Which book was more popular than Gone With the Wind, annoyed Hitler but was tolerated by Stalin, was filmed by Disney twice and spawned songs and dances since 1936? Why, The Story of Ferdinand, of course!
This is a children’s book with a story about a little Spanish bull who preferred to sit under a tree and smell flowers rather than fight. It sounded very familiar: was it made into one of those short Disney cartoons? Indeed it was; made in 1938, it won an Oscar and was still being shown on television into the 1970s. In fact, in some countries it is shown every year on Christmas Eve. When they tried to replace it with something else in the 1980s in Sweden, it came back the following year after a public outcry. What a delightful and illogical tradition!
What’s even more surprising than the fact I remember it is that Walt Disney himself voiced Ferdinand’s mother. According to one of the reviews on IMDB, the animated bandilleros and picadors were based on the cartoon’s animators and the matador on Walt Disney himself; he was reportedly Not Amused by that, though surely he must have vetted it, especially if he voiced part of it; that story sounds apocryphal to me.
A surprisingly political book
As it was published at the time of the Spanish civil war, General Franco – the man who led the violent uprising – was definitely not amused at the pacifist bull and banned the book. The ban was not lifted until his death in 1975. Hitler had all copies burned (“degenerate democratic propaganda”, he said, only he said it in German). After the war, 30,000 copies were printed and distributed free to German children to promote peace (source: Illustration Chronicles). It was the only non-communist book allowed in Poland by Stalin. Even Ernest Hemingway, who fought in Spain, had something to write about it. Perhaps even more surprisingly, in the first year after publication, it sold more copies than Gone With the Wind, also a 1936 book, in America (source: Sothebys).
It was fascinating reading about all the criticism, serious and tongue in cheek that has surrounded the book over the time since its publication. It’s been criticised and hailed (depending on your viewpoint) as pacifist, fascist, socialist, showing your feminine side, and championing individualism, being true to yourself and encouraging children to be lazy or refuse to stand up to their responsibilities (source: The New Yorker).
The Song of Ferdinand the Bull
Disney also promoted the cartoon well before it appeared by releasing The Song of Ferdinand the Bull that was later covered by various artists. This is discussed in this wonderful blogpost. Do take the time to listen to the embedded videos. The Slim Gaillard jazz version reminds me of the jazz in the backing of Tom and Jerry cartoons and has a wonderful section where the double bass imitates a cow. On the downside, it also has homophobic connotations, with Ferdinand with his hands (hooves?) on his hips and the singer commenting at the end (in a very camp voice, no less) that “Ferdinand’s a sissie!” I’m assuming this wasn’t part of the original. I recommend the Dixieland Swingsters version, which shows various versions of the book’s cover and the ‘bonus video’ showing the pantomime cow version of Ferdinand.
Back to the book
The best way to read this book if you don’t have a copy is to have it read aloud to you with all the illustrations clearly visible. Try this video. It’s interesting to see that the Disney animators hardly changed a thing except the style. Even the men’s funny hats are virtually the same and you can see that the joke of the wine corks hanging off the cork tree comes from Robert Lawson’s illustrations. Not until the scene in the bull ring is the story changed. In the book, Ferdinand enjoys the flowers in the ladies’ hair. In the cartoon, the matador has been thrown a bunch of flowers and tears his hair out when Ferdinand won’t fight. Thank goodness all those bandilleros and picadors and the matador were so afraid of Ferdinand’s reputation, or the pain would have driven him to his death, given his exaggerated reaction to the bee sting. As it is, its a delightful pacifist tale that infuriated two dictators and that’s a win in my book. Perhaps a more realistic version of events is given in the 2017 full length computer animation film Ferdinand which was nominated for all sorts of Academy Awards, but had the misfortune to come out in the same year as Disney Pixar’s Coco, with Coco having a full month longer at the box office to create a buzz. I haven’t seen either of them.
It’s quite amazing that a little picture book can have such a legacy. After all, Munro Leaf claimed that he only wrote it so his friend Robert Lawson had something to draw.
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The Shadow Out of Time by H.P. Lovecraft is creepy tale about a man who believes his mind has been borrowed to enable another race to research human knowledge. But is he right or delusional?
“After twenty-two years of nightmare and terror, saved only by a desperate conviction of the mythical source of certain impressions, I am unwilling to vouch for the truth of that which I think I found in Western Australia on the night of July 17-18, 1935.”
This is a story/novella about a library, but not like any library I have ever visited. The story was originally published in the comic Astounding Stories in June 1936. In the Lovecraft collection I read it in, however, The Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales, there were no pictures, so I was able to work out the appearance of the creatures myself; the author describes them well and it’s good to see an artist taking the time to follow that description.
A brief synopsis (no spoilers)
After suddenly lapsing into a five-year coma, in the middle of giving a lecture, our narrator, Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee, regains consciousness with a changed personality. He seems to have to relearn how to speak fluently and to use his arms and legs properly. He becomes a cause célèbre for the psychologists who come to the conclusion that he has a second personality, but that personality is very strange.
He starts to go on long visits to remote and desolate places, but does not recall what he did there. He seems to know more than he should about historical periods in the distant past and future and tries to influence the thoughts of others.
“My sojourns at universities were marked by abnormally rapid assimilation, as if the secondary personality has an intelligence enormously superior to my own. I have found, also, that my rate of reading and solitary study was phenomenal. I could master every detail of a book merely by glancing over it as fast as I could turn the leaves; while my skill at interpreting complex figures in an instant was veritably awesome.” (p.559)
This sounds like a wonderful anomaly to me! He also reads occult books, including “the dreaded Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred”. This amused me as the story is included in a huge collection of Lovecraft’s stories called, you’ve guessed it, The Necronomicon. Undoubtedly there is a reason for this, but I haven’t investigated beyond the Wikipedia entry. Apparently this ‘Book of the Dead’ is referred to occasionally throughout Lovecraft’s work as if it were a real occult book.
After he has returned to ‘normal’, Peaslee is haunted by unusually clear dreams of moving around in a stone building, built in curves and arches on an inhuman scale, as if for giants, sometimes feeling that he is floating or suspended. Often he sees an unknown curvilinear script; he uses the word curvilinear regularly. In the building, he sees enormous books on the shelves and giant stone pillar-like desks with jars of rods that appear to be used as writing implements. As time goes on, he sees more detail, going outside, where he sees colossal buildings surrounded by lush wild gardens. The buildings have rooftop gardens with topiary, fernlike plants and giant varied fungi. There are also tall dark square-built basalt towers with a door but no windows and domed roofs, as well as other smaller squarish houses that have fallen into ruin. These black buildings somehow fill him with fear, as do sealed trapdoors in the basement of the original.
When he wakes from these dreams, he has a strange feeling of dread and disgust at his own body which he can’t place. Trying to make sense of all this, he researches other cases of people who seem to have had similar experiences. He comes up with a theory about a Great Race that learned to control time and were able to swap individual minds with peoples from other races and other times. In turn, they are scared of the malignant force hidden beneath the trapdoors. Yet he also theorises that all these dreams could come from his subconscious memories of myths he absorbed whilst studying under the influence of one of this Great Race. He is desperate to prove that he has really experienced what he dreams about, yet he is afraid to find out it is true. At least, I think that’s what happened. I became really confused about the timeframe and what he believed when.
This story is a strange mix of both extended vague psychologising/ theorising about what might have been going on on the one hand and oddly specific detailed listing on the other. Supposedly he gains more insight over time, but it could of course just be our protagonist Nathanial building up his psychotic dream into a more solid theory. This means that after pages of hallucinogenic theories about the Great Race exchanging minds in order to learn more about the universe, Lovecraft then launched into lists of races they have found out about:
“There was a mind from the planet we know as Venus, which would live incalculable epochs to come, and one from an outer moon of Jupiter six million years in the past. Of earthly minds there were some from the winged, star-headed, half-vegetable race of paleogean Antarctica; one from the reptile people of fabled Valusia; three from the furry prehuman Hyperborean worshippers of Tsathoggua; one from the wholly abominable Tcho-Tchos; two from the Arachnid denizens of Earth’s last age… […] I talked with…”
No! It can type this no longer! A picture is worth a thousand words.
This story is supposedly Nathaniel Peaslee’s full account to his son as he flees Australia by ship, fearing for his sanity. This after exploring a buried city covered by sand in the Australian desert that bears a remarkable resemblance to the city of his nightmares. As he visits alone, at night, with an inadequate torch, instead of waiting for morning and taking his team with him, his state of mind is hardly surprising. Of course, that makes it all the more creepy and racks up the tension.
Lovecraft’s writing style
This is the first Lovecraft I have read but I do know him by reputation. One of the issues mentioned by critics is his racism, but his attitudes were normal in his time, sadly. In Australia, he refers to blackfellows and natives and one of the characters who invites Nathanial to Australa dismisses their stories as nonsense. That is as far as it goes in this story. The other thing I had expected was purple prose. His style reminds me of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, from the excerpts I have read, but there are certain phrases that I feel are particularly Lovecraftian: leprous moonlight; the bloated, fungoid moon; malignant myth; eldritch; cyclopean. This story seems less leaden than the first one of his stories published in 1936 in this volume, The Mountains of Madness, which also mentions Abdul Alhazred. In fact, the writing style was so archaic that I had to keep reminding myself that it was written in 1936 and not by someone in the 19th century or earlier. That, I must say, is quite a feat, though it doesn’t make for easy reading.
Creepy not gory
As for the subject matter, horror is not a genre I usually read, but I would say this is more suspense than horror. I’m sure it could be extremely creepy if you read it on your own in a tent at night, by candlelight. There is nothing gory or gruesome about the story. The horror effect comes more from the way that he builds up the tension with his word choice, the repetition of detail and the fear of the unknown in the storyline, gradually unfolding.
