A Funny Book – to cheer autumn days

Some people think that all good books are serious, literary reads, with much death and destruction, or at least unhappiness. It is my mission to find books that are well written, enjoyable to read, and not remotely depressing. Here is a funny book which has been around for many years, refers to a long lost pursuit, yet still makes me laugh. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome.

I first discovered this book in Cambridge, when as an undergraduate I was getting fairly book weary and ploughing through huge law textbooks. It is an autobiographical account of a journey along the Thames in Edwardian times, undertaken by J and his friends George and Harris. They are three young men who work in modest circumstances in the City who decide to take their holiday on a small boat. What follows is a very funny account of their preparations, their journeys and diversions. They have disagreements over cooking, eating and just how much work moving a boat along the river. George has brought a banjo, and its instruction book.  Harris “who always keeps to shades or mixtures of oranges and yellows”,  is sensitive about how much work he is expected to do. Inanimate objects conspire against them, tow-lines “try to knit themselves up into antimacassars the instant they are left to themselves”, boat covers collapse, and there is much difficulty in achieving the journey. Kettles must be ignored if they are ever to boil, but after food the party “sat and beamed on one another”. There are many anecdotes not necessarily anything to do with the boat, including a story of cheese that could not be stored or buried but eventually renewed the fortunes of a sea side resort.

The undoubted star of the book, however, is Montmorency. He is a small dog, but with a huge personality. He incites local dogs to passion, and expresses his personality forcefully. The famous quote is “The only one who was not struck with the suggestion was Montmorency. He never did care for the river, did Montmorency.’

This is a jolly book, a happy book, a book to make you smile. Silly, daft and redolent of a lifestyle gone by, a book of amusing events that everyone can enjoy.

In Time of War – 70 years on

If you have watched any television over the last few weeks, picked up a paper, or turned on the radio, you will of course know that it is seventy years since the Battle of  Britain and the start of World War Two in all its ferocity. There have been programmes examining many many aspects of the War, including the role played by women pilots, mentioning Jackie Corchan, the subject of one of the plays I saw in Edinburgh.  I am enjoying Private Battles by Simon Garfield and Mass Observation among other books on the War; it’s a collection of four diaries, each commenting on the Home Front. Mass Observation, the collection of people’s thoughts and everyday experiences, have produced many really excellent books. Sadly I do not fit the requirements for volunteers at the moment, but maybe some day. Until then, my War views will be shaped by family history and Dads Army, now edited by my friend Charles. If you can’t be famous yourself ….

Henrietta’s War and Henrietta sees it Through by Joyce Dennys are two of the books in the Bloomsbury Group series of reprints. They are in the form of letters written by a doctor’s wife in a Devonshire village during the War. They have the ring of truth, the spontaneous nature of being written in the first person (which works in this case) and are remarkable in their honesty. The writer admits to real fear, discomfort and the frustrations of not doing ‘real war work’ because she is keeping her husband going in the fading days of pre NHS, one doctor practices. The books are also tremendously funny, with the local characters, the incomers and everyone else trying to get along in unique circumstances. The Drama Society, jam making without sugar, wartime romance, class distinctions are all dealt with in such a way that the author’s own drawings, as above, just finish the effect. Yes, there was one point when Son 2 removed one of the books because I was crying, but that’s because of the frighteningly realistic chord it struck about one’s daughter being a nurse, when she doesn’t seem old enough to be more than a child herself. Two books which can reduce me to laughter and tears are well worth getting hold of and reading. I am confused about how frequently the Bloomsbury group are going to bring out these good reprints (there are ten so far), but I have bought a few and look forward to more. I’m going to dash off a quick email to the publishers to ask…Just watch this space…

A White Queen, with a Red one to follow

Panic not! This is not a beginner’s chess lesson, but some intensive historical knowledge would help. A few months ago, myself and the intrepid CB travelled to Alnwick Castle (and hear -eventually) Philippa Gregory talk about her new series, beginning with The White Queen, her novel of Elizabeth Woodville.

