Wackiness: not just for kids

My Uncle Oswald
by Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl was insane. The end.

Okay, just kidding. Sort of. But you know how his children’s books were so original, wacky, different but we tend to put that down to knowing what it takes to write well for children? His adult short stories give a bit of a clue that it’s just how Dahl’s brain worked but this book really rammed it home for me. It is crazy. But also good, well written and moreish.

This is written in the form of an excerpt from a faux memoir, that of the author’s uncle Oswald Hendryks Cornelius, a self-made millionaire and hopeless womaniser (who apparently also stars in some of Dahl’s short stories). He is over-the-top, unapologetic, extreme in his exploits, manner and voice and reminded me of both Byron’s Don Juan and Blackadder’s Flash. No, really. He has no self-doubt and is both offensively unlikeable and at the same time funny and fascinating enough to keep you interested.

The story is about how Oswald made his fortune. He has two get-rich schemes that he details, both of which are outlandish and involve the rich and famous and a whole lot of sex. It’s risqué and definitely not politically correct. There are judgements made on dwarfs, gay men, women, artists versus intellectuals and probably others that I have forgotten and at first it grated but it also fits as part of the Oswald character and after a while you just shrug and accept that he’s a bigoted bastard.

Wikipedia describes this as akin to the ribald tales a gentleman tells over brandy and I dare say that’s true (I’ve never been in that room myself). I found this very interesting reading after having not long ago finished The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington by Jennet Conant, which made it clear that Dahl’s spy work was in no small part based around his ability to charm high-ranking ladies into bed. He was also unafraid of ruffling feathers with controversial statements, so the Oswald character treads a fine line between parody and idealised self-image.

I thought this completed my Dahl reading but apparently he published another adult novel in 1948 and there may well be some short stories that have escaped me. I am sure they will all be worth searching for.

Published 1979 by Michael Joseph.

Never lend a book?

When you’re a bibliophile, lending books can be problematic. They may come back damaged or dirty or not come back at all. The borrower may declare that they hate the book that you only loaned because you thought they’d love it. Many people choose not to ever lend books, instead only giving them away or keeping them.

For me, there is nothing worse than leaving books neglected and unread. I have a lot of books and, though I try my best to only keep the ones I think I will want to read again and/or that I want to pass on to my children, most of them will spend decades sat on a shelf. So I do lend books, even though some of them have never come back to me (I currently have two-thirds of the His Dark Materials trilogy…if anyone has my copy of The Subtle Knife I would greatly appreciate it back!), because I want them to be read again and again. I love that my copy of Lord of the Rings has become separated from its cover and is bent in several directions because it’s been read so many times, by various people. (I should say, though – if you lend me a book I will endeavour not to leave it in that state, or one approaching it. Really.)

I’m not precious about the state of my books – if it makes it easier to read it I will break the spine and I often carry them around in my handbag (but don’t worry – I remind myself to be careful with other people’s). So a little bit of damage to a book of mine that I’ve loaned out isn’t going to bother me. But something that seems to bother other booklovers that I really don’t mind is when others don’t like the books I have loaned them, or vice versa.

I don’t expect to like all the same books as my friends. There are so many books out there that it would be odd if we did. And I’m a critical reader; I rarely rave unreservedly about a book. I enjoy discussing books with people but if that conversation just went “I loved it!” “Me too!” wouldn’t that be dull?

What about you? Do you have any strong feelings about lending books?

At the end

A Single Man
by Christopher Isherwood

This is probably a book I should have saved for 30 or so years, because it’s difficult to sympathise with a meditation on old age when you’re fairly far from being old. I’ll have to read it again later in life to see if my reaction is any different.

I picked this up because Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin is one of the best books I have ever read. This was written much later in his life and it shows. The characterisation is much improved (which is odd seeing as both have strong elements of autobiography) but the atmosphere is very different. The similarly self-involved lead characters have rather different lives about which to obsess.

The single man of the title is George, an Englishman living in California, teaching literature, approaching old age and trying not to think too much about his dead gay lover Jim. He has distractions – the noisy neighbourhood children, the eclectic ever-so-young students and a few friends – but invariably his mind returns to Jim.

