Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron

When I was staying in Toronto, Darlene (of Cosy Books) very kindly gave me a couple of books – one of which was Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron (2012). The book rang a bell from her blog and from Thomas/Hogglestock’s, and it sounded like it should be up my street – though there was always the danger that (being a modern novel written by an American about 1950s England) it might wander into the sort of England only seen on BBC America. That is, would it be too Downton for its own good?

Well, luckily, I really enjoyed it. That is more to do with Cameron’s writing and subtle, gradual depiction of character than about his version of 1950s England – which is, indeed, rather like a picture postcard (though there is the threat of new semi-detached houses encroaching in the environs of the colossal house that the hero, naturally, lives in).

But I am getting ahead of myself. Here are the opening paragraphs of the novel:

That spring – the spring of 1950 – had been particularly wet.

An area at the bottom of the garden at Hart House flooded, creating a shallow pool through which the crocuses gamely raised their little flounced heads, like cold shivering children in a swimming class. The blond gravel on the garden paths had turned green, each pebble wrapped in a moist transparent blanket of slime, and one could not sit on either of the two cement beaches that flanked the river gate without first unhinging the snails and slugs adhered to them.

The excessive moistness of the garden was of no concern to anyone at Hart House except for the new nurse, who had arrived on Thursday, and had attempted, on the two afternoons that were somewhat mild, to sit outside for a moment, away from the sickness and strain in the house. But she found the garden inhospitable, and so had resolved to stay indoors.

The new nurse (as you might have started to suspect) is Coral Glynn – she is there to care for the old lady of the household, who has a terminal illness. She is greeted by the taciturn son and heir, (Major) Clement Hart, and the ill-tempered, suspicious housekeeper. In rather an unexpected manner, Coral becomes key to the household – though local tragedy causes disruption here. And with those coy words I shall say no more about the plot.

Despite being light and endearing, there is a sensitive portrait of loneliness and uncertainty at the centre of the novel. Coral is brave and headstrong in some ways, but is orphaned and alone, and unaccustomed to friendship. Besides the Major are his married friends Dolly and Robin – Dolly is a vivacious type who immediately becomes bosom buddies with Coral (or tries to) while Robin is affable but has his own burdens to bear. We soon learn, in a touching aside-scene, that Robin and Clement had once been in love. It adds further dimension to the novel, but it does throw the novel a bit, since scenes between Robin and Clement are the only ones which aren’t focused through Coral’s perspective, so far as I can recall.

The plot rolls on, and Cameron combines the nuance of the characters’ relationships (and, particularly, Coral’s attempts to understand the world she finds herself in – and develop a personality that she feels comfortable with) with an intriguing story. The latter rather collapses, and I wasn’t convinced by the ending, but the journey was rather wonderful – it feels nostalgic without being too fey, and Cameron is a really good storyteller. It’s rare that I prefer a book set in the 1950s to one written in the 1950s – the same goes for any decade, not just the ’50s – but I did rather love reading this one. I’d be interested to see how Cameron writes when he’s not looking across an ocean and into the past, but if his understanding of character is maintained, then I’d like to read him writing about 21st-century America. If he has done?

On Wheels by Michael Holroyd

On WheelsI’ve still only finished one book in 2017 – I do hope this trend doesn’t continue throughout the year – and it was on 1 January. The book was On Wheels (2012) by Michael Holroyd, which I picked up in a charity shop in Oxford on a whim. And it’s a curious little book.

I read Holroyd’s memoir Basil Street Blues, published by Slightly Foxed, but didn’t know all that much about his career as a biographer. He seems to have made a career out of writing repeatedly about George Bernard Shaw, Lytton Strachey, and Augustus John. Scroll through his Wikipedia article to see how many times he’s written about ’em all – a trio that, I have to admit, I have very little interest in reading about.

BUT I was intrigued by this little book about how his subjects have dealt with cars, along with his own history of driving. Learning to drive was among the less enjoyable experiences of my life – basically a year of low-level dread – so I quite enjoy the empathy now of reading about others who found it difficult. It’s one of the reasons I like hearing Tom Allen on his podcast. And, yes, there is plenty to enjoy of this. But Holroyd talks more about his post-learning experiences – most memorably about getting his car vandalised when Ireland played England (because he lived in Ireland and had an English licence plate), then having his car repeatedly searched by English police when he’d switched to an Irish number plate (because it was during the peak of the IRA’s terrorism).

Augustus John and George Bernard Shaw seem to have been equally reckless and enthusiastic drivers – a terrible combination, really – and there are some amusing and illuminating anecdotes about these.

The hints given to him on the art of reversing were of little use, Shaw taking half an hour to turn a corner backwards and demolishing some flowerbeds in the process. But the village grew proud of his road exploits. Local dogs, knowing him well, would play dead under his car while he anxiously crawled after them – when they would bounce out, barking triumphantly. Though reckless, he was always considerate, leaping out on to the road after a bump or crash and offering to pay all expenses and drive people home or to the hospital. He was especially chivalrous to the injured when the fault was theirs.

Overall, this is a fun book to flick through. It feels rather as though it started as a few notes jotted down from his other researches, and those notes don’t become much more – it’s a series of thoughts, rather than a study. But it doesn’t have any aspirations of being more than that, which I admire; better a chatty 104pp than a bloated book with only the kernel of those hundred pages in it. Give it to the car enthusiast in your life, if they enjoy reading. Or stick it (as I will) on that shelf for quirky books that don’t quite fit into any other category.

The Fault in Our Stars – John Green

When I’m not reading book blogs (or, y’know, engagingly actively with the outside world, whatever that is), you’ll probably find me watching vloggers on YouTube.  I don’t watch any of the book vloggers any more, as they rarely talked about any books I’d be interested in (other than the one I’m going to write about today), but I do watch a lot of funny people, generally just talking about things that have happened to them, or opinions they hold.  One of these channels is called the vlogbrothers, where brothers John and Hank Green each make weekly videos addressing each other, but also addressing all their audience (whom – which? – they call ‘nerdfighers’, which is a little too high schooly for my liking, but I’ll let it pass).

