Six Degrees of Separation – From Ishiguro to…

Chain links…

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly meme hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best. I’ve often been tempted to join in when I’ve come across other bloggers’ posts, so since my on-going reading slump has led to a severe shortage of reviews, now seems like a good time! The idea is to start with the book that Kate gives us and then create a chain of six books, each suggested by the one before…

never-let-me-go

This month’s starting book is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I haven’t read it, but looking at the blurb tells me it’s the story “of a group of students growing up in a darkly skewered version of contemporary England”. People who have read it frequently describe it as disturbing. It made me think of…

the children's home

Charles Lambert’s The Children’s Home. This is a book about a man living in isolation due to a horrific facial disfigurement, whose life is disrupted by the mysterious arrival of a group of children who turn up one by one as if from nowhere. In many ways the setting feels contemporary but as we learn more we discover that something terrible has happened to the world – something hugely destructive that has left people in fear and caused the rich to retreat behind heavily guarded walls.

Female Austrian Wax Teaching Model 1850. Creepy, isn't she?
Female Austrian Wax Teaching Model 1850.
Creepy, isn’t she?

It has the feel of a dark and corrupted fairy tale, which reminded me of…

we have always lived in the castle

Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, about two women living in a house where a horrific crime had been committed. The villagers are sure that the older sister, Constance, poisoned most of her family; while through Merricat, the younger sister’s, eyes we see how the women isolate themselves from the outside world. Merricat is a wonderful creation and I love how Jackson inverts the usual Gothic themes.

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

The book reads to me like the ‘true’ story behind the old witch tales, but seen from the perspective of the witch – I came to believe the castle may have been made of gingerbread.

grimm rackham illustrations

Which made me think of…

Pleasures of the Table

Pleasures of the Table: A Literary Anthology edited by Christina Hardyment which contains, amongst a feast of other goodies, Emily Dickinson’s recipe for Gingerbread. This anthology is filled with excerpts and quotes from literature, poetry and recipe books, and is gorgeously illustrated from the British Library’s own collection, often the specific illustrations that accompanied the original text.

 “Weal pie,” said Mr Weller, soliloquising, as he arranged the eatables on the grass. “Wery good thing is weal pie, when you know the lady as made it, and is quite sure it ain’t kittens; and arter all though, where’s the odds, when they’re so like weal the wery piemen themselves don’t know the difference?” Charles Dickens, Pickwick Papers
“Weal pie,” said Mr Weller, soliloquising, as he arranged the eatables on the grass. “Wery good thing is weal pie, when you know the lady as made it, and is quite sure it ain’t kittens; and arter all though, where’s the odds, when they’re so like weal the wery piemen themselves don’t know the difference?”
Charles Dickens, Pickwick Papers

My favourite section was Childish Things, which included an excerpt from the picnic in…

the wind in the willows

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. This is a book I have always loved and return to regularly. It’s not for the story of Mr Toad of Toad Hall that I love it, fun though that is. The chapters I love most are the ones that explore Ratty and Mole’s friendship, the sense of community amongst the heavily anthropomorphised animals (even as a child I knew that they were people really), the attractions of travel, the comfort of and longing for home.

Today, to him gazing South with a new-born need stirring in his heart, the clear sky over their long low outline seemed to pulsate with promise; to-day, the unseen was everything, the unknown the only real fact of life. On this side of the hills was now the real blank, on the other lay the crowded and coloured panorama that his inner eye was seeing so clearly. What seas lay beyond, green, leaping and crested! What sun-bathed coasts, along which the white villas glittered against the olive woods! What quiet harbours, thronged with gallant shipping bound for purple islands of wine and spice, islands set low in languorous waters!

wind-in-willows-e-h-shepard-ratty-and-mole-in-a-boat

I credit this as the book that first made me appreciate not just the story in a book, but the wonder of beautiful writing for its own sake. And that made me think of…

the blue guitar

John Banville’s The Blue Guitar. This book was my introduction to Banville. It tells the tale of narcissistic but loveable Olly Orme, who stole his friend’s wife and is hiding from the consequences. Many long-term fans felt this one didn’t have as much substance as some of his earlier books, but I was dazzled by the beauty and sparkling wit of the prose and the wonderfully entertaining, quirky character Banville created in Olly.

What I saw, with jarring clarity, was that there is no such thing as woman. Woman, I realised, is a thing of legend, a phantasm who flies through the world, settling here and there on this or that unsuspecting mortal female, whom she turns, briefly but momentously, into an object of yearning, veneration and terror.

Wonderful, quirky characters always lead me back to…

martin chuzzlewit

Dickens. His descriptions are never of the “he had black hair and piercing blue eyes” category. Instead he paints word pictures that show us the person’s innermost character etched in his physical appearance. Here he is in Martin Chuzzlewit, describing Scadder, a bit-part in the novel, but still Dickens takes the time to create something unique – a pocket-sketch that tells us not only what Scadder looks like but exactly what kind of man we’re dealing with…

He was a gaunt man in a huge straw hat, and a coat of green stuff. The weather being hot, he had no cravat, and wore his shirt collar wide open; so that every time he spoke something was seen to twitch and jerk up in his throat, like the little hammers in a harpsichord when the notes are struck. Perhaps it was the Truth feebly endeavouring to leap to his lips. If so, it never reached them…

Each long black hair upon his head hung down as straight as any plummet line; but rumpled tufts were on the arches of his eyes, as if the crow whose foot was deeply printed in the corners, had pecked and torn them in a savage recognition of his kindred nature as a bird of prey.

General Choke and Mr Scadder by Sol Eytinge, Jr.
General Choke and Mr Scadder by Sol Eytinge, Jr.