In the manner of Ulysses this book covers one day in George’s life in great detail, including his morning bowel movement, a drunken romp and a, er, act of self-pleasure. In fact, I’m sure if I went back and looked carefully I’d find more similarities – the detailed routes of each journey that George takes, for instance. But (thankfully?) this book is 160 pages, not 600, and it sticks to just the one writing style.

Like George himself, the tone is slightly sad, romantic, angry, bitter, occasionally hopeful and eventually accepting. George has his faults – some bizarre notions about women, for instance – but overall he is a sweet, intelligent man trying to grow old gracefully in a world that does not make it easy. He may be living in ultramodern LA but in the 1960s it was still illegal to be a practising homosexual there and the secrecy that this requires of George has clearly taken its toll. It is heartbreaking that he feels he has to bury his grief around most people for fear of what it will reveal but this is the way the world was not so long ago and in some places still is.

The writing is undeniably brilliant. George came to life for me right from page one and his interaction with a favourite student was particularly well played. And yet – I was not hooked. I wanted more excitement of some kind and it wasn’t there. As I said, I’ll take this book out again when I’m older and maybe the added empathy will make it more meaningful for me.

First published 1964 by Eyre Methuen & Co

Learning from history

Dignifying Science: Stories About Women Scientists
by Jim Ottaviani

This book greatly appealed to me from the get-go: it’s a graphic novel about women scientists, concentrating on five examples: Hedy Lamarr, Lise Meitner, Rosalind Franklin, Barbara McLintock and Biruté Galdikas. I am ashamed to say that I had no idea what any of those women should be famous for, in fact I’d not heard of two of them at all, and even now I feel that I only know a little about each one. My curiosity has definitely been piqued and I will be adding some books from the extensive references section to my wishlist.

A lot of different artists worked on this and I found the changes in style quite disconcerting, though at times it was used to good effect. For example, in the story of Rosalind Franklin there were pages supposedly narrated by James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins in turn, and the different drawing styles definitely helped prevent the change in voice from being confusing (and hopefully those names have told you what Rosalind Franklin is famous for, if you didn’t know before!).

This book definitely makes more sense if you read all the notes and references. The comic sections don’t always make it clear what the scientific achievement of each person is, and the inclusion of Hedy Lamarr (more of an engineer and, oh yes – actress) may seem a little odd when so many women scientists have been omitted, but as the notes explain – this is really just a taster and therefore concentrates on interesting stories rather than universal coverage. Marie Curie stars in a brief epilogue and prologue, apparently because her letters to her daughter Irene were too fascinating not to use!

There’s a definite sense of humour at work, as you might expect in a graphic novel, and the stories are mostly accessible to the layman. I’m not sure this would get any very young girls enthusing about a science career because the language, historical contexts and science depicted are too dense for that, but it could certainly be a good book to give a teenage girl with a modicum of interest in science or history. And there’s no reason not to give it to boys either because there’s no particular feminist slant aside from the choice of protagonists.

I liked the different levels of success of the women depicted, and the different reasons for it. Lamarr was treated as a pretty girl playing at science (though she wasn’t exactly pushed into acting – she broke off two engagements because the men wouldn’t let her continue acting), Meitner missed out a Nobel prize that she deserved part of (for nuclear fission, on the back of the evidence here anyway, I will read more before I give a definitive view on that), Franklin’s abrupt personality made her difficult to work with and she was snide about Francis and Crick’s model work but she did get an acknowledgement in their paper and in the Nobel acceptance speech (she was dead by then so could not have received the award, which is not given posthumously), McLintock did get a Nobel prize and Galdikas is apparently internationally renowned and respected for her work with orangutans, which continues to this day.

I will admit that I found the story of McLintock pretty dull. I understand the desire to include someone who chose an unusual thing to research (corn genetics) and stuck with that for life, leading to notable advances in the field, but it’s pretty dull and the one interesting thing about her life – that she struggled for years to get a faculty position because of her gender and her chosen area of research and the one position she did get early on was in Germany in 1933, which she had to leave pretty quickly because of the political situation – is not made at all clear in the comic section, only in the later notes.

