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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

7. A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

This is the first time I’ve ever read a book right after – and as a result of - seeing the film of it.

Normally I rush to read the book first, in fear a poor adaptation will ruin the chance to enjoy it fresh from the page, because generally I find movie versions don’t live up to books I have loved.

I loathed the film of I Capture the Castle, with that terrible, terrible wig, and I’m so sad my seven year old saw the blah film of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe before she could read the Narnia series. I actively tried to shield her from it, but she watched it at a friend’s house. Dammit.

Sometimes though - Harry Potter - the movies are much better than the books, and then there are the rare and joyous cases where both experiences, the reading and the watching, are equally transporting. Gone With the Wind is the classic example, and I’m happy to report that A Single Man falls into that category too.

I adored the film. Why wouldn’t I? I’ve had a fag hag crush on Tom Ford for years and his sexy smooth aesthetic defines the cinematic experience from the start.

Colin Firth richly deserved that Bafta (and I hope he gets the Oscar, too), but the film is so quietly visually ravishing, it would be a glory to watch with the sound down too. It’s worth seeing for the women’s hairstyles alone. A lot of the critics were bitchy about all that, like it was a bad thing it looked so beautiful. Ignore them.

But beyond the superficial I was gripped to find out why Ford was so strongly moved to make this particular book into a film, he even co-wrote the screenplay (swoon).

One of the themes that particularly interested me is the portrayal of a deep friendship between a gay man and a straight woman. It’s a rarely-explored area and one very close to my heart, as such relationships have been some of the most significant of my life. Which is why it’s a major thread in my first novel, Pants on Fire. (Really the straight love story in that book is just a vehicle to look at the more interesting meeting of minds between the heroine and her boy pal.)

That’s one detail that is notably different in Ford’s film; perhaps unsurprisingly, he has made his on-screen gal pal much more glamorous than Isherwood’s literary version, who is plump and poorly dressed (the horror!).

And probably advisedly, the film doesn’t go near a section of the book which outlines the gay protagonist’s utter revulsion at the mere idea of female genitalia, amid a passage of general intense misogyny.

That chapter was like a slap in the face to read, but brilliantly brave and honest to put it down in print. I’ve known gay men who feel that way – a simultaneous adoration for and shrinking away from the female. Indeed that’s precisely the contradiction which can make the fag/hag relationship so interesting. And so complicated.

The most major change though, is a crucial storyline in the film, which isn’t in the book at all. (I’m not saying what it is, because I don’t want to spoil either of them for anybody.) It makes the film less subtle than the book, but I can see why they needed it for narrative pace. The book is none the lesser for not having it, though.

So in the final analysis, as this is a reading diary not a film page, what did I think of the book? I thought it was a tiny precious gem, as sparkling and finely worked as a Graff diamond.

There are so many big ideas concentrated down into a very slim volume – it’s almost a novella – but so lightly drawn it never drags. It skitters along like sunbeams bouncing off cars on an LA highway, as apparently lightweight as the city where it’s set, but with the great depth of Isherwood’s skill and experience, supporting it from below.

Thank you, Mr Ford, for prompting me to read it.

Reading satisfaction: 8
Un-put-downable-ness: 6
Recommend to best girlfriend: 8
Recommend to mother: 7
Recommend to niece: 9
Recommend to gay best friend: 9
Recommend to man pal: 9
Recommend to Helen Razer: 9
Read on public transport: 10

Note: have decided to take spouse out of my ratings, as he doesn't really read fiction (not even my bloody books). Will put him back if I do a non-fic book. He likes books about history/war/boxing/philosophy etc.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

6. Redeeming Features: A Memoir by Nicholas Haslam

I was so sad when I finished this book I shed a tear. Not because the book is sad – although it has its moments – but because I will miss it so much.

It was also a tear of frustration, as I hadn’t actually realised I was at the end, until I turned the page to read on and found myself looking at the index.

The last sentence of the text appears at the very bottom of a right-hand page, so you don’t even realise you are at the end of a chapter, let alone the conclusion of 323 pages of rapture. Most frustrating.

