We were there, the ones who one day had to renounce our aspirations

I’ll Sell You a Dog
by Juan Pablo Villalobos
translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey

As I subscribe to And Other Stories, I receive their books through the post four times a year and, most of the time I know nothing about them aside from the title. But I’m going to read them all anyway, so I choose to keep it that way, which makes each and every one a wonderful surprise.

I really liked this farce about an old man living in a block of flats reserved for retirees in Mexico City. Teo (not his real name) enjoys standing apart from the other residents, refusing to join their daily book group and accusing them of snobbery about his having been a taco seller all his life. He’s a drunk and also suffers from dementia, so it’s hard to know whether to believe him when he insists to his neighbour Francesca (not her real name) that he’s not writing a novel.

“All Mexico’s artistic geniuses of the 20th century passed through its doors…And the rest of us passed through, too: the cannon fodder, the filler, the extras, the gatecrashers, the ones who didn’t have the combination that gives you a ticket to the history of art. We were there, the ones who one day had to renounce our aspirations, forced by circumstances or by accepting our own limitations. Then there were the ones who pressed on through mediocrity, made art their profession and condemned themselves to a life of ridicule. And on top of that were those who couldn’t do anything but keep on painting, no matter what, and who ended up mad or ill, or died when they were young, martyrs of art.”

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Tell me, is she a genuine eccentric?

lady-in-the-vanThe Lady in the Van
by Alan Bennett

This is my third Alan Bennett and, honestly, my least favourite. It’s also the first of his non-fiction memoirs that I’ve read, which doesn’t bode well for completing his backlist as that’s the bulk of his work.

This particular story, made into a film last year starring Maggie Smith, is about the decidedly odd Miss Shepherd, who lived in a van on Bennett’s driveway from 1974 until 1989. First published in 1989, this is essentially annotated and edited excerpts from Bennett’s diaries in those years. He is fighting very hard not to judge the elderly “Miss S.” for her eccentricities, and he is certainly extremely tolerant in the face of her difficult temperament. And she is extremely difficult.

October 1969. When she is not in the van Miss S. spends much of her day sitting on the pavement in Parkway…She sells tracts, entitled ‘True View: Mattering Things’, which she writes herself, though this isn’t something she will admit…She generally chalks the gist of the current pamphlet on the pavement, though with no attempt at artistry…She also makes a few coppers selling pencils. ‘A gentleman came the other day and said that the pencil he had bought from me was the best pencil on the market at the present time. It lasted him three months. He’ll be back for another one shortly.’ D., one of the more conventional neighbours…stops me and says, ‘Tell me, is she a genuine eccentric?’ ”

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It became frightening to step back onto firm ground

getting-the-pictureGetting the Picture
by Sarah Salway

When new publisher Dean Street Press offered up any of their books for review, I picked this one partly because the synopsis sounded good but mostly because they had a quote from Neil Gaiman on the cover. Not the greatest reason but I think it worked out.

The book opens with Maureen accompanying her model friend Pat to a photographer’s studio. Maureen is married with a young child and the photographer, Martin, specialises in nude portraits – tasteful ones, but nudes all the same – so Maureen is nervous to be there but undeniably attracted to Martin. Cut to 40 years later and Martin is moving into a retirement home. He writes a letter to Maureen to tell her that he picked the same home that her husband George is in, because he wants to finally understand why she went back to her husband after their affair ended.

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On the brink of getting old

Break of Day
by Colette
translated from French by Enid Mcleod

I found this book both beautiful and uplifting, and painstakingly slow and even dull. Which is probably why I had started and abandoned it once before. I’m glad I gave it another go.

I suppose you could call this novel a lightly fictionalised autobiography, and it may even have been the inspiration for so many books since written in that vein – half of Amélie Nothomb’s works, for example. Its ageing heroine, Colette, is spending a summer in her beloved Provence. She is alone but for a coterie of pets and, though she has endless company from friends old and new, she feels strongly that the time has come to learn how to be on her own, how to live without love.

The novel is partly addressed to, and partly about, her mother Sido. Colette quotes from her mother’s letters and realises with pride how much she has come to be like her. But mostly it is a musing on her own life, her love of nature and her thoughts on love. Her lofty aim to no longer depend on a man for happiness is complicated by the presence of Valère Vial, a younger man whose company she enjoys but who she frets does not belong in her story.

