Saturday, July 31, 2004

NYT reviews Jonathan Ames

Just looked at this in the Sunday Book Review online: 'Wake Up, Sir!': Crying Jeeves When There Is No Jeeves. Ordered the book from Amazon earlier today; I've been looking forward to reading this for a while. I'll post once I've read it.

My obsession with Dick Francis

I spent some time the other day looking at The Life and Works of Dick Francis.

Dick Francis is a genius.

Seriously, if I could write a series of books this compelling, I would die happy. I love first-person novels, and these are ridiculously appealing.

I’ve been a fan forever. In seventh grade, when DF was touring the U.S. for The Danger, my mom actually let me take the day off school so that I could go to the bookstore in downtown Philadelphia (was it 18th and Chestnut? can’t remember now, but doubtless it was one of those 80s chains like Waldenbooks or B. Dalton’s). DF was delightful. I was hanging around for hours (because I had to wait for my mom to come and pick me up—yes, I know it’s pitiful…) and waited in line twice—once to get my gleaming new copy of the new novel signed, a second time sheepishly to ask whether he’d be willing to sign the stack of battered paperbacks I’d also brought. As if I wasn’t already excited enough, he was ridiculously nice to me and joked with the guy behind me in line, “That’s the age to catch ‘em at!”

I found the scandal around DF’s authorship of the books somewhat absurd. Yes, I well believe that his wife made very great contributions to them, but if they chose to collaborate and publish the books under DF’s name, who’s to criticize that? Whatever the allocation of authorship, the books are really unmatched, I think, in what they do so well: these lovely rather neutral young male protagonists used to introduce you to the “expert knowledge” associated with a particular walk of life: sometimes centered on the horse-racing world, sometimes not.

BTW my friend Emily W., also a DF fan, had the genius critical insight to observe (in response to me saying—I can’t IMAGINE how this came up!—that I wished I had a boyfriend who was like the hero of a DF novel) that one reason that he has so many female readers isn’t that you want to go out with the hero but that it’s easy to imagine you ARE him. This is compounded by the fact of how many of them are hungry all the time and worry about what they eat in order to make weight… I also like the slightly odd S&M undercurrent in some of the books….

The announcement last year that there wouldn’t be any more books (DF is still alive, but his wife died last year) was tragic! However, since I have already read all of his novels a million times, there is clearly nothing to stop me from reading them again and again. And here are my recommendations; I’ve taken the chronological list and regrouped them according to some basic categories, with stars next to my favorites (and double stars next to my favorite ones of those—he’s that kind of a writer).

So now for a show of true obsessiveness…

The great classic DF novels, pretty much unbeatable (these heros get beaten up left and right, and the language describing their pain is entrancingly lowkey…--the first two here are both spectacular, leading up to the geniusy Odds Against, and the last two not quite as good but still very enjoyable):

*NERVE 1964 Rob Finn
**FOR KICKS 1965 Daniel Roke
**ODDS AGAINST 1965 Sid Halley
*FORFEIT 1968 James Tyrone
ENQUIRY 1969 Kelly Hughes

Sid Halley sequels (addictive, but I actually think it was a pity to reintroduce him in recent years—he’s implausibly the same age as he was in the mid-1960s and some of his traits from the earlier books no longer fit, indeed he’s generically rather like all the other DF heros, which he wasn’t to begin with):

**WHIP HAND 1979 Sid Halley
COME TO GRIEF 1995 Sid Halley

The middle period (doesn’t quite reach the heights of the earlier, but consistently high quality—I think that High Stakes and In the Frame are my favorites in this group):

RAT RACE 1970 Matt Shore
BONECRACK 1971 Neil Griffon
SMOKESCREEN 1972 Edward Lincoln
KNOCK DOWN 1974 Jonah Dereham
*HIGH STAKES 1975 Steven Scott
*IN THE FRAME 1976 Charles Todd
RISK 1977 Roland Britton

Depressive heros travel to foreign countries (a variation on the usual theme, not wholly successful):

BLOOD SPORT 1967 Gene Hawkins
SLAY-RIDE 1973 David Cleveland
TRIAL RUN 1978 Randall Drew

The least memorable of the older books, in which the protagonists are reasonably appealing and it’s definitely a decent novel by DF and therefore worth reading, but that aren’t necessarily the very best:

