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Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis

Martin. Amis. Even typing those words makes my fingers tingle with excitement. Why? I’ve been madly in love with him since 1977.

That was when I first read The Rachel Papers, closely followed by his second novel Dead Babies.

Both are hilarious, fresh, naughty, wrong and baaaaad in all the right ways and gave me, above all, a sense that – although he is ten years older than me – I was reading someone from my own generation.

As well as the beaming joy of (slightly sexually excited) admiration I feel when reading his words, Martin Amis (Martin Amis!) also gave me my soulmate best friend, Victoria.

It might have been her gold Dunhill lighter and improbably long cigarettes which first impressed me when I met her on my third day at university, but it was our mutual love of MARTIN which bonded us for life.

We still quote passages to each other, a particular favourite being the moment in Dead Babies when the coolest of the dudes gets his cock skin caught in his zip: ‘Ooh, my snake, my fucken rig!’

Maybe you had to be there. We were. We still are and always will be the age when we first read Martin Amis. Those books are as much the accompaniment to my youth as Brass in Pocket and Rock With You.

(And I will never walk along Queensway without these words coming into my head: ‘There is a pub in the Moscow Road where they serve Particular Brew. After the first pint of Particular Brew…’)

So that’s just to give you an idea of the sense of anticipation with which I approached this book. Further heightened by it being lent to me by my other BFF – who back in the day actually had a bit of an ongoing scene with Mr Amis. I’ve got history with the guy, both personal and by proxy. Expectations were high.

So I was amazed to find that the first quarter of the book reads like an ill-edited mish mash of jottings, musings and quotes from favourite poems that he’d shaken up in a bin bag and randomly thrown together.

Where was the tight bitten prose I’m used to? Where were the one liners that make you squeal with (slightly sexual) excitement?

Instead there were quotes from Phillip Larkin and a running theme of snippets from the myth of Echo and Narcissus forfuckssake, which I found particularly self-indulgent and old person-ish.

Could this jumble of ill-assorted thoughts really be by the man who wrote Time’s Arrow? One of the most finely-crafted works in Eng Lit – it’s written in chronological reverse. Even some of the dialogue is backwards.

Yet it’s entirely comprehensible - and a meaningful re-visit of the Holocaust. Phewee. I read the whole thing with my eyes on stalks of (slightly sexually excited) amazement.

Where was Amis’s editor with this one, I wondered? Or was he too up himself to listen to one? It made me so distraught, I was going to give up before all my illusions were shattered, but the former Amis squeeze pal urged me to continue.

She also gave me some useful background, which I’d missed because I deliberately avoid reading about the books I’m going to discuss on here, because I want to come to them entirely fresh.

I had already picked up by osmosis that The Pregnant Widow is Amis’s comment on feminism – living through the process and the ongoing outcome of it – and had intuited that it is a return to the group summer holiday of his youth that inspired Dead Babies.

My BFF added that it had taken him years to write, and had been more of a memoir at one point, until he thought better of it and re-worked it again. It reads like it, I replied.

But out of courtesy to her I pressed on and I’m so happy I did, because I ended up loving this book almost as much for its faults than despite them.

This is an older, slightly beaten up Amis, still obsessed with short men, peri-psychotic sexual yearnings, unrequited love, money and the English class system, but a lot less cocky than he was.

He’s not hiding behind a hard carapace of style anymore. It’s much more personal than any of his other books and I found it deeply touching for that.

He’s put all the dopey bits of poetry in – and hero worship references to Jane Austen – because he loves them so much. Rather as I love him, so I get that.

As for his insights into feminism, he actually reveals a lot more about himself – and the men of his generation – than the women he alleges to be studying. Because Amis’s take on feminism is entirely sexual.

He clearly believes that womankind’s great leap forward of the past forty years is sexual freedom. There is not a single reference to any of the women in this book doing – or aspiring to do - any form of work. It’s extraordinary.

Gloria, the 1970s woman he dubs ‘the Future’ – what women will become after the feminist revolution (i.e. now) - is the one who has achieved a man’s separation of sexual desire and emotion.

