May reading round-up

It doesn’t feel like it’s been my best reading month, but on the plus side I made it back to book club for the first time in ages and, particularly this week, I’ve had a lot of bookish conversations at work. With holiday season beginning there’s been much discussion of books to read on holiday – trashy or classic? Engrossing and involving or light and fluffy? I think we largely agreed that we avoid anything depressing but other than that tastes were pretty varied.

There was also this crazy news story today about the A-level English class who found out two weeks before their exam that they have been studying the wrong book – they’ve been studying Dracula but the exam will be on Frankenstein. This led to a fascinating conversation with an American colleague about the different texts we read for school at that age and I am completely jealous of the special project she got to do at the end of high school – choose any author and write a special report on them, based on as much biographical material (letters, diaries etc as well as memoir or biography) as can be found. I would have loved to do that; in fact I quite fancy doing it now!

But back to that news story, I do feel for those schoolkids. While two weeks may be long enough to read Frankenstein, I really found when I did my A-levels that spending a month or so studying it in detail really helped me to understand and even love the story. I still have my copy of the book from back then, full of all my study notes, some of which are more insightful than others! But I love it as a book that’s truly personal to me and whenever I pick it up I resolve to start annotating some of the books I read, but somehow I never do. Do you annotate books at all? Even just underline favourite quotes?

Click to enlarge if you want to read the annotations 17-year-old me made!

Anyway, back to the business at hand, what I have read this month…

Books read

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale (review here)

The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff (review here)

The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson (review here)

The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion (review here)

Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi (review here)

A Stainless Steel Rat is Born by Harry Harrison

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut Jr

Short stories read

“Disguised” by Isaac Bashevis Singer (New Yorker Fiction podcast)

“The colonel says I love you” by Sergei Dovlatov (New Yorker Fiction podcast)

“Chef’s house” by Raymond Carver (New Yorker Fiction podcast)

“The jockey” by Carson McCullers (New Yorker Fiction podcast)

“The reverse bug” by Lore Segal (New Yorker Fiction podcast)

“How to talk to girls at parties” by Neil Gaiman (free ebook as promo for his new novel)

“The swimmer” by John Cheever (New Yorker Fiction podcast)

“Gomez Palacio” by Roberto Bolano (New Yorker Fiction podcast)

I was a furious pinpoint

Beside the Sea

Beside the Sea
by Véronique Olmi
translated from French by Adriana Hunter

This was the first book published by small publisher Peirene Press and since I began blogging I have been hearing how wonderful this book is, so earlier this year I bought it. But the thing is that the premise of the book is so dark, so sad, that it took me a while to pick it up and to be honest even though I think it brilliant I am not sure I would ever want to put myself through it again.

The story is that of a single mother who takes her two boys to the seaside for a holiday she has planned and dreamed of for a long long time, but she is poor and suffers from depression so nothing is as she had hoped. And to add to the bleakness she has a plan to protect her boys from the world at the end of this holiday, a plan that is not explained but is nevertheless clear from page one.

“It felt really strange driving away from the city, leaving it for this unknown plane, specially as it wasn’t the holidays and that’s what the boys kept thinking, I know they did. We’d never been away for a holiday, never left the city, and suddenly life felt new, my stomach was in knots, I was thirsty the whole time and everything was irritating, but I did my best, yes really my best, so the kids didn’t notice anything. I wanted us to set off totally believing in it.”

I found this book extremely disturbing. Olmi does an amazing job of bringing to life a mother juggling money troubles and hunger and some form of depression, getting right inside her mind, which is not a comfortable place to be. Her four and eight year old sons are more au fait with the world than she is, and she feels this keenly. She has such a disturbed view of world, full of paranoia and fear, that she frequently hides from it all by trying to sleep, and her sons are familiar with this and accept it, even when they’ve skipped multiple meals and promise after promise has been broken.

“Lights mingled with the sound system, becoming as depressing as the songs, you couldn’t see the rain but it was following us all…the bells wouldn’t stop ringing, people were hurrying onto rides in every direction, where did all that money come from, everyone could afford everything, there was too much of everything everywhere, too much noise, too much rain, too many lights, all reeling past me.”