The prose is beautiful but rambling. The blurb calls it a prose poem and that’s pretty apt. If you can accept that for pages at a time nothing will happen, or her meaning will not be clear, then you can just wallow in the language and enjoy a master at work:

“The open windows let in the smell of the melon rinds floating on the water of the port; between two parts of a tango, a long sigh announced that a wave, born far out at sea, had just died within a few paces of us.”

The title refers to her ongoing battle with sleep and her love of the dawn. A lot of the book is set in the middle of the night or in the early hours of the morning, with Colette perusing life in an overtired state, hoping to see the new day begin before sleep finally comes. It could be the most lyrical autobiography I have read, except that she adds the lines:

“Are you imagining, as you read me, that I am portraying myself? Have patience: this is merely my model.”

First published 1928 by Flammarion as La Naissance du Jour.
This translation first published 1961 by Martin Secker and Warburg.

Have you seen Harold Fry?

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
by Rachel Joyce

This is a very sweet novel about old age and regret and Englishness. It takes a simple but interesting idea and keeps it engaging throughout. The author’s inclusion of social media such as Facebook and Twitter in the storyline was of course a gift to the publisher’s marketing department (as you may have started to notice) but do not be put off – it’s worth a chance.

Have you seen Harold Fry?

Harold Fry has been retired for six months and spends his days with his wife Maureen keeping boredom at bay, when he receives a letter from an old friend, Queenie, telling him that she is dying of cancer. He goes out to post a reply and keeps on walking. He resolves to walk all the way from his home in Kingsbridge, South Devon, to Berwick Upon Tweed (so almost the whole length of England), having some idea that this is an act of faith that will save her life.

There are a few secrets at the heart of this story that are revealed slowly, with clues and partial memories dropped in between the story of Harold’s trek. Some I guessed and some I didn’t, but I don’t think it matters hugely either way; there is plenty enough story to keep you engaged even if you think you have figured the secrets out.

There are quite a few “issues” dealt with, including how it can be difficult to adapt to retirement, and how parents affect their child’s life, but the one that got to me the most was Harold and Maureen’s marriage. For 20 years they have lived at a polite distance, never really talking about what they want to say, to the point that when Harold starts his walk neither can understand the other. Maureen is bemused by the walk and the rules Harold has set himself (which change a few times anyway) and thinks that maybe Harold is doing it because he was once in love with Queenie. Harold thinks his wife will not miss him, that she will not be affected at all by his absence. During his walk, they both have time to think about the past, their marriage, what they once meant to each other and how things have changed. They both come to life, in their own ways, waking up from the monotony they had got stuck in.

The chapters alternate between Harold and Maureen, and they are both lovely characters, though both are also a little difficult and frosty at times. They are old-fashioned, in both good and bad ways. For instance, when a stranger confesses to Harold that he is cheating on his wife with a young man, Harold is appalled and repulsed but continues to listen politely.

There is a lot of detail about the landscape and route of Harold’s walk, sometimes lovingly admiring of England, sometimes less than complimentary, but this tends to reflect Harold’s mood mostly. He has realistic problems, mostly to do with his feet, and his perseverance in the face of pain is inspiring, though I couldn’t help but wonder at times if it was going to be worth it.

This book deals with some big issues in a quiet, understated way. It never gets gritty or deep into a subject, but it also doesn’t gloss over problems. A very sweet read.

This advance proof was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for a review.

Published March 2012 by Transworld Publishers.

How could I resist that title?

The Greengrocer’s Apostrophe
by Alexandra Fox

This tiny little Leaf Book really packs an emotional punch. I am very moved.

It’s quite a straightforward story about an old man caring for his beloved wife, who is slipping away from him, no longer sure who he is. Tom remembers their meeting, their life together, while he prepares breakfast. So simple, but the language is exquisite. Tom is trying to write a song in his head for her, probably the last love song he will ever write, but he is finding it hard.

The title comes from a touching aside in the middle of the book, a short diversion from the main plot in a way, but in another way it’s part of a thread running through the story, a thread about identity and what you do with your life. It’s sad and beautiful.

I picked this book up from a publisher’s stall at BristolCon. The title appealed to me, as did the idea of selling short stories in little individual books. But most of all I am grateful to have discovered this new author. I have just spent hours reading more of her stories online and am excited by the hints that she might be writing a novel.

Published 2005 by Leaf Books.