Tove Jansson's The Summer Book is a bargain at 99p for Kindle today, and in case you haven't come across it (or its sibling The Winter Book), here's the gist:
Anyone familiar with Jansson's famous Moomins will recognise the humour in these stories which are a series of essay/sketches like a collection of watercolours, but with a sudden stab of the bold and brilliant. They are profound and funny, and following the adventures of the child Sophia and her elderly grandmother on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland, they cleverly capture the cantankerousness of both youth and old age: "Wise as she was, [grandmother] realised that people can postpone their rebellious phases until they're eighty five years old, and she decided to keep an eye on herself."
Sophia and grandmother discuss everything from whether God has secretaries, to the plight of halved worms and the frailty of moss (step on it three times and it dies), and all the while the island's vulnerability and isolation focus the stories inward. In her introduction, Esther Freud says the book's allure "is the allure of summer itself for [Scandinavians] who spend so much of the year in the dark." It is equally appealing to the rest of us.
The exhibition Fairy Tale Fashion is currently on at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City - I'd love to see it but doubt I shall. However, there's an accompanying book coming out soon which "[examines] the history, significance and imagery of classic fairy tales through the lens of high fashion and explores the pivotal role of dress in the exploration of power, transformation and identity in fairy tales".
Follow the link above to see some of the exhibits and hear the curator Colleen Hill talk about the show which in addition to clothes also exhibits artwork by Rackham, Dulac, etc. which helped establish "a fairy tale aesthetic". It sounds fascinating.
The picture here is The Storyteller from the stunning Wonderland by Kirsty Mitchell.
Her husband Hunter Davies is reported as saying that she was never interested in publicity or money: "She had an agreement with her publisher not to do literary lunches or do any broadcasting, and she actually didn't care whether the books were published or not. Her fun was in writing them and if the publisher didn't want to publish it, so what? She'd move on to the next one."
I'm always glad to have another chance to bring a good book back to centre stage, and the Kindle daily deals often give me that opportunity. Today you can bag a bargain in the shape of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows which was a huge hit when it came out around eight years ago.
At the time I called it "an utter joy of a book, beautifully judged, witty, lively, almost Mitfordesque in places, sparky, and extremely touching."
Here's the rest of my post:
In early 1946 the popular writer Juliet Ashton receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, a Guernsey farmer, who happens to have acquired a book she once owned. So begins an extraordinary correspondence between Juliet and the various members of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society to which the shy but dependable Dawsey belongs, and in which the details - both funny and tragic - of the German occupation of the island come to light. So enamoured is Juliet of her new pen-friends and the life that they describe that she determines to write her next book about the island in wartime and she takes up residence there to begin her research. She soon realises that the person who should be at the book's heart is the one islander she has yet to meet: the spirited, much-loved Elizabeth McKenna, transported to a concentration camp for her bravery and defiance in the face of the enemy, leaving behind her infant daughter Kit - to whom Juliet becomes close - and the secret of the child's paternity.
Written in epistolary form (and it does bear comparison with Helene Hanff's wonderful 84 Charing Cross Road), the book is both a love story and an unemotionally honest picture of its subject matter, but yet it has a light touch and is full of distinct and engaging characters such as Isola Pribby with her passion for the Brontes and her homemade potions, John Booker the wine-loving valet who's a fan of Seneca, Jonas Skeeter and his dim view of Marcus Aurelius : "...[he] was an old woman - always taking his mind's temperature...." and Clovis Fossey, who is much taken with poetry since joining the Society, and writes "Mrs. Maugery lent me a book last week. It's called The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892-1935. They let a man named Yeats make the choosings. They shouldn't have. Who is he - and what does he know about verse?"
Sadly, Mary Ann Shaffer died [in 2008]; her legacy is this simply lovely book which has been a great pleasure to read.
Just a quick link to point you in the direction of Eva's blog and podcastThe Charm of It, should you not already know them. Eva is one of those people who make mere mortals like me feel inadequate: she reads several hundred books a year, she knits nineteen to the dozen, and she designs her own complicated (knitted) garments, to boot. In documenting her progress she is always an informed and interesting observer and critic.
On her latest podcast episode she's talking about bookish knitting, specifically how she manages to combine knitting and reading, and the knitting references she's come across in her recent reading, and that segment begins around the 19.20 mark. Look out for Thistle and Moth, Eva's sweet dog and cat, too.