However, the rest of the book was very interesting indeed. Incidentally, the title Dignifying Science comes from one of Marie Curie’s letters, where she is talking about the problems of being a famous scientist. She continues: “What is not deniable is the sincerity of all the people who do this kind of thing and the necessity of doing it.”

Published 2003 by GT Labs
ISBN 978-0-9660-1064-0

Long hot summer…on and off

Well I think the rain is confirming that summer is now over. It’s been a busy one and as a result I haven’t blogged or read as much as I had hoped to. I have, however, had a lot of fun, some of which was caught on film – or rather, camera sensor. Here are some photographic highlights.

Chilling with good friends,

a trip to Cornwall,

impressive acrobatics at Bristol Harbourside Festival,
Flight

an astronomy fair during a trip to Devon

and some more meanders around Bristol with good friends.
Sparkly summertime

Edit: I just noticed that this is my 50th post, which doesn’t seem that many at all, but it’s still a milestone so yay! 50 posts!

Bizarre like wasabi chocolate

The Character of Rain
by Amélie Nothomb
translated by Timothy Bent

I discovered Amélie Nothomb five or six years ago and I love her quirky style. Her books are novels and yet in most of them she casts herself as the main character and uses her own life for the bare bones of the story. She has a surreal sense of humour and, assuming any of it’s true, an interesting life to draw upon.

This book covers Nothomb’s first three years, which were spent in Japan where her father was the Belgian consul. The very fact that her main character is so young and yet narrates in the first person suggests that the story must be mostly fiction, and that’s before taking the heavy Kafka references into account.

The early part of the book covers the first two years in immensely strange fashion and could not possibly be considered to be a serious straight of-this-world story, but rather an odd analogy for the development of the ego – as I said, Kafkaesque. This is also borne out in the French title of the book: Métaphysiques des tubes – the Tube being her metaphor for a baby (things go in one end and come out the other, with not a lot else going on). I’m not sure if us Brits are considered less au fait with philosophy and the nature of things or if the UK publisher just found that title too plain weird.

The bulk of the book deals with the third year in the child’s life, giving the book an ending point that has particular significance in Japan. Traditionally the Japanese believe that children are gods until the age of three, at which point they fall from grace and join the rest of mankind. Nothomb briefly recounts this belief partway through the novel but it is clearly the basis for the entire story.

The child is introduced to us as God. As it becomes self-aware, it narrates as though the world revolves around it – “naming” people and objects, for example, through its first words. If these were truly the thoughts and actions of a two-year-old child it would be an extremely precocious toddler, and maybe Nothomb was, but more likely the far-too-adult speech is used to convey the point – the child gradually becoming aware of more of the world and, even at this early age, losing some of its security. There is also a lot of secrecy, of “me versus the world” which, as far as I remember, is a pretty accurate way of describing childhood.

There is an extent to which this book is also about Nothomb’s love for Japan. Her family left Japan when she was five and she returned there for a few years as an adult. The land of her birth clearly holds a special place in her heart and this is eloquently conveyed in the intense, passionate voice of the child.

The English title, by the way, has a neat little etymology of its own. “Rain” is one of the meanings of the kanji character for the child’s name (it would be interesting to know if the word actually is said “amelie” – anyone know?) so the title could just mean that this is about the development of a character called Rain. However, the child is also a water-lover and holds a particular fondness for heavy summer rain, imbuing it with various significances.

For a short book, this isn’t a light read but it is enjoyable and stays just this side of too plain weird for my taste.

First published in France in 2000 by Editions Albin Michel.
First published in Great Britain in 2004 by Faber and Faber.

Sharp wit and sharp weapons

Country of the Blind
by Christopher Brookmyre

This book is just right if you have a day free to do nothing but read – whether it’s a restful holiday or a rainy Sunday. The plot is thick and fast and the language fun but also sharp-edged. Brookmyre always picks a clear target in his novels, a dartboard to throw poison arrows at, and in this case it’s the Tory Party, so I was happy.