DEAD CERT 1962 Alan York
*FLYING FINISH 1966 Henry Grey
*REFLEX 1980 Philip Nore

The “new series” DF (I have no idea if there was any actual change in either his life circumstances or his book contract at this point, but there’s a distinct shift—it all becomes much more international, i.e. the heros are living a far more privileged life and we’re no longer in that still-slightly-grungy-and-postwar-feeling Britain [a feeling that lasted well into the 1970s, judging by fiction at any rate]). I love these books, but I don’t think they’re really as good: I’ve marked a few of the ones I like most with stars. What I always wished was that DF would decide to write a book with the main character/narrator being closer to himself in age—i.e. say late 60s as a compromise. Because the problem with these later ones is that the narrators, while reasonably appealing, no longer give you that great sense of being realistic, psychologically appealing characters very much the product of the circumstances in which they were raised. This relates to my pet peeve, about not having a series detective age as years go by. Superficially, you avoid this problem by having a new character with every book, but the problem remains that you have, say, a 28-year-old who no longer feels like a “real” person that age but is instead too clearly a convenient fictional construct:

TWICE SHY 1981 Jonathan & William Derry
BANKER 1982 Tim Ekaterin
THE DANGER 1983 Andrew Douglas
*PROOF 1984 Tony Beach
*BREAK IN 1985 Kit Fielding
BOLT 1986 Kit Fielding
HOT MONEY 1987 Ian Pembroke
THE EDGE 1988 Tor Kelsey
STRAIGHT 1989 Derek Franklin
LONGSHOT 1990 John Kendall
COMEBACK 1991 Peter Darwin
*DRIVING FORCE 1992 Freddie Croft
DECIDER 1993 Lee Morris
WILD HORSES 1994 Thomas Lyon (I must say I think this is probably a low point—I have not dignified the short story collection Field of Thirteen with a listing at all, I’m afraid)
*TO THE HILT 1996 Alexander Kinloch
10LB PENALTY 1997 Benedict Juliard
SECOND WIND 1999 Perry Stuart (these last couple feel pretty thin, unfortunately—I think To the Hilt is the last really good one)
SHATTERED 2000 Gerard Logan

In sum, if you have never read a novel by DF, you are missing out on one of the GREAT PLEASURES IN LIFE.


I was staggered by the excerpt from Jennie Erdal's memoir Ghosting published in the most recent Granta, and this piece at confirms my feeling that I must get hold of a copy of the book as soon as possible. The part I've read is really, really funny and yet psychologically peculiar and gripping in an almost gothic way. A tale of doubles, for sure.

Occasionally I fantasize about making a decent living as a ghostwriter, but Erdal's piece doesn't make it sound like a very good idea... though surely not every employer would ask you to ghostwrite a novel for him in which the only condition is that the two young female cousins that are the romantic protagonists are so close to each other that when one of the girls has an orgasm, so does the other, even if she's thousands of miles away.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Summer reading

Check out this great little essay by Jake Arnott about how he came to be a "paperback writer." I am back from my so-called "holiday," which had its moments but was on the whole rather depressing. I consoled myself by reading many novels while I was away. Some of the high points (I'm not going to link to them all, they're easily enough found on Amazon):

Elizabeth Young's collection of essays titled Pandora's Handbag (a work of complete genius; criminal that it's not better-known in the US; BUY THIS BOOK)

Jake Arnott's truecrime

Lee Child's latest (this man's thrillers are far superior to the competition, if you like ever-so-slightly tongue-in-cheek fast-paced international action. this one is appealing because it gives Jack Reacher's back-story)

Eva Ibbotson's The Star of Kazan (I love her books, they are a major guilty pleasure)

Edward P. Jones, The Known World (this book lives up to every ounce of hype--it's both a remarkably satisfying read and one of those books that makes you shake your head in amazement at how he ever thought of such a thing--he really makes up a WORLD and the book just happens to exist as a chronicle of it--I love the way he jumps ahead and tells you how a character's life will end thirty years later, then goes back to whatever he was saying before--must read his short-story collection too, though generally I avoid those like plague--last really great one I read was Nathan Englander's For the Relief of Unbearable Urges)

All right, that's enough. I did read a whole bunch of others, including Monica Ali's Brick Lane (technically v. impressive but slightly dull, I can see why it didn't end up winning any of those big prizes though it certainly deserved nomination--but Mark HAddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night was about a hundred times more delightful and memorable... sorry, Monica... it wasn't that I didn't like your book, but it was just a little too much like Alan Hollinghurst's The Folding Star--like someone who would turn the clock back to the nineteenth-century French novel if it were possible). Also some pretty funny eighteenth-century books at the British Library--the best ones were about livestock.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Nils Bohr Institute

i'm off tomorrow to London and then Copenhagen, the latter to do research for the next volume of my trilogy. My heart's desire is to get inside the buildings of Nils Bohr's Institute for Theoretical Physics; fortunately the Bohr Archive has a really excellent website that includes instructions for visitors: NBI Today and previously. Even in a worst-case scenario, I should be able to go and walk around and take a look at the buildings from the outside; and it's possible I'll actually be able to get in and look around.