Meanwhile, she is pursuing a series of rich men in pursuit of securing her financial situation. She has a lot more in common with a Jane Austen heroine, than a 21st century woman.

So if I ever got to sit with my hero in a pub in the Moscow Road – or even the Italian restaurant in the Moscow Road, which features in this book – this is what I would tell him: Feminism didn’t create sexual freedom. That became possible with the advent of the contraceptive pill. It was science which changed morality, not ideas.

The pill changed the lives of men for the better – they got to have a lot more sex a lot more easily – while it enabled women to plan motherhood around their careers (if embrace it at all), so they no longer had to be financially dependent on men.

But after the third pint of particular brew I wouldn’t care and I’d just want to snog him anyway. Because while this book is massively flawed in its structure and ideas, it is still shoutingly, adorably funny, insightful, clever and wonderful.

And I'm still in love with Martin Amis.

Reading satisfaction: 7
Un-put-downable-ness: 5
Recommend to best girlfriend (the one who hasn't shagged him): 9
Recommend to mother: 0
Recommend to niece (if she’s read early Amis): 8
Recommend to niece (if she hasn’t read early Amis): 0
Recommend to gay best friend: 6
Recommend to man pal: 8
Recommend to Helen Razer: 8
Read on public transport: 7

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Getting a child to read

The average number of blog posts achieved by most new bloggers before they lose interest and/or inspiration is six. This post is to let you know that I haven’t reached that point.

It’s just the book I’m reading at the moment is a 470-page monster and as I’m stuck into editing my own novel as well, it’s taking me a while to get through it. And I’m dying to blog about it, so watch this space. It’s a fascinating object.

Meanwhile I am wondering how I can get my seven and a half-year old daughter to start reading. By which I mean free reading - on her own, without help or encouragement. Proper nose in a book/the house could fall down reading.

It’s not that she doesn’t like books. It’s just she sees them as something that I read to her. Ideally with a lot of bright pictures. Chapter books with a few scrappy line drawings every six pages just don’t hold her attention.

How is it possible that I have a child like this? I’ve been obsessed with books ever since my father read me Paddington Bear. I laughed so hard at the part where he climbs onto the table in the station cafĂ© and slips on a cream bun, I fell out of bed.

I can clearly remember the moment, shortly after, when I realised that this source of hilarity was trapped inside the pages of the book forever and would be there any time I felt like having a laugh. Shazam!

From that moment on I read everything I could lay my hands on, saved all my pocket money to buy books, knew every inch of the local children’s library, and was a founder member of the Puffin Club.

To encourage a similar passion I have read to my daughter since before she could talk and filled her environment with tempting books at every stage. Plus, she has grown up surrounded by people who share my love of reading.

One of her godmothers is an eminent publisher, I’ve lost count of the books another one has written, and the third is my favourite book-discussion pal, who has also written a novel. Her three godfathers are equally reading orientated, so she has always been surrounded by book talk, in a house where you can hardly move for the bloody things.

Yet while contemporaries at her school from far less literary backgrounds romp through the entire Beast Quest, Mr Gum and even Harry Potter series, it’s all I can do to get Peggy to read Olivia to herself. She does have favourites – Eloise would be near the top – but she’s just not a reader.

I blame myself, of course. I’m a mother! That’s what we do… But seriously, while surrounding her with books, I fear I have also let her watch far too much television. As an only child, I thought it was company for her, but I fear it is has zapped her concentration span.

But I keep trying. Early attempts at chapter books – ghastly things about Susan the Skating Fairy , Penny the Pony Fairy and Deidre the Dreary Fairy – just put her off. I could see why. They were the childhood equivalent of Barbara Cartland.

The best success so far were the Ottoline books, which are pleasing small hardbacks with as much illustration as text and kooky characters, but while she did read both of them to herself, it failed to ignite an ongoing reading habit.

I would do love to share my most enduring pleasure with her. So if anyone has any tips – or words of encouragement - to share, I would be deeply grateful.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer

Although I haven't just re-read it, I have to come to the defence of this book – and its author - which have both been trashed on the 40th anniversary of its publication by an Australian playwright called Louis Nowra.