It was a packed hall in the beautiful castle. Afternoon tea was mentioned, but not being a tea drinker and seeing the length of the queue we found some seats. The room was full of mainly ladies of a certain age, which probably reflects Gregory’s readership, and the people who could afford the time and the ticket price of the event. (Part of the Hexham literary Festival). The introduction to the speaker was good, except that the sound seemed to have packed up. Given that presumably they have many an event in this Hall, we were unimpressed. Not as unimpressed as Ms Gregory, who refused to utter a word until she was sure that everyone could hear her. She was a very interesting speaker, who had obviously done her research well. She also has a great feeling for the characters involved, asking the what ifs of history, if one of the Princes in the Tower had survived,or if one of Elizabeth’s most admirable brothers had prospered. I enjoyed listening to her greatly, but sadly, even with the addition of questions, she did not speak for very long. It was also quite a time before her new book, The Red Queen, was due to be published, and so she had to speak of that in the future.

When I read The White Queen subsequently, I had to agree that one of the problems of writing of the War of the Roses period is the fact that all the women seemed to be called Margaret, Elizabeth or Anne, which is confusing, as well as the fine tradition of naming sons after their fathers and Uncles. Despite this being the first in the series, it also felt that we had joined the story part way through, with many references to Elizabeth’s mother’s exciting marital career, and some of the motivation of the characters which already seemed to be established and understood. While I must admit to my relative ignorance of this period, I’m not sure that Gregory ought to depend on her readers knowing this period as well as they do the Tudor period which has been the subject of so much screen time. I appreciate that Gregory is trying to write a series of novels each depicting a different character,but  I think it’s going to be difficult to keep up with the time frame. Also, I think that the third novel is about Elizabeth’s mother, which will necessitate going back in time again.

Gregory is a confident, knowledgeable historical novelist. But I struggled to enjoy this novel. I’m not sure whether it was the subject matter (the body count is high, counting battles, infant mortality and missing, presumed dead), or the historical background which I found confusing, but I think it compares unfavourably with the Tudor novels. The characters, especially the central Elizabeth, seemed more one dimensional, and unconvincing in joy or grief. But the biggest defect to me seemed to be the writing throughout in the present tense. While appreciate it reflects how life is lived, it doesn’t admit to analysis of the situation or reflection on what is past, especially when the events are confusing.  I have not gone back through the other Gregory novels to see if that is her normal practice, but I certainly struggled with it in this book. I suppose that when a few more books in the series are written, the jigsaw may fit together and I may understand it better, but I think it will be difficult to hold all the books in mind, especially when there is at least eighteen months before they each come out.

This is a good book and I would encourage you to read it. But it is not as good as her Tudor books in many ways, and I would suggest that it would be better to start with those, especially The Other Boleyn Girl.

Spy Classic alert!

Once in a while there comes a book which rather takes over. Other books being read (of which I usually have a few) get abandoned. The book dominates, and it is only possible to hope it’s fairly short- before people notice that they are getting ignored.

One of these books, happily not a long work, is The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carre. Often seen as the classic spy novel, it famously was written in six weeks while le Carre (the nom de plume of David Cornwall) was still working in the Intelligence service. As some one said to me,”although it’s years since I read the book, some of the images stay with me”. It opens with a planned escape from East Germany via a checkpoint on the Berlin Wall.  I remember student tales of those who had visited Berlin during the Cold War, and watching the Wall fall just before baby no. 2 was born. Trying to teach a particularly unresponsive group of year elevens about the siege of Berlin was not a memory I’ll dwell on; those teenagers were not easily impressed with anything, let alone the plight of a long gone regime in their eyes.

It maybe the spontaneity of the novel which gives it the bite. Certainly it has colour: the grey of postwar London, the grimness of life in a world without luxuries. The story of the hero, Lemas, in his assumed world of poverty, bitterness and betrayal is only briefly cheered by his relationship with Liz. People are challenging, exhibiting differing loyalties and obsessions which twist and turn so the reader finds herself as bewildered as probably intended. Smiley makes a shadowy appearance, for keen le Carre readers the first of many. Even the rural scenes which do sort of intrude are not comforting but threatening.

