by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Books”

Random Weirdness From My Father's Bookshelf

Posted 26 December 2008 in by Catriona

My parents have recently returned from Vietnam, which they adored and which is all they talk about. My father, in particular, was taken with the food and is planning a seventeen-course Vietnamese banquet for tomorrow night.

(Apparently, they’re terribly small courses. I’m still thinking a couple of days of fasting might be necessary before embarking on a seventeen-course meal.)

So he has a pile of Vietnamese cookery books, including this one:

I apologise for the quality of the image: the book is insanely shiny and difficult to photograph.

It’s also insanely ’70s:

It’s frequently unusually random:

I would deny that those are, in fact, shrimp, onion, and water chestnut balls (or even “water chesnut” balls), since they appear to be slices of rather nice wholemeal and white loaves.

It’s also amusingly proofread—or not proofread, in parts:

But I will give them credit for the gorgeous presentation of the food, even if the photographs are as ’70s as the illustrations:

I’m rather hoping, though, that neither “fied powdered anchovy” nor “fried powdered anchovy” are actually on the menu tomorrow night.

A Quote I Really Need To Remember For Lectures

Posted 17 December 2008 in by Catriona

Yes, it does seem as though I’m using my blog as a giant, electronic Post-it note, but it’s an interesting quote, either way.

Reginald Hill’s version of the “so what?” test:

During her previous existence as a lecturer, a colleague who ran a Creative Writing course had moaned to her that he spent far too much time dealing with the hang-ups of students who clearly regarded narrative fiction as a branch of therapy rather than a branch of art. Now she knew what he meant. Therapy you kept to yourself. Art took you, trembling, in front of the footlights.

She brought this perspective to bear on her rejected third novel. Suddenly she found herself asking paragraph by paragraph the two essential questions: Is this really so important to me I’ve got to say it? Is this potentially so interesting to readers, they’ll have to read it?

From Reginald Hill’s Arms and the Women, 2000. HarperCollins paperback, 2001. 65.

Some School Stories Are Weirder Than Others

Posted 15 December 2008 in by Catriona

All three of these illustrations are from Marjorie W. Newman’s Scoring for the School, which, double entendres aside, includes a rousing cricket game in which, presumably, the players score for the school.

That’s not my main concern, though. My main concern is how strangely disparate these illustrations are.

I’m not imagining things, am I, when I get the feeling that these are the work of three different illustrators?

Whoever did the cover doesn’t seem to have realised that they weren’t illustrating the novelisation of Satan’s School for Girls. Or am I the only one who is highly suspicious of that central figure? And what is that girl on the bottom right doing? I think she’s supposed to be playing a harmonica, but she looks like surreptitiously licking something forbidden, judging from her cagey eyes.

But the cover illustration is often done by another illustrator. That doesn’t explain the vast difference between the next two illustrations.

First, a soft, Vaseline-on-the-lens, watercoloury illustration of schoolgirls picking flowers. Lovely: presumably, they’ll go back to the dorm and have a midnight feast, maybe a late swim, or gang up to pick on the fat, spotty kid—exactly what school is for.

But then there’s—actually, what is that? An all-girl jazz band? Or mobsters who wear matching jackets so that people know they’re a serious gang and not just the usual teenage-girl gang?

See, now I have no idea what’s happening.

Seriously, is that girl on the left wearing sunglasses with her drop-waisted school tunic?

Hang on! Maybe it’s a drug cartel? That would help explain the book’s title.

The Changing Face of the Abbey Girls

Posted 12 December 2008 in by Catriona

And I mean that quite literally.

I have a small number of the Abbey School series: fourteen, in fact, picked up randomly from various sales.

(Fourteen is not many, when you look at the entire list of Abbey School books. And if that list looks impressive, make sure you also look at the so-called Abbey Connectors, or books that share some characters and, occasionally, plots with the Abbey books, but are otherwise distinct. I do wonder, sometimes, how these prolific writers of girls’ school stories—Angela Brazil and Josephine M. Brent-Dyer are the other two who spring to mind—ever found the time to sleep.)

Of course, the Abbey School series are girls’ school stories in only the loosest sense of the word: few of them take place even partly in school. But I’m not concerned with that here.

Nor am I concerned with the connection with early Cistercian monastic life, though my sister-in-law—whose disciplinary focus is the Cistercians—assures me that the titular abbey is a real Cistercian abbey.

Nor am I concerned with Oxenham’s—and her characters’—obsessive involvement in the English folk-dancing revival.

No: I’m being shallow.

