Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Complete Fairy Tales - Charles Perrault

Translated, and with an introduction by Christopher Betts.

A few weeks back Oxford World's Classics sent me a particularly beautiful cloth bound edition of Charles Perrault's fairy tales (all of this series looks good, but this one comes in an especially pleasing shade of blue). A good few years back they'd also sent me a paperback copy (2010, the post office held onto it for an oddly long time before they admitted to having the parcel - I know this because I blogged about getting it) which I thought I'd read.


I also have the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Angela Carter's translation of Perrault, which I remember reading, I thought I'd probably blogged about both. Turns out neither. Which spoiled my intention to refer back to any notes to talk about the pretty new edition.

I certainly have read the Christopher Betts translation now, and possibly more to the point, also his introduction. I've also compared some of them to the Angela Carter versions (which has made me want to reach for 'The Bloody Chamber' again).

Perrault's versions of these stories reflect his time and place (a successful public official in seventeenth century France) and were published relatively late in his life. The mix of traditional fairy tales with very old roots, Perrault's particular details, and contemporary preoccupations and morals is particularly pleasing.

This Cinderella for example seems to be the one that gives us the glass slipper. It also leaves Cinderella's father alive, but indifferent to his daughters degradation at the hands of his new wife and her daughters. Cinderella doesn't appeal to him for help because she fears his anger.

That's a much more interesting set of family politics than you get when both Cinderella's parents are dead, and resonates well in our society, where divorce means complicated family arrangements are even more common than a higher mortality rate would have made them in the 17th century.

Perrault doesn't punish the stepmother or sisters either. Instead the girls are married off to great lords at the same time, and that's interesting too. Is it punishment enough to see Cinders as a princess whilst the sisters remain subjects, is it inappropriate to punish the well connected stepsisters, what happens to the parents who aren't mentioned again? So many questions...

There's also an insistence that intelligence is as important, or even more important, than beauty - especially in Ricky the Tuft, which if nothing else reflects the importance based on wit and the ability to entertain in Perrault's time.

Sleeping Beauty is interesting too, it's a cleaned up version that dispenses with the rape that earlier folk tales include (and that still features in one of the Russian fairy tales I read a couple of weeks ago where the Prince has his way with a sleeping Tsarina very much without her consent. She turns up some time later with twins and an attacking army) in favour of a secret marriage. In Perrault's version the Prince's mother is an ogress who wants to eat his children- it's an interesting take on the mother in law/daughter relationship - but not entirely successful, even if it is delightfully gruesome for children (and she does get punished at the end). Now children's versions more or less finish with a kiss and happy ever after, but this odd half way between story certainly underlines some of the problems with Sleeping Beauty.

At the end of the introduction Betts says that "We should perhaps accept that fairy-tales from the past have to be put into modern forms in order to be appreciated; that it is preferable to oblivion." For me this is the point of them - they keep finding ways to be told, we continue to rely on them to frame narratives, and our appetite for fairy tales in film and fiction only seems to grow.

Angela Carter's translation of Perrault has a stripped back feel about it (she also drops the tale of Griselda, a sound decision as it's hard to decide if the Princes sadism and misogyny is more appalling than Griselda's patient acceptance of his behaviour dressed up as laudable virtue) but Betts gives the stories the sense of humour that I assume Perrault intended them to have. The Gustave Doré illustrations in the Oxford editions add to the baroque feel of the thing as well. These are fairy tales that are as much a pleasure to read now as they were to be told once upon a time ago.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Girl in the Tower - Katherine Arden

I enjoyed 'The Bear and the Nightingale' enough to want to see how Arden would continue her story, so got a kindle version of 'The Girl in the Tower' to read on my phone. It's not a format I'm particularly fond of, but I'm not a big fan of expensive hardback novels either, and I'm not convinced I'll read these again so it made sense.

I really liked 'The Bear and the Nightingale' despite its pacing - nothing much happens for ages, things then start to move quite quickly, sort of explode, and then stop abruptly. The second book picks up where the first one finishes and moves the action from the northern forests south to Moscow.

For someone who had just read the first book there was quite a lot of explanation to get through, but this one is better paced, even if the finale feels a little over the top - will Arden be able to finish this without raising the stakes ridiculously high? A lot of questions are answered and there are interesting relationships in play for the next novel.

