Moranthology, by Caitlin Moran

Sunday, 26 January 2014

It’s taken me a while to pin this one down: why did I enjoy Moranthology, a set of essays by Caitlin Moran?
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Was it the fangirly glee about Sherlock, the righteous ire about politics, or the alarmingly plausible late night conversations with her husband. In the end, the best way to illuminate why this book is worth reading is that Caitlin Moran loves libraries.

On a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen instead. A human with a brain and a heart and a desire to be uplifted, rather than a customer with a credit card and an inchoate ‘need’ for ‘stuff’.

The whole essay resonates so strongly. The idea that, as a teenager, you might come to believe you’ve read every book on the shelves of your local library. That you can order up some dream of a book through inter-library loan. For free. Well, for a minor fee for the inter library loan but still…

Unlike Caitlin, on her Midlands estate, I grew up surrounded by books. I tried to mentally count the number of bookcases we had at home the other day, and failed because I’d keep remembering another one. But once a week, I’d head down to my local library and max out my card with books. Ones I wanted to read again, ones I wanted to take a risk on, ones we didn’t have in the house and I couldn’t afford to buy. You can imagine my delight at discovering my card actually let me take out eight books at once rather than the four I thought I was allowed.

As an art student in a freezing bedsit, the heaters you could sit on in Exeter Central Library were an added bonus, as were their huge collection of vinyl and plays and screenplays and heavy books on modernist art…

There are essays in this collection I disagree with, or that made me snort with laughter, or whatever. But I’d recommend reading it for the essay on libraries alone.

You can always borrow it from one…

Crime Spree

Sunday, 6 November 2005

My attempt to start digging into the to.be.read mountain continues, although I did get three books from a charity shop the other day and have read 1.5 of them, thus not making a proper dent in the mountain. Winter has arrived, with the wind hugging the chinmeys and the rain splattering the glass and the cat suddenly deciding that actually, it will sleep on the bed after all due to the feline principle of stealing human’s heat. And when winter suddenly drops in, I get an urge to read crime fiction.

The Fashion in Shrouds
by Margery Allingham
(1938)
fiction | UK crime | C20th | Campion series
I’ve previously mentioned that I have read all the Campion series, so this was technically a reread. It’s the one in which Albert’s sister, a fashion designer, is suspected of attempting to murder her rival (an actress) for the love of a airplane designer. The rival’s husband dies. Then the model he had taken up with, who looks like the actress, is murdered. And the actress’s previous lover shot himself three years before. The press, naturally, are having a field day. Like a lot of jazz era novels involving celebrity, it doesn’t require much to translate it into Heat-era speak: at one point a dress design by Val is replicated by a cheaper house, recalling Burberry‘s current embarassment over market-stall copies of their check.

Except this is also so of its era that it passes beyond pastishe. Not just the automatic exocticism of air travel – something long lost in the easyjet era – or the colonial elements (the husband was the governor of a Ivory Coast British colony snadwiched between the Belgiums and Germans). Not even the fact that women wearing trousers is terribly shocking. No, it’s the language and mindset which seems shocking. The casual use of ‘nigger’ pulls you up before you even get to Albert’s awful line to his sister: “What you need is a good cry or a nice rape, or both.” Campion has been sepia’d by the television adaptations with Peter Davison as the detective, so it seems even worse that a detective thought of as pleasant, diffedent and shy would casually say these things. I’ve no idea if the book has been allowed to fall out of print (this was a green Penguin editon I found to add to the collection) or if it has been bowdlerised as Christie’s Ten Little Niggers (1939) became Ten Little Indians became And Then There Were None. Perhaps surprisingly, given the ageless elements, or unsurprisingly, given the dubious language it was not amongst the Campion stories filmed back in the late 80s. But neither was my favourite, Traitor’s Purse.

The Silver Pigs
by Lindsey Davis
(1989)
fiction | UK crime | C20th | Falco series
Like many crime readers, I devour entire series about a particular detective. Discounting the Famous Five, I think the first series I read through was Lord Peter Wimsey, then Campion, then Roderick Allyn, then Cadfael and so on. I was late to Christie which may explain my dislike of Poirot. I keep meaning to read the Morse books, and I like several more contemporary series, like Christopher Brookmyre, but I wanted new historical crime so I asked for recommendations. One person whose name came up was Lindsey Davis so I picked up The Silver Pigs whilst in Waterstones (at the same time as The Palace Tiger). What struck me almost immediately – whilst reading the list of characters – was the humour of it.

Titus Caesar:
Aged 30. Vespasian’s elder son; popular and brilliant.
Domitian Caesar:
Aged 20. Vespasian’s younger son; not so brilliant, and not so popular.

