In her head

Wish Her Safe at Home
by Stephen Benatar

This book surprised me. It had been on my wishlist for a long time but when I saw it at the library and recognised it from this discussion, the only detail I remembered was that it’s set in Bristol. Which seemed as good a reason as any to pick it up. But sadly, Bristol is not the focus of the book; really it could be set anywhere. Thankfully, the book has other things going for it.

It’s the story of Rachel, a middle-aged spinster living a dreary life in London until, out of the blue, she inherits a house in Bristol. On a whim she decides to move into it, giving up her job and abandoning her flatmate for a suddenly impassioned restoration project. As the book goes on it becomes clear that Rachel’s newfound giddy happiness and occasional sudden lows signal increasing mental instability.

It’s very cleverly done. The story is narrated by Rachel and at first you accept the complete change of attitude, her newfound confidence and ability to make friends. But the hints get stronger; the version of events changes from one telling to the next, and you start to question everything – not just whether it happened the way she first described, but whether it happened at all.

Conversely, I liked Rachel more as the book went on. Initially I found her a bit of a cold fish, possibly on the autism spectrum if her awkward encounters with strangers were anything to go by, but then she would reveal an awareness of being distant, possibly deliberately, that didn’t fit with that assessment. But later on, Rachel tries so hard to be happy and good and charming that when you see the cracks you feel bad for her, or at least I did.

One of the forms of Rachel’s mania is a tendency to quote or, more often, sing snatches from classic books, films or plays. She displays great knowledge on this score and often lost me (as indeed she would lose her audience, when she had one) as she jumped from one character to another. But through these quotes she sometimes expressed a truth that she couldn’t in her own words:

“‘I’ll tell you what I want. Magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth. I tell what ought to be the truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it!'”
[From Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire]

In the end , this is a very moving account of mania from a time (1981) when people weren’t so familiar with terms like bipolar disorder and manic depression as we are now. I wonder if Benatar was a little ahead of his time, because this book deserves to have become far better known. I think this would make a fantastic book club read – there’s so much to discuss that I can’t raise here without revealing too much of the plot.

The edition I read (a 2007 reprint) includes an excellent introduction by the eminent John Carey, an illuminating essay that is far more insightful about this book than I could be. But I would still recommend you save that for after reading the book itself – let yourself enjoy the guessing game before you unravel it.

First published 1982 by Bodley Head. Reissued by the New York Review of Books.

SEE ALSO: review by Stuck in a book

Fingers on the buzzers

Starter for Ten
by David Nicholls

I am deliberately not looking at my review of One Day just yet, but I suspect I have similar things to say. This book is funny, nostalgic and cringeingly true to life. Not as moving or romantic as One Day but definitely close in style.

Now, I made the mistake of watching the film before reading the book. I try not to do that if I can and this is a classic example of why. Even though it’s a few years since I watched the film, through at least the first half of the book I unfailingly pictured and heard James McAvoy in the lead role rather than conjuring up my own version. And the other distraction for me was also partly the film’s fault. The book is set in an unnamed English university city but the film was definitely Bristol, so I kept searching the text for clues as to whether it was a specific, unnamed (even slightly disguised) city or a genuine made-up mishmash. I’m still not sure (though if it is Bristol then there are definitely some errant details).

But enough of that. The book follows Brian’s first year at university, in 1985. He’s working class mixing with the middle classes and very very aware of it. He’s also a bit of a tosser (and he knows that and he means well, so he’s likeable most of the time). He’s read a lot and absorbed a lot of facts, and hasn’t yet grasped that this doesn’t necessarily make him clever or wise or discerning. He’s grappling with typical 18/19-year-old issues such as acne and relationships and making new friends and how (or if) you keep old friends when your life has changed and theirs haven’t; all while figuring out that university is supposed to be about getting an education. So he goes and complicates it all from the start by applying to be on the University Challenge team.

