In our house money was a god. But it was an angry, careful god

Rebuilding Coventry
by Sue Townsend

Sue Townsend was reliably both funny and socially relevant, and she doesn’t disappoint here. The title doesn’t refer to the Midlands town’s destruction in World War Two – it is, rather, about a woman called Coventry.

Coventry Dakin introduces herself with two facts: she’s beautiful and she killed a man. Specifically, her neighbour Gerald Fox. And now she’s on the run in London, without her handbag.

Killing Gerald was a spur of the moment decision, hence Coventry’s less-than-perfect running-away outfit. We learn the story behind the murder and the fallout for Coventry’s husband and children, interspersed between Coventry’s survival on the streets of the capital.

This being a comedy, there is an element of the ridiculous to much of the action. The murder weapon is an Action Man doll. She had been in the middle of cleaning her chimney, so she’s wearing old clothes and covered in soot. Her husband Derek is really only interested in his tortoises.

Continue reading “In our house money was a god. But it was an angry, careful god”

Sometimes we don’t want to be tethered to yesterday

spectaclesSpectacles
by Sue Perkins

This memoir by beloved comedian and TV presenter Sue Perkins jumped out at me when browsing one of our local charity shops, as I was looking to add some comedy to my book shelves and this seemed like just the thing. One the one hand, I was right that it would be funny, on the other it also made me cry no less than three times. Damn it Sue with your sweet, touching moments. And dead pets.

I’d like to claim to be an early fan of Sue, having watched her first TV shows Light Lunch and Late Lunch, back in the 90s, but the truth is that they followed years of stand-up comedy that I of course knew nothing about. Sue is yet another alumnus of the Cambridge Footlights society, and gives a brilliant description of the drab, dingy basement that is the Footlights theatre. This is also where she met long-time comedy partner Mel Giedroyc, who in this book (and, I assume, in life) is the butt of many a joke, primarily about her being two years older than Sue.

Sue is a good writer, whether talking about her family, her career, her loves or her pets. Her timing is spot-on, knowing when to hit the sad button and when to lighten the mood with a joke with the canny judgement of Spielberg. She’s not afraid of sincerity about tough subjects and the chapter about her break-up with a long-term partner after getting back into TV work and running a bit wild is a little painful to read as it seems to betray lingering feelings.

Continue reading “Sometimes we don’t want to be tethered to yesterday”

In 1945 all the nice people in England were poor

girls-of-slender-meansThe Girls of Slender Means
by Muriel Spark

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.

Continue reading “In 1945 all the nice people in England were poor”

Drowned out by the sounds of the mundane world

The Long EarthThe Long Earth
by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

I actually have a lot of thoughts about this book, but going into most of them would require revealing more about this book’s premise than I want to in this review. So I’m going to keep this (fairly) short and highly recommend that you read the book, then maybe we can do spoilers in the comments!

The set-up of the book is that one day children suddenly start disappearing all over the world – and then hours later they reappear telling the fantastic story that they had “stepped” to another Earth, a parallel world that seems to be identical except that there are no signs of humans or human civilisation there. They were able to step thanks to eccentric scientist Willis Linsay posting online the details of how to build your own stepper device. And it turns out that there isn’t just one parallel Earth; there are hundreds, maybe thousands, maybe an infinite number, each subtly different but still clearly Earth.

“The prairie was flat, green, rich, with scattered stands of oaks. The sky above was blue as generally advertised. On the horizon there was movement, like the shadow of a cloud: a vast herd of animals on the move. There was a kind of sigh, a breathing-out. An observer standing close enough might have felt a whisper of breeze on the skin.”

Continue reading “Drowned out by the sounds of the mundane world”

The poem is an extraordinary mechanism

reader for hireReader for Hire
by Raymond Jean
translated from French by Adriana Hunter

This is an unusual book, difficult to pin down. It’s comedic bordering on farce, it’s sensual to the point of erotica, it’s intellectual veering dangerously close to literary criticism. All of which can be ignored if you just want a good story to enjoy, but you will need an open mind for this one.

