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The Magic Toyshop – Angela Carter

I first fell in love with Angela Carter when I read Nights at the Circus which I recommend to everyone which such fervour that I’m no longer sure where my copy is (if anyone sees it, tell it I miss it and I hope it’s doing well). Angela Carter writes exciting stories with vivid, sexy prose. Something that struck me in both Nights at the Circus and The Magic Toyshop is the presence of the body. As someone who is pretty constantly aware of the presence of her own playful walking meat, it’s wonderful to read prose that doesn’t disregard the flesh. I don’t mean to imply that the books are obsessed with the body in all its sweaty, tangy, smelly glory, but I mean it isn’t ignored, either. Smell and the sensations of hair and mouth caught my attention throughout The Magic Toyshop, and the bodies of the characters are more or less ever-present and part of their characterisation. It’s a bit of a coming-of-age story, but that’s a bit of an easy and twee category to apply. The main character, Melanie, is the eldest daughter of a recently-orphaned trio sent to live with her uncle and aunt, whom they have never met. Her uncle’s cruelty, her aunt’s muteness and her aunt’s brothers’ allure are mysteries she is thrown into and needs to make sense of, as she comes to terms with her growing sexuality. The undercurrent of menace in the house must be resisted and ultimately brought to the surface and fought if she is to survive in any meaningful way. It’s a really good read, but it felt a little underworked. I felt like it lacked the depth and polish of Nights at the Circus: it felt like a book that could have come early in Carter’s career, solid but could have been improved. The characters were interesting: they felt a little fairy-tale-ish at times, especially the cruel uncle: but as the uncle was challenged more and more, the other characters began to feel more real, flawed and attractive. I think The Magic Toyshop was great, but if you haven’t read much of Angela Carter’s stuff, I’d still push you towards Nights at the Circus first.

The Anatomist – Federico Andahazi

Hmm, a tricky one: the story of the trial for heresy of Mateo Colombo, a 16th-century Venetian doctor who claims to have discovered the clitoris. The heresy trial is obviously politically motivated, and to be honest I’m not really sure where the heresy thing comes into it. He frequently dissects cadavers to study anatomy and to give lectures on same, but he has friends in high places that stop him being charged with that; the heresy thing seems to be focused on the clitoris thing.  The trial makes for really engrossing reading.  Mateo Colombo’s argument is, essentially: the clitoris is to women what the soul is to men. In men, he argues, arousal doesn’t have to lead to orgasm because the passions subside, the erection goes away, and whatever was driving the arousal vapourises, all under the guidance and will of the soul. Women don’t have a soul, so they need a physiological way to govern their behaviour – the clit . This is how I understood his argument, anyway: I could be barking up the wrong fallopian tube here.  The misogyny of the folks in The Anatomist is overwhleming: there are only two women in the book, a superlative whore (complete with ominously empowering and lascivious episodes from her childhood), the best in the city and the most expensive; and a sweet widowed nun (whose clitoris is the one that Colombo discovers).  Mateo Colombo’s vanity is aggravating (“discovered” the clitoris my arse: as if people, especially women, didn’t suspect its existence already — I had this thought in mind before I even started reading, and it may have prejudiced me a bit); the rigid religious idiocy of the people involved makes his trial a strawman trial, and the conclusion left a kind of bad taste in my mouth. I didn’t feel like Colombo had fought the odds and overcome enormous prejudice to change the world, I just felt like he wanted to be famous as the man who discovered the clitoris. Lives of others were essentially unimportant to him, except as they reflected or enhanced his reputation: his treatment of the dying pope is particularly revealing, as is his behaviour towards the previously-mentioned nun. Whenever I dislike a book, I feel like I must have missed something, like I’m just not clever enough to appreciate it or I’m not looking at it the right way around or something; but The Anatomist really didn’t do much for me. Not a terrible book, but not a lot of fun, either.

Timepieces – Drusila Modjeska

A quickie! A selection of ten essays by an excellent prose-worker, which reflect on her writing life. Really really gripping: I ended up reading the lot in a day or two, but I had to go back and renibble a lot. They’re short pieces, but you’ll get a lot more out of the book if you take the time to pause between essays and think about each one.

It’s a really interesting book. (Side note: I say “interesting” a lot, but I say it seriously and with the intention of attracting its truest meaning. I say it to mean it fed my brain, left me thinking, and gripped my attention while I was reading.) Modjeska covers a fair bit of ground, but comes back to writing and culture, especially in Australia. Part I: In “Apprentice Piece” and “The Australian”, she talks about where she came from (as a writer), who influenced her, who taught her a lot (other writers, specifically). She also writes about location and creation in “Working Room”, and about meditation, travel, place and self in “The Traveller’s Husk”. She talks about the process of writing “Poppy”, especially how it affected her, her family and so on.

In Part II, she talks more broadly about art, literature and Australian culture. “On Not Owning a Grace Cossington-Smith” discusses the concepts of value, possesion, etc.; and framing of art and artists “Framing Clarice Beckett”. She also writes about memoir, fiction and the blurring of the two: the process of constructing memoir/biographies and how as much is revealed by what is kept in by what is glossed over — the construction of a reality for the reader is achieved as much by the lies told as the truth given (“The Englishness Problem”, “Memoir Australia”). In the last essay. she describes where she sees Australian writing at the moment and where it’s going. It was a really interesting read: quite short, but totally crammed full of interesting stuff. Loved it.

The Island of the Day Before – Umberto Eco

Oh Eco, I love you. This book is the first Umberto Eco novel I read. In the space of one weekend, while at the coast with my family, I devoured it: I had to write an essay on it for Postmodernism the day after we got back. I’m glad I didn’t try and do it in the space of one weekend again, but it’s such a lush, rich, wonderful book that it probably wouldn’t be a huge burden to try and do so. It’s spectacular. It explores time, history and narrative in a truly Eco-ish way. It’s the story of Roberto de Casale, marooned on the abandoned ship, the Daphne, which is anchored in the bay of a glorious tropical island. Roberto passes his lonely time exploring the ship and writing letters to his unrequited love, “the Lady”, upon which the narrator claims to have based the story. The letters tell the story of Roberto’s past and explain how he wound up in this situation, as well as giving you a chance to figure out his character and how his experiences have changed him. As the story grows, the spectre of his imaginary half-brother, Ferrante (who emerged during his childhood as a result of a hyperactive imagination and some false conclusions about his parents), grows and Ferrante begins to take on a life of his own; meanwhile, Roberto becomes aware of the presence of another person on the ship. The mystery thickens and that’s as much of the plot as I’m going to tell you. I’ve already used the word lush in this paragraph, but I’m going to say it again. Lush lush lush: the atmosphere and the landscape in this book are lush. It feels incredibly real and beautiful — you feel sea breezes and taste salt while you read. It’s exciting. Meanwhile, the book is presenting you with some pretty awesome themes.  How do experiences shape us? What stories do we tell each other; what’s the role of the audience and the listener in the stories we tell? Does the way we tell our stories shape our personalities? Is the Other a listener, an audience, or do they have their own narrative with which you need to interact? Some of the dialogue is dense and really thorough: you have to be prepared to seriously engage here, not skim — but if you’re reading anything by Umberto Eco, you probably know that already. In his writing, everything counts. Every thread is flawless and necessary and beautiful. It’s completely worth the concentration. Whenever I stopped for a break while reading, I felt like I was looking at the world with a new mind, refreshed with warm sea winds and excited about the world; an enormous reward.

Oh man, I love this book.  Easily one of my favourites.  My Eco-binge continues with Foucault’s Pendulum, totally different in flavour but just as exciting and gripping.

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