Thursday, 26 February 2015

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Back in the days when I'd only dimly heard of David Sedaris, the book I had heard of was Me Talk Pretty One Day. Based on the title alone, I was under the assumption that it was a novel about a girl with mental development problems. It was perhaps that which led to me getting an embarrassingly long way into Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim before realising that it was not a novel about a young girl. But now, on my third Sedaris book, I'm in the swing of things - he writes humorous essays about his own life.  But you probably know that already.

This collection is (I believe) his bestselling title, and it is extremely funny. The focus is not so much on his family as it was in the other two books I read, although the first few stories do take place among those many brothers and sisters. They're anecdotes, really, more than stories - about how David's father forced them all to play instruments, with the misguided idea that they would become almost instantly proficient; about his overly-invested speech therapist; about tanning competitions on the beach. His eye for an anecdote is perfect. Sedaris is endlessly dry, self-deprecating, and able to find the humour in any experience - often through the throwing in of a bizarrely specific detail or unlikely piece of dialogue. Are all his reminiscences accurate? One assumes not. They are exaggerated at the very least. But that doesn't matter a jot.

The two main sections of Me Talk Pretty One Day deal with Sedaris' student years and his experiences trying to learn French. I'm always amazed at how many things Sedaris has crammed in his life, and one of those is a period during which he thought he'd try his hand at performance art. It is all extremely amusing (as that topic is more or less set up to be), even given my discomfort at reading about drug-taking. What makes it so brilliant is the dry, eye-rolling narrative that subtly looks back on disaffected, youthful David from the vantage of disaffected, middle-aged David. And when it comes served with sentences like the following, what more could you want? He is the master of putting together a sentence that neatly wraps up the ridiculous without making a song and dance about it:
I enrolled as an art major at a college known mainly for its animal-husbandry programme.
But the most sustained theme I've seen in the three books I've read so far is, as mentioned, his attempts to learn French and live in France (thanks to the French-dwelling of his partner Hugh). It is these experiences that give the collection its title - with a sort of oh-I-see sense that eluded me with Dress Your Family in Corduory and Denim and Let's Discuss Diabetes With Owls. From his first venture to France, knowing only the French for bottleneck, to his intense lessons with an aggressive teacher, to living fairly confidently off phrases cribbed from medical audiobooks... His lessons sounded brutal, but also led to some amusing moments (of course), and this one gives a good example to Sedaris' style for those who haven't read him:
"And what does one do on the fourteenth of July? Does one celebrate Bastille Day?"

It was my second month of French class, and the teacher was leading us in an exercise designed to promote the use of one, our latest personal pronoun.

"Might one sing on Bastille Day?" she asked. "Might one dance in the streets? Somebody give me an answer."

Printed in our textbooks was a list of major holidays accompanied by a scattered arrangement of photograph depicting French people in the act of celebration. The object of the lesson was to match the holiday with the corresponding picture. It was simple enough but seemed an exercise better suited to the use of the pronoun they. I didn't know about the rest of the class, but when Bastille Day rolled around, I planned to stay home and clean my oven.
I love that sort of pay-off at the end of that; the detail that is curiously specific and off-kilter, but carefully within the world that Sedaris has created. This world isn't the real world, and isn't a fictional universe, but it's a beautiful, bizarre, grumpy, and very amusing realm that Sedaris has both created and made his own.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Whither silliness?

An interesting question was posed today in my online book group - in passing, actually, in a discussion of Elizabeth von Arnim - about silliness in books. It was agreed (between the two of us, at least) that silliness could be on the level of either plot or dialogue. I think there's a place for either, but definitely prefer the latter.

Let me briefly explain... Novels that have silliness on the level of plot are those like P.G. Wodehouse that have absurd event after absurd event - a sort of narrative farce - that is expertly organised but so unlikely as to be impossible. Silliness on the level of dialogue encompasses rather more - the example given was from von Arnim's In the Mountains, where a pompous guest begins a reminiscence with "Our father ..." and the narrator thinks she is about to start praying. I suppose it is moments or wordings that are unlikely to happen.