It was her friend Françoise’s idea, but Marie-Constance quickly finds herself having to fight for it. She places an ad in the local paper offering her services as a reader, because her voice is her greatest asset. The newspaper man thinks the advert sounds suspicious. Her old university tutor thinks she will attract the wrong sort. Her husband alone is indifferent.

Marie-Constance’s first client is a paraplegic teenager who initially seems more interested in the length of her skirt than the classic short story she has chosen to read him, a choice that ends in near disaster. Her second client is an elderly woman with cataracts who only wants to read Marx, which bores Marie-Constance to tears. The third is an attractive newly divorced executive who claims he only wants a crash course in literature so that he can appear more cultured. Each new opportunity seems to bring new problems and soon Marie-Constance is on first-name terms with the local police chief.

Continue reading “The poem is an extraordinary mechanism”

I wish you to gasp not only at what you read

Pale Fire

Pale Fire
by Vladimir Nabokov

I need to let you know from the start that this is one crazy crazy book. The structure, the plot and the characters are complex to the point of inscrutable. This is truly experimental literary fiction.

How to describe this book? The poet and academic John Shade has been murdered and this is his last poem, introduced and analysed by a neighbour and colleague of the poet, Charles Kinbote. Kinbote is clearly crazy, but the question is exactly how crazy.

Kinbote’s “commentary” mostly ignores the actual poem and rambles on about the last king of Zembla, the country he has emigrated from to the small New England college where he met Shade. The story of this king is one of wild adventure, preposterous even, and Kinbote is clearly obsessed with it. He had told this story to Shade in the hope that the great poet would write a great poem about it, but that’s not what this final poem is and Kinbote’s disappointment is palpable.

“What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable (so I used to tell my students)…I can do what only a true artist can do – pounce upon the forgotten butterfly of revelation, wean myself abruptly from the habit of things, see the web of the world, and the warp and weft of that web.”

The whole conceit, and Kinbote himself, are often frustrating, occasionally tedious and frankly wholly ridiculous and yet at times it becomes almost, almost, believable. Kinbote’s obsessive nature has attached itself to his learned neighbour and he has clearly read the situation wrong time and time again, convincing himself that he became Shade’s dearest friend on the basis of flimsy evidence. It’s not a new story, but it’s nevertheless an interesting one and it’s being told in a very new way.

Thankfully, the scholarly frame of the novel is not entirely po-faced. This is a comedy, packed full of satire, poking fun at poets and scholars and literary criticism. Kinbote is somehow both subtly ambiguous and a broad comic character. The language is laughably over-the-top academic and delights in putting together pleasing sounds and amazing, if unwieldy, sentences.

“The heating system was a farce, depending as it did on registers in the floor wherefrom the tepid exhalations of a throbbing and groaning basement furnace were transmitted to the rooms with the faintness of a moribund’s last breath. By occluding the temperatures upstairs I attempted to give more energy to the register in the living room but its climate proved to be incurably vitiated by there being by there being nothing between it and the arctic regions save a sleezy front door without a vestige of a vestibule.”

It’s a clever balancing act and I would be thoroughly impressed by a book that made me laugh out loud despite such an outlandish structure if I hadn’t found other sections painfully tedious. This is a short book but it took me a long time to read, partly because I kept putting it down and declaring “This is batshit insane.” Which it is.

“The coming of summer presented a problem in optics: the encroaching foliage did not always see eye to eye with me: it confused a green monocle with an opaque occludent, and the idea of protection with that of obstruction.”

I must admit, this is one of those books I’m a little bit proud of having got through. Which perhaps undersells it. Many people consider this a masterpiece and I certainly see that there’s plenty to admire but I don’t think Nabokov will ever be a favourite of mine.

First published 1962 by G B Putnam’s Sons.

Source: Secondhand, probably from the Oxfam Bookshop on Park Street, Bristol.

Everybody is saddled with the curse of small talk

GoldGold
by Dan Rhodes

I can’t remember where I saw this book recommended but I clearly did as it was on my birthday wishlist at the start of the year. Whoever recommended it, I must thank you, because this was just what I was looking for – an enjoyable, funny, page-turning read that was also emotionally engaging and well phrased.

This is a very British book, and also very much a side of Britain that I know well, so I felt immediately at home in the setting Rhodes had created, but that perhaps says as much about his skill as a writer as about my familiarity with small Welsh villages!

