Week 101: The Convalescent Reader

Now I see this, it is clear that my family are rubbish at Clustering Round in the approved manner.

Now I see this, it is clear that my family are rubbish at Clustering Round in the approved manner.

Fallen prey to the New Year Virus, I have spent the last few days coughing and sneezing and staying in bed, huddled in shawls and tissues and proving conclusively that I do not make a good invalid, inclining towards the bored, the tetchy and the Napoleonic. The news has on the whole been as dispiriting as the leaden grey weather – the world already felt a little smaller, sadder and drabber without David Bowie, and then they came and told me about Alan Rickman – and I have had too much time to ponder on mortality and wonder if, after all, there is not as much time left as I had blithely assumed. Time, definitely, to turn to the books by the bed to find some good cheer and quiet encouragement to pull myself together.

The bright side of a post-Christmas virus is that it offers the opportunity to read all those Christmas-present books that you had longed for, hinted heavily for, but so often turn out not to get round to reading once they are actually yours. Not this year: the lovely haul has been read, mulled over, discussed, lent. Tim Parks’ Where I’m Reading From fulfils expectations (it’s by Tim Parks, it’s probably going to be good): a wonderful bringing-together of his blogs for The New York Review of Books (incidentally, if you never have, succumb to one of the endless offers to receive The London Review of Books free for a year; you are unlikely to be disappointed). Parks freewheels through the very fabric and meaning of the stuff we read – it is no coincidence that these meditations were first published on the internet – and for all of us with New Year Resolutions to live up to about what we read, or don’t read, or what we write this year, Where I’m Reading From is pretty much essential groundwork. (For more about New Year resolutions of a bookish kind, by the way, hop over to the Book Club pages of this blog to see what we got up to in January).

Even the less-than-good, encountered from a soothing pile of pillows, herb tea (that it should come to this) and acres of dogs to hand, offer pleasures. It has been good to find that I still have some sort of critical faculty functioning through the fog of flu-like symptoms, as proved by reading Donna Leon’s latest in the long line of Commissario Brunetti novels, Falling in Love. A treat as always to be reunited with this most uxorious of detectives, but the book feels as if it has been put together by formula. What would be impressive from a lesser writer falls far short of Leon’s usual standard, with sketchily-drawn stock characters, some irritatingly dangling loose ends and an ending carved out of solid woodenness.

I cannot tell a lie.  I really badly want a skirt like Saoirse Ronan's

I cannot tell a lie. I really badly want a skirt like Saoirse Ronan’s

But three to restore my joyful faith in books. Father Christmas, a good egg if ever there were one, came up trumps with Kate Atkinson’s heavily-hinted-for A God in Ruins, forcing me to indulge in a re-read of Life After Life and revel in her master-classes in the art of fiction. Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn turns out to be every bit as good as the film-of-the-book, so if you haven’t, do (I have carried on to discover that Nora Webster is every bit as absorbing). And Landmarks, written by Robert Macfarlane and recommended at the December NorthernReader Book Club, is every bit as delectable as I had hoped.

What next? As this wretched virus at long last starts to pack its bags, I can at least look further than Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did. No more the humbling lesson on how to make the sickroom a place of inspiration. Farewell to contemplating the pre-antibiotic world of Betty MacDonald’s fabulous The Plague and I. No need, after all, to start learning the words of Mimi’s farewell aria. I can once again read Keats, the Brontës and Chekhov without a morbid inclination to identify with their every little cough. Time, clearly, for some bracing pull-yourself-together reading, and a heartfelt sense of gratitude at my good fortune to have been born in a very wealthy country in the second half of the twentieth century. It would no doubt be very good for me to read some harrowing tales of unhappy or persecuted lives as an aid to counting my blessings, but I think I might take the softer path and slip back onto the sunlit uplands of life with something cheery. The Wind in the Willows is the ultimate Convalescent Book, at least in the NorthernReader household, although Emma runs it a very close second. Ah, comfort books: this seems as good a place as any to confide in you, now we know each other a little better, that the night before my wedding, sleep eluding me, I read Arthur Ransome’s We Didn’t Mean To Go to Sea. All of it. Make of that what you will.

