Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Mirror for Witches - Esther Forbes
This is a case study of a witch. Doll Bilby believes in witches, as did people of her time (the 17th century). Her choice to side with the forces of evil evolves, in large part, because she’s an outsider, lonely and abused; she turns to a fantasy world for her needs. The narrator of Doll’s tale isn’t sympathetic toward her; the point of view is condemnatory. Yet we see how lacking in humanity this narrator is. Doll, the witch, is kinder and more compassionate than the good Christians who want her to burn. Forbes succeeds in capturing the mind-set of another time. Yet it wasn’t that long ago when this sort of ignorance and cruelty reigned; I wonder what forms the human propensity to condemn takes now.

The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor
Taylor’s stories are long and leisurely. He often constructs his plots in an unusual way; in this sense he’s an innovative writer. The problem with too many of the twenty-one stories is that they amount to a lot of words about nothing much; this collection’s wide variance in quality is due entirely to subject matter, not craftsmanship. I can’t fathom why Taylor so often chose a weak basis for a story. When he got subjects worthy of his skills – something with substance, complexity, depth – the results rank with the best in American fiction: “A Spinster’s Tale,” “Their Losses,” “A Wife of Nashville,” and “Miss Lenora When Last Seen.” Only the last one was humorous. Taylor wasn’t a writer of tragedies, but he knew that life mostly doesn’t work out as we would have wished.

The Towers of Trebizond - Rose Macaulay
In this novel I got a taste of the rich culture and history of the region around the Black Sea, an area I formerly knew nothing about. Amy, the narrator, stays mostly in the background, but she’s a useful guide. She divulges little about herself, though we do learn that she’s having an adulterous affair back in England. She’s tagging along with her Aunt Dot and Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg. Aunt Dot rides a white camel everywhere, Father Pigg is consumed by the superiority of the Anglican Church. No character is developed in depth. I accepted the book as eccentric and mildly comic. However, the author botched the ending. Amy adopts a chimp and takes it back to England, where she trains it to be as human as possible; I thought this was pushing the oddity angle too far. Then Amy, while driving with her lover, Vere, has a fit of impulsive anger at the traffic (she’s never shown anger or an impulsive nature anywhere else in the book) and causes an accident that kills Vere. Dark brooding follows. For the mood to turn so serious doesn’t work – not when all that preceded it had been superficial.

The Donkey Inside - Ludwig Bemelmans
I was hoping for another Hotel Splendide. In that book Bemelmans concentrated on people, both patrons of the hotel and the staff of the restaurant. But in this one – a travelogue about Equador – he mostly gives us descriptions of the landscape and the architecture. He does it well, but I don’t care much about those things. People are largely absent, and when they appear they seem insubstantial. In an Author’s Note at the end (not that I read to the end – I stopped halfway through) Bemelmans reveals that the characters are composites – aspects of various people he pasted together. The book was first serialized in magazines. I hope Bemelmans made some money from this venture; I can’t figure out any other compelling reason for him to have written it. Four of his paintings are included, and they’re the only real treats.

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