The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

24 December 2012

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

The setting is a conservative private girls’ school in Scotland during the 1930s. In part this is a story of growing up, as the tale takes us through the teen years of six girls. But it revolves mainly around their teacher, Miss Jean Brodie, who cultivates them and welds them together over their school years.

Romantic and Romanesque, Miss Brodie’s goddesslike quality captivates her group of girls, and also the school’s two male teachers, Mr Lloyd who takes art, and Mr Lowther, music. But her self-assurance shades over into narcissism, hence her many references to being in her prime. She tries to mould the girls into extensions of her idealised self.

Her quirkiness generates tension with the headmistress and most of the other staff, particularly since she disdains the set curriculum in favour of her idiosyncratic takes on culture and history, and anecdotes from her own life and love-life. The headmistress keeps trying to sack Miss Brodie, who exploits her support base in her struggle to hold her ground, and indeed selects for her following ‘those she can trust; or rather those whose parents she could trust’ (25-6). The head tries to split up ‘Brodie girls’; she pokes and probes for a sackable indiscretion of a sexual nature, or any nature.

All this is set against the cultural backdrop of Edinburgh, with its purtianical Calvinist heritage, its Catholic minority, its rich and poor; this backdrop touches the girls to varying degrees, and influences events. The wider background also appears in the Spanish civil war and the rise of fascism, which Miss Brodie naively admires.

Early in the book we have this classroom scene:

“Mr Lloyd showed his pictures from an exhibition of Italian art in London. He had a pointer with which he indicated the design of the picture in accompaniment to his hoarse voice. He said nothing of what the pictures represented, only followed each line and curve as the artist had left it off – perhaps at the point of an elbow – and picked it up, perhaps at the edge of a cloud or the back of a chair. The ladies of the Primavera, in their netball-playing postures, provided Mr Lloyd with much pointer work. He kept on passing the pointer along the lines of their bottoms which showed through the drapery. The third time he did this a collective quiver of mirth ran along the front row of girls, then spread to the back rows.” (p49)

The theme of transformation, the surrendering one form for another, is introduced here – saved from heavy-handedness by the distracting reference to ladies’ bottoms. It plays a large part in the story, alongside the themes of loyalty and betrayal, sex and puritanism, and the deep ambiguities of female bonding.

Spoiler alert

Sandy is only girl developed to any real extent in the story. She is the most imaginative and deep-thinking of them, and most sensitive to cultural influences. She sees a lot through her tiny eyes. Her fantasies are of adventure, but also of belonging, of being valued and loved. She tries to reconcile her awakening sex drive with the puritanical atmosphere around her. At the same time she wants to fit in. She is hungry for a female role models, and inevitably Miss Brodie is the key one.

She is strongly impacted when one of the other girls is confronted by a flasher. The girl is seen by Sergeant Anne Grey, a blonde young policewoman, and the incident is much discussed with her Brodie peers. After a time the girls think less and less about the flasher, ever more about the policewoman: his gross sexuality is slowly transferred, in purified form, into her beauty and glamour. In Sandy’s fantasies she also personifies puritanism, and stylishly strives to stamp out all sexual activity in the neighbourhood.

Sandy matures. She discovers, in Calvinism, a betraying God who springs ‘a nasty surprise’ on almost everyone upon their deaths.

Ultimately she gets caught up in the suppressed, vicarious sex life of Jean Brodie. Miss Brodie and the art teacher Mr Lloyd are in love, but she foreswears it since he is married. At first she transfers her energy to a discreet relationship, sexual but passionless, with Lloyd’s rival, Mr Lowther. But as the Bridie girls bloom she fixes on the idea of a vicarious affair with Lloyd himself – by delivering one of her followers to him: Rose, renown for her sex appeal. Sandy is allocated the role of go-between and spy. Rose sits as a model for Lloyd, but that’s all; it is Sandy who ends up having the affair with him.

