Friday, 22 September 2017

Stories from Greece and Rome

This isn't one book - I've recently read three which are set among the Greeks and Romans.

The Beautiful One, by Frances Thomas
The story of Helen of Troy is a powerful and enduring one - she must have a claim to being one of the most famous women in the world, EVER. Yet she herself is curiously absent from her story; we see her always through the eyes of the men who desire her, fight over her, or eulogise her beauty. This book seeks to redress the balance by telling the story of Helen as a child. We see her living happily with her family, aware that she is beautiful because of the reactions of others, but seeing this mysterious beauty as something apart from her, something separate. She dreads marriage, but knows it's inevitable because of her position as a princess and a woman; there's a sense that she'd rather do something else, but there are no other options. She does have a romantic dream that perhaps one day she'll meet someone very handsome and there will be a coup de foudre... the reader shivers a little at this point, because, of course, we all know what's going to happen.

I became engrossed in the story - it's strange how this can happen, even when you really know how it's all going to end - and ancient Sparta seemed a perfectly real place. The legends - such as that of Leda (Helen's mother) and the swan - are really skillfully woven in; Helen hears them, finds them strange, but knows they must be true. My only quibble is that I hadn't noticed that this is quite a short book, and was quite startled when it stopped: I wanted to go on reading about Helen and poor Menelaus and the unfortunate Clytemnestra and all the rest of them. So I hope Frances Thomas will continue her story - which is suitable for teenagers and adults.

The Centurion's Son, by Lynne Benton
A fast-paced story set in fourth century Roman Britain (in Caerleon in Wales, to be precise). It tells the story of Felix, the son of a centurion. Twelve year-old Felix is puzzled and concerned when his father disappears without even leaving any food in the house. But there's much worse to come - his father is accused of treachery, and Felix is turned out of his home. Felix, certain that his father is innocent, is determined to clear his name and find him. 

The only person apparently on his side is a British slave girl, Catrin, who has mysterious powers - a sort of second sight. Together, the two friends manage to unravel the mystery and restore the centurion's good name - but they have to go through danger and heartache on the way.

This would be an excellent book to use with young pupils (7-9 or thereabouts) 'doing' the Romans; it's an exciting read, and it also tells you a great deal about the Romans and how they lived and ruled. There are some nasty moments, though - one in particular. But then I'm sure there were lots of nasty moments in Roman Britain!

Mark of the Cyclops, by Saviour Pirotta
Back to Greece for this one, which is the first of  series and is aimed at a similar age group to Lynne
Benton's - both are perfect as background reading for children at KS2 studying the Greeks and Romans; the stories will engage young readers, and will also unobtrusively tell them an enormous amount about the civilizations they're learning about.

Mark of the Cyclops is a detective story. Like all good detective stories, there is a detective and a sidekick. The detective is a clever slave boy named Thrax, and his sidekick - his Doctor Watson - is the narrator of the story, a young scribe called Nico. They're both delightful characters, with the potential to develop in future books. When they travel to a wedding with their master, an engagingly awful poet, they are asked by her mistress to help clear the name of a slave-girl who has been accused of breaking a valuable vase. A mysterious figure with the mark of the Cyclops on his face seems to keep cropping up... what can it all mean?

The story's very enjoyable - but I was particularly struck by the amount of detail Pirotta includes about life in Ancient Greece - what they ate, what they wore, how they travelled.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

The Glass Mountain: Tales from Poland - by Jan Pienkowski

I'm not sure where I came across this book - browsing somewhere or other on the internet, I suppose. I noticed it partly because of the bright colours and unusual style of the cover art, and partly because I have two grandsons who are half Polish - so this seemed like a good fit.

Folk tales are often pretty brutal. Think of Hansel and Gretel, abandoned orphans who save themselves by bundling a witch into an oven and lighting it - or all the suffering Gerda has to go through to save her friend, Kai, from the cruel Snow Queen. Many have been softened around the edges to suit sensibilities more delicate than those of their original audiences, but these stories have not: they're strong and fierce and told crisply and with gusto by David Walser. The first one, for instance, called The Fern Flower, is about a young man who enters the forest on Midsummer's Night to find a magical flower which will confer on him huge riches - provided he doesn't attempt to share them, and provided he finds it before dawn.

The first two times he tries to find it - in the process missing out on all the fun everyone else is having on Midsummer's Eve - he fails. The third time he succeeds, and becomes rich beyond his wildest dreams. But, like Midas, untold wealth results in loneliness. Eventually, he goes to visit his mother - ironically, she was the one who told him about the flower - and finds her in poverty. He is about to go in and give her some money, but stops when he realises that this would negate the terms of the deal. He goes back again a few weeks later: now she is ill - but he weighs things up and makes the same decision. He returns a third time - and she is dead. Bogdan turned away. He cursed himself with a bitter oath. As he did so, the earth opened in front of him and swallowed both him and the fern flower which he still kept in his tunic next to his heart.