Because if I were to write a list of the most important books I’ve ever read, The Female Eunuch would be at the top. It made me.

Aussie readers will be familiar with the hoo hah, but to put everyone else in the picture: Nowra was commissioned to write a contemporary critique of the book by the male editor of a magazine called – hilariously in the context – The Monthly.

I haven’t been able to read the article in full – it’s oddly unaccessible online - but the extracts I’ve seen from it are very disappointing in a publication which styles itself as ‘Australia’s leading cultural, political, and social magazine.’

A large part of his argument that the book is worthless seems to be that Germaine Greer looks like a mad old lady, similar to his late granma. But as I haven’t read it, I will leave it to people who have to comment directly on it. See links below.

My reaction is entirely personal – and points up exactly why the editor of the magazine should have commissioned this article from a woman. Whatever Louis Nowra thinks of this book now, I read it in 1973, when I was 13 and it shaped my whole life.

I can remember very clearly the lightbulb moment, while reading it, when I realised that if I didn’t make my own money, I would always have to ask my husband for the cash if I wanted to buy a new dress.

And that I might have to be nice to him and agree with things he said, that I didn’t believe in, and have sex with him even if I didn’t feel like it, and make what he wanted for dinner even if I didn’t want it, to get that money. Ping!

I know that’s a pathetically trivial reduction of Greer’s theses, but it was what brought the bigger issue home to my 13 year-old head: that economic independence is the foundation for freedom.

I worked hard at school, uni and beyond, driven by that understanding. I haven’t been supported by anyone else since I left education. There was a lot of other stuff in the book that made a deep impression too, but that was the revelation that made me the person I am today.

I’m not going to re-read it now to see whether it’s stood the test of time, because it’s doesn't matter. It wasn’t written for 2010, it was written for 1970. And nobody puts that better than Greer herself:

‘It was the best book I could write at the time; I have written better since. If I feel any disappointment at all it is that The Female Eunuch is still in print. A tide of better books should have knocked it off its perch within a few months of its first appearance.'

And even if parts of it are no longer relevant because there have been some – not nearly enough, but some – advances in male/female equality, or other social structures have changed, it doesn’t make the book any less of an achievement. Because the key thing is it was so very important in its time.

Germaine Greer, you are one of my all-time heroines and always will be.

You can read a great piece from my alma mater, the Sydney Morning Herald  here.

A hilarious potty-mouthed polemic by Helen Razer here.
And Ms Greer’s typically elegant comment here, although I’m not clear if this was written in response to Nowra’s piece, or is just where she stands generally on feminism now, here.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Saplings by Noel Streatfeild

Often it’s not the quality of a book that counts so much as when you read it. Things that thrilled me in my youth seem tedious when I go back to them now, so I don’t re-read much, preferring to hold on to the memory of the first vivid experience.

Sometimes a book comes along entirely by chance at exactly the right moment. I heard about One Million Little Pieces - a powerful semi-fictional memoir of drug rehabilitation - right after a friend had died after years of substance abuse. I stayed awake all night reading it.

But that’s quite rare. More often it takes luck and judgement to know which book to pick up next, because what comes before influences your reaction to the new one. You can miss out on a great book, by starting it too soon after another with a lingering atmosphere.

That happened after I finished A Single Man, when I found that an early Marian Keyes I had been keenly anticipating didn’t capture me at all. I’ve put it away for a sun lounger moment. With a big meaty literary read next on the bedside pile I needed something to smooth my passage, so I turned to my collection of Persephone books.

This wonderful British imprint publishes forgotten treasures, which have languished out of print.

They are beautiful objects in their own right, with signature dove grey jackets, each with its own set of brightly-printed end papers, taken from a design of the period when the book was written. And a matching bookmark. Joyous.

I have a small pile of them on a shelf, so pleasing to look at and always there when I need a gentle segue from one big shouty book to another.

