Friday, 30 September 2016

Book-dowsing: The Finishing School by Muriel Spark

Unlike my other favourite Spark books (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Girls of Slender Means, Loitering with Intent) it is the setting rather than the characters of The Finishing School that have lingered for me. This book-dowsing was done from my own shelves and though it has been a good five years since I first read The Finishing School, College Sunrise was as I'd remembered it whereas the plot and the people were vague shadows. I'd forgotten, for example, that there was an attempted murder.

Written in the third person, the main players are the precocious student Chris, and Rowland the teacher and joint manager of the College. Rowland is allegedly writing a novel - and has been trying to write one for a while. Flame-haired Chris is writing his first novel aged 17 and is doing very well with publishers and agents keen to use his age as a selling point for the book. Rowland becomes obsessed with Chris, doing what he can to undermine the progress of the novel while denying to himself just how fixated he is getting with his pupil. Rowland's wife Nina can see what affect Chris is having on her husband but as Rowland resists any attempt to wrest Chris from his life her thoughts turn to life beyond her marriage. Chris begins to suspect the power he has over Rowland when a fellow pupil informs him that the man searched his room for his manuscript while he was away from the school. Ultimately, he finds he needs Rowland about so he can actually finish his book. As Rowland's obsessions shows slight signs of waiving, Chris takes his own steps along that route.

College Sunrise is a school that moves from country to country, maintaining itself with the fees paid by the parents of the small, select band of pupils. A minimal number of staff work at the College and the hotel next door provides its pool for the boarders to use. As I said at the start, the setting of this novel has left a larger impression on me than the events, I think because of the idea of a peripatetic school with minimal classroom sizes and no real exams exerted a great fascination over my inner teenager. She would have loved to experience that kind of thing! This isn't to say that the characters are dull and the plot of little interest. Love of College Sunrise alone would not have seen me through to the end of a book when so many others are waiting in the eaves to be read.

Muriel Spark

The book is standard Spark. She has a unique style which I imagine you either like or you don't. Her narrative takes in the past and the future in effortless asides though unlike some of her other books this one does not flit from present to past to future quite so much. Her characters are all pleasantly grey - by that I mean that they are neither one extreme nor the other, neither evil nor good but a collaboration of these two. This means that her writing is pleasantly free of one-dimensional archetypes and her characters are able to be themselves. 

At a little over 150 pages, it's a short book and one you could take on a train journey to while away the time. I would recommend this book as I enjoyed it but I don't think it's one of Spark's best. It wouldn't be the first book of hers I would set before you if you were new to this author - check out the three novels listed at the top of this page for those I would direct you to first.

Friday, 23 September 2016

The teachers that we meet

Throughout life, we have many teachers. There are those who teach us matter of fact things like words and numbers, and give us a bearing in the structure of the world. There are others who give lessons without evening knowing they are doing it. Vashti was such a teacher for me.

At age 20, she was dealing with mastectomy, breast reconstruction and stage 3 breast cancer. In time the cancer spread to her spine, and on Sunday 18th September, aged just 23, Vashti passed away.

Beyond that first swell of grief my over-riding feeling was of gratitude - gratitude that I had known this amazing person. There was a desire to turn to anger as there always is when we lose someone important to us but to me it is more in keeping with the person she was to consider the blessing of knowing her to the bitterness of being without her.

Vashti was an inspiring woman - I feel uncomfortable using the past tense 'was' as I think the memory of her still is inspiring to those who knew her. She never complained about her situation, never gave in to enraged 'why me' rants though it could be argued she had every right to a pity party. There were no cryptic, attention seeking comments on social media. She never said that life was shit.

She would post on Facebook asking people to share their smiles and to say why life was good. She was thankful and often spoke of her gratitude at the wonder there was to be found in life. Days before her death she pointed out that the full moon was a harvest moon, the biggest of the year - a typical Vashti comment showing her awareness of the great wide world outside and the beauty it had to offer.