But here I am this January, restored to health and raring to go on my readerly way. And my treat, my reward, if not for good behaviour exactly then for having come through the porridge-brained phase of ‘flu in which Noddy might pose too much of an intellectual challenge? Well, Julian Barnes’ new novel, The Noise of Time, has just been published to rave reviews. Bliss it is this dawn to be alive. Happy New Year, everyone.WP_20150129_026

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Week 95: The Body Count

Quote

untitled (5)Why are we, like Webster (you know your TS Eliot), so much possessed by death? Not the slow decline of inevitable ageing and mortality, which is the unavoidable fate of us all and which we refuse to acknowledge, contemplate or come to terms with, but violent death. In 2013, when the population of England and Wales was fifty three and a half million, there were five hundred and fifty one murders. Or, in other words, you are infinitely more likely to win the Lottery (always worth looking on the bright side, I find, even if only to fill in the time until we die; which will not be at the hands of others).

Yet murder forms the staple of television drama. Otherwise perfectly pleasant people who have a tendency to recoil squeamishly at the traumatic idea of squashing a wasp wade knee-deep in gore as they settle down on the sofa in the evening. It is one of the wonders of the modern world that the housing market in the Cotswolds has remained so buoyant, what with all those serial killers portrayed in Morse, Lewis, Endeavour (mostly melodramatic if well-acted should you not have seen this prequel series) and Midsomer Murders (purest ham and suggesting that south Oxfordshire is in the grip of a population decimation not seen since the Black Death). We particularly enjoy sitting unmoved and supine before tales of serial killers: indeed, in the implicit league table of murderers, there is something a bit namby-pamby and not-really-trying about the villain who only kills once.

These crimes – which I do rather hope would produce a more empathetic, not to say wildly hysterical, response in what we laughingly call real life – have literary form. Cain, of course; a tale told with admirable brevity in Genesis: and after him, a grand parade of the vengeful, the greedy, the psychotic and the frankly panic-stricken. Snuggle down in your staggeringly safe home and enjoy.

IPhone pics Nov 13 005Shakespeare, who lived in a rougher world more prone to using its fists and knives, gives us Macbeth – a terribly plausible decent chap who plummets into an unstoppable chain of murders and loses his soul in the process (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice but far, far, darker – although now I think of it I quite fancy Mickey Mouse as the Scottish King). And, what with being a man of his time and all that, Shakespeare also gives us Lady M, whose fault it all is. It’s that pesky double X chromosome, you see. Did you know that the most popular topic for carving onto the elaborate marriage-beds of the sixteenth-century rich was Adam and Eve? The point, dear newly-married couple, is not so much the blissful existence in Paradise, but the Awful Warning that Eve rocked up in Adam’s comfy homosocial world – just him and, well, Him – and ruined everything. Girls, hey? One of the great triumphs of the Enlightenment is that, in patches and in places, we have, at least from time to time, moved on.

My goodness, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries really had a problem with women. When they’re not the sexually voracious evil villains of the piece – try Beatrice-Joanna in The Changeling or Vittoria Corombona in The White Devil – they are being murdered on stage in such numbers that I can’t help thinking that the writers had spotted exactly what sells tickets: yup, our old friends sex-and- death, with women as the she-probably-deserved-it fetchingly draped body (we will have a crack at getting our heads round the fact that the bodies in question were boys in frocks another day). Have things, in books at least, changed? Let’s have some murders on this week’s bookshelf.

No self-respecting crime library should be without representative texts from Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and (plonking prose but rattling plots) Agatha Christie. Ah, feminist revenge: weary with being the victim, women rose up and wrote the stuff themselves. It just crosses my mind to wonder (I offer it as a PhD topic should no-one have got there first) whether women writers kill off more chaps. And we must have EC Bentley’sTrent’s Last Case, if only because it is always spoken of as a classic of the genre so we look a bit awkward if we’ve never read it (I don’t know that it’s the most gripping thing that I’ve ever read, but it’s good). Raymond Chandler is another sine qua non, even if you will frequently have no idea what is going on (nor did he, apparently). It is a pleasing coincidence that the two greatest prose stylists of the twentieth century went to the same school – Dulwich College, and the other is, as of course you know, PG Wodehouse, whose murder mysteries, had he written any, would have been byzantinely plotted and shimmerlingly narrated (oh come on, Sebastian Faulks: a clear and obvious next best-seller for you).

