You’ve probably heard Noddy Holder once too often already.
Tat Wood picks out twelve books for when all that tinsel gets too much for you.
When Morrisons is selling mince pies from August Bank Holiday on it’s hard to think of Christmas as being only one day. Unless we get really bad weather, it gets like Narnia in reverse – always Christmas but never Winter. There’s all that build-up, stress and hype then as soon as Boxing Day’s done it seems as remote and long-ago as Beatlemania or floppy discs. The best way to cope with either or both of these, the panic in the run-up or the deflated feeling in that weird limbo between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve, is to have a project on the go. If you’re like me, a ‘project’ is usually either a big book or a book of small pieces you can retreat to once a day.
I’ve had a nose around the library’s shelves and found a dozen that might fit the bill, depending on what kind of reader you are. Each of these books, in different ways, invites you to immerse yourself in it, either following the plot, soaking up the atmosphere, piecing together the connections between items or simply wallowing in the language. Contrary to a widespread opinion, I haven’t yet read all 2,900 books we have so there’s probably quite a lot else you could find if you wanted to look for yourselves.
You’ve honestly not read this?
It’s a memoir about growing up in the bits of Gloucestershire that progress skipped, starting just before World War I but with barely any reference to the outside world. Lee had been to a lot of other places between living this life and writing about it, as he took the money he got for getting poems published and walked to London in the 30s, then hopping on a boat to Spain to busk with his fiddle just before the Civil War. The skill with words that got him out of Slad, with its claustrophobia and insularity, helped him catch what it was like precisely, and the distance and perspective he had on it made some of what he’d left precious. Only some; he’s unflinching about what agriculture was like in those days and it’s hardly any surprise that he was so keen to see what else was out there. Looking back on it is less nostalgia than near-disbelief that it could have been like that in his lifetime.
This is a book to read slowly. Not just to get the feel of that time’s pace but because, sentence by sentence, Lee makes better use of simple language than almost anyone. Quite apart from that accomplishment, it is the ideal book to simultaneously allow the reader to de-stress and to count his or her blessings. You can see why he fled to London but also why he came back.
Accept no substitute. Sherlock Holmes exists in print first and foremost.
However entertaining Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing or Jeremy Brett were the problem is that we are seeing it all for ourselves. Holmes may be a genius, but the real ingenuity of these stories was picking a narrator just slightly cleverer than most of us but not as clever as the great detective. Watson’s been following Holmes long enough to know that any small detail might be significant, so he gives us every small detail; smells, sounds, accents, the lot. That’s what makes these stories work when technically-better authors languish unread and out of print. They didn’t bother to describe what most of their readers already knew. Holmes has taught Watson not to take the familiar for granted. If you want to know what Victorian Britain, especially London, seemed like to people who lived there, this is your first point of entry. No cliches, no half-remembered ‘atmosphere’, it’s all absolutely real.
And while Watson admires his friend, he’s aware of how ridiculous Holmes might seem to someone who’s not seen him in action. Whenever this story is dramatised the sequence in the hotel with the boots and the newspaper looks absurd. Through Watson’s eyes it’s business as usual. And Watson’s eyes are more important here than in any of the other stories because Holmes deputises him to go to Dartmoor and report every detail to him by letter. Holmes doesn’t believe in family curses and supernatural beasts but Watson’s finding it hard to stay sceptical when living in such a remote and desolate place. That’s one of the two things that makes this book the supreme moment of Holmes’ career; almost all of the stories have the trappings and mood of gothic horror but turn out to be devious criminal enterprises, yet this one has its cake and eats it. There’s a real glow-in-the-dark hound and a real family secret causing all of this.