I’m only interested here in how the covers change across my issues, from the early Seagull Library reprints (Seagull Library was an imprint of Collins Publishers) to the later Children’s Press editions.

Take Secrets of the Abbey, for example—one of the middle books (in terms of publication date) or one of the later books (in terms of preferred reading order), originally published in 1939. This cover is from a 1951 imprint:

All perfectly ordinary: a little odd and misty, perhaps, but a perfectly ordinary cover.

Strangers At The Abbey, on the other hand—this one is both very late in the preferred reading order and late in terms of publication date: in fact, this 1956 reprint is close to the original 1951 publication:

Now that’s just odd, although it is nice to see the abbey itself actually making an appearance. But what’s with the girl on the left? I can’t figure out if she’s an albino or a dandelion clock. Still, it’s nice to see the illustrator working to overcome the deficit in severely Anglo-Saxon protagonists in 1950s’ children’s books.

1952’s Selma At The Abbey (which comes directly after Strangers in both publication and preferred reading order) reverts to a less frightening cover, in this 1959 reprint:

Although they are looking rather two-dimensional, compared to the 1951 cover of Secrets.

And speaking of two dimensional, there’s the 1961 reprint of 1923’s The New Abbey Girls, one of the earliest of the series in both preferred reading order and publication date:

Seriously, nothing in this environment is three-dimensional, including the abbey and the daffodils. I also want to know how the woman on the left managed to get her hair to look like that.

Still, putting two-dimensional characters on the cover at least warns the reader of the general approach to all except the protagonists . . .

Come the 1966 reprint of 1924’s Abbey Girls Again (which comes immediately after The New Abbey Girls in publication date and preferred reading order), characters are looking better rounded.

Plus, it’s nice to see an homage to the school-story spirit. Nothing says school story like a midnight feast.

But, finally, the gem of my collection: this 1968 reprint of the early Abbey Girls At Home:

Oh, the eyelashes! And the back-combing! And the aggressively flicked hair! And the orange! And the lamp!

(Just quietly, I rather like the lamp.)

This book, I might add, was originally published in 1929. I severely doubt that this was what Oxenham pictured when she thought of her protagonists.

Shooting Fish In A Barrel; Or, Absurdities That Occurred To Me As I Read "The Fairy Shoe Dance"

Posted 9 December 2008 in by Catriona

Warning: This will make absolutely no sense unless you have read the post immediately below.

It may not make sense even if you have read that post—after all, the story makes no sense.

1. Just a thought, but perhaps the sun—sorry, the Sun—deserted your park—sorry, Park—because you’re so profligate with capital letters? You might give a thought to the poor blogger who wants to make fun of the story but keeps missing the shift key. At least you could do it consistently: why is “village” sometimes a proper noun and sometimes not?

2. How does the Queen expect to find a nice, dry, sunshiny park when the sun has apparently deserted all the parks? There’s a flaw in that plan.

3. Why is the Queen such a sycophant? Methinks there’s a dark back story behind her obvious desire to placate the King . . .

4. How does a plan to “take a Hall in the village near” turn into breaking and entering into the home of complete strangers and violating their shoes?

5. Why are the King and Dukes so obsessed with domestic interior design? In what way do “a staircase” and “a passage with some good cupboards” contribute to a space’s suitability for a fancy-dress party? Okay, the kitchen I’ll grant you, but a staircase?

6. Seriously, does the King actually amuse himself by peering in people’s windows and criticising their house-keeping skills? I’m starting to think that my point about his secretly sinister nature in point three about wasn’t quite as facetious as I intended it to be . . .

7. Hang on a second—they’re not just taking the shoes from the people whose house they’re invading in order to hold a fancy-dress party, they’re also going to sneak into neighbouring cottages and steal their shoes, as well? These fairies are total sods!

8. Can anyone figure out how many Dukes the King has? First it’s three Dukes, then it’s “all his Dukes,” then it’s two Dukes—perhaps fairies are cannibalistic?

9. No, I’m sorry—those pictures do not show tiny fairies inhabiting shoes. Those clearly show anthropomorphic shoes—and anthropomorphic shoe brushes. The two aspects of illustrated story telling are at complete cross-purposes here.

10. If the fairies are inhabiting shoes are costumes for a fancy-dress party, why are they shown casually strolling around in shoe form in every single illustration? I’d say that the illustrator never actually read this story, except that it rapidly becomes obvious that the author never actually read the story, either.

11. The fairies managed free decorations for their party by planning it for the day before a wedding? Cheapskates!

12. Hey, Bride and Bridegroom? If you’re so worried about the shoes, why don’t you move them yourselves into what the Fairy King assures me are capacious and convenient cupboards, instead of just standing there and looking at them?

