Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Something Wicked This Way Comes

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To accompany ferocious knitting I went to the audiobook library, opened up 'Something Wicked This Way Comes' by Ray Bradbury and have listened to it for the last two days. It is a very dark and fantastical mystery featuring an old fashioned carnival, with all its attendant curiosities, including (as pictured) a calliope, which plays to attract customers to the show. But two young boys, Will and Jim, find something much more sinister going on as they witness a magical carousel that can add to or remove years from a person's life. It is a wonderful example of atmospheric writing as we follow their desperate attempts to thwart the plans of the mysterious Mr Dark, the Illustrated Man, who recruits unsuspecting, wretched people to his troupe by offering them a chance to extend their lives and then trapping them forever in the carnival. 

Here Will's father, (while the boys are in hiding), drawing on his in depth knowledge of the town library, tries to find out about the carnival and its origins:

"to the library and to most important books which he arranged in a great literary clock on a table like someone learning to tell a new time. So he paced round and round the huge clock, squinting at the yellow pages as if they were moth wings pinned dead to the wood. Here lay a portrait of the Prince of Darkness Next a series of fantastic sketches of the temptation of St. Anthony. Next some etchings from the Bizaria by Giovan Battista Barchelli depicting a set of curious toys human-like robots engaged in various alchemical rights. At five minutes to twelve stood a copy of Dr Faustus. At two lay an occult iconography. At six, under Mr Halloway's trailed fingers, a history of circuses, carnivals, shadow shows, puppet menageries inhabited by mountebanks, minstrels, stilt-walking sorcerers and their fantacinni. More, a Manual of the Air Kingdoms, Things that Fly Down History. At nine sharp By Demons Possessed, lying atop Egyptian Filters, lying atop The Torments of the Damned, which in turn crushed flat The Spell of Mirrors. Very late, up in the literary clock one named Locomotives and Trains, The Mystery of Sleep, Between Midnight and Dawn, Witches Sabbath and Pacts with Demons. It was all laid out, he could see the face, but there were no hands on this clock, he could not tell what hour of the night of life it was, for himself, the boys or the unknowing town. For in sum, what had he to go by: a three-o'clock-in-the-morning arrival, a grotesque-looking glass maze, a Sunday parade, a tall man with a swarm of electric blue pictures itching on his sweaty hide, a few drops of blood falling down through a pavement grill, two frightened boys staring up out of the earth, and himself, alone in a mausoleum quiet nudging the puzzle together. 
...
There was only one thing sure, two lines of Shakespeare said it, he should write them in the middle of the clock of books to fix the heart of his apprehension: By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes." (Chapter 37)

The moms get to stay home and bake apple pies and go to church, and would only make a fuss if they knew what their sons were up to, so it's dad who believes their tall tale and comes to the rescue and works out how to defeat these soul-sucking freaks. Toward the end we have Will, Jim and Mr Halloway going back to the carnival to confront and challenge Mr Dark:

"The calliope played sweet to pull Jim, to draw him in, and when the parade arrive with Electrico back the music would spin, back the carousel run, to shard away his skin, to freshen forth his years. Will stumbled, fell, dad picked him up, and then there arose a human barking, yapping, baying, whining, as if all had fallen, in a long drawn moan, a gasp, a shuddering sigh, an entire crowd of people with crippled throats made chorus together. 
'Jim! They've got Jim.'
'No,' murmured Charles Halloway strangely, 'maybe Jim, or us, got them.'
They stepped around the last tent, wind blew dust in their faces. Will clapped his hand up, squinched his nose. The dust was antique spice, burnt maple leaves, a prickling blue that teemed and sifted to earth. Swarming its own shadow the dust filtered over the tents. Charles Halloway sneezed. Figures jumped and scurried away from an upended, half-titled object, abandoned half way between one tent and the carousel. The object was the electric chair, capsized, with straps dangling from wooden arms and legs, and a metal head-cap hanging from its top.
'But,' said Will, 'where's Mr Electrico, I mean Mr Cougar?' " (Chapter 51)

What a fabulous tale, frightening in an old fashioned kind of way, with a real deep, dark atmosphere and slow ticking plot that grips you and won't let you go.