I love dialogue taken to unlikely extremes. It's why I love Ivy Compton-Burnett, and strident heroines like Lady Catherine de Burgh. I also love narratives which leap to hyperbole or litotes - which is why I adore Richmal Crompton's William books and the Provincial Lady series. Silliness perhaps isn't the word, but it isn't realism. Silliness in plot, however, I have only limited tolerance for. Wodehouse yes; almost everyone else, no.

Does this division chime with anyone? What are you thoughts? Did you think I was finally going to blog about the Mr Men? (One day...)

Sunday, 22 February 2015

The Fur Person by May Sarton

I can't remember exactly how it came about - begging, borrowing, or stealing (or, y'know, a present), but when I stayed with Thomas in Washington D.C. about 18 months ago, he gave me The Fur Person by May Sarton. That was not even amongst the nicest things he did - he's a great guy, y'all - but it was definitely very exciting to get. He has been keen for me to read May Sarton for ages, and the one I did read (As We Are Now) never made its way to Stuck-in-a-Book - so, rather than strike out two for two, I'll be talking about The Fur Person now. Full disclosure: I loved it.

How was I not going to love it, considering that it's about a cat? Well, some cat-centric books have failed with me, one way or another. I wasn't enamoured by Jennie (Paul Gallico), and - while I did adore Dewey, it was for all the wrong reasons. But The Fur Person (1978) combines a strong understanding of cats with a complete lack of sentiment - in the best possible way. So, although the novella undoubtedly includes cat-lovers, the narrative is presented from the cat's perspective (albeit in the third person, if you see what I mean). He - Tom 'Terrible' Jones, no less - is pragmatic and selfish (like all cats) but willing to exchange affection and loyalty for the correct 'housekeeper', having realised that one cannot be a footloose, fancy-free young tom forever.

The story is simple, and supposedly based on the real life adventures of Sarton's cat. He experiments with various housekeepers, before settling on the admiration and respect of Sarton and her partner. In a chilling warning to such as me, Tom is not interested in the cloyingly affectionate:
The trouble was, as he soon found out, that as soon as he came into reach, the lady could not resist hugging and kissing him with utter disregard for the dignity of his person. There are times when a Gentleman Cat likes very much to be scratched gently under his chin, and if this is done with savoir-faire he may afterwards enjoy a short siesta on a lap and some very refined stroking, but he does not like to be held upside down like a human baby and he does not like to be cooed over, and to be pressed to a bosom smelling of narcissus or rose.
Which is understandable, but there is a certain pathos in the way Sarton presents the scene. Tom is intent merely on getting out of the house - by the common feline method of standing silently by the door until obeyed - but, in the background, this would-be owner is mournful:
"You're not a nice cat at all," she said, and she began to whimper. "You don't like me," she whimpered, "do you?"
In another sort of novel, this might have been a tragic moment in her life - but, in The Fur Person, it is one of many instances that occur while Tom is finding his way to the idyll at the end of his journey.
The Fur Person bounded up the stairs, and at the very instant he entered the kitchen, the purrs began to swell inside him and he wound himself around two pairs of legs (for he must be impartial), his nose in the air, his tail straight up like a flag, on tip toes, and roaring with thanks.
It's quite a sweet ending, but it doesn't fall over the boundary into saccharine. And the reason for that, I believe, is because Sarton has observed the behaviour of cats so precisely. Everything she described rang true. Perhaps not the ten commandments for cats (individually they were accurate, but I suspect cats do not repeat these mantras by rote), but certainly the movements of tail and paws, the stretching, the staring and waiting - everything it described with such precision and accuracy that any cat-lover (particularly those of us who love cats but don't live with any) will thrill to the reading experience.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

My day started with pancakes and went on to pie (a mushroom, spinach, hazelnut and white truffle oil pie, since you ask = bliss), so it's all going pretty well. My intention to read all day isn't going great, although I am loving David Sedaris in brief snatches. And not reading the two books I told myself I'd read today. Still, it's only 5.30pm, so still plenty of reading time left today - and time to give you a few bits of miscellaneous linking.