Lindsay's Hawdon's debut novel Jakob's Colours is a superb piece of work and a heart-rending one. It's out today in paperback and really does deserve a wide readership, for its quality and its subject matter. It deals with an overlooked aspect of twentieth century history, the persecution of Europe's Roma people which culminated in death camps and genocide, and it follows Jakob, a young half-blood gypsy boy, his Roma father and his English mother, and moves from Jakob's flight from the Nazi net in 1944 back to his parents' earlier lives in the '30s.
When I reviewed it last year I summed up thus:
"A novel of great beauty, compassion and sensitivity which yet portrays man’s inhumanity to man at its very worst, the book’s episodic structure - taking the reader back and forth in time and place - adds to its intensity, while Lindsay Hawdon’s gift for language makes for luminous, affecting writing."
It's the first children's book to win in more than a decade, but the judges said "we all loved this dark, sprawling, fiercely clever novel that blends history and fantasy in a way that will grip readers of all ages".
It sounds very interesting indeed - as you'll see if you pop over to the author's website, and watch a short interview with her here.
"The Lie Tree is a substantial text that is complex and intelligent: a lustrous, delicious romp about evolution and feminism, which contains a Hamlet-esque revenge plot. Crucially, [...] it comes from a place of wonder. Regardless of the age of the reader, our whole literary system is predicated on wonder, a fact that is often neglected [...]"
So far, so very good: I'm finding Claudia Renton's prize-winning biography of "three sisters at the heart of power", Those Wild Wyndhams, thoroughly engrossing. It's described as "a spellbinding chronicle of the last days of Edwardian England," and while I'm still in the Victorian period with the girls as youngsters, it's gathering pace and promising much interest.
"An alluring and atmospheric enquiry into the creative impulse -- as seen through the work and lives of Mariano Fortuny and William Morris -- by one of our greatest novelists. This ravishing little book, glowing with colour and generously illustrated throughout, opens a window on to the lives, passions and designs of two great artists a generation apart, William Morris and Mariano Fortuny. Inspired by a vision of the aquamarine light of Venice balancing Morris's green English countryside, A.S. Byatt delves into the world-transforming magic of their art, asking what fired them, how they lived and worked and how each man's art mirrors and confronts the other. A.S. Byatt combines her brilliant gift for character and place with a deep understanding of the craft, and the combination of profound ideas and sensual delight that make the art of Morris and Fortuny endure -- a ghostly presence outside time. "Peacock and Vine" is a work of art in itself -- the perfect present to give, to keep, to ponder over and to treasure."
To return to Thursday's post for a moment, Patrick Leigh Fermor mentions Mary Russell Mitford and Our Village in one of his letters to Deborah Devonshire quoted in In Tearing Haste. MRM was a member of the same Northumberland family from which DD (née Mitford) was descended, and she replies with the following aside:
"When the French Lady(i) wrote Highland Fling(ii) Lady Redesdale(iii) suggested it should be called Our Vile Age (see?) but Evie(iv) had just done Vile Bodies so it wasn't."
"If choice must be between two seasons, each so full of charm, it is at least no bad philosophy to prefer the present good, even whilst looking gratefully back, and hopefully forward, to the past and the future."
From Our Village by Mary Russell Mitford; the cover from my 1909 edition (J.M. Dent, English Idylls series) is shown here.
"If the Wild Wood ... symbolises the darker side of human psychology, it also has a place in that layer of The Wind in the Willows which examines the proper and improper role of Imagination in the individual's life. Here, it seems to stand for the tangle of rich and dangerous symbolism which threatens the mental life of even the most sober of artists. The image is not unusual; for example, Charles Williams used the wood Broceliande to carry just this meaning in his Arthurian cycle of poems, Taliesin through Logres. Williams described this wood as 'a place of making', from which either good or evil imaginings may come, and so it is with Grahame's Wild Wood.
The most striking fact about the Wild Wood is that, despite its threatening nature, Badger dwells at the heart of it; and Badger is the most wise and perfectly balanced character in the book, with his gruff common sense, his dislike of triviality (he chooses to come into Society only when it suits him) and his strength of character which can - at least temporarily - master even the excesses of Toad. Badger is, of course, a certain kind of English landed gentleman, but he is far more. He is the still centre around which the book's various storms may rage, but who is scarcely touched by them. He is, one may surmise, the deepest level of the imaginative mind, not easily accessible; perhaps he stands for inspiration, only visiting the artist when it chooses, and then behaving just as it wishes. 'You must not only take him as you find him, but when you find him,' Rat says of Badger. Above all he is not to be sought out deliberately: 'It's quite out of the question, because he lives in the very middle of the Wild Wood.' The deepest level of the imagination dwells (as surely it must) right in the middle of spiritual or psychological danger."