by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Books”

Serial Story Telling

Posted 28 March 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a sucker for a serial, especially if the characters attract me from the outset. Then I want to spend more time with them, and serials are the most effective way of doing that.

(Re-reading works as well, if you’re that way inclined: I am. I’m a voracious re-reader—and re-watcher—where Nick is not. He will re-read—and I have induced him to re-watch by, unpleasant as it sounds, essentially getting a little sulky if I’m not able to watch things more than once each—but he prefers to move on to new fiction and leave the old material behind. I can’t do that. Partly, I suspect, I have a poor memory. But mostly, I suspect, I just like to get back into a particular fictional world. One of my ideas of a personal hell is being told I’m not allowed to re-read Pride and Prejudice any more.)

But really enjoying something that comes in serial form makes re-reading something of a shadowy pleasure. Because with serial story telling, you can revisit the same world and the same characters without having to re-explore the same plot.

This is part of the reason why I prefer television to movies, speaking broadly. (On that note, I seem to be using the construct “part of the reason” or “partly” a lot—either I’m a complex individual, or I just want to think I am.)

Of course, serial story telling has its disadvantages, whether you’re talking books or television.

One of these is a tendency to drag on. For this reason, I’ve never liked soap operas (well, for this reason and for the fact that they’re, to my mind, absurdly overblown. I’ve read and enjoyed my fair share of Victorian melodrama and sensation fiction, but the modern version leaves me cold.) Let things drag on too long and you’re bound to have to replace some of the actors, which always irritates me.

(The worst example of this, I think, is the initially charming Nicholas Lyndhurst comedy Goodnight, Sweetheart, about the man who had the ability to travel between contemporary London and the London of the Blitz. When they recast both his wife and the woman he fancied in the 1940s, the whole tone of the show changed, and not for the better.)

I suspect this is why I’ve always had a soft spot for the sort of television shows that maintain their setting and focus, but don’t emphasise the melodrama of personal relationships, like Law and Order at its peak—ah, Jerry Orbach. How we miss you—and the original template of The Bill, which is now a show well past its prime of episodes such as “Burnside Knew My Father.”

The other major problem I have with serial story telling is the tendency to either go broadly off the rails at some point—alas, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer still remains my benchmark for this. I loved the opening three seasons, thought the next two had some fine moments, and frankly disliked most of the last two seasons—or to get cut off in their prime—and, sticking with the Joss Whedon theme, Firefly is a good example of this.

Any good work of fiction will make me wish that it hadn’t ended, which is where a tendency to re-read comes in handy. A really well-written piece won’t make me wish it had never ended, not if it’s beautifully constructed, but it will make me wish that I hadn’t read or watched it quite so quickly.

But, somehow, this is worse with serial stories, because they induce in you a sense that they will keep going, so the inevitable end becomes harder to cope with. (Television shows are still the best example of this, because their end can be so abrupt and unexpected. Really well-plotted television will bring a season to some sort of ending, but that doesn’t always make up for the abrupt loss of an overall story arc. Can you tell that I’m still bitter that David Milch wasn’t allowed a fourth season of Deadwood?)

But—not to make a mockery of this entire post—there’s a disadvantage to serial story telling that rests entirely with me, not with the form; I’m just not good at dealing with delayed gratification when it comes to stories.

In order to balance a desire for serial story telling and a desire for more-or-less immediate satisfaction, I bless two inventions in particular: trade paperback reprints of comic-book series and DVDs.

With the exception of Fables, I don’t read any comics in their monthly instalments: I find the cliffhangers too frustrating. (Perhaps, at age 31, I should have just got over this, but I suspect that my tendency to respond emotionally to texts is part of what makes me successful at the kind of work I do.)

And while I watch live television and enjoy plenty of programmes that I have no desire to own on DVD, there’s a certain satisfaction to having an entire season of something to work through at my leisure; I would never have survived watching Deadwood or Dexter live to air.

