My Literary Hero

Paul Auster

I finished reading his latest book Invisible a week or so ago. It is a great novel and displays many of his favourite tricks and his characteristic verve in the writing. I also re-read his first novel The New York Trilogy – a linked set of metafiction detective novellas, which I found as dazzling now as when I first read it about twenty years ago. I’ve been musing about what to say about these books for a while, but I am finding it very difficult indeed to describe their brilliance adequately and to give synopses without spoilers, so I am going to be deliberately vague about plot and concentrate on other aspects.

Invisible is one of his multi-layered better novels – I loved it. The key character is a young man, Adam, who has a defining moment in his life as a student which has huge consequences, and he looks back on what happened that spring in his memoirs. Written in four parts, we start off in the first person with Adam himself telling his story, then move onto a more impersonal second person narrative. The story is then taken over in the third person by a friend from Adam’s student days, and in the final part Adam is not physically present, but the consequences of what happened back then still resonate.

One of Auster’s favourite devices is to embed a book within a book and to use an author as a central character as he does here. There is always a strong psychological element to his books and in this novel, truth and memory are intertwined in the memoir together with some shocking events and tender moments – but which are real and which imagined? (Book supplied courtesy of Faber, 9/10).

Now to The New York Trilogy. Originally published separately in the mid-1980s, the three novellas that make up Auster’s first fiction: City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room, take the traditional gumshoe detective from the golden age of noir and make that rôle into something new. New York itself also has a starring part – all Edward Hopper-ish, dark shadows yet with bright lights, a place full of strangers and lonely people.

In the first installment, a detective writer gets a phone call asking for a detective – in the spur of the moment, he decides to take the job, and all too soon becomes obsessed by it.

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not…

In Ghosts, a detective is hired to carry out surveillance on another man, and all the characters are named after colours (did Tarantino get the idea for Resevoir Dogs from this I wonder?). In the third, a writer disappears, and his wife contacts one of his friends who always wanted to be a writer but ended up a critic, and asks him to help publish her husband’s works.

There are many similarities across the three novellas. Questions of identity, the writer’s life – writer’s block and overcoming it and getting published, the dangers of obsession, are all given a psychological twist so that you can never work out quite where it’s going – there’s a strong element of ‘who watches the watchers’, and Auster even puts himself into the first novella. I had the added bonus of having treated myself to the new Folio Society edition with wonderfully evocative illustrations by Tom Burns which enhanced my re-read immensely (10/10).

I read a collection of Auster’s ‘true stories’ published in The Red Notebook alongside the NYT in which a red notebook is a recurring motif. These little essays are a mixture of stories about writing and Auster himself, and also things that have happened to his friends. In particular they are full of mostly happy coincidences and lucky events – coincidence is another of Auster’s fascinations – although those coincidences in his books are often twisted by the choice of path taken and its consequences. However, getting to the point, one of the tales told how Auster got a phonecall at home from someone asking for a detective – he says he wondered what would have happened should he have said yes – and bingo – there was the inspiration for City of Light.

I have enjoyed everything of Auster’s that I’ve read so far – I still have a few to go, but Invisible or The New York Trilogy would be great places to start. I also found that upon re-reading the NYT I got whole new levels of understanding and enjoyment out of it, and it is one of my desert island books (see the tab above).

Three middle-class brothers – three family mid-life crises

The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk

A year in the life of the Bradshaws – three brothers, their ageing parents and their families. Firstly, there’s middle brother Thomas who has taken a year’s sabbatical to learn the piano, his wife Tonie who has been promoted and back at work full-time, and daughter Alexa. Older brother Howard is successful and impulsive, wife Claudia likes to be busy which keeps her in excuses for not going into her studio cum shed to paint. Then there’s Leo, the youngest who’s rather insecure, and his heavy-drinking wife Susie. Behind them are their parents who constantly bicker.

This is a stylised novel in which to quote Tolstoy, “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It is predominantly told from Thomas’ point of view, house-husband and musician-manqué, and the author uses many musical metaphors to describe his part. Tonie, his wife however is so aloof, she’s almost not there, until crisis comes. The episode near the end involving Howard’s family and their unloved dog Skittle was hilariously awful and in its drama, does much to leaven the intensity of this chronicle of middle-class family life which can be very close to the bone.