Why a beautiful pink rose would remind David Austin Roses of Brother Cadfael is anybody's guess

Why a beautiful pink rose would remind David Austin Roses of Brother Cadfael is anybody’s guess

Edith Pargeter, writing as Ellis Peters, successfully created an entirely believable world in her twenty or more Brother Cadfael books. As murders, especially murders in fiction, go, they are lightly drawn and it is unlikely that you will have nightmares. Their quality lies in the skill with which she breathed life into her twelfth century monk, his friends, colleagues and enemies, and the streets, manors, hovels and fields of Shrewsbury and Shropshire. There have been many – hordes – of imitators, all of which seem to me to fall at the first hurdle of failing to digest their research before regurgitating it into their narratives. If you think you have an historical novel in you, (a) think again and (b) read Ellis Peters very carefully and thoughtfully before you begin (but unless you are Jude Morgan, (a) will still be the correct answer).

The other series which I heartily recommend is Donna Leon’s Brunetti novels. Over the last twenty years or so, Ms Leon, an American living in Venice, has mined deeper and deeper into the politics and psyche of contemporary Italy via the medium of her detective, Commissario Guido Brunetti. It is worth, should you not have come across them, starting at the beginning with Death at La Fenice, which is a competently plotted crime novel with the ravishing setting of La Serenissima and a detective who arrives fully-formed into the canon of crime fiction. But keep reading; it feels as if Leon has grown in scope and confidence, and the later novels are dark, disturbing (this is a recommendation, by the way) and have profound things to say about the state of Europe today.

 

Of those British murders, incidentally, forty-four involved guns. I just mention this in case anyone from the gun lobby in the USA might have dropped by.untitled (7)

Week 27: Books for a Marriage

sonnet 116The daughter of our dear friends got married yesterday.  To Louise and James, therefore, we NorthernReaders send every possible ounce of love and congratulations and welcome to the wonderful and slightly strange world of being married.  What books should we give you?

1 snowdropsThe truth is that poets, playwrights and novelists get more inspiration from the unmarried state which you have just left.  As everyone will point out to you, Shakespeare’s comedies end with a wedding in the air and his tragedies begin shortly afterwards.  Don’t be put off: think of Lord and Lady Macbeth and General and Mrs Othello as helpful what-not-to-do guides and you’ll be fine.  And stick like glue to every wise word of Shakespeare’s sonnet.  If you minds are as one, and open to each other, yours will be the best and happiest of marriages.

Asta_in_Shadow_of_The_Thin_Man_trailerThe problem with happy marriages is that they do not provide useful material for fiction, because stories, unlike people, thrive on conflict.  Good marriages can be found in books, but – just as in what we laughingly call real life – you may need to pick and choose to select the aspects you would like to copy.  Nick and Nora Charles, for example – the couple at the heart of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man:  happy, certainly; devoted, even – but I’m not sure that all that alcohol is a very helpful ingredient in our recipe for a long and contented marriage (Asta, on the other hand, is a good reminder that dogs and marriages go together very well indeed).  But detective fiction, strangely, does provide us with some well-matched couples.  Not Poirot, obviously, nor Miss Marple, although Agatha Christie did have a married pair of detectives, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford.  But Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey embody Shakespeare’s invaluable advice to be a marriage of true minds.  We shall give our newly-married couple, not only Dorothy L Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon,.but also the sequels developed by Jill Paton Walsh. We can add Ngaio Marsh’s really rather nice Roderick Alleyn and his splendid wife Troy.  Best of all are Commissario Guido Brunetti and his clever academic wife, Paola, in Donna Leon’s absorbing series of detective novels set in Venice.  It is true that Paola is a fabulous cook, but, if you are not, do not despair that a great marriage will elude you: the Brunetti household is forged by love, patience, understanding, a shared sense of humour and – hurray – books.  The couple that reads together, stays together.