So while I’m glad that Jane Austen didn’t write serials, I’m also glad that studios and (especially in the U. S.) cable companies are starting to put money into writing and producing high-quality television, so I can have at least twelve or thirteen hours of fun, instead of just two.

I'm Becoming a Romantic in My Old Age

Posted 27 March 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve never actually thought of myself as a romantic. Apart from a period spent wallowing in Sweet Valley High novels that is probably best left unremembered now, I wasn’t overly interested in love stories as a teenager.

But I find that these days I’m more interested in a well-constructed romantic plot line, and more likely to get attached to stories that do this well.

(This excludes romance novels generally, although I do have an embarrassingly large collection of Georgette Heyer novels. I can’t actually remember why I started reading Heyer; I think it was a reaction to reading Lois McMaster Bujold, although I gave up on her after reading the two-novel anthology Cordelia’s Honour, from which I took the lesson that one never goes shopping with Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan. But I do have almost all of Heyer’s Regency romances; I read them while I was completing my M.Phil. on Lady Caroline Lamb’s novels—it was a way of pretending I was researching while I was just lying around reading. They’re variable in quality, but generally fun. But that’s not the sort of thing I“m talking about here.)

Basically, I’ve become a sucker for a happy ending.

And I’ve developed a strangely conservative streak. I’ve never been particularly interested in marriage for myself—apparently, you’re not a real girl if you haven’t been planning your wedding from age 11, but such is life—and I’m not married now; Nick, apparently, fancies living an alternative lifestyle—or at least about as alternative as you get when you’re white, middle-class, and straight—so here we are.

But I want my favourite characters to get married. I don’t know if it’s exactly conservatism, or if I just want to see them safely fettered so I don’t have to worry about the ups and downs of their relationships any more, but I’m a sucker for a book or television wedding.

Some of this stems from early reading: Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre wouldn’t have been nearly as satisfying without the “Reader, I married him” endings. But it’s getting more pronounced.

Partly, I think Fables is to blame for this. Of the 70-odd issues I’ve read to date—I haven’t read the most recent one yet—the two story arcs that really stand out for me from a continually outstanding series are the Boy-Blue-focused Homelands and the Flycatcher-centric The Good Prince, both of which explore the diasporic aspect of the world building and showcase Bill Willingham’s ability to find and exploit obscure source material.

But what sucked me in to begin with was the relationship between Bigby Wolf and Snow White. It didn’t help, of course, that the third trade ended on a cliffhanger for this relationship. I discovered Fables when I was given the first three trades for my 30th birthday so, when I read the three arcs back to back a couple of days later, I was left wondering about where it was going and spent the next fortnight—in between frantic, last-minute Christmas shopping—searching Brisbane’s comic-book stores for the next three trades.

One of those trades was Homelands, which had nothing to do with the Bigby-Snow relationship, but a large part of my impulse was the desire to get to some sort of happy ending.

Maybe romantics develop naturally from people like me, who were lucky enough to find their life partners early in life and live happily ever after (minus the small pinpricks of wondering why one’s beloved insists on leaving the electric kettle on the bench instead of putting it back on the rest). I don’t know.

But I do know that tragic love stories don’t satisfy me these days. I’d rather read a beautifully written tragic story than a prosaic or poor happy one. But these days, what I want for my leisure reading is a beautifully written happy ending.

Multiple Editions

Posted 23 March 2008 in by Catriona

I often worry slightly that I own too many books—and then worry about the fact that I worry about owning books, when they’re really only material objects on one plane of existence (the plane of existence, unfortunately, that requires bookshelves and wall space).

Part of my problem is that I’m fascinated by textuality, by textual scholarship, by bibliographies and reference texts—including one, rather embarrassingly, called Who’s Who in Enid Blyton—and by the textual development of stories.

This fascination is integral to my ability to perform the kind of textual criticism on which my work centres, but it also means that I end up owning multiple copies of certain novels.