Miyuki has been visiting the same Welsh coastal village every January for years for her annual holiday. She rents the same cottage, eats the same terrible junk food and visits the same roster of local pubs. She knows a handful of locals by name (or nickname) and they in turn know her as the Japanese girl (though she’s not really). This year, a sudden creative urge from Miyuki threatens to make this her most eventful – and not in a good way – holiday yet.

“Over time, she began to sympathise with her interrogators. She came to the conclusion that if people wanted to talk to her about Japan then there was no reason they shouldn’t. She had grown to realise that everybody is saddled with the curse of small talk in one way or another. Veterinary assistants trying to relax in general company are tormented with interminable true stories of decrepit parrots, crippled badgers, and poodles with weeping sores; off-duty plumbers trying to wind down in pubs are pestered by fellow drinkers with extensive inquiries about float valves and stopcocks…”

Rhodes does a good job of being funny about everyday life – the boring bits, the secret bits but also the very serious bits – without ever being nasty. Tall Mr Hughes might tend to go on a bit about his latest topic of interest (on this holiday it’s alligators) but he’s clearly beloved by his drinking pals Short Mr Hughes and Mr Puw. Septic Barry might be a little over-sharing when it comes to his own business in septic tanks – and indeed he gave himself that nickname – but he’s also the local ladies’ man and Rhodes had me rooting for him where another author might have made him a comedy villain.

“Mr Edwards was a man of few words, and most of these were holy and mackerel. He could load the phrase in so many ways. Depending on his tone and his manner it could be a greeting, a valediction, an expression of surprise, of pleasure or dismay, an admonition, a congratulation, a remonstration, or even a comfort in a difficult time.”

Miyuki is a well drawn character. Quiet and reserved, she is nevertheless happy to chat to whoever sits next to her at the pub and even contribute to the Hughes Puw and Hughes pub quiz team. She likes to read a book a day on holiday so that before January is out she knows that she has averaged more than a book a month over the year. She walks the cliff tops, she drinks real ale and she takes pleasure in dropping her contact lenses on the woodburning stove at night to watch them shrivel up.

This book didn’t have me laughing out loud or rolling on the floor, and it didn’t change my life, but it was like a warm hug. Which was nice.

Published 2007 by Canongate.

Source: This was a present from my Mum.

White people don’t care where they send you

The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir who got Trapped in an IKEA Wardrobe

The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir who got Trapped in an IKEA Wardrobe
by Romain Puértolas
translated from French by Sam Taylor

This book has already been a huge success in France and the publishers of the English translation are clearly hoping for similar sales figures. I hope they get them, even though I didn’t love it.

It would be wrong to say I am ambivalent about this book – it does not invite ambivalence. Rather, I both loved aspects of it and was frustrated or disappointed by others. It could well be a bit of a Marmite book.

At first glance – especially for the first few chapters – this is a very silly comedy, one that did make me laugh (or rather, snigger) a few times, though it’s not entirely to my comedic taste. Then, just as I was struggling to decide how I felt about all this slapstick silliness (it has a very Clouseau vibe) and the rather tricky main character, some serious issues get thrown into the mix (primarily human trafficking/illegal immigration) and, for me, it all picked up considerably. I know from online reviews that some people have objected to this combination of serious and silly but I actually thought that was handled fairly well – that was not my objection.

“A fakir by trade, Ajatashatru Oghash (pronounced A-jar-of-rat-stew-oh-gosh!) had decided to travel incognito for his first trip to Europe. For this occasion he had swapped his ‘uniform’, which consisted of a loincloth shaped like an enormous nappy, for a shiny grey suit and a tie rented for peanuts from Dilawar (pronounced Die, lawyer!), an old man from the village.”

It’s a difficult novel to summarise but the title does a fairly good job of the start! Ajatashatru Oghash Rathod has travelled from his home village in Rajhastan to Paris to buy a bed of nails from IKEA. He’s brought only a counterfeit €100 note, his real funds having been entirely spent on his airfare and visa, which I felt nicely set up the balancing act between his poverty and his shaky morals. When he gets trapped in a display model of a wardrobe in IKEA, it of course happens to be one that is earmarked for hasty transport (i.e. it isn’t disassembled) to England, where the fakir is discovered in a lorry with five illegal immigrants.