Olmi’s real skill is to show that this mother, struggling and under suspicion of social services and indeed most people they meet, truly loves her children and is trying as hard as she humanly can to do what’s right by them, it just isn’t enough. It’s unbearably sad. Doubly so as it’s so clear where this is going but you’re willing it not to go there, to find a way out.

“I was a furious pinpoint, with darkness all around, I was a star, old and always there, old and full of fire. I’d been thrown up into the sky, I wasn’t holding on to anything but everything around me hung on, like I was cradled by arms.”

I was left in a black mood for a couple of days after reading this book. I salute Olmi’s skill and achievement but I really do not want to enter that world again.

Bord de mer published 2001 by Actes Sud.
Translation published 2010 by Peirene Press.

Source: Bought direct from the publisher.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2013 Translation Challenge.

For the record this is me talking

The Last Thing He Wanted
by Joan Didion

The Last Thing He Wanted

So Tim went on holiday without me and the only thing about it I am jealous of is his discovery of the Last Bookstore in LA, which looks pretty darned amazing. And because Tim is quite nice really he bought me some books there, a couple by authors he knew I’d like and one book entirely based on the recommendation of the bookseller. Now I’m not sure how long Tim spent telling this bookseller about my taste in books, but she got it so very right. I had never read any Didion (although I had heard of her and may even have one of her journalistic pieces on my wishlist) but this novel is completely up my street.

Usually this is the point where I give a very brief plot synopsis but that’s going to be quite tough here, not necessarily for fear of spoilers, but more because for most of the book I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on or what it was all about. It did all come together in the end, but I think that feeling a bit lost was an integral part of the reading experience for me.

“There were hints all along, clues we should have registered , processed, sifted for their application to the general condition.”

I suppose you could call it a thriller, maybe a political thriller. It has the right elements: spies, embassies, arms deals, shady characters, multiple identities, an unspecified island location. It even has a reporter as its central character, Elena McMahon, only she’s not there as a journalist, she’s somehow involved more deeply in the murky goings-on of an island that should be tourist heaven but isn’t. However, it’s not written like any thriller I’ve ever read before. The story is in a jumble, not stream of consciousness but not straightforward narrative either. But it’s not messy, it’s carefully constructed. There are repeated phrases and fragments, like memories someone is trying to put back together in the right order.

Goddamn what’s the matter out there.
Smell of jasmine, pool of jacaranda, blue so intense you could drown again.
We had a real life and now we don’t and just because I’m your daughter I’m supposed to like it and I don’t.”

And who is that someone? The story is narrated by a curious combination of omniscient narrator and background character. But how can one character possibly have all these veiled links to Elena and have access to all these government files and interviews that are supposedly being used to put together the story of what happened to Elena McMahon on that island in 1984? So are we being misled?

“For the record this is me talking.
You know me, or think you do.
The not quite omniscient author.
No longer moving past.
No longer traveling light.
When I resolved in 1994 to finally tell this story, register the clues I had missed ten years before, process the information before it vanished altogether, I considered reinventing myself…a strategy I ultimately jettisoned as limiting, small-scale, an artifice to no point…
The best story I ever told was a reef dream. This is something different.”

In some ways, this book reminded me of a good film, like Open Your Eyes or Tell No-one, in the way it unfolds, with repeated flashes of key scenes and the situation devolving further and further from safe normality. As a reader, it’s an odd experience. I never felt I “settled into” the story; more than halfway through I was still shaking my head trying to figure out where it was going (though the clues are all there, and it would be interesting to read this again to see if it’s a more straightforward read second time around) but I still enjoyed it.

My only reservation is that to sell the government side of the plot, there are forays into political language that I would characterise as mumbo jumbo, or even corporate speak. And there’s a very definite attempt to make sure you don’t know if you can trust Elena, to the point that it becomes a little alienating. But then again not knowing who to trust is half the fun of a thriller, right?

Published 1996 by Vintage Books.

Source: Present from Tim, who bought it in a real (and awesome-looking) bookshop.

Moral panic and popular culture

Lady Reading in an Interior
Lady Reading in an Interior by Marguerite Gérard (c. 1795).