The Bluebird Cafe

'The Bluebird Café' by Rebecca Smith (who I discover is distantly related to Jane Austen) was picked up at a charity shop the other day, as light relief from the fairly demanding stuff I seem to have been reading. The story focusses on Lucy and Paul who open the Bluebird Café in a rundown corner of Southampton, and the random selection of quirky characters they find themselves linked to. John Vir runs the corner shop across the road, struggling to cope with his teenage children after the departure of his wife, and who is a little in love with Lucy. Gilbert has been unemployed for years, suddenly finds himself working as a bin man and attaches himself to Lucy and Paul's establishment, mooching food from them in exchange for unwelcome assistance. A brief exchange between Mavis and her local councillor Bette Doon launches another slightly unwelcome relationship as she comes to think of Cllr Doon as her own personal public servant. Lucy has visions of her little café becoming a hub for the local creative intellectuals, a somewhat naive and romantic dream that is crushed by the reality of the grinding hard work. The book is a gentle tale of the growing relationships between the characters and their quiet corner of the world, centred around the café, the shop and the Badger Centre where Paul volunteers. It runs its almost inevitable course to baby and domestic and financial stability and a comfortable happy ever after for everyone. It was nicely written and well observed, and left me pleasantly content.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Finding the Joy in Life

I have been waiting for 'The Life-changing Magic of Tidying' by Marie Kondo (that's a Wiki link, she has a blog but its in Japanese) for MONTHS. It's really nice for her that she can make a living doing this, but this book really could have been a leaflet. I guess what you get with the book is her gushing enthusiasm for her own cleverness to convince you that you can change your life; I imagine that for those working with her in person she is a veritable force of nature. I guess also that she did realise the need to hector her acolytes to make sure they do not stray from the path of righteousness. Is it sounding a bit like a religion? well you could be right there. It is a bit like AA for messy people, and she claims to have no relapses amongst her followers. 

If you wish to create and sustain a brand image you have to insist very hard that there is a right and a wrong way to do things, so she discusses at length (such tedious length) how wrong she had been in her childhood and then her early career as a tidiness guru. At least, I suppose, she is not trying to sell you anything else. (I confess to being nearly suckered in by those suction storage systems that promise to reduce the volume of all the crap you own.) No, her system is very simple, you throw most of it away. There is nothing very new in this, blogs and websites have been hammering on about simplifying your life for years, Marie Kondo's twist is to turn it into a bit of a ceremony; holding each item in your hands to consider if it 'sparks joy', if not you discard it with a word of thanks for it having fulfilled its purpose in your life ... no hard feelings or anything but you are for the rubbish heap. Which brings me to my first criticism. Through the entire book she uses the phrase 'throw away'. At no point does she say 'recycle' or 'donate to charity' or 'pass on to someone else' or 'repurpose'. I have this image of people throwing out these 20 or 40 or 60 or 100 rubbish bags full of perfectly usable items that no longer give them joy. I makes my blood run cold. My second criticism is the anthropomorphism, which Helen Macdonald managed most successfully to avoid, but Marie Kondo does not:

"I have never encountered any possession that reproached its owner. These thoughts stem from the owner's sense of guilt, not from the person's belongings. (well duh, I thought she was making a sensible point for a moment, but then ...) Then what do the things in our homes that don't spark joy actually feel? I think they simply want to leave. Lying forgotten in your cupboards, they know better than anyone else that they are not bringing joy to you now." (p.222-3)

She then goes into a waffle about possessions releasing their energy back into the world and returning to you as something else. What a big pile of bollocks. *They are inanimate objects, they do not have feelings*. So how am I supposed to take this woman seriously, she spoils what is a perfectly good system for clearing the useless crap from your life with all this hokum. At other times she makes such good sense but it was often hard to spot the sensible bits amongst the waffle:

"Clutter is caused by a failure to return things to where they belong. Therefore storage should reduce the effort needed to put things away, not the effort to get them out. When we use something, we have a clear purpose for getting it out. Unless for some reason it is incredibly hard work, we usually don't mind the effort involved. Clutter has only two possible causes: too much effort is required to put things away or it is unclear where things belong. If we overlook this vital point, we are likely to create a system that results in clutter. For people like me, who are naturally lazy, I strongly recommend focussing storage in one spot. More often then not, the notion that it's more convenient to keep everything within arm's reach is an incorrect assumption." (p.165)

What I was left with after reading this book was the feeling that clutter is such a 'rich world' problem; we have so much money we don't know what to spend it on, then we don't know what to do with the stuff when we have it, and then we are bored with it almost instantaneously because we did not really want or need it in the first place. It is the perfect example of what is wrong with the world. What I think she has tapped into here is simply a treatment for the symptoms of the modern disease of buying stuff to satisfy some inner craving. She claims that once they have 'seen the light' her clients find that they no longer crave new stuff but I don't find myself convinced. She claims she is teaching people to appreciate the possessions that matter to them and so think more before they buy things, and while I am all for people thinking harder before they make purchases I am not sure this is a solution, it certainly is not tackling the root cause of blind consumerism.

Having said all that I made a start. She does say do the whole job in one go, but most of us don't have the luxury of time and energy to deal with things in that way. I cleared my wardrobe of (nearly) all the clothes that did not spark joy. I don't think that my Royal Mail uniform was ever going to fall into the 'spark joy' category, unfortunately it has to stay. I found that most of what I kept were clothes that I love and wear regularly and have had for many, many years. The cupboard is nearly empty. I am not happy to just dump things in the bin, that would not spark joy, and so the process of ridding the house of clutter will take much longer. She does have a very hard message about letting go of thing that you keep for 'just in case' and sentimental reasons, but talks a lot of sense about valuing the memories is not the same as having to keep every little nicknack that you have ever acquired. The idea is not to feel guilty about keeping things you value and spark fond memories, but to be honest about the difference between real mementos and bad photos from a beach holiday that you don't really remember. 

So the stages are: get your stuff out, see which things you love (you have to hold them to do this, she says, then the decision become easy) and get rid of the things you don't. Then store items of one kind all in one place, and have a place where everything goes. On one level I do know what she means: if you think about something you have loved owning, and then it getting damaged, and you keep it because you used to love it, but it makes you sad to see it broken, it is better to throw it out. She doesn't talk about things you own that are functional, I am not sure where they fit in her scheme of things. Even though my financial situation has mostly not allowed me to follow the principle I have always been with William Morris on this one, who said "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful." I don't think that this book will magically change my life, the big problem is how to persuade other members of the household to consider tackling their own clutter.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Stag's Leap

I went back and read my review of 'The Father' by Sharon Olds from three years ago, and find many similarities in my reaction to 'Stag's Leap'. Monkey and I started taking part in an online course on Literature and Mental Health on Futurelearn, and the first week has been discussing the stress relieving nature of poetry. It was an interesting idea but having just finished reading this book I can certainly attest that it is not true of all poetry. Some poetry certainly can make you less stressed, if it contains images and sparks responses that are considered soothing, but it is really dangerous to generalise about such things. 'Stag's Leap' documents the breakup of a marriage, its happening, its immediate aftermath and its long term impact. There is not much there to relieve any stress, in fact it bought to the surface for me all sorts of quite disturbing and anxiety creating emotional reactions.

The collection is very intimate and heartfelt, but unlike the grief she writes about in 'The Father' the process seems to stall at denial, as if she cannot, and does not want to get over him. In the first section she catalogues the last moments and events of the marriage, and through the book he moves gradually from 'almost-no-longer husband' to 'once husband' to 'ex', to a final, somewhat wistful 'then husband';  she lets go of the word, but she seems unable to let go of him. In the section marked  'Winter', after the divorce:

Minute by minute, I do not get up and just
go to him -
by day, twenty blocks away;
by night, due across the city's
woods where night-crowned heron sleep.
It is what I do now: not go, not
see or touch. And after eleven
million six hundred sixty-four thousand
minutes of not, I am a stunned knower
of not.
...
My body may never learn
not to yearn for that one, or this could be
a first farewell to him, a life-do-us-part.
(Not going to him p.25)