If it's easier to believe in fairy tales against the forest setting if the first book, the risks seem more real against a city backdrop where old beliefs and customs have lost their sway.

The still almost a child Vasya of the first book had a certain amount of freedom to run around her home countrywide, but the Vasya who rides out alone disguised as a boy to travel is in an altogether riskier position.

As a well born girl more than old enough to be married she faces more than disapproval if she's caught, and when her brother and sister become involved in her deception the stakes are even higher because the threat of discovery and repercussions from it have serious implications for them too. Perhaps especially for Vasya's older sister, Olga.

Married to a prince, with children to keep safe and establish in an ever shifting and treacherous political landscape, all whilst in segregated seclusion, Olga is an excellent counterpoint to Vasya. She grounds the novel in so many ways, and provides itvwith its emotional heft. She's the character with the least agency, and the most to lose.

I still think this trilogy truly wants to be a thousand page epic, which makes having to wait another 6 months for the last part a bit frustrating. I still think these books are taking themselves a little bit too seriously as well - good as they are.

It's definitely worth reading up a bit on Russian fairy tales around these books though - and I'm very happy to have had the push to do that. Arden uses a lot of traditional devices (hello talking horses), and references a few major characters. Knowing a little more than I did a month ago when I read the first book I have a few ideas about where she might be heading with the last one (I might be completely wrong, but I'm looking forward to finding out). Also, it's fun to spot bits she's using, and to go back to the fairytales to chase references.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Fire in the Thatch - E.C.R. Lorac

I thoroughly enjoyed the last E.C.R Lorac I read - Bats in the Belfry, not least for all its splendid gothic detail when it came to Londons architecture, so I came to 'Fire in the Thatch' with reasonably high expectations.

E.C.R Lorac was a pen name if Edith Caroline Rivett - an unjustly forgotten queen of crime if these two from the British Library Crime Classics series can be judged by. (I hear they've been so popular that more of her work is going to make it back into print this year).

I liked 'Fire in the Thatch' even more that 'Bats in the Belfry' - partly because I found myself much more engaged with the characters in this one, and as a result of that wrong footed from the start. In this case I really warmed to the victim - who I was expecting to be a red herring of a suspect, so their untimely demise was a bit of a shock - and I very much wanted to know who and why.

I also liked the portrait of war time tension between town types and country folk. June St Cyres is the bored and broke daughter in law, sitting out the war whilst her husband is a Japanese POW with his somewhat disapproving family. They're old fashioned county sorts and neither side have much sympathy for each other. It's probably easier to like the St Cyres, but quite possible to sympathise with June. At least I found that for all her many faults I didn't find her desire to seize the day and have some fun very hard to understand.

June interests me because there's a rich tradition of these bad wives and mothers in war time fiction. Women more interested in fun then responsibility, and seemingly quite happy to cheat on absent husbands. It's not until Mary Wesley's books came along that I can think of anyone who was really sympathetic to these 'bad' women. But Mary had been just such a woman, and her point of view was refreshing. Lorac doesn't spend a lot of time on June, but bad, or ill advised, marriages keep cropping up in this book.

Altogether it's a satisfyingly twisty problem to try and solve. The first question is if there's even been a crime to answer, and from there the clues exist (with hindsight) but the murderer is never obvious, the red herrings are enjoyable, the characters altogether more rounded than is often the case, and the whole thing deeply atmospheric.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Virago Modern Classics at 40

I'm much of an age with Virago, whose books I discovered when I was around 18, a fresh faced first year at university with a point to prove. I've talked about the plenty of times before, but looking through my shelves for yesterday's post has made me want to write about it again.


I can't now remember studying any female writers for GCSE or A Level English. I read 'The Mill on the Floss' from a suggested reading list, and had found Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell and assorted Brontë's by then. I'd even battled my way through a Virginia Woolf. Most of the children's books I'd loved had been written by women, and so was the classic detective fiction I preferred. And then there was Georgette Heyer.

And yet. The books that made the curriculum, that filled the canon as I encountered it, and the bulk of modern classics that I came across (I was reading a lot of F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Golding, and Evelyn Waugh back then) were all by men (mostly white, western, men).