13. Does anyone want to take bets on which drugs Aunt May is taking? Or, alternatively, offer me an explanation of what she means by “I am a Fairy” and why she isn’t surprised about the rambunctious party for supernatural beings that she overhears?

14. The Fairies actually have a Palace? Why on earth do they need to break into someone else’s house, then?

15. Even though the sun shines for a month, they’re still planning on breaking into someone else’s house to hold another party? These fairies aren’t just sods—they’re delinquents.

16. Is there a moral to this story? It seems as though there should be a moral, but I can’t isolate one—unless it’s “Don’t let fairies into your house, because they’re interfering little sods who’ll violate your shoes.”

I plan to take that moral to heart.

Random Weirdness from the Bookshelf Special Edition: The Fairy Shoe Dance

Posted 9 December 2008 in by Catriona

Nearly a month ago, when I posted my last set of random weirdnesses from the bookshelf, I included a picture from a story called “The Fairy Shoe Dance.”

But I’ve been thinking since then that I really should include the entire, not terribly long story on the blog, because it’s the strangest thing I think I’ve ever read.

I apologise for any nightmares that the pictures induce, but I assure you that this is exactly how the story appears in the annual Our Darlings, circa 1932.

The Fairy Shoe Dance

It had been a wet Summer. The Fairy King said it was the worst Summer that he ever remembered. The Fairy Queen said she thought they had better leave this dismal old place and find a nice dry and sunshiny Park. “In this Park,” said the Queen, “there are six small rivers and twelve bogs. How can we sit under the trees without umbrellas, or have any fun?”

“Cheer up,” said the King, and his face was as cheerful as the face of the Sun, which had cruelly deserted their Park, and all other Parks, all the Summertime, “I have a plan!”

The Fairy Queen began to feel much more cheerful. She put her arm through the King’s arm, and said, “Be quick, my dear, and tell me what your plan is. I am sure it is a good one—you always know what can be done!” The King became more like a shining Sun than before. It was so nice to be praised.

His plan was to take a Hall in the village near, and to hold a Fancy-Dress Dance. “If it is successful—and it will be—” he said, “and if the wet weather continues, we will have another, and as often as we like. I will arrange the first, and you, my dear, the second, and our subjects will arrange the third. Oh, yes, we shall have some fun!” The King and three of his Dukes went to the Village to look for a Hall for the Fairy Dance. They peeped into every building. There was one big house. It held the biggest family in the Village, and the people said it was the untidiest house anywhere about. It was true, as the King soon found out.

The hall in this house was large and square, and opposite the front door was a fine drawing-room. On the right was the dining-room and round a corner was the staircase, and a passage with some good cupboards, and a kitchen. The King and all his Dukes decided it was a fine place for their Party. But, oh, oh, oh, by the side of the drawing-room door was a long rail of pegs smothered up with coats, jackets and hats. Underneath these garments were rows of shoes of every kind piled on one another.

“If I lived in this house,” said the King, “I would clear these shoes and coats and hats into all the cupboards in the passage, and anyway they must disappear!”

Then he picked up a shoe. “Why not have Shoes for our Fancy Dress? There are many shoes here, and in the Cottages there are plenty more. What fun it will be!” The King chose a Shoe. He began to whisper, “I get a little smaller every minute.” When he had repeated this three times, he was in the Shoe, and his laughing face looked out at his Dukes. In a minute they were both inside Shoes. Then they got out again, and whispered the other Spell. “I am getting bigger every minute.”

As the Family were sweetly sleeping in bed, the Fairies had plenty of time to make their plans to hold the Shoe Dance on the following Thursday. Now it happened that on the following Friday, the eldest of the many daughters and sons was going to be married. On Thursday big bunches of flowers kept coming to the house, and were in every available corner—except the corner where the Family’s shoes, jackets, and jackets still remained.

The Family were used to untidiness. They did not even dream of clearing away the shoals of shoes.

Only three people noticed those shoes. They were the Bride and Bridegroom and Aunt May, who had come to help them with the wedding. The three stood and looked. Aunt May whispered softly, “All right, I am a Fairy.”

Thursday night came. Many Fairies helped the Dukes to get everything ready for the Dance. They carried all the coats and hats away, and hung them neatly on the pegs in the passage cupboards. The shoes only remained in the hall. They awaited the coming of the Dancers. The hall looked as it ought to look, with banks of flowers and nothing untidy.

