From my bookcase: Sovereign: C J Sansom

I have discovered there are only so many way you can ‘stage’ a paperback book on a sofa, or in a kitchen. Note that the cup is empty apart from a tastefully arranged teaspoon, and the scraping-of-the-barrel with the Tesco Oaty Granola bar (which happened to match the book). I fed my hoard of digestive biscuits to the birds whilst awaiting my cholesterol score. The granola bar has been lurking in a cupboard for at least a year, uneaten and unappetising. I knew it would come in useful if I hung onto it long enough.

I’ve now reached book 3 in the ‘Shardlake’ sequence of historical mysteries by C J Sansom. The first one, which I have written about before, was ‘Dissolution’ and the second one ‘Dark Fire’. I read on the internet that C J Sansom is suffering from a form of cancer, though doing well with chemotherapy and currently working on the next massive book in the series. For his personal sake, of course, but also for mine and that of all his other readers, I am keeping my fingers crossed. I am looking forward to reading the several future books he has in mind, which would take his crook-backed detective/lawyer Matthew Shardlake well into old age, and the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

‘Sovereign’ is said to be Sansom’s own favourite instalment, so far.  It is one of those novels that draws you in, the way some films do, so that you find yourself mentally wandering round the streets of – in this case – the teeming, tumbledown city of York long after the you have put the actual book down. York is a dangerous place and Shardlake finds himself narrowly escaping sharp bits of metal flying at him from roasting spits, bears let out of their cages on purpose on dark nights as he is passing, and a crossbow aimed at his chest. There seem to be more deaths in this book, and poor, principled, lonely, misshapen, Shardlake will be forced to disentangle them all amid a web of dark politics and ulterior motives before he is permitted to return to London and the sanctuary of his legal practice.

There is a particularly vivid scene in which Shardlake is obliged to be presented King Henry when he comes to York on a Royal Progress. King Henry, officially anyway, is felt to be a kind of demigod, God’s ‘voice’ on earth, but when he makes a mockery of Shardlake’s disability, describing him as a ‘bottled spider’ in comparison with the tall old man standing next to him, things change. In that moment the lawyer senses the King revelling in his cruelty, whilst making a calculated political point. The King is a monster, a  terrifying creature glimpsed only in segments, as all eyes must be lowered in his presence.

Shardlake ‘records’ the details other people miss. Even as he is being mocked by the King and his entourage he notices that one leg is thicker than the other and that the bandage concealed beneath the hose is discoloured, and catches the rotten smell of pus from Henry’s ulcerated leg.

Sansom’s hero is a modern man trapped in a late medieval setting. This makes his life both difficult and melancholy, but throws into relief the very different mindset of the day. Do not expect much introspection, self-analysis or sympathy for baited bears, dying horses, whipped urchins, starving peasants or emaciated and hideously tortured prisoners, except from Shardlake.

Here are another couple of moggie pictures, while I think about it:

Martha wonders whether she will be the legal owner of this selfie, whilst George has a little wash 🙂

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Unexpected Rainbows

Sometimes life throws you an unexpected bonus or – if things have really been bad –  a consolation. For example, the other day I had to wait an hour at the hospital for a blood test, and the buses home only go once an hour. I sat with my torn-off paper ticket (number 106 in a queue starting at 85) and I sat, and I sat, and finally I got behind that blue curtain to get my blood test, one minute after the bus was due to have left. I trudged to the hospital bus stop and found nobody waiting. Yes, my bus had definitely gone. And then there it was, like magic, my precious bus coming round the corner, two minutes late. Did you just do me a good turn? I asked the universe.

And today I have rainbows. I put some sheeting stuff up at the kitchen windows – it’s clear, textured plastic, held up by nothing more than warm water and washing up liquid, plus suction. The reviews on Amazon did mention rainbows but I hadn’t seen any. Ah well, I thought, I am now invisible to the neighbours and vice versa, and that’s all that matters. Privacy is restored.

