I enjoyed this collection of William Boyd’s miscellaneous writings. I’ve only read one of his novels, years ago, AN ICE-CREAM WAR. Nothing since. This made me think I might read more. I particularly liked his accounts of his rebarbative public school and his childhood in Africa. And the eulogies to two particular institutions, the British caff and the mini-cab – Boyd describes them perfectly, brought back fond memories of my life in London in the 1980s. Once a week or so (more would have been too hard on the arteries) my house-mate, Jonathan and I used to go to the Choumert Cafe in Peckham (long gone, sadly) and eat exactly the kind of meal described here. I usually had omelette and chips. This, served with fried tomatoes and mushrooms, was as healthy as it got. Another friend used to favour a caff near the Strand and consume sausages sandwiches (white bread and margarine, naturally). I shudder to think what was in those sausages. As for mini-cabs – I sometimes used to get one from Chiswick to Peckham – and Boyd is spot on – the driver with no English and no idea where he is going – the sticky carpet underfoot – the dodgy driving. I must have been mad.
This is a huge book at 650 pages and unwieldy, awkward to read in bed or the bath and this does matter. I think some of the early book reviews could have gone, but much of it was a treat – and in such short bites that it’s ideal for a busy person.
No blog this week. Back on 4 June.
This marvellous book, edited by Jenna Bailey, is a collection of extracts from the magazines of the Cooperative Correspondence Club. This was simply a group of women, with a somewhat shifting membership, who between the 1935 to 1990 contributed letters and articles to a magazine edited by one of their number and circulated privately amongst them. This privacy and the use of noms de plume allowed them to write with sometimes startling frankness about sex, marriage and motherhood and poignantly, as the years progress, of ill health and widowhood. All of them were intelligent women – most university-educated – all of them were mothers and most were confined to the home. Families tended to be large and labour-saving devices few, at least in the earlier days. Accidia’s account of her life in the 50s with five children, no washing machine, no vaccuum cleaner and a kettle that runs on batteries – well, words fail me. The CCC was a lifeline for women like this and created a precious sense of community for them. The isolation of some of these women – and the selfishness, regrettably, of some of their husbands – made my heart go out to them. It’s hard to pick out particular passages from these fascinating chronicles of everyday life. I was particularly gripped by Isis’s account of her almost-consummated love for her GP and her conversion to Catholicism, but the whole book was endlessly fascinating. There’s so little whining, and so much courage and good humour. In the end I can’t do better than to repeat the words of the reviewer in the TLS: ‘ordinary goddesses, grand girls, every one.’ Yes, indeed.
I loved Georgina Lee’s Great War diaries, HOME FIRES BURNING, written for her baby son, Harry, and got completely absorbed in her world. She married her solicitor husband when she was 41 and had her adored only child when she was 43 or 44. I identified with her as an older mother, though my life is very different from her’s with its background of servants, nannies, and so on. At one point near the end, nanny is away and Georgina proudly records that she has nursed her little boy through a cold all by herself. She was often parted from him – he spent some of the war with her family in Wales to avoid the zepplins – we tend to forget that London was attacked from the air and civilains died too during this war. She is clearly torn between her longing to be with him and what she saw as her duty to stay with her husband, whose health was not good. She is admirably level-headed, reasoning that statistically the risk of being killed or injured is low. She is well informed about the progress of war and has two brothers-in-law in the army. Her rather unconventional upbringing with her widowed artist father in France had made her an independent thinker – her judgments are shrew and she predicts that Churchill, whose political fortunes, took a nose-dive, would return to do great things. She does her bit for the war effort by working for the Belgian Red Cross in London. Hers wasn’t a very unusual or especially exciting life, but she was a remarkable woman all the same. She lived into her 90s, not dying until 1965. I wish I’d known her. I bet she was a lot of fun.
Sometimes the very fact that someone presses a book on you sets up a resistance that makes you disinclined to read it. Contrary, I know, but there it is. This happened to me recently with INJURY TIME. a memoir by poet and all-round man of letters, D. J. Enright. I hadn’t read anything by him as far as I could remember, and it sounded a bit old fogeyish and grim. It is his last book, written in old age while he was being treated for terminal cancer. I put it in the bathroom, intending rather grudgingly to pick it and read the odd page or two now and them. And of course it it turned out to be wonderful – I had to surrender and remove it from the bathroom for proper reading. It is really a commonplace book rather than a memoir. Two things I found especially funny. In a list of exam howlers: ‘Voltaire invented electricity’ (as Enright points out, ‘a brilliant inference, worth half marks’). And this: ‘A paper in the north of England ran an advertisement on its “Lonely Hearts” page which read: “Professional man, 45, head on a stick, seeks similar woman”. When readers asked what freakish practice or rare condition was encoded in “head on a stick”, it emerged that the secretary in the office had taken the message over the telephone and what the man had intended was “hedonistic”.
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.