This month’s reading has felt very slow for some reason. I’m always reading about five books at once, and usually make good progress (because if one of the books is a bit of a slog I can have a break and read a different book, which refreshes my energy and attention for the first). But everything I’m reading at the moment is rather voluminous (i.e. over 400 pages) or extremely slow-going.
I did, however, finish two books this week. Peter Ackroyd’s The House of Doctor Dee and Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog. They’re obviously quite different in terms of genre, form, and audience.
I really love Ackroyd’s translations and historical texts. Last year I read his London, A Biography, and his modernisations of Mallory and Chaucer. And obviously I love all things early modern. Alchemy also has a special place in my heart because of Jonson’s The Alchemist. So I was eagerly looking forward to The House of Doctor Dee. It ended up disappointing a bit — the mystery of the nature of Doctor Dee’s house in Clerkenwell and the historical ghosts haunting it in present day (the 1990s in the story) were compelling enough to make me keep reading, but I suppose I found myself underwhelmed by the ending ‘explanation’. Additionally, I was a bit uncomfortable with the way the novel represents abuse. It introduces it as kind of a throwaway plot point and while it suggests that it plays a shaping role in the present-day narrator’s life and history, it never really explores the trauma Matthew (the narrator) experiences except in a glancing way (so it just becomes an event that creates character without being sensitively discussed). Finally, the Doctor Dee storyline itself felt heavy handed, and made for tough reading.
Creech’s poem-novel for young readers is a beautiful little book though. It’s told entirely through the verse voice of Jack, but Jack is always writing his poems in response to his teacher, Miss Stretchberry, who is a silent but wholly realised figure in the unfolding story. Though we never hear her words, we see her influence on Jack — encouraging him to see his everyday words as poetic in and of themselves, never allowing him to give up writing poetry. He moves from not wanting to write at all, to being proud to sign his name to the poems his teacher puts up on the board, to encouraging his classmates, and finally, to falling in love with the work of other poets. His dog, Sky, is a kind of muse, and he gradually tells the story of his beloved dog in a way that is sweet and heartbreaking.
I’m intrigued by the follow-up book, Hate That Cat. The book includes an excerpt and it looks as though if the first book is about encouraging children to read and love poetry, to see their words as poetic, and to feel confident about writing poems, then the follow-up book is about introducing more ‘technical’ aspects of poetry — like different metres and devices like alliteration and onomatopoeia. Jack fitrst hears about these forms and techniques through a university professor who tries to tell him his earlier poems aren’t actually poetry because they don’t rhyme (6), but all I could think was that Jack’s uncle is certainly not an English professor because there’s no way any English professor would ever make such a claim. We couldn’t possibly teach the last 100 years of English poetry if we believed that sentiment.
I’m looking forward to reading the full story soon!
Still reading through the complete Sherlock Holmes, the Margaret Cavendish bio, Foucault, and Walcott’s Omeros. I’ve also just started Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series. Reports forthcoming.
29 November 2014
Ackroyd, Peter. The House of Doctor Dee. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1993.
Creech, Sharon. Love That Dog. New York: HarperCollins, 2001