The in-betweeny edition of Shiny New Books came out last week. I’ve written a review for it: Sophie and the Sibyl: A Victorian Romance, by Patricia Duncker. Duncker has whisked George Eliot out of her biographies and set her down, first in Berlin and then in Venice, as Mrs Lewes, prized author of Middlemarch whose German publisher, Wolfgang Duncker, is desperate to secure translation rights to her latest work. He despatches his feckless younger brother, Max, to charm the great lady. What neither the Dunckers nor the others around Mrs Lewes realise is that she is brewing her next novel, Daniel Deronda, and requires raw material...
This is a novel that is simply great fun to read, even if you know nothing about Daniel Deronda. It’s also intensely interested in the play between myth, fiction and reality, most obviously in its clever inversion of the usual idea of novelists using ‘real’ people and situations in their work, for here Duncker has taken the fiction, Daniel Deronda, extracted characters and situations and made them ‘real’. You can read more here...
PS Am I the only person in the entire history of the universe not to think that George Eliot was ugly?
(Sepia postcard print of George Eliot (1858), by London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company, after Mayall; copied 1870s; from here)
(‘Sipping their Cups of Dew’, ‘Acheta Domestica’, Episodes of Insect Life, Vol. II (London: Reeve and Benham, 1850); taken from Melanie Keene, Science in Wonderland: The Scientific Fairy Tales of Victorian Britain (Oxford: OUP, 2015))
I love holidays. I love not working and lounging about in the sunshine and reading lots and not getting dressed until lunchtime and playing with my daughter. I have never understood people who say they’d still work if they won the Lottery. I wouldn’t! I remember on the teacher-training course I followed, all the trainers said sternly that if you wanted to be a teacher because of the lovely long holidays, you Wouldn’t Last Long in teaching. ‘Bother’, thought I, but three years down the line I’m still hanging in there and yes, enjoying the holidays; perhaps there are exceptions to that rule.
So, just in case you aren’t a teacher or don’t have a child at a Belgian school, I should tell you that the last two weeks have been Easter holidays and thus I have not really strayed near the computer. I am sure that you all know by now that the latest wallet-worrying edition of Shiny New Books is out and as usual stuffed to the gills with good things.
I have two reviews in there this time. The first is a new collection of Victorian fairy tales edited by Michael Newton. This was terrific fun and highly recommended: there are other similar collections but this one contains stories not in print anywhere else and a really good introduction by Newton. The other is Science in Wonderland, by Melanie Keene, an exploration of what happens when nineteenth-century enthusiasm for science meets fairy tales and produces some truly bizarre educational texts for children. The dreadful photograph at the beginning of this post is from there (taken by me, as are all the pictures in this post).
Melanie Keene mentions an album by two Victorian teenagers, Madalene and Louisa Pashley, pages from which were published in 1980. The album sounded so appealing I had to track down a copy, of course not much effort with the internet. Madalene and Louisa were enthusiastic entomologists, and their album, lavishly illustrated with their watercolours, outlines some of their adventures (bizarrely written in the personae of middle-aged spinsters). The sisters often shrink to insect size. Their adventures include ‘DARING NIGHT EXPEDITIONS’, lassoing glow worms, being outwitted by a grasshopper and capturing a dragonfly, all very dramatic. However, their lives are complicated by a succession of irritating governesses (‘none of them was interested in beetles and all of them persisted in setting us SUMS’), their ‘sour’ older sister Georgie whose mere presence causes it to rain, a staid drawing master and their admiral Papa, whose duties consist of ‘discussing repairs to ships of the line, and making arrangements for DINNER PARTIES and croquet matches’. Were I not a teacher with lots of holidays, I think I’d be an admiral, that’s a job I could manage. It all ends happily: ‘After that Papa decided that we were too old for governesses and too idle for drawing masters so we were able to entomologise as much as we liked with no one to bother us.’
(The book is The Adventures of Madalene and Louisa: Pages from the Album of L. and M.S. Pasley, Victorian Entomologists, introduced by Tim Jeal, London: William Collins, 1980, should you be interested.)
My few brain cells have been so busy with work and with writing a couple of reviews for the next edition of Shiny New Books – coming soon to a computer near you! – that they couldn’t cope with the extra effort of writing about ‘Paris’. Hence: reading notes.
Diving Belles, by Lucy Wood – I have Faye from Literasaurus to thank for this: she wrote a wonderful review about it which compelled me to buy a copy. It’s a collection of short stories set in Cornwall, but inflected with magic and loss. There’s an old lady who enters the sea in a diving bell to reclaim her long-lost husband, victim of mermaids; a houseful of whispering spirits, observing the inhabitants; a woman who is surprised to discover that her mother has a fairy lover. The magical elements are sometimes very strong – as in the story of the couple whose house becomes haunted by a wrecker’s ghost – but sometimes very much in the background – as the wisht hounds are in a tale of a motherless girl and her father, or the story of the droll teller, and they allow Wood to write about grief, loss of memory, loss of home in resonant and beautiful ways. For instance, in ‘Countless Stones’ Rita is slowly turning into a menhir (I was reminded of Byatt’s ‘A Stone Woman’); it’s a story that’s both about a woman turning into stone and about the effects of loneliness, isolation, depression. Wood writes subtly and with an accurate eye on how people feel and speak. Lovely. I’ll definitely be reading Wood’s novel, which was published very recently.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke – My use of this tome to deflect pointy cat teeth perhaps misled some of you into thinking I disliked the book. I love it! It’s even better the second time around. Please please let the sequel come soon.
