Three Things: March 2019

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With thanks to Paula of Book Jotter for hosting—new participants always welcome!

Reading: At work, I’ve acquired responsibility for some of our Children’s Year In Books services–it’s the same idea as the adult subscription, a monthly book hand-picked to fit the customer’s individual reading tastes and delivered to their door. As a twenty-six-year-old, I haven’t read what you might call “children’s literature” for at least a decade, if not more; I spent my adolescent years wishing that I was already an undergraduate, and reading accordingly. But this is giving me a really good reason to revisit that world. I recently read my first proof copy of a children’s book (Abi Elphinstone’s forthcoming Rumblestar; thoughts will be in Monday’s Reading Diary). I’ve also started brainstorming all the things that I loved to read as a kid, and have enlisted the help of my brother, cousin, and various friends to add to the list: it’s now pinned to my desk corkboard and includes titles such as Eva Ibbotson’s Journey To the River Sea, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider novels, and an excellent picture book entitled The Queen’s Knickers which made me absolutely hysterical with amusement when I was about four. There is something considerably more joyful about children’s publishing than about its adult equivalent: of course vast sums of money and outrageous publicity machines are still involved (hello, David Walliams), but there’s such a high premium on good humour, inventiveness, and kindness that I’m actually quite excited by the prospect of reading more children’s books.

Looking: The ENO has revived their 2013 production of The Magic Flute, which I went to see last week. I’d never seen a live show of it, although I’d heard recordings. Turns out that The Magic Flute is significantly more palatable to listen to than it is to watch; the tunes are delightful and globally famous for a good reason, but the plot makes absolutely no sense, not even internally. And coherence is the least of its problems. It is possible to understand the opera as an allegory regarding intellectual enlightenment and the Masons, and still to find it pretty distasteful: most obviously in the misogyny shown towards the Queen of the Night (who, it turns out, is mad at Sarastro because her late husband gifted him all of his power, on the grounds that she–as a woman–would be unable to use it wisely), but also in the constant rape threat presented by Monostatos (who was originally written as a Moor, elevating his character to a whole other level of offensive randy-black-man stereotype), the depressing ageism of Papageno (who spends the whole opera pining for a wife, only to nearly bottle it at the last minute because he thinks the woman offered to him might be his own age, shockhorror, instead of a nubile teenager), and the arbitrary emotional cruelty inflicted upon Pamina in the service of Tamino’s heroic development (he’s instructed not to speak to or look at her; she believes that he no longer loves her and prepares to commit suicide).

But. With all of that said.

The music is lovely; there is no getting around that. This production features British soprano Lucy Crowe as Pamina, who delivers the best vocal performance of the entire cast. Thomas Oliemans’s Papageno is (mostly) charming instead of obnoxious, and he got most of the big laughs; his performance reminded me that The Magic Flute was commissioned originally as a pantomime. Julia Bauer as the Queen of the Night lacked power, but she hit that top F, by God. And there are some really nice production touches, including hand-drawn chalk images that are projected onto a screen at the back of the stage, creating instant (and erasable) scenery. It’s very well executed.

Thinking: Honestly? About death, I’m afraid. Not my own, mind you – but other people’s. It’s sort of following me around at the moment. My English grandpa is dying (he’s 88, he’s not in acute discomfort, it’s fairly okay). Both my American grandparents died in September, which I wasn’t there for, but I am here for this – the long-drawn-out process of it – and I can’t tell if it’s happening quickly or slowly, in the grand scheme of these things. He was frail but quite lucid at Christmas; he was frailer still, and quieter, but still sitting in his armchair and capable of a chat, three weeks ago. Now, he’s functionally bed bound, frequently confused, and – to be totally honest – a tiny bit scary. Not because he’s violent or aggressive; he has never been those things in his life and he is not about to start now. It’s mostly scary because even when he’s not confused, he’s hard to understand, and easily tired, and physically helpless, and quite vague. I find myself dreading being left alone with him. I would rather help my grandmother by running her household than by doing any of the hands-on stuff. My fear embarrasses me, but I think, were it me, I would rather have died three weeks ago than live as he is living.

