Wednesday, 4 March 2015

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide

I'm over at the foxes again... talking about The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, an impulse buy when I went to Foyle's recently. Read all about it!

Monday, 2 March 2015

London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes

I was recently contacted by Tombola about an initiative they've got going with Loose Women (which they sponsor) where they're asking various bloggers which book they're most looking forward to in 2015 - and they're bringing them together in a feature (which I'll link to when it's live).

Unsurprisingly, my first question was "do reprints count?" Because that's where my heart lies, as you know. When they assured me it did, I picked London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes - which is being republished by Persephone Books in April, I believe. Here is (a very slightly adapted version of) what I wrote about it a while ago...

There are plenty of books about World War Two.  There are even plenty of diaries, and some - like Nella Last's or Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg's - are exceptionally good.  But these sorts of diaries are, inevitably, extremely personal.  There is plenty of detail about the war, but primarily they record one person's response to the war - and any private emotions they are experiencing, relating to their marriage, children, or any other aspect of their lives.  Mollie Panter-Downes' objective is different - she is documenting the war experience for all of London.  (It is emphatically just London; she often refers to 'the British', but the rest of the country can more or less go hang, as far as she is concerned.)

Panter-Downes wrote these 'notes' for the New Yorker, but it is impressively difficult to tell this from the columns.  Even at the stages of the war where America was umming and aahing about fighting, she observes British feelings on the topic (essentially: "yes please, and get on with it") as though relating them to her next-door neighbour, rather than the country in question.  And, of course, Americans and Britons are two nations divided by a single language, as George Bernard Shaw (neither American nor British) once said.  This gives Mollie Panter-Downes the perfect 'voice' for a book which has stood the test of time.  Her audience will be aware of major events in the war, but the minutiae of everyday life - and London's response to the incremental developments of war - are related with the anthropologist's detail, to a sympathetic but alien readership.

And nobody could have judged the balance of these columns better than Panter-Downes.  The extraordinary writing she demonstrates in her fiction (her perfect novel One Fine Day, for instance) is equally on show here.  She offers facts and relates the comments of others, but she also calmly speaks of heroism and bravado, looks at humour and flippancy with an amused eye, and can be brought to moving heights of admiration.  The column she writes in response to D Day is astonishing, and it would do it an injustice to break it up at all - so I shall post the whole entry tomorrow.  This, to give you a taste, is how she describes the fall of France - or, rather, the reaction to this tragic news, in Britain:
June 22nd 1940: On Monday, June 17th - the tragic day on which Britain lost the ally with whom she had expected to fight to the bitter ed - London was as quiet as a village.  You could ave heard a pin drop in the curious, watchful hush.  A places where normally there is a noisy bustle of comings and goings, such as the big railway stations, there was the same extraordinary, preoccupied silence.  People stood about reading the papers; when a man finished one, he would hand it over to anybody who hadn't been lucky enough to get a copy, and walk soberly away. 
For once the cheerful cockney comeback of the average Londoner simply wasn't there.  The boy who sold you the fateful paper did it in silence; the bus conductor punched your ticket in silence.  The public seemed to react to the staggering news like people in a dream, who go through the most fantastic actions without a sound.  There was little discussion of events, because they were too bad for that.  With the house next door well ablaze and the flames coming closer, it was no time to discuss who or what was the cause and whether more valuables couldn't have been saved from the conflagration.
I've read quite a lot of books from the war, both fact and fiction, and have studied the period quite a bit, but there were still plenty of things I didn't know.  I hadn't realised, for instance, that boys were conscripted into mines at random, or that German planes dropped lots of bits of silvery paper (which children then collected) to disrupt radar equipment, or that in 1940 all foreigners in Britain - including the recently-invaded French - were banned from having cars, bicycles, or cameras.  More significantly, I had never got my head around the order in which things happened during the war.  I mean, I knew vaguely when various invasions happened, when America entered the war, when D-Day took place - but London War Notes offers a fortnight-by-fortnight outlook on the war.  We can see just which rations were in place, which fears were uppermost, and how public opinion shifted - particularly the public opinion concerning Winston Churchill.  Films made retrospectively tend to show him as much-adored war hero throughout, but London War Notes demonstrates how changeable people were regarding him and his policies - although there was a lot more approval for various politicians than is imaginable in Britain today, where they are all largely regarded as more or less scoundrels.  (Can you think of a politician with a very good general public approval? I can't.)  This is why I think the book is essential for anyone writing about life in England (or perhaps just London) during the war - Panter-Downes gives such an insight into the changing lives and conditions.  It also made me think about things from a perspective I hadn't previously.  I'd never really appreciated how devastating tiredness could be to a nation.
Sept. 29th 1940: Adjusting daily life to the disruption of nightly raids is naturally what Londoners are thinking and talking most about. For people with jobs to hold down, loss of sleep continues to be as menacing as bombs.  Those with enough money get away to the country on weekends and treat themselves to the luxury of a couple of nine-hour stretches. ("Fancy," said one of these weekenders dreamily, "going upstairs to bed instead of down.")  It is for the alleviation of the distress of the millions who can't afford to do anything but stay patiently put that the government has announced the distribution of free rubber earplugs to deaden the really appalling racket of the barrages.
One of the keynotes of London War Notes is Panter-Downes' admiration for the resilience and good-humour of the British people during war.  I'd always assumed this was something of a war film propaganda myth, but since Panter-Downes is more than happy to note when people grumble and complain, then I believe the more frequent reports of cheeriness and determination.  And, lest you think London War Notes is unremittingly bleak or wearyingly emotional, I should emphasise that Panter-Downes is often very amusing and wry.  An example, you ask?  Why, certainly:
Jan. 31st 1942: The Food Ministry has been flooded with letters, including one supposedly from a kitten, who plaintively announced that he caught mice for the government and hoped Lord Woolton would see his way clear to allowing him his little saucerful.  In the country, the milk shortage has brought about a boom in goats, which appeal to people who haven't got the space or the nerve necessary to tackle a cow but who trustingly imagine that a goat is a handy sort of animal which keeps the lawn neat and practically milks itself.
London War Notes isn't a book to speed-read, but to luxuriate in, and pace out. I can't imagine a more useful, entertaining, moving, and thorough guide to the war, beautifully finding a middle path between objectivity and subjectivity. Thank goodness it's being reprinted soon.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Back in the days when I'd only dimly heard of David Sedaris, the book I had heard of was Me Talk Pretty One Day. Based on the title alone, I was under the assumption that it was a novel about a girl with mental development problems. It was perhaps that which led to me getting an embarrassingly long way into Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim before realising that it was not a novel about a young girl. But now, on my third Sedaris book, I'm in the swing of things - he writes humorous essays about his own life.  But you probably know that already.