I have this thing, you see, about eyes. It feels as if I am caught in the headlights when someone stares at me, and particularly if they persistently stare at me. I read somewhere that in the 17th century and earlier, people did not yet understand about light and vision (I believe it was Newton who eventually sorted it out) and actually believed that people ‘saw’ by sending out an invisible beam from their eyes. In other words, their eyes were sending out light rather than receiving it. John Donne uses this to good effect in his erotic poem The Ecstasy:

Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread / Our eyes upon one double string…

Anyway, although I am a Thoroughly Modern Post-Newtonian Person and know that nobody is actually fixing me with their X-ray eye-beams, that’s what it feels like. In some sort of psychic or psychological way, it hurts. And similarly, if I am forced to stare at someone or even see them when I don’t want to, it hurts. Without intending to they are invading me, and the space around me, just by being in my line of sight.

So, given this weirdness, which seems to be  one of two absolutely fundamental and incurable issues with me – boundaries and visibility – I more-or-less solved the problem by buying two rolls of the plastic stuff on Amazon. And today, finally, the sun shone brightly enough through my kitchen window to create those promised rainbows.

Sorry it’s cats again – and sorry for apologising since I know from previous feedback that this is British of me – but sorry, anyway – but cats is what I have a lot of and cats are what I spend most of my day either feeding, tripping over or being sat-upon by. I just saw these rainbows on the cats – and on the floor – and decided I must try to capture them – for posterity – for this electronic treasure trove of ours – and for – not having to wash up a whole sink load of cat dishes for at least another five minutes. So much more fun to tiddle about with photographs.

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Plastic rainbows on my grubby kitchen floor (hence the vignette filter causing a convenient Darkness on the Edge of… um, the floor tile)

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Henry in his basket, bedecked with rainbows. Suspect he cannot see them, as I read somewhere that cats can only see in shades of blue and lilac. This seems like a terrible disability, if it’s true, but it doesn’t seem to stop them catching mice.

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 Henry – more rainbows.

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Martha -no rainbows, because being a tortoiseshell (calico) she carries one around with her.

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Rosie – no rainbows, just because I love her, and she’s getting on a bit now. Rosie was rescued from a road in Norfolk as a tiny, sick, dehydrated kitten and brought to me on a hot summer’s day, in a cardboard box with no proper air-holes, all the way round the M25 and beyond. She is the inspiration behind my blogging name: Rosie2009 and the reason for much subsequent confusion.

From my bookcase: Tea Time for the Traditionally Built: Alexander McCall Smith

Mma Precious Ramotswe is a large lady, so much so that her elderly car has developed a permanent dip on the driver’s side. But the heroine of Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series can make an advantage of any disadvantage. She is, she explains, full of national pride, ‘a Lady of Traditional Build’. All the other ladies and gentlemen – the Mmas and Rras of McCall Smith’s fictional Botswana – perfectly understand this distinction.

When her father dies she is left a little money and, having escaped from her no-good husband, the handsome but wicked musician Note Makoti – who will resurface later in the series to torment her – Precious decides to set up a detective agency. She names it The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency, something she can legitimately do as is the only ladies detective agency in Botswana.

Imaginative business names are a feature of the series and part of the ongoing entertainment. Some of my favourites are Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, The Kalahari Typing School for Men, The Double Comfort Safari Club and – best of all in my view – the Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon.

I have never visited the real Botswana and am never likely to, and so I can continue to enjoy the comforting illusion that Botswana is an earthly paradise, the most civilised, the most beautiful, the most fertile place on earth, and filled with the loveliest and kindest of people, as Mma Ramotswe believes. She is naturally positive and has a knack for solving the everyday problems of her fellow Batswana with a combination of luck, common sense and excellent people skills.