A gardener’s horse:
(disposition unknown)

Also, there are maps. I like extras with my crime. The novel itself is an entertaining mixture: Falco would like to see himself as an ancient Rome version of Philip Marlowe, but he’s hampered by his large family, his mother and the fact he is too kind-hearted. Like Cadfael, he’s a former soldier but unlike Cadfael, who went to the Meditterainean on the First Crusade before returning to Shrewsbury, Falco was sent from Rome to Britainnia during the Bodicea uprising and is, unsurprisingly, very unhappy to be sent back there. Davis’s Rome has both the marble beauty of the Senate and the piss-tubs of the launderies in the backstreets. (As a sidenote, anyone who found the HBO Rome series to be less enjoyable than they hoped should try these books.) Her Britain is damp, cold and corrupt. Unlike now, obviously. Part of the British section is set in Isca Dumnoniorum or, as it is known today, Exeter, which was one reason I followed the recommendation to try the book. There was a bit in which a bunch of drunk soliders were described as at a crossroads in the city: that was also true in the Civil War era, and right up until 3am last night.

The central mystery is laid out in such a way that the reader suspects as Falco does, so that you neither feel superior due to working it out far in advance of the detective, nor cheated because information enabling you to solve the murders is withheld. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that, when I saw Scandal Takes a Holiday in a charity shop last week, I grabbed it and am currently halfway through.

Love and Time Travel

Thursday, 20 October 2005

After a recent long look at the dreaded to.be.read pile, I mentally instructed myself to not bring any more books into the house (discounting research books because, yes, I am starting to work again after the fallow summer). I even mentioned it in Annie’s ’7 things’ meme and since I have made some headway with one thing listed there, I decided to be strict.

At which point someone lent me The Lady and the Unicorn and The Virgin Blue by Tracey Chevalier. This was my own fault for telling anyone who cared how much I enjoyed Girl With a Pearl Earring (see several previous posts). On the plus side, I did also get two books off the mountain and read them as well: Longtitude by Dava Sorbel and The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. The former was found in a charity shop but had been on my ‘ought to read one day’ list whilst the latter was in a 3 for 2 with Going Postal and The Lambs of London. Running through the books are themes of craftsmanship and/or time, so it seems like my recent reading has at least been compiling ideas. So…the books…

The Lady and the Unicorn
by Tracey Chevalier
fiction | C20th | historical
Multiple narrators in two worlds which run in parallel. Some characters cross from one to another, most notably the painter Nicolas des Innocents, but also the middleman Léon Le Vieux. The interweaving of the narrators and perspectives clearly mimicking the tapestries about which the novel revolves. Unfortunately, for me the voices of the different narrators were not distinct enough. Whilst the language they used varied according to their social position, gender etc, the tone seemed more constant throughout. Did it create a field of colour containing characters restricted by circumstances? Yes, but it didn’t engage me with them.

Longtitude
by Dava Sorbel
non-fiction | C20th | historical
In contrast, the recounting of a family’s attempt to master longtitude in bitter competition to the Royal Astronomer and others, captures the emotions. It’s the classic underdog story, obviously, which automatically puts the reader on the side of the Harrisons, but Sorbel explains the logistics and mechanics of creating time so simply that you marvel at the story. The way in which time became delineated and contains is something which fascinates me: I love the way in which time in Britain was unified by the railways and that, until then, everyone ran on their own time according to their longtitude.

The Time Traveller’s Wife
by Audrey Niffenegger
fiction | C21st
This is one of those books that everyone appears to be reading, so I read it. The plot is very neatly fractured and then reconstructed. The whole grandfather paradox element is given very short shrift: the protagonist tells his wife that he has tried and concluded that the multiverse theory of time travel doesn’t work. All of which is fine and it is enjoyable to see a SF conceit being used well in contemporary fiction: quite why people treat SF as contemptible whilst reading and watching a lot of popular fiction (written, televisual and cinematic) based on SF premises is beyond me. However, the main problem I had with The Time Traveller’s Wife is that I am not fond on contemporary American fiction. The clipped straightforward sentences with their lack of rhythm do not engage me with the story. The denoument of the novel should contain pathos, a sadness about the inevitability of the protagonists to change events, which should make me care. For me, it didn’t. Technically, this is a good book but that excellence is in the narrative and the structure, not the prose itself.

The Rotter’s Club

Monday, 8 August 2005

The Rotter’s Club
Jonathan Coe

I’m never really sure how to tag a book like this. Coe uses a framing device of the story being told not by two of the protagonists reminising over shared experiences but two of their descendents, trying to imagine life in the world before they were born: the modern nostalgia not for real memories but for the idea of them. Yet the book is truly nostalgic in recalling not the rosy idealised past but the real brown and orange, mushrooms-as-exotic, 1970s. Despite the framing device, the narrative is left open but with the promise of a follow-up, The Closed Circle. I was assuming this was a little pomo joke – a promise of closure for those who require it – until I checked and it turns out the book does exist. I find that vaguely disappointing.