All of Lloyd’s portraits of the Brodie girls mysteriously look like Miss Brodie herself. Sandy challenges him about this with ‘an insolent blackmailing stare’. He kisses her, tells her she is ‘just about the ugliest little thing I have ever seen in my life’, and the affair begins. By throwing down her challenge, Sandy has successfully embodied Miss Brodie for him, and become desireable.

A huge wave of bitterness is building in Sandy. She cannot really have Lloyd, who already has his fine wife, his large family and his obsession with Jean Brodie, for whom Sandy is merely a stand-in. Mr Lloyd is a Catholic, and if Sandy cannot have him she can have his religion; she ends up a sequestered nun, clutching at the bars through which she speaks to visitors.

Sandy betrays not only herself, but also Jean Brodie. She tersely furnishes the headmistress with the weapon that can finally accomplish Miss Brodie’s sacking: her facism. When informing Miss Brodie of her dismissal the head does not fail to mention that the fatal piece of intelligence came from one of her own ‘set’. It is this that breaks her spirit; she ends her days a lost soul, fretting over which girl had done the deed.

When challenged about her betrayal, Sandy implies that it was the girls themselves who were betrayed, without further explanation. Miss Brodie’s attempt to pimp Rose to Lloyd comes to mind, but perhaps, more deeply, Sandy feels that Miss Brodie has betrayed all the girls – and herself most crucially – simply by offering her true love to Lloyd, not them. And perhaps, in Sandy’s heart, Mr Lloyd himself is ultimately a stand-in for the longed-for, goddess-like Miss Brodie, a primal figure indeed.

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The Casual Vacancy

11 November 2012

The Casual VacancyThe Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Casual Vacancy radiates anger about the state of modern Britain, but it plays out entirely within one locality: the town of Pagford and the encroaching housing estate of The Fields.

Howard Mollison is a prosperous old shopkeeper, free from the modern male obsession with a flat stomach: the skin of his own abdomen peels and flakes within its flaps and folds, and it spills down over his private parts. He presides over the local council, and a circle of family and friends: his commercial partner Maureen; his aged wife Shirley; his son Miles, equally smug, a senior partner in a law firm; and Miles’ wife Samantha, who runs a lingerie shop, precarious commercially but an escape of sorts from the boredom and competitiveness that afflicts all three women. (The Mollisons’ lesbian daughter left town long ago as a pariah, and makes only a cameo appearance.) The women turn their nuanced malice on each other, and on those who cross their paths – like Miles’ junior colleague, the cold-fish lawyer Gavin.

Gavin has muddled his way into a relationship with the social worker Kay, refusing to commit but letting her back into his life whenever he is lonely or insecure. Kay is desperate enough for a partner to have taken a job in Pagford just to ‘secure’ Gavin for herself; to do she has uprooted her daughter Gaia during the critical years of late-secondary schooling.

Kay’s work takes her to The Fields, the cheerless housing estate built of concrete slabs that are now cracking and grey. Here we meet Terri: massively damaged by her own early life, she keeps getting dragged back into heroin and prostitution by the loathsome Obbo. Terri is the mother of a three-year-old boy, Robbie, and of Kystal, who is in her late teens. Krystal is one of the book’s central characters: belligerent and coarse, big-hearted, she does her dysfunctional best to save Robbie from being taken away by social workers. Kay is of some help to her, being more sensitive than her colleagues, but Kay’s ability to assist depends on the bureaucratic vagaries of the welfare system.

The tragedy for Krystal, and the main driver of the plot, is the death of the story’s hero, Barry Fairbrother, who we lose in the first few pages of the novel. Barry, a rare escapee from The Fields in his own youth, had become a local councillor and leading light in Pagford. He had taken pains to set up a school rowing club, giving Krystal a chance to shine, something for her extended family to grasp onto. One senses that had Barry lived on, Krystal’s angry inner knots might have been untied, and she might have learnt better labels than “muff-muncher” for her rich-girl opponents.