This collection is (I believe) his bestselling title, and it is extremely funny. The focus is not so much on his family as it was in the other two books I read, although the first few stories do take place among those many brothers and sisters. They're anecdotes, really, more than stories - about how David's father forced them all to play instruments, with the misguided idea that they would become almost instantly proficient; about his overly-invested speech therapist; about tanning competitions on the beach. His eye for an anecdote is perfect. Sedaris is endlessly dry, self-deprecating, and able to find the humour in any experience - often through the throwing in of a bizarrely specific detail or unlikely piece of dialogue. Are all his reminiscences accurate? One assumes not. They are exaggerated at the very least. But that doesn't matter a jot.

The two main sections of Me Talk Pretty One Day deal with Sedaris' student years and his experiences trying to learn French. I'm always amazed at how many things Sedaris has crammed in his life, and one of those is a period during which he thought he'd try his hand at performance art. It is all extremely amusing (as that topic is more or less set up to be), even given my discomfort at reading about drug-taking. What makes it so brilliant is the dry, eye-rolling narrative that subtly looks back on disaffected, youthful David from the vantage of disaffected, middle-aged David. And when it comes served with sentences like the following, what more could you want? He is the master of putting together a sentence that neatly wraps up the ridiculous without making a song and dance about it:
I enrolled as an art major at a college known mainly for its animal-husbandry programme.
But the most sustained theme I've seen in the three books I've read so far is, as mentioned, his attempts to learn French and live in France (thanks to the French-dwelling of his partner Hugh). It is these experiences that give the collection its title - with a sort of oh-I-see sense that eluded me with Dress Your Family in Corduory and Denim and Let's Discuss Diabetes With Owls. From his first venture to France, knowing only the French for bottleneck, to his intense lessons with an aggressive teacher, to living fairly confidently off phrases cribbed from medical audiobooks... His lessons sounded brutal, but also led to some amusing moments (of course), and this one gives a good example to Sedaris' style for those who haven't read him:
"And what does one do on the fourteenth of July? Does one celebrate Bastille Day?"

It was my second month of French class, and the teacher was leading us in an exercise designed to promote the use of one, our latest personal pronoun.

"Might one sing on Bastille Day?" she asked. "Might one dance in the streets? Somebody give me an answer."