A writer’s writer, they say, but that’s because Lorrie Moore usually writes short stories that make it seem possible to do anything with that form. She’s never really made the big time, possibly because of her relatively slow output but mainly because publishers like putting their promotional clout behind novels. If you want a one-line description, she’s the writer Anne Tyler would be if Anne Tyler were as good as the critics all claim. Most of the time, when anyone asks anyone other than me which writer she most resembles, critics say John Updike. I have to admit, I don’t like Updike. I admire his short stories immensely but his novels leave me wondering why no editor was brave enough to say ‘do this again’. Moore is an exquisite short-story writer but, unlike Updike, hasn’t acted as if novels are the real thing and short stories a sideline. She’s written three novels to date; this is the second and the most recent, A Gate At The Stairs was fairly popular. I think this is her most accomplished long-form work. (Judge for yourself: we’ve got both of them).
It’s outwardly straightforward; an American woman lives in Paris and doesn’t entirely like her husband’s friends. Her best friend was someone she worked with at a tacky theme-park when she was 15 in the early 70s. Storyland, the grim amusement-park, has characters and settings from old tales but all out of context and without any actual story. Paris, on the other hand, has a story it tells about itself but no place for inconvenient details. Her own story, how she got from one to the other, is the only thread keeping her sense of herself coherent.
This makes it sound horribly worthy and Proust-like (something the narrator slyly acknowledges) but it’s Lorrie Moore, so there are belting one-liners and moments of genuine pain and remorse, sardonic insights and an ease about the writing that makes all the knotty subject-matter flow readably.
This is the novel where she outgrew her former writing tutor, Alison Lurie. (Moore has a new book coming out in March, which will probably be reviewed everywhere. This could be your chance to impress your friends with an opinion on the topic.)
The most exciting period of US cinema history is between 1965 and 1975, when the bosses of the old studios realised that they had no clue what audiences wanted any more and the old censorship regime, the Hayes Code, was finally abandoned. They’d spent absurd amounts on what they thought would be sure-fire smashes (especially overblown musicals – someone seriously thought that Thoroughly Modern Millie would be what Variety used to call a socko-boffo). Meanwhile smaller producers, run by writers, directors or even actors seemed to be delivering the goods with micro-budget oddities. For a while it looked as if intelligent, heartfelt films from the margins were going to change everything and make film as personal and art-form as the novel. But by 1975 the studios were back in control, spawning a new form of blockbuster by co-opting those very outsiders. It wasn’t so much that the money-men were able to find ways to force the arty-hippy-low-budget film-makers out, more that the latter camp imploded through their own egos, quixotic gambles and what Frank Zappa called ‘cocaine decisions’. As Captain America said at the end of Easy Rider, “we blew it”.
But as another of that generation’s spokesmen put it, it was a long, strange trip. This book is one I tried to read a bit at a time and landed up skipping sleep to finish. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to see films you’d not heard of and revisit the sorts of films they used to show late on Sunday nights on BBC2. I know one person who subscribed to Netflicks just to get to see some of the projects mentioned here. Back when Leytonstone Library had DVDs I looked at some of the ones I haven’t got to see if the trouble these mavericks had getting them to the screen shows in the finished product. It’s a mesmeric story and the incidents along the way could each be made into a film in and of themselves.
Next time you’re at the multiplex wondering why you blew a tenner or more to spend two hours watching a 3D CGI toy-advert, or why Adam Sandler is allowed, just ponder that within my lifetime it was possible for someone with a story to tell and a few friends who wanted it told could get something like Harold and Maude or Five Easy Pieces made and that audiences were hungry for them. Then consider how unlikely it would be now for an actor such as Elliott Gould to be a major draw, to the extent that the Robert Altman The Long Goodbye could be greenlit by Universal just on his box-office appeal. If, as I fervently hope, the advent of digital cameras and home editing means that we are about to get back to a situation like Hollywood circa 1971 then let’s hope the lessons from this book are noted. Afterwards, for a sidelight on the same subject from one of the key players, we also have in stock The Kid Stays In The Picture, Robert Evans’ self-mythologising memoir (which had to be toned down to make a believable movie).