Anyway, John Green is not only a YouTube star, but a bestselling author.  He’s written a few books, but it is his most recent, The Fault in Our Stars (2012), which caught my attention, and which my friend, ex-housemate, and self-proclaimed nerdfighter Liz lent to me.

Now, The Fault in Our Stars is teenage fiction.  I’m afraid I hate the term ‘YA’ (‘young adult’) because it is always used to refer to teenagers who are not young adults.  I am a young adult, being about a decade into adulthood.  The demographic of most fiction encompasses my age group.  Teenage fiction is for younger-than-adults, or old-children, but not for young adults.  Vent over.  Anyway, I haven’t really read any teenage fiction since I was a teenager, and I didn’t really read much of it after I was about 14.  I know a lot of grown-up readers (including bloggers) engage with it a great deal, and that’s fine with me, albeit a little confusing.  (People often say something along the lines that it “deals with issues that adult novels wouldn’t cover”, which simply isn’t true, since adult novels cover pretty much everything between them.)

I could turn this post over to a discussion for and against teenage fiction (and feel free to chime in on that, should you so wish) but instead I want to talk about The Fault in Our Stars specifically.  It was immediately obvious to me that it was teenage fiction, and I’m not sure why – partly, of course, because the protagonist Hazel (a girl with terminal cancer) is a teenager, but also the style.  Its simplicity, maybe?  Pass.  A few pages in, and I could cope with that, though, and didn’t remain at my initial psychological distance from the book.  Indeed, I embraced it, and was swept along.

Hazel is 16 and she is dying of cancer – more precisely, she has Stage 4 thyroid cancer with metastasis forming in her lungs. Green had spent some time working as a student chaplain in a children’s hospital, years before he wrote this novel, and you can tell that he is familiar not only with the goings-on of support groups and medical procedures, but the dynamic of teenagers living with cancer.  Somehow it is not an outsiders’ book – although Green has not had cancer, and I have not had cancer, I didn’t feel like their was a barrier between Hazel’s experience and my understanding of it.

Green presents a girl who is sarcastic, witty, secretly a bit sappy, and rocketing along a path of self-discovery, finding her place in the world – she is like every teenage girl in the West, then.  Except she has cancer.  It is an intelligent portrait because, although cancer is (obviously) the overriding focus of her life and those of her family, it doesn’t seem to be the starting point of Green’s creation of the character – instead, it is something that happened to a character he created, even if it happened before the novel began.

The main thrust of the plot, indeed, is more typical of teenagers’ novels – and adults’ novels – that is, love. Hazel meets Augustus (Gus) Waters, a heartthrob teenage ex-basketball player – who is in remission from osteosarcoma (to which he lost a leg).  He is suave, funny, handsome, muscular, sweet etc. etc.  I.e. he’s not as realistic as Hazel, in my book; he reminded me a bit of Todd from Sweet Valley High, if that oh-so-literary reference means anything to you.  Their relationship is cotton-candy sweet, of the variety which comes with passionate kisses being applauded in public.  Yes, that ‘public’ is Anne Frank’s house, but it works in context… just.

A more nuanced subplot is the shared love Hazel and Gus have for a novel called An Imperial Affliction by Peter von Houten (which doesn’t exist in real life, but Green’s novel seems to have spawned dozens of fake cover art attempts – just Google Image Search it.)  Of course, the author is not all he seems… but it’s a nice, interesting story – and goodness knows I’m a sucker for a character who loves books and reading, in any novel.

Ultimately, this is a book aimed at teenagers, and I believe they are the readers who will most benefit from it.  Hopefully it will inspire a love of reading in people who watch the vlogbrothers channel and, acting in the same way as Point Horror and Sweet Valley High for me, lead them eventually onto adult novels and older literature.  But it is not simply a gateway to later reading; for its intended age group, and for anybody being indulgent for an evening, it’s a fantastic and well-crafted novel.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Believe it or not, I’m reading a proof copy here… oops.  I started The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey more or less as soon as the proof copy arrived from Headline, back in 1884 or whenever it was that it was sent (erm, 2011?) but wasn’t in the right head space to be reading it, and popped it back on the shelf, knowing I’d go back to it.

Well, with a repeat of A Century of Books lined up for 2014, I’m enjoying delving into 21st-century literature in my post-thesis binge.  Indeed, I finished reading this shortly after I submitted my thesis, and before I flew to America, so it’s taken a little while to review.  And it’s every bit as good as everyone was saying it was, back when it first came out.

 It’s your standard fantastic creation story… a lonely woman who longs for a child accidentally creates one, and then begins to lose control over her creation.  The story is remarkably similar to Edith Olivier’s The Love-Child – and even more similar, overtly so, to the Russian fairytale ‘The Snow Maiden’.  With my interest in novels of this ilk, it’s as though it were written for me.  But, as with any updating of fairytale, what is important is the way in which the tale is told.  Ivey does it beautifully.

Mabel and Jack have moved to the middle of snowy nowhere in Alaska, 1920, and live quietly, working hard to keep their farm going.  Both characters are quite shy and keep their emotions to themselves, but it’s clear at the same time that these silent emotions run deep – so deep that any hint of them is unbearably painful.  And yet, shy as they are, they somehow make friends with their jolly neighbours Esther and George.

“I suppose I’m the black sheep.  No one else in my family would think of living on a farm, or moving to Alaska.  My father was a literature professor at the University of Pennsylvania.” 

“And you left all that to come here?  What in God’s name were you thinking?”  Esther shoved Mabel playfully on the arm.  “He talked you into it, didn’t he?  That’s how it often is.  These men drag their poor women along, taking them to the Far North for adventure, when all they want is a hot bath and a housekeeper.”