This neatly opens the door for an exploration – a largely scathing one – of border controls in a few different western European countries through the eyes of someone – an Indian with a legal Schengen visa – who doesn’t already know their ins and outs (such as the fact that the UK is not Schengen). One of Puértolas’ many former careers was as a French border guard and his inside knowledge shows, in a good way. He clearly has great sympathy for those who leave behind unimaginable poverty, hunger and disease in search of a better life, and great hatred for those who take advantage of such desperation. There are some tough details in this book, though they are never lingered on.

“It is not the fear of being beaten that twists our guts. No, because on this side of the Mediterranean we do not suffer beatings. It is the fear of being sent back to the country from which we have come, or, worse, being sent to a country we don’t know, because the white people don’t care where they send you.”

So I appreciated the subject matter, I found the story very readable and when the comedy got a little less broad it was more to my taste (or perhaps it even grew on me)…but I still didn’t love it. I might argue that the serious issues were handled a little too lightly and that they deserved to be explored more deeply, but then that would be a very different book. In fact, I am hopeful that the comedic tone of this novel will bring the issues surrounding human trafficking and illegal immigration to a wider conversation. (Indeed, at the hairdresser I spotted that this book is one of British Vogue magazine’s picks for their summer reads, which is a good start.)

My problem then is that the fakir’s reactions to his unlikely journey are trite, his opinions of the world are voiced clumsily and I never could decide if the book is racist. Certainly, it uses racial/national/gender stereotypes for comedic effect – for instance, the inability of any European to pronounce Indian names correctly – and up to a point that’s fine, but I often felt the line had been crossed.

I suppose that leaves me not ambivalent but also not decided.

L’extraordinaire voyage du fakir qui était resté coincé dans une armoire Ikea published 2013 by Le Dillettant.
This translation published July 2014 by Harvill Secker.

Source: This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

The truth is complicated

Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Where’d You Go, Bernadette
by Maria Semple

I picked up this comedy for a quick read when I was struggling to get into another book and it turned out to be much better than I had expected: funny but also original and compelling.

The story is told from the perspective of 15-year-old Seattle-resident Bee (short for Balakrishna), whose mother Bernadette has gone missing. Who Bernadette really is and why she disappeared is gradually pieced together and it’s both an odder story and a more relatable one than it at first appears.

“The first annoying thing is when I ask Dad what he thinks happened to Mom, he always says, ‘What’s most important is for you to understand it’s not your fault.’ You’ll notice that wasn’t even the question. When I press him, he says the second annoying thing, ‘The truth is complicated. There’s no way one person can ever know everything about another person.’ “

Semple rips into Seattle culture, but it’s humour with an edge of fondness. She satirizes the dominance of Microsoft and its influence over the city, the difficulty of being a retiring artistic type in a social group that puts pressure on to get involved at your child’s school. But she also acknowledges that, unlike in California (where Bernadette and her husband Elgie moved from), people in Seattle (including teenage children) aren’t obsessed with fashion or the latest gizmos.

The story is mostly told through e-mails and letters, with some being brief notes and others much longer storytelling affairs. This meant there were not only lots of voices, but some characters were depicted in multiple facets of their life and I thought this was handled well. It was a nice update to the epistolary style without feeling like it was trying too hard to be modern (except where mocking modernity).

“Your mission statement says Galer Street [School] is based on global ‘connectitude’. (You people don’t just think outside the box, you think outside the dictionary!)…you must emancipate yourselves from what I am calling Subaru Parent mentality and start thinking more like Mercedes ParentsGrab your crampons because we have an uphill climb. But fear not: I do underdog.”

I liked the combination of themes dealt with – there’s career versus family (for men and women) and how everyone, even your nearest and dearest, is a mystery to everyone but themselves. The book also touches on technological developments (through the character of Elgie) and the fight to balance societal and commercial pressures. And without giving anything away, I loved the final section, which could have felt like it just wrapped everything up neatly, but managed to steer clear of that, just as it managed to get emotional without seeming mawkish.