I felt the book was trying too hard to be clever, and ended up rather suffering in its detachment – funnily I remember feeling similarly about The Travelling Horn Player by Barbara Trapido when I read that a few years ago, (it also has a musical theme running through it), although it had a more interesting cast of characters.

(Book supplied by Librarything Early Reviewers programme, 6.5/10)

Medical Myths debunked

Don’t Swallow Your Gum: and Other Medical Myths Debunked by Dr Aaron Carroll and Dr Rachel Vreeman

This short book looks into about seventy-five medical myths and old wives tales, examines the evidence, and debunks them.

Many will have read Ben Goldacre’s bestselling book Bad Science – (If you haven’t read it, do! My review is here) in which the author did some serious scientific debunking. I would guess that Bad Science is preaching mostly to the converted, non-believers wouldn’t necessarily choose to read a book like that. However this book, although also in the debunking business, is light and funny but also full of useful information with wide appeal.

It’s split into six sections – Myths about: your body, illnesses and injuries, sex and pregnancy, babies and children, what we eat and lastly myths that spark controversy and debate. It starts off with a funny – The Myth that men with big feet have bigger penises, but soon you’re learning that you don’t need to poo every day; if you’re thirsty you’re probably not dehydrated, you’re just thirsty under normal circumstances; that it’s never safe to eat food that’s been dropped on the floor even if it was for just a couple of seconds, and many, many more. Most of the chapters are only a couple of pages, so it was an ideal book to dip into over a few lunchtimes (it would also make a good toilet book for those that use them!). An entertaining popular science read. (6.5/10)

An Evening with Susan Hill

There was great anticipation in the air in Abingdon tonight for another Mostly Books event featuring popular author Susan Hill. The small hall was packed to hear her talk about her latest book – Howard’s End is on the Landing which I previously reviewed here.

She proved to be a real character, and started her talk with a plea for us not to give up on books in favour of e-readers. She stressed that she’s no Luddite, and recognises that there are good uses for the devices, but begged us all to keep everyone involved in the production of books in a job and to buy real books. She then read a couple of sections from HEIOTL, one very funny about her encounters with Roald Dahl, and the other more poignant about meeting Iris Murdoch when Alzheimers was taking its toll.

She then went on to tell us with great wit about how she wonders about whether certain books like being next to each other on the shelf, how she wonders if they all talk to each other once everyone has gone to bed. She encouraged us to rediscover our bookshelves, to handle our books, and that way find the book that wants to be read. Books have characters; she said “If you pick up a book like ‘A Passage to India’, you don’t have to read it to feel India in the room.” Her daughter Jessica Ruston was also there and talked for a few minutes about sharing a house with a popular author, a Shakespeare scholar and thousands of books. Jessica’s first novel Luxury is just out and looks very different to those of her Mum’s!

One of the questions that had to be asked related to ‘The Final Forty’ – the list at the end of HEIOTL of the forty books she can’t live without. Due to an error, one book had been listed twice – so we had to know what the fortieth book should have been – Crime & Punishment was the answer. At the end she signed books for everyone, but wasn’t terribly talkative – maybe that lovely old house full of books was calling her home.

P.S. It was also lovely to see fellow bloggers in the audience – Simon from Stuck in a Book and also, especially, Margaret from BooksPlease again as she will be moving up north very soon.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY DAD!

My Dad, Ray, was born eighty years ago today in 1929, the year of the Wall Street Crash, and on the day of the Grand Banks Earthquake off Newfoundland. He shares his birthday with Alex Issigonis (1906) – designer of the Mini, astronaut Alan Shepard (1923), Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood (1939), Brit actor David Hemmings (1941) and pop-singer turned gardener Kim Wilde (1960) to name but a few.

Although born in Portsmouth, he’s a long-term Crystal Palace supporter and a big tennis fan; he’s still a season ticket holder and is inordinately proud of the fact that he still plays tennis weekly – his foursome has a combined age of nearly 300 years!