Which is okay, white men with a western sensibility have written a ton of really great books and you could do worse than choose to focus on nothing else. The problem for me back then was it didn't really feel like a choice. Logically it seemed unlikely that Jane Austen had emerged from nowhere, or that the George Elliot or Elizabeth Gaskell were anomalies that proved an exception to some more general rule. It didn't make sense that all those golden age Queens of crime weren't part of a tradition either, and then there was Georgette Heyer.

What I couldn't do was name those missing women, which lost a few arguments with smug young men, and that's what sent me Waterstone's and Dillon's in Aberdeen one afternoon with a point to prove. I wanted to find and read more books by women, and that's when I found Sarah Maitland's 'Women Fly When Men Aren't Watching'. It was enthralling. It's also where I found Molly Keane and learnt to look for green spines.

After graduating I found myself working in a discount bookshop for a while, it was the later end of the 1990's, Virago had been bought up by Little Brown, and life was not unrolling in the smooth untroubled way I might have hoped for. Outlet bookshops like the one I worked suddenly had stacks of classic green Viragos going cheap, and I had discount too. I read a lot of Rosamond Lehmann.

A decade later in a job I hated I found that local charity shops had stacks of old VMC's - not just 'Frost In May', 'The Well of Loneliness' and similar. Over the next couple of year I built up the bulk of my collection with those charity shop finds. I was more or less out of work and flat broke for a lot of that time, those books were a lifeline and a luxury.

Since then Virago have republished a whole lot of authors (Barbara Pym, Muriel Spark, Beryl Bainbridge) who I would otherwise more or less have missed, along with a whole lot of other innovations which I hope are encouraging new generations of young women to look for green spines or apples.

Looking at my books today though, what really hits me is the range of the original series. Here are 18th and 19th century women making their living writing. Respectable (more or less) middle class women supporting their families. Scandalous women not ending up repenting their sins under a bridge somewhere, but doing very well out of best selling novels that have a good dig at contemporary morals. There are women travelling the world, doing War work, exploring their sexuality, and generally upsetting the impressions we've somehow inherited about our past. There are also working class voices here (rare, but they are here).

It's that range that makes Virago so unique and so important, they've restored 200 years and more of women's voices. Shown us that those handful of names that everyone more or less knows weren't anomalies, but part of a rich tradition. I can't overstate how many times that's helped me.

It's also a reminder that if women aren't actually the property of their menfolk anymore, nor have we come anything like as far as we might have in the last two centuries. Or as far as some of these women might have hoped, or expected. Still, having them at my back is a tremendous source of inspiration and hope - so thank goodness for Virago and those who have followed them in restoring so much that was in danger of being lost or forgotten.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

My blog name in Virago Modern Classics - mostly To Be Read

The 40th anniversary of Virago Modern Classics has made me realise I haven’t much looked at my Virago collection for a while, much less read anything from it. I’ve not even bought many Viragos - the new covers with green spines are beautiful, but they’re all titles I already have or don’t particularly think I’d read. Finding second hand copies of titles I don’t already have is an increasingly rare occurrence - though I did find a very handsome Edith Wharton a couple of months ago.

The spelling your blog name with tbr books thing that’s going around looked like a good opportunity to think about my books generally, and maybe those VMC’s specifically. So I did. Any book in my flat is there to be read (eventually) regardless of if it’s been read before or not. Which is one way of saying I’ve read some of these before (but not so many book titles start with an e, so spelling Desperate Reader without the help of a few Emily’s wasn’t going to be possible).

Looking through the shelves was fun, I found a lot of great looking stuff I’d forgotten about, and realised again the tremendous range of voices and times Virago covers. Something that even this small collection more or less demonstrates.


