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Thursday, September 23, 2010


To give the full title:

Oh. My. God. This is so wonderful I can hardly find words, so I’ll start with context. My niece Katy told me about it, after she saw it on India Knight’s blog (see list of blogs I follow, although I clearly wasn’t that day).

So what’s so amazing? Everything, not least that it is a totally new idea. It’s the entire story of a four-year relationship between two New York creative media coolsters (a food writer on the New York Times and a freelance travel photographer), told through an illustrated auction catalogue. The glossy kind that Sotheby’s and Christies do, with lots of photographs of objects and concise captions in a very flat and restrained formal style.

It starts with the invitation to the Halloween party where they met and continues on through print outs of emails, snapshots, clothes, postcards and other personal artifacts, which tell you with great subtlety absolutely everything about them and their relationship.

I love the idea of it, I love how brilliantly she’s done it – and I love the style of their romance, which is so redolent of my first marriage, it was really quite spooky.

The last book I blogged about made me uncomfortable it was so close to home at times; this one got much closer, but made me smile about it.

The Joni Mitchell lyrics, the Smythson diaries, the Pera Palas Hotel in Istanbul, the beach house at Orient Point, Long Island – there are so many chimes of my own life in this book, it was insane and delicious. I had read just about every book featured in it.

I felt like it had been written just for me and I think anyone from the world’s collective creative milieu would feel the same.

It speaks to the global tribe which shops in flea markets and Prada with equal glee, considers certain books to be close personal friends, collects images and quirky objects like precious gems, travels rather than holidays, and actively prefers used things for their soul.

But while it is a beautiful object in its own right, made with exquisite taste, it’s not just an exercise in style. Towards the end, there’s a letter from the heroine’s sister which contains great wisdom about relationships:

‘I used to talk about how I pitied the boring couples who never experienced any of our highs and lows, but I decided it’s hard to get things done with the highs and lows. You spend a lot of time avoiding life…. It has nothing to do with happy.’

Amen to that.

Reading satisfaction: 9
Un-put-downable-ness: 8.5
Recommend to best girlfriend: 10
Recommend to mother: 3
Recommend to niece: 10 (one of them recommended it to me…)
Recommend to gay best friend: 9
Recommend to man pal: 9
Recommend to Helen Razer: 9
Read on public transport: 0 (too big)
Unpleasantness: 0

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

ONE DAY by David Nicholls

I fell in and out of love with this book constantly while I was reading it. Almost as often as the two main characters do with each other.

I’ve been trying to analyse why I started out feeling slightly antagonistic towards it and have concluded the banner quotes from Nick Hornby ('Big, absorbing, smart...') on one edition and Tony Parsons on another (‘A totally brilliant book.’) didn’t help.

I was already nurturing an unattractive (and I hope uncharacteristic) bitterness about it being yet another work of light modern relationship fiction being taken seriously (hardback, if you don’t mind…) because it was by a man, which would be dismissed as chick lit if it were by a Davina Nicholls.

As one the great luminaries of that genre (Mr Hornby being the Imperial Wizard thereof) Tony’s blessing was the last straw. *

Twisted by such rancour, I convinced myself as I read that the author was a smug long-time contributor to GQ and other such manly mags and his hyper real description of the decadent media whirl in London in the 1990s was pretty much autobiographical.

So I felt pretty stupid when I actually took the time to Google him and find out that David Nicholls is actually a pretty serious actor, playwright and screenplay dude. He’s adapted Thomas Hardy for the telly. I gave myself a talking to and read on.

If I found some of his descriptions of that particular milieu in that particular era a little too close for comfort, that’s my problem, not his. And there were several moments in the book where I gasped, he nailed particular situations so perfectly.

Sometimes I laughed out loud, at others tears pricked my eyes. Some of the times past evoked were a little painful to revisit.

There were passages, however, when I found the forensic accuracy of the rendering of earlier decades made it read more like journalism than fiction.

But once I knew he never had been a regular contributor to the Sunday Times Style section, or a columnist on Arena, I got over that. And, I’m happy to say, over myself. Then I could just enjoy a ripping good love story.

What Nicholls has done here is to serve up in its entirety the emotional journey, from university graduation to middle age, of his generation – just five years younger than mine, and close enough to be entirely recognisable.

It’s The Glittering Prizes of Generation X, really, and I hope he writes a sequel in twenty years time. Which I promise I will approach with my prejudices on hold.

* I’ve got a bit of history with Mr Parsons. I’ll write about it in my next post.