What a gay time the Fairies had that night! They sang and danced and laughed for hours. The Fairy Queen and her Ladies served a gorgeous Supper from the tables that were to hold the Wedding Breakfast on the morrow.

The Dawn was breaking in the East when the Fairies went home to the Palace in the Park. Not a shoe did they leave in the hall. The shoes were packed row on row in the cupboards.

When the Family came down in the morning they saw the empty corner. “Hullo!” said Papa. Mamma said, “I won’t have those shoes back again here. I don’t know why I let them stay all these years.” Papa looked at Aunt May, his favourite sister. “Who put them away?” he asked. “The Fairies did it,” said Aunt May, “I heard them singing and dancing down here all night.”

The Sun shone all that Wedding Day. He was so pleased with himself that he shone all day for a month, till the bogs went away and there were no more damp lawns and no grumbling.

The happy couple built a bungalow by the big house. It had a big hall, called the Lounge. The Fairy Queen said she must hold her lovely party there. It was just to her taste.

Random Quotes That Express How Much I Love Reginald Hill

Posted 8 December 2008 in by Catriona

For those of you who don’t read his books, Reginald Hill writes the Dalziel and Pascoe novels set in Mid-Yorkshire CID: I mentioned how frustrated I was by the television treatment of these books in this earlier post, but this disconnected post (I’ve been Christmas shopping and trying to cook with, you know, vegetables and stuff, so I’m tired) is about the books themselves.

The series started with A Clubbable Woman in 1970, and the most recent book was published this year, though I personally haven’t read anything after 2002’s Death’s Jest-Book.

In this earlier thread on puzzles I’ve noticed in Agatha Christie novels, we segued in the comments thread into a discussion of Poirot’s age, and how an elderly detective can be a problem in detective fiction. There’s something of a problem with this in the Dalziel and Pascoe novels: Pascoe is relatively young in the first book, a newly minted Detective Sergeant, albeit one with a university degree, so slightly older than colleagues who went straight from school to Hendon. He does age as the books advance, but it seems to me that he ages more slowly than time passes.

The second book, for example, An Advancement of Learning (1971), is clearly set in 1971: there are documents and objects within the novel that explicitly date the action. Similarly, On Beulah Height (1998) definitely takes place in the mid to late 1990s, but twenty-seven years have not passed in Pascoe’s private life—his daughter is still a young girl. Once we move into Death’s Jest-Book, in which Pascoe’s nemesis Franny Roote reappears but should be at least fifty-three years old by a conventional reckoning of the time that’s passed since his first appearance, we know time is moving at two speeds inside the books, as it does in most detective fiction.

That doesn’t spoil my enjoyment of the books, any more than an awareness that Poirot is incredibly old in the later books destroys my enjoyment of Agatha Christie (but it is an aspect of detective fiction that fascinates me right now).

(What does bother me is the completely backwards attitude to the novels and television series on the Wikipedia page from which I’ve been getting my publication dates. The brief section on the television series on this page offers this tidbit: “The TV and novel continuities are separate, so both Ellie and Wield still appear in the most recent books despite having been written out of the TV series.” Yep: put that the other way around, and you may have something. Hill is not actually obligated to follow the continuity of the television programme, you know.)

Ranting aside, it might be time for the random quotes portion of the evening, as promised in the title.

On Yorkshiremen in general:

[Ted] Agar was only paid to keep the place ticking over for half a day five days a week, but he liked to keep a closer eye on things, especially on weekends when potential customers, on discovering the Centre was closed, were not above excavating a couple of young bushes and tossing them in the boot before driving off. The previous day, Saturday, he had been otherwise engaged, watching Yorkshire prod their way to a draw in a County Championship match. Today however there was only a one-day game on offer and Agar believed that if God had wanted cricket to end in a day, He’d have rested on Tuesday instead of waiting till the end of the week. (A Killing Kindness, 1980. HarperCollins 2003 re-issue, 307-08)

On the implacability of Dalziel:

But this didn’t affect Dalziel’s gut feeling that this wasn’t one to counter with subtle defensive tactics, this was one to hit in mid-flight with a hospital tackle!

Such was the conclusion he reached after long dark brooding, and now the light of action came back to his eyes, and he rose like that famous bull from the sea summoned by Theseus to destroy his own son as he fled from the scene of his monstrous crime.