Devoted Ladies - Molly Keane
Emily of New Moon - L. M. Montgomery
Sisters by a River - Barbara Comyns
Provincial Daughter - R. M. Dashwood
Elizabeth and her German Garden - Elizabeth Von Arnim
Rumour of Heaven - Beatrix Lehman
A Lost Lady - Willa Cather
Tea at Four O'Clock - Janet McNeill
Excellent Women - Barbara Pym

Roman Fever - Edith Wharton
Emily's Quest - L. M. Montgomery
Anderby Wold - Winifred Holtby
Diana of the Crossways - George Meredith
Eight Cousins - Louisa May Alcott
Ruffian on the Stairs - Nina Bawden

Friday, May 11, 2018

Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platnov - edited by Robert Chandler

Reading 'The Bear and the Nightingale' showed me how unfamiliar I was with Russian folklore; with the exception of some Baba Yaga tales it was all pretty much a closed book. It also gave me a strong desire to know more. Happily I had a copy of 'Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platnov' that had been waiting for just such a moment.

I think something specific prompted me to buy this book a couple of years ago and it's annoying me that I can't remember what it was (odds are that I'm going to wake up at 3am with the answer and not be able to get back to sleep). Regardless, I'm very pleased I do have a copy because it turned out to be an absolute peach of a book.

The introduction is fascinating, especially on the taboos around story telling. The American scholar Jack Haney says that as late as the 1930's in North Russia tales could be told only by men, to male audiences, after dark, and not during Orthodox feasts. This was apparently because spirits of all sorts enjoyed listening to tales and bought dangers with them. It certainly explains why some of these stories are 'violent, scatological, and sexually explicit'. Quite a few of these stories feel like the sort men tell men, rather than the kind women might tell, and that's not something I've particularly encountered before.

The book itself is divided into 7 sections. Part one is a pair of stories in poem form collected by Pushkin. Part 2 covers the first folktale collections of Aleksandr Afanasyev and Ivan Khudykov from the nineteenth century, part 3 has early twentieth century collections. Part 4 is a handful of stories by Teffi, including a 1947 article about Baba Yaga which is worth the cover price alone. Part 5 is Pavel Bazhow who was writing his own stories in a folk style during the soviet era. Part 6 is folktale collections from the Soviet period, and part 7 is specific to Andrew Platnov.

Each seaction and writer has its own introduction to give them context which is really helpful, and I'm inclined to think having a number of translators (5) is a good thing too. I think (or am I imagining it because it's an appealing idea) that more than one translator helps vary the tone of the stories more, which in turn make this book more of a page turner, and less something that you dip in and out of at odd intervals.

It's a well chosen collection too with plenty of variety, so I feel I've got a fairly reasonable overview of the main elements and developments in Russian folk tales from a rural peasant society through the upsets of the soviet era.

It has certainly helped familiarise me with some of the tales that Katherine Arden references, reassess how I see Baba Yaga, and made me want to read much more. It really is a treasury of stories - there are some brilliant things in here. 'Misery', and 'The Wise Girl' are 2 particular favourites - both from the Alrksandr Afanasyev section, all of which are really good anyway. Apparently Angela Carter really liked 'The Wise Girl' too (it definitely feels like a woman's story rather than a mans).

I sometimes wonder about my book collecting habit, if I should stop it, or be more stringent about clearing out things if I don't read them quickly enough, or how healthy it is to simply accumulate so much stuff. Then I find something like this waiting for me just when I want it and it's so damn exciting I'm reminded all over again about everything I love about my books and having them.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Rhubarb Cake

Having the lights back in my flat is great (even if it now means I can see how much mess the last week has created, and how much dust has accumulated) certainly worthy of celebration - so I've baked a cake.


Rhubarb because the recent hot, cold, hot thing that's been going on has made D's rhubarb bolt like crazy. I cut so much of it yesterday the weight of it in the bag on my way home bruised my shoulder. It would have been a bigger bruise but that I gave a whole lot to the train conductor on my way home (he seemed pleased).

I've not had much luck with rhubarb cake so have been messing around with recipes for ages to get it right. Mine have usually been wetter than I'd like and inclined to sink in the middle. When I got 'How To Eat A Peach' I liked the look of the rhubarb, marmalade, and rosemary cake. It falls in the autumn/ winter section and when I first made it a couple of weeks ago it was definitely to wintery to suit my mood. It was the marmalade that I felt was out of kilter with the season, and then the amount of ground almond and polenta making it a more robust cake than I really wanted.

If the cake is going to be eaten on the same day it's baked and still slightly warm (maybe with cream) then the rosemary is worth the effort. If it's going to be eaten cold over a number of days then I'm less bothered about it as I find it's a flavour that fades with time.