1.) You may know that Oliver Sacks is one of my heroes, and I love his books (and his humanity). His heroism continues in this beautiful, sad, wise piece for the New York Times about learning that he has terminal cancer.

2.) In a totally different tone, you might enjoy this quiz I put together in honour of Go Set a Watchman being announced: it is titles of books which are taken from elsewhere. Half are from the Bible; half are not. Can you tell which is which? (And thanks Susan for pointing out to me that Go Set a Watchman borrows its title from the Bible! I'm ashamed that I didn't realise that myself.)

3.) Helene Hanff's Letter from New York is on my bedside table, so I was excited to see Ali's review of it - especially since it's rather glowing.

4.) Do you (like me) love bad films? Not just mediocrity, but the ones with a script, direction, acting, and sound quality so bad that you ask 'How did this get made?' Well, that just so happens to be the title of a hilarious podcast I discovered recently. It's been going for four or so years, so there should be something in the archives to whet the appetite.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Old Books, Rare Friends by Leona Rostenberg & Madeleine Stern

You know what it's like with book reviews on Stuck-in-a-Book - they're like buses; you wait a month for one, and then three come along at once. (If you've ever waited a month for a bus, then - please - just give up and get a taxi.) In the weekend last year where I coincidentally read a bunch of books I bought in America, one of them had the enticing title Old Books, Rare Friends: Two Literary Sleuths and Their Shared Passion (1997) by Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern. (Who first told me about this? Was it YOU?)

I'm not the sort of man to walk away from a book about loving books, particularly one penned by older women, and so I was excited to read this. But it was quite a while ago, so I'm going to review this one in bullet points... let's call it an experiment.

  • Leona and Madeleine take it in turns to narrate chapters, starting with their childhoods (perhaps unsurprisingly) and through the schooling and college education. 
  • The main point of interest here is that one of them was refused her doctorate, mostly because her supervisor disagreed with her argument. (That is NOT acceptable supervising.)
  • I could never really tell Leona and Madeleine apart from their writing styles, so their lives intertwined for me.
  • They set up a rare books business together, buying and selling, and this is where my interest was piqued.
  • They make catalogues! I could read about the preparation of catalogues forever.
  • They're only interested in very old books, so my love of 20th-century literature was never really satisfied. But, oh well.
  • And they discovered sensation magazine stories that Louisa M. Alcott had written under a pseudonym - which led to a minor sort of literary fame for them.
  • I really enjoyed it! Reading about the books business, particularly in a time before the internet made book hunting both easier and less filled with surprises is always fun.

Here is my caveat (for which I have slipped out of bullet points). I love reading about readers; about people who hunt for books because they are desperate to read them. Rostenberg and Stern hunt for books for a living, and so (naturally enough) are concerned more with profit than anything else. Still, I couldn't help weary a little at the number of times they said how much they'd paid for something and how much they'd sold it for - particularly on the occasions when that effectively meant diddling a seller out of money, because the seller had sold a book for less than it was worth. Which made it rather a surprise to come across this paragraph in the epilogue:
We have become keen observers of the generations who have succeeded us. Every age is critical of the next, and we are no exceptions. Although we admire and befriend many young dealers who do not confuse value with price, we deplore the all too popular conception entertained by many dealers that books are to be regarded primarily as investments. Such booksellers go in for dollarship, not scholarship.
I wonder how they think they differ from this? Perhaps as bibliophiles, albeit bibliophiles who get money from their love, rather than simply gratification.

