Pastors and Masters, & The Guest Cat – two from my #10booksofsummer list

In case my title has you saying, ‘hashtag what?’ I’ll quickly remind you that back at the beginning of June, I volunteered to join the summer reading challenge set by 746 Books.

Still lost? Here’s the recap: I listed 10 books I intended to read, and review, before September 3rd. So far, I’ve completed one.

I know, I’m woefully behind. I’ve got six more Mondays between now and the end of the challenge, and next week I’m planning to do the Six Degrees one, instead. So even my dodgy maths confirms I’ve got to do some doubling-up, if I’m going to fit nine books into five posts.

Hence, this week, Ivy Compton-Burnett gets paired with Takashi Hiraide. The combination results in a title that seems to me suitable for an intriguing leap into magical realism. Perhaps I could have read alternated chapters from each. It’s a fleeting thought, probably indicative of hysteria. I have come through the other side of the combined 238 pages feeling a little disorientated.

I began in the suburb’s of Tokyo, in the late 1980s. My unnamed narrator led me quietly around the home he and his wife rented, explaining in great detail what it looked and felt like, and how they came to live there. I learn a lot about them and their lives, even before Chibi, the cat of the title, appeared.

This is a gently paced, reflective tale. When I checked up on the author, I was not surprised to find that Takashi Hiraide is a poet. The shaping of the story, the attention to detail, the presentation of key images seemed to lead me into areas of quiet contemplation. Even the opening, a description of a window in their kitchen, intrigued.

The small window in the corner of our kitchen bordered on a tall wooden fence, so close a person could barely pass by. From inside the house, its frosted glass looked like a dim movie screen. There was a small knothole in the wooden fence and the green of the bamboo hedge – which was about ten feet wide, to the north of the alley – was always projected on to the crude screen. Whenever someone walked by in the narrow alleyway, a figure formed, filling the entire window. Viewed from the dark interior of the house, sunny days seemed ever more vivid, and working perhaps on the same principle as a camera obscura, the figures of people walking past were turned upside down.

That window, it seemed to me, was the key to the way the narrator presented his world. There were backstories, digressions, contemplations and forward movement. It was one of the most relaxing and yet entertaining reads I’ve ever had. I read slowly, savouring the scenes.

What slowed me up with Pastors and Masters, on the other hand, was the need to concentrate. With hardly any description at all, and no scene-setting hints, I had to pick up my clues from a series of sharply observed dialogues between a challengingly large cast of characters for a small book.

It opens with a tirade that sets a pace, tone and style that never relents.

‘Well, this is a nice thing! A nice thing this school-mastering! Up at seven, and in a room with a black fire…I should have thought it might have occurred to one out of forty boys to poke it…’

The school remains unnamed, and so does the English university town. I finally pinned the period down during the dinner party that concludes the novel.

‘Well, we were certainly classed by the state with paupers and idiots and children, before we had the vote,’ said Miss Basden. ‘I mean we women were.’

Women in England who were householders, and over the age of 30, got the vote in 1918. But I got closer than that when a little later Miss Basden says:

‘I think these changes in the divorce laws will do a great deal towards equalising the position of women’…

I looked that one up and found The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1923. The novel was published in 1925.

I enjoyed the repartee, though after getting lost twice in the first chapter, I wrote myself a character list. I was still using it at the end of the book for the dinner party.

How glad I was only to be an observer at that feast. It was littered with snide asides, direct and indirect personal verbal attacks. Whoever repeats that old saying about sticks and stones should check out the interplay between these characters. Part of the power of their exchanges is created by the absence of authorial comment or explanation.

Compton-Burnett has been described as dangerous. She’s been compared to Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker and Pinter. I’m inclined to agree. Maybe I’ll track down another of her novels and see how they compare. But when I do, I’ll set myself a gap from any other kind of reading.

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Tom Hanks, short stories.

This week I’ve been reading the seventeen stories in Uncommon Type, by Tom Hanks. I’ve been curious about what kind of writer he might be ever since reading a selection of the mixed reviews he picked up when it was published in 2017. Obviously, not curious enough, because I didn’t buy it. But a couple of weeks ago Mike offered to lend me his copy.

I’ve just finished it, so this is my mixed review:

Top of my likes is Alan Bean Plus Four. It was published in The New Yorker in 2014, and you can still read it online. It begins:

Travelling to the moon was way less complicated this year than it was back in 1969, as the four of us proved, not that anyone gives a whoop. 

The Starry Night, 1889, Vincent van Gogh

The style is light, the concept is fun, and there’s enough confidence about the technical details to convince me that in some Heath-Robinson manner, the narrator, Steve, MDash and Anna do construct a rocket, in the narrator’s back-yard.

We’d have no Mission Control to boss us around, so I ripped out all the Comm. I replaced every bolt, screw, hinge, clip, and connector with duct tape (three bucks a roll at Home Depot). 