Measure 225g of caster sugar into a bowl and add a couple of sprigs of Rosemary. Lightly crush them with a pestle and leave to infuse. Line and butter a 20cm springform cake tin, laying 3 sprigs of Rosemary in the tin if using, and heat the oven to gas 3/160°C.

Measure 225g of unsalted butter (softened), discard the Rosemary from the sugar and beat well with the butter. stir in 100g of ground almonds and add 3 lightly beaten eggs a little at a time. Fold in the zest and juice of an orange, a pinch of salt, a teaspoon of baking powder, 100g of semolina, and 150g of plain flour. Toss 300g of rhubarb (cut into 3cm chunks) with a couple of tablespoons of granulated sugar. Put the batter in the tin, spread the rhubarb on top, add a couple more sprigs of Rosemary if using. Bake for about 1 hour 20 minutes, covering with foil if the top starts getting a little dark.

Leave to cool before removing from the tin. What I really like about this one is that the semolina absorbs the juice from the rhubarb and almond is always a bonus.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Zurich and a few other bits of Switzerland

I'm still waiting to get the lights switched back on in my flat after last weeks flooding incident, which would be winding me up more if it wasn't for a really great weekend with friends near Zurich. This had been planned for a while (they moved there 7 years ago and the intention has been to visit ever since), but somehow planning seems to get harder with age.

Thanks to being busy at work, then busy mopping up, I hadn't really thought much about this trip, and then very quickly realised I knew absolutely nothing about either Zurich, or Switzerland more generally, other than childhood memories of reading and watching Heidi, and that they make good chocolate.

The chocolate really is good, exquisitely good, but like everything I saw really, really, expensive (worth it though). I suppose I knew in a vague way how picturesque the country would be, but without much context - that it was so pretty everywhere we went was a bit of a surprise.

How clean everything is was another surprise (car parks particularly, clean, well lit, not the vaguely sinister places so many British ones seem to be, and classic cars everywhere so it often felt like being in a museum.). But also streets, the water, verges, just everything.

Switzerland is also synonymous with money (when I told people where I was going without fail the first thing they said was expensive), and there's clearly a lot of it around, which partly explains the cleanliness, the green spaces, and the sense of things running like clockwork. Central Zurich certainly has a feeling of luxury about it that I've never quite found anywhere else outside of a Bentley.

I was hanging out with architects so a lot of what we went to look at was building based (churches, train stations, opera houses, bridges) old and new. There were also cows actually wearing cow bells, fields full of flowers, a brilliant variety of birdlife for quite urban areas, a lot of agricultural in quite urban areas, and a general sense that it would be very easy to get used to life in Switzerland.

The flowers everywhere were a definite highlight - the verges by the roads hadn't been cut and were full of them without looking in the least untidy - I'd love to see more of this here.

In two days we also managed to see a lot, thanks entirely to having people who were happy to guide us around and drive us to all sorts of places. We had a good walk around the old parts of Zurich, along the river and down to the lake. Saw church windows by Chagall, Giacometti, and Sigmar Polke (he uses slices of agate in some of the windows of the Gross Munster, it's like being inside a kaleidoscope).

We went to Zug to buy torte from Konditorei Treichler, it was a favourite of Audrey Hepburn, seems to be made mostly from Kirsch and is delicious. Then to Lucerne to admire opera houses and train stations along with the more traditional buildings including the impressively exuberant Jesuit church. We admired the view down the lake from Schwyz towards some snow capped alps in the distance - they looked like ghosts of themselves just emerging from the sky - picture postcard perfect. Then it was up to the Benedictine abbey of Einsiedeln which was full on Rococco. Like a wedding cake.

I even found a really exciting gin, Tanqueray Malacca, at the airport. This was a limited edition a few years back, the middle of a run of 3, and one I missed. It looks like it's been done again for travel retail, but is only available if you're going outside the E.U. I've wanted to try that gin for the longest time, so before I'd even got on the plane things were looking good.

