June 29, 2010 @ 9:07 am | Filed under:

Byatt’s The Children’s Book. There is much to say. I can’t, yet. I finished it on Saturday and I couldn’t even look at another book on Sunday. Yesterday I picked up something I’ve already read: Delderfield’s To Serve Them All My Days. It begins at the end of World War I (which is where the Byatt ends) with a shell-shocked Welsh soldier taking a teaching post at a remote school for boys in North Devon. I think I felt a little shell-shocked myself after Byatt’s dark epic and, like David Powlett-Jones, needed a dose of bracing upland air and boyish pranks to pull me out of my head.

There’s a lesson for me here, and it’s that making reading lists, while a deeply satisfying activity, has, for me, practically nothing to do with the actual reading of books. Much of the time, perhaps most of the time, the book I have just finished reading selects its successor.

Between The Children’s Book (which begins in 1895, in the last creaky years of Victoria’s reign) and The Diamond Age, which I flipped through the other day, looking for (and not finding) a particularly iPad-ish quote for Friday’s little post (because is it just me, or is the iPad a device within spitting distance of the Young Lady’s Primer?), I have found myself hankering after a biography of Queen Victoria. Serendipitously, today Colleen teases a novel (not bio) called, deliciously, Prisoners in the Palace: A Novel of Intrigue and Romance about How Princess Victoria Became Queen with the Help of a Maid,  a Newspaperman, and a Scoundrel. According to the blurb at Powell’s, it was “meticulously based on newly discovered information” by historian Michaela Maccoll. Sounds promising, no?

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13 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Christine M says:

    I’m about half way through The Children’s Book. I’ll be interested in what you have to say about it. This is a book that seems to beg discussion.

  2. Kathryn says:

    Ah! To Serve Them All My Days! Loved that. I just got rid of all my Delderfields in a book purge, and now I’m second guessing myself :(.

  3. MelanieB says:

    Oh I loved To Serve Them All My Days! The Children’s book is definitely going on my list.

  4. Sherry says:

    I’m also reading The Children’s Book. Do you have any idea why the odd punctuation? I suppose it shouldn’t, but it bothers me.

  5. Erika says:

    I totally agree, while making reading lists is, in fact, one of my favorite activities; I rarely stick to my list. I think I have an aversion to being told what I have to read – even if I’m the one doing the telling. I’m beginning to find freedom and enjoyment on reading according to my whims.

    And thanks for the intro to the list site. I’m an obsessive lister, and that is like heaven-on-earth to me.

  6. Melissa Wiley says:

    Sherry, I think the punctuation quirks are British-ish? It drove me crazy at first, the ending paragraphs with no punctuation, just the words he said

    “And then in a new paragraph, the dialogue.”

    But after a while I stopped noticing. British publishers often seem to use commas differently from Americans. Or Canadians!

    Ignatius Press is the publisher that drives me most crazy. “I can’t stand”, she ranted, “the way they put commas outside the quotation marks.”

  7. Lisa says:

    I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE “To Serve Them All My Days”–both the book and the Masterpiece Theatre/BBC version. Great Minds do think alike!
    The Queen Victoria book sounds worth a look, too!

  8. Celeste says:

    “Much of the time, perhaps most of the time, the book I have just finished reading selects its successor.”

    The book YOU have just finished reading usually selects what I will read next too! 🙂 Just finished I Capture The Castle (fabulous) and have The Children’s Book up next.

    And another one for your TBR list this summer: Mockingjay! I actually figured I would hear it here first, but I came across the publication date this weekend on another kidlit blog and immediately went to reserve it at the library for August. Unfortunately, 284 people beat me to it. LOL But I’m very much looking forward to getting it.

  9. Lisa says:

    Did you see this? Bees and cell phones–reminds me of Fruitless Fall

  10. Nancy Piccione says:

    I’m with Celeste in that I get such great book suggestions from you, Melissa. I loved I Capture the Castle and I have The Children’s Book on hold at the library. I really enjoyed Byatt’s Possession but have not read it for many years. Isn’t she the sister of Margaret Drabble? I like some of her novels, too.

  11. Melissa Wiley says:

    I will be interested to see what you all think of The Children’s Book. Byatt’s writing is incredibly lush, and I was fascinated by the history. But it’s a really, really dark book. Sordid, in some ways. Unsettling. Real, I think, though it’s sad to think so. I’m being vague here so as not to spoil. Let’s talk after y’all have read it, ok?

  12. MelanieB says:

    I just finished reading The Children’s Book this afternoon. Very dark and disturbing.

    I’m going to go ahead and start a discussion, hoping maybe someone else will join me.

    (I didn’t notice the punctuation, by the way. I’m so not a punctuation fanatic, which must drive readers of my blog crazy. In college my best friend had to fix the punctuation in all my papers. The semicolon was not my friend.)

    Lissa, I thought you understated how sordid it was. I almost put the book down several times in the beginning and am not sure why I continued except that the art fascinated me. Not so much the narrative art as the depictions of the various artists. That’s one of the things that has always attracted me to Byatt, the way she writes about art and writing.

    I thought most of the sexuality was gratuitous at first, it just felt thrown in and I wasn’t sure why. By the end, though, I saw that it was mostly a part of the greater tapestry. In part it was a thread in the social history she was writing. Fascinating to see how many of the social trends that I think of as belonging to the 20th century had deep roots in the Victorian era. I still think it was more graphic than it needed to be.

    A few nights ago I had a dream in which I was back at college and in a discussion vehemently promoting NFP and excoriating artificial birth control. An interesting subconscious reaction to all the political discussions. I kept wanting to yell at the well-meaning but misguided characters that they had no idea what evils they were unleashing.

    I did feel that the ending was somehow darkly satisfying. I didn’t expect the book to end with anything like a comforting conclusion but the irony was the war brought many of the characters together in a way that was inconceivable before the social fabric was torn by the horrors of the trenches. That final dinner scene with everyone around the table, shell shocked and haunted by dreams but together as a family was really a masterful twist. Of course it was also haunted by the image of that other household with Olive and Humphrey which did not have the family coming together but instead was blown apart into individuals hiding from each other in a haunted house.