30 September 2012

Imagining Tiverton Square and Three Reviewlets

Isn't this original dust jacket glorious?
I wish I owned it.
The Square Circle by Denis Mackail

Finding a copy of a Denis Mackail novel was one of the highlights of my big book hunt in Maine this summer. I love the Persephone reissue of his novel Greenery Street and was delighted to find another book by him. The title refers to the social circle of the London residents who live on Tiverton Square. The novel The Square Circle follows a year in the life of the square circle. Get it?

I found the way that Mackail introduces us to residents of Tiverton Square and to the square itself to be quite charming. As the action unfolds and the residents interact in, and with, the square a wonderful little world unfolds. Mackail describes the square, the houses surrounding it, and the residents who live on the square. He even assigns a house number to each resident so you begin to understand who lives where. I was quickly enthralled as I began to build a mental image, and thanks to knowing the house numbers and how they were arrayed around the square, I could easily imagine the route a resident would take as they went to and fro. I became so enamored of the details that I felt I had to write down the details and eventually this turned into the rather crude drawing you see here.

The houses were all built between 1781 and 1831 and are generally cream colored stucco on the first floor with brownish brick above, iron railings and fan lights over the front doors. The houses on the “quietly superior” North Side had an extra storey and seem more remote from the street. The streets fronting the East and West sides are distinctly narrower and closer to the square. The East Side has a cobbled alley in the back with converted mainly converted mews houses. The South Side has the most tenuous relationship to the square with a wide street where traffic “roars and rumbles”.

My version of Tiverton Square.
I know there are problems with it. Like the London streets would not follow such a rigid grid like they would in most American cities, but my drawing skills are quite limited. Also, the streets fronting the square are probably not called the street names that I have listed. Those streets are the ones in the book that lead into the square, but probably do not front the square or those houses. If they did then the house numbers wouldn't be No. 1 Tiverton Square, etc.) But the streets were the hardest to figure out from the text so, no doubt mistakes were made.

And just in case there are any fans of The Square Circle who stop by My Porch, I thought I would give little Dramatis personae cheat sheet.

North Side (Nos 1-10)

No. 3 – Sir Herbert Livewright
No. 7 – Mrs Gillingham
No. 4 – Miss Leggatt
No. 6 – Peter Gore Blundell
No. 10 – Mr Justice Melhuish

East Side (Nos 11-24)

No. 13 – Colonel Parkinthorpe
No. 14 – The Norton Family
No. 16 – Lady Poley
No. 17 – Miss McGregor
No. 18 – Wiseman
No. 20 – The Bristow Family and Angus the dog
No. 20 Mews – Peter and Poppy Davidson
No. 22 – The Ashton Family
No. 23 – Cresswell

South Side (Nos 25-30)

No. 26 – Joe Aronson, Esq.
No. 30 – Mrs Mumsey

West Side (Nos 31-44 or so)

No. 32 – Miss Kitty Buzzard
No. 34 – Mrs and Miss Carpenter
No. 35 – Master Elphinstone
No. 37 – The Allinson Family
No. 39 – Mr Waveney
No. 41 – Tenterden
No. 42 – Eastwood
No. 43 – Mrs Iremonger
No. 44 – The Schofield Twins

I mostly enjoyed following the characters through a year of their lives, but some more than others. And I did find a place or two where I thought the narrative dragged a bit. But I also found something about the way Mackail describes it all that made me think of Greenery Street. I tried to come up with a way to describe why the two books felt similar and why both of them seem are so evocative of something that I can’t quite put my finger on. It has something to do with appealing to the urbanist in me.

The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym

A wonderful novel by Pym. I know that is a redundant phrase, but it is so true. Leonora goes after antique dealer Humphrey or is it really his nephew she is after. It’s wryly funny and sometimes a bit uncomfortable. Had a kind of Sparkian dark undercurrent to it.

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor

And speaking of a dark undercurrent…Angel is a precocious young girl who literally writes her way out of (near) poverty. She writes fantastical novels that come right out of her imagination and are completely ignorant of the world. Lots of over the top nobility doing things that a poor little girl imagines rich people doing, or book on Greek antiquity that mixes up and interchanges Greek and Roman details willy nilly. Her books are panned by the press and wildly popular with the masses. She ends up creating a really oppressive world for her mother and anyone else who comes near her, yet she seems to think everything is normal.  Even thought this didn’t turn into “young girl makes good and lives happily ever after” as I had at first hoped, I quite enjoyed it and found it hard to put down. The one thing that didn’t ring true to me was that Taylor makes it clear that Angel doesn’t read at all. And she doesn’t have TV or radio, or the cinema, or plays, or church, or anything else  yet she still manages to dream up all these worlds. But how does she do that with no cultural points of reference? She doesn’t write science fiction so it isn’t like her books are total fantasy, so where does Taylor think she gets her fodder?