Reading satisfaction: 6
Un-put-downable-ness: 6
Recommend to best girlfriend: 8
Recommend to mother: 3
Recommend to niece: 10
Recommend to gay best friend: 8
Recommend to man pal: 6
Recommend to Helen Razer: 5
Read on public transport: 5
Unpleasantness: 0

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

THE FAIRY CARAVAN by Beatrix Potter

I picked up this book – the first novel length Beatrix Potter I’ve ever seen – at a car boot sale.

Although it was a lovely old hardback and only £1, I nearly didn’t buy it, as I thought it would be just another book to clutter up the house and remind me of how my daughter doesn’t read.

But it just might turn out to be the breakthrough book.

It’s certainly the first time I’ve ever known her ask for the same book at bedtime night after night – admittedly with me reading, but at least it has sustained her interest – and one morning she even brought it out to the car and read it all the way to school.

So what is it about a book first published in 1929 that has captured her imagination more than any of the ‘cool’ contemporary chapter books I have tried to tempt her with?

The answer is simple: beautiful prose.

No exclamation marks, no ‘zany’ type, just elegant, measured, economical English. For example:

‘Next morning at daybreak a crowd of guinea-pigs collected on Tuppeny’s doorstep. More and more arrived until Mrs. Tuppeny came out with a scrubbing brush and a pail of water. In reply to inquiries from a respectful distance, she said that Tuppeny had had a disturbed night. Further she would not say, except that he was unable to keep on his nightcap. No more could be ascertained, until, providentially, Mrs. Tuppeny discovered that she nothing for breakfast. She went out to buy a carrot.’

At first I thought words like ‘ascertained’ and ‘providentially’ would put a 21st century eight-year old off, but far from it. She loved the book from its first sentence and I’ve hardly had to explain anything: the gold standard of good writing.

Which has me thinking that we are doing our children no favours with ‘modern’ books which feature farting jokes and other *kraziness*. Children respond to good writing just as adults do.

This idea was supported when, during bedtime chats last night, she asked me if I knew a hymn which had something in it about ancient feet and a holy lamb. It stumped me for a moment, but then I started to sing ‘Jerusalem’ and she joined in enthusiastically.

She’d heard for the first time at school that morning and declared it is now officially her ‘favourite hymn of all time’. We went over the words repeatedly until she was satisfied she knew them.

She loved the idea of her sword not sleeping in her hand and having a chariot of fire of her very own, just as much as I do.

So an eight-year old who has never read a book on her own can be profoundly moved by the words of William Blake. I find that intensely encouraging.

Reading satisfaction: 7
Un-put-downable-ness: 4
Recommend to best girlfriend: 9
Recommend to mother: 9
Recommend to niece: 9
Recommend to gay best friend: 0
Recommend to man pal: 4
Recommend to Helen Razer: 0
Read on public transport: 2
Unpleasantness: 0

Sunday, September 12, 2010

EUCALYPTUS by Murray Bail

What an extraordinary book. It’s been on my bookshelves for the twelve years since it came out and there was so much fuss about it, and now I can see what they were all going on about.

It’s not like anything else I’ve ever read.

The basic concept is simple: a man’s wife dies and he moves to a large property in rural Australia with their astonishingly beautiful daughter. He’s obsessed with eucalyptus trees and makes it his life’s work to have a specimen of every variety – 600 plus of them – growing on his land.

His daughter grows up and he declares that the man who can name every tree correctly can have her hand in marriage.

So it’s not what you would call social realism, but it’s not quite magical realism either. The closest thing I could think to it is 1001 Nights, as the larger narrative is broken up with an endless trail of tiny meaningful stories, which Bail delivers via several different characters.

At first it made me a bit cross. There’s no single narrator and at times Bail’s own voice seems to loom into earshot. I didn’t know where to put it all in my head. I couldn’t see the point of it. But by the end I absolutely loved it for being impossible to categorise.

I’d also decided it was one of the most romantic books I’ve ever read. But nothing sappy, a wonderfully gruff Australian version of big sweeping love. It’s the romance of flaking sun-bleached paint, curled up fence wire and corrugated iron roofs.

A taciturn romance made all the more poignant by the harshness of the environment - and the insane ludicrousness of the main storyline.

Reading satisfaction: 7
Un-put-downable-ness: 3
Recommend to best girlfriend: 7
Recommend to mother: 5
Recommend to niece: 7
Recommend to gay best friend: 7
Recommend to man pal: 6
Recommend to Helen Razer: 9
Read on public transport: 9
Unpleasantness: 0