Jolly stuff, eh? But I guess that when these stories were first told, the world the storytellers lived in was a harsh one. Some years ago, we were in the Carpathians, in southern Poland. We walked through a forest where there were signs warning travellers to beware of bears and wolves. At one point I had fallen behind - I usually do on a walk - and looking round at the trees which stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction, I felt disorientated. Suddenly, the world of 'fairy' stories, where the forest is a place of danger, absolutely made sense; the dangers perceived, the warnings given, reflected everyday life. Children needed to be warned - and in the long dark evenings, everyone needed dramatic stories which would keep them entertained and make them gasp in delicious fear as the candle light flickered and made huge shadows on the wall.

These stories still do that. But there's one at the beginning - a true one - which I found more fascinating than all the rest. It's a glimpse into the childhood of Jan Pienkowski, the artist. The pictures, with their solid blocks of bold colour and sometimes slightly ragged outlines, are collages made of torn paper, and Pienkowski explains that paper cut-outs are a form of Polish folk-art, which he learned as a small child during the war - first from a countrywoman who would come and make 'curtains' out of white paper cut-outs which she would then glue to the windows - and later from a soldier during the Warsaw Rising, who cut out paper animals to amuse the children as they sheltered in cellars from German bombs.

I don't know if Pienkowski has written a longer memoir, but if he hasn't, I wish he would!

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

The House in Norham Gardens: Penelope Lively

It's odd, the way we happen across the books we decide to read. Sometimes, of course, you can't miss a book, particularly if it's by a celebrity or an already successful, best-selling author: to those who have shall be given (and yes, there is just a smidgeon of a hint of envy there), and such authors are given posters on the underground and prominent positions in bookshop windows.

Penelope Lively is a well-known author, both of adult and children's books, and I certainly read some of her books a fair few years ago. But I hadn't read this one, which first came out in 1974 but has very recently been republished. I heard about it when a friend on Facebook said she had just read When Marnie Was There (reviewed below), and demanded to know why she hadn't heard of it before, and what she could read now to keep her in the same mood?

In the comments, a couple of people mentioned this book, The House in Norham Gardens. They mentioned others too, but this was the one I noticed - because, by a strange coincidence, I had stayed the weekend before in Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford - whose entrance is in Norham Gardens. (If you ever need a place to stay in in Oxford or Cambridge or Durham - and quite possibly in other university towns too - it's worth checking out university rooms if you're travelling outside of term-time - they're very reasonable, and often very tranquil places to stay.)

I checked, and yes, it was the same Norham Gardens. So I ordered it. It's about Clare Mayfield, aged fourteen, who lives with her two elderly aunts in a rambling Victorian house in North Oxford. The aunts - really great-aunts - have never married; they have both had successful careers as academics. Their father had been an anthropologist, who'd studied tribes in New Guinea. Nothing had been thrown away in the house, and the attic is a treasure trove of Clare's great-grandmother's beautiful clothes, and objects brought back by great-grandfather from his travels.

One day, Clare and the lodger, Maureen, are poking about in the attic, when Clare finds an oval piece of wood, painted with a design that is something like a face. It was a painting, but it was also a carving, because the lines had been gouged into the wood before they were painted. It seemed to say something: if you understood its language, if this kind of thing, this picture, this pattern, was a language, then it must have been a shout, once, to someone. Now, up here in the attic, to them, it was a whisper, a whisper you couldn't even understand.

Somehow, Clare feels she mustn't put it back in the trunk where she found it - it mustn't be hidden again. She begins to dream of her grandfather's visit to the place it came from. Each time she sees it, the colours have become more bright; each time she dreams, it becomes more difficult to escape back to reality. She realises that a wrong has been done, and that somehow, she must put it right.

In some ways, it's very obvious that this book is set at least forty years ago. There's an obvious lack of technology, of course. But there's also a sort of innocence about it. Clare lives in a sort of genteel poverty which could hardly exist today. The house is huge, but the aunts can't afford to keep it properly repaired, and there comes a point at which Clare realises that they no longer have enough money to buy food. So she consults with Mrs Hedges, the lady-who-does. They both agree that Mrs Hedges' services are indispensable; the aunts - fragile and elderly, though still with sharp and enquiring minds, have to be cared for - and they hit on the plan of finding lodgers. First comes Maureen, then later, John Sempebwa, who is a mature student studying anthropology. In some ways it's a much more innocent time - the aunts are perfectly happy for John, whom they've only recently met, to take Clare off to London for a day. And they're right to trust him - he's a great help to Clare. When the teachers at school notice that Clare is looking tired and behaving differently, they just tell her to have a rest - no social worker turns up to check out her home life. (And indeed, there's nothing wrong with her home life; the problem is the tamburan, the wooden shield...)

