; her attitude to the other sex was too outspokenly come-hither to please more than a very few of them, and her attitude to her own malicious and spiteful.’

The Case of the Gilded Fly is both intelligently written and highly immersive.  Whilst not my favourite in the Gervase Fen series – that accolade has to be given to the magnificent The Moving Toyshop – The Case of the Gilded Fly, whilst stylistically different in some ways, serves as a marvellous introduction to the series.  Crispin sets it up so that everyone has a grievance against Yseut, and the reader is consequently left guessing who could have perpetrated the crime, when all have a motive.

The sense of place here has been well captured, too, as well as the early Second World War time period in which it is set.  Crispin notes that the college admissions at Oxford University have been greatly affected, with many students going off to fight.  The blackout conditions are also in place when Yseut is murdered, which does not help matters; her death is first ruled as a suicide, until Fen and an Inspector from the local police force probe more deeply and discover several clues.  The novel does not throw up as many red herrings as I had come to expect from the later books in the series; it is more of a measured and meditative novel.  I did correctly guess one of the elements, but found it incredibly well pieced together nonetheless.

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‘Ghost Wall’ by Sarah Moss ****

I consistently enjoy Sarah Moss’ novels, and was so excited when I found out about the 2018 release of her novella, Ghost Wall.  The premise, which revolves around a seventeen-year-old girl named Silvie, who is spending her summer at an Iron Age reenactment with her strict father and put-upon mother, intrigued me, and I found myself absorbed in the story from the very beginning.51uqxbrcmll-_sx324_bo1204203200_1

It is difficult to pinpoint quite when this takes place, but a couple of clues given place it in the late 1980s or early 1990s.  Silvie finds herself in the camp, which lies in a remote area of Northumberland, due to her bus driver father’s passion for history.  They are living there for some time, along with Professor Jim Slade and three of his students, as ‘an exercise in experimental archaeology’.  Silvie’s father is an ‘abusive man, obsessed with recreating the discomfort, brutality and harshness of Iron Age life.  Behind and ahead of Silvie’s narrative is the story of a bog girl, a sacrifice, a woman killed by those closest to her’.  The stories of Silvie and this unnamed ‘bog girl’ become linked in rather a horrifying way toward the end of the novella.

I very much liked the opening of this story, which felt stylistically Moss-like from its first paragraph.  The prologue begins with a series of quite choppy but very descriptive sentences, which immediately give one a feel for the darkness of the book: ‘They bring her out.  Not blindfolded, but eyes widened to the last sky, the last light.  The last cold bites her fingers and her face, the stones bruise her bare feet.  There will be more stones, before the end.’  As with this example, Moss places small clues throughout for the reader to piece together.

Ghost Wall is highly sensual.  As with all of Moss’ novels and, indeed, her non-fiction, there is a constant awareness of the natural world, and the ways in which it shifts.  Such an atmosphere is built, in what feels like an effortless manner.  In the prologue, for instance, Moss writes of the bog girl: ‘She is whimpering, keening now.  The sound echoes across the marsh, sings through the bare branches of rowan and birch.’  This is continued when Silvie’s first person perspective begins in the first chapter: ‘Within a few days, our feet would wear a path through the trees to the stream, but that first night there was moss underfoot, squashy in the dim light, and patches of wild strawberries so ripe and red they were still visible in the dusk, as if glowing…  Bats flashed through the space between branches, mapping depth into the flat sky, their calls brushing the upper range of my hearing.’

Silvie has depth and range to her character, and she is particularly believable for her flaws and naivety.  When asked by one of the students whether she plans to go to University, her immediate response demonstrates the stifled, lonely life which she has lived thus far: ‘Stop questioning me, I thought, but I didn’t quite know how to ask anything of my own.  How do you leave home, how do you get away, how do you not go back?’  As the novella goes on, Silvie lets the reader know small details of her upbringing.  She talks, to herself at least, about her father’s psychological abuse in an eloquent manner, but the physical abuse is almost baldly stated.  Of her mother, for instance, she says: ‘There was a new bruise on her arm’, before entirely changing the thread of her narrative.

