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.
I loved David Attenborough’s LIFE ON AIR: MEMOIRS OF A BROADCASTER and didn’t want to get to the end. It is so very English in its particular kind of charm and reticence and modesty, full of self-deprecating humour. I especially enjoyed the story about two doughty explorers of the 1930s, Bill Tillman and Eric Shipton, who shared a small tent in the Himalayas living off the local food, roasted barley. After a month or so. Shipton is supposed to have said, rather shyly, ‘Now that we know each other pretty well, so you think we might stop calling one another by our surnames.’ To which Tilman replied, ‘Are you suggesting that I should call you Eric? I’m afraid I couldn’t do that. I should feel such a bloody fool.’ Those were the days. Now it is first names at the drop of a hat. A recent exception to this is in my Mandarin class: the Chinese respect for seniority is such is that my Chinese teacher often addresses me as ‘Dr Poulson’.
I also liked the story of the filming of the bat colony in Borneo in a cave with the pile of bat droppings one hundred and fifty feet high, covered in a shimmering carpet of cockcroaches. David Attenborough climbed it to be filmed at the top and, almost overcome by ammonia fumes, explained to camera that some people are afraid of a bat flying into their hair ‘of course there is no danger of that ‘- and he went on to explain about their amazing navigation system. That was as much as he could manage before he choked. The camera was shut down and the next instant a huge bat crashed into his face.
One of the bravest things he did was not in the field at all, in my view. It was giving up a highly paid administrative job as Director of Programmes for the BBC to go back to making wildlife programmes as a freelance.
Regular visitors to this blog (hello, there) will have realised that I’ve settled into a routine of blogging every Monday. Next week is Easter Monday, so it’ll be Tuesday. And in case you’re wondering after last week’s blog, I haven’t found my watch. In fact last week was a series of small mishaps. I had to see the funny side on Wednesday. After a day of nearly going bonkers, trying to sort out problems with my e-mail server, it got to six o’clock and I poured myself a stiffish gin and tonic. I managed to drink about half when my husband tipped the rest down the sink, thinking it was water . . .
As I said last week I have to be careful about what I read at the moment, so that I don’t muddy the waters for the novel I’m writing. This collection of early detective stories from the decade or two before the first world war fits the bill nicely. It was edited by Hugh Greene (Graham Greene’s brother as I recall) in the 1970s. They are enjoyable for the period detail especially. Sheer escapism. There is a real spine-chiller, ‘The Horse of the Invisible’ by William Hope Hodgson, which combines ghost story and crime story to powerful effect. ‘A Game Played in the Dark,’ by Ernest Bramah, featuring the blind detective, Max Carrodos, was good, too.
A friend who reads my blog asked me how I could find time to read so much. I have to. I’m a word addict, simple as that. The hardest reading times in my life have been when I had an eye-operation in my twenties and couldn’t read for a while (this was before taped books) and when my daughter was small, in every other way a wonderful time. However she would play on her own only when she was in the bath and that was the time when, sitting next to her on the lid of the loo, I could have half an hour with the paper or a book. On one occasion I was desperate, absolutely craving to finish a book – I’d like to say I was hungry for a work of classic literature, but it was Lawrence Block’s OUT ON THE CUTTING EDGE. On that day the poor kid had two baths. So maybe that should be my ultimate accolade: a Two-Bath book.
I’ve got a bit more time now – though not that much more and then there are days like today . . . British Summer Time began on Sunday and the clocks went forward an hour. It’s always a bit disturbing and I couldn’t sleep last night and felt really groggy when I got up (6.30 old time) and it was a struggle to get my daughter up too. I also had to remember to fill the bath and jugs etc with water as the water main is cut off today from 9- 6 today for repairs. Then I had to get the cat in the car to go to the vet. It’s impossible to get him in the cat carrier while he’s still in the house, because he struggles so much. I can only get him in the car by running out of the house with him in my arms and throwing him in and slamming the door shut before he’s worked out what’s happening. Then I had to get my daughter in the car without letting the cat out. I dropped my daughter at school (late) and took the cat to vet. When I got back home I realised that my daughter’s snack for break-time was on the front seat of the car so I drove back to the school with it. I drove home for the second time and had just got in the house when I realised that I had lost my watch (silver – engagement present from my husband). I drove back into the village and looked for it but no luck. Then when I got home for the third time, the door bell rang and it was the local Jehovah’s Witnesses enquiring about whether I had read the leaflet they had left the last time . . .
Some days it’s all I can do to keep with the losers.
Last week I didn’t know whether to curse Larry McMurtry or send him a fan letter. I was supposed to writing my own novel, but I couldn’t stop reading his. In the end I had to scupper it by looking ahead to see what happened, so that I could stop reading it for long enough to do some work. Whoever would have thought I could have been so gripped by a book about cowboys? I know this won a Pullitzer Prize and was a very successful TV series, but I’d managed to avoid it so far. It’s over 900 pages long, yet I just wanted it to go on and on. It took me a little while to get into this story of two middle-aged Texas rangers and their crew driving a cattle herd from South Texas to Montana, but when I did . . . It soon became apparent when there was a death – a terrible one – as they crossed the first river, that they wouldn’t all make it and after that I was on tenterhooks. It was funny, touching, and I fell in love with Gus Macrae. Oddly enough the writer I was reminded of was Trollope or even Charlotte M Yonge’s family sagas! The Hat Creek outfit is a kind of family and this is a nineteenth century novel in its scope and length and narrative energy. The authorial voice, though never obtrusive, is humane and wise. I can see I am going to have to read STREETS OF LAREDO, but not just yet. One of the ironies of becoming a writer is that I don’t read as much fiction as I did, at least not when I am actually into a novel. I think that it’s because some of my hunger for narrative is being satisfied by my own work. But there also the danger of being infected by someone else’s style and, even worse, I find, being sucked into someone else’s fictional world and not being able to get back into your own. That’s especially the case when the fictional world is as fully and as vividly realised as the one in LONESOME DOVE.