* * * * *

So Ishiguro to Dickens via skewed societies, corrupted fairytales,
gingerbread recipes, scrumptious picnics, sumptuous prose
and wonderfully quirky characters.

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

Butchering Books… The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

There ought to be a law against it…

.

the wind in the willows

The Wind in the Willows was one of the earliest ‘proper’ books I read – probably when I was six or seven. I would go so far as to say that it’s probably the book that most influenced me towards reading what I now think of as ‘literary’ fiction – that is, beautifully written and tells the reader something about the ‘human condition’ rather than simply being a linear narrative with an exciting plot.

In fact, the stuff about Mr Toad, while fun, was not my favourite part of the book – not even close. The chapters I loved most were the ones that explored Ratty and Mole’s friendship, the sense of community amongst the heavily anthropomorphised animals (even as a child I knew that they were people really), the attractions of travel, the comfort of and longing for home. There are three standout chapters for me that I’ve never forgotten from that first read, and sometimes even if I don’t have the time or the inclination to read the whole thing again I will pick up my tattered ancient copy and read one of those chapters.

1985-wind-in-the-willows-police-chase-toad-print_700_600_U3R3

Wayfarers All tells the tale of autumn when so many of the birds and little animals prepare to follow the sun, travelling south for the winter. Ratty, already restless, meets up with a seafaring rat, who tells him tales of sun-drenched Spanish ports and the shell-fish of Marseilles, and provokes in Ratty an overwhelming feeling of wanderlust. But Mole, concerned for his friend and knowing this life wouldn’t suit him, talks in his turn of the beauties of an English autumn, with harvest giving way slowly to the festivities of winter. It ends with Mole encouraging Ratty to express his feelings and desires in poetry. The language is lush and beautiful, contrasting the glamour of exotic parts with the joys of the familiar.

Today, to him gazing South with a new-born need stirring in his heart, the clear sky over their long low outline seemed to pulsate with promise; to-day, the unseen was everything, the unknown the only real fact of life. On this side of the hills was now the real blank, on the other lay the crowded and coloured panorama that his inner eye was seeing so clearly. What seas lay beyond, green, leaping and crested! What sun-bathed coasts, along which the white villas glittered against the olive woods! What quiet harbours, thronged with gallant shipping bound for purple islands of wine and spice, islands set low in languorous waters!

wayfarers all

Dulce Domum is the chapter in which Mole suddenly comes across the scents of his old home. At first, Ratty is in too much of a hurry to listen but when Mole finally breaks down in tears, kind old Ratty berates himself for his selfishness and at once devotes himself, first to finding Mole’s old home and then to turning the dark, cold house into a place full of warmth and cheer. And the chapter ends with the local young field-mice, come a-carol-singing, as they do each year. A perfect chapter.

With bright beady eyes they glanced shyly at each other, sniggering a little, sniffing and applying coat-sleeves a good deal. As the door opened, one of the elder ones that carried the lantern was just saying, “Now then, one, two, three!” and forthwith their shrill little voices uprose on the air, singing one of the old-time carols that their forefathers composed in fields that were fallow and held by frost, or when snow-bound in chimney corners, and handed down to be sung in the miry street to lamp-lit windows at Yule-time.

carol singing

But my favourite chapter of all is The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Little Portly, Otter’s son, has been missing for some days, and Ratty and Mole set out one night to search for him. As the dawn rises, they hear the haunting music of distant pipes and are compelled towards it. When they reach the place where the music leads them, they find Portly, safely nestled at the feet of Pan, the great demi-God of the animals – a thinly disguised portrayal of Christ.

Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper…All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.

“Rat!” he found breath to whisper, shaking. “Are you afraid?”

“Afraid?” murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. “Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet—and yet—O, Mole, I am afraid!”

This whole chapter is utterly beautiful in both its writing and its message (even to this cynical old atheist) and is the emotional heart of the book. If you haven’t read it recently, here’s a link – the chapter stands alone as a story entire in itself.

the piper at the gates of dawn

* * * * * * *

the wind in the willows 2So… imagine my delight when I was offered a new edition of the book for review via Amazon Vine UK, published by Oxford University Press and complete with new illustrations by David Roberts. The layout and illustrations are great – the book is small with clear print, and the illustrations are appropriately quirky and vibrantly coloured, ranging from double-page spreads to small running pictures round the margins and inserted into the text.

Then imagine my horror on being unable to find my favourite chapter! Unbelievably, they have cut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. There is a note on the inside in tiny print which gives a reason for the omission…

Rather than relating the ongoing adventures of Ratty, Mole, Toad, Badger, and others, the chapter pauses the action and is largely about the god Pan from Greek mythology.

But I’m guessing the truth is that some stupid decision has been reached to omit it due to its overtly religious message. It doesn’t ‘pause the action’ any more than the chapter Dulce Domum does. It is an adventure undertaken by Ratty and Mole – a great adventure, arising out of friendship and love. The god in this book may be Pan from Greek mythology in physical appearance, but in his presence and actions, Grahame is quite clearly pointing to the Christian tradition. What are we saying – that kids can only read action? Or that they are no longer allowed to read any classic that might suggest any kind of spiritual element? Even if we assume that Pan is in fact Pan, are children no longer to be introduced to Greek and other mythologies?

wind-in-willows-e-h-shepard-ratty-and-mole-in-a-boat

A ridiculous decision, both to remove it and, even more, not to say clearly on the book cover or in the blurb that the text has been butchered. The Wind in the Willows is a 5-star book without question, but why give a child this one when you could give them the one Kenneth Grahame wanted them to read – the one that generations of children and adults have enjoyed. I would hate for any child to grow up thinking s/he’s read The Wind in the Willows without being aware that the emotional heart had been ripped out of the book. What’s the OUP going to do next – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe without Aslan perhaps?

There ought to be a law against it…

wind in the willows battle