Ghost Wall has been impeccably researched and, to me, the story felt like rather an original one.  I have never read anything quite like it before.  The sense of foreboding is built wonderfully, and whilst quite different in some ways to Moss’ other books, it is sure to delight and chill her fans in equal measure.

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One From the Archive: ‘Greenery Street’ by Denis Mackail *****

First published in 2016.

Denis Mackail’s Greenery Street (1925) brings something a little different to the female-dominated Persephone list, in that is one of the few novels they have chosen to publish which was penned by a man.  I knew nothing about Mackail before I began to read – not even that he was the brother of celebrated author Angela Thirkell, whose works are currently being reprinted by Virago – but the introduction was fascinating, and I was left with the impression that he was a man I would have enjoyed spending time in the company of.  He sounds like an awfully humble fellow; of his writing, he said, ‘I was just trying to tell stories, to get bits of life on to paper, and, I suppose, to express myself.  Where does all that gaiety and kindness come from when in real life I am a cynic and frequently a wet blanket as well?’

9781903155257The Greenery Street of the novel’s title is based on Mackail’s Walpole Street, in which he lived; it ‘consists of thirty-six narrow little houses – all, at first glance, exactly the same’.  Mackail sets the scene immediately, and one feels utterly familiar with the street and its inhabitants, despite never setting foot in the locale: ‘For though every young married couple that comes to Greenery Street does so with the intention of staying there for life, there are few streets where in actual fact the population is more constantly changing.  And the first sign of this change is in almost every case the same.  It is seen in the arrival of a brand new perambulator’.  On this seemingly inevitable point of leaving the street – or, rather, of being ‘forced out’ of one’s five-storey home as it is simply not big enough to house a child – the house itself is personified: ‘For all the happy memories which the little house holds, it has already become his enemy.  He knows this, and yet he can never hate it in return.  Neither, though, can he allow it to see how much, how terribly, he minds.’

We are introduced to Felicity Hamilton and Ian Foster at the outset of the second chapter.  The pair have been officially engaged for ‘very nearly a fortnight’.  The difference between them is vast – Felicity is frivolous and naive, and Ian is far more level-headed and pragmatic – but this makes the relationship between the two, and the way in which they interact, all the more interesting.

Every single one of Mackail’s characters, whether protagonists or not, feel incredibly realistic.  One could be forgiven for holding the opinion that a novel written entirely about the day-to-day lives of a married couple in the 1920s could be rather dull.  Greenery Street does busy itself with such things as budgeting, ordering meals, and decorating, but it is rendered in such a way that mundane is one thing it is not.  The details which he picks out are surprising in both his descriptions and perceptiveness: ‘His heart melted to the consistence of a hard-boiled egg.  His principles and scruples trickled out of the heels of his shoes.  He loved this maddeningly unbusinesslike creature [of Felicity], more than anyone had loved anybody in the whole history of the world…  What did anything matter so long as she clung to him like this, so long as her eyelashes flickered against his cheeks, and her heart beat so comfortably against his own?’

With regard to the novel’s prose, Mackail is witty, presenting little wink-wink nudge-nudge asides to the reader at intervals.  These additions to the main story are refreshing, and it is almost as though the reader is taken into his confidence: ‘We haven’t had much space for descriptions of people in this record so far; we have rather had to take them as they come; but we must try and squeeze in a paragraph for Mr and Mrs Foster’s brother-in-law – if only because he was so shy that we should never get to know him if we waited for him to make the first move’.

As an author, Mackail is shrewd and acerbic; the Foster’s maid, Ellen, is referred to throughout as ‘the Murderess’, for instance.  Greenery Street is also filled with humorous details; when visiting the next-door neighbours for a dinner party of sorts, both Ian and Felicity are presented with drinks which they do not particularly want: ‘Felicity, afraid of provoking him [Mr Lambert] again, took the glass which he offered her and managed, a little later, to hide it behind a photograph-frame on the mantelpiece.  Ian – after a sip which came near choking him – found sanctuary for his on the floor under his chair.  Mr and Mrs Lambert emptied their beakers with appreciative relish’.