“No.  No.  It’s not like that.”  All eyes were on her, even Jack’s.  She hesitated, but then went on.  “I wanted to come here.  Jack did, too, but when we did, it was at my urging.  I don’t know why, precisely.  I believe we were in need of a change.  We needed to do things for ourselves.  Does that make any sense?  To break your own ground and know it’s yours free and clear.  Nothing taken for granted.  Alaska seemed like the place for a fresh start.” 

Esther grinned.  “You didn’t fare too badly with this one, did you, Jack?  Don’t let word get out.  There aren’t many like her.”

Though she didn’t look up, Mabel knew Jack was watching her and that her cheeks were flushed.  She so rarely spoke so much in mixed company.  Maybe she had said too much.
These sections actually reminded me a bit of Betty Macdonald’s The Egg and I, although that is a comedy; the same hardships and marital tensions come about because of giving everything to a working farm.

It swiftly becomes clear that the thing missing the in the lives of Mabel and Jack is not simply money or an assistant, but a child – and, of course, one materialises.  A child made out of snow turns – it seems – into a real child, called Faina.  She is quiet and undemonstrative; Ivey cleverly changes the way dialogue is spoken in any scene in which Faina appears, so that it isn’t announced by speech marks but blended into the narrative.  In the same way, Faina seems to blend into the natural world, never quite leaving it to be their child, always disappearing into the snow.  She willingly wears the beautiful coat Mabel makes, but she is still wild – like Clarissa in The Love-Child, she cannot really be contained.

And then there is the question, unearthed by Jack, as to who Faina really is.  Is she a miracle, crafted from snow?  Or is she all too human, abandoned and homeless on the snowy mountainside?  Well, obviously I’m not going to tell you.  Nor am I going to tell you about the other complication that arrives, which again mirrors the plot of The Love-Child (and which, I realise, probably means that Edith Olivier probably read ‘The Snow Maiden’.)

Eowyn Ivey has met with a lot of success with this novel, and deservedly so.  The Snow Child is written with a beautiful simplicity – or a simple beauty, if you like – with emotions always playing out near the surface; there isn’t much introspection, or a web or words trying to weave a complex portrait of an emotional state, but rather Mabel and Jack’s urgent feelings are clear to the reader (even while they are hidden from others.)  What I mean to say is, sometimes the deepest and most complicated situations require only simple words; sometimes the simplest words can convey the deepest sorrow and be more moving than any over-wrought passage.  I know I’m not alone in being very affected by The Snow Child – my friend from OUP admitted that it made him cry, and I’ve got to say I liked him even more after that confession – and it is a novel which requires some sort of emotional stability in its reader, or it would be too heartbreaking from the outset.  But, oh, it’s worth it.

As I wrote earlier, this novel could have been crafted for me and my interests – and it got a mention in my thesis – and I was surprised, but pleased, to see how widely it was admired and loved.  Rightly so.  Eowyn Ivey is a significant new talent, and I look forward to seeing what comes next from her.

The Red House – Mark Haddon

What with reader’s block, moving house, and not having internet for a bit, it’s been a while since you had a proper review from me.  And today is no different, because I’m handing over to somebody else to write about The Red House by Mark Haddon, which I was sent as a review copy.  Tom (who recently married my best friend) spotted it on my shelves, and commented on it, so I decided it would find a better home with him.  Whether or not he ended up agreeing, you can discover below… Tom, by the by, can also be found at the blog Food, Music, God.  Over to you, Tom!
I promised Simon a while back that I’d read Mark Haddon’s The Red House and review it for him, and have sincerely been reiterating that promise to him ever since whilst getting distracted by other tasks like getting married or trying to qualify as a teacher. However, the other day my mother rang me up and told me that my father had recently read The Red House and she had just started it, and so it occurred to me that now might be the time to take action and stop anyone else having to read it ever again. That way, we can pretend that it didn’t happen, that Mark Haddon can still write novels with razor-sharp characters and compelling narrative, and that this clichéd series of adolescent writing exercises is the work of someone else.
The novel is about two families united by estranged siblings who are trying to reconnect with one another after the death of their ferocious mother. There’s Richard, the hospital consultant who remarried recently but doesn’t really know how to talk to his new wife Louisa, and may have A DARK SECRET. His estranged sister, Angela, who’s haunted by the ghost of her stillborn daughter, but of course she can’t tell anyone about that, and married to Dominic, who seems reasonably normal but may also have A DARK SECRET. Richard’s kids – Alex, a sex-obsessed teenager; Daisy, a buttoned-up Christian who also thinks rather more about sex than she’d like; Benjy, who is eight (I think) and I can’t remember much more about. Angela’s daughter Melissa, who is a self-obsessed cow who’s kind of hot and whom Alex fancies, of course. Then there’s the house itself, allegedly the conduit for all of these stories for some reason, although that’s arguably just an excuse for the fact that Mark Haddon couldn’t decide which character to focus on. The house seems to know quite a lot of poetry, and it talks like a travel guide written by James Joyce.
If you think that sounds like a lot going on, you’d be right, and that’s part of the problem. It’s a shame, as there are some good ideas here, especially with the teenagers in the cast – Daisy’s struggle with her sexuality and where it fits with her faith is clearly aiming for some wider significance, for example. Alex and Melissa’s teenage angst is sharply drawn, if rather aimless, and the differences in Angela and Richard’s approach to their upbringing and the effect on their families could have been channeled into something effective in the manner of Jonathan Franzen. However, it just doesn’t feel like it’s been edited into any kind of coherent shape. It’s this huge splurge of styles and influences and this, rather than seeming ambitious, comes across as amateurish instead. It doesn’t build, it doesn’t have much of a climax to speak of, and the central narrative just isn’t strong enough to provide any real mooring.
It’s also overwritten and laden with unnecessary detail. What is one supposed to make of a passage like this:
Louisa works for Mann Digital in Leith. They do flatbed scanning, big photographic prints, light boxes, Giclée editions, some editing and restoration. She loves the cleanness and precision of it, the ozone in the air, the buzz and shunt of the big Epsons, the guillotine, the hot roller, the papers, Folex, Somerset, Hahnemühle. Mann is Ian Mann who hung on to her during what they called her difficult period because she’d manned the bridge during his considerably more difficult period the previous year.
It’s like Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian”, that, only about photocopying. And that’s not even the worst linguistic crime in the book – reading about Angela reading modern poetry, with snippets of Robert Browning woven through the text, is pretty painful, as is Richard’s attempt at reading ancient Greek poetry, not to mention the inexplicable quoting of something that seems to be an encyclopaedia about lorries.
Or what about this:
Richard slots the tiny Christmas tree of the interdental brush into its white handle and cleans out the gaps between his front teeth, top and bottom, incisors, canines. He likes the tightness, the push and tug, getting the cavity really clean, though only at the back between the molars and pre-molars do you get the satisfying smell of rot from all that sugar-fed bacteria. Judy Hecker at work. Awful breath. Ridiculous that it should be a greater offence to point it out. Arnica on the shelf above his shaver. Which fool did that belong to? Homeopathy on the NHS now. Prince Charles twisting some civil servant’s arm no doubt. Ridiculous man.
If you can find another novel in which you can find a narrative reason to justify spending this much time on one of the characters brushing his teeth, I’d be interested to hear about it. It’s a testament to the way that The Red House is written that the author thought that this belonged, but it is apparently a novel about the mundane and the ordinary (or so the blurb says), and so there’s plenty of that. Again, perhaps it’s an attempt at being clever; to impart some wonder into the everyday processes of how peoples’ minds work. If you feel a sense of wonder at the above, I’d be interested to hear about that too.

