Some weeks I just don’t know what I want to read and I’m not happy with anything. I pick at this and that, but can’t settle. Reviewers never come out and say ‘I wasn’t in a very good mood when I read this, so maybe the problem is with me, not the book’ but I bet that sometimes happens. IIn truth it’s hard to know. Last week I needed to sink down and forget myself in a good story and I picked up Michael Connolly’s THE LINCOLN LAWYER. I’d had one or two false starts with this, but I like his books and this one was recommended to me. The first that I read was THE CONCRETE BLONDE, which I picked up because someone had left it behind in a hotel in Greece and I needed something to read. I couldn’t put it down and I went on to read the others. I still think that novel and THE LAST COYOTE are the best. But with THE LINCOLN LAWYER, I was never really caught. I found myself skipping and – with one big exception – wasn’t really surprised by the plot twists. Is it me or him? A bit of both maybe. After that I read HOLE IN ONE by Catherine Aird. I usually enjoy these short, slyly witty crime novels, but this time I couldn’t be bother to get some rather similar characters straight and I didn’t go for the golfing background. Is a coincidence that I’m struggling with my own novel at the moment (won’t dignify this with the term writer’s block)? I think there is such a thing as reader’s block which is similar to writer’s block, when nothing seems interesting and the words just lie there on the page – but at least the reader can blame the writer!
I’ve had a idea for a ghost story and it has set me thinking about scary stories that I have read in the past. It is the measure of a good one that it lingers in the mind for years after you have read it. I have to admit that the story that has terrified me most – I was only nine or ten when I read it – was not a ghost story. It was a Sherlock Holmes story: ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band.’ Unfortunately I had a ventilator in my bed-room and though the chances of a swamp adder (‘the deadliest snake in India’) slithering through it in the middle of the night were extremely small, the thought of it disturbed me for many, many nights to come. A few years later ‘W. S.’ by L. P. Hartley, about a writer who is haunted by a character from one of his own novels, gave me the creeps, so much so that I recognised it instantly when I came across it a few years ago, even though I’d long forgotten both title and author.
Generally speaking I don’t like novel-length horror stories, though I’ll make an exception for James Hogg’s CONFESSIONS OF A JUSTIFIED SINNER, a strong contender for one of the most sinister stories ever written and more recently Tiachi Yamada’s STRANGERS (reviewed in an earlier blog). To my mind the short story or the long short story (such as ‘The Turn of the Screw’) is the most appropriate form. M. R. James is my favourite writer of ghost stories and I love the way they so often have such deceptively cosy openings: dons bickering at high table in ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, my Lad’; poor Mr Anstruther being hen-pecked over the breakfast table by his formidable wife in ‘The Rose Garden.’ One is lulled into a false sense of security, all the while knowing that something nasty is about to happen. This is why the sub-genre of the haunted house is so effective. Houses are just where we should be safest and yet . . . ‘The Empty House’ by Algernon Blackwood has stuck in my mind. I have just skimmed through it again and I felt a chill on the back of my neck. It is masterly. Edith Wharton’s ‘Afterward’ and D. K. Broster’s ‘The Pestering’ are also the stories of haunted houses, though very different in tone from Algernon Blackwood. What they all have in common is the skilful characterization that underpins the overall effect. 1880-1930 is for me the golden age of the ghost story, but a recent ‘haunted house’ story that had me on the edge of my seat was Ruth Rendell’s ‘The Haunting of Shawley Rectory’.
I could go on listing favourites: ‘Man-Sized in Marble’ by E. Nesbit, ‘The Open Door’ by Mrs Oliphant, ‘A Story of Don Juan’ by V. S. Pritchett . . . Why don’t you tell me about some of yours? I’d love to know.
i’ve just finished reading this novel by Italian novelist, Niccolo Ammaniti, for my book group. We have possibly the most ethnically diverse book group in Britain: France, Italy, Germany, South Korea, Japan, Columbia are all represented and one or two more. This is because we are a university group – Sheffield has students and staff from all over the world – and it means that we look at a fascinating wide range of books. I’d never have read Yamada’s STRANGERS or OUR TWISTED HERO by Korean writer, Yi Munyol, if it hadn’t been for the group. I’M NOT SCARED hits the ground running. You open the book and you’re in the sweltering heat of southern Italy in 1978 with a gang of children engaged in the feuds and dares and hectic excitement of childhood. Michele is nine and the story is told from his point of view. In undertaking a dare in a remote ruined house, he finds a filthy, almost mute little boy hidden in a hole in the ground. It soon becomes clear to the reader and to the narrator that the little boy has been kidnapped by a gang that includes Michele’s father and that the crime has involved the connivance of Michele’s mother. It’s well done, well written and well-translated, yet I wasn’t altogether convinced. There seemed to be no real reason why the child should have been treated so cruelly – and it doesn’t fit well with what we see of Michele’s father and mother who are rough but loving parents to their own children.