This afternoon, I moved a bookshelf from the study to the spare room, as part of the ongoing process of opening up the study and making it a more congenial workspace. In the process, I came across such a wide range of multiple editions that I somewhat horrified myself, and ended up getting Nick—slightly melancholic himself, being unable to defeat a boss demon in Diablo—to keep a list for me. (Not, as it turned out, the best idea: I ended up slightly hysterical at the thought of my profligacy, while Nick eyed his vast collection of Doctor Who Target novelisations and sighed.)

But here’s a brief list, anyway.

William Beckford’s Vathek.
I own four copies of this work: an Oxford World’s Classic; a Penguin, complete with additional Beckford stories; another Penguin, in a volume called Three Gothic Novels (which is also the reason why I own two copies of Horace Walpole’s The Castle Of Otranto, and far too many copies of Frankenstein); and a gorgeous Broadview edition of Vathek, with The Episode of Vathek.

The problem is that I can’t remember if there even were alternate editions of Vathek or whether I simply own four copies of an identical text, which would be less justifiable.

They do all have different textual apparatuses (except, perhaps, for the two Penguins) and I did need the novel as literary context for the last chapter of my M.Phil. But did I need four copies?

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
I also own four copies of this, including the Broadview and the Norton. At least in this case, there are two alternate texts—1818 and 1831—and this was the work on which I produced my first major piece of criticism, my Honours thesis, all those years ago.

But I don’t think that’s the reason why I keep buying it—it’s just such a fascinating, complex, tragic novel, and so thoroughly shocked and surprised me when I first read it that I can’t help but buy any edition that might have new footnotes.

(On that note, I can offer in my own defense the fact that I have not replaced all my old Penguins with the new Penguins, even though the new ones have entirely fresh critical apparatuses by scholars who aren’t all died-in-the-wool Leavisites. I think that’s fairly restrained.)

I also own at least three copies of Bram Stoker’s Dracula—I realised while Nick was making the list that there might be another copy somewhere, and indeed the entire list-making process was punctuated by me saying “Did I say three copies of that book? I’ve just found another one.” It would only have been two, however, if I hadn’t had to buy a recent Penguin when I last taught Gothic Lit., so that the students and I would literally be on the same page.

I’m not even going to mention how many copies of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women I own—but, to balance that, I don’t own a single copy of any of the film versions.

Nick’s face fell at the last Lifeline BookFest when he asked what I’d bought and I pulled out another translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. But that one was H. C. Cary’s translation from the early nineteenth century, and I really did need it to balance my translations by Mark Musa and Dorothy L. Sayers. I also used Cary as my translation for my M.Phil, but that’s not much of an excuse, since I submitted that four years ago.

I discovered two copies of George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss today, as well—and, Victorian scholar though I may be, I haven’t even read the book. Yet.

Ditto Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Cervantes’ Don Quixote—two copies of each—although I swear I am going to read the latter one day. After I have, I may even get around to reading Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote, of which I thankfully only have one copy.

I don’t think I need to justify owning three copies of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, do I? Or two copies of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights?

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, on the other hand—I’m not sure I want to confess this, but I don’t actually like it very much. Or, rather, I don’t like Jane very much. She’s so dreary. Still, it’s worth it for the sake of Rochester.

I’m not apologising for my two copies of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, because that’s a great book. I’m a little uncomfortable with my TV tie-in edition, now, but I can’t bring myself to get rid of it—it’s got Rufus Sewell as Will Ladislaw on the cover. I’m not that strong-willed.

I probably don’t need two copies of Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals, though. Or three copies of Northanger Abbey. Or two copies of The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde; one isn’t even a critical edition, and the texts are identical, so I can’t begin to justify that. And I can’t remember why I own four copies of Matthew Lewis’s The Monk—although the texts do vary.

I can justify my two different versions of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, though. I bought a cheap-and-nasty copy—one of those awful 1960s hardbacks, with the heavy black line drawings picked out in one or two colours, usually purple or red, and a plasticky cover—at a BookFest some years ago, just to have the stories.

(Although, in retrospect, I’m not sure why—I rarely re-read my Andersen, because the stories are so depressing, and often cruelly arbitrary. A little like Wilde’s fairy tales, but without Wilde’s language.)