You should not read The Red House. Tell your friends not to read it. If people suggest taking it on holiday, don’t. If you find it in your holiday home, leave it there. It’s not a good holiday book. It’s not good literary fiction. No, it’s not lightweight, and yet it also doesn’t seem to mean anything. It’s shockingly dark in places (and shockingly dull in others) and it doesn’t seem to known what to do with that darkness. Curious Incident was (and still is) magnificent, thanks to an exceptionally strong narrative voice. A Spot of Bother was flawed, but still gripping and surprisingly visceral in places – and the characterisation was second to none. In The Red House, despite a couple of strong passages such as Richard’s disastrous run out on the moors, there’s nothing to make this stand out. It’s an ambitious experiment, and perhaps an admirable one; to his credit, at least Mark Haddon is still pushing his craft and trying new things. However, it’s a huge disappointment that in doing so he has moved so far away from his strengths.

Lucia on Holiday

Many of us sigh despondently when we reach the end of a much-loved book or series of books.  It seems unfair, somehow, that there is no third book in the Winnie the Pooh series, or that Jane Austen wrote no sequel to Pride and Prejudice, or that E.F. Benson, despite being incredibly prolific, only wrote six books in the Mapp and Lucia series – and only three featuring both heroines together.

In each of these cases, other authors have stepped into the authors’ shoes.  I wrote about David Benedictus’s Return to the Hundred Acre Wood earlier in the year, and of the writing of Jane Austen sequels there is no end.  Some are brilliant (Diana Birchall’s Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma, for instance) and some are decidedly not.  Our eagerness for more of our favourite characters is matched only be our wariness and trepidation that usurping authors will have made a mess of things.  Thank goodness, then, for Guy Fraser-Sampson.

I adore the sniping, gloriously funny world of Mapp and Lucia, and I know I will read and re-read Benson’s books throughout my life. But it’s also wonderful to know that there are others to read when the series is complete.  I’ve not tried Tom Holt’s two sequels, although they are waiting on my shelves, but I love and adore Major Benjy and (now) Lucia on Holiday by Guy F-S.

The reason they are so delicious is that Guy ‘gets’ the voice of Benson so perfectly.  I can honestly say that, while reading Lucia on Holiday, I kept forgetting that it wasn’t Benson’s pen which had written it – and what higher compliment could possibly be paid?

Lucia on Holiday takes place after Mapp and Lucia, but it is not made clear exactly when in the chronology the story takes place. The ambiguity is bashfully explained in the introduction – because there is an event in the novel which dates it very precisely, but which would make it a touch out of kilter with the publication history of the original series – but, as Guy says in this introduction, since Benson moved his principal village from one county to another, he’d be very forgiving.  It does not, in the end, much matter – Mapp and Lucia et al behave precisely as they would at any point in their history.

As you may guess from the title, Lucia is on holiday – she cashes in some clever (if risky) investments, and heads off to Italy with husband Georgie in tow.  But Elizabeth Mapp isn’t having that, of course – not for she to be gloried over forever in Tilling society.  Luckily, her friendly Maharajah wishes his son to be accompanied on holiday to Europe… and Mapp decides that precisely Lucia’s hotel would be the best place.  Mr and Mrs Wyse also turn up, as does my favourite character, insouciant opera singer Olga Bracely, so (with a few Bensonian coincidences) we have a microcosm of Tilling society gathered.  If we miss Quaint Irene and Diva Plaistow, then, well, we’ve coped without Daisy Quantock for several books, and both ladies are much present in recollection and quotation.

What ensues certainly has a plot, and goes nearer the knuckle than Benson could possibly have done in the 1920s and 1930s (c.f. Georgie and his handsome valet), but is chiefly joyful for the constant oneupmanship and subtle bitchery between our heroines.  Anyone who has read the original series will be familiar with the sort of thing – neither ever makes an outright insult (or, if they do, it is in an unguarded moment) – but there are plenty that hide behind the thinnest of veils.  Lucia delights, for example, in making subtle references to occasions on which Mapp sabotaged someone else’s cake, and Mapp… well, Mapp, as always (sadly!) so rarely gets the overhand.  And, as always, I cheer her on, hoping that Lucia will be smited just once.