The Vampire Blood Trilogy!!!!

Saturday, 6 August 2005

The Vampire Blood Trilogy
Darren Shan
catagory: kid.lit

I’ve been reading some recommended teen fiction this year. This is partially because I don’t want my knowledge to become outmoded. It’s easy for me to point out that Ursula Le Guin did a boy heading off to wizard school to face a shadowy evil back in the 70s with the seminal A Wizard of Earthsea with a startlingly sparse style which leaves me in awe of it. It’s probably also not surprising that I grew up avidly reading Susan Cooper and Alan Garner with their heady worlds of raillings that becomes a spear, willow green witches sacrificed to the sea, patterns repeating through time and lost Welsh lands. I’m not bad on earlier stuff like E.S. Nesbit either. But, aside from a glance through the first Potter and the obligatory reading of His Dark Materials, I’m not sure what the books are now. The books which kids want to read rather than the ones they ought to read.

I started with Witchchild a few months back, which I found a very effective and engaging historical built around a voyage to the New World and religious fervour/persecution. It comes with a handy framing device and a refusal to provide a final answer to what becomes of the narrator. This is very much a book which would have appealed to me as a teenager, and I can see how it carefully sets up the historical setting to mimic twentieth century social interaction. The way the daughters of the leaders form a clique which excludes the narrator is clearly meant to resonate. One thing I’ve often noticed with teen fiction is that the main character will be a bookish girl i.e. one who appeals to, er, bookish girls. I’m not sure how I feel about that: at its worse it’s simple manipulation to make the reader continue but then you couldn’t have made me part with DragonsongDragonsinger back when I was a teenager.

The Vampire Blood Trilogy is a collection of the sort of books I hated in school. Not like Persuasion (which an English teacher unwisely suggested to my 14 year old self to stop me reading SF) but like anything by Stephen King or James Herbert. Fat books with black covers and dire promises of gore on the back. Again, not like the post-apocalpyse horror I liked such as Z for Zachariah, but junk like The Fog. In short, boys’ fiction. Once I got past the deeply irritating use of exclamation marks in every paragraph I found these quite fun! I’d told boys love exclamation marks! There’s good set up and follow through of events but the style means I’m unlikely to get the next three in the set.

Wide Sargasso Sea

Sunday, 24 July 2005

Wide Sargasso Sea
Jean Rhys

Continuing in my quest for fiction which emerges from other fiction, I finally filled a gap in my knowledge and read Wide Sargasso Sea the other week.

This is the story of Antionette, a Creole girl who finds herself marrying a man newly arrived from England in the 1830s. Her background, rejected by an insane mother, and his fear of her culture turns the relationship sour and causes her to go mad. Eventually, he takes her back to his home in England and locks her in the attic. The man is never named, but it is obvious who it is: Mr Rochester, the hero of Jane Eyre.

Rhys admitted when working on the novel that she had become fascinated by ‘Bertha’ from Jane Eyre and wanted to tell the other side of the story. Rhys came from a Jamacian background but had settled in London: in short, she wanted to see what had sent ‘Bertha’ mad. What, then, makes a novel such as this – or such as Pemberley - acceptable yet fanfic unacceptable to so many? Rhys’s motivation was to fill in a story from her own perspective, to expand a character who was just a cipher in the original work. And she didn’t have permission to use all these Bronte characters. Yet, as if the act of publication is alchemical, this is considered real fiction and not fan fiction. Strange.

What of the novel? I can see why someone was surprised I’d not read it. It plays with different points of view, it gives us conflicting narrators and cultures, with the voices of Antoinette and [Rochester] clearly expressed. Those are things which always tick my boxes – or push my buttons. It is rather sexy – the seductions of [Rochester] hum with night heat – and rather disturbing – the fractured voice in the final third is so far removed from the girl at the start. It also toys with imagery from Jane Eyre – storms and trees being split apart – which add to the knowingness: there can be no happy resolution to this gothic romance because as readers we already know the happy ending will go to Jane instead.

One difficulty I have in trying to describe the novel is resisting the urge to call it “the story of the first Mrs Rochester”. Why resist? It’s a neat phrase which immediately gives an idea of the story etc. Yet the novel is about reclaiming “the first Mrs Rochester” as a person in her own right, and about how Rochester forces her to sublimate her own identity under that of his idea of what a wife should be. It therefore seems to go against the theme of the novel to describe it with the neat phrase.

Fianlly, I always enjoy a novel which causes Orson Welles‘ voice to purr in my head.


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