In 'Spring':

Once in a while, I gave up, and let myself
remember how much I'd liked the way my ex's
hips were set, the head of the femur which
rode, not shallow, not deep, in the socket
of the pelvis
(Once in a while I gave up p.43)

In 'Summer':

And I know, I know, I should put
my dead marriage out on the porch
in the sun, and let who can, come
and nourish of it - change it, carry it
back to what it was assembled from,
back to the source of the light whereby it shone.
(Sleekit Cowrin' p.55)

And then 'Years Later' she is still lingering over him being part of her life:

When he left me, I thought, If only I had read
the paper, and vowed, In two years,
I will have The Times delivered, so here
I am, leaning back on the couch, in the smell of ink's
oil, its molecules like chipped bits of
ammonites suspended in shale,
lead's dust silvering me.
I have a finger, now, in the pie -
count me as a reader of the earth's gossip.
I weep to feel how I love to be like
my guy. I taste what he tastes each morning
without moving my lips.
(On reading a newspaper for the first time as an adult p.71)

Still in 'Years Later' she holds on, thought the notion is getting more vague, an 'idea' rather than the physicality of him:

And slowly he starts to seem more far
away, he seems to waft, drift
at a distance, once-husband in his grey suit
with the shimmer to its weave
...
I do not let
go of him yet, but hold the string
and watch my idea of him pull away
and stay, and pull away, my silver kite.
(Slowly he starts p.74)

It is not until the almost final poem of the collection that she appears to find some small measure of closure:

And it
entered my strictured heart, this morning,
slightly, shyly, as if warily
untamed, a greater sense of the sweetness
and plenty of his ongoing life,
unknown to me, unseen by me,
unheard by me, untouched by me,
but known to others, seen by others,
heard, touched. And it came to me,
for moments at a time, moment after moment,
to be glad for him that he is with the one
he feels was meant for him.
(September 2001 New York City p.87)

I was left a little disquieted because the poet is so exposed and vulnerable. It feels like an intense love story, because throughout she gives you glimpses into their life together, though always with this sense of slightly agonised longing for the now unattainable. She empties their shared house of his belongings, misses his body and his voice, mourns a miscarried child, revisits events and places, but there is never a trace of anger. Somehow I wanted her to be more angry, I felt there should at least have been one outburst of fury. Perhaps it is a measure of true love that she did not need to be. 

Sunday, 7 February 2016

H is for Hawk

I read about 'H is for Hawk' by Helen Macdonald when it first came out and put it on the list. Then I noticed my dad was reading it, but had to wait to borrow it until mum had read it too. It is about so many things, but the events of the story were prompted by the sudden and unexpected death of Helen's father. The focussed attention that is required to train a Goshawk seems very much to be a means of avoiding contact with the world and in a way, as she admits to herself, escaping from the emotional turmoil of being human. 

This was not a spur-of-the-moment decision by a novice but a long term ambition by someone who had been fascinated by and knowledgeable about birds of prey from childhood. It is in no way an instructional manual for hawk training, though there is plenty of technical information about falconry in general and hawks specifically. The book is in some ways a homage to the sport of falconry, though one who trains and hunts with a hawk is called an austringer not a falconer: she talks a lot about the long history of falconry, and the books written about it, but alongside her own story she chooses to tell the tortured tale of T.H. White, who wrote a book called 'The Goshawk' that had sparked her original childhood fascination with hawks. 

I think I liked the book because her love of the English countryside really comes through in the way she writes about it, but she does not have some kind of old-world naive sentimental view of it, she seems to relish the impact that humans and the environment have had on each other. 