I’m not sure why Lovecraft has such a following, given that the style is so Victorian. I suspect it’s partly that some people are attracted to his mythos-making powers; the sort of people who are attracted to the occult. But he also has a legacy in the authors who cite him as an influence (including Stephen King) and books and bands who use his characters as inspiration. My son was recently listening to a band called Leprous, for instance, one of his favourite words judging by this story. I have a sneaking suspicion the name may have been inspired by Lovecraft, back when the musicians were teenagers aspiring to be a ‘black metal’ band, whatever that means. They have evolved into more melodious prog rock, if you’re interested.
If I’m in the right mood for something weird, I might return to this Lovecraft collection in the future, but only because my son owns it. I was going to say that I only read it because I stubbornly finish what I’ve started reading, but that isn’t entirely true. I read it because I wanted to know what happened, so I was pulled in to the story. And although this is a standalone story, it was open-ended enough for me to suspect he continued to build on it in later stories, but I shan’t necessarily be following up that hunch.
Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. In fact, I’m more inclined to follow this by reading something more derivative. While I was writing this review, I checked Goodreads and up popped the suggestion of Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, that I had already added to my wishlist after a friend’s enthusiastic review. Ruff’s book has also been made into a television series. Rather than simply rehashing Lovecraftian characters or themes, it combines them in the story of a Black family travelling in the USA during the Jim Crow era. It sounds fascinating. As I haven’t read it, I’ll link to a community review by Bill Kerwin. Incidentally, I’ve now realised this is where I had heard about the Safe Negro Travel Guide I wrote about in my 1936 Club overview post. That’s one more thing my brain doesn’t have to puzzle over!
Kraken by China Mieville and The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham. Another book that references Lovecraft’s Cthulhu is China Mieville’s Kraken, described by reviewer Lyn as a tribute to Lovecraft in the style of Monty Python. I already have it on my shelf after trawling the fantasy shelves of Waterstones looking for a Christmas present for my son in less Covid-ridden times. When I get round to reading it, I will definitely be pairing it with John Wyndham’s classic, The Kraken Wakes. And that may be just the moment to read Lovecraft’s 1936 short novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth, also included in the Necronomicon.
1936 was an eventful year and I found some interesting books published in 1936 for the #1936Club book challenge. Here’s what I found on my own shelves.
After taking part in the 1956 Club challenge, I was looking forward to hunting down some books on my TBR shelves for the next year chosen, which turned out to be 1936: the 1936 Club is born! Thank you to Kaggy’s Bookish Ramblings and Stuck in a Book for picking such an interesting year: unrest on the horizon, but pre-WWII. It was also a very eventful year, with the infamous Berlin Olympics, the Depression in full swing in the USA, the abdication of King Edward VIII, Beryl Markham was the first woman to fly the Atlantic, the Hoover Dam (then called the Boulder Dam) was completed and Crystal Palace burnt down. But what to read? I had plenty of time. I could read the books beforehand and line up some blogposts ready to go, surely… Full of enthusiasm, I did some research, made a 1936-club tab for my Goodreads page, started reading early and still didn’t manage to read them all. Here are my initial thoughts. I’ll be adding my reviews and updating the links here in the coming week, work and gardening commitments willing.
Books on my TBR shelves
I already had a few lined up on my shelves, but I discovered an unexpected one while perusing the shelves:
The Insect Man: Jean Henri Fabre by Eleanor Doorly, with an introduction by Walter de la Mare and the most wonderful woodcut illustrations by Robert Gibbings. This is a biography aimed at children and bought from my school library when it was selling off old stock. I seem to have been in a biography reading stage at the time because I believe I also bought a biography of Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine. This was also when I bought the book about the Pestalozzi Children’s Village that I read and reviewed for the 1956 Club.
South Riding by Winifred Holtby, published posthumously after she died tragically young. This is a semi-autobiographical novel set in rural Yorkshire, centring on the county council where all walks of life come together. This was given to me by a fellow BookCrosser together with Testament of a Generation, a collection of journalism by Holtby and her lifelong friend Vera Brittain, whose book A Testament of Youth made me a lifelong pacifist. I may very well have bought that at the same library sale; dangerous things, library sales. Sadly, Vera Brittain’s daughter, the indomitable politician and academic Shirley Williams, died on 11 April 2021 at the grand old age of 90. She was a worthy testament to her mother’s beliefs, so reading South Riding now seems perfect timing.
A City of Bells by Elizabeth Goudge. This is the first book in a trilogy set in a small rural country town where everybody knows everybody else’s business. Since the town has a cathedral, it is officially a city. In the books it’s called Torminster, but the author grew up in the similarly tiny rural city of Wells so it echoes the real place. This was a book that used to belong to my mother, who was the one to tell me about Elizabeth Goudge as The Little White Horse was her favourite book and was mine too, for a while. As one of the main protagonists is a young girl, it sometimes seems like a children’s book, but as one of the themes is mental health, desperation and suicide, though not too prominently, it is definitely aimed at adults. I did say I was going to read Goudge’s The Rosemary Tree for the 1956 Club, but that still hasn’t happened yet; it’s planned for June and my gardens theme.
Also on my shelves but unlikely to be read within the time frame (if at all) are Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Sleepwalker’s Niece and The Case of the Stuttering Bishop, books 8 and 9 in the series. I discovered to my surprise in the 1956 Club that the books are more entertaining than I expected, but I have so many books I really do want to read and these aren’t going anywhere as they’re part of my husband’s permanent collection. Having looked at the back covers, The Sleepwalker’s Niece sounds like it all comes down to the “brilliant cross examination” in the court case, my least favourite part of this sort of book. The Stuttering Bishop, on the other hand, sounds like it’s going to be far more about detective work and interviewing suspects, which I usually enjoy far more. And who could resist the front cover tagline:
Bogus bishops. Gold-digging granddaughters. No one in this case is for real – except the corpse.
1936 books I’ve already read
One book published in 1936 that I read years ago and has stuck in my mind is Peter Fleming’s News From Tartary, about a journey on the lesser-travelled southern silk route. I will try to add my review near the 1936 Club week.
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. As one of my imaginary career options at the age of ten was to become a ballerina, I obviously read Ballet Shoes and several others by Noel Streatfeild. I still have it and am rather surprised it was written so long ago. Not to mention feeling perplexed to realise that I spent my entire life not noticing the odd spelling of the author’s name!
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. I read this and loved it years ago, but was extremely disappointed by the film. After hearing about it my entire life, I found the first fifteen minutes so slow I turned off the television. I suspect I would feel the same way about the novel now, but it’s on my shelf, just in case I feel an uncontrollable urge to read it again. In actual fact, there is another reason to reread it with fresh eyes: when I first read it years ago, I was caught up in the romance. With a heightened awareness of race issues, it would be interesting to reread it from that point of view.
The Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H.P. Lovecraft. My son listened to some of these creepy stories online somewhere and treated himself to an 878-page doorstopper commemorative edition. Fortunately for me, only three of the stories were originally published in 1936:
At the Mountains of Madness – an Antarctic expedition, extremely verbose
The Shadow Over Innsmouth – A Cthulhu tale; something fishy this way comes
The Shadow Out of Time – “After twenty-two years of nightmare and terror, saved only by a desperate conviction of the mythical source of certain impressions, I am unwilling to vouch for the truth of that which I think I found in Western Australia on the night of July 17-18, 1935.” That’s the one for me!
Other books published in 1936
War With the Newts by Karel Čapek ticks all my boxes: it is on the 1001 list, it was written by an author from an interesting country (he was Czech), satirises many nationalities but especially the Czechs and Dutch (my adopted country) and it was already on my wishlist. However, it’s not on my shelf, so it will have to wait.
Eyeless in Gaza by Aldous Huxley. On the 1001 list and on my wishlist. I devoured A Brave New World as a teenager, but unfortunately I haven’t come across a copy of this, especially as the title is so intriguing.
The Negro Motorist Green Book by Victor Hugo Green. First published in 1936, this was an annual guide book along the lines of a Michelin Guide, but instead of listing the best viewpoints or historical sites along the way, it listed places that it was safe for a person of colour to stay or stop to buy supplies en route. This was the era of the Jim Crow laws in the USA, so it also gave tips about places to avoid such as the so-called sundowner towns that were for whites only. I know I had read about this before and now I’ve found out where: it has turned up in a recent book review of Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. This sounds like a book I want to read.
One Thousand Ways to Make $1,000 by Frances C. Minaker. This was the book that inspired Warren Buffet, who must have been an overachiever because he claims to have read it when he was about seven and went on to become a multimillionaire.
The Story of Ferdinandby Munroe Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson. This was a children’s picture book with a story about a little Spanish bull who preferred to sit under a tree and smell the flowers rather than fight. I will add a review to this soon.
So, there we have it! Unfortunately I haven’t found anything in Dutch or translated from any other language published in 1936. I’ll be looking forward to finding out what other people found.
When I read about the Novellas in November challenge, I knew immediately that this was one challenge that I couldn’t miss out on. As you’ll soon see, I seem to have rather a lot of short novels on my shelves, most of them unread.
I even have a few half-read novellas, if you can believe it. It seems I am capable of giving up before the end of a 150-page novel, which doesn’t show much staying power, now, does it? In my defence, that’s usually because I picked up a novella to put in my bag on a short journey or trip to somewhere I expected to wait for a while, but didn’t have to travel or wait long enough to finish. Once I get home, there’s usually another half-read book on the go that has priority for a book club meeting or because it’s on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list, so that makes it more ‘worthy’. So that poor novella gets put to one side and overlooked between all the beefier tomes.
How long is a novella anyway?
The two bloggers running the challenge, Rebecca at Bookish Beck and Cathy at 746books, say that a novella is defined by a word count (17,500 – 39,999 or 7,500 to 16,999 for a novelette according to Wikipedia, but who’s going to count?). They suggest a length of around 150 pages, with an absolute upper limit of 200 pages. That rules out a number of the books I added to my list, but sometimes it just depends on the edition.
