Reading Diary: oh dear, part two (pre-hols)

Continuing with my desperate catch-up (I WILL write words about every book I read this year, I will do it if it kills me) with four titles I read at the beginning of September, before starting my holiday.

81yf15ngyelThe Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer: It took two and a half goes to get into this, for some reason, but when it finally clicked for me, it was superb. Wolitzer takes a group of smart, talented teenagers who all meet at a kind of hippie artistic summer camp in the 1970s, and catapults them forward in time, mapping the ways in which their relationships to each other, and to other people, change. I’m a real sucker for writing about other art forms, and also for books about friendship groups developing (as opposed to static friendship groups, as in The Secret History, although I love that too in its place), so The Interestings really did it for me: Wolitzer perfectly grasps the unpredictability of adult life, and the tenacity of youthful love. One to look up.

9780008307929The Ravenmaster, by Christopher Skaife: One of the more delightful memoirs of the latter half of the year (it’s out in October). Skaife is a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, and more specifically, the one in charge of the Tower’s ravens: legend has it that their departure will cause the kingdom to fall. It’s obviously not true (the Tower didn’t have ravens at a point in the ’40s, and we won the war, didn’t we?), but Skaife takes great joy in describing his daily routine, the awe-inspiring intelligence of corvids (they’re about as clever as a five-to-seven-year-old human child), and the Tower’s many myths and legends. I got to go on a private tour of the Tower with him, thanks to his publishers, and can confirm that he really is as jolly and eager to share knowledge as the book makes him appear. Follow him on Twitter, and pick this up for any history buffs, Anglophiles and/or bird-lovers you know this Christmas.

37281873The Rise and Fall of Becky Sharp, by Sarra Manning: I wang on a lot about how Vanity Fair is my favourite novel of all time and Becky Sharp is perfection (I hate being asked about favourite novels, but it’s as close to a truthful answer as I can provide). So Sarra Manning’s update of the book was destined to be read as soon as the proof was available on NetGalley. As far as rendering Thackeray’s events and characters contemporary goes, Manning does a flawless job: Becky and Amelia now meet on a reality TV show, Amelia’s father is an investment banker whose disgrace comes when he’s found to have made some dodgy deals, the Crawleys are an acting dynasty (Dame Matilda Crawley is clearly modeled on Maggie Smith, down to her role as the purse-lipped matriarch of an ITV costume drama about an aristocratic family), and Becky’s dazzling rise to fame is boosted by sponsored Instagram posts and charity fashion shows. Is the writing on Thackeray’s level? Nope. Does it matter? Not at all. Great, intelligently executed fun, and hopefully will push people to seek out the original too.

51v5sxwoybl-_sx324_bo1204203200_A Field Guide to the English Clergy, by Fergus Butler-Gallie: The community of Anglican priests is well-known for having more than its fair share of weirdos. Fergus Butler-Gallie draws back the curtain on some prime historical specimens. The back cover lists, for example, the Reverend Edward Drax Free, whose reaction to the attempts of his congregation to oust him for (amongst other things) repeated public drunkenness and stealing the lead from the church roof to sell for scrap was to lock himself in his study with “his favourite maid, a brace of pistols, and a stack of French pornography”. Eccentricity doesn’t mean awfulness, though; there’s a great charm in the vicar who insisted upon traveling only by horse (which he named Sabbatical, so that his secretary could quite honestly tell callers that the good reverend was “away on Sabbatical”), or in Launcelot Fleming, Bishop of Portsmouth, who once commandeered a Navy helicopter when he was late for services. Another one for the Anglophile, Anglican, or, indeed, eccentric of any persuasion, come Christmastime.



15 thoughts on “Reading Diary: oh dear, part two (pre-hols)

  1. Skaife accompanied Lindsey Fitzharris to the Wellcome Book Prize ceremony, so I briefly met him when she informally introduced him as the raven keeper. I’m definitely keen to read his book, and I indeed have it on my Kindle from NetGalley, but that’s usually a recipe for a book hanging around forever and not getting read, so I’ll see if I can order it from the library instead.

    The Manning sounds a lot like Curtis Sittenfeld’s take on Pride & Prejudice, Eligible, which was similarly good fun.

    A Field Guide to the English Clergy looks like one for my in-laws (MIL a vicar and FIL a lay reader) for Christmas!

    1. Yeah, they’re buddies! It’s very cute, they seem very supportive of each others’ work. (Also, Skaife’s wife Jasmine is AMAZING, and makes regular appearances in the book.)

      Thought of you all the way through A Field Guide to the English Clergy!

  2. I’m so glad you enjoyed the Wolitzer. One of my favourite structures, and she carries it of so well. You’ve made me wonder if I should read the Manning given that you’re such a fan of the original.

    1. Oh my goodness yes, the Wolitzer is superb, and I love how the back cover carefully doesn’t give away plot points that, in another book, would constitute the Big Twist.

      The Manning is a helluva lot of fun. Again, prose – not outstanding (though not terrible either), but the updating is clever and wicked throughout.

  3. Hmm, I was going to give the Manning a wide berth, because I am a fan of the original book and those ‘set in modern times’ rewrites usually don’t work. But you make it sound like fun! I suppose it’s slimmer than the original?

    1. It definitely is, yes; probably the last fifth of the original (which, in fairness, is the weakest part of Thackeray’s plot) is drastically condensed. The update is worthwhile, I think; she does it so much more intelligently than most of the Hogarth Shakespeare rewrites!

  4. Hmm, “friendship groups developing”. Thanks for putting your finger on that – I was thinking along those lines recently when trying to explain what I loved so much about the later seasons of Halt and Catch Fire (which across four seasons takes the core cast of friends/rivals (/it’s complicated) from about 1983 (with some flashbacks to the late 1970s) through to the late 1990s)… but I didn’t manage to boil it down so pithily. Didn’t occur to me it might be a recognised genre… the book sounds interesting!

    [and yes, ravens are alarmingly intelligent. Iirc they’re the only vertebrates to give abstract directions to one another (one raven can tell another raven where a particular interesting thing is, including a specific route, whereas other animals can only point). And they’re one of the very few animals to have been caught unambiguously having fun (ravens in snow have been found repeatedly sliding down snowbanks and going back to the top again and again – and it doesn’t seem to be related to, say, the condition of their feathers, so it really does seem they’re doing it just because toboganning is fun)).]

    1. I’m not sure if it’s a recognised genre per se, but it’s certainly a theme that I see recurring a lot: the way that people’s deep platonic relationship networks change as they age. The book’s really great, worth a punt if you’ve never read Wolitzer before.

      I didn’t know that ravens could be abstract! Don’t bees do the same thing, though, with directions? They have special dances to tell other bees where the good flowers are. (Bees are vertebrates, right…?)

      1. Bees are invertebrates. I wouldn’t be surprised if other insects do it too. I suspect the difference may be that bee language is innate (that is, it’s the same code for all bees?), whereas raven language isn’t, but I don’t know if that’s actually true. I suppose the interesting thing with ravens is that it’s a byproduct of evolution, whereas with bees it’s something directly selected for. But I don’t really know about it.

    1. Hey! Totally forgot to reply to this – it looks marvelous! I’m going to try to do the challenge next week – thanks for nominating me. 🙂

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