In fairness there is a scene early on in which a wise (Tory) father advises his youthful (liberal) daughter not to assume that all members of the widely hated party are monsters, quoting Orwell’s Two Minute Hate. When said character advocates more discourse and exchanging of ideas, I had to wonder what Brookmyre thinks of the current UK coalition government. But I digress…

Like all Brookmyre’s novels (at least all those I’ve read, which is a lot of them) this is crime fiction written with vicious humour and some very interesting lead characters, a number of whom feature in his other books. Lead character is investigative journalist Jack Parlabane (in his second outing, because I read this out of sequence) who is about to get married and is therefore earnestly trying to give up his former tendency to get involved in very dangerous things, things that tend to get even more dangerous when he throws himself into the mix. And when he sees the initial reports about the murder of billionaire media mogul (and Tory backer) Roland Voss, Parlabane is more than happy to stay out of it. The police already have the four suspects behind bars, after all. However, the clues soon start piling up that all is not what it seems and Parlabane inevitably gets involved, only to discover that it goes deeper than even he had suspected.

Good crime fiction doesn’t rely on good writing and for every well worded witticism here there’s an unnecessary repetition or an overemphasis that grates a little. I also tend to struggle a little at first with the dialect, as Brookmyre favours setting his novels in his native Glasgow. Not that the entire book is written in dialect, but there’s a lot of speech. Another bugbear I have is Brookmyre’s habit of opening a chapter with the end or middle of a scene, and then going back to how it started, which is interesting (if confusing) once or twice but several times is tedious.

Those reservations aside, I’ll admit that I’m a fan. This is no whodunnit – the who is revealed fairly early on and the how not long afterward. The race to the finish is about whether Parlabane will figure it out and find a way to prove it before too many innocent people die. He doesn’t work alone, of course. His insider in the police, DS Jenny Dalziel, is underused in this story – I seem to remember she had a bigger role in Quite Ugly One Morning – but there’s so many other characters that this is forgiveable.

Parlabane is the classic loveable rogue, with an air of 007 about him. He bends rules left, right and centre but he gets away with it because he is without doubt the good guy and I can’t remember the character ever doing something that I personally disapproved of (unlike Bond).

The book is steeped in references to current affairs and culture and as such I’m not sure how well it will age. Reading this 13 years after publication is one thing – I can well remember the growing frustration at years of Tory government and the hopes for the 1997 election, even if I wasn’t quite old enough to vote yet – but give it a little more time and there may be one too many references to politicians already forgotten.

The other thing that dates this book was something I particularly liked about it: the modernisation of the newsroom. The 1990s saw the end of handmade layouts in favour of DTP software – something I’m more than a little familiar with – and it was with great interest I read the rants of the news editor about the unreliable output from the computer, and about the switch from huge artboards to the now-ubiquitous Mac. It was a minor detail really, but it was one of the things that can make all the difference, allowing you to trust that the author does at least some research – a vital necessity in crime fiction, I would argue.

This really is a fun, well plotted adventure that keeps you reading without relying on unexpected twists or manufactured countdowns. It sat on my to-read shelf for far too long but I suspect that the next one won’t have so much dust gathered on it.

Published 1997 by Little, Brown.

Eyes bigger than my capacity to read

In a shameless copy of a brilliant idea by Novel Insights, I have painstakingly listed all of the books that I own but have not yet read – my TBR list. There’s quite a lot of them because I am very naughty about buying more books than I read, but it’s a useful exercise to have undertaken so thank you Novel Insights for the idea.

The 137 (!) books on my list would probably take me about two years to read and I am clearly not going to stop buying books for two years, but I will at least try to buy them at a slower rate and also to read at a faster one. Most of them were bought by me, but some were given to me, some acquired when I was the intern who got first dibs on the unwanted review copies at a certain magazine, some passed on to me by friends or family, some I have been hanging on to for so long I couldn’t say where they come from.

It struck me that this would make an interesting permanent feature, so I’m going to try to keep it up to date. Even if I don’t remember to update it constantly, it’s been a useful exercise for showing up my book-buying habits and if I compare it to what I’ve read over the last four months, I suspect the two won’t quite match up. Is that always the case or am I particularly overambitious?

This won’t include every book that I review because I do get loans from friends and I may even go to a library again one day. Maybe. Clearly, I have no pressing need. This may even result in a clearout of some of those books that I have tried and failed to read, nevertheless hanging on to them for years in the belief that I will read them one day – unless anyone enthusiastically recommends any of them to me, spurring me to try again.