Size doesn’t matter, but age does!
Sometimes it’s all down to the white space and the font. Good quality and older editions often have an inordinate amount of that. For instance, I have an old edition of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair that is 237 pages long, but more modern Penguin and Vintage editions are listed on Goodreads with only 192 or even 160 pages. Some of the more ‘utility’ versions published after WWII have tiny writing, crammed on to thin paper with narrow margins. Likewise, some of my classics are printed on extremely thin paper, just like the Bibles and prayer books of my youth. So, in general, the older the book, the thinner the book. So page count isn’t always helpful, but if I can find a different edition on Goodreads below 200 pages, that’s good enough for me.
How many novellas by women writers can you fit on a shelf?
I’m sure I recently read a quote by a feminist writer – Fay Weldon? Virginia Woolf? Margaret Atwood? – that said that women tend to feel they aren’t entitled to take up space and that women are appreciated for being small, so they tend to write short, thin novels, as opposed to men who tend to be boastful of their accomplishments and write thick, macho doorstoppers. It was certainly my immediate thought that I have a number of remarkably thin books written by women, many of them called Penelope for some obscure reason: Penelope Fitzgerald, Penelope Lively, Penelope Mortimer. Penelope Lively’s City of the Mind is just too long, at 220 pages, as is The Photograph at a whopping 236 pages. I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to find the source of that idea, but while I was searching, I came across a fascinating article by Mary Beard in which she refers to Penelope as being the first woman in the Western literary canon to be silenced by a man, her son Telemachus. Ironically, all three of those authorial Penelopes are best known or only wrote under their married names. Incidentally, Sally Rooney also wrote a great article about the pitfalls of ‘writing whilst female’.
Do women write more novellas?
I’m not sure if it was this little collection of female writers that I bought at the same time and were initially shelved together that made me think that women might be more inclined to write novellas or shorter novels. If I kept a list of my books on a spreadsheet, I could run some stats, but I don’t, so I will resist the temptation to find out. On my bookshelves, I have the impression that this is the case, put it that way. After all, some male authors are renowned for their succinct style, notably Ernest Hemingway, but also Graham Greene and (I suspect) crime writers like Ian Fleming and Erle Stanley Gardner. Likewise, women crime writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. Historical novelists also tip the balance in the opposite direction, notably Philippa Gregory and Jean M. Auel and, latterly, Hilary Mantel, all of whom can give the Game of Thrones series a run for its money, not to mention Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind and A.S. Byatt’s Possession and The Children’s Book.
Conversely, male authors have a tendency to be over-bloated. I haven’t done a scientific study, but authors like Jonathan Franzen, Stephen King, James Joyce and David Mitchell tend not to be brief. And we won’t even mention the ‘serial offenders’ like George R.R. Martin, J.R.R. Tolkien and Neal Stephenson. I suspect they may be matched by the women who are also prolific series writers such as Patricia Cornwell and, Elizabeth George (whose books are invariably chunky).
On my TBR shelves (if I counted correctly):
47 novellas by men (46 individual authors)
18 novellas by women (17 individual authors)
I’m not going to draw any conclusions from that; it just happens to be what I have at the moment. It is undoubtedly skewed towards male authors by the predominantly male 1001 List and the fact that many of my novellas are Dutch Book Week freebies and the vast majority of those are by men, make of that what you will.
Novellas in Dutch
As I live in the Netherlands and am a Dutch-English translator, I also read in Dutch, though I prefer to read books originally published in English in English, if I can, because the literary merit of a book is often in the language itself. I have to say, I don’t get on well with Dutch literature, but that’s a topic for another day.
As I said above, I have so many novellas in Dutch because they are given away as free gifts by the Dutch national book marketing association, CPNB (literally Collective Propaganda for Dutch Books; they prefer the word ‘promotion’ in their Wikipedia entry in English). These tend to be written by top authors and, if I look at the ones I own, they are predominantly men. This is partly because I have already read and passed on those written by women that I have come across.
Dutch novellas available in translation – by women
De glazen brug by Marga Minco [translated as The glass bridge by S. Knecht]
Transit by Hella S. Haasse [translated as En Transit (Fr.) by Anne-Marie de Both-Diez, Di Passagio (It.) by Laura Pignatti]
Oeroeg by Hella S. Haasse [translated as The Black Lake by Ina Rilke (Eng.), Le Lac noir (Fr.) by Marie-Noëlle Fontenat, Der schwarze See (Ger.) by Gregor Seferens, L’amico perduto (It.) by Fulvio Ferrari]
De ijsdragers by Anna Enquist [translated as The Ice Carriers (Eng.) by Jeanette K. Ringold, Die Eisträger (Ger.) by Hanni Ehlers, Les Porteurs de Glace (Fr.) by Michelin’s Goche].
Dutch novellas available in translation – by men
Oddly, I have only read and passed on one book week novella written by a Dutch man, De pianoman [The Piano Man] by J. Bernlef, which hasn’t been translated. I seem to be somewhat biased! However, I know I have undoubtedly read more, for instance:
Het gouden ei by Tim Krabbé [literally The golden egg, translated (twice) The Vanishing (Eng.) by Claire Nicholas White and Sam Garrett, Das goldene Ei and Spurlos (Ger.), Scomparsa (It.), La desaparición (Sp.) by Marta Arguilé Bernal, A Desaparecida (Port.)].
I was thinking that Tim Krabbé’s agent obviously did a good job selling the translation rights, but then found out it was made into a film starring Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland. This undoubtedly explains the plethora of translations, with none of the translators listed on Goodreads. Tim Krabbé’s book week gift Een tafel vol vlinders is also waiting to be read.
The ones that didn’t fit the bill
I thought this would be a good excuse to read Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, under 200 pages, but discovered it’s not one novella but several short stories, as is Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Means of Escape (174pp). Not to mention all the novels that looked thin, but had more pages than expected due to thin paper.
Which ones will I read during Novellas in November?
Obviously with such an embarrassment of riches, I will have to prioritise some over others. As my husband said to me, if you read all the short novels now, you won’t get through all those long ones you want to read once you’re losing your marbles. He has a point. That being the case, perhaps I should pick the ones which are on the 1001 List first. There are a surprising number, given they are so short. I suspect this is because novels cost a lot to translate, so when push comes to shove, it’s cheaper to translate a novella and that means that translated works on ‘worthy’ book lists tend to be shorter, not necessarily an author’s best works. Call me cynical, but it’s a definite trend I’ve noticed.
There are a grand total of 17 novels in my possession on the 1001 List. If I could read all of those in November, I would exceed my (admittedly unambitious) goal of reading 12 from the list this year. On the other hand, it could severely limit my chances of reading 12 in subsequent years if I have to read more weighty tomes. Still, I might feel very accomplished. I just started Rituelen [Rituals] by the Dutch author Cees Nooteboom, so I’m already on my way. There are other challenges to be met, however.
I am already signed up to various other challenges on BookCrossing and Goodreads. For instance, every year I attempt a ‘read around the world’ type challenge on BookCrossing, the 666 challenge, which involves reading 6 books from 6 different countries from each of the 6 continents. As usual, I am way behind and struggling with South America and the Pacific regions in particular. So I will try to pick as many international books as I can and not double up on countries. I am also attempting to read some of my books with a number higher than 3 in the title (for the BookCrossing Ultimate Challenge), so as it’s one of my oldest books on the shelf, I’m going to try to fit Maeve Binchy’s Dublin 4 in. And next month’s theme is ‘names in the title’, so I may save My Ántonia, Saving Agnes, Noor’s Story, etc. for then.
Last month, I also took part in the 1956 Club challenge, and lo and behold, I found another novella published in 1956, so that one is a definite read for this month (even though the deadline for the challenge is long gone). In November, there is also an AusReading Month challenge, Margaret Atwood Reading Month (#MARM) hosted by Buried in Print and Consumed by Ink and Nonfiction November.
Novellas on my shelf
Key to symbols (for my own benefit as much as anyone else’s):
1001 – 1001 List
# – Number over 3 in the title
ABC – A name in the title
+ – From a country I haven’t covered yet in my country challenge
% – Half-read
OZ Australian author
TBR Novellas in English
Chinua Achebe – Things Fall Apart (1958) – Nigeria, 187pp. 1001 +
Hanif Kureishi – Gabriel’s Gift (2001) – UK, 178pp. ABC
Jean Liedloff – The Continuum Concept (1975) – Venezuela, 150pp. NF +
John Marsden – Winter (2000) – Australia, 135pp. OZ
Colleen McCullough – The Ladies of Missalonghi (1987) – Australia, 132pp. OZ
Ian McEwan – On Chesil Beach (2007) – UK, 166pp.
Iris Murdoch – Acastos (1986) – UK, 131pp.
George Orwell – Animal Farm (1945) – UK, 110pp. 1001
Doris Pilkington – Rabbit-proof Fence (2003) – Australia, 157pp. OZ
John Steinbeck – Of Mice and Men/Cannery Row (1937/1945) – USA, 97pp./50pp. 1001
Susanna Tamaro – Va’dove ti porta il cuore [De stem van je hart (NL)] (1994) – Italy, 173pp.
Sue Townsend – Rebuilding Coventry (1988) – UK, 205pp.
Evelyn Waugh – The Loved One (1948) – UK, 89pp.