But, this quibble aside, I found it fascinating and fun. It's not up there with Phantoms on the Bookshelves or Howards End is on the Landing - the works of true booklovers, and lovers of 20th-century fiction into the bargain - and it's not quite the book that I thought it would be, but Old Books, Rare Friends will still retain its place on my books-about-books bookshelf.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

As Cooks Go by Elizabeth Jordan

Note the 'Invalid Fruit Tart' postcard from my friend Clare...

I don't remember where I heard about As Cooks Go (1950) by Elizabeth Jordan - please let me know if it was from you! I dimly remember reading about it somewhere, either a blog or a footnote in a book, but I have been unable to trace the source. What I do know is that it arrived in my house on 13 October last year, and that I was sold by the title coming from one of my favourite Saki quotations:
The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go, she went.
That was enough to have it winging to my door; that, and the fact that there was a cheap copy going on Amazon. I'm very glad I did, as it's right up my street - and I think almost all regular readers of Stuck-in-a-Book would also find a lot to love here.

It took me a page or two to realise/remember, but this is non-fiction; it is Jordan's account of becoming a cook. If the spectre of Monica Dickens' glorious One Pair of Hands is in your head, then it was also in mine - and remained there. As Cooks Go certainly isn't as amusing as One Pair of Hands, and isn't really trying to be, but it is a lot more informative about the day-to-day life of a cook - and also has the virtue of being an account of necessity, rather than a frivolous experiment. For Jordan needs the money, essentially.

As Jordan explains on the first page, she hires a charwoman because she so loathes cleaning and cooking, and must find a way to pay for this. And decides to do so by becoming a cook. This may seem (aptly enough) like jumping out of the frying-pan and into the fire, but it is monotony that Jordan wanted to avoid. In her new role, she would cook (and sometimes serve) elaborate dinner parties, but in different houses on different nights of the week. She starts off working for two bachelor brothers in one house, a friend and her husband in another, and so on.

As the memoir continues, we see Jordan in various different settings. She tries her hand at cooking in a restaurant, in a hotel, and as the chef in a large private house. She undertakes a series of cooking lessons, hitchhiking to Scotland every weekend to see her children (more on them anon). In each situation, she recounts tales of the people she has to work alongside - sometimes complimentary and affectionate, but more often wearied. Although the book is not first and foremost a witty one, I did love the odd moment of dark humour:
Mrs Blackmore both owned and managed the hotel. She was a widow, and as I became better acquainted with her I envied her late partner for a release which can only have been welcome.
More impressive than her memory of dozens of people is her recollection of the foods cooked and meals served. As Cooks Go could almost serve as a recipe book, and I think would greatly entertain anybody partial to recipe books. She details many of the meals she cooked, giving tips as to seasonings and flavourings, unusual combinations of ingredients, and the most efficient ways of cooking anything from trout and potato to Bondpige Med Slor and Chou Farci Maigre. This is all the more impressive, given that she was working with rations. I don't recall any dates appearing in the text, but it was published in 1950 and the war is not mentioned, so I assume it all takes place between 1945 and 1950? Some foods now considered commonplace (rice, for instance, and gnocchi) were new and exciting to Jordan - while some sections proved that there is nothing new under the sun...
During the first week-end in Scotland I started to read The Way of All Flesh; when I left the Oak Hotel I had reached page seventy-five. Later on I started to read it again quickly, hardly able to put it down. It was a relief to be able once again to read, to enter into the stories of other lives recounted with humour and sensibility. It is monstrous to me that, except during a short time of crisis, people should have to work so hard that they have no time to think of anything but the trivial everyday worries of material existence. Many times have I heard the boast that there is no time for anything but expediences. I think rather that it is something of which to be ashamed: it is certainly a disease of modern life.
Jordan focuses almost entirely on her career in As Cooks Go - which is, of course, her prerogative. It does make it slightly unsettling when she mentions, in passing, that she and her husband have separated, and their children are living with her parents. There is a space of a year where she barely sees them at all - and although the whole process documented in the book is leading towards Jordan being able to live with her two daughters, the emotional turmoil of her romantic and maternal life is determinedly put to one side. As I say, entirely her right to do so - but it is still a slightly unsettling background to the day-to-day anxieties of cooking.