Friday, May 4, 2018

The Little Mermaid - Northern Ballet

My flat is still slowly drying out, still smells strongly of damp plasterboard, and I'm still without lights because the one in the bathroom is doing something threatening (it flickers on regardless, pops, fizzes, and can only be stopped by turning all the lights off at the fuse box). An electrician is coming back on Tuesday, by when we hope that everything will be properly dry. I'm not really enjoying sitting in the dark.

All of which made going to see 'The Little Mermaid' even more of a treat than anticipated. My ballet preferences are for the fairly traditional - I like a story I can follow, I'm not well informed enough to really appreciate what I'm seeing without that narrative to frame it.

The decision to see The Little Mermaid was based almost entirely on the costumes in the posters that appeared round town, though it was also great to go and see something in my local theatre (The Curve in Leicester). I'd like to visit this theatre more, and would but that most the things I want to see are only on for a few days and my working pattern doesn't always fit well with ticket availability. This was a reminder to make a bit more effort. 

Back to those posters - the mermaids fish tail made me want to see how the whole production would work, and when I managed to persuade a friend who does not particularly like ballet to come with me it was a done deal. The best thing about the night was seeing how much she loved it.

This Little Mermaid is much more Hans Christian Anderson (yet again begging the question - why are his depressing, violent, stories given to children?) than Disney. Marilla, the Mermaid falls in love with an image of Prince Adair, before rescuing him from a shipwreck. She begs the lord of the sea to give her a human body, which he does for the price of her voice, and a warning that walking will be agony for her. She accepts the terms, and washed ashore where the prince finds her, but he's already fallen in love with another woman who he believes rescued him. 

Marilla is taken into the royal household where she becomes something of a pet to the prince, and speechless as she is can only watch events unfold. Anyone familiar with Anderson knows what happens next. 

The costumes were as clever as the poster promised, the set just as good. The opening underwater scenes with a mottled mirrored background, dappled lighting, and the occasional use of elegant fish and jellyfish puppets is magical. The costumes for the land scenes are all in earthy colours, which contrast perfectly with Marilla's silvery blue and green costumes and further highlight her isolation. 

The whole thing was genuinely moving (I swear, tears that had nothing to do with careless neighbors and flood damage, plus also that won over to the delights of ballet friend), Minju Kang as Marilla, and Javier Torres as Prince Adair were both spectacular. Anybody who gets the chance to see this should go, and I will make every effort to see anything Northern Ballet put on near me in the future. 

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Domestic Mishaps with an almost Silver Lining

Today is really not shaping up to be a success. I was woken up in the early hours by the sound of water pouring into my flat. As far as I can tell an upstairs neighbour (flat 13, which seems appropriate) got drunk enough to somehow detach his toilet from its moorings. The inevitable result is that the flat above was flooded, and then mine. Unfortunately for me by the time the water had got through 2 floors it was really starting to spread so it came through all the light fittings in my bathroom and hallway.

A much better neighbour then the drunk in number 13 (who has dealt with this whole mess by panicking and doing nothing, followed by phoning his mum and dad to sort it out, and then apparently leaving almost immediately to go on holiday somewhere dry) went up, located the stop cock and turned it off.

It didn't get better when I phoned work to say I wouldn't be in because of mopping, trying to sort out insurance details, speaking to 2 different management companies, washing, and finding an electrician. It was 6.30 am, and if that's nobody's brightest or best hour I still don't think asking if I could make up the hours tomorrow, and if not tomorrow when, was the most helpful response.

My flat is slowly drying out, electricians came and checked everything was safe, though that turned out to be pre emptive. Enough more water has worked it's was into the bathroom light switch to set up a circuit that means the only way I can turn of the lights is at the fuse box, which means no lights at all. No lights at all are better than the alternative which is an unpleasant burning smell and, I assume, an attendant risk of electrocution. Hopefully that will dry out enough to be safe eventually.

I'm very tired, and very cross now, not having lights is a tremendous nuisance. A bath would help, but there's no hot water left because of all the washing, and no towels because they're all still wet, and I can't even go and tell off the hungover culprit because he's left the bloody country.

The sort of silver lining is that the copy of Jane Grigson's 'Food with the Famous' that I ordered to replace the first copy I ordered but that turned up falling apart, has finally arrived. This one is in the (very good) condition described. If I can calm down enough to read it, that will at least be something.