These days I can’t imagine a fresher getting a look-in at “The Challenge” but perhaps it was less popular in the 1980s? Or maybe this university advertised really poorly? Either way, both Brian and super attractive (and aware of it) first-year Alice get accepted and so begins a series of – mostly excruciatingly embarrassing – attempts by Brian to seduce Alice. Which he does while simultaneously ignoring the very lovely and far more suited to him Rebecca.

Brian has sentimental reasons for applying to be on University Challenge – most of his remaining memories of his dead father are of the two of them watching it on telly together. His grief is dealt with very well, I thought. Brian doesn’t dwell on it and has reached the stage where he tells people before they say something they might later regret, but he does occasionally cry still. He is very conflicted about how other people react and I think this was one of things that made me feel warmest toward him.

I enjoyed this book, and laughed out loud at times, but I have reservations. The main one being that, never having been a teenage boy myself, I found it very hard to read about Brian’s more disgusting/selfish side (does the boy ever wash?) and not be completely put off. I also must admit that it doesn’t feel particularly original. It relies heavily on the nostalgia factor and to some extent that did work for me (who ever thought we’d be waxing nostalgic over Woolworths?) but…I’m not sure it’s enough.

First published 2003 by Hodder & Staughton

Comfort reading

Crumpets and milk

One of my strongest sensory memories is the smell/taste of buttered crumpets, which takes me back to being very young (primary school) and sitting at the breakfast bar in the kitchen eating a snack while listening to an audiobook on cassette. My favourite audiobook was The Secret Garden and, even now, certain words (“wuthering” and “daffydowndilly” come to mind) can only be said in the voices I remember from that tape, with their Yorkshire lilt.

The Secret Garden

I don’t own a cassette player anymore, but I do still have that cassette because I couldn’t bear to throw it away. Thankfully I have the actual book too, for times when I really need comfort in my reading. (Like now – can you tell I’m feeling a bit lupusy? Yes, it’s a word.)

A book review of a book reviewer

Silly Novels by Lady Novelists
by George Eliot

This is another collection of essays from the excellent Penguin Great Ideas series. It has one of the series’ prettier covers, but is also the volume I have liked the least, so far.

I was disappointed to find no information in the edition about the origin of these essays, but a little internet research revealed that the titular essay (which you can read in full here) was published in October 1856 in the Westminster Review, which Eliot helped to edit before becoming a novelist. It seems likely that the other essays in this collection, mostly book reviews, are also from that journal. In fact, Wikipedia calls “Silly novels by lady novelists” Eliot’s manifesto that she set out for herself before she started to write her first novel.

But what are the essays like? Well…personally I found them a little harsh and not all that clearly written. There are a few instances where she appears to contradict herself but I think the actual problem might be a lack of editing. Which is a shame because she has some good, intelligent points to make.

Bearing in mind that these essays were most likely published under her real name, “Marian Evans”, while she was a little-known journalist and translator, there is a certain bravery to having written so apparently honestly and critically on the subject of women writers. And she makes some of the same, completely valid, points that I have read in Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf, but she doesn’t make them so clearly. She wittily attacks the various types of flimsy female-authored novel, but only slightly touches on why such novels should be considered problematic rather than just lesser art. Similarly in some of her book reviews she criticises at great length without really explaining why x or y has got her so riled. And she quotes at great length rather than pulling out specific phrases of interest or clearly explaining the significance of a passage.

Perhaps my favourite essay in this collection is a review of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred, Charles Reade’s It is Never Too Late to Mend and Frederika Bremer’s Hertha. Eliot shows enthusiasm, rather than just critical approval, for Stowe’s follow-up to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but questions the sagacity of “the absence of any proportionate exhibition of the Negro character in its less amiable phases”, which is a not-entirely-clear way of saying that, by having only thoroughly good black characters, Stowe damages her aim of presenting black people as equally human as white people. It’s a valid point because all Stowe’s black characters are slaves or former slaves, therefore, as Eliot (again unclearly) explains, this opens the door to the defence of slavery on the grounds that it makes people “better” human beings.