So why is this book so hard to leave behind? Take one copy of Diana Vreeland’s V. Stir in Lee Radziwill’s Happy Times, Dominic Dunne’s The Way We Lived Then and Rupert Everett’s Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins. Add several handfuls of Cecil Beaton’s diaries, sprinkle over a little Chips Channon and finally whisk it all up into high peaks with a large helping of fairy dust.

What an extraordinary seventy years Nicky Haslam has led and how very beautifully he tells us about it. This book could have been one long dreary brag about all the fabulous people he calls very dear friends, their fabulous lives and their fabulous homes, but his elegant and atmospheric writing makes it something much more (and the on dit is that he really did write it himself).

Of course he does also shamelessly collect scalps. Cole Porter, the Duchess of Windsor, Andy Warhol, Noel Coward, Bette Davis, Debo Devonshire, Mick Jagger, Cary Grant, Liberace, Paris Hilton…. That’s about the number – and variety - which appear on each page. I’m not kidding.

So it’s endearing when he persuades an LA friend’s housekeeper to get her sister to introduce him to Elvis, whom she works for. The result is a bizarre encounter in a trailer, which the King pretty much sleeps through.

I liked Haslam enormously for sharing this rather humiliating anecdote, because unlike most legendary people Mr Haslam meets – his dazzling social career starting while he was still at Eton – Presley did not immediately become a lifelong friend.

His success rate is so mindboggling, Haslam’s dazzling charm must be visible from space. And this was all kicking off long before he became Nicky Haslam the human luxury brand, who every arriviste desperately wants to add to their quick dial list as a symbol of being properly in with the in crowd. (Bryan Ferry is a very good friend, of course.)

We are at I Tatti - where his father hung out with the Berensons in his youth - by page 21, and as a barely-hatched young man he became instant new best friends with Bunny Roger, Cecil Beaton and Lady Diana Cooper when he met them.

And not just as cocktail party cheek-kissers, mind. Meaningful relationships which continued to the ends of all their lives, despite the enormous age differences. There are wonderful pictures of Beaton at Haslam’s Arizona ranch in the 1970s (all the photos are great, actually).

But what I found so interesting is that the friend who introduced him to those three deities was a man-about-town called Simon Fleet, whom Haslam had met entirely by chance one day on a London street. (And who later turned up at Haslam’s house one morning with Greta Garbo in tow….)

Meeting Fleet, while he was still at school, is just one of many such extraordinary chance encounters in this life. Another was being picked up on the street in New York – when Haslam was on his first visit there, aged 14 – and finding himself a couple of days later having lunch with Tallulah Bankhead. As you do.

He was beautiful, of course (he does tell you that quite often), which makes such events more likely, but still there is a magical element to his life that makes engrossing reading. There is also much more to it than a passagiata through his address book (which must have as many volumes as the Concise Oxford English….).

It’s a social history of the entire 20th century cultural elite, and reaching back much further – to Queen Victoria and Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire (a distant rel) - by association. You could do the most amazing flow chart connecting them all up, but you would need a very large piece of paper.

It’s also a touching sentimental journey of a gay man keeping step with the beat of liberation. Although in that respect I found it very odd that AIDS isn’t mentioned at all, particularly as he lived in New York in the first glory days of gay pride. It may be to do with the aversion to physical sex he is mentions in the earliest pages of the book.

There was only one section in the entire Herm├Ęs-orange bound volume that grated on me. Near the end he talks of various current friends – notably the Bamfords, who lent him their Barbados mansion (formerly property of the Tree family, as in Marietta, as in Penelope…) to write in – whom he has met as clients for his decorating business, with a slightly toadying tone.

But that was the only wrong note in a marvellously vivid rendering of an extraordinary life, from a little boy stuck in bed for three years with polio, to ranging the world on an Triple A List magic carpet.

PS Although I have only met him once and briefly (I’m sure he would like me to mention it was at Rachel Johnson’s party and Kathy Lette introduced us…), Nicky Haslam was the inspiration for the character Uncle Percy in my novel Mad About the Boy.

I based Uncle Percy’s mid-life style change to black-haired rocker entirely, and with the greatest respect, on Mr Haslam’s own makeover.

