Reading Diary: Feb. 10-Feb. 17

10805160Reading Tana French is such an easy pleasure that I can’t go for more than a couple of months without rereading her; a long, tiring week and a gap of half an hour between finishing a paperback and getting home on the bus, and I’m thumbing to my little-used Kindle app, finding one of her books – doesn’t really matter which – and sinking in. Can novels about hideous murders and complicated interpersonal dynamics be soothing? Evidently so.

The nice thing about rereading, which is probably only a surprise to me because I do it so infrequently, is that it gives you a chance to unpack an author’s subtler, cleverer moves. French is the type of author whom I read in great, ravenous gulps; going back and reading for a second or even a third time shows you the parallels, not just in plot but in theme. This’ll make no sense and probably spoil the plot if you haven’t read Broken Harbour, so if you haven’t, look away now; but if you have: the thing that sticks out so hard I should have seen it earlier is how thoroughly French works the mental illness angle. Mick’s sister, Dina, who is, as he says simply, “crazy”; Pat Spain’s diminishing grasp on reality; Mick’s mother’s suicide. This book is all about minds: how they work, how they break, and most of all, why. The hardest thing for Mick to accept is that Dina is mentally ill not because of her childhood trauma, but because she simply is. Madness, and control: Mick’s refusal to accept Dina’s madness as meaningless is mirrored in Jenny Spain’s doomed conviction that, by doing everything right, she can single-handedly keep her family together, and even in Richie Curran’s belief that something can be salvaged from the whole situation by not arresting the murderer. (I’ll leave that much spoiler-free.) It’s not just a brilliant meditation on social pressure and the financial crisis; French, as always, takes it that one step further, to examine the terrible hazards of refusing to give yourself a little leeway, refusing to ask for help.

coverEncouraged by Susan of A Life In Books, who mentioned that Dunmore was of the same generation as Amis, McEwan, Barnes, et al., but rarely got the respect and status that the men did, I picked up Exposure from my grandparents’ bookcases last weekend. I’d read one Dunmore before—her second novel, A Spell of Winter, which won the inaugural Orange Prize and which I found arrestingly beautiful, with vivid imagery and a certain disturbing sexiness. Exposure is not quite at the same level of remarkableness, but then it doesn’t have to be; the story it’s telling is very different. It is, briefly put, an early Cold War spy novel, set in 1960 in a London whose adult population still feels haunted by the Second World War. Giles is a Soviet mole in the Admiralty, acquiring material from a complicit superior, Julian Clowde. One night, half-drunk after photographing a sensitive file, he falls down the stairs and breaks his leg. Unable to return the file to the Admiralty before morning, he rings a colleague and former lover, Simon Callington, from the hospital, asking him to collect and return the file. Simon, clocking that Giles shouldn’t have this information in the first place, hides it in his house; his wife, Lily, a Jewish refugee who came to London from Berlin in the late ’30s, finds it and buries it in the garden. Simon is soon arrested for breaching the Official Secrets Act, and the narrative follows him in prison, Giles in hospital, and Lily in the Kentish cottage where she takes their children, for privacy and for safety. So is Dunmore a sort of female Barnes? Well, yes, sort of, but I rather think that gives Julian Barnes too much credit. They both write in the same deceptively affectless prose, and they both write relationship novels. Where Barnes’s flaw might be a dullness tinged with complacency, Dunmore’s might be a tendency towards melodrama. But her ability to capture complex loving dynamics between people is extraordinary: Simon’s vexed relationship with Giles, for instance, or his coded conversation with Lily in a prison visiting room, during which Dunmore shows us how trust and compassion really can make one mind of two. Exposure has a high-stakes story, but Dunmore pulls it off in a way that feels low-key. It’s very good.

