Jan 14, 2013

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: The New Year Edition

These past few weeks my motivation to blog has been at what just might be an all-time low, but if there’s one thing all these years have taught me is that these things tend to ebb and flow. I’m happy to wait for the writing blahs to pass; my only regret is that I’ve actually read some interesting books lately and it would be a shame if I never told you about them at all. Very often mini-reviews make me feel like I’m cheating, but I’ve noticed that I much prefer to write a couple of paragraphs about my reading, even if they’re not particularly perceptive or detailed, than to write nothing at all. So, here goes:

Tea by the Nursery Fire by Noel Streatfeild: I’m afraid I’m starting with my least favourite of the lot: in Tea by the Nursery Fire, Streatfeild tells the story of her father’s nanny, Emily Huckwell, who went into domestic service in 1882 at the age of 12 and progressed from nursery maid to head nanny, a position she held for the rest of her life. It’s an interesting piece of social history, but based on the strength of Streatfeild’s wonderful Saplings I expected more. Ultimately I found it a bit forgettable and not particularly insightful, and while reading it I kept being pulled out of the text by the bizarre comma usage.

If that sounds like an odd thing to comment on, that’s exactly the point: well-used punctuation is supposed to be invisible; if you notice it enough that it distracts you, something has gone wrong. I’m not sure if this has to do with the editing or what, as I certainly didn’t have any similar problems with Streatfeild’s writing in the past, but alas, I just couldn’t ignore it here. All this to say: I still love Streatfeild and will certainly continue to make my way through her catalogue, but I really wish I had enjoyed this more.

Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by Carl Wilson: This book is everything Nick Hornby promised in his More Baths, Less Talking — a fascinating examination of the sociology of taste that uses the indie music world’s visceral dislike of Céline Dion (of which I am, or was, guilty as charged) as a point of departure. Along the way, Wilson explores how we often use taste to exclude — to drawn lines in the sand that helps us determine who is one of “us” and who is one of “them”. This is a book that more than deserves a full-length post, but I’m going to cheat by simply saying that this longer piece I’ll never get around to writing would contain many of the same points I made about What Good Are The Arts?, and also by sharing some of my favourite bits and hopefully letting them speak for themselves:
But the bias that “conformity” is a pejorative has led, I think, to underestimating the part mimesis—imitation—plays in taste. It’s always other people following crowds, whereas my own taste reflects my specialness. (…) Does this mean people are lemmings? No, just that we’re social: we are curious what everybody else is hearing, want to belong, want to have things in common to talk about. We are also insecure about our own judgements and want to check them against others. So songs might in part be famous simply for being famous.

In fact there’s been something old-fashioned about this book, because “taste” is a word hardly anyone uses anymore. We departed the twentieth-century without any of the rationales for taste we came in with, so we circumvent the issue. While we play it as vigorously as ever, we make like we’re on taste’s game. We pay it tribute by way of repression: We don’t commend someone’s good taste because we don’t want to be caught wearing morning coats and waxed mustaches and asking what the devil is up with the wogs. We don’t use bad taste except as a jocular antagonym in which bad means good. We say a song or a book or a movie is great or that it’s shit, but admit to nothing so stuffy or confining as having a system, a consistency to our freewheeling aesthetic target practice. We are omnivores. We devour everything. That way we never have to answer the question, “Who do we mean, ‘we’?”

What would criticism be like if it were not foremost trying to persuade people to find the same things great? If it weren’t for making cases for or against things? It wouldn’t need to adopt the kind of “objective” (or self-consciously hip) tone that conceals the identity and social location of the author, the better to win you over. It might be more frank about the two-sidedness of aesthetic encounter, and offer something more like a tour of an aesthetic experience, a travelogue, a memoir. More and more critics, in fact, are incorporating personal narrative into their work. Perhaps this is the benefit of the explosion of cultural judgement on the Internet, where millions of thumbs turn up and down daily: by rendering their traditional jobs of arbitration obsolete, it frees critics to find other ways of contemplating music.
(I’d argue that yes, a lot of criticism already does this, and this is exactly the kind that I tend to read regularly and enjoy.)

The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett tells the story of a fictional journey to the Arctic to uncover the fate of the Franklin expedition. The year is 1855, and the protagonist, Erasmus Darwin Wells, is a middle-aged man who feels he’s missed his chance to make his name as a scientist. He follows his future brother-in-law Zeke into the North Pole against his better judgement, and along the way he develops a touching friendship with Dr Boerhaave, the ship’s surgeon and a fellow naturalist.