A while back Tim sent me a link to a research paper by sociologist Ana Vogrinčič that draws a line from the vilification of novels (and their readers) in the 18th century to the vilification of popular culture, particularly television, today. Then I read a blog post (which I can’t find now, sorry!) that asked about the books we happily talk about and the books we hide away, comparing that with the TV shows we discuss and those we don’t admit to being regular viewers of. Which got me thinking…

Moral media panics about popular culture are nothing new (as Vogrinčič’s paper shows) and by their very nature are later proved unfounded (at least on a general, wide scale; there will always be individual examples that can be dug up and repeated ad infinitum). The novel has over the last century gone from being considered low-brow and even damaging to health (yes, really) to being considered one of, if not the, best form of culture to be consumed in large quantities. In fact these days we worry about people not reading. (I’m not talking about literacy here, which is a separate matter, just about people who are capable of reading making the decision to pick up a book for leisure.)

This may be a really obvious link to draw but I found it fascinating:

“People did not stop reading novels. Nor did moral panic in any way weaken novel-writing or the distribution of novels – just as, two centuries later, it did not prevent people from watching television. On the contrary, the success of the genre and the campaign against it run parallel. And readers seem to have gone along with it…People genuinely believed that novels were harmful, but they were at once convinced that they themselves could not be affected. Or they just did not apply the threat to their own individual readings. It was (is!) the same with watching television.”

Right now, I think we’re starting to see the wane of the panic over television, though I wouldn’t call it just yet. Just as certain types of novel were vilified far longer than others (romance, especially) certain types of TV show continue to draw ire (reality TV being the obvious example) while other types, such as drama or documentary, have gone from acceptable to commendable – cultural aficionados will eagerly discuss whether The Wire or The Sopranos is the greatest TV show ever made while denying having seen a single frame of any soap opera (I’ve lost count of how often I hear someone defend their knowledge of a soap by saying “My partner/housemate/kid watches it so I’m in the room when it’s on but I don’t watch it really.”).

The other obvious example of a media panic is computer games, though I think (hope) that one too peaked a few years back and people are starting to acknowledge that games can be works of art/culture. I’m not a gamer myself but Tim is and I have spent many an hour watching him play games with carefully crafted plots and beautiful visuals. And even the games that look rubbish/have little or no plot are harmless fun and have some benefits (cognitive reasoning, stimulation of imagination, etc) just as reading “trashy” books is harmless and can have benefits (improved vocabulary, stimulation of imagination, etc). I read many a Sweet Valley High and Mills & Boon in my teens and it did me no harm that I’m aware of!

I’m struggling to see any benefit to watching reality TV, though, so maybe my argument falls apart a little at the edges. But it’s a topic I find really interesting so if you’ve spotted an article or podcast about this please let me know.

What do you think about moral panics over popular culture? Do you think it’s the same thing as cultural snobbery (high-brow versus low-brow) or are they two different but sometimes overlapping things?

You can read the research paper for yourself in the bilingual Croatian and English journal Media Research, though the poor copy editing (at least in the English version; I can’t speak for the Croatian) makes it a bit of a tough read in places.

Ana Vogrinčič 2008 The novel-reading panic in 18th century England: an outline of an early moral media panic Medijska Istraživanja 14 (2) 103–124
web version
PDF version

It’s all about getting people to talk

The Men Who Stare At Goats

The Men Who Stare at Goats
by Jon Ronson

This book was chosen for my book club and I am glad on two counts – it has made me want to watch a film that I dismissed out of hand at the time, and it has introduced me to a writer and journalist I now really really like – and yet I would never have picked it up myself.

The book follows Ronson’s investigation into “psychic spies” within the US Army. The events he unveils run from the 1960s to 2003, when he was writing the book, but the story is not told chronologically, it is told in the order in which he discovered the information, which is a little confusing but also creates the opportunity for Ronson to leave teasers and hints about what’s coming.

But what exactly is he investigating? Well, it begins with the rather bizarre rumour that a secret army unit kept a barn full of goats to train themselves in the art of staring a man to death. Ronson digs and digs and speaks to a LOT of people and discovers that the story is both sillier and far more sinister than it at first sounded.