As I say, Guy F-S has understood and echoed Benson’s tone so wonderfully – I especially like his moments of narrative bitching, exposing the self-delusion of the grande dames.  This excerpt, early in the novel, was the moment I cheerfully knew I was in safe hands – it is perfect as a depiction of how ridiculous Mapp is, and how delusional:

“Benjy!” she gasped, clasping her hands together in what she felt sure was girlish glee. “But of course – that’s brilliant!”
My only reservations in characterisation were that things are pushed that tiniest bit too far for my liking.  Georgie seems genuinely to hate Lucia much of the time, without the constant, grudging admiration and love he feels in the original series (although this does come out eventually in Lucia on Holiday).  Mapp is a shade too monstrous, and Major Benjy a shade too lascivious – but these are only shades, and the fact that it comes down to tiny details is itself astonishing.

Of course, you must start with the originals.  If you haven’t read them, do start with Queen Lucia (not Mapp and Lucia itself, which is the fourth in the series) – you may have to struggle past the baby talk, which is mercifully scarce in Guy F-S’s book, but it’s worth it.  Once you’ve read and relished them – you can be overjoyed to know that these will be waiting.

Miranda Hart – Is It Just Me?

Another quick this-book-has-been-on-my-To-Review-shelf-forever review, I’m afraid – my reading has been so shamefully little recently – but that means you get to hear about some fun books in short bursts.  And today’s is Miranda Hart’s bestselling book Is It Just Me?  Note that I don’t say ‘autobiography’ – we’ll come onto that later.

I suspect you know who Miranda Hart is, but indulge me for a moment.  She is a comedian (we’re not saying ‘comedienne’ anymore, are we, please?) who sprung to fame in an eponymous sitcom where she falls over things, embraces middle-aged activities a little early, and generally makes fun of herself.  I’m always drawn to female-driven sitcoms, so I’ve been watching since day one – but the third series, which finished here about a month ago, was the one which really saw Miranda pull in enormous audiences of over 9 million.  One in seven people in the UK were watching, which is extraordinary.

The sitcom has the occasional dud episode, but generally I love, love, love it.  How can I not feel affinity with a woman who, aghast at the idea of going out clubbing, says: “It’s 9 o’clock! Four words: Rush. Home. For. Poirot.”  For those who don’t ‘get’ it, Miranda is just childish and meandering – but I really admire how she has made slapstick amusing to those of us who normally don’t care for it.  I adore her friend Tilly and her ridiculous expressions (I was saying ‘McFact’ before it appeared on Miranda: McFact.) Stevie (with her ‘allure’) and Miranda have a wonderful friendship, which is all too rarely shown in comedy.  And then there’s her Mum.  It’s all great fun, and very watchable.  And very British.

Which brings me onto Is It Just Me?  Although it is by Miranda Hart, about Miranda Hart, it’s only really an autobiography to the extent that the sitcom is – it feels a lot like it’s been written ‘in character’.  Presumably all the events she described happened, at least in outline, but it’s certainly selective.  Her tales of dating, office life, holidays, weddings… they’re all written as though outlining  an idea for a sketch comedy.  Which is fine – it’s more than fine, it’s great – but it isn’t really an autobiography.  She spends a lot of the time in faux-conversation with her 17-year-old self, disillusioning her of the idea that she’ll grow up into a graceful gazelle-type.  (Since I talked to myself in my first Vulpes Libris column – see yesterday’s post – I don’t have a leg on which to stand.)

Of course, having languished on my To Review shelf for so long, I can’t remember any examples to give you.  I chuckled my way through Is It Just Me? without making any notes on it, for reviewing purposes.  So I’ll borrow this clip of Miranda reading an excerpt herself…

I haven’t mentioned yet, but this was a gift from my lovely friend Lucy, whom I love even though she went and LEFT Oxford last year, to move to big old London town.

So, yes, a giggle of a book which does no more and no less than you’d expect.  Lots of amusing, light-hearted moments, and a surprisingly moving moment when she tells her younger self that her secret ambition to go into comedy has happened, and that she’s even spoken to her heroines French & Saunders.  I guess it’s the perfect Christmas book, but since that’s been and gone… Mothering Sunday?

(By the by, if you have watched the sitcom, and enjoy Sally Phillips wonderful turn as Tilly, may I recommend you seek out her sitcom Parents…)

Hallucinations – Oliver Sacks

Anne Fadiman wrote in Ex Libris that every bibliophile has a shelf (or shelves) of books that is somewhat off-kilter from the rest of their taste.  Mine might be my theology shelf, or my theatrical history shelf, but I think the books (few as they are) most likely to surprise the casual observer would be those on neurology.

When I told my Dad I’d bought and read Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks (after he’d spotted a review and told me about it), he asked “But will you be writing about it on your blog?”  “Of course,” thought I – it hadn’t crossed my mind that I wouldn’t.  But I pondered on it, and thought – would blog-readers used to my love for 1930s novels about spinsters drinking tea also want to read about phantom limbs and Delirium Tremens?

Believe me, you will.  I have almost zero interest in science in all its many and varied forms.  I stopped studying it when I was 16 (except for maths) and found it all very dull before that point.  (Apologies, science-lovers.)  Biology was far and away my least favourite subject.  And yet Hallucinations is absolutely brilliant, as fascinating and readable as his popular work The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.  A predilection for scientific books is definitely not a prerequisite.  Sacks is just as much a storyteller as a scientist.

