I’ve read a number of Anne Tyler’s novels and enjoyed them. I think LADDER OF YEARS and BREATHING LESSONS are particularly good. (As I write this, the cat has just climbed into my in tray – is he trying to tell me something?). But I wasn’t so sure about AN AMATEUR MARRIAGE, nor about the latest, DIGGING TO AMERICA which I’ve just finished. “|???? (Cat has just walked across key board – he definitely wants something). Yes, there is some marvellous writing: she perfectly catches the irrationality and pain and disorientation of bereavement; the themes of parenthood, belonging, growing old are in themselves endlessly fascinating; and she is so good on the petty anxieties and confusions of human relationship. And yet, and yet . . . I found myself skipping ahead. Partly it was that I didn’t like one of the main characters – Bitsy – what a name! – so bossy and judgmental – and there were just too many characters. I found myself flicking back to work out who some of the minor ones were – always a bad sign. And was there just a hint of saccharine towards the end?
Could it be that Tyler wrote her best books mid-career ? That seems to be have been the case with John Updike and of some other writers. One of them is Jane Smiley: A THOUSAND ACRES is a masterpiece. Has she written anything quite as good since that? I don’t know where I’m going with this, except perhaps to wonder if writers have a finite number of really good novels in them.
The full title is OUT OF SHEER RAGE: IN THE SHADOW OF D. H. LAWRENCE by Geoff Dyer and I am relishing it. Dyer set out to write a book about Lawrence. What he actually wrote was a book about trying to write a book about Lawrence. This sounds tiresomely post-modern, but it’s not. It’s funny and perceptive and mordantly self-critical. Dyer is a procrastinator, a hypochrondriac, a complete pain in the arse. He’s irascible and intolerant, and quite incapable of beginning his book about Lawrence. But he never lets himself off and because he doesn’t forgive himself, the reader can. Besides, it becomes clear in the course of the book – and Dyer admits as much – that is really the account of a kind of breakdown: ‘not a history of how I recovered from a breakdown but of how breaking down can become a means of continuing.’ You learn something about Lawrence along the way, too.
The point where comfort eating and comfort reading meet. A week or two ago I threw a big party for a special family birthday and did lunch for over thirty people. There was much list-making and anxious scanning of cookery books beforehand. This set me thinking about cookery books as a branch of literature. My cookery books can be divided into those that have a purely practical function (all of Delia plus The Good Housekeeping Cookery Book), those that can be read for pleasure (more on that in a minute), and those which I never consult at all. Elizabeth David exemplifies the genre of cookbook as literature, and hers are on the shelf, but I’m also fond of two books I bought in my student day: Georgina Horley’s GOOD FOOD ON A BUDGET and Jocasta Innes’s THE PAUPER’S COOKBOOK. There is something tremendously reassuring about the view of domestic life that one glimpses here: thrifty, even a little frugal at times, but life-enhancing and celebratory, too. Possibly my favourite cookbook simply for reading is Peg Bracken’s THE I HATE TO COOK BOOK, first published in 1961 and designed as she says for ‘those of us who want to fold our big dishwater hands around a dry Martini instead of a wet flounder, come the end of a long day.’ Some of the recipes have dated (though one day I intend to try Stayabed Stew, designed for ‘when you’re en negligee, en bed, with a murder story and a box of chocolate, or possibly a good case of the flu’), but the humour hasn’t.
One of the pleasure of having children is the excuse to read children’s books. There are some wonderful contemporary ones, but the one I want to write about today was published in 1958, so it is one I could have read as a child – and how I wish I had.
I first read Philippa Pearce’s book some years ago as an adult, and have just reread it in the 50th anniversary edition.
Tom’s brother has measles and Tom is sent to stay with his childless aunt and uncle in the Fens. Some of the charm of the book for me is its setting, similar to that of my own novels, but there is much, much more to it than that. Restless and lonely, lying awake at night, Tom hears the grandfather clock in the hall strike thirteen. He goes down and opens the back door to find, instead of dustbins and an alley way, the midnight garden, in fact the garden of the house in the 1890s before the house was turned into flats. There he finds the friend that he needs in a little girl, Hatty. The door that opens into another world is a staple on children’s literature, but this isn’t the fantasy world of Narnia. It is one that is rooted in historical reality and so vividly realised that I could find my way round that garden myself. It is, too, a meditation on time and memory and change. At the same time it is intensely gripping. I won’t spoil the end for anyone who hasn’t read it, but it must be one of the most moving in all children’s literature. The book is a true masterpiece.