Essentially, it all begins with Jim Channon, whose experience of war in Vietnam affected him for life. Essentially he became a hippie, but rather than leave the army he stayed and even rose in its ranks, while espousing a new philosophy to his superiors. He suggests that soldiers learn meditation, martial arts, spiritualism and other “non-lethal techniques”.

“It was heartbreaking for Jim to realize that Private First Class Shaw had died because his fellow soldiers were impulsively guileless and kind-hearted, and not the killing machines the army wanted them to be…’The kind of person attracted to military service has a great deal of difficulty being cunning. We suffered in Vietnam from not being cunning.'”

He even wrote a treaty, The First Earth Battalion Operations Manual, a strange combination of inner peace and unusual torture techniques that news reports reveal were being used in Iraq in 2003.

Which is where the book turns from quirky to serious journalism. Not that it is any way tough or hardgoing; Ronson is a very entertaining and engaging writer. He digs out the key details, the anecdotes that bring a person to life.

The book is funny yet disturbing. The concept of “non-lethal” stretches very very far, in fact at one point there’s a conversation about whether it can include something that leads to death a few weeks later.

The shocking part is not that the US Army employed terrible methods of interrogation/torture in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay; that’s pretty much common knowledge. The surprise is that many of those methods have their roots in hippie pacifism, the same roots that led General Albert Stubblebine III to be convinced that if he could just concentrate hard enough, he’d be able to walk through walls.

“‘That’s what the First Earth Battalion did,’ said Jim. ‘It opened the military mind to how to use music.’
‘So,’ I said, ‘it’s all about getting people to talk in a…in a what?’
‘A psycho-spiritual dimension,’ said Jim. ‘Besides the basic fear of being hit, we have a mental, spiritual and psychic component. So why not use that?'”

Through all the disparate details unearthed by Ronson, the line from crazy hippie to crazy evil is definite if occasionally fuzzy, but the crazy is ever-present. And these aren’t random outliers but respected career professionals within the army.

I loved this book but the reaction at book club was more tempered. There was some frustration at the muddled timeline but also at the lack of any clear conclusion or final revelation. To some extent I think that’s just the nature of this particular beast. The book was published in 2004, while US activity was at its height in Iraq and Guantanamo. The revelations about what really happened there were already appearing in the press and have continued to come out. That’s not the story Ronson is telling, it’s just one facet of it, but because it’s the most awful part it feels a little like a dropped conclusion. If anything, though, the revelation would be whether any of those original founders of the “psychic spies” really were pacifist hippies or if they were just extremely odd and possibly dangerous. And whether the secret unit still exists.

Published 2004 by Picador.

Source: Amazon.

A sunburst split the seams of the clouds

The Monsters of Templeton

The Monsters of Templeton
by Lauren Groff

A good friend mentioned this book to me because it features a friendship between two girls, one of whom has lupus, and that was enough to interest me. However, that is just one plot thread in a novel that has so much going on you could easily accuse it of that typical feature of the debut novel – that the author threw everything into it – except that that sounds like a bad thing and I really really enjoyed this.

I tried describing the story to Tim and I think overwhelmed him with all the stuff, and yet it doesn’t read like a plot-heavy novel because the writing is lyrical and the elements are given room to breathe, not rushed through. I’m not quite sure how Groff achieved this in just 360 pages but I suspect it is because she has wound everything up together, so that it is all linked.

“We have run through the dark orange days of July, run through the summer mornings soft as mouse fur, through the drizzle, through the baking heat…This is called solace, our morning run.”

The central character is Wilhelmina, or Willie, Upton, a 28-year-old archaeologist who turns up on her mother Vi’s doorstep heartbroken and lost after a disastrous affair with a married man. She has come home to Templeton, the small New York town where she not only grew up, but was the direct descendent of the town’s founder, the semi-legendary Marmaduke Temple. Vi decides that this is the moment to reveal to Willie that she is not, as she had been told, the result of free love in a San Francisco hippy commune, but instead that her father is someone in Templeton, someone Willie has known all her life. But Vi doesn’t tell Willie who, instead she gives her a clue about his ancestry, sending Willie digging through the town archives and old family letters. Alternate chapters are narrated by characters from the town’s past, giving both a flavour of the history of the town and clues to Willie’s quest.

