March Reading

This month was mostly made of work and rereads.


John Berger, Hold Everything Dear: I’m not sure what to say about this collection of pieces (‘dispatches’, according to the book’s subtitle) in poetry and prose that examine various aspects of the post-9/11 world. There’s a lot on Palestine, there’s a lot that is intensely personal, there’s a section on desire that I found myself typing out. Because this is Berger it often teeters between being beautiful and being precious. On the whole, beauty wins.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars:  I wanted to reread this before I watched John Carter (which, for all that it couldn’t entirely escape the politics of its source text, was great fun) and so chose to write about it for my column in April’s Kindle magazine. The section of the book I remembered best is one that the recent movie omitted, and that would have little place in a sensible, well-crafted plot. It’s the bit where Carter meets an old man who runs the machinery responsible for keeping the Barsoomian air breathable. He then forgets all about this until the final pages of the book, where the incident suddenly becomes immensely important. I remember it because it seems weird and out of place – a moment of genuine strangeness.

Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog: I reviewed this for The Sunday Guardian and will post a link or repost it on the blog when it is up. Briefly, though, I thought that it engaged less with the various schools of philosophy that it mentioned than I hoped it would, and the younger character in particular came across as less brilliant and more sulky than I think was intended. Despite this, it charmed me utterly – one of the funniest, most quotable books I expect to read this year.

Kiran Nagarkar, Ravan & Eddie: I was given a copy of The Extras to review and it seemed a good opportunity to reread Ravan & Eddie. I think I first read the book when I was in school or in the early years of college. I remembered that it was funny, but I was surprised, on rereading, to see that I’d forgotten how dark it also was. Still brilliant, of course.

Kiran Nagarkar, The Extras: Reviewed here.

Ursula Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea: Apart from skimming the Roke chapters (while I was writing my thesis about three years ago) I had not read A Wizard of Earthsea since my first year of college, which was when I bought my four-in-one omnibus edition. I had a piece on fantastic voyages to write (I’ll link to it here when it is published in late April) and remembered Ged’s pursuit of his shadow as having some of the loveliest prose. I wasn’t wrong:

With hand and spell Ged turned his boat, and it leaped like a dolphin from the water, rolling, in that quick turn. Faster than before he followed, but the shadow grew ever fainter to his eyes. Rain, mixed with sleet and snow, came stinging across his back and his left cheek, and he could not see more than a hundred yards ahead. Before long, as the storm grew heavier, the shadow was lost to sight. Yet Ged was sure of its track as if he followed a beast’s track over snow, instead of a wraith fleeing over water. Though the wind blew his way now he held the singing magewind in the sail, and flake-foam shot from the boat’s blunt prow, and she slapped the water as she went.


But he was not watching the ocean now, or not the ocean that Vetch saw, a waste of heaving water to the rim of the sky. In Ged’s eyes there was a dark vision that overlapped and veiled the grey sea and the grey sky, and the darkness grew, and the veil thickened. None of this was visible to Vetch, except when he looked at his friend’s face; then he too saw the darkness for a moment. They went on, and on. And it was as if, though one wind drove them in one boat, Vetch went east over the world’s sea, while Ged went alone into a realm where there was no east or west, no rising or setting of the sun, or of the stars.

Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games: I’d wanted to reread this before the movie was released, and anyway had to write a piece on YA dystopias (posted here). I’m still very ambivalent about this series as a whole; while I think the universe is full of holes and the politics distinctly patchy, there are so many moments when Collins gets something exactly right and the whole thing comes to life.

C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: I was writing the piece on fantastic voyages, I took this book out to find a particular quote, and then reread it over lunch. Of all the Narnia books this is most people’s favourite – in quality the only one that can compare, for me, is The Horse and His Boy, and that one is spoilt a bit by the rampant racism. But (and I’m sure I’ve said this before) am I really the only one who cannot help comparing the last bit of the journey to the end of Arthur Gordon Pym?