H.G. Wells – The Time Machine (1895) – UK, 91pp. 1001 ABC
Virginia Woolf – Mrs Dalloway (1925) – UK, 165pp. 1001
Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse (1927) – UK, 154pp. 1001
Novellas in Translation
Alessandro Baricco – Seta (1996) [translated from Italian as Silk (Eng.) by Guido Waldman, Soie (Fr.) by Françoise Brun, Seide (Ger.) by Karin Krieger, Zijde (NL) by Manon Smits), Seda (Sp.) by Carlos Gumpert & Xavier González Rovira] – Italy, 120pp. 1001
Gerbrand Bakker – Perenbomen bloeien wit: het verhaal van drie broers (NL) (1999) [Translated as Birnbäume blühen weiss (Ger.) by Andrea Kluitmann; Los perales tienen la flor bianca (Sp.) / Les pereres fan la flor blanca (Catalan/Valencian) by Maria Rosich; ; no English translation] – NL, 143pp.
Heinrich Böll – Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (Ger.) (1974) [Translated as The Lost Honour of Katharine Blum (Eng.) by Leila Vennewitz] – Germany, 116pp. 1001 ABC
Alejo Carpentier – El Acoso (Sp.) (1956) [Translated as The Chase (Eng.) by Alfred Mac Adam] – Cuba, 122pp. +
Arthur C. Clarke – 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968) [Translated as 2001 ruimte odyssee (NL) by J.B. de Mare] – USA, 189pp. 1001 #
Sahar Khalifa – Al-Subar (Arabic) (1976) [Translated as De cactus: een Palestijnse roman (NL) by ?; Wild Thorns (Eng.) by Trevor Le Gassick & Elizabeth Warnock Fernea] – Palestine, 181pp. +
André Neuman – Hablar solos (Sp.) [Translated as Talking to Ourselves (Eng.) by Nick Caistor, Marjeta Drobnič & Lorenza García] – Argentina, 148pp. +
Cees Nooteboom – Rituelen (NL) (1980) [Translated as Rituals (Eng.) by Adrienne Dixon] – NL, 175pp. 1001
Ian Rankin – Schuld & Boete (Trans. Crime & Punishment – excerpts from different Rebus novels) – UK, 91pp.
George Sand – Leone Leoni (1997) (in Dutch, translated by Fieke Schoots?) – France, 116pp. ABC
Nawal El Saadawi – Mudhakkirât Tabiba (Arabic) (1958) [Translated as Wat bedoel je dat je de man bent (alt. title Dagboek van een vrouwelijke arts) (NL) by [Translated as ; Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (Eng.)] – Egypt, 87pp. +
Antonio Skármeta – Ardiente paciencia (Sp.) (1985) [Translated as De postbode van Neruda by Tess Zeiler, The Postman (Eng.) by Katherine Silver, filmed as Il postino (It.)] – Chile, 125pp. +%
Pramoedya Ananta Toer – Midah Simanis Bergigi Emas (Indonesian) (1955) [Translated as Midah, het Liefje met de Gouden Tand (NL) by Alfred van der Helm & Angela Rookmaaker] – Indonesia, 139pp.
Dutch novellas and book week gift books
Griet op de Beeck – Gezien de feiten (lit. In view of the facts) (2018) [Translated as Sa’t it lân derhinne leit (Western Frisian) by Jetske Bilker] – NL, 94pp.
Adriaan van Dis – In Afrika (1991) (lit. In Africa)- Mozambique, 167pp. +NF
Adriaan van Dis – Palmwijn (lit. Palm wine) (1996) [Translated as Vin de palme (Fr.) by Anne-Marie de Both-Diez – Africa, 93pp. +
Antoon Coolen – De vrouw met de zes slapers (lit. The woman with the six sleepers) (1955) – NL, 222pp. #%
Arnon Grunberg – De heilige Antonio (lit. The holy Antonio) (1998) [Translated as Der Heilige des Unmöglichen (Ger.) by Rainer Kersten] – NL, 95pp. ABC
Maria Jacobs – Vijfenvijftig sokken (1998) [lit. Fifty-five socks, translated by the author as A Safe House: Holland 1940-1945 ] – NL, 109pp. #NF
Arthur Japin – De grote wereld (lit. The wide world) (2006) [Translated as Suur maailm (Estonian)]- NL, 90pp.
Tim Krabbé – Een tafel vol vlinders (lit. A table full of butterflies) (2009) – NL, 89pp.
Jan Kuitenbrouwer – Turbotaal: van socio babble tot yuppie speak (lit. Yuppie language) (1989) – NL, 91pp. NF
Tom Lanoye – Heldere hemel (lit. Clear skies) [Translated as Tombé du ciel (2012) – Belgium, non-fiction, 92pp. NF
Harry Mulisch – Het theatre, de brief en de waarheid (lit. The theatre, the letter and the truth) [Translated as Das Theater, der Brief und die Wahrheit] (2000) – NL, 85pp.
Harry Mulisch – Twee vrouwen [Translated as Two Women (Eng.) by Els Early, Deux Femmes (Fr.) by Philippe Noble, Zwei Frauen (Ger.)] (1975) – NL, 131pp.
Cees Nooteboom – Het volgende verhaal [Translated as The Following Story (Eng.) by Ina Rilke, Die folgende Geschichte (Ger.) by Ina Rilke, L’histoire suivante (Fr.) by Philippe Noble, La historia siguiente (Sp.), A História Seguinte (Port.) by Ana Maria Carvalho, La storia sequente (It.) by Fulvio Ferrari] (1991) – Portugal, 91pp.
Connie Palmen – De erfenis (lit. The inheritance) (1999) [Translated by Die Erbschaft (Ger.) by Hannie Ehlers] – NL, 96pp.
Piet Grijs – Het grijsboek, of de nagelaten bekentenissen van Raoul Chapkis (lit. The grey book, or the confessions left by Raoul Chapkis) (1970) – NL, 144pp. ABC
Geert Mak – De brug (2007) [Translated as The Bridge: A Journey Between Orient and Occident (Eng.) by Sam Garrett, Die Brücke Von Istanbul (Ger.), Köprü (Turk.) by Gül Özlen, Most (Croatian) by Romana Perečinec] – Turkey, 92pp.
Charles den Tex – Onmacht (lit. Powerlessness) (2010) – NL, 92pp.
Thomas Rosenboom – Spitzen (lit. Point shoes) (2004) [Translated as Tango (Ger.) by Marlene Müller-Haas, Le danseur de tango – NL] – 92pp.
Tomas Ross – De klokkenluider (lit. The bell ringer or The whistleblower) (2003) – NL, 96pp.
Tommy Wieringa – Een mooie jonge vrouw (2014)[Translated as A Beautiful Young Wife (Eng.) by Sam Garrett, Eine schöne junge Frau (Ger.) by Bettina Bach, Une femme jeune et belle (Fr.) by Bertrand Abraham, Una moglie giovane e bella (It.) by Claudia Cozzi & Claudia Di Palermo] – NL, 96pp.
Ivan Wolffers – Gekleurd Nederland (lit. The Coloured Netherlands) (1999) – NL, 175pp. NF
Joost Zwagerman – Duel [Translated as Duell (Ger.) by Gregor Seferens] (2010) – NL, 95pp.
Two books published in 1956: Ian Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever and Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Terrified Typist. Both share a theme: diamonds! And diamonds were in the news, too, in more ways than one.
The Case of the Reluctant Reader (not by Erle Stanley Gardner)
Challenged to read books published in 1956 for the 1956 Club by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, I discovered that the prolific Erle Stanley Gardner published three books in 1956:
The Case of the Terrified Typist (#49)
The Case of the Demure Defendant (#50)
The Case of the Gilded Lily (#51)
As luck would have it, my husband has all three (I didn’t say it was good luck!). I’m not keen on them, so I view this as a mixed blessing, but I did want to try reading at least one. I’ve never been very demure nor do I go in much for gilding the lily, but I’m a pretty nifty typist and am old enough to have learnt on the last generation of manual typewriters. Apart from which, the Terrified Typist was the earliest, so that one it is.
However, as far as editions go, the Typist is the newest of the three, reissued in 1984 by Ballantine/Random House. It has a suitably ‘80s cover with neon pink title and a picture with rather a snazzy knife or letter opener, covered with what could be blood, but could just as easily be sealing wax, given the pile of letters lying next to it. The Demure Defendant was issued by Pan/Heinemann in 1964 (unabridged) in a cover with an orange/ochre/rust geometric design on a dull brown background with a photo of a blond who may be looking down with her heavily false eyelash-adorned eyes (they may be too heavy to lift!), but not demure enough to wear any clothes, or none that I can see. The Gilded Lily is a Pocket Book edition from 1968 with a photo of a Twiggy-style blonde with short hair, wearing square tinted glasses and enormous black and white square earrings, peering out from behind her heavily made up eyes over a martini glass with olive. By the way, we know that Perry Mason solves the case because it says so on the front cover! Nothing about the cover makes me want to read it.
Criticising The Case of the Terrified Typist, the reading experience
It was a quiet evening so I sat down to start reading, but I soon noticed that the book wasn’t as dated in language and attitudes to Della Street as I’d expected. I wondered if the book had been edited for the new edition, with attitudes and speaking style updated, perhaps to tie in with the script of the TV show. I didn’t find an answer to that and I’m not inclined to read another of the three from 1956 to compare.
However, I came across a fascinating article from an academic journal with an introduction/summary in French, describing how Erle Stanley Gardner’s French translators slightly adapted the endings and beginnings of the early novels to suit the different French book market where people were not as likely to buy every book of a series. Apparently, as Gardner was not only a lawyer, but had previously worked in marketing, he believed that you needed to hook your readers so they would be compelled to read the next instalment, rather like those irritating ‘next week’s episode’ at the end of television shows or the even more annoying excerpts from the author’s next book at the end of a novel. Erle Stanley Gardner may have a pioneer of this technique, but he did it more subtly, incorporating it into his storyline. He did this by using devices such as Della pulling out a file on the last page, handing it to Perry and telling him about what his next case will be. Then, at the start of the next book, there would be a quick recap of the previous one, reminding the reader where they had left off.