Back in the life Willie has run away from in California, her best friend Clarissa is seriously ill, having been diagnosed with lupus on the brink of multiple organ failure and now months into a treatment regime that is kept quite vague, frustratingly for me as I had an obvious interest in that part. This was inevitably the thread that was going to be hardest for Groff to sell to me and to be honest I think it was done pretty well, with only a couple of minor misfires. Clarissa teeters between exhaustion and boredom/frustration at being home and not able to work, which rang pretty true for me. Her boyfriend Sully cares for her but is angry at Willie for not being there, for having disappeared first on a months-long archaeological dig and now back to her mother.

“There was a painful rubbery silence then, when the noise of the crowd down at the park burbled up to the house and a few chirps from the frog-pool began to rise and the grandfather clock ticked and ticked in the dining room.”

And then there’s the monster. Yes, an actual monster. On the day Willie arrives back in Templeton, a huge dead creature is found floating in the lake that the town is built on the edge of. The creature is dragged to the shore and then away to a laboratory where a series of biologists fail to identify it. But the residents of the town know that it was their monster, that it had been there in the lake longer than the town, and without it everything feels wrong, empty somehow.

This last thread was the one I found difficult to reconcile with the rest of the novel. There’s a touch of the mystical or fantasy in the story of the monster. In the historical sections of narrative we learn that troubled souls have always been drawn to the monster (indeed, a number have committed suicide by walking into the lake) and Willie herself may be one of these characters linked to the monster. It’s a fairly clear metaphor for the life of the town and for Willie’s emotional state and sometimes I liked the touch of surreal that it added to the novel, but at others I found it a little out of place.

There is so very much going on in this novel that I haven’t yet touched on. There’s the complicated mother-daughter relationship between Vi and Willie. Hippie feminist Vi appears to have found God and a drippy priest for a boyfriend, much to Willie’s chagrin. And Willie wants to curl up and be a child again just as Vi has found herself ready to move on from being a mother above all else. There’s the similarly complicated friendship between Willie and Clarissa, college buddies who can get on each other’s nerves as well as love unconditionally, who can hold back and keep secrets from each other but also at times be brutally, painfully honest.

There are many more subjects covered, such as the concept of home or belonging to a place, and the importance to some people of having a family history to draw on (though Clarissa, an orphan, seems to feel more drawn to Templeton as a home than Willie is). And of course the mysteries and secrets behind every door, behind every face. Whether it’s a broken heart or something much darker, everyone is hiding something.

“Outside, Templeton was still a pigeon gray, but over the far hills a sunburst split the seams of the clouds and blazed one stamp of trees a strange green-gold. I had dressed in a short yellow sundress from high school because I felt so sad and only that dress seemed to hold an element of light in it.”

Between the chapters there are old photographs labelled with the names of characters going back to Marmaduke Temple and even the last native people who lived on the land before the town was founded. It was perhaps not surprising to find, on reading the author’s note, that the fiction was loosely based on Groff’s hometown of Cooperstown, right down to the town’s famous author – James Fennimore Cooper – who wrote semi-fictional accounts of his town and the characters in it. In fact, readers more familiar with Cooper’s writing than me will probably know that he called his fictional town Templeton and many of the historical character names used by Groff are also his. Groff has written a love letter to her hometown and an homage to its great writer.

Despite its everything but the kitchen sink storyline, this novel is beautiful, with interesting, sympathetic but fallible characters and a very skilled use of multiple voices to bring a whole town to life. Perhaps it would be more generous to call it multi-layered, which it certainly is, as well as intelligent and probing. I will definitely look out for the author’s other books.

Published 2008 by Hyperion.

Source: Borrowed from a friend.

But seriously, lupus sucks

World Lupus Day

Please forgive me for being a bit introspective today, but I seem to have lupus on the mind. More than usual, that is. Not only did I completely forget that Friday was World Lupus Day (a date that I have marked every year since 2006, when I was diagnosed), but I just finished reading a book with a character who has lupus (review to follow).

It’s inescapable, lupus is my Big Bad. Yes, I did just compare my illness to an extra evil character in Buffy. It’s my prerogative. Also, it’s quite a good analogy – the lurking evil, waiting to strike when least expected, capable of much worse than it’s made me suffer so far. I can almost picture the sneaky demon enjoying the little irritations it plants for me every day while biding its time to do something much worse.