Then, I came to write the second chapter of my Ph.D., and I realised I needed a different translation of the tales to make my argument—these are the tales with the half-naked princess illustration, by the way.

I couldn’t isolate the exact translation that Eliza Winstanley had used as the basis for her adaptations, so I chose the most contemporaneous; Henry W. Dulcken, who published his translations in 1864-1866.

(Actually, his translations are extremely complex, in how they navigate between Andersen’s casual taking-the-Lord’s-name-in-vain and Dulcken’s middle-class, English, mid-nineteenth-century audience’s distaste for seeing the name “God” in a fairy tale—Kirsten Malmkjaer’s work on this aspect of his translations is fascinating.)

So I bought a copy of Dulcken’s translation, and I thought I’d get rid of my old, plasticky book.

But when I took it off the shelf, I saw that it was Mrs E. Lucas’s translations, which I knew from Viggo Hjornager Pedersen’s Ugly Ducklings? was much later but still a nineteenth-century translation. And my resolve to remove it from my shelves entirely disappeared.

I can’t believe that we live in a world where it’s wrong to want to own multiple nineteenth-century translations of a Danish writer’s work because the differences in the translations tell us so much about the market for which they were produced.

And, anyway, I’ve never complained about Nick’s Doctor Who novelisations.

Agatha Christie

Posted 22 March 2008 in by Catriona

For someone who explicitly said they wanted to blog about reading, I really haven’t posted much about reading. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time watching television, recently: I do like good television. (More so than movies, actually—I’m a sucker for serial story-telling, hence my thesis on serial fiction of the mid-Victorian period.)

But lately I’ve been on an Agatha Christie bender. Or a re-bender, I suppose, since I’ve read most of them before. (Oddly, I recently pulled my copy of Crooked House off the shelf and realised, unusually for me, that I couldn’t remember where and when I’d bought it, and that I’d never actually read it. It’s very good, by the way.)

So I’ve just finished Death on the Nile (1937) and moved on to Five Little Pigs (1942); this latter, according to Wikipedia, was also published as Murder in Retrospect, which I have to say is the daftest title for a murder mystery ever.

These two were both adapted in the BBC’s series of Poirot mysteries in 2003-2004, along with Sad Cypress (1940)—a lovely book—and The Hollow (1946)—a strangely disappointing book, I felt, because it turned on the charisma of the murdered man, and I thought he was a prat. The problem’s with the reader there, I feel.

My disappointment in The Hollow aside, I felt this was an exceptional bunch of adaptations. Of course, Poirot adaptations have traditionally been treated more accurately than their Marple cousins; I have no idea why, since there’s no discernible difference, to me, in the quality of Christie’s plotting between the two detectives. But these four were unusually good.

The newspaper reviewers at the time picked Sad Cypress as the best of the bunch, and it was good. But when I mentioned this to my sister, she disagreed in favour of Five Little Pigs. To her, the tragedy of the story—the fact that these two vital, fascinating, clever, creative people were dead sixteen years before the novel even started, so that the solution of the mystery could only benefit the second generation—made it a far more gripping plot.

I would agree with this, to an extent. I still like a happy ending, although I’m not daft enough to think I could get one out of this book. But part of the reason why I gave up watching Cold Case was because I couldn’t deal with the emphasis on the victim; the crimes were significantly harder to deal with in this than in, say, Law and Order. Even though the Wikipedia page says that the actual murder in Cold Case is often omitted “due to the heinousness of the underlying crime which is included with the murder,” when “the crime is usually rape or sexual assault of an innocent child or woman,” I gave up after the racially motivated Depression-Era rape and murder of a young black woman—that episode was so horrific I couldn’t keep watching.

Five Little Pigs works in a similar way, for me. Most of Agatha Christie’s work centres on the idea of protecting the innocent; she emphasises in more than one work that the English judicial system has never hanged an innocent person, as in Mrs McGinty’s Dead, where the conviction is overturned, and in Ordeal by Innocence, in which the convicted man dies in prison but escapes hanging.

