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.

A thing of beauty

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
by David Mitchell

I bought this book the day it came out. I never do that, but I have loved all of Mitchell’s previous books so I went to Waterstones and walked home with it, lovingly stroking the exquisitely designed cover. I started reading it that night. And yet here we are months later and I’ve only just finished. So what happened?

Well, first of all, this is a beautiful book. Physically beautiful, I mean. So I didn’t want to carry it around with me and risk damaging it. The hardback is clothbound, illustrated with a picture of Japan, highlighted in blue glitter. The endpapers continue the theme, with Japanese-style artwork in blue and white.

And it’s definitely well written. Mitchell weaves a spellbinding story, with a huge cast and what I think – though I’m not certain about this – is some serious attention to historical detail. When you get caught up in a big, complex plot it’s easy to not notice the writing but Mitchell’s writing is as excellent as ever. But it did take me a while to get into.

This isn’t a book to read for 5 minutes here and there, with another book in your handbag and a third one at work, which is what I tried doing. The opening section is set at sea and between the 18th century seafaring vernacular and large cast I struggled a bit. I even put it down for a few weeks at one point. Once the action moved to the book’s main location – Dejima – I settled in and found myself hooked.

The setting is fascinating, historically and geographically – the Japanese port of Dejima, near Nagasaki, in 1799. At that time it was the location of isolationist Japan’s only link to the west – a trade post of the Dutch East Indies Company. Dejima is almost an island, separated from mainland Japan by a well guarded gate that Dutch visitors may only pass through with special permission, which is rarely granted. Dejima is occupied year-round by a handful of employees of the Dutch East Indies Company, charged with keeping the Dutch warehouses and their goods safe between trading seasons.

The book’s hero, Jacob de Zoet, is a clerk who has reluctantly agreed to come to Japan to earn enough money and raise his social standing enough to marry the woman he loves, Anna. He has a five-year contract with the Dutch East Indies Company and must spend those five years in Dejima, stranded between trading seasons with the limited European staff and their liaison with Japan – the official translators.

Much of the detail of this book – and the humour – derives from the cultural and linguistic divisions between the characters. Mitchell does a fantastic job of the scenes where two or three languages are being spoken, none of them English, and you know who is speaking which language and who understands which parts of the conversation. It’s masterful, I think.

There’s a lot of mistrust and resentment between the different races depicted but there’s also sharing of knowledge. One of my favourite characters, Dr Marinus, is a Dutchman who has settled on Dejima and trains Japanese apprentices in the art and science of “Dutch medicine”. The Dutch tradeship brings him new European textbooks every year, which he studies and shares through the translators. He attends meetings of Japanese scholars where the men debate scientific progress, philosophy and politics, including the wisdom of Japan remaining isolationist. I loved these scenes and would have liked more of them.

This large book encompasses many things – there’s humorous stories of daily life, the personal and public ups and downs of Jacob de Zoet, philosophical discussion, great adventures and mysterious evildoers (particularly in the middle section in which Jacob hardly appears), and also romance. Jacob is certainly in love with his Anna but there is also a young Japanese midwife who catches his eye, making him question his allegiances.

I’m glad I persevered with this book because it became something quite extraordinary. It is as exotic, remarkable and rich in detail as its beautiful cover suggests.

For an alternative viewpoint, check out these reviews by Leeswammes and Farm Lane Books.

Published 2010 by Sceptre.
ISBN 978-0-3409-2156-2

Music to my ears

This week we went to a music quiz at our local pub and what it reminded me – besides the fact that I have pretty poor music knowledge despite rating it as one of my better subject areas – was how soul-joltingly amazing music can be.

I mean, generally I’m a words person. This will come as no surprise I’m sure. And there are certain bands – mostly the ones I grew up with – whose lyrics I know inside out and back to front. I followed my Mum’s habit of writing out lyrics so that I could sing along to whole albums. I mean, Smash Hits only supplied lyrics to the big singles!

But for the most part I listen to the music, not the words. I love to turn up the volume, lean my head back, close my eyes and let the music wash over me.