Reading satisfaction: 9
Un-put-downable-ness: 7
Recommend to best girlfriend: 10
Recommend to mother: 6
Recommend to niece: 5
Recommend to gay best friend: 10
Recommend to boy pal: 5
Recommend to Helen Razer: 4
Read on public transport: 9

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Reading in the Twitter era

I’m half way through the next book for discussion here (not the one pictured right...) and it’s such a rich feast of delights I have to keep taking little breaks to digest before moving on, for fearing of missing anything.

Oh, I can hardly wait to share it with you…

In the meantime, while lying sick in bed for what is now nearly four weeks, I’ve had plenty of time to ponder my ongoing relationship with reading. And I’ve realised that the subconscious impulse to start this book diary was to make sure I start reading intensely again, because I was coming close to losing it.

This strange decline started a year ago when I read the first book in the Twilight series. I only picked it up because the phenomenon of Stephanie Mayer kept my last novel out of the top four slots of the Australian bestseller lists in 2008. She had them tied up for months dammit. Know your enemy, I thought.

After a sleepless night finishing it, I understood her appeal. I went on to devour the next three books and although I found them progressively less engaging, I remained oddly and intensely caught up in the parallel world she has created.

While your front brain constantly reminds you it’s hysterical teenage Mormon nonsense (Read On Public Transport score: 0), some lower area of it becomes obsessed. It was like a weird spell had been cast over me.

Then the marvellous film of Twilight came out and made matters worse, as it not only captured but improved upon everything I found compelling in the book. With the added and utter glory that is Rob Pattinson in the male lead. I still find the scene where they are high up in the tree together absolutely swoon-inducing.

The only comfort I had in this ongoing delirium was that so many of my friends, were similarly affected – mature, tertiary-educated, sophisticated, partnered-up women every one.

The collective insanity really was most peculiar and I wasn’t released until the truly terrible film of New Moon came out late last year. It was so cringingly aimed at the teen market I screamed with laughter all the way through and left the cinema feeling as though I had been exorcised.

But apart from the humiliation of being gripped by an adolescent fervour, the worst thing was that after charging through those penny dreadful novels, I just couldn’t settle to reading anything else. It went on for months, most of last year. I tried all kinds of books – even other vampire nonsense - but nothing could hold my attention.

And then the funny thing was, that around that very time, I read two newspaper articles that closely reflected my experiences. (The glory of this being a blog, as opposed to a newspaper article, is that I can’t be bothered to research who they were by. Sorry.)

Suffice to say that a woman in the Guardian described exactly the feeling of panic I have about having only a finite number of books left to read before death. Then a chap in the Times described having a reading block identical to mine. My zeitgeist gland started to throb.

The final word came just the other day – Feb 10th at 8.22 pm, to be precise – when Alain de Botton posted a comment on Twitter which summed up the whole malaise:

“The book will be killed not directly by new technology but by the monkey mind it breeds. The issue is concentration, not royalties.”


And as I am entirely addicted to Twitter’s gibbon-brain perma-novelty, it seems all the more urgent I continue this reading diary, to keep my frontal lobe supple enough to absorb works longer than 140 characters.

PS The irony is that I was finally rescued from my reading paralysis by The Leopard (by Tomasi Di Lampedusa), which I was prompted to read after @indiaknight and @CharlieMcVeigh discussed it on Twitter...

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

5. Palace of Desire by Naguib Mahfouz

I wondered how long it would take for this issue to arise with regard to this project: what do you do when you just can’t get into a book? Solider on, or toss it aside for something else?

My mother reads every book she ever starts doggedly to the end as a point of principle, but I just can’t do that. I’m all too aware that there is only a finite number of books left that I have time to read before I die, and I can’t bear to waste a slot on something I don’t love.

However, if I hadn’t taken advice to push on after the first three dodgy chapters I would have missed the great reading pleasures that were Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and The Shipping News. Some books repay persistence.

But in this case, I think there’s another issue to consider: I’m just not in the mood for this style of book at the moment.

I first heard of Naguib Mahfouz last year, when the words ‘Egyptian Tolstoy’ rang out of the radio at me, followed by ‘winner of the Nobel Prize for literature’.