The Voyage of the Narwhal is a beautiful, rich, thinky historical novel that I really ought to have reviewed in full — only I did a lousy job of taking notes while reading it and probably wouldn’t be able to do it justice now. Barrett manages to reconcile sympathy and critical insight when portraying the impulse that drove nineteenth-century men like Zeke to the Polar Regions, which is exactly what I want my historical fiction to do: I want it to make me understand what motivated people in different historical periods while not shying away from the often terrible consequences of their actions. Andrea Barrett is brilliant at writing about science and ideology, about the close friendships that are quickly formed between men in extreme circumstances, about the nineteenth-century concept of heroism, about colonialism and racism, and about gender roles. A stunning novel in every way.

Bits I liked (hopefully these will give you an idea of just how great Barrett’s writing is):
Where was Lavinia? Alexandra thought. While the boys were making plans?
“We’d pick some field or stream and go gather specimens. When we returned, three of us would work at mounting or dismounting what we’d gathered and the fourth would read aloud. Embryology, ichthyology, palaeontology; it was all so exciting. Sometimes we’d visit Peale’s museum and study the mammoth bones and the sea serpents. At night out father would join us and examine what we’d gathered and ask us what we’d learned. Then he’d look at our notebooks.”
“You kept those even as little boys?” Perhaps Lavinia had kept one too. Or perhaps she’d simply watched her world shrink and shrink, while her brothers’ world expanded.

Browsing through the long passages of biblical exegesis and the essays on geology and palaeontology, Erasmus saw that the point was an attack on the unity of races, an attempt to prove their separate creation. A messy compendium, the drawings distorted—whether wilfully or unconsciously—to make a point. The Esquimaux looked like misshapen Gnomes and the Negroes like chimpanzees; how could anyone who’d travelled the world take this seriously? Yet he knew there were clergymen shouting that the book cast contempt on the word of God. He was no judge of theology, but he thought it was bad science to deny that humans were part of nature and all one species. He had the feet of a pygmy now, but he was still himself.
He longed, as always, for Dr. Boerhaave, with whom he might have had a proper discussion. What is life, where did it come from? Species might be placed in groups related to one another in structure—but where did that relationship originate? He and Dr. Boerhaave would have laughed as they argued. He was grateful for that memory—and grateful, too, that the horrid stretch during which he’d been able to hear his friend’s voice but couldn’t see his face had passed.
Moomintroll Midwinter by Tove Jansson is about what happens when one year Moomintroll wakes up early from his hibernation and gets to explore the snow-covered world for the very first time. The book’s atmosphere is lovely: it captures the beauty and the mystery of winter perfectly, and the overall result is quiet and thoughtful and subtle — in short, everything I love about Tove Jansson.

Side note: just the other day I watched Moominland Tales, a BBC documentary about Jansson’s life that aired on Boxing Day. The documentary was good overall, but it managed to irritate me by a) making the Moomins sound like a stereotypical 1950’s family, which I think is an oversimplification of their dynamics; and b) suggesting that the reason why Jansson created this fictional “perfect family” was that she couldn’t have one of her own. Now, I have absolutely no idea whether or not Tove Jansson ever longed to start a family of her own, and obviously I think that the option should be available to lesbian women should they desire it. But it really annoyed me that the documentary took it for granted that this would be the case, offering no explanation other than the fact that Jansoon was a woman. Is this really the story we’re going to default to every time? That childfree women, or any women whose lives don’t follow convention, must be lacking something and must be trying to make up for it through their creative output? (Apparently it is — see last year’s ridiculous piece about Maeve Binchy.)

Anyway, to return to Moomintroll Midwinter: Jansson is a fabulous writer who always has far more than meets the eye going on in her stories, and this book was no exception.

Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken: Oh, this book was so much fun! I have no idea why I let so many years pass between reading The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and this, and I hereby vow not to make the same mistake again. The alternate history elements of Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles (which take place in a world where the Revolution of 1688 never took place and supporters of the House of Hanover constantly plot against the monarchy) are much more obvious here than in the first book, and I can’t wait to read more in the series and explore the full implications of Aiken’s fictional history.

Much like in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, I absolutely loved the humour and the warmth of Aiken’s writing; I had a ton of fun with the Gothic undertones and the pleasantly convoluted plot; and I fell in love with her characters. I’ll definitely get around to reading Nightbirds on Nantucket (more Dido Twine!) before 2016.

The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson: Yes, I finally read this, and I can’t believe it took me so long to get to it. Ibbotson’s renowned tale of a secret fantastical world that can be accessed through a portal at King’s Cross station was lovely, gently satirical in a very Ibbotson-y way, and a complete pleasure to read. However, I couldn’t help but wish for a slightly different ending (spoilers will inevitable follow as I elaborate on this comment): In the novel, a rescue party is sent from the magical Island at the end of Platform 13 to rescue the Prince, who was stolen away by the spoiled Mrs. Trottle nine years before. Raymond Trottle turns out to be every bit as unpleasant as his mother, and when the real heir to the Island’s throne is revealed to be Ben, no one is surprised.

