I’ve been rereading Ann Tyler’s novel for my book group tonight. And I’m very conscious of how my reading style has changed over the years. In my teens and early twenties I read voraciously – sometimes reading just to plunge in and loose myself in the narrative, sometimes from a lit crit point of view looking for patterns and symbols ( I did an English degree). Later as an art historian I tended to read novels for sheer pleasure and escape. But when you become a writer yourself, you lose your virginity as a reader. So that reading A PATCHWORK PLANET, which has a first person male narrator, though I was quickly sucked into the story – she is above all just immensely readable – I was also asking myself, how does she do this? And: has she pulled it off? To write a short story from a male viewpoint is not too difficult (I’ve done it myself) but a whole novel is a tour-de-force, especially in the first person. Jane Austen famously avoided even having two men talking without a woman present, and a male narrator would have been unthinkable. Tolstoy on the other hand got into the head of Anna Karenina to write perhaps the most brilliant novel ever written. LARRY’S PARTY by Carol Shields springs to mind as an admirable effort to present a male viewpoint, even though it’s not in the first person, as I recall. So how does Ann Tyler do in the cross-dressing stakes? Not bad. Sex is always difficult to write about anyway without sounding clinical or crude or unintentionally funny but she manages by not being too specific about what’s actually going on. I think Carol Shields is better at imagining what it is like to actually live in a male body and have a masculine cast of mind, but for an exploration of the cruel dynamics of family life in scenes that are both funny and painful (here a mother and son relationship what would give Woody Allen a run for his money), it’s hard to think of a contemporary writer who can equal Ann Tyler.
Tobias Hill’s novel is described as a thriller in the SUNDAY TIMES review that’s quoted on the cover. It’s too measured and reflective to be that, in my view, and is none the worse for it. Neither is it science fiction, though it is set a little way in the future, when hard currency has ceased to exist and has been replaced by an electronic currency, Soft Gold. The global economy depends on it, and it in turn depends on the (supposedly) unbreakable code in which is encrypted. The creator of the code is John Law, a fabulously wealthy businessman, and the story begins when the tax inspector, Anna Moore, is sent to track down discrepancies in his accounts. As she begins to penetrate the layers of mystery surrounding Law, a mutual attraction develops between them . . .
Hill is an award-winning poet and it shows in the elegance and precision of his writing, which offers a series of little surprises in its aptness of description and metaphor. It’s written in the present tense, always difficult to pull off, I feel, but it works.
As an aside, I might add that I once worked for the Inland Revenue. It soon became clear that my talents lay elsewhere and I left before my mistakes caught up with me.
The crime writer I’m most enjoying at the moment is Andrea Camilleri, but Qui Xialong is a close second. As I said in my very first blog, I don’t read him for the (perfectly servicable) plot, but for his fascinating evocation of contemporary China and Shanghai in particular. WHEN RED IS BLACK is the third in the series. When a former member of the Red Guard is found dead, the roots of the crime lie in the cultural revolution and the long shadow it still casts over the present. I ought to admit an interest. We’ve got a family connection with China and spent some time in Guangzhou around four years ago. Like Shanghai it is a huge city where new buildings are going up at a staggering pace. The air pollution when we were there was stupendous – we had chest infections for weeks after we got back. The Shanghai of WHEN RED IS BLACK is also a city of extraordinary contrasts. Inspector Chen and his ‘little secretary’ go to drink at a retro bar called Golden Time Rolling Backwards, decorated in the style of 1930s Shanghai, while a month’s wages of a young man who has come to work in the city wouldn’t be enough for one karaoke night. As usual the incidental details are fascinating. A housewife is given a present of a live soft-shell turtle and thinks nothing of killing and gutting it herself and steaming it for dinner. A woman scrapes a living by shelling frozen shrimp by hand.
There are often times when I have 15 or 20 minutes to spare – waiting in the doctor’s surgery, waiting for a child to finish a swimming lesson, waiting for a train, etc, so, although there is nothing like immersing oneself a novel, a book that you can read in short bites is good too. TRY ANYTHING TWICE by Jan Sturther is that kind of book. It’s a collection of short pieces written in the thirties by the author of MRS MINIVER and they are similar: dispatches from middle-class domestic life, but written in the first person. Some of the period details are a little quaint – this is a world of nannies and prep schools – but many of her observations are still spot on. Take for instance her remark that a ten-year old address book makes ‘good, though cryptic reading. How few people one knew in those day . . . And what has become, I wonder, of the Hartley-Whitneys. And who the devil was Mrs Broole?’ And take her comment on parties: ‘Giving a party is very like having a baby: its conception is more fun than its completion, and once you have begun it it is almost impossible to stop.’