A comparison to Tolstoy is about as high a recommendation as it gets for me (along with ‘redolent of early Jilly Cooper’…), so I got right onto Google, sussed out that the Cairo Trilogy is considered his masterpiece, and immediately bought Palace Walk, the first book of the three.

I absolutely loved it. It’s a family saga, set in Cairo in the early 20th century, towards the end of the British occupation. As big geopolitical events unfold, you are treated to a minute insight into the family’s life, as tiny as the mother’s view of the world through the lattice work window she is permitted to look through.

The varied personalities within the family are conveyed with needlepoint detail, while the book as a whole gives a vivid flavour of life in that city, in that era. He deserves his rep.

I have been gagging to read the next two volumes ever since I finished it, but got side-tracked by the Twilight experience, which oddly dominated my reading last year. I have finally come to it, but find I just can’t engage with the writing.

It’s slower than the first book and comparisons between Mahfouz and Proust make more sense with this one. There are pages and pages of internal monologue about how a teenage boy feels about a girl he has seen. I can’t be doing with that right now. A little less conversation…

I am also put off by the translation. It’s the same American translators who did the first book, but I am finding them culturally intrusive in a way I didn’t with that one.

The dreadful word ‘gotten’ has cropped up several times and they use the term ‘casserole’ to describe a variety of Egyptian savoury dish. I don’t know what the Egyptian version of a ‘tagine’ is, but there must be something more evocative than casserole they could have used. It made me picture terrible 1970s earthenware dishes, hessian wallpaper and pot luck suppers.

I suspect all I need to do with this book is to push on until the story gears up, but right now I just don’t feel like it. I will come back to it – I particularly want to read the gorgeously named, Sugar Street, the last volume in the series – but for now I am putting it aside in favour of something else.

Friday, February 5, 2010

4. Down With Skool! by Geoffrey Willans (illustrations by Ronald Searle)

Ha ha ha bet you weren’t expecting that, but after reading three hefty tomes by contemporary women authors in a row, I needed a palate cleanser before embarking on the next one, which is another chunky read.

I have owned my copy of this book since 1968 (fifteen years after it was published) and have no idea how many times I’ve read it and all the brilliant sequels since. It never fails to make me shout with laughter.

I was prompted to re-read this time as one of my favourite Tweeters is @reelmolesworth, who posts hilarious comments on current events in the unique voice (and spelling…) of the book’s anti-hero, Nigel Molesworth.

Laughing at his postings made me eager for another look at the original. If you’re not familiar – something I find quite hard to imagine, as this book feels like part of my DNA – it’s 1950s boarding school life, through the eyes of young Molesworth, by his own description ‘the Curse of St Custards’.

Of course it’s really the whole of life through the eyes of a very witty and clever man, who worked at the BBC, wrote for Punch, and one successful screenplay, before dying far too young, at 47. So sad. What other joys might he have given us?

It’s actually hard to find much more out about Willans. Even on the Penguin website and his Wikepedia entry, there is very little background, but I have a very vivid picture of him in my head, as a cool 1950s dude in corduroy. (I am rather inspired to find out more about him now and will report back on here, if I turn anything up.)

But back to the book. It’s allegedly written for children, but it’s absolutely anarchic and as a schoolgirl I thrilled to its outrageous statements and deliberate misspellings.

It actually caused a bit of a hoo hah at the time, seen as a bad influence on real kids chiz chiz. For e.g. the section ‘How To Avoid Botany’ starts with the sentence, ‘Suply yourself with a paket of cigs.’ (sic.).

Sorry? What’s a chiz? It’s a classic bit of Molesworth-ese (synonymous with ‘swiz’…) which has become part of the British vocabulary, along with his oft-shared opinion that certain people are wets and weeds. Or, worst of all, big gurlies. Enuf said.

The chapter which always renders me insensible is ‘A Tour of the Cages – or Masters One By One’, particularly the Latin section. Molesworth felt exactly as I did about Romans and Gauls constantly attacking ditches. Why?

I’ve been looking for a bit from it to quote – consequently can hardly type for tears of laughter – but it doesn’t really work out of context. And the reason for that is very interesting. And has only just occurred to me chiz chiz because I am a wet and a weed as any fule no.