It is a clich̩ to say it but to me she was a being of light. Cancer took her mobility, her health and ultimately her life Рbut it never took her light, that fierce, creative brightness. She lived more fully in the short time she had than many manage in decades. I only have to look at the messages people are leaving for her to know that I am not the only one who saw this and understood what a remarkable person Vashti was.

What did she teach me by her example?

She taught me that there is always light in the darkness; that sometimes that light is you.
She taught me that life can be brutally unfair but you have a choice – you always have a choice – on how you react to it and what you put back out there.
She taught me what bravery looks like.

The world is less without her in it - but those of us who knew her are more because of her.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Book-dowsing: Butterflies and Late Loves, the diaries of Margaret Fountaine

Margaret Fountaine, Edited by W. F. Cater

I was going through my unread books and came across this and couldn't remember ever bringing it home. I don't know if it was given to me or if I picked it up and brought it home and I picked it up with a 'who are you? How did you get here?' impulse.

Born in England in 1862, dying in Trinidad in 1940, Margaret Fontaine offers a glimpse into history that we don't often see - i.e. into the life of a woman of late 30s and upwards out on her own living an independent life and travelling the globe. The book has large passages written by W. F. Cater and these are in italics so it's easy to discern whose voice is whose. He fills in the blanks of where she is and what she's doing and then her diary narrative takes over. Fountaine was a butterfly collector and she travelled the world to both enlarge her collection and supply other collectors who were not as mobile as she was. She had some money but wasn't rich. Sometimes she stayed in hotels when she was flush; other times she would stay in less salubrious accommodation. 

The main late love of which the title refers is the man she spent decades almost marrying, Charles (Khalil) Niemy. As far as I can determine from the text they never actually consummated their relationship, always appearing to have separate bedrooms, but he did live with her at times in a way which would not have been quite acceptable at the time, the pair of them even going so far as to say he was a relative while they lived in Australia and he sought British citizenship. They never did get married for one reason or another and though she was very attached to him she nevertheless did not list him as the great love of her love.

America, Rangoon, the South Seas, New Zealand, Hong Kong, the Philippines, West Africa, Canada,Guadaloupe, Martinique, the Amazon, Cuba, Cambodia, Singapore, Uganda - Miss Fontaine was a voracious traveller! This was partly due to her work but also down to the fact that she disliked English weather intensely and tended to grow ill if exposed to it for too long. She views the world at times through the lens of Empire and makes sweeping statements about whole nations and races - some positive, some not. Later in life she began to lose some of her love for her work. I'm not exactly a fan of the practice of butterfly collecting - killing any animal for display is not something I would ever endorse - and this passage towards the end of the book stayed with me:

I never before felt more sorry for any butterfly I have ever bred that for a poor little Dardanus female. She stretched out her long proboscis, and she seemed to be feeling about to find something to suck - and I? I gave her petrol, till she died.

Miss Fountaine did feel depression at times and regret but in the way that we all do, catching glimpses of how life might have been had we made another choice. Beneath these moments was the core of a woman guided by common-sense - when she had to have silk dresses made as she was going somewhere where she would be expected to attend social functions, she had the dressmaker put large pockets in the dresses for her equipment so that when their public function was done she could use them on her butterfly expeditions.

Mr Cater is a bit dry and lacking in personality for me so I was always eager to get past the italics and get my teeth into Margaret's own words. She was determined and self-sufficient, able to support herself with her work when she needed to. I was glad that a previous, forgotten me had picked up this book as I love coming across the tales of these real-life women and seeing what life was like for those 'Victorian Ladies' who didn't end up getting married, having children and subordinating their lives to their husbands and social activity. It was also interesting to get a glimpse of what life was like in the various places she travelled to. This is the second book by Mr Cater and I have discovered a copy of the first in the library and will be reading that when I am able.

Recommended for those who like reading diaries, biographies and early twentieth century history. Also for those who like their woman tenacious and adventuring.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

September Book Dowsing: The House of Madame Tellier by Guy de Maupassant

The House of Madame Tellier

This book contains a collection of short stories, ranging from funny to sad to macabre to romantic. Some are first person narratives, others third. Guy de Maupassant wrote contemporary fiction and the majority of these pieces were written, I believe, during the 1880s. 