This technique isn’t used in The Case of the Terrified Typist, but the book does begin with a foreword. In this, Gardner goes into a little history that feels irrelevant, then praises a particular legal colleague, in this case “my friend the Honorable (sic.) John Ben Shepperd [who] became the attorney general of the State of Texas.” Whether this was to curry favour with powerful men in real life, I don’t know, or perhaps he was paid to include the endorsement. It certainly has nothing to do with the book itself.
He also waxes lyrical about the generosity and enjoyment of drama (or showing off) common in Texas. It reminds me rather of James Michener’s autobiography, with name-dropping galore, which may be inevitable when you’re talking about popular and influential male authors of the 1950s and ‘60s (and undoubtedly earlier and later). It often feels like women authors haven’t had the same access to the ‘old boy network’, but maybe wome are just more subtle about it. I’m reminded of a story the blogger Judy Dykstra Brown shared fairly recently about being given a badge allowing her and her friend to enter an all-male Legion Club (a club for ex-members of the forces, like the British Legion) in Australia. To be allowed to attend was a special privilege for women that broke club rules. I suppose that was the reason for the country clubs in America. But I digress.
Looking at the next book in the series, it occurred to me that Gardner used the Forewords as extended dedications. So often, a book is dedicated to a random friend or relation without giving any more details. Gardner’s forewords tell you something about the person he wishes to dedicate it to. It often expands on a particular legal peculiarity, a branch of investigation (forensics, toxicology; presumably still in their infancy in 1956). And he takes the opportunity to tell some little edifying anecdote about his friend, such as you might use when introducing someone at a party.
Cast of characters
Another feature of this book is the Cast of Characters list (note the word ‘cast’, as Gardner also envisages it as a television script), giving a little potted biography of each, which does seem to give away plot points. For instance:
ANN RIDDLE—her frosty blue eyes observed many goings-on from her vantage point behind a cigar counter, and she seemed eager to report on all she saw—at first….
Hence we already know that she is going to be more than a one-off witness and it also sounds as if she will be pressured to keep quiet.
Words used to describe Della Street
If you aren’t reading the series in any sort of order, I suppose this does help to remind you who’s who of the regular cast. I particularly like the rather tongue-in-cheek description of Della:
Ooh la la! In The Case of the Demure Defendant, Della is described as Perry’s ‘amiable amanuensis’. I had just decided it might be interesting to find out how she is described in the Cast of Characters in each of the books we have when I discovered The Case of the Gilded Lily has no cast list. How disappointing!
Della Street has a dry sense of humour, for instance when she suggests Mason’s reputation may have intimidated the typist, “After all, […] you’re not entirely unknown, you know.” (p.4) We’re shown that she’s resourceful and observant and makes a good detective. Della admits she might have felt self-conscious if anyone had come across her searching the bin and the idea of concealing evidence makes her feel apprehensive; she is not as self-assured as she at first appears. She is also overly cautious about maintaining her good reputation and not allowing Gertie the secretary to jump to the wrong conclusion and gossip if she and Mason are locked in the law library together. She is also described as ‘demure’ when making the observation that Mason may be bending the law somewhat. Mind you, the word ‘demure’ seems to be Gardner’s shorthand for any well-behaved woman.
Sexism and demure dames
In a book written by a man in 1956, a certain degree of sexism is to be expected, of course. On the whole, it’s not to awful, but the young detective Paul Drake does describe trying to find a taxi driver who remembers a particular fare to the airport as being “like going to some babe wearing a skirt reaching to her knees, a tight sweater, and asking her if she remembered anybody whistling at her yesterday as she walked down the street.” (p.91)
One of the witnesses, Yvonne Manco, is described as ‘demure’, but when she crosses her legs, two of the male jurors “hitch forward in their chairs for a better look, while the chins of two of the less attractive women on the jury were conspicuously elevated.” (p.96) The objectivication of women is very much in evidence, though it’s not necessarily seen as an edifying characteristic. Victim blaming is lurking just around the corner.
The next female witness, Mae Wallis Jordan, is also described as “quiet, demure”; as I said, we’re amassing quite a collection of demure ladies!
The strange case of Della, Della Street
Incidentally, I’ve noticed a peculiarity of Erle Stanley Gardner’s writing style in that he never says simply Della, he always says Della Street. Why is this? It’s almost like a cutesie Southern affectation, like calling her ‘Miss Della Street’ (you’ll have to imagine the Gone With the Wind twang). Why the emphasis on her surname? Then, in an act of curiosity that could only be reasonably indulged in the age of the internet and an excess of time, it occurred to me that there might be an actual road called Della Street, so I searched Google Maps and, yes, there’s one in Houston, Texas that may have served as inspiration. Incidentally, there are several around the USA, including one in Hernando, Missouri which I strongly suspect was named in homage to the character because it’s right around the corner from Mason Drive.
Certainly on television, there is definitely chemistry between Della and Perry. However, so far in this book, apart from the innuendo in the cast list, Della seems to be described as a professional and competent woman who contributes a great deal to the work, with no hint of the sexism that had so annoyed me when I read The Case of the Fan-Dancer’s Horse. The titular typist is also incredibly competent, so Perry’s ‘flighty’ receptionist Gertie bears the brunt of the misogyny. On the other hand, one of Della’s roles is definitely to present female insight into how a woman might behave in a particular situation, which can grate on modern sensibilities.
Is it a crime to be too British?
As Duane Jefferson, the American defendant in the related murder trial, is working for a British company, there is an amusing exchange between him and Mason in which the latter accused him of becoming too British for his own good:
“There are certain mannerisms, Mr Mason, which the trade comes to expect of the representatives of a company such as ours.” [A diamond trading firm.]
“And there are certain mannerisms which an American jury expects to find in an American citizen,” Mason told him.
“If a jury should feel you’d cultivated a British manner, you might have reason to regret your accent and impersonal detachment.” (pp.47-48)
Lobotomies and other period props
One of the as yet unmet characters in The Case of the Terrified Typist has a brother who has been in a mental institution, but is now described as a “sort of a zombie” because he has had a prefrontal lobotomy , which Mason points out have been more or less discontinued by this time. I was very aware of this as I recently watched a couple of episodes of Ratched, which is a TV series written as a prequel to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Prefrontal lobotomies are heavily featured.
Behind the eight ball is a phrase I had never knowingly heard before. Mason uses it when he has no clear evidence. “If we don’t get some line on Mae Jordan and Marline Chaumont, we’re behind the eight ball”, he says. (p.86) It means to be in a difficult position, which is clear from the context, but the phrase surprised me.
Two of the characters first come into contact with each other after an advert to exchange stereo photos in a photographic magazine. Perhaps Stereolist photos.
Now you’re cooking with gas! How unexpected to come across this phrase in a book published in 1956! I thought it was a British Gas advertising slogan from the 1980s, though I remembered it as ‘Now we’re cooking on gas!’. Apparently not. It was an early natural gas slogan in the USA in the late 1930s or early 1940s and used as sneaky product placement in radio scripts for Bob Hope, Jack Denny and in a Daffy Duck cartoon in 1942. All I can find for British slogans is ‘That’s the beauty of gas.’
Did I enjoy the book?
Unexpectedly, I did! There was enough excitement, red herrings, trickery, verbal dexterity and humour to keep my originally sceptical interest. I feared a deadly dull court case at the end, but that wasn’t as bad as expected, though I probably skimmed the bits where the lawyers are stopping the witnesses from actually saying anything. I was also pleasantly surprised about how modern it all felt, even if they were still using typewriters and carbon copies. In fact, I might even be tempted to read another Erle Stanley Gardner for the 1936 Club. And that was a conclusion I certainly hadn’t expected.
DIAMONDS IN 1956
It suddenly occurred to me that Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Terrified Typist revolves around diamond smuggling and that another high-profile book published in 1956 does exactly the same, Ian Fleming’s Bond thriller, Diamonds Are Forever. Were diamonds in the news in 1956 or, more probably, the year before? Well, yes, they were.
The first artificial diamonds were created at GE in Schenectady New York at the very end of 1954 by researcher H. Tracy Hall, running the machine in secret on December 16th and New Year’s Eve. GE was sceptical, but finally announced the invention on Valentine’s Day 1955.
On Christmas Day 1954, a plane carrying a cargo of diamonds valued at £1 billion crashed at Prestwick Airport, scattering the diamonds.
Marilyn Monroe married Joe DiMaggio in January 1954, with prominent photos of her diamond engagement ring in Vogue.
In 28 September 1955, a dramatisation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story, A Diamond as Big as the Ritz was televised by Kraft Theater. The story is about a boy who visits a rich school friend whose mansion is built on top of a gigantic diamond. However, he soon realises that the father is paranoid and likely to kill anyone who visits. I will be attempting to squeeze this into my reading for Novellas in November (#novnov).
DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER – IAN FLEMING (1956)
I don’t know how to break this to you, but you have just missed your chance to bid for the original final typescript of Ian Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever, including his signed revisions. It was on sale at Sotheby’s with a large collection of Fleming and Bond memorabilia In November 202. The typescript is expected to sell for between £80,000 and £120,000. All the lots will first be displayed at Sotheby’s prior to a range of four sales, Bond on Bond Street, celebrating all things Bond, from the first book to 60 years on screen.
Who can forget the Diamonds Are Forever theme song by John Barry, sung so wonderfully by Shirley Bassey? It’s as timeless as a diamond and perfect for the glamorous Bond film of the same name. I’ve never been a great Bond fan, but last Christmas they were all shown on television and I watched many of the older ones and reluctantly admitted they had a certain je ne sais quoi.
However, I had never actually read any of the books, so once again, the 1956 Club challenged me to read something I would probably never have got round to.
First surprise: Bond going out for ‘dressed crab and a pint of black velvet’ (Stout and sparkling white wine) with the Chief of Staff. I thought he only drank ‘martini, shaken not stirred’.