I notice that I have a bad habit of buying several books by the same author after reading one of their books and then not getting round to that pile (case in point: Salman Rushdie). I should stop doing that.

I am reminded that I still need to get hold of Balthazar by Lawrence Durrell so I can read the full Alexandria Quartet, rather than 3/4 of it. I’ve been trying to find it in the same lovely old Faber edition that I have the others in. I also notice a few books from my degree course here, which I should probably have read about eight years ago. Oops.

Now I need to stop listing and get back to reading!

My TBR

These are books that I own but have not yet read. The idea was shamelessly stolen from Novel Insights, so thank you/apologies to her for that.

A few of these I have actually started reading at some point and then given up on – mostly “classics” or I would have got rid of the book – and I have marked these with an asterisk.

EDIT: I have now moved this to its own page. I will update it there. This post can stay as a historical record, or something.

A
Edward Abbey – The Monkey Wrench Gang
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Half of a Yellow Sun
Isabel Allende – The Sum of Our Days
Tash Aw – The Harmony Silk Factory

B
Honore de Balzac – Old Goriot
Iain Banks – Dead Air
Louis de Bernières – Red Dog
Vinoba Bhave – Moved by Love
Christopher Brookmyre – Not the End of the World
Christopher Brookmyre – A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil
Anita Brookner – Falling Slowly
Anita Brookner – Providence
Mikhael Bulgakov – The Master and Margarita
William Burroughs – Naked Lunch
A S Byatt – Still Life

C
Albert Camus – The Myth of Sisyphus
Angela Carter – Nights at the Circus
Bernardo Carvalho – Fear of De Sade
Blaise Cendrars – Dan Yack
Blaise Cendrars – Moravagine
Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote*
Raymond Chandler – Farewell My Lovely
Vikram Chandra – Red Earth and Pouring Rain
Anton Chekhov – Three Plays
Jonathan Coe – The Rotters’ Club
Colette – Break of Day*
Colette – Cheri/The Last of Cheri
Colette – Claudine at School
Colette – Claudine in Paris
Colette – The Rainy Moon and Other Stories
David Crystal – The Stories of English

D
Roald Dahl – My Uncle Oswald
Charles Dickens – The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Charles Dickens – The Old Curiosity Shop
Charles Dickens – The Pickwick Papers
Fyodor Dostoyevsky – Crime and Punishment
Carol Ann Duffy – Feminine Gospels
Alexandre Dumas – The Black Tulip
Lawrence Durrell – The Alexandria Quartet [3 books – one’s missing]

E
Umberto Eco – Foucault’s Pendulum
Umberto Eco – The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana
Bret Easton Ellis – The Informers

F
E M Forster – A Passage to India

G
Neil Gaiman – Coraline
Neil Gaiman – The Graveyard Book
Gabriel García Marquez – One Hundred Years of Solitude
Luiz Alfredo García Roza – Southwesterly Wind
Graham Greene – The Heart of the Matter
Graham Greene – The Ministry of Fear
Andrew Sean Greer – The Confessions of Max Tivoli
George and Weedon Grossmith – The Diary of a Nobody
Ursula le Guin – The Earthsea Quartet*

H
H Rider Haggard – Allan Quatermain
Knut Hamsun – Hunger
Thomas Hardy – The Return of the Native
Joseph Heller – Catch-22*
Joseph Heller – God Knows
Ernest Hemingway – A Farewell to Arms
Ernest Hemingway – For Whom the Bell Tolls
Ernest Hemingway – The Snows of Kilimanjaro
Ernest Hemingway – To Have and Have Not
Hermann Hesse – The Glass Bead Game
Michel Houellebecq – The Possibility of an Island

I
Christopher Isherwood – The Memorial

J
Henry James – The Bostonians
Henry James – The Portrait of a Lady*
James Joyce – Dubliners

K
Richard Kelly – Southland Tales II – Fingerprints
Richard Kelly – Southland Tales III – The Mechanicals
Mark Kermode – It’s Only a Movie
Jack Kerouac – On the Road
Milan Kundera – Immortality
Hanif Kureishi – The Black Album