I acquired the book at a wedding recently where old books had been harvested for use as part of the wedding decoration and guests were welcome to take away what they liked. I’d heard of the author but never read anything of his, hence this hardback coming home with me. I try not to judge a book by its cover and with a book as plain as this you might assume it’s difficult to make any assumptions on the content. However, as I read it, I brought assumptions to the page of what a man from the Victorian era would write about, the moral tone that would be in evidence and the potentially narrow space female characters would have to inhabit. What a pleasure to find a voice from the past who seemed far more accepting and forgiving of women than other contemporary male writers. Don’t get me wrong, the writing still has the voice of the patriarch about it in that women are often lumped together under one description, expected to be beautiful, falling out of favour when not – but de Maupassant was far more open about their sexual choices than any Victorian male author I can recall encountering. 

The title story features a brothel whose denizens shut up shop for a couple of days to attend a wedding and cause quite a stir in the church though not for the reasons you might expect. The most entertaining of the whole collection for me, now added to my list of favouriteshort stories, was ‘At A Price’ where a husband finds himself in the position of buying back his wife’s affections as he has found he has fallen in love with her again, and she won’t have him back for anything less than he pays his mistresses. 'The Relic' is an epistolary story that deals with a character caught out in an elaborate lie about a holy relic he claims to have stolen for his love. In 'The Dear Departed', a man wanders a graveyard at night, stricken with the death of his mistress, and in the dark he sees the dead rise from their graves to strike out the messages on their headstones and write out truer epithets for themselves. There are two dozen stories in this collection and I enjoyed them all and would recommend this book and this author to those who love a good short story.

After reading this collection I did a little research on the writer. The majority of his tales deal with love in some way – and I don’t mean a spiritual love. His love is flesh and bone and sex. Lots of sex. With husbands/ wives or lovers or both. It wasn’t a surprise to learn that he spent a large amount of time with prostitutes and was promiscuous in his prime. I enjoyed the variety of his short stories and the fact that the characters were real people with real feelings, emotions and physical needs. I don’t recall any English writer I have encountered from the Victorian era capturing that without a huge range of emotional strife and heavy moral judgement to go with it. I read an essay on the internet that said Guy de Maupassant was a bleak realist – I would not have used the word bleak to describe this collection. Life is what life is; people are what people are. There is action and consequence, and every voice and character encountered felt real to me. 

Would I read more of this author? Yes. Especially as a glance on Amazon has revealed some free kindle offerings by the author, including a set of complete short stories.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

What would your Wheel of Life look like?

Ever heard of the Wheel of Life? I first came across the term about 15 years ago and it's something I come back to time and again. 

A simple search on Google with the phrase 'Wheel of Life' will yield a wide variety of interpretations.


The basic premise is that the Wheel divides your life into areas that are pertinent to you. You can rate yourself between 0-10 in each area, the ultimate goal being to raise your personal rating in those areas you want to do better at.

There is no one ultimate Wheel. I know when I first picked up the template, I went away and drew up my own, ditching some of the sections that weren't that relevant, bringing in others. If you were at school or university, for example, you'd have a section of the Wheel for that. If you had a lot of pets, you'd no doubt have a slice for animals.

I don't personally have a ratings system on my own Wheel. I use it more as a reference. I go round it, and make a list of goals I want to achieve or things I want to make time for.

Diagram above from here

I've gone all snazzy with my latest Wheel. I've kept copies of previous ones, mainly out of interest for what was important in my life in the past and how things have moved on and changed, and those copies are hand-drawn or very basic computer models, fraying, and in one case practically torn through on the fold. I decided it was time for some colour.

I could have been spending time on housework but instead decided to invest it in creating this bright item instead.

I'll use this over the next year, returning to it every few months. In a year or two it might need changing. Who knows what design skills I will have by then!

Everyone has different interests and priorities - I imagine if you got a group of your friends together and you all brainstormed your own Wheel no two Wheels would be identical. Your Wheel might have 6 sections, or it might have 20. 

I know that having my Wheel helps me remember what I want to give time and energy to.