This means that (a) I’m not nearly as good at music quizzes as I’d like to be and (b) when playing Singstar I am constantly surprised at what the lyrics really are. It’s often a pleasant surprise because lyrics can be remarkably poetic. I leave you with some favourite examples:

But her friend is nowhere to be seen
Now she walks through her sunken dream
To the seat with the clearest view
And she’s hooked to the silver screen

(David Bowie)

I have spoke with the tongue of angels
I have held the hand of a devil
It was warm in the night
I was cold as a stone

(U2)

If life is an open book, she’d rather read the pictures for a while
Let the bastards moan
’cause where she falls, she falls

(Ooberman)

Dreams of sights, of sleigh rides in seasons
where feelings not reasons, can make you decide
as leaves pour down, splash autumn on gardens
as colder nights harden, their moonlit delights

(Lightning Seeds)

Life lies a slow suicide
Orthodox dreams and symbolic myths
From feudal serf to spender
This wonderful world of purchase power
Just like lungs sucking on air
Survival’s natural as sorrow

(Manic Street Preachers)

The simplicity of reality

84 Charing Cross Road
by Helene Hanff

I hadn’t heard of this book until The Girl mentioned it on her old blog, but it turns out to be a bit of a modern classic. It’s quite simply the publication of actual letters exchanged between New York writer Helene Hanff and London bookshop Marks & Co. The correspondence lasted 20 years, from 1949 until the bookshop closed.

It’s a beautiful correspondence. On both sides there’s a great love of books (of course), open and engaging friendliness and plenty of humour. Hanff is wry, witty and deeply sarcastic. She’s also generous to a fault, sending food parcels to her London friends while they are still knee-deep in post-war rationing, despite her own meagre and unpredictable income as a TV writer (the exchange rate helped affordability considerably).

Hanff’s main correspondent is the bookshop’s chief buyer, Frank Doel, whose sudden death in 1968 prompted the idea behind the book (which, fittingly, is dedicated to him). It seems an unusual thing to do, in my eyes, and I don’t think Hanff expected the vast readership that the book eventually achieved.

The letters begin when Hanff, unable to find good quality hardback editions of her favourite books in New York, responds to an advert placed by Marks & Co. With characteristic contrariness she always pays by cash, in dollars, using an English neighbour to perform currency conversions. Over the years she amasses quite a collection, from Greek and Roman texts to English diarists to Jane Austen (one of her few sojourns into fiction).

As a booklover one of the great attractions of this volume is the taste and knowledgeableness regarding the books discussed. Hanff is quick to spot a poor translation or an incomplete “abridged” work but she also raves unreservedly about the beauty of certain books – the material, the binding, the gilding, the illustrations. Her enthusiasm is a real delight and it’s easy to see why so many of the bookshop’s employees (and their relatives) muscled in on the letter-writing.

One thing I found a little jolting was that the edition that I read also included Hanff’s next book The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street as a sort of epilogue. This is Hanff’s diaries from her 1971 visit to London, when she finally got to see the bookshop (by then closed down and empty – in fact, Hanff takes the letters that had made up the shop sign home as a memento) and meet many of her correspondents and fans of the book. It’s certainly interesting and fills in some of the blanks that the letters don’t cover, but the delicate beauty of 84 Charing Cross Road just isn’t present and the magic of the first half of the volume is quickly lost.

The title stems from Hanff’s perception that she is being treated like a duchess, a status that she does not feel that she deserves. 84 Charing Cross Road was a slow-burner and did not top any bestseller charts; Hanff was only able to afford the trip thanks to advance money from Andre Deutsch for the UK publication and paid interviews conducted during the visit (that said, all her shopping appears to be conducted at Harrods and Selfridge’s, so she’s not that skint). The later stage, TV and film adaptations will no doubt have relieved Hanff’s situation somewhat.

My thanks again to The Girl for alerting me to the existence of this book. It absolutely deserves its status as a cult classic for bookworms.

First published 1971.