This is not a depressing book. Exciting, even exhilarating, and certainly not as wordy and confusing as some of le Carre’ later works. Having seem his last tv interview, he claims, on Channel Four this evening, le Carre recognises that this is his main book, the book on which he stands or falls. This is a spare, yet descriptive book, more approachable than Tinker, Tailor or the far more recent The Mission Song. My daughter rated the film The Constant Gardener very highly; it represents what le Carre wrote to protest about when the Cold War was finished. I think that the reissue of The Spy is to coincide with le Carre’s new book Our Kind of Traitor, which I may try and get hold of asap.

This is not just a spy novel, although it may have started the genre, it is a picture of a man caught up with forces that he may or may not control. It is not a novel to be limited by descriptions of a boys own book, or a spy procedure book. It is the sort of book which transcends that. If you can only imagine reading one spy novel, I think it should be this one. But if you do abandon everything else, or get hopelessly hooked on le Carre, it’s not my fault!

The Restoration Reading Group – with very few reservations

I may have mentioned before that I am so idle and underemployed – hmm – that I go to two Reading/Bookgroups.  One of them has recently met to discuss Restoration by Rose Tremain. Over some wine and elderflower cordial, we discussed and debated this classic book, and I searched to my memory to recall bits about the film, which I last saw quite a few years ago – though I believe it is available with Czech subtitles on DVD if you have the technology to deal with it….

Back to the book. And typically we started at the end, by saying that we were not really sure what to make of it. A dream? A trance? A true restoration to favour by way of a growth and development in self awareness? Comments please! I could not find any references to the end in the reviews online… And we certainly couldn’t come to any agreement. (Maybe I should contact Tremain herself? Or is the ambiguity deliberate?)

Anyway, for those of you who haven’t read this excellent book, it is a substantial novel, but not overlong, about the progress of Robert Merivel who comes to the notice of Charles the Second, recently restored to the throne. Robert’s father introduces him to the King, who adopts Robert as Physician to the Royal dogs, and unofficial Fool. The King chooses Robert as a token husband to one of his Mistresses, Celia, and presents him with a house in Norfolk, which Robert comes to love. Robert’s descent into Royal disapproval, his Exile to a Quaker Asylum, his ignominious return to a plague beset London, all sound ominous, but there are many touching, amusing and downright funny descriptions to balance the novel.

This book brought out many issues. How does, for example, a woman author capture all the insecurities, emotions and details of a man’s life. Are there differences in how men and women write? If there are differences, have they diminished since Austen’s time, for example? Historically speaking, had the plague finished before the Great Fire, or did it end as a result? A contribution that Pepys was definitely in London made us think that several notables had indeed returned to London before the Fire, so we reasoned that the plague must have abated.

We also admired Tremain’s description of Robert’s relationship with Pearce, his long term friend who almost seemed to act as a conscience. We debated the treatment of madness, contrasting it with other treatments available at the time, as well as what motivates a man who has many female contacts, to put it delicately. There does seem to be a lack of a strong female character, but it does mean that Robert’s character is examined in incredible detail.

If the mark of a good book club book is that it promotes discussion, this classic book meets the expectation. I think some us resolved to read other Tremain books as soon as possible; I read Music and Silence a few years ago, and really enjoyed it, especially the ending. I was also touched to hear a recommendation to read this bookblog, combined with the urging to review this book. So here it is People!  If you read this book blog, please feel free to comment. I’ll try to reply…, and also pass the word about the blog address – the more the merrier…

A Very English List by Mr Rosenblum

I’ve always claimed to be Welsh – my parents were born in Wales even though I was born in England. One day I’ll embark properly on a family history and prove that there’s more of a link than merely being able to mutter a few words to any passing Welsh speaker – which would probably get me into trouble anyway.