Sticking together through the tough bits might be a useful role model, so hats off to Mother in The Railway Children who quite properly never doubts her husband’s innocence for a second.  Married couples in children’s books almost inevitably – and appropriately – appear as parents rather than lovers, but there are some that stand out as couples  Sadly, Mr and Mrs Bear, parents of  Rupert, make it very clear where he gets his outstanding dullness from.  Much more enjoyably, Mr and Mrs Pig of Evening Out fame, although a bit slapdash in their choice of baby-sitter (and which cabin-fevered parent wouldn’t joyfully accept any offer of child-care?), are clearly fond of each other and can still face the idea of an evening in each other’s company with equanimity.  Richmal Crompton’s Mr and Mrs Brown stoically present a united front in the face of the adversity which is their youngest child, William.  There is, incidentally, an emerging trend for weddings to include readings from children’s books – the more toe-curlingly and vapidly sugary the better.  I suspect that the reason for this is straightforward and two-fold: first, because, consciously or not, the happy couple are thinking about children, and secondly because under the strain of arranging a wedding, which nowadays has to be of a pomp and splendour formerly restricted to the court at Versailles, the bride has lost her marbles and the groom is too afraid to put his foot down.  I may, of course, be wrong

Snowdrops-bouquet-wallpaper_7017Let us turn to the poets for help and guidance.  Once again, we hit the problem that it is far more fun to write about the awful agonies of unrequited love and broken romance than the glorious mundanities of lasting happiness, but here are two who step up to the mark.  Although Edmund Spenser’s Epithalamion is, strictly speaking, ineligible for our bookshelf of marriage guidance because it speaks only of the wedding day itself, it is definitely having a place for its very clear standard-setting on how to praise your wife.  Read it, chaps, and take notes.  You will never fall far out of favour with your wife as the years roll by if you can keep up this level of admiration.  Pay special attention to his celebration of her intelligence, charm, kindness and wit.  Practise in the car on the way home if necessary.

Our second teacher is of course the utterly wonderful John Donne.   Read ‘The Anniversary’. If you don’t feel like that, don’t marry.  There we are.  Simple really.

Now is not the time to indulge the NorthernReader’s sense of humour by presenting our happy couple with Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Julian Barnes’ Before She Met Me.  We could give them Wodehouse, though.  Not Bingo Little’s marriage to the popular novelist Rosie M Banks, perhaps, and the fireplace with ‘Two Lovebirds Built This Nest’ – although there is something rather marvellous about such squirm-making horror – but Aunt Dahlia and Uncle Tom rub along together pretty well through umpteen years of marriage and despite the depradations of her nephew Bertie.  Best of all, let’s make sure that all newly-married couples embark upon their life together with the complete works of Jane Austen tucked into their trousseaux.  Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth, Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley, Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars: they are all highly unusual romantic couples, because we can imagine them settling into long contented marriages (for contrast, try picturing Romeo and Juliet’s silver wedding anniversary.  You see? It was never going to work).  And Jane Bennett, of course – like our own dear Louise – has the great good sense to marry a man from the North of England.  Good on you, petheavenfield

Week 9: Men’s Books

Oh dear.  This week (like most weeks) the news has been full of chaps behaving like a bunch of three-year olds while the rest of us stand by with our jaws dropped.  Whether the American Republican Party, in a pet because democracy hasn’t given it the answer it wanted, or British police Chief Constables – um, ditto, the wonder is that they haven’t been sent up to their rooms to think about what they’ve done.  They could read a book or two while they were there and find some grown-up male role models.