Bond is going undercover as a diamond smuggler and his contact is a young woman (surprise, surprise) whose profession is given as ‘single woman’. Surely nobody ever filled that in a passport application? I am dismayed.
Then we visit the London Diamond Club where we are introduced to the idea that Jewish Ripley is instantaneously recognisable as such and may well speak with a strong Jiddish accent. Not very politically correct.
Ian Fleming is very specific with his descriptions of clothes and decor and accessories such as suitcases. I’m sure he was hoping it would be filmed, though the first film wasn’t released until 1962. Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman bought the film rights to all the Bond novels the previous year. In fact the decors and costumes and styling are the main reason for me to watch early Bond films, though some of the dialogue is very funny.
Where’s the humour gone?
That’s one of the things I really miss in the novel. All that witty repartee that makes Bond so appealing, the twinkle in his eye, comes from the film script, not from the book. In fact, I haven’t managed to finish the book yet because I tend to read it when I get into bed at night and before I know it, zzzzzzz.
That isn’t altogether fair of me, but it’s a description of a man’s world of drinking and eating, smoking, horse racing and gambling. It’s dry and long-winded and nowhere near as exciting as the films. Bond and his friend go off into long discussions about gambling odds about which I care not a fig. There was that scene in the steam room for excitement and a tense interview with a crook, but it really isn’t thrilling enough to make me want to push through to the end. I will do it and I may change my mind by then, but at this stage I decided it was time to finish my blog post and move beyond the book and accept that sometimes, just sometimes, the film is better than the book. As far as I know, he doesn’t even say, “The name’s Bond. James Bond.” And if he doesn’t say that, what’s the point?
RIP Sean Connery, (25 August 1930 – 31 October 2020). The best Bond.
A fascinating insight into the Pestalozzi Children’s Villages in Switzerland and Hastings in England. Set up for children affected by WWII, it offered international education together with mother tongue education and curriculum. An early example of crowdfunding, it was founded on utopian principles, hoping to promote world peace and understanding.
After reading Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword, I realised that the children in the story ended up in the Pestalozzi Children’s Village in Switzerland.
Serraillier doesn’t name this international village in Switzerland, but it is obviously the Pestalozzi Children’s Village in Trogen, overlooking Lake Constance. This sent me scurrying to my bookcase because I have a book about this very village, bought from my school library around 1975. The Children’s Village: Village of Peace by the sociologist Mary Buchanan was first published in 1951, presumably to raise funds for the British Pestalozzi Children’s Village Trust in Sussex, of which she was the founder and vice president. I note the cover price was 6/6, 6 shillings and sixpence. Of course, I paid much less. I’m sure I bought it because of the lovely dust jacket design. Oddly, the book smells quite strongly of disinfectant, possibly Dettol, in spite of being on my bookshelves for the past 45 years! Or perhaps it’s the ink it was printed with.
There are also some interesting photos of volunteers building the houses and the children who lived there. Two of the photos show artwork done by one of the orphans, starting with a scene of war and destruction, moving on to a peaceful mountain view, just like Bronia in The Silver Sword.
A silver sword link
I don’t know if Ian Serraillier knew this when he wrote The Silver Sword, but there is a link between the first Pestalozzi village in Switzerland and silver swords which I wouldn’t have discovered if I hadn’t owned this book because the easily available information about the organisation is very brief, especially in English, and seems to contain very little about the history.
“It is in Trogen that, on the last Sunday in April, in alternate years, there is held the ancient ceremony of the Landesgemeinde, when every male citizen goes to the village square to vote on new laws and to elect his cantonal officers. In the small canton of Appenzell there is no parliament. Citizens with the right to vote – that is to say, all Swiss men of the canton who are of age (the women of Switzerland have no vote*) – wear a small sword on this occasion as a sign they are free men.” (p.13)
What an extraordinary coincidence! Surely Serraillier would have used this fact if he’d known it? As it is, the sword that Jan has held on to throughout their ordeal as a talisman, promising that the Balickis will be reunited with their parents, ends up in their mother’s jewellery box. It seems an ignominious end for something that had been held in such high esteem.
* Women only gained the vote at cantonal level in this region of Switzerland (Appenzell) in 1991, though they could vote in federal elections from 1971. Watch a fascinating short video from the BBC about attitudes to women voting when men voted in a referendum on the subject in 1959, including an interview with Switzerland’s first female President, Ruth Dreifuss.
The Founding of the Pestalozzi Village
The story of the founding of the village is one of early crowdfunding. The idea came from Walter Corti, a Swiss medical researcher who had recovered from TB in a sanatorium near Davos, the same one dubbed the Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. Many Swiss people had already taken children affected by the war into private homes for a period of convalescence, helping a total of 20,000 children. In an article, Corti suggested founding an international village for orphans to provide just a fraction of those children a permanent home. Perhaps other countries would follow suit, he thought. It spoke to the Swiss imagination.
Crowdfunding a village
Trogen was one of several places that offered land and the tiny community of 2,000 raised £2,000 (or whatever that was in Swiss Francs) to build a road to the site. The first four houses were paid for by children selling ladybird badges, the emblem of the organisation. These houses were then ‘resold’ for £10,000 each to the Swiss towns of Zurich, Basel and Winterthur plus the major chemical concern Ciba. Other organisations including the cooperative Migros donated a house and there were many small donations, rather like the Blue Peter TV campaigns I remember from my childhood.
The book mentions that all the nurses from a large Zurich hospital went without supper once a week to save up money. Due to currency restrictions, donations from abroad were in kind: oranges from Israel, honey from Australia, coal from Poland. Corti asked Swiss children to ask their municipality to donate a tree, which they then either auctioned or sold as firewood. This raised another 170,000 Swiss francs.
Building a village
Building started in 1946 with the help of 600 volunteers from 17 countries; over 25,000 hours of voluntary labour. The houses were built in Swiss chalet style, designed by Zurich architect Hans Fischli, who even personally supervised the building. They feature lots of wood and had modern facilities including central heating and showers. One half of the house consisted of a living room and a small kitchen for snacks where they could cook their own country’s specialties. The rest of the meals were Swiss-style meals prepared by a central kitchen. The other half of the ground floor contained the bedrooms, each with two to four children, plus a small sick room and bedrooms for the house parents and teacher’s help. Upstairs there was a classroom and office space, with a workshop and storage in the basement. I suspect the description was so detailed because Mary Buchanan’s book was intended to fund similar homes in Britain.
Home from home
Each house was assigned to a particular nationality, staffed by adults of their own nationality, speaking their own mother tongue, following their own traditions and school curriculum, even with their own parents’ religion. Nevertheless, as a global village, the idea was that children of different nationalities would mingle, to “help them to overcome deep-rooted national prejudices, which are only too often artificially nurtured, and enables them to return to their home countries as true citizens of the world determined to stimulate international goodwill.” The children were involved in naming each house: ‘Thames House’ (British), ‘Stepping Stones’, ‘Pinocchio’ (Italian), ‘Kindersymphonie’ (Austrian), ‘Argonautes’ (Greek) and ‘Les Cigales’ (French).
Changing balance of nationalities
New arrivals and departures had major impacts on life at the village. Children were selected by social work organisations in their home countries. Of the things that influenced morale in the village, perhaps the saddest example is the false hope that other children developed when seven Polish children were reunited with their parents after they had been on holiday to Poland; it turned out they weren’t orphans after all. There were many shifts in the village’s population:
1946 Arrivals: French, then Polish children found by the allies in Merano, Italy, then Poles from Warsaw
1948 Departures: Polish children who had visited Poland for a summer holiday were prevented from returning by their government
1947 Arrivals: Austrians from Vienna, via Winterthur, then Hungarians
1949 Departures: Hungarians recalled to their own country
1947 Arrivals: Germans from Hamburg
1950 Arrivals: 32 British children
1956 Arrivals: Hungarians
1960 Arrivals: Tibetan refugees
Education: combining national and international
The children were all taught their national curriculum in their own language in the morning by the house fathers, all qualified teachers. All nationalities spent the afternoons together, learning whatever suited them from a fascinating and cryptic range of practical and artistic subjects, “music, drawing and painting, dramatics, rhythmics and remedial exercises, handicrafts of all kinds, including leathercraft, metalcraft, weaving, cartonnage, aeroplane- and ship-modelling, gymnastics; sport and excursions and games. German lessons also take place in the afternoons” (p.18), except for the German-speakers, who learnt English instead. There was also a village magazine and other clubs.
Sometimes I was amused by the dated descriptions. For instance Mary Buchanan tries to illustrate how free from institutionalisation the village was because you could see “that familiar homely sight, a clothes-line, with white and coloured garments waving gaily in the breeze, while the crickets chirp in the grass of the meadows where a donkey, one of the many pets, grazes in the shade of a large lime-tree.” (p.21)
Children were eventually expected to return to their home countries, hence the home language education and housing, so it was important to keep links with ‘home’. This was done by either sending them to stay with some distant relative or to a holiday camp. I could imagine neither of these solutions was ideal. A relatively short visit to a country is still not enough to feel at home there. The ideals behind the village were very clearly not just to help individual children, but to promote internationalism as a force for peace. They hoped to provide an example that could be replicated elsewhere, perhaps on a wide scale.
Pestalozzi Village in Britain
When the book was written, the British Pestalozzi Village near Hastings was still in its infancy, with a large house housing a small group of needy British children with their house parents and “feeding some forty additional youngsters, Armenian, Hungarian, Latvian, Polish, Russian, Turkish, Ukrainian and Yugoslav boys and girls from displaced persons camps.” Some of these would have been stateless. The intention was to give them vocational training then send them off, probably to Commonwealth countries. I wonder if this is what actually happened.