Printed in our textbooks was a list of major holidays accompanied by a scattered arrangement of photograph depicting French people in the act of celebration. The object of the lesson was to match the holiday with the corresponding picture. It was simple enough but seemed an exercise better suited to the use of the pronoun they. I didn't know about the rest of the class, but when Bastille Day rolled around, I planned to stay home and clean my oven.
I love that sort of pay-off at the end of that; the detail that is curiously specific and off-kilter, but carefully within the world that Sedaris has created. This world isn't the real world, and isn't a fictional universe, but it's a beautiful, bizarre, grumpy, and very amusing realm that Sedaris has both created and made his own.

Oh, and I forgot to say - Liz very kindly gave me this copy; thanks so much, Liz!

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Whither silliness?

An interesting question was posed today in my online book group - in passing, actually, in a discussion of Elizabeth von Arnim - about silliness in books. It was agreed (between the two of us, at least) that silliness could be on the level of either plot or dialogue. I think there's a place for either, but definitely prefer the latter.

Let me briefly explain... Novels that have silliness on the level of plot are those like P.G. Wodehouse that have absurd event after absurd event - a sort of narrative farce - that is expertly organised but so unlikely as to be impossible. Silliness on the level of dialogue encompasses rather more - the example given was from von Arnim's In the Mountains, where a pompous guest begins a reminiscence with "Our father ..." and the narrator thinks she is about to start praying. I suppose it is moments or wordings that are unlikely to happen.

I love dialogue taken to unlikely extremes. It's why I love Ivy Compton-Burnett, and strident heroines like Lady Catherine de Burgh. I also love narratives which leap to hyperbole or litotes - which is why I adore Richmal Crompton's William books and the Provincial Lady series. Silliness perhaps isn't the word, but it isn't realism. Silliness in plot, however, I have only limited tolerance for. Wodehouse yes; almost everyone else, no.

Does this division chime with anyone? What are you thoughts? Did you think I was finally going to blog about the Mr Men? (One day...)

Sunday, 22 February 2015

The Fur Person by May Sarton

I can't remember exactly how it came about - begging, borrowing, or stealing (or, y'know, a present), but when I stayed with Thomas in Washington D.C. about 18 months ago, he gave me The Fur Person by May Sarton. That was not even amongst the nicest things he did - he's a great guy, y'all - but it was definitely very exciting to get. He has been keen for me to read May Sarton for ages, and the one I did read (As We Are Now) never made its way to Stuck-in-a-Book - so, rather than strike out two for two, I'll be talking about The Fur Person now. Full disclosure: I loved it.

How was I not going to love it, considering that it's about a cat? Well, some cat-centric books have failed with me, one way or another. I wasn't enamoured by Jennie (Paul Gallico), and - while I did adore Dewey, it was for all the wrong reasons. But The Fur Person (1978) combines a strong understanding of cats with a complete lack of sentiment - in the best possible way. So, although the novella undoubtedly includes cat-lovers, the narrative is presented from the cat's perspective (albeit in the third person, if you see what I mean). He - Tom 'Terrible' Jones, no less - is pragmatic and selfish (like all cats) but willing to exchange affection and loyalty for the correct 'housekeeper', having realised that one cannot be a footloose, fancy-free young tom forever.

The story is simple, and supposedly based on the real life adventures of Sarton's cat. He experiments with various housekeepers, before settling on the admiration and respect of Sarton and her partner. In a chilling warning to such as me, Tom is not interested in the cloyingly affectionate:
The trouble was, as he soon found out, that as soon as he came into reach, the lady could not resist hugging and kissing him with utter disregard for the dignity of his person. There are times when a Gentleman Cat likes very much to be scratched gently under his chin, and if this is done with savoir-faire he may afterwards enjoy a short siesta on a lap and some very refined stroking, but he does not like to be held upside down like a human baby and he does not like to be cooed over, and to be pressed to a bosom smelling of narcissus or rose.
Which is understandable, but there is a certain pathos in the way Sarton presents the scene. Tom is intent merely on getting out of the house - by the common feline method of standing silently by the door until obeyed - but, in the background, this would-be owner is mournful:
"You're not a nice cat at all," she said, and she began to whimper. "You don't like me," she whimpered, "do you?"
In another sort of novel, this might have been a tragic moment in her life - but, in The Fur Person, it is one of many instances that occur while Tom is finding his way to the idyll at the end of his journey.
The Fur Person bounded up the stairs, and at the very instant he entered the kitchen, the purrs began to swell inside him and he wound himself around two pairs of legs (for he must be impartial), his nose in the air, his tail straight up like a flag, on tip toes, and roaring with thanks.
It's quite a sweet ending, but it doesn't fall over the boundary into saccharine. And the reason for that, I believe, is because Sarton has observed the behaviour of cats so precisely. Everything she described rang true. Perhaps not the ten commandments for cats (individually they were accurate, but I suspect cats do not repeat these mantras by rote), but certainly the movements of tail and paws, the stretching, the staring and waiting - everything it described with such precision and accuracy that any cat-lover (particularly those of us who love cats but don't live with any) will thrill to the reading experience.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