I couldn’t help but think, though, that it would have been lovely if Raymond was the King and the Queen’s lost son, but in the end had been left to live happily with his adoptive mother while Ben went to the Island in his place. The story wouldn’t have been very different at all, with the crucial difference that what the characters had become wouldn’t have been determined by their parentage so much as by their upbringing. Raymond would still be a spoiled brat and not fit to have power over others as he would have had in the Island, but this would be the case because he was raised to be a spoiled brat rather than because he “naturally” took after Mrs. Trottle. I can’t help it, okay? It’s the social constructivist in me. (Also, it would have been nice to see adoptive families validated as real, even if they were unpleasant ones like the Trottles.)

Finally, there’s The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston: this children’s classic is a ghost story, but not really of the scary kind – instead it’s gentle and slightly melancholy and wonderfully atmospheric. It’s set at Christmas, too, which I didn’t realise when I began it. I read it at the cottage where I spent the holidays, so that was a nice surprise. I loved how the ghosts of Green Knowe were taken for granted instead of remarked on or explained. Also, at its heart this is a book about history and about the passing of time, and that aspect of it put me in mind of Penelope Lively’s lovely The Ghost of Thomas Kempe.

Back when I reviewed the first Flavia De Luce book I commented on how I envied the in-depth knowledge of their family histories that certain fictional characters have, even though I realise that this sort if thing is deeply linked with class and privilege. The Children of Green Knowe reminded me of this again, and I especially appreciate the fact that this isn’t so much a book that gloats about lineage as a book that points out that history is all around us, whether we realise it and have access to it or not.

As always, if you’ve read any of these books I would love to hear your thoughts.


  1. If you enjoyed The Voyage of the Narwhal (which has long been on my to-read list), then you should read her story collection, Ship Fever. It is wonderful. She is such a terrific writer, and she does so much research that she brings to her writing, yet she never has the problem of interrupting a narrative by stopping to explain something. Hope you are having a happy Monday!

  2. Re: your take on the Secrets of Platform 13, I had a similar reaction to "parentage" reading Georgette Heyer's These Old Shades. The main character discovers an enemy switched his own daughter at birth with the son of a peasant so that he could claim a male heir. The false son is, despite being raised by aristocracy, slow, plodding, and loves the primordial earth so much that he just wants to be a farmer.

    Yes YES Georgette Heyer, serfs and peasants just NATURALLY love farming.

    That being said, it is really an adoptive family if the son was STOLEN by a villain?

  3. You read some fantastic book there, Ana. I read The Children of Green Know as a child and although I've never re-read it, there's something about the story that still lingers in my mind (even though I can't remember most of it.) I still haven't got to the second book after The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, another childhood favourite, and am really keen to try it. And regarding the question of taste, I find it a constant struggle to find a balance between maintaining my own taste and engaging in discussions with others about taste because it's such a personal thing and touches upon our of worth (I guess). Sounds like an intriguing book!

  4. I'm sorry the Streatfield didn't live up to hopes, but wow(!), it sounds like the rest of your reading has been pretty darn good! I can definitely say my January reading has been oh-so-satisfying, but sadly for me, it has not been as prolific as yours.

  5. Black Hearts is my favorite Joan Aiken--I re-read my copy to pieces, literally.

    And I think that Moomin documentary would annoy the heck out of me! It is so clear from books like Moominpapa at Sea, and Moomin Valley in November, that she wasn't creating an idealized family life, and I have the impression that having happy children constantly underfoot would drive her up a wall.

    My favorite bit on family dynamics is Moominmama drawing herself into the wall picture--one reason my own children don't voluntarily go outside much, I'm afraid, is that, as an introvert who finds solace in weeding, I urged them to stay inside and leave me alone!

  6. I read The Voyage of the Narwhal a few years ago and absolutely LOVED it--one of my favorite books ever. I have her short story collection on my shelf and should really get around to reading it sometime soon!

  7. Wow, you've been doing a lot of reading!

  8. The Voyage of the Narwhal is something that I would like to read. It sounds really elegant and the fact that it got you so excited really has me wondering about it. I love a good adventuresome tale, so I will be looking for this. It's great that you have had such good luck with reading! Off to find the book now!

  9. Oh man, I need to read some more Joan Aiken books. I read a couple of her other books when I was a kid and was unimpressed with them, but I feel like it's possible I would value them more now. Right? That's a thing that happens sometimes! I loved Wolves of Willoughby Chase SO SO MUCH.

  10. Although I probably won't get around to reading the book, I really liked the first excerpt you included from Carl Wilson's book, how he defends the social nature of our taste. I always have just a bit of insecurity about my judgments on works of art and like to read others' opinions which help me better define my own opinion. And yes, to having something in common to talk about. I love discussing stuff I read or watch with others.

