Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Labrador pact and the Springer uprising

A tedious but scrupulous accounting of recent book consumption....

I finished The Idea of North on Monday evening so that I could return it to the library, and the rest was just as excellent as the first half, Peter Davidson is a wonderfully good descriptive writer and I thought it was one of the most interesting and thought-provoking non-fiction books I've read for quite a while. Probably more interesting to people with some slight foot in the academic world, but it's very beautifully written & accessible so if you've got a passion for the north, you do really need to get it and read it.

Then I finished another half-read volume (this one from the bookstore a few weeks ago), a collection of stories by Diana Wynne Jones called Unexpected Magic. The short stories in the first half are very good (personally I feel that every word that drips from the pen--or more likely emanates from the word processor--of DWJ is wonderful & sacred & preferable to almost anyone else's stuff) but the novella at the end was disappointing, rather conventional and heavily Narniaesque with an overlay of those Elizabeth Goudge kinds of book, however I felt more kindly towards it when I saw an author's note at the back (it would have been better as a headnote--and though I don't in general see the need for headnotes in story collections that were conceived more or less as a whole, with only a few pieces published elsewhere, I like it when the kind that collect miscellaneous stories over a stretch of the author's career have headnotes explaining anything that might be interesting or important or funny about the story's composition etc.) that said although it was only first published in 1995, "Everard's Ride" was written in 1966. A very respectable journeyman piece, just not up to the usual standard.

It was a bit of a mystery what prompted the subsequent light reading binge: I guess I was feeling like I'd made serious headway with the non-work-related library books, but that it was really too much serious fiction and not enough light, and then I gave my big talk on Tuesday afternoon at the Academy & went afterwards to the library to return these recalled books and (yes, it's ridiculous) check out a few novels, four that I'd requested from the off-site storage facility (all brand new, never read by anyone else before, which is especially pleasing) and that were waiting for me at the circulation desk and then four or so more plucked (targeted plucking, though) from the shelves.

(And I seriously had to restrain myself from grabbing tons of others as I was in the contemporary British fiction section--my hand grasped desparately for Sebastian Faulks's new novel and John Fowles's Journals until I firmly commanded it to cease and desist--oh, and I was rather enchanted by the shelfside juxtaposition of Helen Fielding and Eva Figes, the latter makes various appearances in Jonathan Coe's B. S. Johnson book and it reminded me I wanted to read more of her books. But this was not the kind of light reading I coveted.)

The first one I read was on the whole rather delightful, Matt Haig's The Last Family in England. It is beautifully narrated by a black Lab (the Labrador Pact=Duty Over All) and though I didn't love it as much as Charlie Williams did (there was a muddled-sort-of-alluding-to-1 Henry IV thing going on that didn't do anything for me, and at times the dog's voice wasn't quite convincing), it's a very enjoyable read and I recommend it to anyone who's interested in checking out some high-class dog noir--the coinage is Charlie's, not mine. Matt Haig has an extremely appealing imagination, I will look forward to his next book. (BTW in the meantime I want to reread 101 Dalmatians, though, that is a book I must have read twenty times when I was a kid; and Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle is one of my favorite novels of all time.)

Colleen Mondor heard me bemoaning the lack of light reading & made a few helpful suggestions, so part of my haul was four books by Katie Fforde, though I have to say my response is mixed. I quite see why Fforde at her best would be very appealing & especially soothing if you were in the thick of too much non-light reading; but this kind of book is not so much my thing. That said, I've just read three of them and half of the fourth (I laid it down in disgust when I realized that not only was the point-of-view-character thing being seriously mishandled, it was also shaping up to include much, much more interior decorating than I possibly wanted to hear about. What is this fantasy of English village life? I do not understand it. I do not want to live in an English village and beautifully renovate by hand a small Georgian house and vacuum dog hair off the couches).