But there's nothing old-fashioned about the writing. The characters are wonderfully realised; I particularly liked the banter between Clare and her formidably clever aunts. Penelope Lively doesn't write down to her readers. For instance, this: Clare is in a school performance of Macbeth, and is watching from backstage. 

Clare, costumed for the banquet scene, sat on a pile of mats while people came and went - ordinary, familiar faces and shapes oddly translated into the shadow of something else. Not the substance, because in no way were these really Shakespeare characters, or even actors, but the shadow of such a thing faintly cast upon faces seen every day, talking, eating, singing, yawning. Faces distorted by make-up, but perfectly recognizable beneath, familiar voices inexpertly proclaiming thoughts and beliefs that could hardly be more inappropriate to a lot of people aged about fourteen leading uneventful lives in the South Midlands...

Nothing massively dramatic happens - no-one dies. Yet the tension mounts inexorably, the strangeness seeps through, the intermingling of the two world is completely convincing.

There's so much more to think about with this book, so much more to say. It considers the nature of time and memory. And absolutely central is the issue of ownership of a culture, and the artefacts created by that culture: Clare's uncle didn't steal the tamburan - but was he right to ask for it, and to take it away? It's a very topical subject - but here's Penelope Lively writing about it over forty years ago.

I loved it. I've already read another of Penelope Lively's books - an adult one - and I'll be seeking out more.

Friday, 8 September 2017

When Marnie Was There: by Joan G Robinson

Earlier this year we went on holiday to Norfolk. I'd only been there once before, to Yarmouth, years ago, and I didn't have very high expectations. I thought it was going to be flat and rather dull.

I was so wrong! In North Norfolk, where we were, the countryside was lovely: sloping fields, sometimes with rows of daffodils, woods, streams - and just something about the light. The towns and villages were compact, with characterful coffee shops, there was Nelson's birthplace, Blickling Hall and Sheringham Park - and then there was the coast. Salt marshes, great stretches of sand, circling birds - and vast skies.

At a shop at Cley Nature Reserve I bought the first in a series of mysteries set on the Norfolk coast, written by Elly Griffiths. (Brilliant - for a review, see here.) After I'd written about it, a friend who lives in Norwich, writer Paeony Lewis, asked if I'd read a children's book called When Marnie Was There, by Joan G Robinson - it too was set in Norfolk, and she had a feeling I might like it.

She was absolutely right, and I don't know why I hadn't heard of it before. It was published in 1967 - I was a teenager then, so I suppose I was a bit too old for it and perhaps that's why I missed it. As with the Elly Griffiths books, the shifting, changing seascape is an integral part of the story; you can't always be sure what you're seeing - or even, perhaps, when you're seeing it. People from the Neolithic, Vikings, smugglers - none of these would look out of place here.

So it really doesn't seem too surprising when lonely orphan Anna, staying with an elderly couple for the summer, sees a girl in a white dress with long pale hair in the window of a house across the creek - a girl whom no-one else seems to have noticed. Anna is a self-contained child and a lonely one. She doesn't know how to make friends and she's given up trying. 'She knew perfectly well... that things like parties and best friends and going to tea with people were fine for everybody else, because everyone else was 'inside' - inside some sort of invisible magic circle. But Anna herself was outside. And so these things had nothing to do with her. It was as simple as that.'

But it's different with Marnie. The two girls are drawn to each other, and Anna - in this world of the sixties, where a child can spend hours by herself on the sea shore, in a boat, sometimes with an eccentric old man called Wuntermenny - is happier than she has ever been. As she spends time with Marnie, Anna blossoms; she becomes happier and more confident, more able to reach out to other people. I won't spoil the story - but at the end of it, Anna has learnt a great deal about herself in all sorts of ways - from her encounter with the mysterious Marnie, she's gained so much.

I can't find an image of the copy I have, but here's a still from the film. made by Studio Ghibli.

From the postscript, written by Joan Robinson's daughter, it's clear that this has been a novel which has appealed to people all over the world - she tells the story of a Japanese man, who, having read the book as a teenager, set out to find the place where it was set, with only the book itself as a guide. In the book, the village is called Little Overton - but that wasn't much help, because its real name is Burnham Overy. Still, he took the train to Kings Lynn, as Anna did in the book, caught the bus along the coast as she did - and recognised the place by a windmill which features in the book.