There is a huge cast of characters. Barry’s widow, Mary, is one of the most cleverly drawn. Her loss, coupled with her sylph-like figure and blonde hair, place her above all criticism, which is just as well for her as she is a small-minded princess. But a lot of the action is driven by teenagers. Two school boys are involved in important father-son subplots: Andrew has to live around his brutish, volatile dad Simon; more complex is the relationship between Andrew’s friend Stuart ‘Fats’ Wall, and his father Colin or ‘Cubby’. Here the father is the more obviously insecure one (no shortage of frail males in this book). He struggles to hold together a normal life and conceal his mental disability, a form of paranoia. Fats, apparently in reaction, despises any form of concealment or vulnerability, and repeatedly whacks the fragile structures of his father’s life. A darkness seems to be developing in the mind of Fats, as though he could become a real-world Tom Riddle; it was the only time I was reminded of the Harry Potter series.

Fats – thin, cool and admired at school – senses the low self-esteem of a vulnerable female classmate, Sukhvinder. He launches a campaign of subtle and refined persecution. Sukhvinder is already the ugly duckling at home, put down by her stern mother Parminder. Parminder is a doctor, status-conscious but her religion brings with it a social conscience that drives her to support Barry Fairbrother’s push to protect the interests of The Fields’ residents.

Barry’s death sets up a casual vacancy on the local council, and the by-election becomes a contest over the fate of The Fields. The Mollison’s faction want to detach it from Pagford, and let it spiral downwards as government cutbacks set in; Parminder and Colin lead the opposition. But the by-election sets other things in motion as well.

Rowling described The Casual Vacancy as “sort of nineteenth-century: the anatomy and the analysis of a very small and closed society”.  But Rowling is also like the great early nineteenth century authors Balzac and Walter Scott in her capacity to anchor her characters firmly in a particular social class, without reducing them to that and that alone. The characters’ social position dictates their status and life experience, within which their personalities steer them on individual courses.

An interesting aspect of the story is the weak presence of the actual working class. The respectable employed working folk seem to be under the wing of the middle class in Pagford, dwelling mainly in a ‘nice’ housing estate that does not come into the story. By contrast the people of The Fields seem to be not just unemployed, but demoralised and decultured, lacking the habits of mind that get you up for work or school each morning. Howard Mollison notes impatiently that they don’t try to help themselves, like the poor of his own youth, by growing vegetables in their yards. They are a lumpenproletariat, permeated by criminals. Of the main characters, the only employed working class people are Simon, who tends toward the underworld anyway, and social workers tied to The Fields. Rowling makes a passing reference to an ex-steelworker, a momentary reference to the way that Margaret Thatcher destroyed vast swathes of industry and unpicked so much of the social fabric of regional Britain during the 1980s.

In its anger at the state of modern Britain it reminded me of Jane Gardam’s Faith Fox and Jonathan Coe’s The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim. It produced an indignant, sneering reaction from The Telegraph and other defenders of the status quo.

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Sunset Oasis

10 June 2012

Sunset OasisSunset Oasis by Bahaa Taher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Egyptian police officer Mahmoud Abd El Zahir is sent to administer the restive oasis community of Siwa in the late 1890s. He smells a rat, knowing that his English overlords have been suspicious of his role in a major uprising in 1881-82, led by Colonel Arabi or Urabi Pasha against the English, and the Khedive who had acceded to imperial rule.

That uprising is described later in the novel. A sickening mismatch of military power left the rebels in disarray. The bravest, the most far-seeing and generous-hearted layer of the population were mown down – killed off, or damaged internally, morally mangled afterwards as they betrayed each other to save their own lives, or at least denied all part in the rebellion. On the other hand the servile flourished. The foundations for 20th century Egypt were being laid. Mahmoud is one of those mangled – self-hating, deadened within.

Remarkably, he is married to a spirited Irishwoman, Catherine, who has appalled her peers by her choice of husband. A passionate Irish nationalist, she is also a classical scholar fascinated by the story of Alexander the Great, and the mystery surrounding his sepulchre; she wonders if it might have been moved to Siwa, and itches to inspect local relics. She also nurses her own emotional wounds from a failed former marriage. Relations are complicated further by the arrival of her sister, the saintly, frail beauty Fiona, who had once seemed destined to marry Catherine’s own former partner.