84 Charing Cross Road

Incidentally, for anyone who falls in love with this book and wants to go on a pilgrimage to the site of Marks & Co, be warned that its disappointingly non-bookish current tenant is Pizza Hut. But it’s still a beautiful building. Click on the photo above for a bigger view. Thanks to Liz of Eliza Does Very Little for posting about this so that I was forewarned.

The edge of sanity

Time Out of Joint
by Philip K Dick

Although this is part of the SF Masterworks series, the SF content of this novel is fairly slim and if anything the big reveal is a little disappointingly convoluted. For the most part the novel is about sanity and our acceptance of the reality around us. And in that respect it is brilliant.

A recent Guardian books blog suggested that SF, and Philip K Dick in particular, has great ideas but terrible writing. In my experience that’s complete rubbish. Sure, there’s some badly written SF but that’s true for any genre – and non-genre – writing. This is my first Dick novel and I thought it extremely well written. It’s not flowery or overly descriptive, which if anything is a style I prefer. The characters are complex and sympathetic, the majority of the story emanating from their thoughts, though the narration is third-person.

Middle-aged Ragle Gumm lives in suburbia with his sister, her husband and their child. Gumm stays home all day, making his living from a newspaper contest called “Where will the little green man be next?”, at which he is the national champion. He seduces the neighbour’s young, pretty wife, as much from boredom or a feeling that he ought to have a lovelife as any real attraction. He’s aware that his life is a little unusual, while at the same time being docile and unchanging.

But there are times when Gumm is convinced that it’s all very wrong, that the world around him isn’t real, that there’s a conspiracy at work. Perhaps he’s just insane. Or it could be a little of both.

What makes the story especially intriguing is that Gumm’s brother-in-law and nephew also notice oddities, irregularities that convince them that something strange is afoot, and the three of them work together to gather evidence and figure it out. But it is Gumm who is convinced that the world revolves around him, or that it appears to.

The depiction of uncertain sanity is so well crafted that almost anything becomes believable, because it could always be Gumm’s paranoia talking. As a picture of paranoia the novel is near-perfect. However, as I said, the attempt to explain everything away in the end with an SF storyline is a let-down. Unless, of course, you consider that section to be when Gumm passes the tipping point into pure madness. Which, now I think of it, works pretty well.

An afterword by Lou Stathis helpfully explains where this novel sits in Dick’s vast legacy of fiction. I will definitely be following his advice and adding The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldridge, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep?, A Scanner Darkly and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer to my to-read shelf.

First published 1959 by Lippincott.
ISBN 978-0-5750-7458-3

75 years of Penguin

Penguin book design is fab

I love penguins, I love books and I love Penguin Books. I love that little paragraph most Penguins have somewhere in or on them about Allen Lane deciding to start a publishing company when he couldn’t buy a decent book at a railway station. I love the design of their covers and the fantastic range of quality content between them. In short, Penguin Books rule.

A lot of my childhood books were Puffins, which is this year celebrating its 70th anniversary, so happy birthday to them too. And Penguin Classics have always been my preferred editions, even when they cost more than the equivalent from other publishers, because the Penguin ones look better, have better introductions and, in the case of translations, have better translators. I remember when I read The Count of Monte Cristo a few years ago, after a couple of chapters I read a comment online about the Penguin edition being the only one to use a new translation that reinstated the sex and violence that the Victorian translator had censored out, so I immediately went out and bought the Penguin version and switched to that. (And I still didn’t find it particularly sexual or violent. How times change, eh?)

I have really liked the Penguin birthday promotion running at the Oxfam Bookshop on Park Street in Bristol (no idea if their other stores are doing this) for the past few months because it’s meant they have dug out and displayed hundreds of old Penguins, particularly those with the classic orange and green covers. I am a sucker for those editions, even in poor condition, and I loved the Penguin design exhibition when I saw it at the Holborne Museum in Bath. If I didn’t find books such tactile objects I would totally put a bunch of Penguins in a glass frame on my wall. That would look awesome.

So, in short, happy 75th birthday Penguin Books. You’re great.

Mr Penguin Sir

Penguin!