But, besides this small issue (and an extremely abrupt ending), As Cooks Go is a really great read. It isn't screamingly funny (for that, do turn to Monica Dickens and One Pair of Hands), nor is it remotely charming - instead, it is realistic and engaging, refusing to sentimentalise or satirise, but simply to show the life of a cook in various places. Anybody with an interest in domestic life and working women in the late 1940s will find a great amount to fascinate from a seldom documented perspective.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay

I have been extremely pleased to see the success of the British Library Crime Classics, but although I've cheered them on from a distance, and bought one of the John Budes, it's only now that I've actually read one of the series. And it isn't the John Bude; it is one they kindly gave me: Death on the Cherwell (1935) by Mavis Doriel Hay.

This is extremely apt for me, since it is set in Oxford - the Cherwell (pronounced char-well, please) is part of the Thames - and I know the places Hay describes. The setting is largely the environs of the non-existent Persephone College, a women-only Oxford college. A handy map in the front shows where this college supposedly stands - a small park by the river that, incidentally, remains building-free, and would be a very foolish place to build anything you didn't want to have annually flooded. But, according to Stephen Booth's introduction, it's based on St. Hilda's - which Hay attended as a student, but before women were awarded degrees.

A group of undergraduates, or 'undergraduettes' as the papers apparently label them, are in the process of setting up the Lode League ('the formation of esoteric societies is one of the favourite pastimes of undergraduates'), sat on the corrugated iron roof of a small boathouse, when a mysterious canoe floats by... In it is the body of the bursar, Miss Myra Denning, an unpopular woman whose unpopularity was, indeed, the very genesis of the Lode League.

This League is composed of Daphne, Gwyneth, Nina, and Sally. In truth, I found these young women more or less interchangeable - one was supposed to be wiser than the others, one more impetuous, and so forth, but any of them could fairly easily have said any of the dialogue. It didn't much matter. What matters rather more is the fun that Hay throws us into.

As I wrote recently in my post on A.A. Milne's The Red House Mystery, detective novels that aren't written by Agatha Christie inevitably suffer by comparison, when it comes to plot. (I'm not going to risk mentioning Dorothy L. Sayers again, even though there are striking similarities in scenario to Gaudy Night, published in the same year. I'd better not say what I thought of Gaudy Night.) And the plot of Death on the Cherwell isn't filled with the sorts of twists, turns, and surprises that Christie would have found - it ends up being one of the people you suspected it would be all along, for fairly undisguised reasons - but, that acknowledged, this novel is great fun and very well told.

Hay is great at crafting an engaging narrative. Whenever it palls a bit, we get a new character - a vivacious and witty couple who apparently appeared in Hay's Murder Underground make a reappearance, driving madly around Oxford and staying at the Mitre (which was apparently once rather classy; how things have changed). Then there is Draga, the 'Yugo-Slavian' student who lives in constant surprise at the English and equally constant poor grammar. She is in every way a stereotype of the Eastern European student, but perhaps we should expect no better from the 1930s - and she is certainly not intended as an offensive portrait. She is vibrant and amusing, and certainly stands out from the other student characters.

Although sold as an amateur detectives premise, there are a couple of police officers involved. Both, luckily, are extremely willing to share details of their investigations with the central characters, and they more or less work in tandem.

I wasn't quite fair when I said there weren't twists and turns. There are, just not particularly in the denouement - along the way, we get curses and secrets and all that sort of thing. There isn't a dull moment, and it's all (I keep coming back to this) very fun. Like The Red House Mystery, it's definitely cosy crime - with the added bonus of offering a window into a women's college in the 1930s. It's a delight, and if the rest of the British Library Crime Classics are of an equal tone and standard, then I can't wait to dive in and explore.