John Keats, by Robert Gittings – I started this spurred on by Stefanie asking about Keats biographies and my shameful realisation this had been sitting on my bookshelves since 1989 and never read. I am enjoying it but reading it slowly. It’s good to stop and read the poems alongside it. I hope to write about it on here in more detail when I’ve finished it.
The Princess Bride, by William Goldman – For the first thirty pages or so, I loved this. Then it began to grate until I could barely finish it. I felt as if I were being repeatedly slapped about the head by a gnome on a stick. Sorry, Mr Goldman.
On Beauty, by Zadie Smith – It’s ten years since this was published, and only now am I reading it. Why did I leave it so long? Smith’s characterisation is a joy, and her dialogue – well, I can hear those people chattering in my head.
As I’m sure you already know, the latest Shiny New Books is online and packed with reviews and interviews and an Advent quiz. I’ve already forgotten that Christmas involves buying presents for other people and identified about twenty books I want for myself. I defy you to be more altruistic if you click through.
I have written two reviews this time. The first is of Marina Warner’s Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale. I didn’t actually write ‘perfect stocking-filler’, but... The second is The Portrait, the English translation of a powerful Dutch novel by Willem Jan Otten. Although short it wasn’t always an easy read, but it poses some interesting questions. And the narrator is a canvas.
Hello, and many apologies for disappearing... It’s summer and holidays and I’m not going to be gallimaufrying that much for the next couple of weeks since I am travelling to England tomorrow. [capers madly]
(An advertisement for the Sutherland Sisters, on whom Michelle Lovric based her Swiney Godivas; found at Collector’s Weekly where you will also find a fascinating article about them)
However, should you be missing my deathless prose, you can read my two reviews in the latest edition of Shiny New Books: both of which are set in the nineteenth century and encompass Ireland, Venice and Istanbul. Michelle Lovric’s evocative prose weaves an addictive tale of unhinged sisters, celebrity, greed and, yes, hair in The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters, and in the latest instalment of Jason Goodwin’s ‘Ottoman Detective’ series, The Baklava Club, Yashim is drawn into the world of political exiles, intrigue – and, of course, murder. And Shiny New Books is stuffed full of tempting recommendations for summer reading. Enjoy! Don’t tell your bank manager!
(Yeni Cami and Eminönü bazaar, Constantinople, circa 1895: much later than Yashim’s time but perhaps not so very different. From the Photochrom Prints Collection at the Library of Congress; found here)
Have you read about Shiny New Books yet? It's the new 'quarterly online magazine focusing exclusively on new and forthcoming publications that will help you decide what to read next and why', set up by four bloggers whom you might already know: Victoria, Harriet, Annabel and Simon. There are reviews of fiction, non-fiction and reprints – although they're recommendations rather than reviews, which sets Shiny New Books slightly apart from most other book magazines. But that is not all! There are also competitions, and in the BookBuzz section you'll find interviews with and posts by authors about their latest books and the writing processes behind them. In this issue there are interviews with Helen Oyeyemi, Jill Dawson and Sebastian Barry, to name just three, an article on translating Tove Jansson's biography and the editors of Slightly Foxed talking about what goes on behind the scenes of that lovely magazine.
Are you still here? Do go and check it out – it looks great! But I would say that, wouldn't I, because I have contributed a review. It's of Nanni Balestrini's novel Tristano and here's a snippet:
To give the reader the greatest creative freedom, Balestrini denies us a continuous narrative. The text circles round certain images, scenes and phrases, whirls away from them, rejoins them later. Some sentences connect to make a snippet of story, others are fragments isolated from each other. There’s a mixture of dialogue, domestic detail, scientific or technical information. Journeys which are usually interrupted, books which are endlessly being unpacked. Balestrini has also eliminated all punctuation bar full stops, apostrophes and hyphens, so that the reader decides on the emphasis, the tone of a sentence. The characters and place names are all indicated by the letter C. This sometimes leads to ambiguity: who crossed the room? who just spoke? The lines between the characters thus can become blurred. The narrative voice flickers between first, second and third person, perhaps to show characters, author and reader as complicit in creating the story and part of that story, as inseparable from each other.
If that hasn't put you off, you are a real die-hard and you can read the rest of the review here and find the publishers, Verso, here. I have to say, it's a novel that makes you work very hard to read it and writing about it was difficult too, but I thought it totally worth the effort. The book, I mean; I do seem to have wittered on rather in the review.