Tove Jansson, Finn Family Moomintroll, the complete comic strip (vol. 3) and Moominland Midwinter: Ekaterina Sedia started a #Moomin2012 hashtag on twitter, and I realised it had been a while since I’d read any of the books. My Moomin collection is very incomplete (which is one reason I’m not rereading the books in order), and I only really discovered Jansson as an adult. But there’s something so good about these books – and I mean that in a moral way as well as a judgement of quality – something fundamentally generous-spirited. But there’s also a complexity of emotion that occasionally pops up that you rarely see in books for adults, and I don’t think the comic does as good a job of conveying this as the books. Take this, from Moominland Midwinter: “Such things just are, but one never knows why, and one feels hopelessly apart.” Or “Too-ticky shrugged her shoulders. ‘One has to discover everything for oneself,’ she replied. “And get over it all alone.’” I’m rereading Tales from Moominvalley right now, and I suspect next month it’s going to be a struggle not to just quote the whole of Snufkin’s journey back home. I loved books as a child, but it was always startling to discover characters who had complex feelings that I understood and shared. It’s why I loved Antonia Forest; I would have loved the Moomins.

Jack Vance, Lyonesse: Suldrun’s Garden: As with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, I only meant to leaf through the book for a particular quote. But the Lyonesse books are a bit more substantial than Narnia, and I had to set aside a whole day for my reread. This was entirely worth it. I’m a huge fan of Vance’s high, ironic style, but with Lyonesse there’s also something childlike. I want to say it’s innocence but it isn’t that at all – terrible things happen, there’s murder, suicide, slavery, depression, rape, paedophilia. But there’s also a sense that all this is play – that we can pack up our toys and go home when it’s finished. If that sounds cruel, it probably is, but it also gives Lyonesse some of the soft-focus, golden-light quality of childhood memory. I’ll be rereading the other two books in the series this month; I’m not sure how I went so long without them.

Dorita Fairlie Bruce, Dimsie Moves Up: I’d only read a couple of the Dimsie books – the first, and then a couple of the later ones – and remembered being distinctly unimpressed. I liked this one better than any of them. Bruce occasionally breaks into an elevated, exclamatory tone that makes it appear as if she’s mocking her characters. It’s possible that I missed this in the earlier books I read (unless she changed style drastically for this one book) – I don’t know, but it makes the books more complex than they had previously appeared to me.

Antonia Forest, Peter’s Room: Those of you who were following my Antonia Forest readthrough will know that I took a break from them in December because I was too busy to continue. That isn’t entirely true – I could have continued in the last couple of months, but I was putting it off. I think Peter’s Room is brilliant; it is more nuanced than pretty much anything I expect to read this year. But there’s a moment midway through the book when it wrecks me. Those of you who have read it might understand – it’s Nicola hearing Patrick call Ginty “Rosina”. Peter’s Room is all about roleplaying, and in this moment she realises that her friend and her sister are playing without her. Later books (and fanfiction) will make Ginty and Nicola’s rivalry over Patrick at least partly romantic, but I don’t think it’s entirely that here – or not yet, for Nicola. This will seem like I’m going off on a complete tangent, because I’m going to talk here about the BBC’s Sherlock [spoilers ahead]. The first episode of the most recent season ends with John Watson learning that Irene Adler is dead, and trying to protect his friend (who he believes has feelings for Adler, and he may be right) from the knowledge. We then cut to Adler about to be beheaded in Karachi by men in robes, one of whom is holding a curved sword (seriously?) But then one of the men present is Sherlock Holmes in disguise and he saves her from the evil brown men with apparently medieval weaponry while she kneels and cries! Obviously on an intellectual level I have huge issues with this. But when I watched the show it just made me feel a bone-deep sadness because John didn’t know. That is my difficulty with Peter’s Room. There’s a betrayal of exclusion in both cases; I can’t think why this particular thing should upset me so, but it makes me utterly miserable.

3 Responses to “March Reading”

  1. I want to say it’s innocence but it isn’t that at all – terrible things happen, there’s murder, suicide, slavery, depression, rape, paedophilia. But there’s also a sense that all this is play – that we can pack up our toys and go home when it’s finished. If that sounds cruel, it probably is, but it also gives Lyonesse some of the soft-focus, golden-light quality of childhood memory.

    Ohhh. I’ve read those books–also tried to read Dying Earth but couldn’t get into it, but the Lyonesse ones I was strangely fond of. There was something… Malory about it? I don’t know, but your take on it is intriguing, I’ve never thought of it in that way before.

    • I think that feeling exists in quite a bit of Arthuriana – I’ve only read Malory and Chretien De Troyes of the classic Arthur writers, but I see it in both (my ex-boss is a Malory scholar; I should ask her about this). I wonder if it -and this connects with the childhood memory thing- has something to do with the fact that we know that it’s going to end? Arthur will die, Lyonesse will sink, people will grow up?


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