Super extra bonus review

Scott Pilgrim books 1–6
by Bryan Lee O’Malley

So these books are a lot of fun. Considering it’s mostly boy geeks who are obsessed with them I was surprised to discover that they’re all about relationships. With a bunch of kick-ass fighting and geeky extras thrown in, that is.

Volume 1 opens with Scott Pilgrim aged 23, unemployed, living with (by which I mean scrounging off) his gay best friend Wallace in a one-bed apartment (that’s literally one bed, which they share, not that it’s awkward or anything) and playing bass in a band called Sex Bob-omb that may or may not suck. Scott plays videogames all day and is still mooning over some girl he broke up with a year ago but somehow he’s like catnip to the ladies and we gradually meet a whole string of his exes.

Then, like some great karmic revenge, he meets smart, pretty, funny, mysterious Ramona Flowers. Or strictly, she starts appearing in his head and he’s already obsessed before he meets her in real life and asks her out. She says yes, with one condition: he has to fight – and defeat – her seven evil exes.

Scott seems sweet and unassuming, and also pretty gormless and very forgetful, but it turns out that fighting is the one thing he got good at in high school. Plus he’s been training hard on the videogames, so how could he not kick ass? In fact it turns out he’s better at doing that than growing up.

These books are funny, addictive and well drawn. There’s a whole array of secondary characters, most of whom are thoroughly fleshed out, believable people. Obviously some of them are just bad guys Scott has to fight.

There are some brilliant comic touches that may actually be entirely in Scott’s mind, warped as it is from playing videogames more than real life. When he defeats a bad guy – or evil ex – their body disappears and a pile of coins appears, like in an old platform game. And when he learns something valuable he gets experience points. Genius.

There’s a lot of meta referencing, which I liked, with characters saying things like “I’ll tell you in book 3”. And there’s a subspace highway that runs through Scott’s head, which is convenient.

The dialogue is at once realistic and very, very funny and, like all the best comics, background detail is used to great effect, usually comedic. The books are chock-full of quotable comedy and, despite a few big reveals, completely re-readable.

It goes without saying (almost) that I think the film of this by Edgar Wright will be brilliant and I can’t wait to see it. From the trailers it looks like the tone has been captured exactly. And it would be hard to dislike anything starring Michael Cera.

First published 2004–2010 by Oni Press in the US.
Published 2010 by Fourth Estate in the UK.

Book 1 ISBN 978-0-0073-4047-7

Two worlds, one book

I’ll Never be Young Again
by Daphne du Maurier

This is an odd book, in some places brilliant and beautiful, in others disjointed and, frankly, a little far-fetched. Ever since I read Rebecca I have been making my way through the rest of du Maurier’s works and this is a typical example – a great writer not at her best but still captivating.

The book is divided into two distinct halves and they are so different they could almost be separate novellas. What they have in common is their narrator, an incredibly believably voiced Englishman called Richard. He is young, very young, and full of restless spirit. The book opens with him contemplating throwing himself off a bridge into the Thames. He is stopped by Jake, an older man who has just been released from prison and believes that life is for living. Together they travel around Europe. Richard veers wildly from enthusiasm to boredom, passionate about something one minute, the next whining that anything else would be better. Jake is greatly amused by Richard’s mood swings and youthful passion and teases him about them, so that gradually Richard becomes aware of himself, though it fails to change him.

This first half is essentially a picaresque adventure, with the men running away to sea, trekking through mountains on horseback and by foot, choosing where to go next one day at a time. It’s spirited and a little wild, with Jake’s constant assuredness the perfect foil to Richard’s naivety. In many ways it seemed unrealistic that a directionless, penniless youth would get to have this great adventure but maybe that reaction has more to do with how times have changed since this was written.

In the second half Richard settles himself in Paris to write a novel and meets a girl who he falls headlong in love with. His thoughts about her are so very familiar, such as his fear of commitment and desperation to spend every second with her, while not seeing how those might be contradictory. There’s an air of gentle mocking in these passages, it’s so clear to the reader that Richard is being ridiculous a lot of the time, but by this point you know him so well and he notices his own stupidity often enough that certainly my reaction was to smile at the follies of youth rather than be annoyed with him.

