The past few months have been hectic. I went back to school and found that in the spare time that remained I preferred reading to reviewing. (Are you shocked?). Anyway I’ve been dipping in and out of a few good books recently. It’s time to summarise again.
Simon of SavidgeReads has been behaving sensationally! I decided to follow suit starting with Kate Summerscale’s award-winning The Suspicions of Mr Which, exploring the real life murder case that sparked the sensation genre of 19th century fiction. It wasn’t what I expected at all. I think the label narrative non-fiction led me to expect more narrative and less non-fiction. Not that that’s bad. The story is fascinating but it was told more dryly than I was expecting. I found Summerscale’s solution to the unresolved killing quite plausible and I absolutely loved all the literary criticism – the explanations of how this case inspired 19th century literary giants Wilkie Collins and M E Braddon and Ellen Wood and …. I determined to read The Moonstone immediately afterwards.
So instead I read Basil. The reason becomes obvious if you compare its updated OUP Classic cover with that of Julia O’Faolain’s Adam Gould, which I read in the summer. I’ve been meaning to write a comparative post for ages and I still intend to write one. Only not today.
Andrew O’Hagan’s The Atlantic Ocean contains some insightful essays into the nature of the relationship between Britain and America. I think it could be summarised as complicated and that is reflected in the book’s structure which starts with an essay charting the “special relationship” since Mrs Thatcher and ending with a piece about two soldiers who died in Iraq in 2005. It’s not all politics. There’s an exploration of American and British Pop Culture: pieces on the Beatles and why it’s impossible (if you’re male) not to fancy Marilyn Monroe. Given the events of 2009, there’s an extraordinary piece about the faces of Michael Jackson written in July 2006 and of relevance to the current time of the year, an explanation of why our bookstores are so full of the celebrity memoir.
Pain is one of the new pleasures, abuse is the new nurturing. A hummable, weepable, narcissistic self-pity, hitherto only available in the speeches of Bily Graham and the recording work of Tammy Wynette, has over the last few years, taken Britain by storm, and it is nowhere more evident that in the style of celebrity autobiography.
The essay Celebrity Memoirs written in 2003 – do you think O’Hagan’s point-of-view is still valid – or is mis-lit output diminishing? Do you find it scary that 1 in 15 British adults have read a Dave Pelzer book? Even scarier the thought that the airing of personal non-celebrity misery on daytime televison shows no sign of abating?
And now a confession of my own. I’ve been doing a bit of travelling recently and while browsing the airport bookshops, I’ve been snatching 10 minutes here and there with John Farndon’s Do You Think You’re Clever? A compilation of the author’s answers to questions asked of students applying to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Questions of all sizes and shapes including the title question. A fascinating little book which book-buying embargoes prevented me from purchasing. But I’ve now got me grubby mitts on a copy and, in between novels, am devouring and loving every single minute. Questions cover theology, medicine, philosophy, all the sciences, literature (sample questions: what books are bad for you?; Chekhov’s great, isn’t he?; don’t you think Hamlet is a bit long?; what would happen if the Classics department burned down?) … and from the geography section, perhaps the question of most immediate concern to myself: if you’re not in California, how do you know it exists? (Answer: a) because next week I’m catching a plane that will take me there and b) I’ve just read a non-fictional account about a Californian book thief.
Question: Are you the (wo)man who loves books too much? Would you do time to possess a much coveted tome? John Gilkey is and would. Nay,indeed, has. All because he couldn’t afford to buy the rare books that he wanted so badly. Never a man to let his bank balance get in the way of his ambitions, he got creative. And would probably have never been called to account had it not been for the personal crusade of Ken Sanders, the security chair of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association. Allison Hoover Bartlett pulls together the stories of both men in a series of illuminating interviews and in so doing, takes us on a tour of California’s rare book markets, auctions and shops. (And Lizzy might now just have to follow in her footsteps.) The story’s compelling although the telling isn’t altogether successful. Gilkey ends up more sympathetic than the man who’s trying to bring him to justice. But text aside, how’s this for a dust jacket? One to rival Howard’s End is On The Landing, don’t you think?
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher – Kate Summerscale
The Atlantic Ocean – Andrew O’Hagan
Do You Think You’re Clever – John Farndon
The Man Who Loved Books Too Much – Allison Hoover Bartlett