Before starting Hallucinations, I thought they were mostly terrifying, felt real, and came chiefly with a fever or drug abuse.  While hallucinations can be all these things, I was surprised to learn how often they are benign (even amusing or comforting) and easily recognised as fake.  Strangest still, I hadn’t realised that (under Sacks’ definitions) I had experienced hallucinations myself.

That’s not quite true – I knew I’d had them when I had an extremely high temperature during flu, but I hadn’t known that what I’d had repeatedly as a child were hypnagogic hallucinations – those that people get just before going to sleep.  Aged about 5, I often used to see chains of bright lights and shapes (and, Mum remembered but I did not, faces) in front of me – whether my eyes were open or closed – at bedtime.  It turns out hypnagogic hallucinations are very common, and (Sacks writes) rarely unnerving for the hallucinator.  Well, Dr. Sacks, aged five I found them incredibly frightening, and usually ran to mother!

There are so many types of hallucinations that Sacks has witnessed in decades of being a neurologist, encountering hundreds of people and hearing about thousands from his colleagues.  This book just includes the ones who gave him permission.  It would necessitate typing out the whole book to tell you all the illustrations he gives, but they range from fascinating accounts of Charles Bonnet Syndrome (basically seeing hallucinations, often highly detailed, for long or short periods) to hallucinated smells, sounds, and even a chapter on hallucinating doppelgangers.

Almost all of these hallucinations act alongside lives which are lived otherwise normally, and do not suggest any terrible neurological condition.  It is somewhat chilling that Sacks recounts a study which revealed that 12 volunteers, with otherwise ‘normal’ mental health histories, were asked to tell doctors they were hearing voices – and 11 were diagnosed with schizophrenia.  Sacks is keen to point out how many patients with hallucinations, even when voices, are not suffering from schizophrenia or any other sort of mental illness.  He is deeply interested in how people manage their lives when seeing hallucinations at any hour of the day, and offers up humble praise to those who take it in their stride.

This is what makes Sacks so special.  A few of the blurb reviews describe him as ‘humane’, which I suppose he is – but the word feels a little dispassionate.  Sacks, on the other hand, is fundamentally compassionate.  He never treats or describes people as case studies.  The accounts he gives are not scientific outlines, interested only in neurological details, but mini-biographies filled with human detail, humour, and respect.  Here’s an example of all three factors combining:

Gertie C. had a half-controlled hallucinosis for decades before she started on L-dopa – bucolic hallucinations of lying in a sunlit meadow or floating in a creek near her childhood home.  This changed when she was given L-dopa and her hallucinations assumed a social and sometimes sexual character.  When she told me about this, she added, anxiously, “You surely wouldn’t forbid a friendly hallucination to a frustrated old lady like me!”  I replied that if her hallucinations had a pleasant and controllable character, they seemed rather a good idea under the circumstances.  After this, the paranoid quality dropped away, and her hallucinatory encounters became purely amicable and amorous.  She developed a humour and tact and control, never allowing herself a hallucination before eight in the evening and keeping its duration to thirty or forty minutes at most.  If her relatives stayed too late, she would explain firmly but pleasantly that she was expecting “a gentleman visitor from out of town” in a few minutes’ time, and she felt he might take it amiss if he was kept waiting outside.  She now receives love, attention, and invisible presents from a hallucinatory gentleman who visits faithfully each evening.
And with this respect and kindness definitely comes a sense of humour – the sort of humour exemplified by many of the people he met.  This detail, in a footnote, was wonderful:

Robert Teunisse told me how one of his patients, seeing a man hovering outside his nineteenth-floor apartment, assumed this was another one of his hallucinations.  When the man waved at him, he did not wave back.  The “hallucination” turned out to be his window washer, considerably miffed at not having his friendly wave returned.
Although Sacks does not compromise his scientific standing, Hallucinations is definitely (as demonstrated by me) a book which is accessible to the layman.  In the whole book, there was only one sentence which completely baffled me…

When his patient died, a year later, an autopsy revealed a large midbrain infarction involving (among other structures) the cerebral peduncles (hence his coinage of the term “penduncular hallucinations”).
I’ll take your word for it, Oliver.

But, that excerpt aside, Hallucinations was more of a page-turner than most detective novels, paid closer attention to the human details of everyday life than much domestic fiction, and certainly left me with more to think about than many books I read.  I hope I’ve done enough to convince you that, even if you think you won’t be interested, you probably would be.

I have wondered whether my interest in neurology might, in fact, just be an appreciation of Oliver Sacks.  I’ve started other books in the field and not finished them, though I will go back to one on synaesthesia that I recently began.  Perhaps no other author combines Sacks’ talents as scientist and storyteller… but I’m happy to be proven wrong, if anyone has any suggestions?

For now, though, I’m going to have to hunt out my copy of Sacks’ Awakenings

Caitlin Moran is basically Dickens.

I’m going to start this review by getting all hipster – bear with me one moment while I put on my oversized specs and dig out some ironic vinyl records – and say that I loved Caitlin Moran before it was cool to love Caitlin Moran. Granted, I don’t buy a newspaper myself, or subscribe to The Times online, but my father and brother regard The Times as second only to Scripture and I flick through it when I visit either of them. More specifically, I have read Caitlin Moran’s columns for years. I don’t always agree with her, but I always find her brilliantly, ingeniously funny. The sort of funny that makes reading a newspaper actually fun.

Following on from the success of How To Be A Woman, which I have borrowed but have yet to read, a selection of her columns has been published under the title Moranthology. Geddit? Good. Her topics are widespread – a lot of celebrity-culture and arts & entertainment, but also just the world around her, from new dresses to Gregg’s pasties to tax (she’s pro.) Here’s how she glosses her inspirations in the introduction:

The motto I have Biro’d on my knuckles is that this is the best world we have – because it’s the only world we have. It’s the simplest maths ever. However many terrible, rankling, peeve-inducing things may occur, there are always libraries. And rain-falling-on-sea. And the Moon. And love. There is always something to look back on, with satisfaction, or forward to, with joy. There is always a moment when you boggle at the world – at yourself – at the whole, unlikely, precarious business of being alive – and then start laughing.

