Despite the unseasonably warm weather, days of sunshine and late flowers, the early dusk, leafless branches and occasional morning mists are a reminder that autumn is very much with us and for once I’ve noticed it in my reading habits.
Isak Dinesen: The Life of Karen Blixen, by Judith Thurman – I’ve been rereading some of Seven Gothic Tales and it seemed the moment to find out more about Tanne/Isak/Karen/the Baroness, a fascinating, brilliant and troubled writer. The great moment of her life was the time she spent running her coffee plantation in Africa where she felt a deep affinity with the Kikiyu and Maasai; the many years she lived back in Denmark were a disappointing coda for her, but for us quite the reverse since it was then that she wrote her famous tales. This is a very good biography, all the more because its subject always preferred a good story to mundane truth and so it must have been difficult sometimes to weasel out fact from what we might boringly consider fiction.
The Angelic Avengers, by Isak Dinesen pretending to be Pierre Andrézel – Thurman explains that Dinesen wrote this, her only novel, during the Second World War, but afterwards practically disowned it. It’s gothic, it doesn’t take itself too seriously and it’s by Isak Dinesen, so I bought a copy and read it. More in a separate post, but it’s a lovely read.
A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness – It’s totally Harriet’s fault that I bought this (for the princely sum of 1p, sorry Deborah) and there was much to entice: a witch, a magic book, the history of alchemy. And really it’s a tribute to the author that she painted her hero, Matthew, so believably that I hated him so very, very much. I could not bear him or the slushy love scenes (yes I am the person who shouts at James Bond to stop kissing the lady and get on with the adventure! and I was doing the equivalent here), and the pace just slowed to nothing in the middle. And yet. I read the whole thing, and once my loathing of Matthew abates I expect I shall read the sequel, which is set in 1590 in England and may involve Marlowe, Shakespeare and the ‘Wizard Earl’, Henry Percy. I can’t really resist that.
The Carbonel books, by Barbara Sleigh – I think I last read these when I was about twelve, but they are just as good thirty years later and absolutely the ticket for a fuzzy-headed cold. Carbonel is King of the Fallowhithe cats, but has to enlist the help of Rosemary Brown and her friend John when his kingdom is threatened. Mrs Cantrip, the local witch, is a marvellous character – cantankerous, sloppy, lazy and unable to resist livening up the washing-up with a spot of magic; needless to say I identified strongly with her although my nose isn’t quite as big as hers. Yet.
A Dead Man in Deptford, by Anthony Burgess – Now that I look at what I’ve been reading, it seems clear to me that I was inspired to pick up this novel about Christopher Marlowe by A Discovery of Witches. It’s written in a sort of Elizabethan-inflected English, and so far there’s been drinking, fighting, wordplay, theatre and espionage, what you’d expect really; I’m enjoying it more than the Harkness (sorry again Deborah).
Apart from that I’ve read a couple of books for the in-betweeny edition of Shiny New Books, which comes out at the beginning of December. Both books were splendid, but more I cannot tell since the editors of SNB are famed for their disembowelling of bloggers who let slip too much before the magazine’s publication. And I can barely wait to get started on Fog Island Mountains, the first novel by Michelle Bailat-Jones, who maintains a lovely blog at pieces. It slid through the letter-box a couple of days ago and is described as ‘A haunting and beautiful reinterpretation of the Japanese kitsune folktale tradition, [...] a novel about the dangers of action taken in grief and of a belief in healing through storytelling.’
What have you been reading? Any recommendations? And are you looking forward to any new publications in the next few months?
(Black-and-white illustration by V.H. Drummond, from Carbonel, by Barbara Sleigh (Harmondsworth: Longman Young Books, 1973; first published 1955; from here)