I like science fiction, and I like absurd. I also like economy – it’s not just the thriftyness of the duct tape I’m referring to, this story wasted no words on backstory. I wonder if one of the reasons for that was because it picked up characters from an earlier story, Three Exhausting Weeks.

This was the opening story. I liked the characters, once I’d got into the story, but I found it a slow, slightly confusing, start.

Day 1

Anna said there was only one place to find a meaningful gift for MDash – the Antique Warehouse, not so much a place for old treasures as a permanent swap meet in what used to be the Lux Theatre.

MDash, it turns out is Mohammed Dayax-Abdo, who is ‘about to become a naturalized U.S. citizen…’ I’m still not clear about the definition of a ‘swap meet‘. I began to feel it wasn’t necessary to, which might suggest that segment could have been cut. However, the narration does reflect the narrator’s personality.

Understand that Anna and I have known each other since high school… We didn’t date, but hung out in the same crowd, and liked each other. After a few years of college, and a few more of taking care of my mom, I got my licence and pretended to make a living in real estate for a while.

He’s a chatty, laid-back, drifting kind of guy. He’s not daft, he’s been to college, remember. But not ambitious either, so I allowed for the odd sideways ramble.

Anna, on the other hand, has a ‘keen eye for the smallest of details and left no stones unturned, uninspected, unrecorded, or unreplaced if they needed replacing.’

By page three, I’d warmed to them both, and become intrigued by their contrasts. I wasn’t skipping past words, I’d tuned-in to the delivery style, and stayed with them for the full three weeks. The outcome wasn’t a surprise, but that’s fine. It felt true, and I was glad to have shared their journey.

With the third story about these four characters, Steve Wong is Perfect, I did skim lines and even paragraphs. Maybe it was just too much detail about bowling – though I didn’t have a problem with that when I watched The Big Labowski.

Top of my dislikes, were the four Hank Fiset stories. They were set out as newspaper feature pieces. Hank being a journalist who is struggling with modern life. Everything about them seemed cliched. One of them includes a section that Hank writes on his phone to demonstrate how predictive texting will affect the way he writes, surely that’s a very old joke, now.

I also failed to stay with Stay With Us, which is a short movie script. It opens with a complicated collage of scene-setting shots, and a montage of character names, some famous. Maybe, if it had been filmed, I’d be writing a rave review: on paper, I was soon confused and lost.

Overall, I did like the collection. The stories are not high-literature, but most of them have a clear dramatic arc, strong characterisation and include some lovely moments.

I thought the idea of using typewriters as a means to link the stories together was fun. In some it’s central, in others it’s a throw-away line. At times I forgot they were significant, even though they were central to the plot.

Will I be buying my own copy? Well no. Interesting as they were, and I am glad I’ve read them, I think once was enough.

Daphne du Maurier: truth and fiction.

I picked up Margaret Forster’s 1993 biography of Daphne du Maurier looking for a little background on My Cousin Rachel, nothing more. I quickly discovered that you can’t just drop into the middle of Daphne’s life and then walk away. Or rather, when you look up 1949 you’re faced with a lot of statements that imply a mass of missed backstory.

Ellen was rightly worried by Daphne’s increasingly distorted view of her life and tried to console and put an alternative, more attractive hypothesis forward. But what saved her friend was what had always saved and rescued her: the very work she saw as fatal to her human relationships. In Florence, Daphne had felt the first faint stirrings of a novel about a woman, a widow like Ellen, who would have many of Ellen’s characteristics and even look like her: the point of the novel would be that this woman was the source of great torment to others.

I’m nosy. I found the simple answers I’d hoped for, but they carried with them a lot more questions. Who was Ellen? What kind of torment was she to du Maurier? What did ‘distorted view‘ mean?

Here was a writer who’d been on my shelves since my young teenage. I can still remember being gripped by, The Loving Spirit. She’d rarely let me down. I particularly liked the strand of Gothic that threaded it’s way through so much of her long and short fiction.

Some of her books carried her photo. It was a rather lovely, kindly, face, I thought. Other publicity, of her sailing with her husband, or playing with her children, left me with an impression of a sun-lit, sea-bound, model family. For years, if I imagined her life at all, it was one of endless summers.

I know, how impossible is that? Still, it didn’t necessarily follow that the alternative would be anything significant, or ground shaking, did it?

How wrong I was. The story of du Maurier, according to Forster, is a very modern one. It includes a dominant father, a strong but distant mother, and questions about gender identity and sexual freedom. All of this is played out in the early years of the twentieth century, largely in London.

A biography written by a novelist might be expected to explore character, to look for the motivations and inciting incidents that lead to a career as a successful and prolific writer. I found myself caring about Daphne in the same way I cared about Rachel and Philip in, My Cousin Rachel.