The humour of Molesworth lies in the style as much as the content and the style is all about rhythm and - this has been my revelation on this reading of the book - it’s actually a masterpiece of the ‘skaz’ style.

Skaz is the jazzed-up, lawless, stream of consciousness, first-person prose style, most famously used by JD Salinger in The Catcher In The Rye, although Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac laid the earlier foundations. Martin Amis is the post-modern master, writing as John Self in Money.

It breaks all rules of grammar and punctuation, yet is still immediately comprehensible to the reader. It gives a particularly vivid impression of the narrator, who is generally a bit cross with the world. It’s a young voice, very fast-paced and moved along by the staccato jazzy rhythm. You could snap your fingers to good skaz. Commas are rarely used if it all. Short sentences are.

The link to Salinger seems poignant, with his death just last week (27th January, 2010), but I must confess a more immediate personal interest: the novel I have just finished is written partly in the skaz style.

Randomly re-reading marvellous Molesworth, I have suddenly realised just how deeply influenced I have been in all my work by Geoffrey Willans’ writing. To the point of discovering that a short sentence I particulary love to use – ‘Next question.’ – is actually his.

I posthumously award him the Mrs Joyful Prize for Raffia Work.

Reading satisfaction: 9
Un-put-downable-ness: 7
Recommend to best girlfriend: 9
Recommend to mother: 3
Recommend to niece: 9
Recomend to gay best friend: 9
Recommend to man pal: 10
Recommend to Helen Razer: 7
Read on public transport: 7

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

3. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

First let me draw your attention to the time gap between my last posting and this one – two days. That should give you an idea of how much I enjoyed this book. Which is 499 pages long in hard back. I was up to 3 a.m. last night reading it and resumed to finish at six this morning. It’s a ripper.

I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Sarah Waters, but confess I was a little disappointed when I first heard about this one because it isn’t about fascinating lesbians of yore. I love that stuff, the sense of being let into a secret history.

By contrast, the narrator of this book is a straight, middle-aged man living in rural England in the late 1940s - and it’s the proof of Waters’ prodigious talent that his voice is utterly convincing and compelling from the outset.

The story revolves around a beautiful country house which is crumbling into disrepair – the family which owns it in equal decline. The narrator’s mother was in service there as a young woman and he visited as a child, attending a let-them-eat-cake jolly for the workers’ children, during which he had a tantalising glimpse of the house and family in their full Edwardian splendour.

He returns as a grown man - and a doctor – to find it all in near ruin. This shift in his relative status and its implications within the minute calibrations of the English class system – already in turmoil under the post-war Labour government - forms the background theme of the book.

The upfront issue is a gripping ghost story, so scary at times, I was quite nervous getting up to go to the loo in the dark. But while the supernatural suspense kept me turning pages into the small hours, what makes this book such a satisfying experience overall is the exquisite rendering of the minutiae of human relationships.

The missed glance, the tilted head, the nibbled fingernail… All the tiny details by which we signal our emotions and connections, are almost forensically described, but with such delicacy it doesn’t drag the pace.

Talking of which, the book does start quite slowly and I did wonder around chapter four if she couldn’t get on with it a bit, but then I got in step and appreciated it as a ghost story in the Wilkie Collins style. It has that Victorian quality of wildly gothic events having more impact described by a very restrained narrator, so familiar from Wuthering Heights.

My only tiny criticism is that there are quite long passages, really germane to the plot, where the first person narrator describes in detail events he didn’t witness, without recourse to ‘as Caroline told me later’ devices.

I was amazed that a writer of this calibre could make such a fundamental fiction boo boo – and that her editors didn’t notice – but in the end it was almost a relief that she isn’t totally perfect. I think this flaw actually made me enjoy the book a little more.

The Little Stranger will make a brilliant film – I just don’t want to spend the night on my own after seeing it.

Reading satisfaction: 8
Un-put-downable-ness: 9
Recommend to best girlfriend: 9
Recommend to best gay friend: 9
Recommend to mother: 9
Recommend to niece: 9
Recommend to man pal: 8
Recommend to Helen Razer: 9
Read on public transport: 9