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I told a fib in my last post; The Mandlebaum Gate isn’t the first book in my Muriel Spark project that I hadn’t read before. I completely forgot that I finished Robinson in August 2006 (you can tell that I’ve been rummaging through old stats!), and that was a first-timer too. I didn’t have the same problems with that novel though, which is making me hopeful that this is a wrong frame of mind situation and not the awful prospect of a book by Dame Muriel that I didn’t like!
Anyone who has been reading this blog over the past year will know that my love for Muriel Spark knows no bounds, and that since her death in 2006 (?) I have embarked on a project to read all of her novels in order, followed by her collected short stories and her memoirs. Only I’ve hit a bit of a snag with The Mandlebaum Gate. This is the first of her novels that I hadn’t read before (I devoured her stuff when I was a student) and it is set (and was written in) the early 1960’s about Barbara Vaughan, half-Jewish convert to Roman Catholicism who, while waiting to find out if her lover will obtain an annulment of his first marriage, goes on a pilgrimage to vist the holy sites in Israel and Jordan.
It started off really well, I was making great progress and now, slightly more than half way through, I’ve come to a complete halt. I do still want to know how things are resolved as Barbara apparently disappears in Jordan, but have no enthusiasm at the moment. I refuse to entirely give up and will put it aside for a revisit later on, but am so disappointed, and not sure what to do about continuing the project until I know whether I’m ever going to finish this book. Oh dear.
And by the way blurb-writer, since when is a book written and published in 1965 and set in 1961 a historical novel?
I have been looking forward to reading Anthony Blunt by Miranda Carter for some time, and I haven’t been disappointed; this is an extremely well-written and assured biography of a complex man which tries to separate the facts from the various theories that have been kicking around ever since he was exposed in 1979. It makes clear the amazing influence he had on art history after the war, particularly in building up the Courtauld Institute into a place of learning to rival the schools of art history on the continent. It doesn’t shy away from the details of his personal life and talks about his spying in a measured and non-judgemental way which allows the facts to speak for themselves. What is particularly interesting is the impact he had on works of art produced by others; Carter refers in particular to the fact that Blunt was the inspiration for the main (female) character in The Finishing Touch by Brigid Brophy (which I haven’t read), John Banville’s The Untouchable (which I have and consider magnificent), and A Question of Attribution by Alan Bennett. She also speculates that Anita Brookner, who was one of Blunt’s students and later taught at the Courtauld, may have based some of her female characters on the many single, “slightly naive and plain” women who seem to have fallen hopelessly in love with Blunt over the years. I can’t recommend this highly enough.
I read my first Stephen King novel, a paperback version of Carrie, when I was 15 (an astonishing thirty years ago) and was totally hooked. I have read almost everything that he has written with the exception of some of his Richard Bachman stories, and always look forward to the experience. Lisey’s Story was no exception, and I have been very impressed with this novel, so much so that at one point before Christmas I had to put it down as I had come to care about Lisey so much that I simply didn’t want to read about the horrible thing that was about to happen to her (this is King after all); I had a strong feeling of dread and wanted to be in the right frame of mind to continue. So when I picked it up on my return to work after the holidays as my commuting read I was prepared for the worst, but of course shouldn’t have worried, because yes, unpleasant things happen but there is triumph over adversity and lessons learned and good wins over evil, but as always there is a price to pay.
I found Lisey a really convincing character, and the descriptions of her relationship with her much-loved late husband, the famous author Scott Landon, really rang true – the secret language, the shorthand, the in-jokes – and her relationship with her sisters was also compelling.
When the novel was published last year King said in several interviews that his wife was concerned that people would assume the Landons were based on them, and there is a temptation to try and fit some of the non-supernatural events into what is known of King’s own career, but the strength of tha characters soon leads you away from that road.
I know that King isn’t to everyone’s taste, especially those of a squeamish disposition, but I wish that he was more highly regarded by the literary establishment and not just pigeon-holed as a genre best-seller.
I can hardly wait for his next novel, which is due out very soon.
The Book God has been most generous once again this year, and has provided me with enough reading to keep me going for some time. There is a mixture of fantasy (The Faery Reel, Widdershins, The Broken Kings) crime and mystery (The Death List, The Ghost Orchid, Dead Clever, Dexter in the Dark, Sepulchre) and more general fiction (The Last Fish Supper, PopCo, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union).
In non-fiction I got the usual mix of history (Mary Tudor, Katherine Swynford, Singled Out), memoirs & diaries (The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates, Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs), biography (Myself & the Other Fellow), and the most wonderfully beautiful coffee table volume At Home With Books which just makes me envious of people with proper library spaces, and has had me rushing off to measure walls for shelving!
Contunuing the Philip Pullman theme, the Book God and I really enjoyed the BBC’s adaptation of The Shadow in the North on Sunday night. I know there have been unfavourable comments about the casting on some message boards, but I didn’t have a problem with it; the RSC and other theatre groups have been taking similar decisions over the past few years so it’s not really an issue for me. I saw it as a piece of good fun, though it helps to like Billie Piper as I do (being a huge Dr Who fan). I haven’t read any of the Sally Lockhart stories so far but will definitely pick up the two that haven’t yet been dramatised and give them a go.
In all the excitement around Christmas preparations and the shock of the one day I spent at work between Christmas and New Year, I forgot to post my impressions of the Golden Compass, the film version (as I’m sure you all know) of Northern Lights, my most recently completed read. I have to say that I found myself a bit disappointed – the special effects were wonderful, the casting was on the whole sound, but I felt that the changes that had been made for dramatic purposes detracted from what I thought was a strong, dark story. I’m not a purist about these things; as someone who has read Lord of the Rings more times than I like to admit, I found the changes Peter Jackson made for the film versions did not undermine my enjoyment of them, but that hasn’t been the case here. A missed opportunity, I’m afraid.
I will be very interested to see what the other two films will be like, assuming they go ahead as the box office returns in the US were not as high as expected, which can often scupper future plans.
The Book God, who is half way through the novel, quite enjoyed the film, but has promised to tell me what he thinks in retrospect once he has read the whole book.
By the way, a “Guid New Year ” to one and all!