The modern Pestalozzi
In fact, in both Switzerland and Britain, the focus shifted towards helping children recruited from partner developing countries, originally in Eastern Europe and later in Africa and the Indian subcontinent. In Switzerland, the village still acts as a residential school for disadvantaged children, but also runs short-term residential camps and holidays for needy children from other countries, as well as providing a conference centre for organisations with similar ideals. During the 2015 refugee crisis, they housed a group of unaccompanied child refugees, though nowadays the children have to go to school offsite as the organisation no longer employs teachers. They also rent out accomodation; I discovered a video online of a man who visited the village and the Pestalozzi museum and stayed overnight in one of the houses, presumably in a separate staff accommodation. In Britain, the village has now been sold off to PGL, a provider of ‘school trips, summer camps and adventure holidays’. When this happened, there was an enthusiastic article in the local press about growing up in the British Pestalozzi village.
I certainly wouldn’t have read this if it hadn’t been for the 1956 Club and being triggered by finally reading The Silver Sword. It’s a salutary reminder of the current fate of refugees; few people are willing to take refugee children into their own homes nowadays, unlike in times of war. I understand. I have had the opportunity to host children from Eastern Europe and Africa for a couple of weeks’ holiday or football camp and I’ve never done so; having my own children and French exchange partners visiting was stressful enough for me! In any case, this was certainly a fascinating insight into how an idealistic, utopian idea can be turned into a reality to change the world, at least for a small number of children.
Ian Serraillier’s 1956 children’s adventure book about child refugees travelling from Poland, crossing Germany to find their parents in Switzerland remains as relevant today as ever, though today’s refugees come from different countries.
The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier
This was a book I had on my BookCrossing wishlist, so I was delighted when a Finnish Bookcrosser sent it to me as a so-called RABCK (random act of BookCrossing Kindness) in 2011.
Somehow I had expected this to be about knights and probably Arthurian. I remembered the name Ian Serraillier from shelving books in the school library and thought I had either read this or another of his books. Now I’m certain I didn’t read this and I’m not sure I read any others of his, unless the hated Beowulf the Warrior was the version of Beowulf we had to study in the first year of secondary school (horrible story!). But this is something quite different.
One of the extraordinary things about this particular book is that only one edition of it is listed on Goodreads, not the Puffin edition I have. There is, however, also a script version for the radio adaptation and it was serialised twice by the BBC in 1957 and 1971. Yet everything I have managed to find about Ian Serraillier says that The Silver Sword is his most popular book and I have found multiple blogs online where this is listed as a favourite childhood book. Looking at his other books, the only one I could imagine having read as a teenager is Beowulf the Warrior which we studied in the first year of secondary school, much to my horror; I’d never read anything where a creature’s arm had been ripped off before. Perhaps that’s why I remember his name. The Silver Sword is definitely more enjoyable, even if the story is grim in other ways.
A WWII refugee tale
This is the story of an epic journey undertaken by three siblings from war-torn Warsaw (Ruth, Edek and Bronia Balicki), accompanied by another boy, Jan, who they take under their wing. The children’s father was deported to work in Germany and after being dragged from her home, the children’s mother has fled to Switzerland, her home country, leaving the children alone. Their house is then bombed flat so they live in the rubble. Jan, a wild, thieving boy, presumably an orphan, becomes attached to them because the children’s father gave him a paper knife as a talisman, begging him to tell the children to head for Switzerland. The book is the story of their adventure, the people they meet along the way and the setbacks and strokes of good luck that befall them.
In spite of everything that happens, I can’t say it’s the most exciting children’s book I’ve ever read, but that may be due to my advanced age. Plenty certainly happens; there are numerous incidents that ought to be full of tension and places where it could all have gone horribly wrong.
Nuanced and humanised cameos
Later on in their journey, the children meet a range of adults: a British officer, an American officer at a military tribunal who is sympathetic to Jan’s antics when stealing food, a German farming couple who give them farming work. All these encounters give the opportunity to present a nuanced picture of the post-war landscape. Farmers exploit refugees for their labour, but provide them with food and sometimes shelter. The allied military forces are helping keep order, organising relief efforts, running refugee camps and helping repatriate displaced people.
People like the children in The Silver Sword don’t fit into the grand scheme of things. They are travelling against the flow to a country that is not their own, following the dream of being reunited with parents who may very well have gone back to Warsaw to look for their children or may not even be alive. And it’s worth pointing out, these children aren’t Jewish, so they are allowed more hope than those whose families have been sent to prison camps or have been in hiding. As such, the Balickis and Jan can more easily be accepted by the German farmers.
The military personnel are also humanised: the British officer writes home to his wife and is missing his baby daughter, Ivan the guard in Warsaw is helpful and compassionate, the farmer and his wife have lost their two sons in the war. Nobody is unscathed by the years of war. They pass convalescing soldiers (presumably German) who wave from their sunny balcony as they pass. Everyone is trying to resume life and return to something resembling normality.
Jan has a great affinity with animals. When the other children first meet him, he is carrying a scrawny chicken which he protects against all suggestions he might be eaten. There are other animal encounters along the way. I suspect it’s one of the reasons so many people have such fond memories of the book. While in the transit camp in Berlin, Jan tracks down a chimpanzee that escaped from Berlin Zoo during the aerial bombardment. This reminded me of something else that I read where someone had seen an unusual bird – a stork or a swan perhaps – in somewhere like the Reichstag just after the war. Annoyingly, I can’t remember which book, but I did save this link to Storks in Berlin Zoo, 1936. If anyone knows which book I read it in, I’d love to know.
A personal connection
One particular incident mirrored an incident in my grandfather’s wartime experience. While in Germany, Edek is stopped on the road by the local mayor, who has the job of sending Polish refugees back to Poland. During the war, Edek had been sent to work as a labourer in Germany and could therefore convincingly speak the language. Jan, on the other hand, cannot and so has to pretend to be deaf. This is very like one of my own grandfather’s wartime tales. He had become detached from his unit in France and had to hide in a cave until forced to rely on the generosity of a local family. In return, he helped around the farm. One day, when he was sawing wood with a big two-handed saw, a German soldier came along and offered to help. My grandfather had to pretend to be deaf-mute so the soldier didn’t realise he wasn’t French. I’m sure it’s a ruse that has come in handy for many people in many similar circumstances.
An unexpected Dutch phrase
Just a little aside: something that surprised me was that Ian Serraillier uses the phrase ‘to make a long nose at someone’, in other words, to thumb your nose. I have never heard this in English, but it is a ‘false friend’ translation of ‘een lange neus maken’ in Dutch. I wonder where he picked up that phrase!
Switzerland at last
Even when the children finally reach their destination, the situation is still nuanced. After reuniting with their parents with the help of the Red Cross ITS (International Tracing System), they all have the good fortune to live in an international village, with the Balicki parents becoming house parents to the Polish house. Yet all is not perfect after the traumas of war and their refugee experience: Jan has to unlearn his thieving ways and remains wild, Edek has to recuperate from TB in a sanatorium – of which there were many in Switzerland due to the pure air – and perhaps most tragically of all, the formerly decisive Ruth loses all her self confidence and clings to her mother for security. Only Bronia, too young to really understand and always protected by her substitute mother Ruth, finds it easy to readjust, though at first she can draw only scenes of destruction and escape.
Serraillier doesn’t name the international village in Switzerland, but it is obviously the Pestalozzi Children’s Village in Trogen, overlooking Lake Constance. This sent me scurrying to my bookcase because I have a book about this very village, bought from my school library around 1975. The Children’s Village: Village of Peace by Mary Buchanan. More about that in my next post.
I’m very glad the 1956 Club gave me a good reason to read The Silver Sword, as who knows when I would have got round to it otherwise. I’m not sure if today’s children would find it that exciting because of the way it’s written, but I’m sure a screen adaptation would work very well even today. And sadly, the issues about refugees are just as relevant today as they were back then. It’s still a story worth telling.
Gerald Durrell’s animal collecting trip to Argentina, Tierra del Fuego and Paraguay may not have gone to plan, but his amusing narration and wonderful illustrations by Ralph Thompson saved the day.
Returning to reading Gerald Durrell – any book by him, because I’m not sure which ones I read years ago – is a joyous experience. His stories about both animals of all sorts and the people he meets are invariably amusing.
Perfect illustrations by Ralph Thompson
This is Gerald Durrell’s account of an animal collecting trip to Argentina, travelling on to Tierra del Fuego, then back to Paraguay. Due to bad planning and political disruption, it turned into a chaotic trip that wasn’t entirely successful. As always in in his books, in The Drunken Forest, Durrell gives the animals and birds such character and that is perfectly reflected in the line drawings by Ralph Thompson. Both of them capture the essence of a creature or an incident. Durrell’s obvious enthusiasm spills over into his descriptions. Thompson complements this by sketches that show the animals at their most appealing, with their head at just the right angle: a fawn wrapped in a shirt, a raccoon opening the catches on its cage, a page and a bit of adorable burrowing owl fledglings.
Durrell’s text is so alive because he describes the process of observing and capturing the animals so well. His dialogue is lively and peppered with well-bred expletives, the sort even my non-swearing mother couldn’t object to. Even though his expedition was nowhere near as successful as hoped, the book certainly is.
A pink penguin
My copy is a 1961 Penguin edition with a pink cover that originally cost 2’6 (two shillings and sixpence); it would have taken me three weeks saving up my pocket money to buy that as a child. I’m familiar with orange and green Penguins, so this is rather an anomaly; non-fiction, perhaps? I suspect this is also one of Durrell’s books that I haven’t read before as I bought it in a secondhand bookshop in Eindhoven in 1987 or thereabouts. It was the first time I’d ever lived anywhere with a proper bookshop (i.e. not W.H. Smiths), so I was a regular visitor there, delighted by the choice. In any case, this book is a keeper and I recommend it to everyone. And it’s perfect for reading in 2020 as it’s great medicine; it’s impossible to read this without a smile on your face.
Searching for books for the #1956Club book challenge, I found various candidates, some more appealing than others. This is what I found on my own shelves.