Because although they are by a wide cross section of authors – there are works of non-fiction too – they all seem to have a similar quality of restraint and elegance, which seems to sit well no matter what you’ve been reading recently.

This is one of Noel Streatfeild’s* forgotten adult books. I adored Ballet Shoes and all the rest when I was a child and was delighted when I was 14 to discover her memoir, A Vicarage Childhood. It gripped me so much, I remember reading it on my way home from school and walking smack into a lamp post. Painful.

Saplings is the story of a middle-class London family with four children growing up in the six years of World War 2. At first I was amused by their tiny anxieties, which made me think of the ‘middle class problems’ jokes on Twitter (‘My Aga has stopped working and I’m going to Barbados tomorrow’ etc).

The arrival of evacuees means the oldest girl can’t have her usual bedroom at her grandparents’ country house; the oldest son is anxious his sister will spoil the shrimping expedition, that kind of thing.

But I underestimated Ms Streatfeild, who incrementally increases the stress on these apparently privileged kids over the course of the war, until by the end, after a constant accumulation of small hurts, misunderstandings and bad decisions made for them, on top of one big trauma, you can see that their lives have been quite ruined.

It’s done with sublime skill and with an almost forensic understanding of how a child’s mind works and develops over time. Confused adolescent longings are described as ‘mud and flowers’.

Streatfeild appears to make fun of herself in the book, including in it a character who is a childless writer, famous for her fine portrayal of children and their feelings. She never had children. But as a late mother myself (43), I can testify that this would be exactly how she held on to her insight. Once you become a parent you seem immediately to join the gamekeepers and lose that perception.

The adults in the book are observed with equal precision, each character’s thoughts and motives economically but exactly described.

For a writer like me, not brave enough to venture from the first person, it’s a master class in the use of the omniscient point of view, when the narrator relates what every character thinks and does, written with the utmost elegance.

But more importantly, it’s a jolly good and thought-provoking read.

* Streatfeild is the odd but correct spelling.

Reading satisfaction: 8
Un-put-downable-ness: 4
Recommend to best girlfriend: 9
Recommend to mother: 10
Recommend to niece: 8
Recommend to gay best friend: 5
Recommend to man pal: 5
Recommend to Helen Razer: 8
Read on public transport: 10

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Some thoughts about my ratings system

A few days after my last post (cue bugler) a friend who happens to be gay questioned my Recommend To Spouse score for A Single Man – a book written from the point of view of a gay man. I’d only given it five out of ten for him, whereas all the others in my recommendation list were eight and up.

My pal’s comment (via wonderful Twitter, of course) confirmed something that had been niggling away at me since I started this caper. Which is that the Spouse scores were skewing the results on all the books, because every one I have written about so far has been fiction – and he doesn’t read fiction. So I’ve taken him off.

My husband perfectly fits that male demographic which read books about war, politics, history, sport and philosophy – or biographies and memoirs of people involved in the aforementioned subjects.

He has read a lot of the great classics of Slavic literature (he’s Serbian), but the only novels he’s picked up since we’ve been together (15 years) were my first two. He hasn’t even read the other three.

Do you think it’s weird that it doesn’t bother me? I really don’t care. Stephen King says he writes all his books for his wife, but I don’t write mine for my partner. I write them for my Australian publisher, my best friends (gay, straight, whatever) and my nieces. Really, I write them for myself.

But since I took my old mucker off the ratings, I don’t have a heterosexual man on the list. Does it matter? I chose the other people on there because they’re the ones I discuss books with the most, not because of their sexual preferences.

But having introduced the notion of 'gay best friend ' - who happens to be one of the most voracious readers of fiction I have ever known - it seemed right to offer a cross section.

I had to wrack my frontal lobe a bit to come up with a straight bloke I talk to much about reading and the best choice is my very dear brainy film maker friend, who I will call Man Pal.

As I’m being so PC, it then occurred I haven’t covered ladies of the islander persuasion (LESBIANS, Your Majesty). Helen Razer has granted me permission to cite her name in this category.

I think that covers it. And if I ever review a book about footballing Stalinist generals, I’ll put the spouse score back in.