Tim and I have both been working our way gradually through the Philip Marlowe books since I picked one up in 2011. He’s now a couple ahead of me and assures me there are no duds.
While Chandler may not have invented pulp fiction or purple prose, he really and truly mastered the art. From the first page, the language is exquisite. In the wrong hands this would be overwritten, or artificial, but Chandler uses it as the perfect reflection of his hero’s highly coloured view of the world.
Private investigator Philip Marlowe is really growing on me as a character. Deeply cynical and ever-so-aware of the worst of humanity, he is somehow not a morose pessimist who has given up on the world. Instead, he is ever hopeful, ever the gentleman, in his quiet take-no-notice-of-me way. Plus, he’s funny.
“I looked into the reception-room. It was empty of everything but the smell of dust. I threw up another window, unlocked the communicating door and went into the room beyond…a framed licence bond on the wall, a phone, a washbowl in a stained wood cupboard, a hat-rack, a carpet that was just something on the floor, and two open windows with net curtains that puckered in and out like the lips of a toothless old man sleeping. The same stuff I had had last year, and the year before that. Not beautiful, not gay, but better than a tent on the beach.”
I love finding out what other people are reading, but I don’t ask the question nearly enough of my friends and family. So I decided to fix that and e-mailed several friends the above question. I have some very smart and interesting friends so I also asked if I could publish their answers. I figured it would make a change to look at the reading habits of people who read a lot but don’t blog about it usually.
(By the way, if you’re a friend I haven’t asked yet, I promise it doesn’t mean I hate you! I’m just saving you for a second or even third round. I love you all.)
Let’s start right at home with talkie_tim, who is my partner, best friend and all-around favourite person. Yes, strictly I already knew what he was reading, but we don’t discuss our thoughts about the books we read nearly enough, for two bookish people who read every day and, you know, live together. Here’s what he had to say…
The Man I Became by Peter Verhelst
translated from Dutch by David Colmer
How do you approach a book narrated by a gorilla? Or, at least, a character who started life as a gorilla? Honestly, if I hadn’t received this book as part of my Peirene subscription, based on the synopsis I would not have picked it up. And I would have missed out.
This novella treads a line between science fiction and fairy tale – the dark kind of fairy tale, not light and fluffy Disney fare. The result is an odd allegory of…what, exactly? A few different things, I think, and no doubt many more things than I picked up on.
Our narrator was a gorilla snatched from the jungle, along with most of his family, and taken by boat to “the New World” to be turned into a human. So far, so clearly related to slavery, right down to the overcrowded boat and casual lack of consideration for the gorillas’ lives.
After thoroughly enjoying Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter for my old book club, I added a random handful of her other books to my Christmas wishlist and this was the one my Mum picked out. I’m sure they would all have worked out equally well, as I’m starting to think I might be a Dunmore fan.
This is the story of the 1941 siege of Leningrad. Which sounds like a tough, war-heavy subject, and this book is certainly all about how tough it was, but Dunmore also makes it compulsively readable. 23-year-old Anna, her father Mikhail and her 5-year-old brother Kolya are settling into summer life at their dacha, in the countryside just outside Leningrad, when news of the German army’s advance reaches them. Instead of spending the brief northern summer growing their usual store of food for winter, they must instead hurry back to the city and help to build defences before the Germans arrive.
“Even the trees in the parks have become something else. Now they are defensive positions, behind which a man can crouch, watching, alert, his cheek pressed against bark which is carved with lovers’ initials. Each prospect of stone and water yields a second meaning which seems to have been waiting, hidden, since the city was first conceived.”
This is a sweet, honest and spooky tale told in stylish graphic novel form. It’s one of a handful of comics I added to my Christmas wishlist on the back of Googling something like “best comics by women”, so it was a bit of a gamble, but one that paid off.
Anya is in many ways an ordinary American teenager – she only has one close friend, Siobhan, and she’s given up on ever being popular, but she worked hard to hide her Russian accent and chooses her clothes carefully so that at least she isn’t a target for bullies. She worries about her body, about turning into her frumpy mother, about ever attracting the attention of hunky star of the school basketball team Sean. Normal. Until she falls down a well and finds the ghost of a girl who died 90 years ago and is longing for a friend.
The ghost makes for an interesting new friend – one who can spy on people for Anya and wholly accepts Anya’s word on what’s cool. (Incidentally, I personally think Anya’s taste rocks based on the posters in her bedroom: Belle and Sebastian, Camera Obscura, Metric, the Shins, Weezer…Pretty excellent.) However, the ghost is not an entirely benevolent force.
I had been meaning to read this novel for many years, as its satirical truth-telling about journalism is legendary. Despite the almost 80 years that have passed since its first publication, a lot of what it has to say still rings true.
