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The Best Love Letter in Literature

If you took a straw poll to determine the greatest love letter in literature, I’d wager that Frederick Wentworth’s letter to Anne Elliot towards the end of Jane Austen’s Persuasion would come out on top.

Estranged former lovers, Anne harbours a massive flame for Frederick Wentworth but has resigned herself to the fact that he doesn’t feel the same after she gave him up eight years before. Until she receives this hastily written, unsigned letter which is personally delivered with a meaningful look….

Frederick Wentworth's Letter to Anne Elliot

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan


For the Classics Challenge 2016, February edition, I decided to hunt through my to read pile (part of my bid to spend less money on books by reading the ones I already have, rocket science, I know) and came up with Francoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse. I may or may not have been swayed to choose this modern classic, ranked 41 in Le Monde’s 100 books of the century, because its short length matched the shortness of the month….

Bonjour Tristesse, narrated by seventeen year old Cecile, tells the events of a summer she spends on the French Riviera with her vain, self-indulgent father and his mistress, Elsa. When Anne, a family friend, comes to stay and threatens Cecile’s cosy, vapid existence and bourgeoning love affair with a local boy, she begins plotting to be rid of her.

As classics go, this novel is small but perfectly formed. Although she initially appears naïve and innocent, Cecile is one of the most detestable narrators I’ve ever encountered- loaded with a raging Electra complex, vindictive and self-excusing. The skill with which Sagan manipulates the reader’s feelings from supporting Cecile and seeing Anne as the villain of the piece at the novel’s opening to a total inversion of this by the end. When you consider that Sagan was only 18 when she wrote this novel… pretty incredible.

If you’re looking to dip a toe in the classics with an accessible read, or a fan of unreliable narrators and characters that you love to hate, this is a great read for you.

Persuasion by Jane Austen

“I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.” Persuasion by Jane Austen

In the past, I may have compared Jane Austen to porridge. Not that I have anything against porridge per se, or Jane Austen really, but there are only so many marriage plots that you can really embrace before you feel a little jaded.

My not-quite-antipathy of Jane Austen has been compounded by the fact that I found Northanger Abbey one of the most irritating books I’ve ever read. But after being given a beautiful folio box set of Austen’s collected works for my 30th birthday, and deciding that Daniel Defoe’s The Storm (a groundbreaking work of 18th century journalism… apparently) was a little too dry to start off the 2016 Classics Challenge, I decided to try Persuasion to see whether Austen, or I, had improved with age.

And, do you know, maybe we have? For one thing, I enjoyed it. While, as with many a marriage plot, the story is fairly light and predictable, Jane Austen’s claws are out in a way that they just aren’t in her other books. Pretentious and vapid characters are mercilessly mocked, while the Cinderella-ish, sensible and practical heroine (who is feared to have lost her bloom at twenty-eight… I know…) gets her happy ending (and her bloom back).

Any Austen novel will always be considered among the classics, but I really do think this has a little more zest than her other books. Though it still has characters rigidly observing and believing in the class structure of the time, it doesn’t pull any punches on the subject of snobbery and seems quite forward thinking for the time, at least where the “ideal marriage” and roles of women are concerned.

Obviously I would recommend this to Jane Austen fans, but for anyone who wants to read probably the earliest, and most certainly one of the best, fictional love letters in English literature needs to check this out.

 

Book Cover Beauty Pageant

Exciting news for those who like to judge books by their covers. Yep, me too. The New York Public Library has undertaken a huge digitization project to make over 185,000 of their book covers, maps, illustrations and other images available to anyone. And they are free from copyright.

Definitely worth a browse. Just look at some of these beauties:

 

 

Harry Potter Parenting Hacks

True, they may have had five children under the age of seven at one point, but it occurred to me earlier (after three days of disrupted sleep, while singing Morningtown Ride for the seventeenth time in an hour and pacing the house with my overtired, teething baby) that Molly and Arthur Weasley probably had it pretty easy. Why? Magic my friends. Raising a baby is much easier if you can wave a magic wand and get things happening.

Don’t believe me? Let’s review the evidence.

ron weasley baby mandrake

 

Sleeping Draughts

A moral grey area, but need I say any more? The Weasleys had access to safe, effective sleeping potions. I’m not talking your Draught of Living Death type of potion here, just a drop or two of standard sleeping draught on the tip of a dummy and everyone’s happy. No more overtired baby, and the job’s a good ‘un. True, the baby would have to consume a small amount of flobberworm mucous as part of the potion, but let’s face it, babies have been known to put worse in their mouths.

the choice between what is right and what is easy

Time-Turner

You might need special permission from the Ministry of Magic to use one, but if Hermione Granger’s academic record was considered sufficient justification then I’m pretty sure that having five children under the age of seven (and two more not much older) would be enough to get you authorisation.  I’d hate to be the Minister of Magic who said it wasn’t. This one is less ethically tricky than the sleeping draught, your children are taken care of by their parent, but you plan your day carefully so that you can head to a quiet room, turn back time and nap for five hours before moving on to the next crisis. Prison and mortal peril are on their living room clock for a reason, just saying.