There are interesting elements to the prose at points; some of the dialogue is rendered in play format, for example.  The itemisation of Felicity’s small library, along with details pertaining to any damage on each particular tome, was both simple and clever: ‘Item.  Shakespeare’s plays in three volumes – one slightly damaged by water, the result of the owner’s attempt to read Romeo and Juliet while having a bath.  Damage occurred when owner was fifteen’.  We are shown many of Felicity’s inner thoughts too, which works wonderfully as it unfolds against her speech and actions.

Almost every book which gets Persephone’s stamp of approval is a firm favourite of mine.  Greenery Street is no exception.  It is a perfectly compelling read, and one which I am going to be recommending as highly as I possibly can.

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‘Henrietta’s War’ by Joyce Dennys ****

I had wanted to read Joyce Dennys’ Henrietta’s War: Notes from the Home Front, 1939-1942 for such a long time before I finally got my hands on a copy.  I have seen many favourable reviews of it over the years, and am now adding my own into the mix.  The book’s blurb greatly praises Dennys, saying as it does: ‘Hundreds of small towns in England underwent dramas similar to those enjoyed or bravely borne by the citizens of this one…  But none of those other small towns sheltered an observer with such an eye for comedy, who was equally deft with pen and pencil.’

Henrietta’s War is a fictionalised series of wartime letters, which first appeared as a regular magazine feature in the United Kingdom, in the now defunct Sketch.  They were not published together until 1985 however, after Dennys uncovered them in a drawer during a particularly thorough spring clean.  She sought a publisher for them only after being urged to do so by her friends.

2509405There is a highly autobiographical element to these letters, and many similarities can be drawn between Dennys and Henrietta.  The blurb points out that Dennys ‘recreated’ a facsimile of herself here, but makes clear that the rest of the characters are pure inventions.  Not all of the letters have been collected together and published in this volume; rather, a selection has been made of the originals.  They have been placed chronologically, as one might expect, and span the period between the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, and the Christmas of 1941.

Henrietta’s War ‘purports to the wartime letters to a friend serving overseas, written by a doctor’s wife who lives in a seaside town’ named Budleigh Salterton in Devonshire.  The recipient is Robert, described as a ‘middle-aged colonel on the Western Front’, who has known Henrietta since both were small children.  The blurb describes the way in which: ‘The world she invented to counteract the glooms of wartime is a perfect one of dogs and gardens and tea parties, inhabited by bumbling vicars, retired colonels and fierce tweedy ladies who long for Hitler to land on their beach so they can give him what-for.’

The book’s blurb boasts that it is ‘as fresh as the day it was written’.  Certainly, the tone is chatty and amusing; Dennys’ series of accounts have such a warmth and affection to them, as well as an overriding intelligence.  There is such understanding here, too.  In the first letter, for instance, Henrietta writes: ‘I think there is a tendency in our generation to adopt a superior, know-all attitude towards this war just because we happen to have been through the last one, which the young must find maddening.’

One cannot help but draw comparisons between Henrietta’s War and E.M. Delafield’s The Diary of a Provincial Lady series, in terms of their general themes, standpoints, humour, and wartime settings.  As with The Provincial Lady, the trivial is often discussed in rather a lighthearted way – the wearing of trousers by fellow ‘slack-minded’ female villagers, for instance – alongside the more serious elements of living in wartime – her husband not wanting to be called up is one poignant example.  Asides are made even with such serious things; in this instance, Henrietta tells Robert that ‘we are expecting a shower of white feathers by every post.’  After the test of an air-raid warning, she writes: ‘I haven’t seen this place so gay since the Coronation.’  She later says, of the effect of the war upon her: ‘I find that I grow more and more absent-minded, and I blame the war.  We are so constantly urged to concentrate on keeping Bright, Brave and Confident, that it doesn’t give a woman a moment in which to realise that she hasn’t put on her skirt that morning, or that she is walking down the High Street in her bedroom slippers.’

Henrietta’s War proved to be the perfect holiday read; there is a seriousness to it, of course, given the wartime situation in which the characters have to cope, but it is filled with amusing anecdotes, and its tone is lighthearted enough to make the whole feel joyous.  Dennys’ accompanying illustrations are quite charming.  Stylistically, they have a humour all of their own.  Henrietta’s War is filled with character, and is highly entertaining from start to finish.

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