The plot centres around young William Boot, an impoverished young country gentleman who is happy living in his country manor writing a weekly nature column for London paper the Daily Beast. Thanks to a farcical opening act, the paper’s management mixes him up with his distant cousin John Boot, a fashionable novelist who is eager to be sent abroad as a foreign reporter, and a reluctant William is sent instead to a “promising little war” in the fictional African republic of Ishmaelia.
I found the opening, covering London society and Fleet Street proper, genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. I may even have snorted a few times. Waugh’s first-hand knowledge of having written for the Daily Mail means that this is truly observational humour, and it’s easy to recognise the journalistic traits being picked apart. It isn’t subtle – the Daily Beast is housed in the Megalopolitan Building opposite its nearest rival the Daily Brute – but that doesn’t stop it from being cleverly done.
This month I managed to read a lot, but I’ve reviewed less than half of it as I realised I just didn’t have something to say about every book. I’m happy about this decision, and hopefully it will let me do a better job of the reviews that I do write. Here’s hoping!
I also went to the launch of a friend’s debut poetry collection, spent a long weekend in London during which I finally saw Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, and went to see the new film High-Rise, starring Tom Hiddleston. I’ve not read the book by JG Ballard, but I suspect the film is a pretty faithful adaptation – by which I mean it’s completely bonkers in an intelligent and politically astute kind of way.
In TV land, we watched all of season two of Daredevil in less than a week. (It’s based on comics so it’s totally literary, right? Well it’s good, anyway!) And we’ve started (though not yet finished) watching the excellent BBC TV series of John le Carré’s The Night Manager. Because there’s no such thing as too much Tom Hiddleston.
The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein
This is book two of the famed Neapolitan Novels, which started with My Brilliant Friend. This review does contain spoilers for the first book, which I also highly recommend. Arguably you could come to this book cold – everything you need to know from book one is repeated – but you’d be missing out on a key part of the experience in my opinion.
Elena and Lila are on the verge of adulthood. Married at 16, Lila is gradually realising that marriage is not a quick fix to make her brother rich, and that being married to someone she doesn’t love is fine until she does fall in love.
For Lila, marrying Stefano, the grocer, was supposed to be the lesser of two evils – her other rich suitor in book one being Marcello Solara – but either way Lila is tied up with the dangerous Solara family and not in the powerful position as one of their wives. Did she make the right choice? She spends frivolously and flirts with both Solara brothers despite her husband’s violent temper. Has she shut down all true feeling? She is smart and aware, surely she knows the dangerous ground she is treading?
“She was beautiful and she dressed like the pictures in the women’s magazines that she bought in great numbers. But the condition of wife had enclosed her in a sort of glass container, like a sailboat sailing with sails unfurled in an inaccessible place, without the sea.”
This odd little book is funny and tragic, fleeting and profound. I enjoyed it quite a bit more than Muriel Spark’s more famous work The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
It’s the story of a Kensington hostel, “The May of Teck Club for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London.” With savage brilliance, Spark lampoons everyone – the young women new to the club, intent only on dating airmen and giggling endlessly; the slightly older women who are engaged or very nearly engaged or seriously intent on their careers; the sad old spinsters who try in vain to control goings-on at the club; the married men who become obsessed with the May of Teck and all it represents.
There are two timelines: 1945 and an unspecified “many” years later (the novel was published in 1963 and this seems a reasonable guess as to the “future” year). In the future timeline, journalist Jane Wright is phoning round her old friends from the May of Teck to break the news to them of the death of a man they all used to know, who used to visit the May of Teck in 1945. The 1945 storyline runs roughly from VE Day to VJ Day, and is occupied with that uncertain jubilation, the balance between sudden peace and stricter-than-ever rationing, a city half in ruins but no longer under threat.
The Dark Side of Love by Rafik Schami
translated from German by Anthea Bell
I can’t remember where I first heard about this book but I do know it was on my birthday wishlist a few years back and I was surprised when I opened the parcel to find not a stack of three or four books, but one big fat book. It is epic in every sense of the word and I loved spending two weeks absorbed in it.
Rafik Schami writes in his afterword that ever since he was a 16-year-old boy in Syria, back in the 1960s, he had wanted to write a realistic Arab love story, but it took him 40-odd years to get it right. The result is a novel that looks at dozens of permutations of doomed romance against a backdrop of decades of Syrian history, though the bulk of the story is set in the 1950s and 1960s.
“Nagib looked askance at his daughter and smiled. ‘Why does love always have to imply possession?’ he asked, shaking his head…’You should love with composure…Love should bestow sublimity. It lets you give everything without losing anything. That’s its magic. But here people want a contract of marriage concluded in the presence of witnesses. Imagine, witnesses, as if it were some kind of crime…State and Church supervise the contract. That’s not love, it’s orders from a higher authority to increase and multiply.’ “