Thursday, 8 October 2009

Pigeon Post by Arthur Ransome

Pigeons at dawn.... (first published 1936)

I thought that, as I have been so neglecting the Bookshelf, that I would post a quick catch-up. As some of you will know, I have been in Devon looking after Aged Parents, and far too busy fetching and carrying to attend to my blog. By bedtime I was too tired for much reading, so I found an old copy of Arthur Ransome's Pigeon Post, which kept me going longer than you could imagine. It was very comforting, a story of prospecting for gold on the Cumbrian fells. The characters are familiar from Swallows and Amazons, with the addition of Dick and Dorothea Callum. Nancy is determined to find gold before Captain Flint gets home from foreign climes, although plans are initially frustrated by Mrs Blackett's refusal to let them camp on the fells because a drought means that there is no water anywhere. How the problem is overcome is too good to spoil, so I'm not going to tell it here.

Much ingenuity is exercised in devising a communication system with homing pigeons - Mrs Blackett is remarkably tolerant about the final arrangement which involves a loudly clanging bell whenever a pigeon deigns to return to its home (the dilatory and unreliable Sappho comes home at 5am). And the long-awaited arrival of the armadillo, Timothy, is delightful.

I wasn't a huge fan of Ransome's books when I was a child, but I am making up for it now, partly, I suppose, because it makes me rather nostalgic for the days when children had freedom to go off with a tent and quantities of revolting things in tins, without the feeling that adults were peering over their shoulders all day. I felt especially wistful at the idea that a group of children would amuse themselves far into the night by singing campfire songs. The sun used to shine in those days, too.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

The “Anne” books by L.M. Montgomery

 Published 1908

Like many women of my generation, I read Anne of Green Gables when I was young, and I saw a couple of adaptations on television, but it wasn’t until last year that I discovered how many books there were in the series, and decided to embark on them all in order. It was a year in which I considered myself fortunate, because I spent many happy hours immersed in the events of Avonlea and Ingleside.

Anne of Green Gables, the first in the series, tells the story of the orphan Anne Shirley’s arrival at the farm of Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. They were expecting a boy, and there are tense pages for Anne and the reader while the elderly brother and sister make up their mind as to whether she can stay. Once it’s decided, Anne’s natural ebullience is unquenchable, and she gets into a succession of scrapes to try the patience of her new guardians, while making friends and rivals in the community. Anne is instantly lovable, and the reader shares her despair about her red hair, and her yearning to be called Cordelia, so that when, at the end of the book, she has to curtail her dreams, we both suffer with her and admire her determination. I read this book in the edition edited by Cecily Devereux, which has an introduction and some interesting back matter, including contemporary reviews, which I found quite informative. I would have welcomed similar treatment for the whole series.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Thy Servant a Dog by Rudyard Kipling

Published 1930

I will tell you by Times and Long Times—each time at a time. I tell good things and dretful things.
Those in the know will recognise the style of Rudyard Kipling from the Just-So Stories; some, I expect, will find it vomit-inducing. Thy Servant a Dog is a very unfashionable sort of book which, somewhat to my surprise, I greatly enjoyed. The story is told by Boots, a young Scottish (or Aberdeen) terrier whose master meets a young lady walking her own terrier, Slippers, in a London park: “There is 'nother dog like me, off-lead. . . . There is walk-round-on-toes. There is Scrap. There is Proper Whacking.” The two households are quickly joined:
We are all here. Please look! I count paws. There is me, and Own God—Master. There is Slippers, and Slippers’ own God—Missus. That is all my paws. There is Adar. There is Cookey. There is James-with-Kennel-that-Moves. There is Harry-with-Spade. That is all Slippers’ paws.

There is also their arch-enemy, the Kitchen Cat, with whom insults are frequently exchanged, and the Tall Dog discovered singing sorrowfully in the woods who becomes a regular partner in crime. When Boots and Slippers restore the lost dog to his family he tells them he is called Dam Puppy, but they discover later that he is really called Ravager, son of Regan, and comes of a line of notable fox hounds. Later, too, there is Smallest, who becomes Slippers’ special charge.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Many Moons by James Thurber

Short Story, published 1943

I promised myself that the next time I wrote about a short story for Once Upon a Time III's short story weekend, it would be one that was easy to find. It wasn't a difficult choice, because it is from a writer I love, and is one of my favourite stories ever. What's more, not only does the story itself demonstrate just how much fun the author had writing it, it predates by a couple of years the first of his longer ventures into the writing of fairytales, The White Deer, and some of the characters in this story, Many Moons, reappear in similar form and voice in the later work.