Whilst reading a book blog I follow, I recently saw a reference to the 1956 Club challenge, which involves reading and reviewing one or more books that were first published in – surprise, surprise – 1956. Did I have any books that fit the bill on Mount TBR, I wondered. How would I find them?
Apart from physically opening up any books that I thought were of the era on my own physical shelves (and discovering I have an inordinate number published in 1986 that I opened up, just in case they were older than I thought), I also decided to do a little speculative ferreting for likely candidates on Goodreads. Any author that I could think of who wrote in the 1950s seemed like a good bet, including the children’s authors I enjoyed in the 1960s and ‘70s. I also tried to think of the people who would have been on television back then.
Books that might have appeared in 1956
For me personally, one of the most important things that happened was that my parents got married, as did Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco. Rock and roll was taking off, with Elvis’ first appearance, the first Tefal pan was produced, the first nuclear power station opened in Britain, the first interstates in the US, there was the Suez crisis, The King and I was on Broadway. One thing I realised was that the 1950s was an era of exploration, with the first climbing of Everest in 1953 and other mountaineers and explorers also blazing a trail through the world’s more remote corners. Nevertheless, the Everest books, Annapurna and the Kon-Tiki expedition were too early. Elsbeth Huxley’s Flame Trees of Thika was published in 1959, Joy Adamson’s Born Free in 1960. The only book of that ilk I did find was The Drunken Forest by Gerald Durrell, describing a 1954 animal collecting expedition to Argentina and Paraguay. Fortunately for the purposes of the 1956 Club, his book telling the tale wasn’t published until 1956, followed by his most famous book, My Family and Other Animals, set on Corfu. I read that as a child and was captivated, but no longer have a copy. Sadly, I also never seem to put on the television at the right time to watch the dramatization of the Durrells’ chaotic family life. I am entirely willing to read The Drunken Forest this year, however, but probably not within the confines of the 1956 Club timescale.
Children’s books in 1956
Children’s books are another likely suspect for discovering books published in a certain year, especially those authors who publish many books in a series. As such, I suspected Noel Streatfeild might fit the bill and I was right. However, I have neither of the books which she had published in 1956: Dancing Shoes and a book called Judith that I have never come across. Dancing Shoes is part of the so-called ‘Shoes’ series that started with the wonderful Ballet Shoes, a book I still possess. When I looked up Streatfeild’s books on Goodreads, I was surprised that there were so many in this series, because I didn’t know many of them. I remember one of my favourites being Apple Bough, but had not remembered it as being connected in any way, but Goodreads tells me it was also known as Traveling Shoes. The clue is in the spelling: as Ballet Shoes (1936) had been so successful, Streatfeild’s American publishers decided to rebrand the books as the Shoes series, even though the stories were virtually unrelated. Hence another of my childhood books, Party Frock became Party Shoes. In the Frock version, the children decide to arrange a historical pageant for the whole village, simply because the girl staying with them for the summer has been sent a parcel containing a marvellous party dress (cream organdie with a blue sash) and they need to find a reason for her to wear it. I can almost physically feel the beauty of that dress, even though I read it in my very early teens, or earlier, in my ‘longing to be a ballet dancer’ stage.
Another likely way of finding books published in a particular year is to think of prolific authors; the sort who publish series of books or who seemed to churn out a book every year. One of these was James Michener with 150 distinct works on Goodreads, starting with Tales of the South Pacific in 1947, then publishing new books in 1949, two in 1951, two in 1953, one in 1954 and… his next three in 1957. As already discussed on , another author who used to reliably produce a good novel every year or so was Ian Fleming and, indeed, he wrote Diamonds are Forever, his fourth James Bond novel, in 1956. My husband owns a copy of this, but it remains on my ‘maybe I’ll read it one day’ list.
I then realised that my next best bet was Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason mysteries. Gardner was horribly prolific. My husband collects his books (as did his father before him) and two entire shelves in our bedroom are taken up with them. I’m rather fond of the TV series starring Raymond Burr, especially the later ones, when his secretary Della Street is finally credited with a brain. Della was played by the phenomenally gravelly-voiced Barbara Hale, who was a movie star in her own right before switching to television roles.
I believe I once read one Perry Mason mystery, possibly The Case of the Fan Dancer’s Horse, but don’t quote me on that. Even though my husband was so enthusiastic, I was put off straight away by the ridiculous names and the sexism; Perry always had to explain everything to his secretary Della. No matter that I often need mysteries explained to me at the end, I objected on principle! I had no idea that the first ones had already been written in the 1930s, which obviously makes me look upon the attitudes with slightly more understanding.
Since he was writing for a television series, whilst remaining a practising lawyer, Gardner published several books a year. In 1956 he published:
The majority of his titles are similarly alliterative, which I love, but I much prefer watching the television show to reading the books. Especially the later ones. I might have a peek at one of the Erle Stanley Gardners, just to see whether I dislike it as much as I thought.
Likewise Ian Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever, one of my husband’s books. I am not really a Bond fan, though watching those early films is amusing just to see the decor. I’ve never attempted any of the books, though I have read his brother Peter Fleming’s account of travelling on the Silk Route, News from Tartary, which was fascinating (and is available online).
Obviously I wasn’t able to read all of those within a week, especially as I didn’t even come across the concept until the week had already started. I have skimmed The Drunken Forest and will try to post a review very soon. I have started The Rosemary Tree and will post something about it as soon as I have something to say. I spotted a review on Goodreads of an Elizabeth Goudge fan who mentioned reading a chapter of The Rosemary Tree per night. In theory that is a wonderful idea, but inevitably I will get distracted. As Elizabeth Goudge is one of my mother’s favourite authors, I will try to read it this week, in honour of her birthday week. We shall see. As for the rest, time will tell. They are now earmarked for a skim and brief comments. Watch this space; I hope this will kickstart my return to more active blogging. Thank you for the inspiration, kaggsysbookishramblings, stuckinabook and thank you also to Liz at librofulltime.
A beautiful and imaginative fantasy for older children/teenagers. The blue-haired Singers have special powers for negotiating. Young Rialle needs all her powers to deal with the magical creatures and evil people she meets. Who can she trust?
By no means a perfect fantasy, but worth reading if you don’t expect it to be Lord of the Rings or The Earthsea Trilogy, or even Harry Potter. First in the Echorium Sequence, but the ending is satisfying, leaving you wanting more tales from this universe.
On a remote island, a mysterious order of Singers is trained to become negotiators and peacemakers. They are uniquely suited to this role due to the skills they have honed as Singers, whose five magical Songs can control emotions, punish wrongdoers and even have the seldom-used power of ‘death’. This is a world of Half Creatures, part human, part animal, like the beautiful merlees with their silver hair and the quetzals, birds with flat faces, beaks and beautiful and possibly magical feathers. The names are initially confusing, but there are not too many, so you soon start remembering them.
Inviting comparison with Harry Potter
To start with, I was afraid this was going to be just one more thinly disguised Harry Potter copycat, set as it is in a magical school, though the magic is not in spells and potions. I was worried it was going to degenerate into a school romance with its irritating description of Frenn’s lopsided grin and his possible rival for Rialle’s affections, the hostile and rebellious Kherron.
I needn’t have worried. Soon our heroine Rialle has other things on her mind as she is taken to the mainland as part of a delegation to reprimand the Karchlord whose men have been illegally capturing merlees, breaking a treaty by which they had agreed never to kill Half Creatures. Again, echoes of Harry Potter with the Mud-bloods, but these not part of the human kingdom of wizards. In fact, they are more like the magical creatures that work together on the side of good such as the unicorns and centaurs in the HP Forbidden Forest or even the basilisk. There is a sense that they can communicate with certain exceptional Singers. Of course, Rialle is one of these people. Even though she is still a novice nearing the end of her training, like Harry Potter, she has an innate skill that she needs to learn to tame.
The comparisons with Harry Potter are soon forgotten, however. Katherine Roberts has imagined an unusual superpower for her elite Singers. Who is the Karchlord and why is he so cruel? There are surprises in store! All is not what it seems. What makes it more intriguing is that the trainee Singers are not yet aware of all their powers and the rebel Kherron is separated from Rialle, Frenn and the delegation. This adds an extra tension as we do not know what to expect from him, especially as there is no time to get to know him at the start of the story, except to set him up as a bully and hothead. Likewise, as the story progresses, the two parties find out different information about society in the Karch (the mainland). This means they are not able to trust each other. Are they allies or enemies? Of course, the reader has an overview of everything, but that still leaves room for surprises.
This isn’t a hardcore fantasy novel, so don’t expect Lord of the Rings. However, even though it the book is suitable for older children/teenagers, it does have enough unpleasantness in it to make it unsuitable for sensitive souls, including some rather terrible cruelty to Half Creatures. I would have liked to know more about the merlees and quetzals. They are well described but they can’t communicate clearly, so we don’t really find out what they’re thinking, though they obviously have deep feelings and loyalties. There are also too many places where one of the main characters is drugged or otherwise unable to report on what is happening, keeping them and us in the dark; very convenient! And there were one or two times where Rialle could have saved herself by using her powers and didn’t, hence getting herself into more difficulties.
A beautiful book
The cover of this book is really beautifully illustrated. The Singers dye their hair blue, so the cover shows our heroine’s face with her blue hair curling like a wave with a ship tossed by a giant wave. What at first appears to be a blue tear is a stone held by a half woman half fish merlee (though she should have silver hair, not blue). The black and white illustrations throughout the book are also beautiful, with a different sketch at the start of each chapter, each with a chapter-related medallion in a Celtic knot-style frame. As a bonus there is a map at the front, a medallion naming the five Song types and another page introducing the names and concepts. What I didn’t realise until I’d nearly finished, is that there is also a glossary at the end, but it wasn’t really necessary. Also unnecessary: the sample pages of the following book in the Echorium Sequence.