There’s been a series of days that have sent my heart to my boots. Sky like grey blotting paper, light dead and dull. Even with my special daylight lamp by my computer, sometimes I can hardly keep my eyes open. This is the time of year to read books set in hot places and ROUNDING THE MARK, the latest Inspector Montalbano mystery by Andrea Camilleri, went down a treat (a birthday present from my stepdaughter: thanks, Claire). That said, it wasn’t altogether an easy read. His novels are getting darker and his hero more disillusioned, and one aspect of it really wring my heart. At the same time, they are funny and warm – and the heat and the smell of Sicily almost leap off the page. And the food! If only I had a housekeeper like Adelina who leaves dishes of delectable food in Montalbano’s fridge. Now where did I put that holiday brochure . . .
It’s to use this blog as a reading journal and record everything I read for a year. One of my first reads of the year and a fine start was an absolutely cracking ghost story, STRANGERS, by a Japanese writer, Taichi Tamada. The narrator, a middle-aged scriptwriter, divorced, disillusioned, takes a sentimental journey to the Toyko suburb where he grew up and where his parents both died when he was twelve. He meets a man and a woman who closely resemble his dead parents and returns again and again for the comfort of being with them, but things are not what they seem in more ways than one . . . The novel is a little like THE TURN OF THE SCREW in its use of a possibly unreliable narrator and rivals it in scariness, but it’s also a touching exploration of love and loss and grief.
Yesterday morning I was in Scarborough. I’d struggled over in the fog for a pre-Christmas visit to my mother and was sitting in the waiting room of one of those places where they fix your car while you wait. I had a flat tyre and a flat battery and that was just the car. I felt pretty flat myself – tail-end of a cold, backache – Xmas shopping still to do, woken up at four by my daughter. But it was OK because I had with me an Agatha Christie I didn’t remember reading (my mother is even more of a crime fiction addict than I am – scarcely reads anything else). And it was perfect – undemanding, such a fast, pacey read, and she’s funny too. I’d almost finished it by the time the tyre was fitted and I felt better, too. I did pretty much guess who’d done it, but only right at the end. So thanks, Dame Agatha.
It’s almost traditional. Today’s my birthday and my present from my husband is a book I’ve already got. Own goals in previous years have included THE BRIDGE OF THE SAN LUIS REY and THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME. This year it is THE VIRAGO BOOK OF GHOST STORIES. I know exactly how this happens – he is standing there in the book shop, the minutes ticking away, and his eye lights on a book he thinks I would like. And I do like it – I like it so much that I’ve already bought it and read it and it’s on the shelf at home. Some years I forsee this and give him a list, but I’m so busy at this time of year that I usually forget. What I wanted this year was Jenny Uglow’s biography of Thomas Bewick (or a bottle of Chanel No 19). Still it’s not too late for Christmas.
A couple of weeks ago I was at a study week-end in Birmingham and drove over to Moseley, a suburb where I used to live between the ages of 22 and 30, an important time in anyone’s life. First I was a postgraduate student and then I worked at the Museum and Art Gallery as an assistant keeper. Some of the shops and restaurants were the same – the Jade Garden Chinese restaurant, the wholefood shop, but something seemed to be missing and I realised there weren’t any book shops. There used to be two – Smith’s (now an estate agent) and a independent one, that stocked more alternative stuff (now a CD shop). They were an important part of my life there – must have spent hours in the alternative one, hesitating about which book to buy, when money was tight. From the time I left home to go to university until we moved here to Derbyshire I’ve always lived within walking distance of a book shop – and that’s something I still feel the lack of. More about that another day.
Last Monday I was in London doing research for an academic article and was travelling from the British Library to the London Library on the underground. I was feeling low, a November day, and not very happy. I was coming up the first of the escalators at Piccadilly Circus when I heard someone singing. As I reached the top and rounded the corner to second escalators, I saw that it was a busker. He had a trained voice and it was just stupendous, so warm and full and virile, and beautifully controlled. He was singing something familiar in Italian – ‘quanto, quanto, quanto, quanto’ – a Neopolitan love song, I think. There were some people just standing listening. I threw some money in his hat and noticed that there were CDS there, too. As I went up the next escalator, the wonderful sound floated up around me, full of passionate yearning. He stopped singing just as I reached the top. I clapped and shouted bravo – other people were doing the same. The singer saluted us. I went on with a spring in my step. Just thinking about again makes me smile.