Of course, Hippolytus was completely innocent, but Theseus didn’t know that, and it made not a jot of difference to the bull. (Death’s Jest-Book, 2002. HarperCollins 2003 paperback, 312)

And the ambiguity of Pascoe, from probably my favourite of the books:

There had been a time when life seemed a smooth learning curve, a steady progress from childish frivolity through youthful impetuosity to mature certainty, which would occur somewhere in early middle age, whenever that was, but you’d recognize it by waking one morning and being aware that you’d stopped feeling nervous about making after-dinner speeches, you really believed the political opinions you aired at dinner parties, you no longer felt impelled to tie your left shoelace before your right to avoid bad luck, and you didn’t have to read the instruction book every time you programmed a video. (On Beulah Height, 1998. HarperCollins Best Reads paperback, 106)

The books aren’t consistent: the early ones are good detective fiction, but far less complex and not as rich as the later ones.

As I say, the one that pulled me in was On Beulah Height, which is simultaneously a song of praise to and a eulogy for the Yorkshire dales, a book so devastating that it cannot possibly end well—and doesn’t.

But, then, that’s not uncommon for the Dalziel and Pascoe novels, at least in the later ones. They don’t always get their man—sometimes they can’t, but sometimes they don’t even know they’ve missed him.

And while I like a good parlour scene, it’s this ambiguity—in the characterisation and the mysteries—that appeals to me in these novels.

That and the fact that I just can’t be offended by Dalziel, no matter how hard he tries.

And try he does.

Books That Don't Exist: A Slight Side Step

Posted 4 December 2008 in by Catriona

In my previous post on books that don’t exist, Matt noted in the comments thread that J. K. Rowling does this with the Harry Potter books.

On that note, I’m linking here to this article in The Australian: Kirsten Tranter’s “Turning Young Muggles Into Readers Not In Harry Potter’s Bag Of Tricks.”

I’ll leave you to read the article by yourselves, but essentially the author responds to suggestions that children’s obsessive reading of the Harry Potter series has not, in fact, translated to a broader interest in literature, and suggests that this is partly because there is no literature within the books themselves.

Textbooks and spellbooks, yes. But no novels, or poetry, or drama. Even girly swot Hermione is primarily interested in non-fiction works.

Tranter does point out Gilderoy Lockhart’s output, but rightly indicates that

he is gradually exposed as a liar and a coward. His fraudulent tales are the closest thing to fiction in the magical world, but become worthless once their invented status is exposed. He might make up fabulous stories but he is not what we would call a novelist.

I would go further than that, myself, since I don’t think Lockhart does actually make up the contents of his books: if I remember correctly, and it’s been a while since I read the books, the events that occur in them are factual—Lockhart’s real skill is in tracking down people who have, for example, saved villages from werewolves, leaching the details out of them, and then performing accomplished Memory Charms so they can’t challenge the publication of his latest best-seller.

But, though we never see Lockhart’s prose, the implication is that the texts are narrative and frequently autobiographical (judging from the pop quiz Lockhart gives in the first class), and certainly the way in which Defense Against the Dark Arts classes devolve into constant reenactments of pivotal scenes from the books (with Harry as the monster in each instance) is the closest thing to dramatic performance in the novels.

Similarly, Tranter points out the eventual fate of The Tales of Beadle the Bard: “the only recognisably fictional story in the whole series [. . .] also turns out to be based on real events (within the frame of the novel) involving Harry’s ancestors, and so is not fiction at all.”

I think some degree of pendantry is necessary here, though: Ron clearly read these as fictional when he was a child, while the Muggle-raised Harry and Hermione have never come across them. True, Ron is made aware of their ultimately factual nature, but he is part of an elite group. Depending on how broadly the events of the final battle with Voldemort are broadcast through the wizarding world, there’s reason to assume that the majority of wizard children will continue to read these stories as fictional.

And yet this pedantry doesn’t seek to undercut Tranter’s main point: to the central characters through whom the readers’ experience of this world is focalised, this book—the only prominent fictional work in the universe—is revealed as factual, instead.

(Tranter does seem to have overlooked—or perhaps considered and dismissed—one text: in Ron’s room at The Burrow, his “school spellbooks were stacked untidily in a corner, next to a pile of comics which all seemed to feature The Adventures of Martin Miggs, the Mad Muggle“ (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, 35). This suggests that Ron, at least, draws a distinction between fact and fiction in his reading, but the comics are essentially set dressing; they have no further importance in the novels.)

Do I have a point to this post? Only in a manner of speaking.

I was talking lightly in my last post about how frustrating fictional fiction is to those of us who are easily excited by books.

This post is a counter-argument to that, or rather Kirsten Tranter’s excellent article is the counter-argument: while I may be frustrated by the presence of books that I will never be able to read, it had not occurred to me that an absence of such books in literature might cause even greater problems.

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