There were moments when I pulled back from the biography and reminded myself that du Maurier was a real woman. Then I began to ask myself questions about her right to privacy.

Like any other narrator, Forster had chosen which scenes we would see, which fragment of diary or letter to share. If I was questioning the narrator in My Cousin Rachel, shouldn’t I also question Forster?

When I look again at my first quote, I have a perfect example of where my discomfort comes from. It’s the occasional inclusion of a word, like ‘rightly‘. Take it away and I feel less pushed.

Ellen was worried by Daphne’s increasingly distorted view of her life and tried to console and put an alternative, more attractive hypothesis forward.

I probably seem niggly. This kind of direction is so slight, it’s questionable whether there is an intention to direct. But then there’s:

It was as though she…

Or even:

The whole tone of her letters was one of outraged distress…

As in any biography, there are gaps in the evidence. Sometimes because du Maurier had written about the same event in contrasting ways, to different people, at others because nothing had been written at all, and yet other people had supplied details of actions.

This is the point at which hypothesis has to take over, however unsatisfactory…

I wish Forster had trusted me to draw my own conclusions. Worse, were the times when Forster insisted on summing up a situation after she’d presented the evidence.

If Daphne had been prepared to sacrifice Menabilly, she could have made a home in or near London for both of them, so that their marriage would have had a better chance of flourishing once more.

My favourite moment? It’s from a letter written by the senior editor to Victor Gollancz, about the manuscript of her novel, Rebecca.

…brilliantly creates a sense of atmosphere and suspense… I don’t know another author who imagines so hard all the time. …the spelling is quite incredible.

I take heart any time I find an author who has struggled with spelling, aside from the typos, mine seems to get worse and werse.

*Photo on header, of Fowey, Cornwall, by Alan Hearn

#6Degrees – Where the Wild Things Are.

This week I can’t resist taking up the 6 degrees of separation challenge, over at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, where Kate has set Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s story as the starting point for creating a chain of 6 books. I’ve deviated somewhat from the brief. As the next thing that came to mind was a short story, I decided to make the whole of my chain from short, or shortish, fiction.

So, to start with Kate’s choice…

Where The Wild Things Are was not in our school library. If it had been, I’m sure I’d have read it. I stumbled across the opera-version one evening as I was browsing our (then) four or five tv channels – yes, that long ago.

Claire Booth as Max. Photo by Mark Berry

I’d been dabbling with opera for a time, and found plenty to interest and intrigue me, but this one stood out, even on a small screen in the family sitting room.

Since I’ve mentioned opera my next link has to be Angela Carter’s, Puss-in-Boots. It’s a monologue, by a cat called Figaro – yes, drawn in-part, from the Mozart opera.

If you’ve never read anything by Carter before this is a good starting place. It’s a comic, bawdy, naughty, quick-read that was turned into a BBC radio drama.

Puss, a posturing ginger tom, boasts of his ‘fine, musical voice‘.

All the windows in the square fly open when I break into impromptu song at the spectacle of the moon above Bergamo.  If the poor players in the square, the sullen rout of ragged trash that haunts the provinces, are rewarded with a hail of pennies when they set up their makeshift stage and start their raucous choruses, then how much more liberally do the citizens deluge me with pails of the freshest water, vegetables hardly spoiled and, occasionally, slippers, shoes and boots.

Well, that explains the boots.

Unappreciated musicality has to take me to Tania Hershman’s flash-fiction, Mother was an Upright Piano.

My Mother was an upright piano, spine erect, lid tightly closed, unplayable except by the maestro.  My father was not the maestro.  My father was the piano tuner: technically expert, he never made her sing.  It was someone else’s husband who turned her into a baby Grand.

This 400 word flash lead me to William Trevor’s, The Piano Tuner’s Wives. When Owen, the widowed, elderly, blind, piano tuner remarries, he chooses Belle, the woman he rejected as a young man.

Too late Belle realized that Violet had been the blind man’s vision; Violet had left her no room to breathe. One day, when Owen was describing a room as Violet had described it to him, Belle lied and said that it was quite different now. She did the same thing when he mentioned a female acquaintance or a neighborhood animal. Belle became more confident in wiping out Violet’s presence. Owen understood her feelings and allowed her her claims. He had given himself to two women; he hadn’t withdrawn himself from the first, and he didn’t from the second.

Blindness, and its effects, literal and metaphorical, are also explored in V.S. Pritchett’s 1968 story about a barrister, Mr Armitage, and Helen Johnson, his secretary-housekeeper, Blind Love.

 At their first interview ― he met her in the paneled hall: “You do realize, don’t you, that I am totally blind. I have been blind for more than twenty years,” he said. 

“Yes,” she said. “I was told by Dr. James.” She had been working for a doctor in London.