It feels a little presumptuous for an amateur book reviewer to attack the book-reviewing skills of one of the world’s greatest authors, but I do think that essay writing and novel writing require different skills and not every writer is good at both. Eliot was, I think, a case in point. Her essays contain the occasional good point or witticism but they are not well structured or particularly entertaining.

Published 2010 by Penguin Books.

One likes to read

The Uncommon Reader
by Alan Bennett

This is a brilliantly funny, astute, thought-provoking book that is sadly small enough to read in one short sitting. I immediately added a whole bunch of Bennett books to my wishlist (any advice on which to read next appreciated).

The “uncommon reader” of the title is the Queen, who has never had much time for reading, but on bumping into a travelling library in the grounds of Buckingham Palace takes out a book, initially to be polite. Politeness turns to genuine interest, tempered by a keen awareness that she doesn’t know much about books besides having met most of their authors. So she promotes kitchen hand Norman, the library van’s only regular customer, to be her amanuensis and literary adviser. As her passion for reading grows, she becomes distracted from, and then bored by, her royal duties, and her staff conspire to cure her of this bad habit.

The first half of this book is acutely observed, laugh-out-loud funny, with the character of the Queen being charming, intelligent and completely believable. There is absolutely no doubt that this is Queen Elizabeth II and not some nameless dateless monarch. From the corgis to the extended family to the list of prime ministers she has worked with, this is undoubtedly our very own Queen. And Bennett has made her initially very likeable:

“‘Do you know,’ she said one evening as they were reading in her study, ‘do you know the area in which one would truly excel?’
‘No, ma’am?’
‘The pub quiz. One has been everywhere and though one might have difficulty with pop music and some sport, when it comes to the capital of Zimbabwe, say, or the principal exports of New South Wales, I have all that at my fingertips.’
‘And I could do the pop,’ said Norman.
‘Yes,’ said the Queen. ‘We would make a good team. Ah well. The road not travelled.'”

In the second half of the book, the tone shifts a little. The emphasis is a little less overtly comedic and more seriously looks at how reading can change a person, both in perhaps obvious ways such as informing and widening horizons, and in less obvious ways – increased observation of details, reduced tolerance for the status quo, an appearance of being constantly distracted – that in some people might not be a problem, in fact might be welcomed, but in the Queen are seen as troublesome and even dangerous.

I was a little sad about the reduced comedy but still greatly entertained and impressed by how smartly Bennett envisaged this scenario and how various people might react. The denouement is fantastic, though I’ll admit it did change my mind about making this book the topic of any conversation I may ever get to have with the actual real-life Queen.

First published in 2006 in the London Review of Books.
Published as a book by Faber in 2007.

What you do to survive

In the Country of Men
by Hisham Matar

I got this book as part of an event at the Oxford Literary Festival in 2006. Penguin Books had won a bidding war over it and was therefore keen to promote this talented debut author. I think perhaps the big promotional push put me off. Certainly, it wasn’t until I started to hear about Matar’s second novel, published earlier this year, that I became interested enough to pick it up.

Of course, it’s now timely because Matar is Libyan and was writing here about the early days of Qaddafi’s rule…in fictional form. Young man Suleiman looks back on the summer of 1979, when he was nine years old and became aware that his father’s disappearances were not always business trips, and his mother’s sadness was more complicated than feeling lonely when her husband was away.

Child Suleiman is a bit of a dreamer. In his head he is the romantic hero of the Arabian Nights and will grow up to be a jetsetting art dealer. In reality he finds that it is far too easy to do what he is told and then regret it later.

This is a beautiful, well told story. There were times when I was surprised by Suleiman’s actions or his reaction to other people, and I had to remind myself that this was a nine year old boy, with a simplified view of the world that is straining under the weight of all that is happening around him. He’s confused and angry and trying desperately to be the good boy he was raised to be, which isn’t easy when “good” is a relative term.