Five Little Pigs falls into the latter category, avoiding direct criticism of the English judicial system by having the convicted murderess die of an illness in prison.

The idea that the English judicial system has never hanged an innocent person is one that I can’t entirely support—Derek Bentley? Edith Thompson? Paul Hanratty?—and I’m not sure that, given her emphasis in other books, Christie was actively making a point about the irreversibility of capital punishment. But that’s what the book suggests to me.

I’ve never supported the death penalty in any shape or form, for any crime. It’s such a core belief for me, that I’m not going to set out my arguments here; people will either agree with me or not, and I’m not to be moved on this issue.

For me, it was the story of the execution of Derek Bentley that devastated me—I am, in fact listening to Let Him Dangle as I write this. I could not, and still can not, comprehend how any judicial system that favoured an irreversible method of punishment could carry out that sentence.

But for at least two of the Queens of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, it was the execution of Edith Thompson that seems to have caused the most concern. Christie cites Thompson on more than one occasion, and Dorothy L. Sayers’s co-written text The Documents in the Case—with Robert Eustace—also evokes the Thompson/Bywaters affair.

Sayers is a more complicated case. She doesn’t oppose the death penalty; in at least one novel, she advocates suicide over public ignominy and execution—and references the possibility in another novel—but Lord Peter Wimsey struggles with the reality of the death penalty. This is brought home to the reader most effectively in Busman’s Honeymoon, a book that broke my heart when I first read it, many years after reading the other Wimsey novels.

But even there, the objection is less to the execution—the murderer has confessed, and is undoubtedly guilty—as to the fact that Wimsey can’t receive absolution from the man that he, and he alone—the police being stymied—brought to the noose. Wimsey is deeply affected by the fact that he ends people’s lives, but less from a belief in any flaw in the judicial system than out of a realisation that he pursues detection as a hobby, rather than as a profession. Still, the doubt is there, an integral part of Sayers’s detective.

Five Little Pigs is unique, as far as I know, in Christie’s oeuvre, since the presumed-innocent character in Ordeal by Innocence was, in fact, guilty. Like any other murder mystery, Five Little Pigs provides the satisfaction of finding out who the murderer is, but it’s a melancholic book, not simply because the revelation of the murderer is anti-climactic and because the victims are attractive and charming.

For me, the devastating fact of this novel is that an innocent woman—while not hanged—dies for a crime she did not commit. The texts that provide Poirot with such vital information for the revelation of the real murderer—the letters that a dying Caroline Crale writes to her sister and to her daughter—remind me of an incident from several years ago.

As a postgraduate student, my sister worked at a nineteenth-century prison that had become a tourist attraction, and arranged for my mother and me to take a night tour, complete with candlelight.

The only time I’ve ever felt distinctly claustrophobic, including many years as a child spent touring limestone caves, was on that tour, when we were enclosed, in the dark, in the cell occupied by convicts on the night before their execution.

The main story for this tour was a famous bushranger, but a secondary story was that of a nineteenth-century baby farmer, executed for killing her charges, who spent the night before her execution sewing a drawstring into her skirt, so that the executioners couldn’t see her petticoats when the trapdoor was released. To me, the idea that this woman spent her last night thinking of her modesty is devastating.

When I re-read Five Little Pigs, I think of that story.

When our tour guide told this anecdote, the tour group laughed.

Rearranging My Bookshelves

Posted 9 March 2008 in by Catriona

I decided last night, for no apparent reason, to move Nick’s vast collection of art books to the shoddily painted (by me) craftwood shelves from the equally shaky dark-stained bookcase they’re currently on. This essentially involved moving them a metre to the left, but it’s slightly more complicated than that.

The art books are fine—they’re so huge that the books can’t doubled stacked even if I wanted to. But the other shelves are filled with results of eight years shopping at the Lifeline Book Fest, and I’m a little surprised at the things I’m coming across that, apparently, I can’t bring myself to get rid of.