Today’s book is very different from my Welsh aspirations. Mr Rosenblum’s List by Natasha Solomons is a book about a family who escape 1930s Germany for England. Jack is determined to become as typically English as possible, and takes a leaflet given to him on the subject as the basis of his list. His wife is not so convinced; she yearns for her family who have died in the persecution of Jews. Jack continues to build up his English persona; as his business flourishes and rationing ceases, he equips himself with a very English suit and everything else he deems to be essential to the typical Englishman. Only one item remains, to join a golf club.In this thing he seems doomed to fail. No club will accept a Jew as a member, even if other, less prosperous men are welcomed. It is a this point he decides on his campaign to buy a piece of Dorset and build his own course.

It is at this point that the book really shifts up a gear, and becomes a funny, moving and involving account of rural life in all its variety and downright madness. Mythical beasts, an assortment of birds and creatures, none stranger than the humans to variously hinder and help Jack’s project with their country lore and more modern machinery. The seasons become important and the land almost becomes another character in the novel. Jack battles the class divisions that seem more pronounced in the country; as his money dwindles the hope of the course opening in time seems to be failing.

The other members of the family, Jack’s wife Sadie, and their daughter, Elizabeth, cannot divert Jack from his plans. Elizabeth goes to Cambridge and returns only on her terms. Sadie, however, feels the departure from London keenly. She begins to tend the garden but becomes more obsessed with her memories. She finds relative peace through her cooking of an immense memory cake which she shares, and begins to find her place in the country.

This is a novel of impossible dreams, memories and identity. The portrait of rural life is very effectively drawn, with great humour. Sadie’s memories are so real that this book could be depressing, but this is such an emotionally rewarding novel that is really enjoyable. The ending represents hope and justice; this is a positive book which is I greatly enjoyed reading once the action moved to the countryside. It is a bit of slow starter, but worth persevering through the first third of the tale to enjoy this unusual, but satisfying book.

Cambridge memories… and the Curry Club!

I love libraries. Where I grew up there was a tiny public library which I would go very frequently with my mum, who also loved reading. It didn’t take me long to work through the children’s department, though some books became firm friends, renewed endlessly. I still occasionally come across the same editions of those books, and hurriedly adopt them. When I got into the adult room, there was no stopping me. I rapidly became worldly wise through the medium of unsuitable reading matter – just a raised eyebrow or two from the librarian…

One of the great benefits of libraries is the opportunity to try books you may not otherwise buy. One of these treasures is The Cambridge Curry Club by Saumya Balsari. The novel is set in contemporary Cambridge; more specifically a charity shop on Mill Road. As I used to work along there, and have subsequently visited the area,I thought that this novel caught very well the bustling atmosphere of the Road. It is also partly an book about India, and the charity which the shop seeks to help. On the front of this copy it likens the novel to the Ladies Detective Agency genre, but it is certainly not as cosy or neatly plotted as those books. This is a better, more challenging read. Each woman who works in the shop has her own story, either how she arrived as a volunteer or how her life outside the shop continues.

This book is a funny, yet realistic account of  lives in Cambridge. A woman who has been pressured into marriage in India, and whose husband is completely under his family’s influence, even from thousands of miles away. A woman who has unusual parties and discovers her husband has a secret life.  A badly behaved parrot, a man writing letters and measuring junk mail by the inch,  the incredible items that are donated, all combine to give a broad, if sometimes confusing picture of events in the progress of the shop. Bemused customers seek bargains alongside delivery people who get sidetracked and those upset that it is solely an Indian charity. The book culminates in a farcical ( in a good way) account of detective work by the shop workers, a concealed corpse, a lost prayer book and destruction. Each character is given a proper concluding section, but in such a way as to reflect the untidiness of real life, rather than neat solutions. There are some references to contemporary Indian culture that passed me by, even as a veteran reader of A Suitable Boy and other books, but a little confusion seems a small price to pay to enjoy this novel. Definitely worth seeking out in your library or bookshop as a book that is difficult to define but fascinating in its complexity.