With its Berber population, Siwa regards Egyptian Arabs as colonists, quite apart from the English. Its population have a murderous hatred toward the outsiders who impose such heavy taxes. However, they are themselves bitterly factionalised.

For most of the novel Mahmoud manoeuvres between the different players in Siwa – half-heartedly, so little is he attached to life. Catherine wants to revive him, and their relationship, as well as explore her scholarly interests, her poetic sensitivity to the desert, and friendship with locals; but it is she who jars most heavily with the local culture and its brutal restrictions on women.

The theme of deadness is played out from many angles, and has appeared in the author’s other literary work. Perhaps that is not surprising in someone who lived through decades of Western-financed dictatorship in his homeland.

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The Handmaid’s Tale

10 June 2012

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Handmaid’s Tale

Gilead is the fundamentalist dystopia that replaces the USA, in the bloodbath that follows a series of social and environmental disasters. The victorious Christian right takes on the character of sections of the Islamic right in parts of today’s Middle East. Women’s social status is hurled into the abyss. Fertility and the birthrate have collapsed. Few women can conceive, even fewer successfully.

Women are channelled into rigid castes with colour-coded apparel – the relatively privileged but infertile Wives; the Aunts, lieutenants weilding a level of authority, backed up by electronic cattle prods; working class Econowives; Unwomen sent to work to death in the poisoned land of colonies, African-American house-servants called Marthas; and Handmaids – fertile baby-makers, concubines of the patriarchal Commanders, but living day to day under the thumb of the Wives.

These are the early days of Gilead. People can still, inconveniently, remember their former lives in the USA. One of the stronger aspects of the book is its glimpses into how personal life changed during this time, seen from the perspective of a hitherto apolitical woman. The female protagonist recalls how she had been stripped first of her job and bank account (her money become the responsibility of her huband) and then, after a failed attempt to escape Gilead, stripped of her daughter and her own name. She is now the Handmaid Offred, “of Fred”, a Commander. There are many ideas to be corrected, facts to be suppressed. Terror is still more important than propaganda, with mutilated corpses of men and women on public display. Because political resistance continues, and she is caught up in it.

Apart from women, sexuality itself has been suppressed by extreme puritanism. Offred does what little she can to resist both: swinging her hips as she walks past guards in the street becomes a subtle act of defiance. The sexual act itself has become a bizarrely ritualised, joyless threesome of Wife, Commander and Handmaid – though needless to say the Commanders have other sexual outlets, pathetic and furtive though they may be.

The style of the novel is fragmentary, reflecting the smashing of cultural and personal life, the tight confinement of Offred’s existence, and her inner turmoil/deadness after the agony of losing her daughter.

The book was written in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution (which had begun so heroically with the smashing of the Shah’s revolting terror machine. For the mullahs, the suppression of the women’s movement was indeed the first tactical step in the process that ended with the destruction of more powerful oppoents, such as the independent workers’ committees in the oil industry. As I write this review, women protestors in Egypt are being brutalised by backers of the old regime). But the author reminds us of how much latent hatred against women still exists in the west, and how a deep crisis could bring it out.

[Spoiler alert]

An epilogue follows up on society long after the fall of Gilead, in which ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, Offred’s secret account, is subjected to supercilious discussion at an academic conference. Clearly something close to the author’s heart, but it depressingly suggests that society can’t escape the pendulum swings between authoritarianism and neoliberal banality.

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The Robber Bride

9 June 2012

The Robber BrideThe Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading Robber Bride I sometimes felt that I was eavesdropping on an intimate woman-to-woman talk. Yet the book is just as powerful and relevant for men. Dated in some details, but by no means in essentials, Robber Bride conveyed a real sense of dread at times.

Three midlife women have been bonded, for many years, through the common woe dealt to them by Zenia, a stunning beauty who ‘stole’ and then morally destroyed each of their male partners, and brought material damage to the women themselves. Years after attending her funeral they still feared her memory. Now they now discover that Zenia not only hasn’t died, but has recently made contact with the current men in their lives.