ron weasley piss off

Housework Charms

Mrs Weasley’s knitting does itself and the potatoes peel themselves. I daresay she had similar charms for nappy changing, clothes washing and folding. Imagine how much more you’d get done (and how much money you’d save) if you could just tell your garden to get on with growing vegetables which then cook themselves into a healthy dinner, wool that makes itself into clothes which then wash themselves… all while the dusting is getting itself done. I mean, come on, it’s practically cheating, isn’t it? No wonder she has time to make her own toffee and read Witches’ Weekly.dobby finger click

 

The Summoning Charm

I’ve always thought that this was potentially one of the most useful spells in the Harry Potter universe. Especially for the new mother. You left the nappy rash cream downstairs? Accio Weleda! The baby’s thrown up milk and you can’t find the muslin that you had two damn seconds ago? Accio burp cloth. Poo crisis but you can’t leave the baby unattended to get them clean clothes? Accio baby grow! Keep your wand handy and you will never lose anything again. And it’s no trouble if you’re across the room and spot your baby about to put something deadly in their mouth. Just summon it out of their chubby little fists then distract them with a tiny snowstorm you’ve conjoured up.

tumblr_nym9oagUx31ujqscto4_500

Undetectable Extension Charm

Remember Hermione’s tiny beaded handbag? The one in which she packed everything she, Harry and Ron would need to escape the wedding and fight Voldemort? Yeah, well imagine being able to use that. You’d never run out of storage space in the house again. The toy box would never overflow so that you had to stack toys on top and then dig around for ages to find the favourite teething toy of a sleepy baby which is somehow hidden under a rustley sensory blanket, the jingliest jingle bells and a drumkit… Also, you could pack everything you needed into a small, stylish handbag and sashay out with your baby and pram without being bowed under the weight of baby paraphernalia. No need to have that internal debate about whether to take the second change of clothes… you could even take a change for yourself. Not that you’d need it, you could probably magic the milk vomit off your robes.

So, as I see it, the wizards have this parenting malarkey tied up. But it’s all good. My Hogwarts letter is due any day now…. Any day. In the meantime, well played Wizards. Well played.

Feral by George Monbiot

I have an unhealthy obsession with sheep. It occupies many of my waking hours and haunts my dreams. I hate them. Perhaps I should clarify that statement. I hate not the animals themselves, which cannot be blamed for what they do, but their impact on both our ecology and social history.

Feral by George Monbiot

I’ve always enjoyed reading George Monbiot’s articles for The Guardian. They are generally interesting and informative, often focused on the environment and discussing the concept of rewilding, a topic close to his heart. In these he writes incisively and with passion, so I was keen to read more about this in Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life which the blurb describes as “the lyrical and gripping story of George Monbiot’s efforts to re-engage with nature and discover a new way of living.”

It’s partly that.

While Feral does see Monbiot dabble with nature writing, much of the book retains his powerful journalistic discussion of rewilding projects and the challenges these present globally. In a range of case studies, he outlines how the reintroduction of large predators actually benefits ecosystem and allows wildlife to thrive, restoring worn out links in the food chain via trophic cascades which sees major predators like wolves indirectly benefit plants and animals throughout their ecological networks. Some of this covers the potential for introducing not only beaver and wild boar throughout Britain, but wolves in the highlights of Scotland where Trees for Life are working to restore the Caledonian Forest. As Monbiot neatly summarises, “if feeding the ducks is as close as you ever want to come to nature, this book is probably not for you”.

Although Monbiot argues forcefully for rewilding, he retains a fair degree of objectivity highlighting not only the ecological and environmental benefits that some rewilding projects have brought, but the societal problems that have been wrought by rewilding at the expense of native peoples and the potential climate problems that rewilding in certain regions might cause. It was interesting, especially in light of his comments about sheep in the quote above, to read his account of meeting with a young sheep farmer and their arguments around the implications of sheep farming and rewilding in the Cambrian Mountains. For me, it is these case studies and anecdotes which make the book compelling (did you know that British films are dubbed with American birdsong?), and they make up for the areas in which the book loses momentum.

While Monbiot is a skilled and outspoken journalist, he is a middling nature writer and many of the chapters begin with awkwardly written accounts of him reconnecting with the landscape or experiencing moments of “genetic memory”. I think part of the stiltedness here is a desire to offer some kind of unique description or offer some light humour, but very often it leads to some very strange figurative language or some even stranger images coming to mind. For example, I’m not sure whether it was confused writing, poor copyediting or a combination of the two which lead to the following sentence about grey squirrels, goshawks and pine martens, but it conjured to mind a very weird situation.

Nature's strangest threesomes...

Nature’s strangest threesomes…

Snarkiness about the more flowery prose aside, I would highly recommend this as a read to anyone who has enjoyed Monbiot’s Guardian column. The relevant parts are hugely interesting, very well researched and you do feel like you’ve learned something new after reading it.

 

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist is one of those widely acclaimed debut novels that seems to follow you around, even before you’ve read it you see the cover in bus stops, catch the title in magazines and catch the name standing out in strangers conversations. But is there anything more to the hype than a clever marketing campaign?