So anyway first I read Practically Perfect & found it pretty weak (worst line of dialogue I've read in the past year: "'Quite frankly Max,' she hissed, 'I don't really care. We're over! I loved you so much for so long but I realise now I was in love with a person I didn't really know'"). Along the lines of the "What awful food they serve here, and such small portions!" joke, however, I then read Flora's Lot (this one was much better, the main character far more appealing & the milieu a bit more interesting) and then Paradise Fields (hmm, not so good again, annoying main character) and then got halfway through Restoring Grace before suddenly realizing with absolute disgust that I couldn't face reading another page of this stuff. Sorry, Colleen! Only after I'd checked these out did I get Colleen's e-mail with some more specific suggestions about Fforde's best three or four--however these were the only ones they had at the library, what can you do.... I think Victoria Clayton does a rather better version of this kind of thing, I highly recommend hers; but will give Fforde another chance especially if I can come across one of the recommended ones.


(1) I love the novels of Jane Austen, in fact if I could only have one novelist it would almost certainly be Austen (unless I caved at the last minute and chose Dickens instead), but the author of Pride and Prejudice has a lot to answer for in terms of the wretched plots of this kind of book. Seriously, couldn't they for once not have it be that the hero and heroine hate each other on first sight but experience a strong mutual attraction etc. etc.?

(2) Novelists should also be banned from showing the surly but handsome male protagonist being kind to animals as a way of showing he'll be a sweet boyfriend despite anger management problem and bad manners.

(3) I'm curious about the pros and cons of writing books in which each new hero/heroine is extremely similar to the last versus series in which the main character (i.e. usually a detective) stays consistent. The latter can get very tedious (Adam Dalgliesh! Spenser!), but the former suffer from the fact that some of the characters inevitably come out more appealing than others. It's very noticeable in Georgette Heyer, for instance, but also in Dick Francis. On the whole, I'd have to say that if you can do it well, carrying the same main character over from book to book is the best bet. (Two words: Jack Reacher. I love those Lee Child books, they are pretty much the perfect light reading.) But you obviously can't do that for these man-and-woman-happily-ever-after kinds of book, unless they got surreal & bizarre and had the woman psychotically killing the man off so that she could find a new one in the next book. Structurally problematic, in any case.

Now I am only going to do things that are either useful (clean the bathroom) or intellectually stimulating (read Swift) for a little while. Or perhaps, actually, I will scour the apartment to find whatever the next-lightest reading may be--something like a compass needle in my head infallibly directs me to such things....


  1. A fantastic description of your reading habits (and book harvesting habits). I loved the film version of Howl's Moving Castle and have had DWJ on my 'to read' list but haven't gotten there yet. I will move her up the stack, I think...

  2. Hey dearie,

    Light reading... Have you read Kage Baker's Company novels? Those are some of my favorite light books. (Although the last couple aren't up to snuff.) Also, Sean Stewart's books -- especially Galveston and Mockingbird (not actually light, but fun, zippy reads). And I just started James Morrow's The Last Witchfinder and it's most excellent and amusing.

    And as I type this I realize I owe you a copy of The Tourmaline!

  3. Just seconding the DWJ adoration -- I'm always disappointed when I get into what-kids-books-do-you-love conversations and no one's heard of her. I stumbled upon her by accident as a kid (someone had given my sister _The Magicians of Caprona_) and soon my sister and I were plundering the YA sections at the neighborhood libraries.

  4. Re your comment about protagonists who do not change (I love Spenser but he does get into a bit of a rut...) have you ever read any of John D. MacDonald's Travis Mcgee mysteries? It's pretty much required that you read MacDonald if you grow up in Florida and even though they were written largely in the 1960s they have proven to hold up incredibly well. One of the things I loved about them was how Travis evolved (along with his best friend Meyer) in the course of the series. Some bad stuff happens along the way to Travis - really bad stuff - and it changes him dramatically. By the final book (which is wonderful) he is not the same guy as he once was in a lot of respects and many of the characters from previous books have changed as well.

    Anyway, I still reread some Travis every year. And he is by far, my favorite detective.

  5. What a great blog this is, and when I get time to read something other than flickering screenwords and reviews of books, you're providing lots of material. Re: protagonists that don't change -- one thing I've noticed in the novels of Ruth Rendell and James is that as the authors age, and the detectives don't, the descriptions of protagonists get ever-more minimal and sketched in. One suspects the authors are so familiar with -- and so seldom surprised by -- their creations, that shorthand works as well as any....Sally