Roz is an earthy, practical-minded boss, Tony a cold-fish academic, Charis an intuitive, spiritualist hippie. Half-paralysed by anxiety, they now try to understand what is happening – to those around them, and inside their own heads – and take defensive action. Along the way we learn at length about the psychological damage they each received in their childhoods, and how it has shaped their later experience of Zenia. In fact their backgrounds take up a large part of the text.

The sociopathic aspect of Zenia is pretty clear – someone unencumbered by conscience or empathy, x-raying people to view the skeleton of their deepest drives, but entirely missing the beauty and soft appeal of their rounded personalities. She feeds only off challenge and victory and new kicks: for her a sustained relationship equals boredom, not the chance to grow close.

She is also of course a femme-fatale: in Zenia, the woman who defines herself in terms of the male gaze has sharpened herself into a deadly weapon. You start with a body that is socially defined as lovely; work on it; bring to bear all the tricks of charm; add insight, cunning, self-discipline, composure under pressure. Now supply the rationale, the excuse he needs to get past his conscience (you are vulnerable and need his help, for example), and you have him. Sex opens a mine-shaft to the inner psyche, which she knows how to explore. As sex-goddess Zenia becomes 90% of reality to her men. But this is all seen from a distance, from the perceptions of the three women and the apocryphal comments of Z herself.

Sex is not her only hook, and in the case of her female victims it is always some other longing – Zenia finds out whatever people yearn for, and finds a way to embody it. This we get in some detail (we see far more of various imagined Zenias than of the woman herself).

However she gets hold of you, once she has you you are gone. After that, any public hint that she is using you feels threatening, not because of what it says about her, but because it might displease her and have her withdraw from you. Her approval is everything. But the judgments she delivers to men and to women – once she has sucked them dry – are of the greatest brutality, resonating with the worst messages they have internalised from the past. She now walks the corridors of their dreams.

Even once they understand what she is, and hate her, they can’t help wanting to identify with, celebrate, even cherish her, thanks to her intense vitality and the passions she has summoned up in them.

The book is similar to Balzac’s Cousin Bette and Thackery’s Vanity Fair in having an evil female agent who works against a backdrop of male depravity and moral weakness; there are strong hints that this is the real problem to be addressed. The men are never seen from the inside; two of them remain almost entirely blank to us, though they all seem to end up with some kind of self-loathing. One of them, in the final break-up scene with his partner, gives a fine example of the malice that comes out when someone abandons their ideals.

A few reviewers have complained that the book demonises the ‘other woman’ and non-monogamous women generally. It could be used that way, though it is unlikely to be the author’s intention, given her support for female sexual expression in other contexts.

The book warns that high-minded thoughts and finer feelings draw their sap from dark roots: poison them and the whole tree sickens.

It is also very funny in parts. And there are the references to fairy tales and the supernatural – it really needs an extended review.

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Hunchback of Notre Dame

13 May 2012

The Hunchback of Notre-DameThe Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It may be hard to read this great novel through all the noise created by subsequent adaptions, send-ups and other references. It is also strange, for the modern reader, to encounter vast wads of historical description, anecdote and conjecture, sometimes occupying a whole massive chapter, as with Moby Dick. But the essential story is clear enough. The 16 year old Esmeralda has been raised by gypsies and tours with them as a dancer. She is a model of youth, beauty, grace, compassion vitality and innocence, as befits a nineteenth century heroine. Like her, the hunchback Quasimodo has lost his parents. He was abandoned as a baby and left to the care of the Church, to begin his notorious career as bell-ringer in the famous Church. The book tells their interwoven stories.