There may not be any “much worse” for me. Maybe I’ll carry on as I am now for the rest of my life, struggling a little but basically okay. If I’m lucky, the worst lupus has in store for me is the fear of what it is capable of (it’s a long scary list, I won’t repeat it here). Here’s hoping.

But it’s not just the more serious symptoms of lupus that scare me, it’s also the knowledge that it will probably never go away (a small number of patients go into long-term or even permanent remission from symptoms) that is pretty darned frightening. Perhaps that’s the wrong word, but it’s more than irritating or upsetting, it’s…well, a bunch of swears would most eloquently express it, I’d say.

One consequence of having a chronic illness is that you blame everything on it. It’s an easy excuse for all those things you put off or don’t do at all. I mean, obviously some stuff in my life is in fact caused by lupus. And most of the time it’s fine, whatever, everyone has their crap to deal with, I know that. It can just be so frustrating, the gap between what I feel that I am capable of and what I actually achieve, all those evenings I’d planned to write a short story or pick out curtains for the spare room or 101 other long-neglected tasks or hobbies, and instead I get home from work and find that emptying the dishwasher uses up the last dregs of my energy.

But then, doesn’t everyone feel like that? Maybe not the chronic fatigue part, but certainly the not getting round to stuff, the not achieving stuff. I was a teensy bit overambitious when I was young, I expected a lot from myself. And there’s always someone to compare yourself to who seems to be doing it better. Hard to avoid that one, it’s basic human nature.

This has all been a bit rambly and I’m not sure what I’m trying to say. I’m feeling sorry for myself and now I need to snap out of it and get back to being basically happy and frankly lucky to have the life that I have.

So…books, they’re nice, right?

Spring reads in brief

Predictably, having dared to enjoy just a smudge of the lovely weather we had before everything turned to rain, my lupus is flaring and my brain is therefore fried. So rather than write pages on each book I have enjoyed lately, I will just crib together my notes into something hopefully coherent.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher
or the Murder at Road Hill House

by Kate Summerscale

So when I first heard about this title somehow I didn’t realise it was non-fiction – and it reads like it. My own fault, I know, but even as historical non-fiction goes it is not stylishly written. It is however, very very interesting and absorbing. It recounts the case of the murder of an infant son at an English country home in 1860 and the ensuing investigation by Detective Inspector Whicher, one of the original police detectives when Scotland Yard was founded. Although the style was dry, I couldn’t forget that it was the story of a real-life murder and therefore found it very eerie and unsettling – I couldn’t read it last thing at night after having difficulty sleeping the first night I did that! What I really liked was the background of detective fiction versus real police detectives – I found it fascinating that they emerged together, each learning from other, and could happily have had more of that. It was, however, a bit repetitive – a character might have been introduced just a few pages before and at their next mention would again get a full explanation of who they are. But for all its faults, this was a compelling read. I didn’t want to put it down and easily got into the habit of reading after work rather than watching TV.

“The family story that Whicher pieced together at Road Hill House suggested that Saville’s death was part of a mesh of deception and concealment. The detective stories that the case engendered, beginning with The Moonstone in 1868, took this lesson. All the suspects in a classic murder mystery have secrets, and to keep them they lie, dissemble, evade the interrogations of the investigator. Everyone seems guilty because everyone has something to hide. For most of them, though, the secret is not murder. This is the trick on which detective fiction turns.”

Published 2008 by Bloomsbury.

Source: Borrowed from the library.

The Books of Magic
story by Neil Gaiman
art by John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess and Paul Johnson

Tim has spent years recommending this to me and I finally gave in. This trade paperback is a compilation of the mini series of comics that Gaiman wrote that turned into an ongoing series with other writers at the helm. I think we have the first few of those as single issues in the library. But I digress. In the mini series we meet teenage boy Timothy Hunter who is told by a group of strange men that he has the potential to become the world’s most powerful wizard, and does he want to know more? The four strangers take it in turn to introduce Tim to the various forms that magic takes, from performance artists in San Francisco to faerieland and even time travel. It is a beautiful book with fantastic characters but it left me with a similar feeling to the first volume of Sandman – where was the story? I suppose because it’s the set-up for a longer project, nothing is really resolved, everything is just introduced, but the longer series isn’t Gaiman so I am torn now as to whether I want to carry on.

