Tuesday, 17 July 2018



On hot days I prefer a brisk read, nothing to tax the brain and the satisfying feeling that - even if I haven't achieved anything else - I've managed to polish off a book in an afternoon.
It was the pretty green cover that attracted me to The Librarian - and the end-papers are worthy of Persephone. After that, I'm afraid it didn't do much for me - but it was such a hot day and it was so undemanding ... in fact, it's a bit like an old-fashioned Woman's Own serial. It's about a young librarian on a mission to broaden children's lives with the right book - until it all gets more complicated when she falls for the local, married doctor. Heigh-ho. I perked up for the bits about children's books, and was interested in a theory - I've never heard this before - that Tom and Hetty in Tom's Midnight Garden communicate through their junk-DNA. And there's a nice children's bibliography at the back. It's just a bit - flat. I kept wishing it had been written by Dorothy Whipple! Still, it kept me going through many cups of tea and most of a lemon drizzle cake. I haven't read any Salley Vickers apart from Miss Garnet's Angel which I read in Venice so was open to being charmed.





Oh, this is more like it! And shows that I really shouldn't judge books by their cover. The Only Story has been gathering dust here on a pile for weeks - probably months - but somehow that jacket doesn't exactly cry out, 'Read me now!' When I finally picked it up, it was like getting into a lovely cool bath of Julian Barnes' clear, crisp writing.



This was a much slower read, like a long, languid holiday in France. At first I thought I wasn't enjoying it quite as much as other Maxwells - but oh, he's such a subtle writer, it grew and grew on me and now I think it might be a favourite. It's about a gauche young American couple on a long vacation in France in the immediate aftermath of WW2. (Ration books, fuel shortages, power cuts ...) They are entranced by everything - the language, the countryside, the people - but there's so much that they don't understand. Rachel wrote a wonderful review here. And - how's this for serendipity because I've only just this minute come across it - Salley Vickers chose it as her Book of a Lifetime.  She's right, Maxwell is a kind, a very human writer. I always finish his books wishing that I'd known him. (I've been pacing myself, only one novel to go - his first, and the one he thought least of, Bright Center of Heaven.)



I write this sitting at an exquisite little Louis the Fifteenth secretaire in the White Drawing Room, using a gold fountain pen borrowed from the King of Montmaray and a bottle of ink provided by one of the footmen. Fortunately, the paper is just a sixpenny exercise book that I bought in the village this morning - otherwise I'd be too intimidated to write a word.

I thought this would be a nice, escapist heatwave read having enjoyed the first book of the Montmaray trilogy - but it's so derivative, and nothing much happens, and there's too much explanation of stuff that adult readers already know ... so I think here endeth my foray into the teen market and I won't be buying book 3.



I've never read any Philip Hensher although The Northern Clemency has been reproaching me from the shelf for the best part of a decade. (The guilt shelf ... books bought in hardback and never read!)
The Friendly Ones is a big, fat immersive read about two big families - one British, one Bangladeshi - living next door to each other in Sheffield, starting in 1990 with the Asian family's housewarming. I buried myself in it for a week, got a bit muddled at times but thoroughly enjoyed it.  (One theme is how little the British know about the Bangladesh war of 1971 and I'm afraid I fully proved the point.)



There has been so much written about this already - and it's a fascinating true story about a girl growing up in a loving/abusive family of hillbilly Mormon Fundamentalists. (It does get a bit repetitive, though. And I came away feeling that much as I admired Tara W she might be a bit of a bore.) Now estranged from most of her family, she does try to be fair to them - but I still had a niggling feeling that I'd like to hear another side to the story. (This is her mother's business which apparently employs 30 people.) It's not really a story of Mormonism; it's more Hillbilly Elegy  which I think was the better book.



Oh dear, I feel as though I'm the only churlish reader who was completely unconvinced by Laura Freeman's account of battling anorexia and rediscovering her (still very tiny!) appetite through relishing food in literature. I didn't take to her overblown style (lots of adjectives - a sure sign of those who in a previous life have been paid by the yard by the tabloid press!) and her little-girly voice grates. But being a complete old cynic I have to admire her for coming up with a very clever package: her stint on the Daily Mail, though edited out of her biography, has taught her what sells. Women who hate themselves ... you can't lose!

And after all that - tonight, would you believe, it's book group - and I haven't read the book.

6 comments:

Veronica Cooke said...

Mary, I loved 'The Northern Clemency' by Phillip Hensher and I have 'The Mulberry Empire' (I think that's the title) here in the caravan to read. I want to read 'The Friendly Ones'and will be borrowing it from the library when I return.

I've just read through all 12 volumes of Anthony Powell's 'A Dance to the Music of Time' and I became very engrossed in the characters and their trajectories through the 20s to the 60s. This was despite a very dense style of writing and characters who constantly quote poetry to each other. I might have got more of out it had I had a classic public school education but I've read it now and i didn't begrudge the time it took!

Veronica Cooke said...

Mary, I loved 'The Northern Clemency' by Phillip Hensher and I have 'The Mulberry Empire' (I think that's the title) here in the caravan to read. I want to read 'The Friendly Ones'and will be borrowing it from the library when I return.

I've just read through all 12 volumes of Anthony Powell's 'A Dance to the Music of Time' and I became very engrossed in the characters and their trajectories through the 20s to the 60s. This was despite a very dense style of writing and characters who constantly quote poetry to each other. I might have got more of out it had I had a classic public school education but I've read it now and I didn't begrudge the time it took!

Simon T (StuckinaBook) said...

I adore the cover to the Vickers, but my only experience with her writing hasn't encouraged me to go back. I really hoped it was non-fic when I first saw it! And your description of The Novel Cure has wildly put me off seeking it out.

Mary said...

I must get round to The Northern Clemency, Veronica - I'm sure the only reason I haven't is that it's the size of a brick! I made it to book 3 or maybe 4 of ADTTMOT - so well done! I was enjoying it, too - so I'm cross with myself for grinding to a halt. I did very much enjoy that recent biography of Anthony Powell by Hilary Spurling and it did make me want to pick up where I left off. (I'd probably have to start again!)

I think I have now parted company with Salley Vickers, Simon - no matter how pretty her next novel. This would be setting the bar far too low for you!

Sue said...

I couldn’t disagree more with you about The Novel Cure Mary. I enjoyed her style very much. It introduced me to new books, reminded me of many of my favourites and made me want to tackle Dickens again. It also gave me a much better understanding of mental illness which has been tremendously helpful.

Mary said...

I know I'm in a minority with this one, Sue - but somehow I didn't quite believe in her, as if she'd retrospectively come up with this very marketable idea and stuffed herself into it. But I'm all for revisiting Dickens!