I’m not sure, for example, that I really need all seven Donna Parker books. Sure, they have exciting picture boards showing full-skirted girls dancing at what I assume are sock hops, and the idea of 1950s American girlhood is always intriguing, but then I also own a copy of the journals of Sylvia Plath, so am I likely to re-read Donna Parker?

I’m also not sure that I technically need Walt Disney’s Annette Mysteries. These, I suppose, have some kitsch value (though not when crammed away out of sight on a back shelf); I mean, Annette Funicello solves mysteries!

I’m a bit annoyed, though, that I don’t seem to own Sierra Summer. I could at least have bought the entire set.

I think I’ve even got a copy of a Patty Duke book by the same author somewhere.

I’m also fairly certain that I don’t need the 1980s Nancy Drew revival: The Nancy Drew Files. I’ll resist to the utmost any attempt to remove my 1970s Nancy Drew books—they might be revisionist versions of the old 1930s and 1940s titles, but they’re the ones I grew up with—but these? Are frankly awful, unless you have a weakness for lengthy, badly written descriptions of the sartorial advantage of an oversized jumper worn over tight-legged jeans.

The one advantage of the series is that they finally realised that Ned Nickerson was a waste of space, although the fan-fiction writers over at the Sympathy for Ned community don’t agree with me.

Mind you, I’m not getting rid of my Nancy Drew/Cherry Ames slash fiction.

But for every slightly dodgy book that I probably should send back to the Lifeline sale, there are some little treasures that I’ve forgotten about.

I’ve found a lovely Collins edition of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poems, which was hiding in plain sight. I’m not a particular fan of Longfellow, but the soft, green, suede cover of this book is a delight in and of itself.

There’s also a 1970s paperback of Tuck Everlasting, which I haven’t read. At least now I can pull it off the back of a shelf and add it to the precarious pile of books on the bedhead (I still haven’t effectively learned the lesson of seven years ago, when I must have shifted too much in my sleep and was unpleasantly woken by a hardcover copy of The Vicar of Wakefield bouncing off my forehead. Despite this, the bedhead still seems to me a sensible place to store books.)

I’ve also unearthed a lovely pile of the Mary Grant Bruce Billabong books, some of which are modern paperback reprints, but four of which are lovely 1980s hardbacks that, despite the unattractive cover art, have a solidity and weight far in excess of their size. When did they start depriving children of solid-feeling hardbacks in favour of flimsy paperbacks that all seem to have the same holographic covers?

(Speaking of holographic covers, I also located my copy of The Looking Glass Wars. Not quite a holographic cover—although my copy is unnecessarily shiny—and a disappointing book to me. It seems there’s a sequel, but I don’t think I’ll bother with it.)

On the plus side, there’s a copy of The Mystery of the Shining Children, one of the Jenny Dean Science Fiction Mysteries. Really, who doesn’t love a book about, according to the back cover, “a sixteen-year-old sleuth with a passion for solving some of the most extraordinary science fiction mysteries ever recorded”?

Now I just need to find the other three books in the series.

Also lurking far on a back shelf were several of the Dana Girls mysteries. Teenage girl sleuths who are also students are a private girls’ school? Two of my favourite genres in one—and if none of my girls’ school stories have shown up in this list, it’s only because they have a dedicated bookshelf and don’t get shuffled around.

And Bedknob and Broomstick. I’d completely forgotten I owned this, although four of author Mary Norton’s Borrowers books, which I’ve adored since childhood, are on one of the shelves in the hallway. And, for that matter, why only four? What happened to my copy of the fifth?

This post, I’m starting to suspect, could last forever. But there’s one final set of books that I’d forgotten and am thrilled to see again: Mary Poppins. I’m not even sure I own the original book—although I remember a copy from my childhood that must still be at my parents’ house—but I do have Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane, Mary Poppins Opens the Door, Mary Poppins Comes Back, and Mary Poppins in the Park, and that’s enough strange and slightly sad, 1930s-1940s, English urban fantasy to be starting with.

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