“[We must] show him what magic truly is, and what it was, and what it may become. It is up to the four of us to ensure that he chooses his path correctly. Are we all in agreement? Doctor Occult?”
“I agree. I will show him the Far Lands.”
“Mister E?”
“If you are too soft to dispose of him, then I suppose you must educate him. If he gets that far then I will take him to the end.”
“Yeah, fair enough. I’ll give him the grand tour, introduce him to the runners, give him an idea of the starting price…Just what the world’s been waiting for. The charge of the trenchcoat brigade.
“I heard that, John Constantine.”

First published as single issues 1990–1991 by DC Comics. This compilation published 2001.

Source: I bought it from Excelsior! comic bookshop in Bristol.

Claudine and Annie
by Colette
translated from French by Antonia White

This is the last in the series about Claudine and, oddly, not only is it the first to not be narrated by Claudine, but she’s not even the main character. This book is narrated by new character Annie, a young, closeted Parisian woman whose husband has left on a long voyage and who gradually starts to disobey her husband’s orders as she makes the most of Parisian society, including strengthening her friendship with a certain Claudine. Though Annie is interesting enough, I was disappointed to find that this is barely even a Claudine book at all. Claudine is now so happy and settled in her life that the most interesting thing about her is her effect on other people, so it does make sense, but it still wasn’t the same, and in some ways seemed a blatant method of depicting another fall from innocence. This novel doesn’t veer into soft porn like the previous ones but it would certainly have been risque for its time in the descriptions of relationships. The characters are all wonderful, I just would have liked more Claudine.

“He has gone! He has gone! I keep saying these words to myself; now I am writing them down on paper to find out if they are true and if they are going to hurt me…I am afraid to move, to breathe, to live. A husband ought not to leave his wife – not when it is this particular husband and this particular wife.”

Claudine s’en va first published 1903.
This translation first published 1962 by Secker & Warburg. Reissued by Penguin.

Source: I bought it from a secondhand bookshop.

See also: my reviews of Claudine at School, Claudine in Paris and Claudine Married.

Sunday Salon: Keeping busy

The Sunday Salon

I feel like I have done a lot of stuff in the last fortnight, possibly because today has been busy and isn’t over yet! But looking through my recent photos I actually do have some things to tell you all about.

Last Saturday I met up with my dear and lovely friend H in London and we went to the Natural History Museum, then to a super tasty meal at organic vegetarian Italian restaurant Amico Bio. However, I almost didn’t get to enjoy the meal because I managed to catch a touch of sunstroke despite it being only 15 °C with skies looking like this:


Last Sunday H and her husband introduced me to world of British basketball, which is not something I ever expected to be saying, but it was actually a lot of fun. It was the BBL Play-offs Final so there was a lot of spectacle and fun around the match itself. If all basketball is like that I am a total convert.


I had Monday off work so I treated myself to a trip to the British Library before heading back to Bristol. I went to the temporary crime fiction exhibition, which was fun but a bit small, and then spent hours browsing the Treasures of the British Library. That is one amazing room – First Folio Shakespeare, 1000-year-old manuscript of Beowulf, the Lindisfarne Gospels, two original copies of the Magna Carta, plus a bunch of gorgeous illuminated books from all over the world and author manuscripts from some of the greats from centuries ago up to the present day. Truly amazing. And free!

This weekend I’ve spent mostly cleaning and doing chores (including unloading three bookcases, moving them an inch to the left, and then reloading them – that was fun) but I also had a nice visit from my Mum. She came to run the Bristol 10k this morning, so earlier than I would usually be awake on a Sunday, I was out in the sunshine cheering on all the runners and trying to spot my Mum.

Run run run

That picture doesn’t make clear how lovely and warm and sunny it is here today. Mum and I certainly made the most of my having a garden this weekend (though after last week I made sure I was wearing a hat and suncream).

And tomorrow’s a bank holiday! Is it a holiday weekend where you are? What are you up to (holiday or not)? Happy Sunday!