The relationship is followed very closely, with the ins and outs of Richard’s everyday life detailed, from what he eats for breakfast to how he copes with the cold or the heat at his desk. Paris and its changing seasons are described with great affection, even when Richard is in one of his more negative moods. What really stood out in this half was the realness of the narrative voice. Maybe that’s because it was a woman’s perspective of a young man during his first romance, subtly using his voice to express all the frustrations a woman feels. Maybe a man would be less impressed.

The end is very well done, delicately balanced between comedy and tragedy, and ties together the two parts in theory, but in practice I still felt they were worlds apart. Perhaps they were intended that way.

First published in 1932 by William Heinemann Ltd.

Twanging those heartstrings

Me & Emma
by Elizabeth Flock

This book grew on me slowly. At first I found it a little annoying, like it was trying too hard to tug on the reader’s emotions, but then I got caught up in the story and by the end I was thoroughly enjoying it and impressed, even.

It’s narrated by eight-year-old Caroline, or Carrie, who details her life in North Carolina in her diary, or at least that’s how it’s initially presented (it doesn’t really make sense because there’s flashbacks, but I’ll let that go). Carrie daydreams a lot and loves her little sister Emma to distraction but the telling moment is when she declares that she doesn’t mind school because it gets her away from home.

Home is not a nice place for Carrie. Her stepfather is a violent drunk who coerces Emma into his bedroom frequently. Carrie’s mother either ignores or excuses the abuse and is not above beating the girls herself. It’s a shockingly horrible life and I suppose it’s a tribute to the author to say that it’s not a chore to read – somehow it’s not all negative, there’s lots of positives, at least the way Carrie sees it.

The characterisation is excellent, certainly in the case of Carrie. The prose is pretty realistically the voice of an eight year old. At first I found it a bit wearing, because eight year olds don’t have the greatest vocabulary and they do repeat annoying slang phrases and Flock has captured that very well. Thankfully she hasn’t misspelled it all realistically but she has used North Carolina vernacular.

This isn’t the greatest writing or the deepest of books and the storyline is likely to affect you more than the prose but it isn’t a bad read. Certainly better than I expected from the first few pages.

Published 2005 by Mira Books.
ISBN 978-0-7783-0084-7

Comfort clothes

There’s a green cardigan that I have a tendency to wear when I’m feeling a bit rubbish. It doesn’t have buttons or a belt so for it to warm me effectively I basically have to hug myself. It’s surprisingly comforting. On such days I also tend to wear flat shoes. The only reason I can think of for that is that heels are effort. Rubbish days are definitely not about making an effort.

I wonder whether anyone has noticed these proclivities of mine. People who are around you every day can be surprisingly perceptive. Well, some days they can. Of course, I’m feeling rubbish so often that perhaps I should reword all the above to say “more rubbish than usual”.

Or should I? The thing about chronic illness, or a thing at least, is that you kinda get used to feeling ill and while sometimes the fact of feeling ill, especially if it’s lasted several days, is enough to make me hate the world and want to crawl into a hole, generally feeling ill is just that – physical pain and/or discomfort – and is not necessarily related to my mood. This can get confusing for me and for the people around me. But it’s a survival mechanism as much as anything else. If I was miserable all the time that I felt ill I’d be pretty depressed. And depression is common among the chronically ill but thankfully I have not suffered that extra blow.

I do find it helps to have a handful of ways of dealing with feeling ill, stuff that makes me feel cheerful while requiring little or no energy input. There’s certain TV shows of course. It’s a cliché but Friends never fails to make me laugh. (I know, I know, I should lean toward something less mainstream and more British if I want to continue considering myself indie.) This year I’ve discovered gardening, which is great except for when slugs and snails and caterpillars eat all my beautiful plants. And there’s curling up under a blanket and daydreaming. This requires less brain power than reading and somehow feels more productive than watching TV.

And when I’m feeling a bit rubbish but still capable of dragging myself out of the house, there’s always that big, slouchy green cardigan.