"Here I was standing in Evelyn's Travelling Sands. Most of the dunes are hidden by pines - the forest was planted here in the 1920s to give us timber for future wars - and the highwaymen long gone. But it still feels dangerous, half-buried, damaged. I love it because of all the places I know in England, it feels to me the wildest. It's not an untouched wilderness like a mountaintop, but a ramshackle wilderness in which people and the land have conspired to strangeness. It's rich with the sense of an alternative countryside history; not just the grand, leisured dreams of landed estates, but a history of industry, forestry, disaster, commerce and work. I couldn't think of a more perfect place to find goshawks. They fit this strange Breckland landscape to perfection, because their history is just as human." (p.7)

She quotes this lovely vivid piece from White's writings, that captures a real understanding of wildness and how it rubs up against, but is also part of, human nature. Here he is commenting on another book he was reading, and an incident of a lost hawk:

"The sentence was: 'She reverted to a feral state.' A longing came to mind, then, that I should be able to do this also. The word 'feral' had a kind of magical potency which allied itself with two other words, 'ferocious' and 'free'. 'Fairy', 'Fey', 'aerial' and other discreditable alliances ranged themselves behind the great chord of 'ferox'. To revert to a feral state! I took a farm-labourers cottage at five shillings a week, and wrote to Germany for a goshawk.

Feral. He wanted to be free. He wanted to be ferocious. He wants to be fey, a fairy, ferox. All those elements of himself he'd pushed away, his sexuality, his desire for cruelty, for mastery: all these were suddenly there in the figure of the hawk." (p.45)

It is also something of a love story, for how could you not fall in love with such an awesome creature. Here, their first meeting:

"the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of the world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. The hawk's wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porcupine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers." (p.53)

Helen talks about her relationship with her father, both the way he influenced her and also the things she did not know about him until later. He was a photographer and she gives this description of a photograph she recalls, it is so detailed it left me with a curiosity to see the image, though I can't seem to find much about him anywhere:

"Henri Cartier-Bresson called the taking of a good photograph a decisive moment. 'Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera,' he said. 'the Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone for ever.' I thought of one of those moments as I sat there waiting for the hawk to eat from my hand. It was a black-and-white photograph my father had taken many years ago of an elderly street-cleaner with a white goatee beard, wrinkled socks and down-at-heel shoes. Crumpled work trousers, work gloves, a wooden beret. The camera is low, on the pavement: Dad must have crouched in the road to take it. the man is bending down, his besom of birch twigs propped against his side. He has taken off one of his gloves, and between the thumb and first finger of his bare hand he is offering a crumb of bread to a sparrow on the kerbstone. The sparrow is caught mid-hop at exactly the moment it takes the crumb from his fingers. And the expression on the man's face is suffused with joy. He is wearing the face of an angel." (p.72)

The book is full of descriptions of their training and hunting together. She talks a lot about taking flight with the hawk, or of allowing herself to become wild with her, as she works through the intense period of grief where she allows the rest of her life to fall by the wayside. But I found again and again that what she comes back to are detailed descriptions and reactions to the natural environment. It was this atmosphere that she created that, again, enamoured the book to me:

"I hold my arm high, wait for her to look about, and cast her off my fist into the gusty wind. She glides down to the far hedge and swings up into a small has, shaking her tail. I follow her down and we start hawking proper, looking for rabbits in a tangle of broken, open woodland. This line of trees is not designed for human thoroughfare. There are elder bushes, green twigs and branches starred with lichen. There are fallen oaks, clumps of vicious brambles, screens of hazel, and ivy clambering and covering stumps and extending a hand up to the trees above to scramble into the light, so the whole place is umbra's and decorated with shiny scales of ivy leaves. The air tastes of humus and decay. Each footfall breaks twigs and has that slightly uncertain, oddly hollow quality of walking on thick woodland soil." (p.258-9)

You feel quite confident in reading that this will be a tale of redemption and healing, what would be the point otherwise, and she manages to draw the lesson quite beautifully; having had several, quite visceral, descriptions of hawk injury, she sums up their relationship thus:

"I put White's book on the shelves, make myself a cup of tea. I'm in a contemplative mood. I've bought the hawk into my world and then I pretended I lived in hers. Now it feels different: we share our lives happily in all their separation. I look down at my hands. There are scars on them now. Thin white lines. One is from her talons when she'd been fractious from hunger; it feels like a warning made flesh. Another is a blackthorn rip from the time I'd pushed through a hedge to find the hawk I'd thought I'd lost. And there were other scars, too, but they were not visible. They were the ones she's helped mend, not make." (p.275)