Semple’s is the comedy of everyday irritations and she judges well the point when something stops being funny or when it stops being acceptable to get annoyed. Not that that line is never crossed, but the character in question stops being sympathetic, which is such a realistic means of showing up character flaws.

I must admit that, more than a week later, this book hasn’t particularly stayed with me, but as you can tell I enjoyed it while it lasted.

Published 2012 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Source: Amazon.

We seem to have strayed into a timeless moral vortex

Bullet Park

Bullet Park
by John Cheever

I wasn’t much aware of John Cheever until a year or two ago. And even then I lumped him together with the great big male American 20th-century greats, which made me feel that I should read him, but didn’t really feel much inclination to. So I might never have read this novel if my book club hadn’t chosen it. And I’m glad they did, as it was a more enjoyable read than I expected.

This is a comedy, poking fun at suburbia, but it’s a dark, subtle kind of comedy. I certainly didn’t laugh out loud. The story is that of Eliot Nailles, sensible middle-class long-term resident of Bullet Park, a New York suburb, and his recently arrived neighbour Paul Hammer. At first glance Nailles is hard working, happily married, blessed with a perfect teenage son and admired by all around him, while Hammer is somehow mysterious, with a wife who says things she shouldn’t after a few drinks.

The first half of the book, perhaps predictably, cuts through that façade of suburbia and looks behind the closed doors at the details of Nailles’ life. His love for his wife Nellie borders on obsession but does she feel anything like the same loyalty for him? And his son Tony seems to have been struck down suddenly with some form of bedridden depression, which Nailles is trying desperately to both understand and find a cure for.

What I found interesting was that Cheever doesn’t entirely subvert the prevalent view of suburbia, because overall the picture painted is one of dreariness and predictability. Not that the writing is at all dreary, but if this section had gone on much longer I think I would soon have become bored.

“There seemed to be some metric regulation to the pace of the talk. It was emotional, intimate, evocative and as random as poetry. They had come from other places and would go to other places but sitting against the light at four in the afternoon they seemed as permanent as the beer pulls.”

What saves this book is the switch at the start of part two to Hammer’s story. This part is narrated by Hammer and fills in his backstory, and I was immediately grinning and enjoying the ride that he takes you on. He has a wonderful turn of phrase and a calculated assessment of which facts to give. He is an archetypal unreliable narrator, which makes it all the harder to figure out what is coming in part three, when the narrative switches back to the two men in Bullet Park.

“We traditionally associate nakedness with judgments and eternity and so on those beaches where we are mostly naked the scene seems apocalyptic. Standing at the surf line we seem, quite innocently, to have strayed into a timeless moral vortex.”

Hammer and Nailles are very different people, both full of ambiguity, but neither came 100% to life for me. I think this comes down to the style of writing. We talked at book club about how this might be related to Cheever being for the most part a short-story writer, and how this novel in many ways feels like a long short story. This is a slight criticism, but only a slight one. And certainly I would be interested to read Cheever’s short fiction and see if his style is better suited to that.

The writing is often beautiful and the story includes some wonderful quirks, that completely thrilled me. For instance, Hammer has an obsession with yellow rooms – they have to be a specific shade of yellow and he has to find them already painted that colour. Hammer’s mother (a fairly minor character but an absolutely brilliant one) decides that her therapist is too expensive so she takes to analysing herself, aloud.

“Three times a week, I lie down on my bed and talk to myself for an hour. I’m very frank. I don’t spare myself any unpleasantness. The therapy seems to be quite effective and, of course, it doesn’t cost me a cent.”

In the end, I liked this book but I didn’t love it. This is partly related to the ending, which I won’t discuss here and I wasn’t necessarily disappointed by, but I did feel a certain…deflation at. But I also wonder if it’s related to the comedy not being that funny but also not that biting. Another thing we mentioned at book club was that this book reads like a satire without a clear target. Bullet Park is both a safe, happy place and a dull or even sinister place. But New York City gets lots of mentions and it isn’t painted as particularly better or worse than suburbia. And society itself is similarly both lampooned and forgiven. I think ultimately I would have enjoyed it more if it was either more sharp and biting, or if it had more relatable characters.

First published 1969 by Knopf.

Source: I bought this from Topping Books in Bath.