Ten-year-old Princess Lenore, the apple of her father's eye, has fallen sick of a surfeit of raspberry tarts, and the King, anxious for her recovery, promises whatever her heart desires. If she can have the moon, she replies, she will get better. The King is used to relying on his advisors, so he sends, in succession, for the Lord High Chamberlain, the Royal Wizard and the Royal Mathematician, to no avail. By this time sounding distinctly miffed, he sends again, this time for the Court Jester who, wiser than the others, finds a solution. All seems well until the King realises that the moon will rise again the next night, so he sends for...well, you can guess.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Bright Silver Nothing by Nicholas Stuart Gray

Published 1978

A Wind from Nowhere is a book of quirky and magical short stories by Nicholas Stuart Gray. I can’t tell you much about him (his short Wikipedia entry has little information, except to list several significant authors, including Neil Gaiman and Garth Nix, who cite him as an influence); he didn’t write very many books, and mostly what remains available is his plays rather than his novels. The Stone Cage, which I’ll review here later, is a re-telling of Rapunzel from the cat’s point of view, and I can tell you, Gray does good cats.

My current favourite story from the collection (which I am reading in a leisurely fashion), "Bright Silver Nothing", takes the form of a lecture to a group of students by a senior demon. His subject is sorcerors – their general untrustworthiness, their annoying human foibles, their occasional slipperiness when it comes to striking deals:
Get this into your silly heads: sorcerors are not always easy game. You must handle them with care, and not fool about. It takes practice to deal with the creatures_and you’re an ignorant bunch. Even clever demons can come unstuck, if they rush in without thinking seriously.
The demon, whose preferred name is Trilloby (though he has answered to Astaroth, Belial, and so on) relates the story of how he was summoned by the sorceror Sillifant to help a prince to marry the lady of his dreams. Not surprisingly, since dark magic is involved, things don’t go entirely to plan and some of Trilloby’s actions are a surprise ti him.

The demon Trilloby reminds me a lot of Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus – this collection was published in 1978, so it’s possible that the young Stroud might have come across it and been inspired. Certainly the ways in which Gray, in all his stories, uses humour and different viewpoints to subvert the traditional format of the fairy story, are very much of a recent generation of writers; there are definite echoes in Garth Nix’s Mogget and the Disreputable Dog, as well as those I think I see in Stroud.

If you are fortunate enough to happen across Gray in the sort of library that hasn’t thrown out any book printed before 2007, or have the luck to find a copy in a secondhand bookshop, snap it up, it’s a small treasure. Rather nice cover, too.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be by Farley Mowat

Published 1957

Mutt, by Paul Galdone

I was thinking that my reading for the Canadian Book Challenge wasn’t going to progress much during my lengthy absence from home – for instance, I feel it would be cheating to count any John Buchan writing not set in Canada – but I was only able to carry a limited number of books on the train, and choices had to be made. So I was pleased to rediscover a stalwart of the Canadian canon, The Dog Who Wouldn't Be, on the dining table from at least two visits ago (in my parents’ house books and newspapers adorn every possible surface, in piles); I think my mother found it in the charity shop, and she can’t resist anything with a dog in the title.

The Dog in question is Mutt, accidentally acquired by the Mowat family during a search for a hunting dog. Passed off to hunting friends as a “Prince Albert Retriever”, Mutt is initially a disaster in the field, but gradually begins to acquire his own methods, eventually becoming legendary as a dog who can retrieve even out of season. The learning process is full of incident – Mutt is enthusiastic about chasing cows – and difficulty, as Saskatoon is on the dry side for duck hunting, and Mutt’s methods eccentric: he doesn’t always wait for ducks to be shot, but retrieves a swimming bird from underneath. He’s an avid cat chaser, too, and from an early start with ladders, becomes a sure-footed mountaineer, although none of the family share his interest, and are usually to be found waiting impatiently at the foot of the precipice, anxious to continue their holiday:
This mountain climbing passion was an infernal nuisance to the rest of us, for he would sneak away whenever we stopped, and would appear high on the face of some sheer cliff, working his way steadily upward, and deaf to our commands that he return to us.
Mutt is not the only animal to share the Mowat home; the young Farley’s early interest in nature leads to an extensive collection of creatures which share his bedroom (owing to some misplaced advice by his amateur naturalist uncle that the way to learn about animals is to live with them). Two horned owls prove even more of a terror to the local cat population than Mutt.

As a British child I grew up on the writing of Gerald Durrell (there’s a feel of My Family and Other Animals to The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be – the same harassed mother and neighbours, for a start); I would have loved this book then, and would have gone on to read others by the author (and still will, I hope). I gather there is some question of the authenticity of his writing on both animal and human inhabitants of the Arctic – reading this memoir, I must admit to having doubted the total veracity of some events, but this book at least is none the worse for that. And all narrators are to some extent unreliable.