At another level the story is a study of males and their common faults. Esmerelda stirs interest whereever she goes, but doesn’t usually bring out the best in men. Archdeacon Claude Frollo is a cold intellectual, the product of a joyless youth: unattractive in appearance, dried-up inside, obsessed with his sterile struggle with alchemy until Esmelda comes along. Once released his sexual passion flare up but stay intellectualised and internalised, coming out only as cold machinations and wild speeches not likely to appeal to her. He exemplifies the Church’s disconnect between mind and body and between the male and female. Phoebus is the dashing soldier who rescues Esmelda at one stage, as a more or less routine duty to keep the peace, but in doing so wins her heart. Under his gentlemanly polish he is a boor and brute. Gregoire the writer is amiable but weak. Jehan, the only major male character not linked romantically to Esmelda, has abundant vitality wasted on a dissolute lifestyle.

Her mother, tortured by the kidnapping of her daughter as a tot, has had herself walled herself into a small room with barred windows opening to the public, a concept developed elsewhere in the feminist novel Women in the Wall. Victor Hugo remarks in passing that this sort of self-mortifying behaviour excited only moderate compassion from the medieval populace, due to their limited sense of personality and the world that each of us has within us.
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The Many Coloured Land

25 April 2012

THE MANY-COLOURED LAND: A Return to IrelandTHE MANY-COLOURED LAND: A Return to Ireland by Christopher J. Koch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Culture and its erosion, along with poetic sensibility, are examined through descriptions of Ireland, the author’s family history and his experience of the Irish heritage in Australia.

The opening chapters cover Koch’s background and early life in Tasmania. One of his maternal great-great-grandmothers was of patrician Ascendancy stock (he will ultimately find whose old family home in ruins, while its name has been given to a new housing estate). Another was a convict: he recounts her passage to and spirited life in the new country, speculating on the unknown details. In the next section, he tells how the harsh legacy of Irish Catholicism flavoured the schooling in life he received from the Christian Brothers. But he was also in touch with his Protestant heritage, and at university discovered the stories of gentlemanly Irish rebels exiled to Tasmania after 1848.

He visited Ireland in his youth, but the book is mainly about his subsequent trip, in mature years, with a musician friend in the year 2000.

By this stage we have already encountered his aversion to manufactured mass culture – the “torment of piped music on buses” being a case in point. But it is most clearly epitomised by the pathetic scene with obese children during a stop-over in Dubai. “The enclosed suburban shopping malls of the West have evolved and flowered on the equator into whole hermetic citadels”, a “machine-chilled hive” that “resounds with American pop music, piped through loud-speakers: here as everywhere on earth… the inescapable accompaniment to life in a public space”.

Dublin on his first trip in the 1950s had been a place of “strange echoing lanes that ran into the dark nineteenth century… urchins in braces and waistcoats and quiet, mysterious little bars” – filled with the spirt of James Joyce, even though this books were frowned on and hard to obtain. In today’s city, he discovers that James Joyce features everywhere – in cardboard cutouts, displays with Ulysses maps of Dublin: a “tourist logo” in a city which his spirit no longer inhabits.

Traditional Ireland, especially in the west, is a besieged bastion against such cultural impoverishment. People in traditional west Ireland pubs “simply sing when the spirit moves them, and are listened to respectfully. This is how it must have been once in England and Australia, until somewhere in the mid-nineteenth century. Then it was lost, as the oral culture was lost.” Such singing in an Australian bar lounge “would cause laughter or embarrassment or both.”

Ireland also borders, at many points, on Faery. Sometimes even in Dublin itself. “The tide is out; black flats of mud extend below the wall, and the seagulls wheel and squabble there… birds that always seem the same birds, birds that exist outside Time.”

“High, very high, Atlantic gulls wheel in the air above the ridge, and their cold, hungry cries come down to me… here are the territories of the Sidhe. Looking ahead up the road I recognise them immediately.” Certain landscapes seen in Tasmania were “its heralds: its distant, imperfect variations… Now, here is the true rise, and its grass grows with an uncanny tinge of gold… Ireland has a legendary frontier. There, where the real world ends, the four other worlds begin: the world of the Sidhe, the Many-Coloured Land, the Land of Wonder, and the Land of Promise. Here at Howth, I have come to the no-man’s-land between. I know better, though, than to try and cross it.”