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As the series goes on we are introduced to a huge cast of eccentric characters. Among others there are Mma Ramotswe’s second husband Mr J L B Matekoni, and her spikey and scarily ambitious sidekick Grace Makutsi – she of the unfortunate skin, the big glasses and the down-at-heel background in an out-of-the-way village, who conducts an ongoing conversation with her shoes. There is Violet Sephotho, that ‘Jezebel’ from secretarial college; there are Grace’s eventual husband Phuti Radiphuti and her eventual baby, the impressively named Itumelang Clovis Radiphuti. If you are one of the few people on the planet haven’t come across this series or seen the TV version, give it a go. You’ll probably love it. I say probably because there are people out there who don’t like Harry Potter, so anything is possible.

Tea Time for the Traditionally Built is number 10 in a series of 16, and very shortly to be 17 for, I have just discovered, the latest in the series is actually due for publication tomorrow, the 7th of September. Now there’s a coincidence! Unfortunately I am going to have to wait until the cheaper and more convenient paperback/second-hand version comes out in six months or so, but at least I know it’s out there, and waiting … It’s called:

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From my bookcase: Dissolution: C J Sansom

It is well known that cats are drawn to those who fear them most, and sit at their feet, eyes wide and sort of… threatening. I have long suspected that this principle is in fact universal, and that potentially life-threatening items are inexorably attracted to those who fear them most. Hence the deadly nightshade.

I have deadly nightshade in my garden. I cannot dig it out (as advised by the internet) because its actual roots are in my next door neighbour’s garden and she, being a school teacher and not afraid of anything, didn’t take me seriously when I hinted that she might dig it out. She had her fence panels renewed recently and I suppose the ground being disturbed has given new life to the indigenous weed population. Now the dreaded belladonna has joined those two other local residents, the giant bramble and the unidentifiable yellow triffid-thing.

I’ve always been worried about poisonous vegetation. I remember even as a child, some other infant telling me not to eat the tiny black seeds that rained onto the pavement from the laburnum tree in my mother’s front garden because they were deadly poisonous. That set the seed, as it were, for my not-quite-phobia.

Every few weeks or so the stuff starts sprouting and every few weeks or so I go out there armed with thick rubber gardening gloves, the secateurs, a garden-rubbish bag and a bottle of vinegar to cut it back.  The internet advises that deadly nightshade cannot thrive in a vinegar-treated environment. I can see the amateur chemistry behind this – acetic acid versus poisonous alkaloid. Unfortunately my deadly nightshade plant just seems to guzzle it up and sprout away again.

A long and winding introduction, then, to C J Sansom’s historical crime novel, first in the ‘Shardlake’ series, entitled ‘Dissolution’. You may remember that in a previous post I mentioned my calamitous loss-of-mojo as far as reading was concerned, but I also said I was still trying to get lost in books again, and ‘Dissolution’ is the novel I am trying it with. I found a battered copy in a charity shop – 50p, excellent value – on the way from the bus to the train station. I seem to be permanently between bus and train station nowadays, when not mucking out or feeding cats, decapitating monster brambles or sloshing vinegar on the belladonna.

I suppose this is a sign the book-mojo-magic-thing worked, at least temporarily: having read to the end of Chapter 12, where a poor little novice monk is poisoned by deadly nightshade and comes to a terrible, hallucinating, twistingly-spasmodic end, I put down the book and went out under the full glare of the midday sun (gosh, it’s hot out there!) and attacked the belladonna. It’s been well and truly cut off and vinegar-sodden and I have washed my hands at length at the kitchen sink using yellow washing-up liquid. Irrelevant, I know, the yellowness of the washing-up liquid, but the good detective (or hunchbacked lawyer/agent of Lord Cromwell in this case) lets no detail pass unrecorded.

So, a good one to read if you like that sort of thing. ‘Dark Fire’, the next one in the ‘Shardlake’ series, arrived today. Post-lady gave up trying to push it through the letter box after ten minutes or so of determined wrestling (I was watching her in the living room mirror – even behind frosted glass that tomato-red Royal Mail uniform is unmistakeable) and had to knock on the door and hand it to me in person. Really, I suppose, I should have got up and opened the front door but I was curious to discover how long she would spend trying to ram a thick novel through an obviously inadequate hole in a door.