He held out his hand and she did not take it at once. It was not her habit to shake hands with people; now, as always, when she gave in she turned her head away. He held her hand for a long time and she knew he was feeling the bones. She had heard that the blind do this, and she took a breath as if to prevent her bones or her skin passing any knowledge of herself to him. But she could feel her dry hand coming to life and she drew it away. She was surprised that, at the touch, her nervousness had gone.

As the story opens, Helen has been his secretary and housekeeper for some years. But, the cool, professional, relationship they have maintained is about to shift. Suppressed secrets and emotions are stirring.

The Venus of Willendorf

In Hari Kunzru’s 2007 short story, Magda Mandela, Magda wakes her neighbours at 4.30 am, by shouting out the list of her accomplishments. Half naked, and smeared with oil, her emotions are raging and it seems that nothing is secret.

And all along the street we come to our windows to twitch the net curtains and face the awe-inspiring truth that is Magda in her lime-green thong. She’s standing on the top step, the lights of the house blazing behind her, a terrifying mash-up of the Venus of Willendorf and a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, making gestures with a beer can at the little knot of emergency-service personnel gathered on the pavement below.

One of the younger and less experienced constables has obviously asked her to accompany him to a place where, as an agent of the state, he will feel less exposed. A police station, perhaps. Or a hospital. Anywhere that will tip the odds a little in his favor. Magda has met this suggestion with the scorn it deserves. She knows that she outnumbers these fools. YOU KNOW ME, she says. Then, with a sinister leer, AND I KNOW YOU.

Can we ever know ourselves, let alone know someone else? That’s a big question, beautifully dealt with in David Almond’s 2007 story, Slog’s Dad. Slog’s dad is Joe, a binman, ‘a daft and canny soul‘ who develops a black spot on his toe. His leg has to be amputated. He seems to adapt to this, and so does his young son, Slog, but then a spot develops on his other toe.

Just a week later, the garden was empty. We saw Doctor Molly going in, then Father O’Mahoney, and just as dusk was coming on, Mr Blenkinsop, the undertaker.

The week after the funeral, I was heading out of the estate for school with Slog, and he told me, “Dad said he’s coming back.”

“Slogger, man,” I said.

“His last words to me. Watch for me in the spring, he said.”

“Slogger, man. It’s just cos he was…”

“What?”

I gritted my teeth.

“Dying, man!”

I didn’t mean to yell at him, but the traffic was thundering past us on the bypass. I got hold of his arm and we stopped.

“Bliddy dying,” I said more softly.

“Me Mam says that and all,” said Slog. “She says we’ll have to wait. But I cannot wait till I’m in Heaven, Davie. I want to see him here one more time.”

It’s another big, big, story, with a bit of everything that matters. Love and faith are pitted against a rational narrator with an armoury of common-sense. The story is subtle, simple and yet endlessly complicated and beautifully concise. Details that can be said to lead all in the same direction, are, in retrospect, also suggesting other possibilities.

Fisherman’s Friends

Okay, so I need to start by saying I’m about to discuss a film, not the famous cold cure lozenges, made up of liquorice, menthol and eucalyptus oil, and connected with a selection of risque jokes and puns.

The film, in case you’ve missed the publicity, was released in March. I missed it then, but there’s a lovely independent cinema just down the road, who cater for slow-off-the-mark viewers like me, and last week they put on two more showings. So mum and I finally caught up.

I hadn’t read any reviews, but I’d seen a trailer. It promised humour, sea, romance, broken promises and an underdog. The setting was Cornwall. I love Cornwall; listening to people harmonising, and rags to riches story-lines. Besides, there were some good actors in it.

Photo by Theroadislong – commons.wikimedia.org

I didn’t know anything about the Port Isaac singers. Every six months or so I re-tune my car radio and catch up on what’s happening with music. The Cornish choir must have happened while I was in a drama and current affairs mode. I’m catching up fast now, though, thanks to You Tube.

‘What I don’t understand,‘ says Jim, the leader of the group, ‘is why anyone would buy a record sung by ten hairy-arsed fishermen.’ Long before the end of the film, we’ve worked it out, and so have they.

This isn’t a tough film. There’s no blood, or car chases. It has highs, lows, lulls and squalls, but the plot isn’t twisty or challenging.

There were about forty of us in the audience. Most of us lingered to watch the end credits, and enjoy the singing, rather than rush for the exit. I think we were all grinning as we left the building.

I don’t want to call it a ‘warm’ film, because that suggests flimsy, but I’m finding it tricky to sum it up with another word. There were clear themes, particularly about community and values. But I think also, although none of us burst into song, by the end, I felt that I too had been part of something.

There is a scene, set in a pub in London, where the ‘ten hairy-arsed fishermen‘ demonstrate what a sea-shanty is. I’ve been humming Drunken Sailor ever since.

Photo by Rarb commons.wikimedia.org