A High Wind in Jamaica: Richard Hughes
After reading Gertrude’s Child I had to read A High Wind in Jamaica: to which Gertrude’s Child is a fine thematic companion piece. After careful negotiation and the relevant acts of piracy were performed, I began to read the book as my sister listened to it via the medium of audiobook. It wasn’t long before memory began to speak, and I recalled that I had read (at least most of) it before. Sigh. In any case, it is as great as I thus began to remember it to be: the writing is simultaneously raw and exhaustively researched; giving it an air of conviction (making the accuracy irrelevant, though no less impressive), while also intelligently making use of Victorian first person narration to punctuate the themes and lather on the humour. And the characters are great; the erroneous accusations of paedophilia depressingly predictable, and foresaw by the text itself.
An actual problem: Margaret and any confronting material related to young members of humanity: executive cowardice in place of conviction greatly detracts from the themes in an otherwise exceptional depiction of childhood and the ebbing of inevitable maturation and conditioning: the major theme summed up in a single line of dialogue in the opening passages: its culmination entirely classical and devoid of catharsis. Oh, and the epilogue's prose is distressingly uneven in quality in a book that is so consistent up until this point. So close to a masterpiece.
The typography in the nyrb classics edition is exceptional (not only beautiful, but an effortless joy and convenience to read in the context of minutes or hours), and the binding, by modern standards, is solid. It's also well presented: a Henry Darger detail fittingly adorns the front cover, and there is a surprisingly lucid introduction by the amusingly named Francine Prose who manages to comprehend much of the themes at a reasonably deep level; yet still recounts numerous factual errors in detailing her recollections. A bizarrely common error in such discussions.
The Little Bookroom: Eleanor Farjeon
This is not only a masterpiece, but perhaps the greatest compilation of short stories ever printed: certainly it is the best that I can recall ever having read (see above the passage for relevance of that statement). Farjeon is a master of the short story: making use of numerous compositional structures from the chiastic to the—oh, that's right: surviving literary analysis does not treat contemporary (post-oral and poetic influence) prose with much thought beyond psychoanalysis. So we'll just have to go with chiastic structure, and the nebulous world of everything else; because other objective (non-verbal or literal) descriptors do not exist in any practical sense.
The few worst stories are still entirely successful; if not as spectacular as the greatest ones. And there is a wonderful sense of romance to the prose and storytelling and characters, and a pleasant sense of humour, too. Which is not to say that these stories are bereft of darkness or tragedy: great romance by its very melodramatic nature cannot be free of the dark entrails of tragic saudade. She puts her poetic and lyrical skills to good use by excellently implementing repetition and associative descriptions. Or to describe it in this tradition: so fucking good.
One can scarcely help but to admire this woman: which is saying something given her entrenchment in the “scene”, man! But her passion for literature is obviously genuine (she even shamelessly rejoices in French poetry!), so how can one possibly blame her for being born into literary opulence? ‘Sides, she was only too happy to criticise commercially commissioned faff by her much beloved betters and colleagues when but a child; how effortlessly charming.
Oh, and it’s all illustrated (but for the edition I read’s front cover) by a certain Edward Ardizzone. What more could anyone possibly want? The typeset, opening illustrations are very special.
An aside: The Little Bookroom is also the name of a children’s book shop named after the book; much to Eleanor Farjeon’s reported pleasure. It used to be a veritable cornucopia of literary mirth and literary quality; second in magical quality only to the fairy reading gardens of yore that were complete with glitter and glittering tutus designed to transfix, yet without such fancies; or the industrial architecture of our apparently increasingly deserted public libraries. Used to be.
Mary Poppins: P.L. Travers
P.L. Travers' tarnished reputation can only be put down to Walt Disney or her bisexuality: how many authors who were straight and hadn't been molested by Uncle Walt smear campaigns have been lauded for their eccentric embrace of mysticism and illusory marketing, their deep love for their father which influences their very existence, and for their alleged tragic cruelty? Certainly far more than have been criticised for such things.
Anyway, the book itself: unlike the later Mary Poppins volumes, this one (the first) is a consistently very good selection of short stories that form a reasonably coherent narrative (a popular mode in erroneously labelled children’s novels). The influence of mysticism and Eastern philosophy is just as enjoyable as the extremely polished prose. But the main attraction is Mary Poppins herself. In fact, my greatest literary achievement (as adjudged by someone other than myself) is a cross between ***** and Marry Poppins: or might Mary Poppins thus be described as my **** **** and ****?* Err, I’m confused now. Bottom line: Julie Andrews ain't got shit on Mary. Oh, and this edition features the rewritten compass scene, but the illustration is the original one complete with tribesmen and Eskimos. Brilliant.
*To follow on from the following: and so are you?
The Princess and the Goblin: George MacDonald
One of the most influential fantasy books ever written. Without this, Narnia might have been more than very enjoyable pastiche (or never existed at all), and all of Tolkien's fantasy books would have been unrecognisable—and there you've already got two of the most influential fantasy books of the modern era owing much of their DNA to the genesis that was The Princess and the Goblin! *The afterword besmirches this masterpiece most offensively on the basis of fashion, yet not only is The Princess and the Goblin’s Victorian sensibilities and structure far more contemporary than the millions of modern fantasy books plagiarising The Lord of the Rings’ unsuccessful epic poem structure, but the worst that can be said about the craft is that the tritest moral advice given to the principle characters by sympathetic hypocrites (adults who know no better; when they do, their advice is convincing) stands out as jarring and shallow: but that's the point; let's not pretend that the Victorian mind was only capable of naïve, moral fluff—especially when we're referring to the work of a clergyman who was forced to resign due to the progressive content of his sermons.
It is an amusing, yet expected, curiosity that genuine (written) Christianity is in many ways indistinguishable from Evolution: only recently (at the time of publication) stirred up by On the Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (wisely shortened to On the Origin of the Species two years after The Princess and the Goblin’s publication), evolution is simultaneously mocked and embraced as part of The Princess and the Goblin's Christian themes, which are not so far removed from the Eastern mysticism of Mary Poppins as Aldous Huxley would have you believe, either: although, perhaps he would more readily embrace that than the undeveloped brain of a child which here is at the centre of all religious vision and virtue (but for the omnipotence of the ancient grandmother, whose old age is beauty unmarked by years; or is she just a toothless baby?), but is oddly absent (and the only missing piece) in Huxley's psychedelic philosophy of misappropriation mixed with fact. And the similes: only Leon Garfield has inspired me more to partake in this field fraught with danger, and he falls into its pitfalls with regularity; unlike the impeccable George MacDonald.
*This intellectual-chameleon shall not be immortalised here; but the cover is an '80s glory.
Cut My Cote: Dorothy K. Burnham
A very brief tract on the influence of looms on textiles. The most significant thing about this work is the absolutely exceptional illustrations which render the opening text completely irrelevant. After the first third finishes, and time wares on (eventually weaving a more accessible narrative); the text becomes broader: offering interesting historical contexts and amusing asides; this makes the final two thirds very enjoyable indeed: a great combination of technical illustration, complementary writing, and photographs in a field which has received very little study. Or at least it apparently had not back in the '70s when this was written. Unfortunately, although the font is easy to read and pretty, the typography is poor: illustrations and text are placed broadly across the pages; leaving a distracting amount of blank paper, and the text is not even justified (still, it's better than Squarespace!). But the printing quality of the photographs and illustrations is clear and crisp. So who cares?