I decided to blog about everything I read this year, so I am listing NATIVE SPEAKER by Chang-Rae Lee, even though I didn’t really enjoy it. I might not have finished it if it hadn’t been chosen by my reading group. Lee was born in Korea, but his parents emigrated to the US when he was three. He writes wonderfully about the experience of being a second generation emigrant, which in effect is what he is, and the sense of belonging to neither community. And yet it didn’t grip me, partly I think because so much of the first half was narrated in flashbacks and the real story doesn’t get going until half way through. Or maybe it’s that the flashbacks were the real story.
The novel I am really gripped by at the moment is Larry MacMurtry’s LONESOME DOVE, which I am devouring – first thing in the morning, last thing at night, in the bath and over lunch. It’s over 900 pages long. I’ve just over half way through and already know that I’m not going to want it to finish. More next week.
One of the nicest things about becoming a writer has been getting to know other writers. Crime writers are unusually convivial and can often be found propping up the bar together and commiserating about publishers (unlike the romantic novelists, who I’ve heard are at each other’s throats). I usually find that when I like someone, I like their books too, and vice versa. It’s been great getting to know Michelle Spring. I read her first book, EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE, when it came out in the early 1990s. It was set in Cambridge, where I was living at the time. My first copy was pinched from the outside pocket of the bag I’d checked into a left luggage office – the irony of it ! – and I just had to know how it ended, so I had to buy another copy. Four more fine novels followed. Michelle’s new novel, THE NIGHT LAWYER, is a break from her series of Laura Principal P. I. stories. It’s a suspense novel set on the Isle of Dogs. Eleanor Porter tries to leave her troubled past behind her and make a new start as the night lawyer in a newspaper office. She’s responsible for clearing articles for libel. It’s a great idea. Offices can be creepy places at night and soon some very sinister things start happening – one in particular had the hairs standing up on the back of my neck. But I won’t spoil it for you . . .
A book that is having a big effect on me right now is NO MORE CLUTTER: HOW TO CLEAR YOUR SPACE AND FREE YOUR LIFE by Sue Kay. Her book was listed by the bookshop at Friends’ House as one of their books of 2006 and it chimes in with the Quaker ideal of simplicity. There is a good word, ‘cumber’ which it was used by the early Quakers and could be usefully revived. It is very expressive of the spiritual weight of having too many material things. And it is how I feel: encumbered. I just have too much stuff. It doesn’t help that my husband is an academic as well, so we have a houseful of books and journals. Reading NO MORE CLUTTER has made me realise that I have been asking the wrong question when I have tried to clear the house. The wrong question is ‘can I imagine circumstances – however remote – in which I might one day want this?’ The right question is ‘Do I really need or value this?’ Am I ever going to need a run of the journal of ART HISTORY from the 1990s or thirty pairs of old tights? I think not. Actually William Morris said it all: ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’ It should be easy to get rid of the rest, but somehow it isn’t. The value of Sue Kay’s book is that it takes you through the process step by step. It’s goodbye, clutter: hello, charity shop, dustbin and e-Bay.
I was drawn to Rosellen Brown’s novel because it is written from an unusual combination of viewpoints. It begins with a crime – the murder of a seventeen year old girl – which is seen from the points of view of the mother and father and sister of the boy who is responsible. The quirk is that the father’s point of view is first person male and the mother and sister’s third person. I am particularly interested in viewpoint at the moment and wondered what I could learn and how she got away with this. And she DID get away with it. The book made the NEW YORK TIMES bestseller list. Once I was into the novel, I soon got used to the shifting viewpoints and it turned out to be one of those books that you don’t want to stop reading. There is never much doubt that the boy is guilty, and the considerable suspense lies in the contrasting attitudes of the parents and how these will effect the outcome of the trial. The father’s instinct is cover up for his son, the mother’s is to let the truth prevail and I found myself being swayed first by one argument and another. It has only just occurred to me as I write this that Brown may have chosen the first person for the father as a more persuasive way of presenting an argument that on the face of it is unacceptable.
At any rate, she writes superbly and this is a terrific read. A tour-de-force.
I’m between drafts of a novel and have been roaming around my collection of books, picking up this and that, while I mull over various problems. This is the first time I’ve written a novel in the third person and from more than one viewpoint and I’m also having plotting problems. It always helps to see how other people have managed. John D MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels are in the first person, so not much help as regards viewpoint, but he is a terrific plotter and the books are compulsively readable. They are set in Florida over a time-span of over twenty years and are a fascinating reflection of social history from the drugged-up sixties to the chilly eighties. It is a pretty dangerous thing to be an attractive woman in Travis McGee’s life as, despite his best intentions, they usually wind up dead. Still he is a engaging character, and his hirsute intellectual chum, Meyer, even more so, to my mind. And the novels are an object lesson, too, in how to keep a series going, though they are not quite of equal quality, and there are occasional repetitions. New readers might start with THE SCARLET RUSE or THE DREADFUL LEMON SKY or PALE GREY FOR GUILT(great titles).
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.