But TV radio and IT seal this frontier, offering in instead “the knowledge and pseudo-knowledge and vices and despair of Dublin, London and New York. And the Danaan voices fade.”

“This post-Christian era in the West, despite its desertion of rationalism and its automatic reverence for alien religions, is not one that’s open to Faery, as Yeats and his circle were; as Keats was, and Coleridge, and Shakespeare. The idea of Faery has become absurd: an infantile whimsy, of little interest even to the juveniles of the computer age, who are preoccupied instead by pseudo-legendary warriors fighting and maiming in those screen-bound computer games… Legend, exploited and reinvented in the animation studios Hollywood and Tokyo, is supremely fashionable, and makes money. But not Faery; not those spirits in trees and streams and hills that the Greeks knew, and the Elizabethans, and even the Victorians.” Faery is linked to Beauty, which “as a grail to be pursued is a notion that’s absent from the West’s postmodern salons, and even from poetry, since Beauty and studied irony make poor companions”.

Sidhe is Gaelic for both ‘faery’ and ‘wind’. He quotes Yeats:

The host is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-Bare;
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away:
Empty your heart of its mortal dream.

“I’d always imagined that the Irish bogs would be dreary,” he writes. “The reverse is true. They’re very beautiful; or rather, they’re beautiful if your spirit is of a kind to be drawn by open, lonely moorland or by waste places that retreat into inscrutable distance. Such places resonate with a high, single note of mystery: a singing that’s only just audible, like wind in a wire. Their melancholy quiet is filled with waiting; with the nearby presence of something remarkable, just beyond the reach of the eye and the mind. Here on the edge of the boglands, I understand why a knowledge of the Otherworld was always so strong among the Irish.” But it is “now in danger of being lost – withered and stunted by the rays of our video machines, and the babble of the global culture.”

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The Faery Flag

22 April 2012

The Faery Flag: Stories and Poems of Fantasy and the SupernaturalThe Faery Flag: Stories and Poems of Fantasy and the Supernatural by Jane Yolen
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Short stories and poems. ‘The Faery Flag’ and ‘The Foxwife’ were the only pieces that stirred me at all. The collection had a crafted quality, there was little sense of anything drawn from the deeps of her mind.

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Fire in the Blood

22 April 2012

Fire in the BloodFire in the Blood by Irène Némirovsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The French countryside in the 1930s. The passions and secrets of an extended family are viewed by the peripheral figure Silvestre. He is a single, middle aged man living out a sedate, uneventful life, withdrawn from this bourgois farming community; in his youth he chose restless wandering leading nowhere much, in contrast to his peers’ movement toward cold, grasping prosperity. His detachment doesn’t last as the passions and dramas of young couples around him stir up the longings of his own youth, when he was known as Silvio.

The transition from young to old is the main theme i took from the book. There are so many ways to look at this trajectory – naive to sophisticated, self-centred to empathic, impulsive/impatient to patient/cautious, hopeful to resigned, energetic to tired, and – swallowing them all in importance these days – pretty to ugly. This author’s take is the movement from generous-spirited and hopeful to pinched, diminished, dulled: the older person is someone who time has shallowed and shrunk. Finding the forgotten young person inside you is your best hope of revitalisation. “I want to bring that stranger to life” Silvestre declares. The author (in her late thirties at that stage) now does so on his behalf, by recapturing his youth in writing.

The novel has the feel of a nineteenth or early twentieth century play – and apparently the author initially considered writing it in that format (Intro, p. xi).

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Jenna Fox

15 April 2012

The Adoration of Jenna Fox (Jenna Fox Chronicles, #1)The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This smooth page-turner ticks various boxes for the secondary school curriculum: bioethics, environmental sustainability, the search for self-identity. And that’s all it does. The central character Jenna rebels against cocooning from her parents but I can’t help feeling that the reader is being cocooned, with this set-piece treatment of social issues. The only glimpse of anything beyond is religion as we invited to contemplate the nature of the soul. The secondary characters are all cardboard cutouts in a lab-generated novel.

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