The cat in the photo is Sophie, by the way. She was my first cat and has, sadly, gone to that great Summer Garden in the sky. And greatly missed she is, even now, hence the elaborate photo frame which I found, of all places, in a garden centre café whilst queuing for egg-on toast and a pot-of-tea with Mum and Dad. Funny how objects bring back memories.

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Post McEwan Stress Disorder

This picture is from tiny card my mother once sent me. The message inside is mundane:

Monday, 2pm

I received your letter. Went over to the garage. Explained about little red spanner [Skoda’s irritating ‘service due’ warning light].

They can deal with little red spanner ie: take it off so that it won’t be a nuisance any more.

I left the key with them. It will soon be dealt with.

Love, Mum XXX

It felt a bit creepy reading this so-ordinary and long-forgotten message from Mum’s earlier self, but it was nice to see her handwriting, and to see that all the full stops were once again in the right place, the ‘i’s all meticulously dotted and the ‘t’s all crossed. The style’s clumsy for her, though – ‘it’ must already have begun at that point, and I didn’t realise.

It was a long drawn out and horrible Flowers For Algernon process, for us both, first watching her handwriting decline and then her mind refusing to tell her what to write in letters to friends, and her desperate strategies to keep doing so: the sudden change to writing in pencil – I bought her a whole box of 2Bs and a desktop pencil-sharpener which neither of us could then fasten to the desk; the endless, obsessive process of rubbing out bits of sentences and trying again; the rewriting of entire letters; the asking me to check them before she posted them.

I have a little nightmare of the same thing happening to me one day – and not realising – and gibberish appearing in this blog, and either no one telling me (and who would want to be the one to do that?) or everyone just Unfollowing. Oh, God save us from an unknown future.

I found Mum’s butterfly card in one of my books. Being lazy and using everything from letters to bus tickets to torn-off pieces of cereal packet does have its upside. You never know what little treasure you might to come across when you get round to tidying your books. I also found a lot of bookmarks from a particular second-hand bookseller.

Every time you order a second-hand book from them, no matter if it only cost 99p, they include a nice cardboard bookmark with a design submitted by a reader. And they are excellent bookmarks (they must have many graphic artists among their readers) and also an excellent selling point. It works with me anyway: I always look down the list and see if I can get the book from them rather than any of the alternatives, out of sheer bookmark-greed.

I notice a preponderance of the black-and-white-one-with-the-many-skulls. I remember, in fact, them sending me three black-and-white skull bookmarks inside a single ancient paperback one time, and picturing some poor, bored school-leaver on work-experience in an office on an industrial estate, fishing for the umpteenth time into a plastic bin full of pretty bookmarks and flinging in whatever happened to come out. I wonder if they do swapsies?

And now, by the magic of technology and a lot of messing about with fancy filters I am able to use Mum’s little butterfly card in a post. Mum would have been horrified, not at the idea per se but at the prospect of me attempting to explain it to her. Her eyes would glaze over the minute I started on about my computer: Mum was very good at un-listening, as no doubt most Mums are.

Why am I going on about butterflies? Well, I was going to use this picture as an illustration for the next Books From My Bookcase item. This was going to be a debut collection of short stories called A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies by John Murray (2004). The book leapt out at me because it is one of two physically beautiful books I possess, the other one being the hardback first edition of How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff – the one with the gorgeous red flowers. Hang on, lets try to find it:

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The above doesn’t do it justice. Bits of it (the leaves) are all shiny and lit up – sorry, metallicised – can’t find it in the dictionary but sure it’s a real word – metallized just wont do! – and bits of it are left matt. And Tropical Butterflies is yellow and brown and kind of fusty-Victorian-looking, and inside there is a bonus – an extra sheet – what do you call that? – the front paper – with a glossy version of the same yellow cover, a delightful little shock when you open it.