cover1It is not going to take very much effort on my part, I suspect, to convince people to read this book. The title, the subtitle, the whole idea, that beautiful cover: it is all immensely appealing. Mangan’s memoir of childhood reading goes from first principles (The Very Hungry Caterpillar; Topsy and Tim) all the way through to secondary school (Sweet Valley HighSummer of My German Soldier) to the point where “childhood” reading starts to blend with “adult” reading (many bookworms will probably start on Austen or Bronte at this point, for instance, and they work just as well for a bookish teenager as for a thirty- or fifty-something). Her tone throughout is dry and very funny, especially in the pen portraits of her family: a driven GP mother who never ceases talking, moving and doing; a nearly silent but deeply thoughtful drama teacher father who is her first source of books; a sister unmoved by books but drawn to computers and engineering; two loving grans (of one of whom Mangan writes, “By the time I knew her, she was Les Dawson”). This strand of the book is counterpointed by sections dealing with the history of what we’d call children’s literature, which starts with the deeply dull (she’s gloriously irreverent) religious rhymes of the mid-eighteenth century and moves through the Golden Age of children’s publishing, taking in John Newbery, Beatrix Potter, Quentin Blake – all the good stuff. Not least, of course, there are the bits about the actual books themselves, and these are wonderful. Mangan’s readings of Little Women and Noel Streatfeild, The Chronicles of Narnia and Alice in Wonderland, E. Nesbit and Roald Dahl, feel conversational, intelligent and warm: just what you want when you’re talking books with a friend. And she’s put me on to some hidden gems as well, like Antonia Forest’s school stories, which have a gravitas and emotional intelligence to them that rocket them out of the sphere of Blyton et al. (She also has a rather flattering theory about children who don’t take to Blyton’s books, as I did not, much to my mother’s disappointment: apparently we are generally already at the stage of reading where we don’t need hand-holding with regards to plot and subtext, and find Blyton’s nannying of her readers unnecessary. I’ll take it.) If you liked Susan Hill’s reading memoir, Howard’s End Is On the Landing, you’ll adore this.

71f5lgrfbxlThe main thing about Mother Night is that it’s not one of Vonnegut’s most famous novels, but it is one of his best. It feels like a darker, harsher, more despairing Slaughterhouse-Five, since it engages with similar content (World War II, complicity, survivor’s guilt) but goes just that bit further. Its main character, Howard J. Campbell Jr., is in an Israeli jail awaiting trial for his work as a Nazi propagandist during the war; the novel purports to be his memoirs, edited by Vonnegut. What Campbell reveals in the course of his writing is that he was working as a double agent at the time: his every cleared throat and oddly inflected syllable during his racist radio broadcasts was actually code, smuggling information out of Germany to the Allies over the airwaves. Only three people know this—Campbell, his former handler, and Franklin Roosevelt, now dead—and is it, in any case, a good enough excuse for the hatred that Campbell not only spewed but fomented? Mother Night‘s central concern is responsibility: who shoulders it? Who ought to? How far removed from a killing field must you be to qualify as innocent? Like much of Vonnegut, it’s scarily relevant now. UKIP’s professed shock at the murder of Jo Cox, for instance, and Donald Trump’s reaction to the neo-Nazi rally in my hometown last summer, raised the same questions: how much isolationist, white supremacist, xenophobic rhetoric can you mouth without becoming implicated in the actions of people encouraged by your words? Not much: Campbell gets a scene with his father-in-law, Berlin’s chief of police, where the older man chillingly tells the younger that his propaganda is the thing that has allowed him to accept the years of Nazi rule. The ending isn’t happy, but it’s right.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: An unfortunate lack of proofs, except for Bookworm. Delighted to have been re-introduced to Helen Dunmore, though.

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19 thoughts on “Reading Diary: Feb. 10-Feb. 17

  1. I pretty much never read crime, but I accidentally bought an early Nordic noir novel last year, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, and have been enjoying it very much. I wonder if I’d like Tana French’s stuff too.

    Oddly, I’ve read three of Dunmore’s poetry collections but none of her novels. However, also on Susan’s advice, I found a copy of Talking with the Dead in Hay-on-Wye last year, so that’ll be my first one whenever I find the impetus to pick it up.

