I thought that I might write about books that I HAVEN’T read recently, or rather that I have started to read and then put down, never to be picked up again. Some of these books have been highly recommended by reviewers and prominently displayed in bookshops on 2 for 3 offers, but are simply so badly written or lacking in narrative tension that I haven’t had the heart to go on. I used to feel a kind of moral duty to finish a book once I had started it, but no more. If the author can’t make me want to read it, then I can’t be bothered.
But why end the year on a grouchy note? Instead I’ve decided to write about a book I did like, FOUR SEASONS IN ROME by Anthony Doerr, a book of unassuming dimensions and scope, and all the better for that, beautifully written, touching and thoughtful. Doerr is a young Mid-Western novelist. On the day that his wife gave birth to twins he went home from the hospital to find a letter awarding him a fellowship in Rome; he didn’t even know he had been entered for it. Nine months later he and his wife arrived in Rome with their babies. They spoke virtually no Italian. They came from a town with hardly any history to a city and a culture steeped in it. That was one part of their adventure, and the new world of parenthood was another. A sense of Roman history and the day-to-day details of domestic life in a foreign country are woven together in a way that I found beguiling. During their year in Rome, Pope John Paul II died and Doerr’s description of the city as it waits for this momentous event and then of the funeral which he struggled to attend with his two sons is alone worth the price of the book.
When I had finished reading it, I longed to go on sabbatical myself.
I have a theory that glamourous women like to receive presents that suggest that they are secretly a bit of an intellectual: remember that that photo of Marilyn Monroe reading Heidigger (or whatever) with her specs perched on the end of her nose? Conversely a blue-stocking such as myself doesn’t want to appreciated purely for her towering intellect. So when it was my birthday last week, I very much appreciated Chanel No 5 from my husband, an elegant cardigan in a delicious shade of chocolate brown from my grown-up daughter, and a very pretty necklace from my son and daughter-in-law. However, my theory is somewhat exploded by the fact that I love to receive books as well (and as I recall, Marilyn wasn’t averse to a spot of Chanel No 5 either). So thank you to my old friend, Jonathan, for Richard Holmes’s THE AGE OF WONDER. which I have had my eye on ever since I read the excellent reviews, and to my writing buddy, Sue Hepworth, for E. M Delafield’s THE DIARY OF A PROVINCIAL LADY: a very appropriate choice, for Sue has a good claim to be regarded as the E. M. Delafield de nos jours. Check out out her wonderfully funny novels and her blog.
A very merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to anyone who reads this. I’m off now to listen to Elvis’s Christmas Album while I finish wrapping my presents.
My mother loved classic crime fiction, especially by American writers: John MacDonald, Robert B. Parker, and less well known, the novels of Elizabeth Linington. Linington wrote a truly stupendous number of books, under a variety of names: Anne Blaisdell, Dell Shannon, Lesley Egan. They are all set in Los Angeles, mostly in the sixties and seventies, and in some respects do show their age. The sexism and racism of those days are reflected in her books. Still at her best, she is skillful, highly inventive, and very readable: the detectives work on several cases simultaneously and into these she weaves the private lives of the policemen, whom we follow from novel to novel as they fall in love, get married, have children, become middle-aged . . .
I think the Dell Shannon books, which feature the Kipling-reading, cat-loving Lieutenant Luis Mendoza, are the best. My mother’s copies were battered paperbacks published by Bantam and or Keyhole Crime, or ex-library books picked up in book marts or in charity bookshops. A few years ago, as a Christmas present, I used wonderful Abe.books to track down the ones she hadn’t got.
On the first trip I paid to my mother’s flat to start sorting things out last spring, I packed up her Dell Shannon novels and brought them home. As I sit here typing I can turn my head and see them on my book shelf. It’s a comfort.
I’ve been reading Simenon’s Maigret novels. In some cases it’s re-reading, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t read them for the plots, which are slender and not very memorable. No, I read them for the character of Maigret and the opportunity to spend a little time on the streets of Paris. Julian Symons describes Maigret as ‘one of the most completely realised characters in all modern fiction.’ I agree. Maigret isn’t a maverick detective, he’s not an alcoholic loner. He’s real, he’s solid and he’s bourgeois. He is happily married to Madame Maigret, another of the most appealing characters in fiction. Not that we are told a lot about this marriage, but the way Madame Maigret appears on the fringes, playing a greater or lesser part, is one of the pleasures of the novels.
I’ve been wondering why the novels are so good: they are short and spare, almost minimalist, but every detail counts. Simenon is particularly good at describing the weather and has a marvellous sense of place. Occasionally Maigret leaves Paris to pursue a case in some other part of France, or even once in England, where he is disconcerted by the Mr Pyke, his punctilious English counterpart, but for my money the best novels are set in the capital. It is like slipping into a warm bath to open the pages and find myself following Maigret as he tracks some criminal through the streets of Paris, stopping now and then for a glass of beer or white wine and his favourite andouillette. I once ordered this in Rouen in homage and it turned out to be an earthy and pungent tripe sausage. Salut!
It’s time to resume my blog.
When I signed off around 18 months ago, it was because my mother had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and I wanted to cut down on my commitments so that I could spend time with her. We had trips away, went to the theatre, spent evenings sitting reading together. She was able to have some lovely times with her beloved grandaughter. She faced her illness with courage, good humour, and optimism. She spent her last weeks in a wonderful hospice in Scarborough and died on 13 March 2008. We miss her terribly. I’ll be dedicating my next book to her.
Rest in peace, Avis Dorothy Poulson.
I’m taking a break from my blog for family reasons. See you in a while.
I’ve been reading these with great pleasure. All of these interviews with leading writers have been published before – the earliest (Dorothy Parker) in the Paris Review of 1956, the latest (Joan Didion) in 2006, but they all bear reading again. They’ve been selected by Philip Gourevitch and what a selection, Kurt Vonnegut rubs shoulders with Rebecca West, Billy Wilder with T. S. Eliot. The interviewers were chosen with as much care as the subjects and there are some great pairings, Rebecca West and Marina Warner, for example. I loved the piece on Robert Gottlieb which juxtaposed the comments of his authors with his response to them. He was an editor to die for – and I especially liked the Michael Crichton’s explanation of what a good editor can do: ‘you generally start out with some overall idea that you can see fairly clearly, as if you were standing on a dock and looking at a ship on the ocean. At first you can see the entire ship, but then as you begin work you are in the boiler room and you can’t see the ship anymore. All you can see are the pipes and the grease and the fittings of the boiler room and, you have to assume, the ship’s exterior. What you really want in an editor is someone who’s still on the dock, who can say Hi, I’m looking at your ship, and it’s missing a bow, the front mast is crooked, and it seems to me as if your propellors are going to have to be fixed.’ The book is full of insights in the creative process and incidentally, good advice. too. Both Hemingway and Robert Stone make a pont of stopping the day’s work when they know what they are going to write next. (‘Leave it pointing down hill,’ as I think Graham Greene advised). This is one of three volumes that are planned. I can’t wait.
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.