Now, later on in life, I understand why I married an artist. I thought it was only an unhappy childhood and alternative brain-wiring we shared but it was also an eye for beauty. In another life, maybe, I shall be a  collector of objects d’art Maybe I can go back (since I doubt that ‘lives’ are in chronological order) to the 17th Century and be a man (makes life easier, always) and have a cabinet of curiosities full of wonderful and mysterious things that I can show off to callers. Or maybe I’ve already had that life.

Rats.

In any case, having found A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies I realised I had only in fact read a few little bits of it. The short stories look good, if a mite challenging. They certainly got good reviews:

“John Murray’s stories are a genuine cultural breakthrough… adventures of the mind, and rich in human feeling, true departures from any other known fiction.” Muriel Spark

I think I read a little bit of one and had uncomfortable flashbacks to Ian McEwan. I had a really bad experience with his macabre short story collection The Cement Garden (1978). Every one of those tales frightened the living daylights out of me. Never been the same since. Post McEwan Stress Disorder.

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From my bookcase: R K Narayan: The Painter of Signs

Sort of visual pun, tee hee!

A few days ago I said I would select books from my bookcases at random, but at that point my bookcases were in total disarray so I couldn’t have found a book on purpose if I’d set out to. Since then you will be pleased to hear that I have re-alphabetised my library and you know, I feel so much better for it.

I have also found my Sisters By Chance, Friends By Choice wooden coaster. I foolishly made mention of this coaster in an old post (Being a Beastly Sister) stating that it was one of my most treasured possessions. On re-reading the post for some reason I realised – it’s a sinking feeling that becomes more and more familiar as you get older – that actually I had no idea where this treasured possession was. Then I felt like an Even Beastlier Sister.

I had to find it. I can’t not look for things once I realise they are lost, and since I have a tendency to ‘file’ small objects I don’t want to lose but don’t quite know what to do with – such as bookmarks, letters and coasters – between books in my bookcase, I decided to spend an afternoon playing a simultaneous game of ‘sort the books’ and ‘hunt the special coaster’.

Now that the books are in alpha order, it’s difficult to avoid an element of selection, so I’ve decided to just hop about a bit, from one writer-nationality and writing style to another. They say variety is the spice of life and I suppose it might be true. My life has been quite varied, I suppose, but I seem to have missed out on the spice.

So, R K Narayan: The Painter of Signs (1977). Quoting from the back cover again:

Raman is considering giving up sign painting when he meets Daisy of the Family Planning Centre. Slender, high-minded, thrillingly independent, Daisy has made up her mind to be modern and is now dedicated to bringing birth control to the people.

In such circumstances Raman’s mounting, insistent passion, coupled with Daisy’s determination to disregard the messy, wayward concerns of the heart, can lead only to conflict. R K Narayan’s magical creation, the city of Malgudi, provides the setting for this comic, bittersweet story of love getting in the way of progress.

R K Narayan (1906 – 2001) whose full name was (cut-and-paste here) Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami, was an Indian writer known for his stories set in the fictional South Indian town of Malgudi. He was born in Madras (now Chennai) and was a leading author of early Indian literature in English. He lived till he was 94.

I think I probably started collecting R K Narayan novels and short stories out of a fascination with language in general. It may have been around the time I was working through an Open University linguistics unit. Until then it had not really dawned on me that my own beloved English language was metamorphosing into series of entirely new languages in many parts of the world. To begin with there is English as she is spoken in England, and a slightly different version in America, say, or India.

But at some point in the future the all these new ‘Englishes’ may become as hard for a speaker of the original language to understand as Dutch or Old English are today. The inexorable passing of time, and the distance of people from one another… everything changes, nothing stays the same. One day Shakespeare will have become genuinely incomprehensible, not merely to English schoolchildren but to English professors of English Literature too, unless they have a translation.