I’ll be honest, I prefer his early, funny ones (funny peculiar) to the outwardly sensible middle-aged Radio 4-listener-orientated works that have made him finally rich and popular. He took more risks. He wrote about people I’d want to know. Deep down, he’s still not quite as blandly well-behaved as he makes out, still closer to Jenny Diski than Joanna Trollope but it takes more digging to find it.
This one is primarily set all on one day in June but skipping around in the pasts of the two main characters (yes, I know, Joyce and Virginia Woolf did that too). Both of them now have responsibilities, caring for ailing relatives. They had a relationship at Oxford in the 80s and, after a chance reunion, might try to rekindle it but for their circumstances. He’s stuck in a loveless marriage but can’t even pay enough attention to it to end it while he’s researching the illness that’s afflicting his brother. She is just so messed up that nobody else has stuck around. You get the picture. It’s not entirely as straighforward as that, though. One element of this book that looks like it might date it is that it considers the changes in communications since they were living together, back when a note under a door might have been life-changing. Most novelists are sort of in denial about how many of their plots might not work by the time the book’s in print. This at least has people thinking about it.
Gale generally has a wise child as the moral compass of his books. This time, most of the rather reined-in humour comes from a dotty old lady who, despite her osteoporosis, insists on doing her gardening and housework naked. Professor Jellicoe is described as an ’eminent virologist’ (some of you will know why this very specific turn of phrase rang a bell for me). The juggling with time-lines is deftly done and I read this novel in a single sitting. As a toe in the water it’s a good way to see if you want to investigate his more ambitious works, although as yet the library doesn’t have the more reckless 80s novels. His more commercially successful works are well-represented in our stock, though.
Reader, if you enjoy the openings of books more than anything else in them, this might be the ideal book you’ve been searching for all these years. The first, third and subsequent odd-numbered chapters tell the story of a chap called ‘Reader’, who is addressed in the second person, trying to find how a book he enjoyed starting carries on. That first chapter describes exactly what it ought to be like browsing in a bookshop or library. Alternate chapters are the book he’s trying to read.
It’s tricksy and whimsical and the second-person address could be thought to assume a male readership (which complicates the subplot of another reader searching for the book, a lady called Ludmilla who is herself sought by Reader as the story progresses). This might be the kind of thing that usually annoys you. However, stick with it as the various permutations of the book ‘You’ and Ludmilla are trying to track down are intriguing and the weird obstacles they face are familiar to anyone who’s ever tried to find a specific book with scant information.
Calvino was part of a movement called Oulipo, whose members included Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau and whose influence can be seen, if you know what to look for, in writers as diverse as Iris Murdoch, Ian Rankin, Umberto Eco, Will Self and Iain Banks (with or without the M). Their take was that fiction is a game, and the object is to figure out the rules of any given work. For that reason, Calvino is worth reading simply because he never wrote the same book twice. This book has been cited as one of the inspirations for David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas but don’t hold that against it. Calvino is pin-sharp and imaginative, rewarding closer inspection rather than falling apart under any scrutiny.
You might think you know Christie from all the endless TV and film adaptations, especially around this time of year when we get Peter Ustinov wobbling around on cruise ships and Margaret Rutherford sword-fighting. In fact, you may have seen one or both of the TV adaptations of this one. The recent ITV one went way off the plot and brought in Nazis, which is odd in a book set in 1965.
Yes, 1965, and for once Miss Marple’s visiting London to recapture her lost youth at a hotel she enjoyed visiting in the Edwardian era. It’s not the same. In some ways the book’s about people trying to pretend nothing’s changed, with a crime-plot to motivate all the observations about this pretence. Christie denied that Jane Marple was simply her alter-ego but both of them had undergone the odd experience described in the book, notably in Chapter V, where people who don’t think they’ve aged much were confronted with an incomprehensible new generation. (Indeed, they had seen it now from both sides, from mixing with the Bright Young Things of the 20s with their Jazz, cocktails and cocaine to observing Swinging London just as pop was about to go psychedelic – in both cases the foppish men and girls in tiny dresses were scandalous.) It’s written in the dialect of the time, so the use of ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ in other, half-lost meanings is itself now as period as the BEA/ BOAC air terminal in Kensington http://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2013/06/06/forgotten-buildings-the-west-london-air-terminal/ . The street-names remain, but this London is red-shifting from us into unrecoverable history. Just as people my age and over can just about recall some of the Music Hall songs that pop up in the chapter at Scotland Yard, so one day all these 60s details will be as remote as 1909 was to Miss Marple. For author and protagonist, witnessing how people of all ages reacted to such changes was the main interest, solving the odd murder was a side-effect of paying attention to details.