My day started with pancakes and went on to pie (a mushroom, spinach, hazelnut and white truffle oil pie, since you ask = bliss), so it's all going pretty well. My intention to read all day isn't going great, although I am loving David Sedaris in brief snatches. And not reading the two books I told myself I'd read today. Still, it's only 5.30pm, so still plenty of reading time left today - and time to give you a few bits of miscellaneous linking.

1.) You may know that Oliver Sacks is one of my heroes, and I love his books (and his humanity). His heroism continues in this beautiful, sad, wise piece for the New York Times about learning that he has terminal cancer.

2.) In a totally different tone, you might enjoy this quiz I put together in honour of Go Set a Watchman being announced: it is titles of books which are taken from elsewhere. Half are from the Bible; half are not. Can you tell which is which? (And thanks Susan for pointing out to me that Go Set a Watchman borrows its title from the Bible! I'm ashamed that I didn't realise that myself.)

3.) Helene Hanff's Letter from New York is on my bedside table, so I was excited to see Ali's review of it - especially since it's rather glowing.

4.) Do you (like me) love bad films? Not just mediocrity, but the ones with a script, direction, acting, and sound quality so bad that you ask 'How did this get made?' Well, that just so happens to be the title of a hilarious podcast I discovered recently. It's been going for four or so years, so there should be something in the archives to whet the appetite.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Old Books, Rare Friends by Leona Rostenberg & Madeleine Stern

You know what it's like with book reviews on Stuck-in-a-Book - they're like buses; you wait a month for one, and then three come along at once. (If you've ever waited a month for a bus, then - please - just give up and get a taxi.) In the weekend last year where I coincidentally read a bunch of books I bought in America, one of them had the enticing title Old Books, Rare Friends: Two Literary Sleuths and Their Shared Passion (1997) by Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern. (Who first told me about this? Was it YOU?)

I'm not the sort of man to walk away from a book about loving books, particularly one penned by older women, and so I was excited to read this. But it was quite a while ago, so I'm going to review this one in bullet points... let's call it an experiment.

  • Leona and Madeleine take it in turns to narrate chapters, starting with their childhoods (perhaps unsurprisingly) and through the schooling and college education. 
  • The main point of interest here is that one of them was refused her doctorate, mostly because her supervisor disagreed with her argument. (That is NOT acceptable supervising.)
  • I could never really tell Leona and Madeleine apart from their writing styles, so their lives intertwined for me.
  • They set up a rare books business together, buying and selling, and this is where my interest was piqued.
  • They make catalogues! I could read about the preparation of catalogues forever.
  • They're only interested in very old books, so my love of 20th-century literature was never really satisfied. But, oh well.
  • And they discovered sensation magazine stories that Louisa M. Alcott had written under a pseudonym - which led to a minor sort of literary fame for them.
  • I really enjoyed it! Reading about the books business, particularly in a time before the internet made book hunting both easier and less filled with surprises is always fun.

Here is my caveat (for which I have slipped out of bullet points). I love reading about readers; about people who hunt for books because they are desperate to read them. Rostenberg and Stern hunt for books for a living, and so (naturally enough) are concerned more with profit than anything else. Still, I couldn't help weary a little at the number of times they said how much they'd paid for something and how much they'd sold it for - particularly on the occasions when that effectively meant diddling a seller out of money, because the seller had sold a book for less than it was worth. Which made it rather a surprise to come across this paragraph in the epilogue:
We have become keen observers of the generations who have succeeded us. Every age is critical of the next, and we are no exceptions. Although we admire and befriend many young dealers who do not confuse value with price, we deplore the all too popular conception entertained by many dealers that books are to be regarded primarily as investments. Such booksellers go in for dollarship, not scholarship.
I wonder how they think they differ from this? Perhaps as bibliophiles, albeit bibliophiles who get money from their love, rather than simply gratification.

But, this quibble aside, I found it fascinating and fun. It's not up there with Phantoms on the Bookshelves or Howards End is on the Landing - the works of true booklovers, and lovers of 20th-century fiction into the bargain - and it's not quite the book that I thought it would be, but Old Books, Rare Friends will still retain its place on my books-about-books bookshelf.