    Bookworm has already been on my Kindle for an age as a NetGalley download, and I feel like it’s guaranteed to be a cozy read sometime next month.

    You know, I’ve never read Vonnegut. What should I try?

    What would be your ideal ratio of proofs : new stuff : backlist : re-reads?

    • People who don’t often read crime love Tana French. She’s not just a good crime novelist; the quality of her prose and psychological acuity is stunning full stop. So I would highly recommend her.

      I think the best place to start with Vonnegut is probably Slaughterhouse Five. Cat’s Cradle is fun and silly, but Slaughterhouse gives the best sense of his seriousness mixed with his awareness of the absurd. After that, perhaps, Cat’s Cradle and then Mother Night. (I’m actually relying on my brother for recommendations on the order in which to read Vonnegut, but this is what he’d say.)

      It’s very hard to say what ratio would be the ideal; I love reading proofs, but there is so much backlist stuff I feel is missing from my reading repertoire, and so many things I’d love to re-read. Proofs tend to take up more of my mental space because of bookselling and blogging, which is fun and makes me feel like I’m on the cutting edge, but which also no doubt causes me to ignore or de-prioritise a lot of other things. I’ll never be entirely satisfied.

  2. I’m so glad you enjoyed Exposure, Elle. Funnily enough I was going to recommend Talking to the Dead, mentioned by Rebecca, given your remark about imagery and sexiness. It’s a novella with a nice edge of supense running through and some extraordinarily evocative writing about heat, food and sex.

    The Mangan sounds an absolute treat. It may be February but I fully expect it to turn up on multiple times on books of the year lists. Let’s hope the publishers have a reprint ready!

    • Dunmore wrote so many books!! Talking To the Dead is one I’d never heard of. That’s a great recommendation, thank you.

      I too hope that the publishers are ready with a reprint, but you never know—the print run of Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey was almost instantly sold out in the UK, and it took actual months to get it back in shops again, despite its many excellent reviews here…

      • I usually assume it’s the fault of the printers if there’s a delay, and publishers can’t control what they do, but I think it’s also a question of getting all the material ready again, and sometimes that takes time, I guess…? I’m with you in beng baffled.

      • It’s quite some time since I was a bookeller and I suppose I’d thought that advances in technology would have helped. I remember all too well that sinking feeling at the emergence of the surprise bestseller close to Christmas.

      • Followed closely by the feeling of “shit, it’s the 22nd and we’ve just got the delayed shipment of 873 copies of the surprise bestseller and we’re NEVER GOING TO SHIFT THEM IN TIME”

  3. Thank goodness it isn’t just me who can’t stop re-reading Tana French. I was worried I was becoming obsessive! Broken Harbour is next on my continuous re-reading circuit (I usually skip Faithful Place, as although good, it’s the only one I don’t absolutely love).

    I liked Enid Blyton as a child, unfortunately. But I remember getting very cross with the black and white morality in series like Brian Jacques’ Redwall, and devouring K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs when I was a bit older because it was much more morally complex. I’m definitely going to read Bookworm!

    • You are 100% not alone. (I always skip Faithful Place too!)

      Oh my goodness, Animorphs. They were fantastic, weren’t they?! Scary and exciting and (with hindsight) faintly goofy. Do enjoy Bookworm. It’ s a feast.

      • I think Animorphs were pretty formative reads for me. The writing was basic, because they were churned out so fast, but the characterisation and themes were top-notch. I liked the silliness as well (and it was pretty necessary – I don’t know if you read to the end of the series, but it goes to some very dark places…)

      • I remember being genuinely disturbed by them, which is a good sign. I mean, the whole concept of Yeerks is terrifying, plus the fact that an exhibition of peril was built in from the start with the character of Tobias (?) being permanently stuck in hawk form was scary.

      • He was very appealing! I can’t remember the names of any of the others. Oh no, that’s a lie – Cassie, the one who always morphed really beautifully/artistically.

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