The narrative device of older Suleiman looking back allows Matar to inject a little history and hindsight into the story but this never gets heavy-handed. For a book about awful, weighty subjects (and it’s really not just in the background), this is an accessible, gripping read.

First published 2006 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books. Shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2006.

UPDATE: See also the Guardian Books podcast with Hisham Matar (mostly talking about his new book, Anatomy of a Disappearance, but also touching on this one) and the World Book Club episode featuring Matar discussing this book (click on the link and scroll to September 2011).

Not my cup of tea

The Fifth Mountain
by Paulo Coelho
translated from Portuguese by Clifford E Landers

Usually disliking a book isn’t a barrier to having plenty to say about it; in fact the opposite is often true. But even though this was a book club choice and I’ve therefore spent an evening down the pub discussing it, I still don’t feel I have very much to say.

I must admit I wasn’t enthusiastic when this book was suggested. Like many avid readers, I had my Coelho phase and quickly discovered that his books can be a bit samey and preachy and that’s not really my thing. (Though I will say that I enjoyed Veronkia Decides to Die and Eleven Minutes.) But a retelling of the story of Elijah from an author who gets oh-so-spiritual and life-lesson-y didn’t get me excited.

And sadly it turns out I know myself well. I have nothing against using religion as the backdrop or even the foreground of a novel, in fact it worked very well for our previous book club read, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, but it still needs to be well written and have a storyline and engaging characters and all the rest. I think you can guess where this is going.

I didn’t know the story of Elijah well but I’m pretty sure I could tell you which bits of this book were biblical and which were added by Coelho. Elijah is a bit of a wishy washy hero who should have been so much more. At a surprisingly young age he abandons his career as a carpenter because he is called by God to be a prophet. But prophets are being slaughtered in his homeland of Israel so he flees to neighbouring Lebanon, where they don’t believe in his God and only let him live because he could be a useful bargaining tool. And there’s a little bit of a love story. And a foreign army is threatening to attack Elijah’s adopted city.

So there’s plenty going on. And yet I was frequently bored by this book. It’s not long or complex, the writing is light and simple, there aren’t too many characters, so why was it a bit of a slog? First of all, almost nothing is described – people, places, anything, nothing is visualised for you. In fact few of the characters, including main ones, even have names. Second, the majority of the narrative is Elijah whining and philosophising and whining some more. He doesn’t do anything unless God tells him to, resulting in one of the wimpiest, dullest characters I’ve ever come across. And third (though certainly not finally) Coelho injects it all (somehow) with an isn’t-this-meaningful self-help vibe.

One thing that I did enjoy and that could have been made more of, was the story of the spread of the alphabet. I have no idea how historically accurate the coverage of this was, but I was interested in how it was resisted and the reasons for that. Sadly Coelho did not dwell on this as much as I’d have liked. Maybe I’ll search out a better written book on the subject.

First published by Harper Collins 1998.

Local bookshops: Bloom & Curll

Bloom & Curll

Bloom & Curll is so close to being the perfect bookshop for me that I feel I should apologise for not being a regular customer. It has a quirky, arty feel and look but is still most definitely all about the books.

They are piled everywhere, almost higgledy piggledy yet meticulously organised. Old and new sit side by side, with some classic Penguin editions serving as both booklover lures and eyecatching art. Section labels epitomise the style of the shop – they are either handmade paper cutouts in classily chosen colour and pattern combinations, or bright childlike magnetic letters. The book selection leans towards the literary end of fiction, with some specialised areas for philosophical, theological and sociological works. The shop is small enough not to overwhelm me with choice, while still stocking more books that I want than I can afford.

I love the location of Bloom & Curll, nestled among the indie stylings of Colston Street, Christmas Steps and nearby Upper Maudlin Street, but I worry that that also works against it – on my every visit I have been the only customer. However, the shop window promises chess classes and apparently this Thursday they’re hosting a book launch, which looks worth checking out. Hopefully such events will keep attracting new customers through their doors.

Bloom & Curll, 74 Colston Street, Bristol