I have always loved birds of prey, but I don't think you would have to to find this book interesting, because, like so many biographical tales, it is just another slant on the nature of being human. I loved it too because Mabel is not a character in the book, she remains a bird, a wild thing, linked but loosely to her human partner, one who, at a moment's notice could return to feral state without a backwards glance.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Guest Post: Pride and Prejudice and (a few) Zombies

Today's guest post comes (after persistent pestering) from my daughter Monkey. I have been asking her to write reviews of books she reads for years, she has quite different reading taste and I hoped it might add some variety in content and style, and always before she has resisted me. We have had an interesting time discussing the relative merits of the original and the more recent zombie version of this classic text.


When I went into reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies I expected nothing more than light entertainment, and in that respect I was in no way disappointed. I won’t bother going into a description of the plot because if you don’t at least know the basics of what happens in Pride and Prejudice then you must have been hiding under a rock for the last 200 years or something to have missed such a big part of culture so instead I’ll talk mostly about the Zombies part.The occasional inclusion of the undead walking in search of their next meal of brains added a kind of less subtle humour to the book (the subtle kind being already included by Jane Austen herself). So one could say it was funny, and if that is all you are looking for; a few laughs, then this is certainly a book I would recommend. However, being quite familiar with the original text that is derived from, Pride and Prejudice itself, I could not help but notice a great number of things that bothered me. As with any book you enter a new world and must accept the parameters of the story, first you take in the world set by Jane Austen 19th Century England, with then the added bonus that Seth Grahame-Smith has included the Zombies. In addition to the Zombies you get all that would be different in a world that includes Zombies, for instance the militia stationed at Meryton for a large chunk of the book is now stated to be there for the quelling of the armies of the undead. Also many young men and women (the Bennet sisters, whom the story centres around included) travel to the Orient to learn the art of death. I accepted all of this, however I did find it unclear since the idea of young women being skilled in battle seemed to be presented as being both an accomplishment such as young ladies were expected to have and, at the same time, was looked upon as improper as they were expected to give it up if they were married. So I allowed myself to enjoy the world that Seth Grahame-Smith created but I felt that in his laziness he perhaps did not bother to consider the world that Jane Austen had set it in, that he had not bothered to put research and thought into the non-Zombie related edits he made. I will give an example that stood out to me significantly (I know many might think me a ridiculous pedant for noticing and making comment on this but accuracy is important to me): in chapter twenty-one when the girls are making their usual walk to Meryton with their muskets at the ready they are alerted to the approach of the Zombies by a number of woodland creatures crossing their path to escape them, among these animals he mentions both a chipmunk and a skunk, being British this stood out to me immediately: we do NOT have chipmunks or skunks in this country, so this edit totally disregards the country in which the book is set. I appreciate that the author being American would not automatically know this as I did, but I do find it inconsiderate of him to not even bother to check, and you might hope that an editor or someone might have noticed and suggested it be changed but I guess not. The other major thing that disappointed me about the book was that the inclusion of the Zombies did not influence a lot of the story. I felt like all they were doing was popping up, being killed and then everyone just went along as they did before. Of course the events within the story, and the beginning and end points, had to be the same, but in my opinion the Zombies could have done a lot more to influence those happenings instead of just being a background feature. The one exception to this (SPOILER ALERT) is that Charlotte Lucas is infected with the strange plague and this becomes part of the reason why she decides to marry Mr Collins, I would have liked it if there had been more additions like this, the Zombies being the reason for why certain things happen.
All in all, as I said to begin with, I did still enjoy the book, and I am certainly looking forward to seeing the film adaption next week especially with the opinion that Zombies are much more suited to the medium of film, so may be even more enjoyable. 