Cheerful, eh?!

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11 thoughts on “Three Things: March 2019

  1. The work development sounds fun! We had a batch of books arrive this week at work for our new school librarian and I found myself oddly tempted by some…

    As for The Magic Flute – I really think I would have struggled with some of those unpleasant elements you mention. It’s frustrating when stuff like that gets in the way of music you love.

    And death is a bummer in all shapes and forms. I’ve had to deal with it recently when my dad and then mother-in-law passed away (my grandparents all died when I was quite young). It really is hard to watch someone you know and love change like that. My mum is of the opinion she wants to just go one day with no fuss and bother, and I’m with her on that – I don’t want lingering for myself or anyone else…. Hang in there and hope things aren’t too difficult for you. x

    • Oh thank you Karen – he does have better days and worse days, but the good days are pretty painful too because those are the days when he knows he’s going. (He said he thought “bits of [his] brain had gone walkabout”, which is more or less medically the case.)

      The Magic Flute does strike me rather as the Love Actually of opera. One likes it so much for so many reasons, but you cannot scratch the surface without finding some real nonsense.

  2. So sorry about your grandfather, Elle. Particularly hard after losing two other grandparents recently. Don’t be embarrassed. I think most of us wonder what on earth we can do in this situation. For me the solution was just to hold my father’s hand.

    • Thanks so much, Susan. I think anxiety over “doing the right thing” is a big issue at the moment (with my whole extended family, not just me), and it’s nice to remember that sitting quietly can be the right thing too.

  3. I’m so sorry to hear about your grandad. My paternal grandmother was unfortunately in a care home for several years before she died due to having a series of strokes, and it was hard for her to communicate. Visiting her was difficult because she often didn’t make much sense and was often upset.

    On a more cheerful note, YES Journey to the River Sea. I have a friend who loves it as well and I instantly recommended her The Bedlam Stacks – it’s like the grown-up version!

    • PS Forgot to say, Nan had a Poem a Day book and sometimes we just used to read to her from that even if we couldn’t tell if she understood or not – she seemed to find it calming.

      • That’s a great idea. His equivalent seems to be Classic FM, which is on all.the.time, and which he appears to like even when (as it did this weekend) the Star Wars theme is programmed twice in a day…

    • Eva Ibbotson, man! I also loved The Secret of Platform 13 (which, now that I think of it, bears a mild plot similarity to Good Omens…) and Island of the Aunts. Oh, and Which Witch!

  4. I’m sorry to hear about your grandfather. Watching a loved one pass away slowly is incredibly painful, and your fear toward his condition’s just a sign of the strength of your compassion for his well being – nothing to be ashamed about at all.

    Great news about acquiring responsibility for some of the store’s Children’s Year In Books program. Kids’ lit can be a blast, and it has to feel wonderful knowing you’re selecting titles these kids will remember for the rest of their lives. I got into the genre last year working at a juvenile imprint and rediscovered a taste for it.

  5. My last grandparent to pass, my dad’s mother, was nearly 100 and in a hospital in Georgia, with a disfiguring tumour on her face that affected her speech. My final conversation, over the phone, with someone I’d not had much of a relationship with for 20 years or more, was one of the more excruciatingly awkward moments of my life. But you do what you have to. Just your presence in the household and at his bedside will be appreciated, and even if you feel embarrassed to give words of love, be sure those are the last things he hears from you.

    • Oh, that sounds hard. I’m lucky, I think, that he actually *is* a grandparent with whom I’ve had a good and close relationship. And actually, as last weekend progressed, I found it easier to handle. I’m going down there again on Friday and I think perhaps it’s the sort of thing that you can get used to, the more you see it.

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