L
J Robert Lennon – The Light of Falling Stars
Primo Levi – The Periodic Table
Charles de Lint – The Ivory and the Horn

M
Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince
Thomas Mann – Death in Venice and Other Stories
Yann Martel – The Facts Behind the Helsinki Reclamation
Hisham Matar – In the Country of Men
M Somerset Maugham – The Moon and Sixpence
Daphne du Maurier – The Glass-Blowers
Daphne du Maurier – The House on the Strand
Daphne du Maurier – The King’s General
Daphne du Maurier – The Progress of Julia
Ian McEwan – Enduring Love
Robert McGill – The Mysteries
Haruki Murakami – Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
Iris Murdoch – Under the Net*

N
Vladimir Nabokov – Pale Fire
Irène Némirovsky – David Golder
David Nicholls – Starter for Ten
Geoff Nicholson – Bedlam Burning

O
Elsa Osario – My Name is Light
Jim Ottaviani – T-Minus: the Race to the Moon

P
Chuck Palahniuk – Non-fiction
Alan Paton – Cry, the Beloved Country
Elliot Perlman – Three Dollars
D B C Pierre – Vernon God Little
Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar
Dennis Potter – Blackeyes

R
Rainer Maria Rilke – Turning Point
Salman Rushdie – Fury
Salman Rushdie – The Ground Beneath Her Feet*
Salman Rushdie – Midnight’s Children
Salman Rushdie – The Moor’s Last Sigh
Salman Rushdie – Shame
Geoff Ryman – The Child Garden

S
J D Salinger – For Esmé: With Love and Squalor*
Paul Scott – The Jewel in the Crown*
Hubert Selby Jr – Requiem for a Dream*
Will Self – Great Apes
George Bernard Shaw – Pygmalion
Mary Shelley – The Last Man
Mary Shelley – Lodore
Murasaki Shikibu – The Tale of Genji*
John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath
Stendhal – The Red and the Black
R L Stevenson – Travels With a Donkey
Theodore Sturgeon – More Than Human

T
Dorothea Tanning – Chasm: a Weekend
William Thackeray – Vanity Fair
Hunter S Thompson – Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72*
Hunter S Thompson – Hell’s Angels
Mark Thompson – A Paper House: the Ending of Yugoslavia

V
Voltaire – Candide
Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse 5

W
H G Wells – boxset of short stories and novellas [3 books]
H G Wells – The History of Mr Polly
Thomas Wolfe – You Can’t Go Home Again
Tom Wolfe – The Bonfire of the Vanities
Virginia Woolf – Orlando
Virginia Woolf – Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid

Total = 137

The end of childhood

Ripening Seed
by Colette
translated by Roger Senhouse

Colette is one of those highly rated authors whose works I continue to read but fail to be bowled over by. I think I understand the attraction but I am not personally attracted.

This book is, based on my experience, a typical example. The story is simple, the writing is simple, with lucid descriptions and a lot of detail about the setting. Characters’ thoughts and feelings are voiced and yet we never truly get to know them. Perhaps it doesn’t help that the book is so short.

Vinca and Philippe’s families have holidayed together in Brittany every summer of their young lives. They have grown up together thick as thieves, under the assumption that their innocent friendship will one day turn into marriage. But this summer Vinca is 15 and Phil is 16 and suddenly teenage hormones make it hard to remain innocent. The appearance of a mysterious older woman in Phil’s life only complicates things further.

The storyline is largely predictable because, well, people are. There is a definite air of sadness about the loss of innocence; in fact I found the point to be pressed a little too hard. Maybe it’s because I was never sad to leave my childhood behind (because I was always eager to grow up, not because I had a bad childhood), but I find it hard to relate to this series of delicate, poignant moments.

Some of the language is beautiful and the story has stood the test of time pretty well, which I think is greatly helped by the seaside setting – kids still swim, rockpool, clamber over rocks and largely exist without noticing their parents.

I will continue to buy Colette’s books when I spot them in second-hand bookshops (few if any of her books are still in print in English) because they’re not bad and maybe one will touch me and get me enthusing.

First published 1923.
This translation first published 1955.