Although they might have to wade through some depressing stereotypes first.  Bookshops (not brilliant ones such as Cogito Books in Hexham, obviously) are filling up with the Boys’ Own Book of Crash, Thud, and Tying Knots (or something like that) in time for Christmas.  What men want, if you believe the publishers, is facts.  Lots of lists, preferably, and detailed instructions on how to do something they’re never actually going to do (fish, mend something, make a pipe-rack).  Now, I am not disputing the need from time to time for instruction books and clear explanations of how to do something, and I am quietly thrilled that reference books such as Wisden are holding on despite the internet: but the assumption that chaps can’t handle fiction seems a tad depressing.

I don't think this is gratuitous, do you?

I don’t think this is gratuitous, do you?

There is fiction aimed at men, of course.  William Boyd has just done a bang-up job on replicating the dreary, list-laden, unsubtle humourlessness of the original James Bond books.  It sits most easily with the derring-do military anecdotes of Andy McNab, Chris Ryan et al. The most interesting thing I know about Ian Fleming, by the way, is that he may well have been the back-room boy at SIS who came up with the ‘Major Martin’ wheeze: Ewen Montagu’s  The Man Who Never Was discreetly tells the tale.  Spying is a popular topic, too: the best, of course, is John Le Carré’s Smiley and his descendants: if you enjoyed that, try Charles Cumming’s The Trinity Six – and, while we’re talking about good spying books, Robert Harris’s Enigma brings a very believable Bletchley to life.

But does the y chromosome have to debar you from Jane Austen? Is Mr Darcy only fit for the company of women?  Well, perhaps he is a bad example, because his creator was female, but an awful lot of fiction has been written by men: not only novels, short stories and plays, but even (whisper it) poetry.  So if chaps are considered too – well, blokeish – to be expected to read stories, how is that they are dab hands at turning the stuff out?  And, it must be said, doing it to quite a high standard – you know, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Auden, that sort of thing.

Rising above the comment of my friend that Wolf Hall is really a girls’ book because it’s full of conversation (well, obviously the casual violence is just there for the male reader, but it clearly didn’t work in my friend’s case), what books am I going to lend out eagerly to men? And which am I going to tuck quietly away onto a special pink shelf with frills on it?

First thoughts are to segregate Bridget Jones and her like (but I’m damned if I’ll protect my male friends from the astute precision of Jane Austen).  It might even be that some of the more introspective evocations of female emotional experience might not grab some male imaginations (to be fair, I can’t stand football, so I am prepared to concede that there might be a chromosomal tendency towards finding different things tolerable).  So, chaps, not for you the water-colour perfections of Penelope Fitzgerald, Anita Brookner and Barbara Pym.  If Salley Vicker’s Dancing Backwards is not your cup of tea, try Where Three Roads Meet instead.  If you find Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart elliptical, read The Last September (if you find the heroine of Wuthering Heights tedious, on the other hand, welcome to my world).

But if we are to go along with the idea that only the tough and the hard-boiled will do for the male reader, then who more perfect that Raymond Chandler?  Philip Marlowe’s heart does get broken, but in true hero style, he doesn’t go on about it.  Peter Wimsey’s heart, we are told, was broken during the War by a girl called Barbara.  He morphs during the novels from being a Wooster-ish fop, through being an embarrassingly drooled-over object of desire in his creator’s eye, to emerge as a middle-aged married man with –gosh, how brave! – sensitivities.  No-one could ever call Wimsey hard-boiled.  Inspector Morse is infinitely duller in Colin Dexter’s hands than in John Thaw’s.  Dan Starkey, the rather unlikely hero of Colin Bateman’s books, might be better off if he could only harden his heart a bit.  If you haven’t read any, try the film of Divorcing Jack, and not just because Jason Isaacs is in it: although that doesn’t hurt, does it?  And he was spot-on as Jackson Brodie in the television adaptations of Kate Atkinson’s multi-layered, poignant novels about loss, starting with Case Histories (don’t worry, chaps, there’s detecting, some violence and even the odd chase there too).  Donna Leon’s detective, Commissario Guido Brunetti, on the other hand, is unusual in being kindly, deeply uxurious, happily long-married and a caring father: now there’s a male role model.  Can we have Colin Firth for the film please?