And that’s usually when I make a cup of tea, and start typing.
Caitlin Moran and I are unlikely ever to be friends. This is largely – though not entirely – because all her friendships seem to be assessed on the willingness with which said friend will breakdance, drunk out of their minds, in seedy clubs at four in the morning – or how much they admire Ghostbusters, which I’ve never seen. But, should our paths ever cross – at, say, 7.30 am, as she is stumbling back from a faux-Victorian strip club with Lady Gaga, and I am blearily crawling to the corner shop to get milk for my morning tea, not wearing any glasses because for some reason that only feels like a viable option in a post-caffeine world – should we meet, perhaps we would bond a little. Bond about our love of books (she champions libraries wonderfully; ‘A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life-raft, and a festival’) and our distrust of the Tory Party. Maybe even about how great Modern Family is, although that’s not mentioned here. But that might be it. I’ve never seen Sherlock, and I don’t much care for Doctor Who – these admissions are probably enough for Moran to cement-bag me to the bottom of the Thames, a la Mack the Knife. The columns where she reviews or goes behind the scenes of these shows are near-pathological in their adoration.

And, of course, there are plenty of other things we don’t agree about, or enthusiasms we don’t share. That’s beside the point. Moran could write about how much she likes dead-heading roses to make bonnets for foxes, and she’d make the hobby seem not only amusing, but rather bohemian and cool. Because Moran just is cool, without seeming to try at all. The sort of cool which entirely embraces self-deprecation and wears absurd foibles as badges of honour – and makes everything she writes seem adorable and awesome. (The only time I felt disappointed by Moran was when she referred to the ‘anti-choice’ movement. However strongly people may disagree over the issue of abortion, I’ve always deeply admired the almost-universal respectful use of ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ by those who oppose either one. Because, Moran – as well you know – absolutely nobody takes an anti-life or an anti-choice stance. That is never their objective.) But, that aside, she doesn’t put a foot wrong. She can babble about Downton Abbey, declare her hatred of children’s book/TV character Lola, or opine on her holidays to Wales, and it’s all just brilliant. And it’s brilliant because she has her tone down pat – a way with simile that is always innovative and hilarious (she, for instance, describes X Factor alum Frankie Cocozza as having ‘a voice like a goose being kicked down a slide’) and a clever mix of high and low registers which is positively Dickensian – throwing slang in with perfect judgement. Because (see above) she’s so cool.

And that mention of Dickens isn’t careless. Caitlin Moran is basically a 21st-century Dickens, with crazy awesome hair. In amongst all the hilarious columns on the ugliness of fish names or how someone stole her hairstyle, Moran gets in some serious social politics. So, like Dickens, she is incredibly funny – but uses the humour to slip in social commentary; the difference being that Dickens would give us a plucky urchin at the mercy of Sir Starvethechild. It would be glorious, but his point would be rather lost in a thicket of the grotesque. Moran, give or take some emotive wording, just tells it as it is.

Moran grew up on a council estate with eight siblings and parents who were on disability benefits. As she says, ‘I’ve spent twenty years clawing my way out of a council house in Wolverhampton, to reach a point where I can now afford a Nigella Lawson breadbin.’ But she still knows what poverty was like firsthand, and writes movingly, sensibly, and brilliantly about various issues to do with cutting benefits or alienating the poor.

All through history, those who can’t earn money have had to rely on mercy: fearful, changeable mercy, that can dissolve overnight if circumstances change, or opinions alter. Parish handouts, workhouses, almshouses – ad-hoc, makeshift solutions that make the helpless constantly re-audition in front of their benefactors; exhaustingly trying to re-invoke pity for a lifetime of bread and cheese.

That’s why the invention of the Welfare State is one of the most glorious events in history: the moral equivalency of the Moon Landings. Something not fearful or changeable, like mercy, but certain and constant – a right. Correct and efficient: disability benefit fraud is just 0.5 per cent. A system that allows dignity and certainty to lives otherwise chaotic with poverty and illness.
Who but Moran could write about her hatred of creating party-bags, her love of David Attenborough and her friend with schizophrenia who has to move cities in order to retain state-given accommodation? Not in the same column, you understand, but I wouldn’t put it past her. Moran has won all sorts of awards, I believe, and I would say that she deserves them – but, quite frankly, she is the only columnist I ever read. I’ve been enjoying her columns for years (some in this book are, naturally, revisits for me) and I’m so delighted that they’re now available as a book. I’ve got my fingers crossed for another, since this can only represent a small percentage of her output. But I’ll count my blessings with this one (thanks Colin for giving it to me!) and urge you to seek it out. Like I said, Moran is basically Dickens. Hilariously funny, socially conscious, rocks some impressive sideburns. Well, two out of three ain’t bad.

Shrinking Violet

cover design: Suzi Ovens

I have read my first Kindle book!  Before you ebook-fanatics get too excited, I should say that it was on Kindle for PC, and the only reason I read it was because it was written by a lovely friend of mine.  But if it weren’t good, I’d have read it on the sly, and never mentioned it here.  As it is, I can  happily and honestly say that it is brilliant – without any fear of compromising my integrity (which, post-Dewey, is probably in shambles anyway.)  It’s Shrinking Violet (2012) by Karina Lickorish Quinn, and the ebook is available for only 77p!  Considering how fab it is, that is a complete steal.