The pic above left shows the bouncing baby, then on the right that’s me with him in about 1962. Below left is from the early 1970s in the gardens at Fontainebleau, and below right from a few years ago – but he’s hardly changed from then. I don’t have that many pictures of him as he has normally been behind the camera – but I have enough!

HAPPY
80th
BIRTHDAY
DAD!

A magical read for older children

Shadowmagic by John Lenahan

When Scott offered giveaway copies of Shadowmagic by John Lenahan I was quick to comment as I thought this older children’s fantasy could be really fun; and that my daughter might enjoy it. I was particularly thrilled when a signed copy arrived – Thank you Scott & John.

Lenahan is an American magician living in England. He got thrown out of the Magic Circle for revealing a trick, and has provided the voice of the toaster on Red Dwarf, which are rather cool achievements! He’s also funny – see the clips on Scott’s link above.

This fast-paced novel combines classic plot elements of the magical quest and fish out of water. Teenager Conor finds himself transported from his normal life into a magical world where he is a Prince and nearly everyone wants to kill him. This land is peopled by all the types of faery folk you can imagine, each with its own territory. Magic is controlled by gold – and he who owns all the gold will control all the magic – such is the plan of Conor’s evil uncle who would destroy the Land. So we add the race against time and speed through the land to find the way to stop him.

Based upon Celtic and Irish myths of Tir Na Nog, the Land of Youth, for an adult read, there was nowhere near enough background as we sped our way through the magical land. Conor and his companions meet a wide range of faery folk and again it is difficult to get a feel for their characteristics, as character is sacrificed for the speed of the plot, and our hero seems rather good at getting out of all the situations easily. I’d have liked to know a bit more about the roots of the magic with gold, and it’s opposite Shadowmagic. Conor’s jokey contemporary humour which always falls flat in the magical world is meant to keep us and him grounded with an attachment back to the real world, but rather irritated me.

However it wasn’t written for adults! I imagine that ten+ year old boys will get a lot out of this fast-moving tale; in particular they’ll identify with Conor, and thus have great fun with it – and I know one who should love it.

Round-up – Fireworks & Blog Stats

It was the fireworks evening at my daughter’s school last night. Yes, I know it’s not the usual timing, but by having our display a week later we are able to get one of the best firework companies in the country to do our little event. Kimbolton Fireworks are the biz – they’re doing the New Year fireworks at Edinburgh this year. That said, our private event was just about sold out, but we were really worried about the weather. Despite gales and rain on Friday into Saturday, we put our faith in the Met Office and it had all gone by teatime, and we were left with a clear but cool evening – perfect! The display itself was great – including some amazing ones call screaming banshees which make a really screechy noise as they whizz overhead.

As I was the event organiser, I haven’t been reading much this week, I’ve mostly been fretting about the weather! But I was looking at my blog stats the other day, and it was amusing to see what people were searching for when they arrived here…

  • scottish accent oafay – this obviously landed the querier on my Lit quiz report where I apologised for my awful pronounciation of the first line of Trainspotting.
  • Strict boarding schools, Peter and the headmistress – Not sure which page this would actually have landed them on as I put it into Google and my blog didn’t come up on the first few pages …
  • Even stranger still is “Jeanette Winterson + Hylda Baker! but I have mentioned them both in posts – reviewing the former’s Tanglewreck earlier in the year, and mentioning the latter here; Those hits combined made me top of the chart on Google.
  • But funniest of all – the searcher of this phrase “what is maschiostic?” which is a typo (obviously!), ended up in a post of mine entitled I’m a convert! I think they would have been really disappointed – as it was a post about my finally reading a Thomas Hardy book, in this case Tess.

Also at the moment I’m trying to decide what to get my secret santee in the Book Bloggers Holiday Swap… a difficult decision, but a fun one. Hopefully, back to some proper book posts next week. Cheerio for now.