The Far Country by Nevil Shute

This book is so Shute-ian it would probably take a fan to like it. And I did. Every page of Shute’s simplistic, workman-like prose is dripping with can-do attitude and hatred for socialism and the then newly instituted National Health System.  Shute posits Australia as the antidote to everything that ails the UK. Not surprising since Shute himself emigrated to Australia because of the post-war political situation in Britain. I am know I am making it sound more serious and less fun than it is. But if you have every read a Shute you might get into the groove of this one. If you haven’t, skip it in favor of The Pied Piper, On the Beach, or A Town Like Alice.

23 September 2012

A rant, two bits, and one bob

If life weren't so short, I would go back through all of my blog posts and count the number of times I said "life's too short". I am generally not one of those people who has a hard time giving up on a book. If I am not enjoying something I chuck it and move on to something else. The only time this becomes a real problem is when I let my OCD get in the way.

Now, before I go any further, let me say a word or two about my OCD which I talk about here with a frequency that must bore some of you. My case is pretty darn mild. I don't incessesantly count things, or have to have all of the fibers of a rug facing the same direction. I don't have to turn a light switch on and off a set number of times before I can leave it on or off. No, mine is your garden variety OCD. Like I needed to have all 100 of the Penguin Great Ideas series because they have numbers on their spines and once I had 2 of them I needed to have the remaining 98. Or I need to make lists of things and then cross them off so I can make more lists. And then there are times when two obssessions (or would they be compulsions) fight for dominance. For instance, I keep all the fiction in my library in author alpha order. But I refuse to shelve the 40 or so dove grey Persephones that I own in with the rest of my fiction. The uniformity of their spines is far too compelling when assembled en masse. My NYRB Classics are at least different colors so I could see them mixed in with the rest of my fiction in alpa order, but to be honest, right now they are instead all grouped together on my shelves, as are my Viragos, and Penguin classics and Melville House novellas.

You can see my need for visual uniformity sometimes trumps my need for organization uniformity.

Anyhoo, to get back to the subject at hand. Sometimes I get on a kick where I am compelled to follow through with a reading plan not because I find it enjoyable, but because I feel like I need to. And why do I need to? Sometimes just so that I can say that I have read something, or so that I can cross something off a list, or so that I can complete some arbitrary challenge that one of you maniacs have cooked up.

One challenge that is really starting to stick in my craw is one that I made up for myself about 13 years ago: that bitch of a list better known as the Modern Library's list of the top 100 books of the 20th Century. It was a given that I wasn't going to read anymore Joyce or Faulkner, both of whom appear multiple times on the list. And for some reason I don't have a problem with the mental asymmetry that that concession creates. But there are other books on that list that are really, really, I mean really, not my cup of tea.

Like anything by Joseph Bloody Conrad. His books exist merely to give English professors job security. Or what about DH Lawrence? What a whopping great bore he is. And a new entrant to my anti-wish list is Ford Madox Ford and his freaking, frustrating, pile of steaming poo known as Parade's End. Let me tell you sweetie that parade didn't end fast enough for me.

A pretty picture of a literary pile of poo.

Like I started off by saying at the top of this ramble, I don't have a problem setting things aside, but my need to finish that ML100 list is starting to impact the quality of my life. Something I am no longer willing to tolerate. In recent weeks I have been reminded in a personal and very profound way that life is too damn short to put up with books I hate just so I can cross them off a list. I mean enough already. If the weather was colder I would throw this pile of books in the fireplace and set them alight. They have been haunting my shelves for too long. The 118 pages of Lord Jim that I have read so far is 117 more than I should have read. The time spent slogging my way through the first third of Women in Love is like a third of my adulthood thrown out the window. And then Ford Madox I couldn't write a linear narrative to save my life, aren't I clever Ford. If he thinks I am going to move from Some Do Not to the other three books in his tetrology,  he can turn over a few times in his grave and think again.

I still think I may give the Malcolm Lowry another go. True I have been a little slow about it, but there is something about it that I like. And then all the Henry James on the list? I do kind of enjoy his meandering, rambling style.  And I am still going to give the ML100 books a go. But I am not going to try as hard. If I don't like them by page 50, they are gone.

Bit #1
Now that I am giving up on some of the ML100 books I need some suggestions for the following years for my Century of Books list.  Extra points for books that aren't known for their literary groundbreakingness.


Bit #2
I have actually been reading some enjoyable books lately, just haven't gotten around to writing anything here. Hope to rectify that soon.

My work project has been in a writing-intensive stage recently which has not only made me very lazy on My Porch, but has made me incredibly lax in keeping up with your blogs. I hope to look a the 188 unread blog posts waiting in my Google reader very soon.