Many purists think that this is a weakness, that Christie’s books don’t really stand up to scrutiny as exercises in detective fiction. That’s possibly true if the destination is more important than the journey. In fact, if you only know the character from the telly the way the book ends might surprise you, and not just the resolution of the crimes involved. Miss Marple’s meditations on people trying to act as though everything were unchanged from six decades ago leads to the revelation of the real crimes, slightly obscured by a rather melodramatic murder. The basic motive for one is simple greed, but another is driven by a social circumstance almost completely gone these days. This book is almost the last time it could be a significant plot detail in a contemporary novel.
If you want a more orthodox Marple case once this has shaken your preconceptions, we have half a dozen of them including the posthumously-published Sleeping Murder (Christie wrote in in World War II and set this and Curtain aside so that they could be published with maximum publicity and used in lieu of a lump-sum left in her will). There’s also Poirot’s most noted outing, Murder on the Orient Express. An odd thing to note is that, although you’d think libraries had every Christie ever, At Bertram’s Hotel doesn’t show up on a check of Leytonstone, or Waltham Forest or anywhere else in London.
So on the one hand this is a tale of Meyer Landesman, a jaded cop investigating a chess-prodigy’s murder and stirring up half-forgotten personal problems with his own late father, his ex-wife and his old neighbourhood. And on the other hand it’s a tale of a marginalised community facing politically-inspired dismantling and the way powerful business and religious interests are exploiting the uncertainty. Sounds like Chinatown. Sounds a bit like Chabon’s latest, Telegraph Avenue, but without the 70s Blaxploitation martial-arts stuff and with better jokes.
You can read it like that if you want. It works on that level. Just one thing, though; in the history I did at school the UN granted sovereignty to the state of Israel in what had been British-administered Palestine, in perpetuity and with quite a bit of friction over the status of the indigenous Arabs. In this version, the US created a Jewish state in Alaska in 1940 on a finite lease. (There really was a plan like this). And now, with time running out, people are looking for ways to cash in or just survive, and the police department aren’t getting much support in their final months of jurisdiction. The Native American Tlingit nation are a bit more helpful, but not everyone in this state trusts them. Other consequences of this changed chronology are best kept as surprises. Or shocks.
The full details of the state Meyer’s in (figuratively and literally, the state of Sitka) emerge slowly in a snappy prose style. There are odd detours, as in Dashiell Hammett, but the crime is solved, the reasons for it made plain and the world in which it happens allowed to unfold for us without long gobbets of exposition. Normally, I find his habitual gushy prose style a bit wearing, but he’s following the rules and writing like Chandler here and it helps. I just wish he’d finally selected a better title from the ones he tried out.
Another one-off. The nearest thing I can think of to this is a book of interlinked poems, The Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. In that, the stories on gravestones in a small Nineteenth Century New England town connect and occasionally contradict one another and you’re left with an impression of a community. This is the same, except it’s prose, everyone involved is alive at the start and they are 252 passengers and the driver of a tube train in late 90s London.
Actually, there’s another thing it reminded me of, a bit – those 80s Write Your Own Adventure books where you chose which route to take and went back and forth in the book, with your hands in this weird palsied multi-bookmark knot. Going back and forth between the passengers to establish their relationships and backstories is one way to approach this book, or you could try reading it as a very bitty novel, from cover to cover. It’s designed to work either way.