Two short novels – Two complex stories

This week I passed the 100 books read this year landmark, and numbers 99 and 101 were both cracking short novels…

The Beacon by Susan Hill is a claustrophobic and suspenseful family drama which leaves you wondering what you believed in the tale. It tells of four siblings, Colin, May, Frank and Berenice who were born and bred at ‘The Beacon’, the house on the hill. Colin and Berenice marry but stay locally; May tries being a student in the city but is drawn back to her home and stays to look after their ageing parents; but Frank – well he escapes. Life continues, father John dies and their mother Bertha grows more and more dependent on May. Then something happens which shocks the three siblings to their core – leaving them reeling in horror that Frank has written a memoir about his family and everyone else believes it to be the truth. (All this you can find out from the blurb by the way.)

The writing is economical, and the structure of the story, starting at Bertha’s death with frequent flashbacks, is such that you know something happened, but it builds up over half the book’s length before you find out for sure what it was. Many other events then fall into place – but not all, for Hill is an author renowned for her playfulness with her readers. There is a degree of ambiguity that leaves you asking more questions than are answered, there are no easy happy endings for this family.

This second dose of Susan Hill coming after this one has left me looking forward to seeing her even more at an author event in Abingdon next week.

* * * * *

Now we turn to Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill by Dimitri Verhulst, trans David Colmer.

Madame Verona lives at the top of a hill on the outskirts of an isolated village. A musician, she has lived alone since the death of her composer husband, with just stray dogs for company. While she has a stock of wood to burn she feels no need to rejoin the small but dwindling community in the village while she waits for the luthier to make her a cello – it will take twenty years for the wood to season. The men of the village rather wish she’d chosen a different course, for there are few women in these parts. Eventually the cello is finished, she plays it for her dead husband, and then, when the last log is gone, she comes down the hill knowing she’ll never climb back up.

This little novel is a real gem, written by a Belgian and superbly translated. In between the melancholy tale of Madame Verona’s life are rich and humorous episodes of village life. A village where prowess in Table Football is taken really seriously, and where a cow can be elected Mayor. It is a story crying out to be made into an arty film – a great little love story with a superb backdrop – I loved it. (Book supplied by the Amazon Vine programme; 9/10)

How can you cheat death when you’re only 14 …

The Death Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean

One of my friend Julia’s recommendations, this is yet another wonderful crossover book by children’s author Geraldine McCaughrean. Surely it must be her turn as Children’s Laureate soon …

Imagine your aunt had prophesied that you would die at the age of fourteen, and worse still that everyone believed her. That’s what happened to Pepper Roux, which led to him having a very strange childhood – growing up with his religious nut of an Aunt, his absentee drunken sailor of a Dad, and a mother, who knowing he’d be dead soon, didn’t bother much with him. So, when Pepper reaches fourteen, he resolves that if he is to die it will not be a wasted death, and he runs away to sea.

This is the first adventure of many amongst the low-lifes of Marseilles and the Camargue for the youngster on the run. Unfortunately death seems to follow him around, and each time he believes it should have been him. A helpful lad, he tries to do good turns along the way, but they often backfire on him too. All this means that the gendarmes are on his trail.

McCaughrean has conjured up a wonderful French setting with a magnificent cast of sailors, horse-thieves, and gangsters who all try to take advantage of the young man. Pepper however is growing up fast and living life to the full – each day still believing that it could be his last. Along the way he learns about truth, lies and their consequences which, although primarily written for young adults, makes this book a really satisfying adult read. No explanation of the occasional French words is given – that would slow up the narrative which maintains a speedy pace throughout. Pepper’s adventures make delightfully witty and page-turning read, but you will think about the story for ages afterwards.

(Book supplied by the Amazon Vine programme; 9/10)

…and the Winner is …

Thank you to everyone who entered my Paul Auster giveaway. I will be searching out everyone’s nominations for their literary heroes – there were several names I don’t know at all – and if they’re good enough to be someone’s hero, they deserve to be investigated – Thank you.

My daughter has just picked a name from the hat for me, and the winner is: ANNA. If you could email me with your address I’ll get the book out to you asap.
Anna suggested the poet Cornish Charles Causley as her lit hero. A quick search for a quote gave me this from his first collection published in 1951 which is rather apt for today…


Song of the Dying Gunner A.A.1.

Farewell, Aggie Weston, the Barracks, at Guz,
Hang my tiddley suit on the door
I’m sewn up neat in a canvas sheet
And I shan’t be home no more.

Photo from flowersop.com