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 96: On With the Motley

846361_5ffeed6b6ec847d7a305acdd3116dedf.jpeg_srz_p_198_276_75_22_0.50_1.20_0Last week, the theatre came to town – or to our village at any rate. We were delighted to welcome Paddleboat Theatre to our village picnic, and even more delighted when the sun came out especially for them. Their show, According to Arthur, enthralled an audience of all ages and you could have heard a pin drop – no mean achievement with an age range of three to ninety-three and a splendid Northumbrian propensity for chat. After supper, beds for the night, a frighteningly early breakfast, and advice on how to put oil in a car (should you win the lottery this week, you might like to consider buying them a van), we waved them on their way to the Edinburgh Festival where, I am happy to report, they are taking the infant world by storm (so make sure you go and see them if you are in Edinburgh this month).

Once they had gone, we were happy to fall back on some favourite books to indulge our theatrical leanings. Not, on the whole, actors’ biographies and especially not autobiographies, although they can provide a great deal of unintentional humour. There seems to be an immutable law of the universe that dictates that the greater the acting ability, the blanker the canvas upon which it starts. The ‘my thoughts on acting’ genre can also provide some gems: vying for first place for making the NorthernReader household cry with laughter are Anthony Sher’s The Year of the King and Harriet Walters’ Other People’s Shoes: Thoughts on Acting. Most enjoyable of all is Nigel Planer’s sharp-eyed spoof, I, an Actor, purportedly by Nicholas Craig. I would quite like to see this as the end-of-term commemorative volume given to every graduate from drama school.

untitled (11)A love of theatre can – should – start when very small and depends upon grown-ups taking every opportunity to ensure that their darlings experience the immersive joy, fear, wonder and awe of live performance. TAKE THEM TO THE THEATRE. The worst thing that can happen is that they, or you, or even they and you, will be bored for a couple of hours; and there is very little better preparation for adult life that some practice in coping with being bored. And if they should learn to sit still, quietly, for the greater good, you will have done your bit to ensure that posterity is a better-mannered place. And, in between the theatre trips, read books. Here are some.

The Swish of the Curtain is now more than seventy years old, but the story of the Blue Door Theatre Company still engages young readers and makes them urge the characters on to success in the drama contest on which so much depends. Do not watch The Apprentice, which is dreary, soulless and predicated entirely upon the bleak worship of money: read this instead. And if you love it, hurray! There are four further books about the same group of young people. Pamela Brown wrote The Swish of the Curtain when she was fourteen, so the book is also a useful reminder to your offspring that they could be making better use of all this spare time in the summer holidays. And we must have Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes on this week’s shelf. Fear not, loathers of ballet and all things pointy and pirouetty: this deservedly classic tale is about determination, striving and achieving your heart’s desire, whatever that might happen to be.

Get in quickly before the school syllabus ‘does’ – what a doom-laden verb – Shakespeare and puts young people off, sometimes for ever. I loved Susan Cooper’s King of Shadows, in which our young hero time-travels (so very much more interestingly than the creepy chap with the wife in Audrey Niffenegger’s novel) and finds himself in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. We have talked before about how very good I thought Jude Morgan’s The Secret Life of William Shakespeare. If for some unaccountable reason you have not yet taken my advice and read it, now is the time. Morgan pulls off that almost impossible trick of populating his story with famous people without making it feel like a Wikipedia extract with added conversation.

They made a film of it

They made a film of it

For a taste of a theatrical world that we have now lost, two books: Dodie Smith’s The Town in Bloom and Beryl Bainbridge’s An Awfully Big Adventure. Smith’s novel, which, like her completely essential I Capture the Castle, is aimed at young adults (and upwards), is mainly set in the small-company theatrical world in the nineteen-twenties: Bainbridge’s, which draws upon her experiences working at the Liverpool Playhouse, is set just after the Second World War. Several of Ngaio Marsh’s murder mysteries are set in the world of the theatre as well, and like Smith and Bainbridge, her books now have a period flavour as well as an assured and detailed understanding of the back-stage world. Try Enter a Murderer, Opening Night and Death at the Dolphin (for some reason that completely escapes me, the last two were published in America as Night at the Vulcan and Killer Dolphin, which, while hilarious, does make me wonder whether her American publishers were involved in a bizarre plot to sabotage her career by ensuring no sales at all).

But to end where we (more or less) began, in Edinburgh at the Festival: do not go without reading Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn. Oh wait; I could have ended that sentence sooner: go nowhere without reading Kate Atkinson. But One Good Turn is set at the Festival. It also revisits her compelling detective hero, Jackson Brodie. This has two beneficial consequences for you, dear reader: once gripped, you might as well settle down and read the four novels in which he features (Case Histories, One Good Turn, When Will There be Good News, and Started Early, Took My Dog). And then you could watch the television dramatisations, starring Jason Isaacs. You can thank me later.

