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.
‘A whole family, brought to destitution, has lately had all its misfortunes clearly traced . . . to an ungovernable passion for novel -reading entertained by the wife and mother. The husband was sober and industrious, but his wife was indolent, addicted to reading everything procurable in the shape of a romance. This led her to utterly neglect her husband, herself, and her eight children. One daughter, is despair, fled the parental home and threw herself into the haunts of vice. . . The house exhibited the most offensive appearance of filth and indigence. In the midst of this pollution, privation, and poverty, the cause of it sat reading the latest ‘sensation work’ of the season. . .’
From THE CHRISTIAN’S PENNY MAGAZINE AND FRIEND OF THE PEOPLE, 1859, quoted in Kate Flint, THE WOMAN READER 1837-1814.
Don’t say I haven’t warned you.
It’s a strange experience reading a novel by someone you know well, especially when it definitely has autobiographical elements. Sue Hepworth’s lovely comic novel, PLOTTING FOR BEGINNERS, came out earlier this year and features a woman of a certain age living in the Peak District, married to a somewhat eccentric husband, with three children. She is struggling to get her first novel published and she is helped or impeded by a vivid cast of characters. The members of the local writing group are particularly bonkers . Think DIARY OF A PROVINCIAL LADY brought up to date.
Well, the real Sue Hepworth is a woman of a certain age living in the Peak District, she’s married to a somewhat eccentric husband, she’s got three children and she is the closest thing I‘ve got to a writing buddy. I think you can see where this is going. I don’t think I’m in there, but would I be able to tell? When the nineteenth century novelist, Fanny Trollope (mother of the more famous Anthony), was asked if she based her characters on real people, she replied ‘Of course, but you’d never recognise the pig from the sausage.’ Oink, oink.