Next month it’s THREE MEN IN A BOAT! What could be more essentially English? I’ll be fascinated to hear what they all make of it . . I’ll let you know.
that I got my watch back. A kind old lady had picked it up outside the vet’s, but she only goes to the Post Office once a week so it was a while before she saw the notice I’d put up.
There couldn’t be a much greater contrast between two of the books I read this week: THREE CHINESE POETS: TRANSLATIONS OF POEMS BY WANG WEI, LAI BI AND DU FU by Vikram Seth and WINTER PREY by John Sandford. Seth’s three poets were writing at the time of the Tang Dynasty in the 8th century. Autumn leaves, the breeze in the pines, moonlight and mountains, peach blossom and bamboo, wood smoke and the sound of running water: these are the images that stay with me. The poems are full of a sense of transience. I read this, because I’m learning Mandarin and, being someone who learns best through sight rather than sound, I want to start getting to grips with Chinese literature. How good Seth’s translations are, I can’t yet judge. And it may be a very long time before I can!
WINTER PREY I was actually re-reading. I first read this maybe thirteen years ago and it had stayed in my mind – particularly one striking passage. I hadn’t been able to put the book down and I wanted to go back and see how he had done it. And yes, it was pretty much as compelling as I’d remembered. He sets the scene – deep winter in Minnesota – brilliantly. And the part I remembered, where the main character, Davenport, is protecting a woman doctor who is almost lured to her death, was still gripping. It is a first-rate crime novel, and yet . . . I also remembered why I only read one or two more in the Prey series and why I have stopped reading novels by one or two other writers whom I used to enjoy. There is an the element of sadistic violence that I find repellent. Some writers seem to feel that they must up the ante by increasing the violence from novel to novel. I think it is a mistake on every level. Something like this has happened to Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder series and I have to confess that because they are otherwise so wonderful, these I haven’t stopped reading. But I prefer the earlier ones in the series and I really wish he’d tone it down a bit.
I loved David Attenborough’s LIFE ON AIR: MEMOIRS OF A BROADCASTER and didn’t want to get to the end. It is so very English in its particular kind of charm and reticence and modesty, full of self-deprecating humour. I especially enjoyed the story about two doughty explorers of the 1930s, Bill Tillman and Eric Shipton, who shared a small tent in the Himalayas living off the local food, roasted barley. After a month or so. Shipton is supposed to have said, rather shyly, ‘Now that we know each other pretty well, so you think we might stop calling one another by our surnames.’ To which Tilman replied, ‘Are you suggesting that I should call you Eric? I’m afraid I couldn’t do that. I should feel such a bloody fool.’ Those were the days. Now it is first names at the drop of a hat. A recent exception to this is in my Mandarin class: the Chinese respect for seniority is such is that my Chinese teacher often addresses me as ‘Dr Poulson’.
I also liked the story of the filming of the bat colony in Borneo in a cave with the pile of bat droppings one hundred and fifty feet high, covered in a shimmering carpet of cockcroaches. David Attenborough climbed it to be filmed at the top and, almost overcome by ammonia fumes, explained to camera that some people are afraid of a bat flying into their hair ‘of course there is no danger of that ‘- and he went on to explain about their amazing navigation system. That was as much as he could manage before he choked. The camera was shut down and the next instant a huge bat crashed into his face.
One of the bravest things he did was not in the field at all, in my view. It was giving up a highly paid administrative job as Director of Programmes for the BBC to go back to making wildlife programmes as a freelance.
Regular visitors to this blog (hello, there) will have realised that I’ve settled into a routine of blogging every Monday. Next week is Easter Monday, so it’ll be Tuesday. And in case you’re wondering after last week’s blog, I haven’t found my watch. In fact last week was a series of small mishaps. I had to see the funny side on Wednesday. After a day of nearly going bonkers, trying to sort out problems with my e-mail server, it got to six o’clock and I poured myself a stiffish gin and tonic. I managed to drink about half when my husband tipped the rest down the sink, thinking it was water . . .