Well, it's been a long time since the last non-gratuitous picture

Well, it’s been a long time since the last non-gratuitous picture

Week 53: A Year of Books

Happy Birthday CupcakeMy childhood was littered with the beginnings of stories. I wrote them in exercise books from Woolworths – red shiny cover and useful information on the back (longest rivers, highest mountains, times tables, how many perches to a chain: all good vital stuff). None of them got past the first chapter. There were newspapers too, that hit the buffers of realisation that nothing much happens when you are ten. I’m not sure that the first sustained piece of writing that I ever achieved wasn’t my doctoral thesis; on, should you care, madhouses on the early modern stage (yes, I knew you’d be gripped). So it is with enormous pleasure that I bring you Week 53 of the Northern Reader blog, because keen mathematicians among you will have spotted that this means that I kept this going for a whole year. As I launch relentlessly into Year Two, I thought this felt like a good moment to consider some books of, about or for the year.

For good titles alone, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Christopher Koch’s The Year of Living Dangerously would make it onto this week’s shelf. As it happens, they are both, in their very different ways, cracking good reads and to be recommended. The luminous Ms Didion has always been the lodestar of what makes The New York Review of Books great: I am not convinced she could write a lazy sentence even if her life depended on it. The Year of Magical Thinking might well stand for ever as the best, most clear-sighted and therefore most poignant testament to the loss of one’s beloved. Let me urge you also to read the collection of her work, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, not least because the title makes it onto the infinitesimally small list of sayings I would seriously consider as a a tattoo (see Week 5 for the others if you are fleetingly interested). The Year of Living Dangerously is an absorbing tale set in Indonesia in turbulent times, and as good a political novel as you will find (now there’s a challenge for another week).

During this NorthernReader year, numerous book prizes have come and gone. Eleanor Catton won the ManBooker with The Luminaries, proving me as inept at picking literary winners as I am at horses (see Week 4 for that one), and Kate Atkinson, hurray hurray, won the Costa Prize with Life After Life, which is totally wonderful (I realise that that might not strike everyone as the most helpful review ever written, but, you see, I want you to go and read it for yourself, not have me do it for you. I did that for long enough as a university lecturer and very tiring it was, politely maintaining the pretence that the poppets had champagnebothered to read the texts). You may or may not care to know that other prizes have been awarded to various probably utterly gripping books at the Sports Book Awards, the Specsavers Biography of the Year (sic) and –and I love the sound of this one, for reasons too obvious to go into – the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize. I am hoping rather hard that (a) the winner comes away from a great evening clutching his or her choice of the stylishly bound black-and-white Everyman Library in its current incarnation, ditto of the Wodehouse canon and a very large bottle of champagne, and (b) that I win this one some day. Especially if (a) turns out to be true.

Annuals are by definition a yearly event, and many a Christmas was marked in childhood by Rupert. Such is the glitter that Christmas gives to everything that I was many years into adult life before I was prepared to admit, even to myself, that, goodness me, that is one dull little bear. Now my favourite sort of yearly publication – not being the sort of person in whom either Wisden or Old Moore’s Almanac finds a ready market – is the bulb and seed catalogue: free entry to the garden of your dreams. Bloms Bulbs, Seeds of Distinction and David Austin are the stars of this particular haul. A girl can dream, and dark November skies will call for teatimes by the fire with a piece of cake, a pile of catalogues, a marker pen and the ability to ignore the staggering cost of little shrivelled bulbs. Oh, go on, let’s have Deborah Moggach’s terrific Tulip Fever to remind us how these things can get out of hand.

Night-FlowerAnd what books am I reading as I swing into my second year as a weekly blogger? Two fabulous ones, as it happens. One is Sarah Stovell’s completely gripping The Night Flower. I wanted to like this book because I have met the author, who is lovely and local; and boy, The Night Flower does not disappoint. The characters are brought compellingly, vividly and utterly believably to life, and I am staying awake into the small hours to find out what happens next. I’m not sure I can recommend it highly enough. My other is Adam Nicolson’s thought-provoking and absorbing contemplation of Homer, The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters. I would willingly read Nicolson’s shopping lists, as anything from him is guaranteed to be wonderfully written (if you haven’t already read it, add Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History to the first draft of your letter to Santa). Add to that the fact that in The Mighty Dead he is championing the theory that The Iliad and The Odyssey are jaw-droppingly old examples of our needs to tell stories about who we are and where we came from, and I for one am hooked. Oh look, we’re back to Joan Didion that We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live.

We humans have called ourselves many things in our attempts to see who we are and how we stand out in a multi-species crowd. Homo Faber – man the maker ­– as a unique distinguisher got blown out of the water when we noticed the amazingly deft things crows can do with bits of stick. Homo Sapiens seems a bit rich: Gaza, anyone? Syria? Maybe we are on more stable ground with Homo Fabulator. We are the story-telling animal. Never let anyone tell you that what we do, reading stories, telling tales, writing, is anything less than essential.

Well, at least he's reading ...

Well, at least he’s reading …

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?