First published in 1967, my edition was printed in 2014. A film was made of it recently. And this doesn't surprise me. It may be set in the mid-twentieth century, but the emotional landscape of Anna - initially bleak, cold and lonely - ensures, sadly, that it will always be relevant; there will always be children who feel they don't fit, who are always on the outside looking in. And the physical landscape of the Norfolk coast - wild, empty, sea-washed and so very beautiful - provides a perfect reflection of Marnie's inner life, and a  perfect setting for a story where the barriers between reality and imagination shift and rearrange themselves - like the sand dunes and marshes themselves.

This review first appeared on Awfully Big Reviews, a site where children's books - both recent and not so recent - are reviewed.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Books set in Sicily

Well, like Arnie, I'm back! During the long summer break I've been reading, as ever, and there are books I want to write about.

This August we went to Sicily, and as usual, I hunted out some books set in the place where I would be staying. For one thing, it's fun to pick out places you've just seen in the pages of a book - and sometimes to be alerted to places to visit; for another, a book will give you a different perspective on a place, particularly if it's written by someone who lives there or who knows the place well.

The first book I turned to was Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, by Mario Giordino, and it was great fun. By chance, it turned out to be set very close to where we were staying, between Catania and Taormina, so that was another plus. It's a quirky detective story featuring the massively larger than life German incomer to Sicily, Aunt Poldi, and following her adventures as she gets settled in to her new home - and determines to find out what has happened to her charming young gardener, Valentino. Along the way she meets up with a policeman, Vito Montana, who has 'hands like a pianist's, slender but strong, with the curving thumbs indicative of power'. It's easy to see from this that Poldi - who is of a certain age and wears a wig (I don't like the wig or see the need for it; we're never told why she chooses to wear it) - will come to be interested in Montana not just as the investigating policeman.

It's a perfect holiday read - funny, quirky, with a strong narrative pull and loads of local atmosphere.

Being in Sicily was an obvious prompt to re-read some of the Inspector Montalbano books, which I've already written about here. There's a particular one that I want to single out: The Shape of Water. As ever, it has the lovable and very effective team - Mimi, Fazio, Catarella - but it's one of the darker books in the series. It's about the exploitation of refugees, and this is an issue that Camilleri clearly feels very angry about; it's also an issue which must feature very strongly for Sicilians, even more than it should for all of us - because Sicily, lying as it does just north of the African coast, is on the front line.

The book begins when Montalbano is present at the landing of a group of refugees. A small boy runs off; Salvo follows him, gains his confidence, and returns him to the person who is apparently his mother. Yet Salvo cannot shake off a feeling off discomfort; why did the child gaze at him with such despair in his eyes, if this was truly his mother?

Soon after this, Salvo hears that a six year-old child has been killed in a hit and run accident. With a sinking feeling, he knows that this child is 'his' child, and although the case is not officially his, he tales it on. And he discovers horrors. It is not just about unscrupulous traffickers extorting money from desperate refugees to crowd them into unsafe boats which will as like as not sink - it is even more calculated and vile. I think this is one of the most powerful - and most disturbing -  of the series.

Finally, The Optician of Lampedusa, by Emma Jane Kirby. This is the true story of a mild-mannered optician, who likes everything to be very orderly. One day, he goes sailing with a group of friends. Lampedusa, between Sicily and Africa, is even closer to the front line, and the friends find themselves in the midst of the terrible aftermath of a shipwreck. They manage to rescue over forty survivors, but though they are hailed as heroes, they continue to be tormented by the thought of all the people they were unable to rescue.

This is a beautifully written book. Emma Jane Kirby - a regular on Radio 4's PM - gets right under the skin of the people she is writing about. She makes you aware - as the optician and his friends become aware - of what it is truly like to go through such horrors. The optician tries to return to his normal life, but he can't forget what he has seen:

He saw the yellowing eyes full of terror, the shivering naked bodies slicked with the slime of diesel oil, the trembling forms cowering under gaudy beach towels. He realised that he was aching to be back with them. he wanted to take their hands again, to talk to them. He wanted to sit down with them, to ask how they were, who they were, why they'd come here...

The cathedral in Noto

One day we went to a town I'd never heard of before - Noto: a beautiful baroque city on a hill, built of creamy golden stone. It had been completely rebuilt after an earthquake destroyed the old city at the end of the 17th century. (I recognised it in a recent episode of Montalbano on BBC4; the building opposite the cathedral is the setting for the place where Salvo has to go and see his boss when he can't get out of it.) Inside the cathedral I saw this sculpture: it's made out of scraps of wreckage from refugee boats, and the notice at the bottom says something like Monument to solidarity.

I found this piece very moving: it drew together the beauty of Sicily and the terrible human tragedy to which its location has recently made it bear witness.