I was lucky enough to see an early draft of some chapters, because Karina wanted to know my opinion – I was a little nervous, in case it wasn’t good, but I was able to give her a double thumbs up with complete enthusiasm.  She has very sweetly given me a ‘thank you’ on one of the opening pages, which is rather thrilling!  Ok, now onto the book itself – I just wanted to lay all that before you, so you’d know in advance my connection to Shrinking Violet.  But I hope you know me well enough to know that I wouldn’t say it was great if I didn’t believe it.  But I will be calling the author ‘Karina’ rather than ‘Lickorish Quinn’, because I’ve known her for seven years, and it would feel odd to call her anything except Karina.

Shrinking Violet could have been written to my requirements, so perfect is it for my taste.  It’s a quirky, slightly surreal but not macabre, novella about Oxford – and it’s heavily influenced by Lewis Carroll’s Alice (as I will discuss later).  I also detected a lot of similarities with Barbara Comyns’ Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (one of my favourite books) but I know they were coincidences, since Karina didn’t read the Comyns novel until after she finished writing the book.  I love a quirky domestic setting, and I was drawn in by the lovely description of Violet’s house…

It was true that it was a most impractical house. Violet’s family lived in a higgledy-piggledy house with seven floors, because no two rooms were level, but each was connected by a set of stairs to the other. The house was also full of doors here and there of all shapes and sizes leading to cupboards and passages or to nowhere at all. There was not a single right angle in it. Under every piece of furniture was wedged a notebook or a folded handkerchief to stop them from wobbling on the uneven floors. Every breakable object was stuck down with glue or adhesive tape. Not even the pictures on the walls could be balanced in such a way as to hang straight.
Violet herself is an inquisitive young girl as the story starts, short for her age and with an unusual perspective on life.  Karina captures really well the disjointed nature of a child’s view – a determination to read some sort of logic into any scenario, alongside the readiness to accept or imagine anything.  Violet can be quite literal in her understanding of what people say, but lends her own enchanting interpretations to the world around her:

“What I do not understand,” Violet had said “Is that when you tell me I have eleven apples and to take five away, you do not tell me where those five apples should go.”   

Her teacher had given her five minutes standing out in the cloisters for that remark. Violet did not very much fancy the idea of standing out in the cloisters today, so when she was told she had five goats and she should take three away, rather than asking her teacher where she should put the three goats, she used her own initiative and sent them to wait in the quad with the other animals that were swimming and paddling there. I am very sorry to have to send you out, she explained to the goats. But you see my teacher does not have time for my questions and you know you cannot stay in the classroom, unless you want to do some sums, and I am afraid there aren’t any spare desks for you.  

Violet sighed as she turned the page to find that every question involved the taking away of a certain number of elephants and cats and ferrets from a larger group of elephants and cats and ferrets, so that very soon the quad was filled with her cast away creatures.
Onto that Alice mention I made earlier.  Karina uses the legacy of Alice very cleverly.  It isn’t intended to be a subtle background reference once or twice – it swirls and unfurls throughout Shrinking Violet, like the flood which carried the knitting sheep, perhaps.  Karina’s novel isn’t a sequel to or a retelling of Carroll’s Alice, but it could perhaps be found in the same universe.  The influence threads through the minutiae of the novel – there are mentions of a Dodo, jam tarts, pocket-watches, chess – but it is the feel of Shrinking Violet which truly unites the two.  Where Carroll’s books have their own curious anti-logic, Karina takes on the surreality of Alice, but mostly in Violet’s unusual view of the world, rather than that world itself.  The narrative slips into the little girl’s imagination, so that her curious conclusions and conversations with the inanimate sometimes seem to be coming true, but this simply indicates the vividness of the world she inhabits and creates.  As she grows older (and taller – like Alice, her height suddenly increases, although it doesn’t oscillate…) the world around her becomes less fantastic, but the tone never loses its wonderful surreal qualities – but a surrealism rooted in the domestic.  The events of the novel could certainly happen – a school day, a wedding, a funeral – but they take on their own peculiar, touching, curious character through Violet’s eyes and Karina’s words.

One of the stylistic traits which Karina uses wonderfully is the off-balance end to sentence or paragraph, often adding a little pathos to a quirky character or, alternatively, adding an unusual twist to an otherwise grounded section.  Here is an example of the former:

Aunt Dora was rarely awake and even then, barely. It was often said of her that she could sleep anywhere and did. When she was young she had found it impossible to sleep in silent or solitary places and so had paid to visit museums, watch films and take train journeys just to sleep where there would be noise and crowds. She had slept through an opera, a circus show and a riot. None of her family knew this about her because she saw it as a rather sordid secret. Her friends did not know it because she did not have any friends.
This pathos comes most affectingly with Violet’s grandfather Julius.  To my mind, he is the most delightful character in Shrinking Violet.  Somehow he is both eccentric and straight-talking.  He doesn’t beat about the bush, but his world is almost as fanciful as the infant Violet’s.  He once wrote a great novel, but now writes haiku on bits of paper and leaves them around the house.  His interactions with the everyday world – with his granddaughter’s wedding, or his wife’s illness – are fragmented and uncertain, but he is still in control of his personality and his opinions.  He’s a fascinating character – and it is with him and Violet’s relationship with him that the sadder, more serious undertones of the novel come to light.

For a short novel, an awful lot is packed in – but, unlike a lot of first novels, I didn’t feel that Karina was trying to put too much in.  There is a definite unity to Shrinking Violet, in terms of style and tone, which suggests a much more experienced novelist.  Perhaps it is not entirely clear how Karina will write when detached from the deliberate influence of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but I think her ability to depict the quirky alongside the moving can be transferred to her next book, without the allusions to Alice.  I’m looking forward to finding out what happens.

As a friend of Karina’s, I want to say “Buy it! Read it! Blog about it! Tell your friends!”, but as a reader of books, I need no sort of nepotism simply to say “Buy it! Read it!”  It’s a really wonderful little book, and I’m proud to have any connection with it – Karina is a talented and imaginative writer, Violet is a wonderful character, and Shrinking Violet is a joyous, eccentric, thoughtful little beauty of a book.