Monday, 1 February 2016

Emma

'Emma' by Jane Austen started out as a bit of a chore and turned into a delight. I am not sure why she calls it Emma since everyone in the book refers to each other by their full title, so Mrs Weston and Miss Woodhouse don't call each other by their first names even though they are the most intimate of friends who have shared a home for years, her father is the only one who ever calls her Emma. I was drawn to give Miss Austen another go by this Guardian article that mum sent me, that outlines the subtleties of the book's narrative and structure and the influence it had on future novel writing. I think that the things that I said about her writing and her characters in my review of 'Pride and Prejudice' pretty much still stand in 'Emma'; many of the minor players are somewhat one dimensional and predictable, and the stifling social exchanges do not make for gripping reading. Having read the article I did not have any surprises coming where the plot was concerned, but then it gave me insights into the characters' behaviour and so I found it enjoyable to watch for the subtle little hints that Austen drops concerning their true intentions. Also Tish's assessment of Austen writing much to say little also stands true: almost the entire of chapter 18, some five pages, are given over to a conversation between Emma and Mr Knightley, in which they discuss the character of Frank Churchill, a man neither of them has yet met. Once the fascinating Mr Frank Churchill finally arrives on the scene the smooth running of their quiet little community becomes suddenly more complicated, and therefore much more interesting, and from that point I found the book much more engaging. 

The social mores are the one thing that I do find interesting, the insights into attitudes of the period: here, for example, is a description of Mrs Goddard's school:

"a real, honest, old-fashioned Boarding-school, where a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price, and where girls might be sent to be out of the way and scramble themselves into a little education, without any danger of coming back prodigies." (p.17)

And this, Emma's explanation to Harriet as to why she will have nothing to do with Mr Martin:

"That may be - and I may have seen him fifty times, but without having any idea of his name. A young farmer, whether on horseback or on foot, is the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity. The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do. A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or another. But a farmer can need none of my help, and is therefore in one sense as much above my notice as in every other he is below it." (p.23)

I did like this lovely description of the main street of Highbury, I like it because I think that it is described with affection, by Emma, which shows how she feels about the community she lives in:

"Harriet, tempted by every thing, and swayed by half a word, was always very long a purchase; and while she was still hanging over muslins and changing her mind, Emma went to the door for amusement. - Much could not be hoped for from the traffic of even the busiest part of Highbury; - Mr Perry walking hastily by, Mr William Cox letting himself in at the office-door, Mr Cole's carriage horses returning from exercise, or a stray letter-boy on an obstinate mule, were the liveliest objects she could presume to expect; and when her travelling eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from the shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker's little bow-window eyeing the gingerbread, she knew she had no reason to complain, and was amused enough; quite enough to still stand at the door. A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer." (p.176)

This is the tedious and snobby Mrs Elton, regaling everyone with her in depth knowledge on the subject of strawberries, and showing very neatly Jane Austen's development of this particular style of punctuation, partial sentences with dashes, to indicate someone rattling on, uninterruptable, and not allowing any exchange of view or opinions:

"The best fruit in England - every body's favourite - always wholesome. - These the finest beds and finest sorts. - Delightful to gather for one's self - the only way of really enjoying them. - Morning decidedly the best time - never tired - every sort good - hautboy infinitely superior - no comparison - the others hardly eatable - hautboys very scarce - Chili preferred - white wood finest flavour of all - price of strawberries in London - abundance about Bristol - Maple Grove - cultivation - beds when to be renewed - gardeners thinking exactly different - no general rule - gardeners never to be put out of their way - delicious fruit - only too rich to be eaten much of - inferior to cherries - currants more refreshing - only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping - glaring sun - tired to death - could bear it no longer - must go and sit in the shade." (p.271)

I will finish with this wonderful exchange between Jane Fairfax and Mr Knightley, about the post-office; if only people nowadays would show such appreciation for the job we do, that has only become more complex over the years:

" 'The post-office is a wonderful establishment!' said she. - 'The regularity and dispatch of it! If one thinks of all that it has to do, and all that it does so well, it is really astonishing!'
'It is  certainly very well regulated.'
'So seldom that any negligence or blunder appears! So seldom that a letter, among the thousands that are constantly passing about the kingdom, is even carried wrong - and not one in a million, I suppose, actually lost! And when one considers the variety of hands, and of bad hands too, that are to be deciphered, it increases the wonder.' " (p.223-4)

All things considered I think it has improved my opinion of Jane Austen, and who knows, I may give another of her books a try ... maybe next year.

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