    I loved both of the excerpts you included from The Voyage of the Narwhal. The last sentence of the first excerpt is so sad! And there is sadness too in the second excerpt and references to ill health that make me curious to know more about the story.

  11. You've read a lot of fun books! I often worry about how criticism (read: blogging) might be enforcing a higher level of conformity on books. But then I'm paranoid. ;)

  12. Personally, I LOvE a post of mini reviews every now and then :D And these were exceptional!! Though I'm sorry you're in a blogging funk :( I've been there way too often myself. You know what? When I saw you added the book with Celine Dion on the cover to Library Thing, I thought to myself "why is she reading THAT?" and after reading your review now, I can completely see that I totally NEED to read that back because of that exact thought that entered my head :/ Also, I really need to read some Moomins :/

  13. Wonderful mini-reviews, Ana! I loved your review of 'The Voyage of the Narwhal'! I will look for this book. I read a volume of Moomin stories lost year and loved them. I want to read more. Your review of 'Moomintroll Midwinter' makes me want to read it. It is sad that the BBC documentary on Tove Jansson wasn't as good as you expected. I normally love BBC programmes for their objectivity, but sorry to know that this one isn't so. 'Let's Talk About Love' is very much like John Carey's 'What Good Are the Arts?' :) I will look for this book. It looks like a book which I will really enjoy. It looks like you are on an Ibbotson reading spree :) Happy reading!

  14. The Platform 13 ending - yes. I was convinced there would be a second switcharoo coming, but sadly no.

    Looking forward to The Voyage of the Narwhal even more now :)

  15. I'm pleased to see some Ibbotson in your recent reads. I've never heard of The Children of Green Knowe but I like the sound of it. I hope you get your blogging mojo back soon.

  16. The Children of Green Knowe has been one of my very favourite books since I was a child, and I love that it still works for me as an adult. :DDD

    I now want to read Let's Talk About Love! And The Voyage of the Narwhal is getting bumped up my tbr list.

  17. My blogging would be helped by actually reading.. I started off the year well, but have slacked off. It is so sad!!

  18. The Voyage of the Narwhal was a favorite several years ago. I went on to read Barrett's short stories and another novel - she is a wonderful writer! Looks like 2013 is off to a great start!

  19. Priscilla: Added Ship Fever to my wishlist - thanks for the recommendation!

    AnimeJune: Good point about the kidnapping! I wonder, though, if there's some way Ibbotson could have acknowledge that Raymond's sense of kinship with Mrs Throttle (he didn't know he was supposedly stolen) was a real and valid result of having been brought up by her without the story coming across as "thumbs up to baby snatching" :P

    Sakura: Yes, Wilson makes some great points about our sense of worth being tied up with what we like. It's such an interesting read.

    Debi: Most of these were read around Christmas - I'm not that quick a reader :P But January has been good so far, so no complaints!

    Charlotte: Yes, yes, exactly! I get the same sense from the books.

    Too Fond: I definitely need to pick it up myself!

    Kathy: I should have clarified that most of these are leftovers from 2012 :P

    Zibilee: Yes, it's a wonderful read - it gives you that sense of adventure but it's very thoughtful at the same time. I definitely think you'd enjoy it!

    Jenny: It does happen sometimes! Fingers crossed that you have more luck with her now.

  20. Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste sounds like something I need to own, especially with its support of criticism taking into account that everyone is subjective.

  21. Christy: It's comforting to know that's simply a human thing, isn't it? The Voyage of the Narwhal is incredibly sad, though the way it ends is far from bleak. Do read it, the writing is just lovely and there's so much to the story.

    Tasha: You should write a post on that, because I'd love to hear more!

    Chris: You absolutely need to get it! When I added it on LB and saw the little icon of the cover in my profile I had similar thoughts, which just goes to show it was a great idea for me to read it :P

    Vishy: The documentary was good overall; it was just their insistence that of course she'd have wanted a more conventional life if it had been available that was bizarre :P Anyway, I do think you'd enjoy Carl Wilson's book, especially since you're a big John Carey fan.

    Jodie: I had a little bit of hope until the very last page too, but alas :( Also, excited for you to read Andrea Barrett :D

  22. I wish I could comment better on the Aiken books because I loved them as a child, but I can't remember much about them except they were good! lol I am in the process of collecting them again to re-read, in part because you are enjoying them so much, I want to revisit the books. Plus I wanted to reread them anyway. They are so very good and fun.

    I added the two ghost stories to my reading list. I have heard of both but not read either. I am also pleased to report that I picked up my first Moomin book! Finn Family Moomintroll.

    Sometimes writing blurbs get me over the hump of thinking every book has to be written about in depth, at least for me I find that. You are reading some wonderful books and enjoying them, and that's what really counts.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.