Ryman’s written many strange and marvellous novels whilst, to begin with, working as an IT consultant for the London Borough of Lewisham. This was an online project he set up between novels that caught on far quicker than he expected (remember, this was the mid-to-late 90s when suddenly everyone was getting online for the first time, so things that had been around already got new interest). It’s almost an afterthought. There are sarcastic spoof ads about how getting a book deal for this after so many struggles for his more serious work slightly rankled with him.
As a reader, tracing the links between characters is intriguing because you, in effect, read the book twice. Seeing where each one fits into the larger scheme of things makes what you already knew about them take on new significance. It’s funny, it’s addictive but there’s an occasional dash of something more, some poignancy, some anger and the giddy exhilaration of what else there is the novel can do that hasn’t really been tapped yet.
The history of English Literature, 1590-1922, told as the biography of a wannabe poet who simply doesn’t age. Everything normally stated as cause and effect in such chronologies is flung into reverse. Fashions cause the weather to change to suit them. The popular style of writing at any time makes houses alter their shape. Victorian novels are so long because the rain made the ink runnier so everyone made bigger sentences. To a modern reader it’s somewhere between 1066 And All That and Italo Calvino.
There’s a serious point underlying all this malarkey. Actually, two; one social and one personal. The social point is that all orthodox histories of Eng Lit – and her dad’s Dictionary of National Biography – made out that writing was Man’s Work, except when it was frivolous faff such as Gothic Horror or love stories. Basically, when there was any kudos attached or money to be made, most women were shoved aside (hence Woolf’s famous line about ‘Anon’ being more than likely female) or made to seem like freakish exceptions. When writing was a sideline, then women were ‘permitted’ to become famous ‘authoresses’. This is as back-to-front as anything in Orlando. The personal point is that her, um, friend Vita Sackville-West (how far they took it is still being debated) didn’t inherit the Knowle estate. The house that Orlando builds is, at the end, described as having 365 rooms. As with Howard’s End the ownership of the house equates to the rights to history and culture.
We could go on for pages about what’s behind this book’s basic joke but the main thing to say is that the description of the journey from Sonnets to Modernism is entertainingly done and avoids any idea that it’s a series of improvements, that everything was leading up to what we had when the book came out. That annoying idea of literature as ‘progress’ from something fusty and irrelevant to something nearly perfect is one you get even now when anyone does documentaries on the subject, so this book’s still got a purpose beyond just amusing anyone who’s ever given up on a Dickens.
If you’ve ever been afraid of Virginia Woolf, start here and then see how much of the deadpan playfulness is in her more apparently solemn work. The ‘straight’ novel she wrote at roughly the same time, Mrs Dalloway, is also on our shelves. They’ve both been made into misguided films (Sally Potter’s Orlando was at least in the spirit of the original and fun on its own terms, but both the official Dalloway film and The Hours were accidentally hilarious). If you’re feeling braver, there’s The Years, outwardly more orthodox but a bit slipperier.
As you’ll see on our copy’s file-card, we’ve variously tried filing this as a novel, a classic, a memoir, a travel book and history. We didn’t think it belonged in philosophy, but it might as well go there as any of the others. These days there’s a movement called ‘psychogeography’ and that’s probably as good a classification as any if we had enough other books even remotely like this to make a section (anyone wishing to donate any Iain Sinclair is welcome to as soon as they like). It has a sort of bleakness that is reassuring. In a period of enforced jollity and compulsory good cheer you might find this refreshing.
In essence, this is a book about the fens. If it had been a proper novel it would be a bit like Waterland by Graham Swift. A little bit. The narrator, who’s sometimes the author, ambles around making connections between things, defying mortality through close scrutiny of the world, much as the Epicurian philosophers of the Second and Seventeenth Centuries did. He avoids being too specific about who’s saying what to whom, which takes a bit of getting used to. So does his unparagraphed writing, broken up only by photos and chapters. He’s also discussing exile. Sebald, despite lecturing in almost accentless English and being perfectly capable of writing in it, wrote the book in German and had it translated. That slight sense of removal makes the attempt to integrate so many different aspects of the subject impressive rather than annoying. The book is asking questions and forming hypotheses, not delivering Great Truths. His generation of West Germans grew up in the remnants of someone else’s Great Truths and look for epiphanies in small details.