Although, of course, the internet may now be acting as a force in the opposite direction, with a tendency to steer all the Englishes back to a shared centre ground. Anyway, most of us have not travelled that far from each other, linguistically, yet. We can still revel in Indian English as spoken and written on the Subcontinent, it’s intricacy, its formality, its musicality, its subtle differences and its joyful quirkiness:

‘The very man I was looking for,’ said the lawyer, holding him up. He had undergone a correspondence course in law. ‘I must give you the happy news just received: I have passed the law, and I want your help to get my nameboard done immediately.’

‘Certainly, I’m at your service,’ said Raman.

‘I knew you would help me,’ said the lawyer. ‘I want it before eleven a.m. on Thursday.’

‘Impossible,’ said Raman. ‘I want at least five days – drying takes time…’. He felt desperate, having to explain to man after man how one had to allow time for paint to dry. No one understood the importance of this.

I won’t go on. Coffee and biscuits beckon, and the washing machine has finished its chunterings and started to whistle from the kitchen. So far we have roamed from a bleak 1950s vision of a futuristic America, to a little novel of 1950s academic England, to a fictional city in southern India in the 1970s.

Where might our bookcase time- and space-travellings take us next?

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The tiger’s name is Kevin, by the way. He has lived with me for a long time

From my bookcase: Flowers For Algernon: Daniel Keyes

I’m experimenting, really. Feel free to skip.

For my artsy-craftsy patchwork-selling project, which seems to be moving at snail’s pace like all of my projects, I need to be able to take still-life-type pictures on that Fire-Thingy and transfer said pictures to this Computer-Thingy. Of patchwork stuff. And sell it. That’s the idea, anyway.

It may surprise you to learn (or not) that my level of expertise is not high. More or less everything I know about computers I have worked out for myself, then usually forgotten or lost my voluminous notes for, then had to teach myself all over again. Sigh! My sole asset is a pig-headed Holmesian determination to work out, by the Application of Logic, the Elimination of the Impossible and so on, how to achieve something horribly complicated once I have set my mind to it.

This doesn’t happen very often. Usually I give up. 

So, I took the above photo. It took quite a few attempts and in the meantime I discovered that a cat had peed in my ‘budget’ tray overnight – or possibly several nights ago –  and soaked my latest budget and related papers. Also remembered that I had four letters to post and had neither washed up nor made the bed.

The photo is not a brilliant but it is, after hours of faffing about, sitting at the top of a WordPress post. Yay! My computer is now demanding a password every time I turn it on. How did that happen? Someone?

The basic idea is that every now and then I will select a book from my book case more or less at random, ‘compose’ an amateur-arty-farty still-life photo to hone my electronic photo-taking/uploading skills and then write a tiny bit about the book to make it worthwhile.

So, Flowers For Algernon was a long short-story, published in Galaxy Science Fiction in 1959, which later metamorphosed into a novel. It is a story about the friendship between a boy and a doomed laboratory mouse called Algernon. It is about the blossoming and fading of intelligence. It is about the joy of understanding everything and the grief when you realise your new understanding is fading.

How – or whether – you read it depends on your life experience, I think. If you have had to deal with disability or seen dementia in real life you may find this book closer to horror than science fiction. It’s very, very sad.

If you can cope with it, though, it’s one of the finest short stories/novels ever written. (Not for nothing does my edition of the book have MASTER WORKS printed down the side.)

Algernon is a laboratory mouse who has undergone surgery to increase his intelligence by artificial means. The story is told by a series of progress reports written by Charlie Gordon, the first human test subject for the surgery, and it touches upon many different ethical and moral themes such as the treatment of the mentally disabled. Wikipedia

It is technically brilliant because the language tracks the mental enhancement and subsequent mental degeneration of Charlie, from an IQ of 68 to an IQ of 185 and back again. To sustain that throughout a very long story – I don’t know how he did it, and mostly I do know how writers did it, even if I couldn’t do it myself.

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Flowers For Algernon

🙂