At first glance, the story has all the elements of a Gothic pastiche: a young bride turns up at her new husband’s house and finds herself at the mercy of his cold, maiden sister with a servant who openly treats her in a disrespectful way. Alone and isolated (in a room bedecked with grizzly artwork depicting meat and game birds no less), she is insulted when her husband buys her a child’s dollhouse to occupy her but soon finds that there is more to this than meets the eye. In itself, not massively compelling.

To reduce the story to this rough plot overview though, would be to do the novel and the author a massive disservice. I think that part of Jessie Burton’s talent is that she sets up the reader’s expectations for a particular kind of plot then through subtle misdirection surprises the reader with the course of events that follows, keeping you only half a step ahead of Nella as she encounters the wonders and horrors of her new life in Amsterdam and making her one of the most credible naïve brides in literature.

The history of 17th century Amsterdam been well researched and certainly well rendered, and the setting is a masterstroke for anyone who thinks of Amsterdam as a shorthand for liberalism and tolerance. While the miniaturist remains shadowy, the city comes to the fore as a contradictory, cruelly capricious character – the home to a society simultaneously obsessed with trade and piety, where neighbour watches neighbour to exert a pervasive social control, a fearful puppet master in its own right.

Though the novel isn’t perfect, it is very, very good and like all good novels it leaves you with questions. Why does the miniaturist come to the church in the first chapter? Why did they want to leave the miniature-miniature there? And most of all, what has compelled such an astute student of human behaviour to hold a mirror up to their subjects lives when the emotional repercussions of their art seem to shake them too?

The Virgins by Pamela Erens

the virgins erensOver the years I’ve come to understand that telling someone’s story- telling it, I mean, with a purity of intention, in an attempt to get at that person’s real desires and sufferings- is at one and the same time an act of devotion and an expression of sadism. You are the one moving the bodies around, putting words in their mouths, making them do what you need them to do. You insist, they submit.

The Virgins, Pamela Erens

There’s a puff from the Independent on the cover of Pamela Erens’ The Virgins which compares it to Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides and on a fairly superficial level I suppose there are similarities, both are novels about teenage angst and lust set during the seventies narrated by men reflecting on the girls they loved in their youth, but while The Virgin Suicides is a Greek chorus of relatively benign voices united to honour the memory of the girls they adored, it quickly becomes clear that Erens’ novel is a much darker tale, a story of obsession which is closer to a confession than anything else.

Set in an elite private boarding school, it examines a cohort of teenagers slowly beginning to show the cracks of the incredible internal and external pressures they are facing. At the heart of this group are young lovers Aviva and Seung, an improbable couple whose tale, our narrator soon makes clear, will not be a happy one.

Erens’ writing captures the spirit and the memory of what it is to be a teenager, and while her fresh prose will resonate with anyone who remembers their first serious teenage romance, Erens’ prose serves as a stark reminder of how the destructive flame of obsession can consume and warp anyone who stands close enough to it.

Incubus by Ann Arensberg

incubus ann arensbergTeenaged girls meddling with witchcraft in the churchyard of Dry Falls parish seem to have woken something up. As an incessant heat wave holds the town in a stranglehold, the women of the town begin to have nightmares and as Henry, the town priest, investigate, his wife Cora begins to feel increasingly isolated.

The above, is the plot of Ann Arensberg’s Incubus as I managed to gather it from reading this book which took me weeks because its tendency to meander away from the details of the plot and insert a multitude of irrelevant descriptions made it a very frustrating read. The novel starts with a vaguely academic tone as Cora promises to provide a scientific record of the events of that summer, then proceeds to narrate her husband, mother and sister’s life stories… though it isn’t too long before she veers away from focusing on the paranormal aspects of the summer to provide tedious descriptions of her cooking and wax lyrical about outdated notions of femininity, basically positing that all women occupy a vaguely pagan status and that cooking, wishing and gardening are tantamount to witchcraft. I found the “we weak and helpless women” tone of the piece profoundly irritating.

The characters were poorly rendered and unbelievable. For all that Cora says about her husband Henry, he remains a shadowy figure, and there is no relationship between him and Cora to speak of but at least the author has tried to shoe horn in some depth of character here. The rest of the novel was stocked with 2D characters whose bland interactions held neither interest or credibility for the reader. The author genuinely seemed more interested in describing dry chicken dinners than developing a plot concerning the incubus.

The ending of the novel was so bad it was laughable, I won’t include too many spoilers but it mostly involves a showdown between the forces of heaven and hell in a church, the priest sustaining a sprained ankle and Cora(who the whole town seems to have agreed was too boring to become a target for the incubus) deciding she is like Persephone locked in her husband’s underworld. I was left wondering what on earth the author could have been thinking.

A town plagued by an Incubus is a subject with the potential for a really gripping novel, but somehow Ann Arensberg has managed to make it deathly dull. It’s almost a snatching defeat from the jaws of victory scenario.

At times, Aresnberg writes very pretty descriptions but given the weakness of characterisation and plotting I did wonder whether food or travel writing might be a better genre for her than supernatural thriller.