It might be handy to have your computer or smart-phone on standby when you read some of it. I was pretty much up to speed on the stuff about mulberries, Baldanders, Swinburne and Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius and the references back to another investigator of East Anglian antiquity, Thomas Browne, is sort of my home territory (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydriotaphia,_Urn_Burial, that should get you started). However, I’m rusty on even translated German poets (except the Rilke that people my age all tried to sound like we knew in the 80s) so Michael Hamberger’s translations of Holderlin were the sort of thing I noted down to look up later and never quite did. (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/nov/20/featuresreviews.guardianreview12). Because Sebald frequently cites Jorge Luis Borges, librarian and sly fantasist, I keep having to check how much of his erudition is an elaborate leg-pull couched inside real-but-implausible details. As far as I can tell it’s all factually accurate, if not true.
That makes it sound a bit daunting. It is. This book’s rewards have to be earned. (There’s a film about Sebald’s peregrinations called Patience. It’s by someone who made films about Joy Division and Radiohead, but don’t let that put you off https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcBvnzr1v5k). The best thing to do is what my students did when I was on a pet subject; nod, make a few notes for later and then just hang on and wait. After two hundred-odd pages of exploring branch-lines of scholarship and memory, human brutality and dead writers, it all starts coming together. Not in a plot-driven way but as a view of the world, a contemplative compassion.
(But, I implore you, when reading this counter-history of East Anglia and one man’s reconsideration of his own life and the legacy of Facism, try not to think of this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQB6JFhPpeA …)
Poet, painter, illustrator and gadfly, Peake was rarely able to work on any one thing for very long. That there are now four books in what used to be the Gormenghast Trilogy isn’t really surprising when you remember that the third ‘novel’ was, like the new one, pasted together after his death from fragments that seemed to be flying off in all directions. The real surprise is that the first two parts work as books at all.
It’s also worth asking how far he wrote the books in order to have a subject worthy of his style of illustration after he’d done Alice and Treasure Island. The whole book seems to be drawn in charcoal. It’s taken Dickens at his most over-wrought and metaphor-choked and used that as a starting-place, making the sounds of the words as important as the images they convey. (I always think George Orwell’s sniffy description of Dickens as magnificent gargoyles on rotten architecture was taken by Peake as a challenge, to write about a crumbling place from the point of view of the grotesques who clung to it). Peake was raised in pre-war China and this sense of enclosed cities run on obscure rituals and unimagineably ancient customs seeps from the text. Titus, the 77th Earl of Groan, doesn’t do much in this book as he’s only a baby, but around his birth revolve all sorts of rites and ceremonies that give us a way in to this apparently unchanging, gnarled, cobwebbed estate. Meanwhile, an ambitious scullery-boy, Steerpike, sets about making his way up the pecking-order with single-minded ruthlessness. With the consequences of these two events bumping into each other, we get a view of a looking-glass England entombed in this one vast mansion. Small, long-running feuds escalate and increasingly freakish details are presented for our inspection, without comment. Events cause the next events to happen but calling the sum total of these a ‘plot’ is short-changing the reader.
There was a not-too-good tv adaptation about fourteen years ago, with lots of Big Names doing children’s television acting, but the real television equivalent might be The League of Gentlemen set inside Downton Abbey. No hang on, that was Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, wasn’t it?
The library is closing for Christmas with an extended session on December 21st. We re-open on January 4th 2014, at which point I’ll be suggesting some more of our books for if you want to make a New Year’s Resolution to be even more ambitious or adventurous in your reading…
A big thank you to Tat Wood, a volunteer at the library, for the information provided.