Random Bookish Thoughts – 13 November

On things being a little spooky

So, we’ve had Halloween and Friday 13th within a couple of weeks of each other. I’m not normally one for spooky reading – my imagination is far too overactive – but I found myself at home, on Halloween, at a bit of a loose end, and so I read Susan Hill’s classic The Woman in Black.

I’ve got to say, I think I just don’t really ‘get’ Susan Hill’s ghost stories. I mean, people rave about this book. They study it for GCSE, for heaven’s sake. Daniel Radcliffe was in the movie adaptation, and – well – after Harry Potter, isn’t that a pretty high bar? I’ve read a couple of Susan Hill novellas before – The Mist in the Mirror, and one or two others – and they didn’t leave much of an impression, but I always thought this one would be different.

Well, sorry. It just wasn’t. It wasn’t bad, exactly. The whole thing just left me a little….meh.

I downloaded The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson) to my Kindle at the same time, but haven’t read it yet. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is one of my favourite favourites, so I have high hopes.

On the honest-to-goodness God-damn-awesomeness of David Mitchell

I’m going through a wee bout of insomnia at present. (Being only two weeks back from California,  I blame jet lag, rather than a subconscious impact of Susan Hill’s ghost stories. But there are more things on heaven and earth, Horatio, etc.) Anyway, for whatever reason, I haven’t got to sleep before 2.30am any night this week. It’s a trial. But at least it gives me plenty of time for reading.

On two consecutive nights, I stayed up late finishing David Mitchell novels – on Sunday, The Bone Clocks, which I read in a day. I’ll review it, at some point, but really, you shouldn’t wait till then to read it. You should go and read it right now. If not sooner. Seriously, if you’re still reading this, stop it and go and read David Mitchell. You won’t regret it.

And if you’re still reading this, then I can only assume you’ve already read The Bone Clocks, and are mulling over whether to read Slade House. Well, that was the one which kept me up till the small hours on Monday night, so – you should. Problem solved. Although maybe don’t read it alone, in a quiet house, at 2am like I did. Cos, you know, at 2am the boundaries between fantasy and reality sort of….thin out. A bit. Enough to stop you getting to sleep, anyway.

On things I’ve recently read, am currently reading, and am possibly reading next, as well as arbitrary targets and deadlines

Apart from all the spookiness and David Mitchell, I’ve recently finished Down Under by Bill Bryson (funny and informative, like all the best non-fiction), and The Cocktail Party, a play by TS Eliot (not great, if I’m honest, despite its author being the best poet of the 20th century). I’m halfway through The Lake House by Kate Morton, which I downloaded as a little light relief, and which is diverting enough, but somewhat unfortunately almost identical to every novel the author has ever written. Perhaps I’m just getting old.

I’m close to admitting that I’m not going to reach my goal of reading 100 books this year. Once it becomes a clearly impossible task, I’m anticipating a little relief, because I’m actually finding myself drawn to longer books  – and classics – for winter. I’m not sure I’ll set myself an absolute reading target again. It drives me towards quantity over quality, and in a world where more books are published each year than one could possibly read in a lifetime, what on earth – really – is the point? I’d much rather (she says sniffily) focus on the books which I actually want to read, the tomes recommended by people I trust.

I do like a good list, though. Well, we’ll see, when the new year rolls around.

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Review – The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant, and Sweet Caress by William Boyd

I’ve said elsewhere that I really liked The Boston Girl, by Anita Diamant. I read it on holiday, and liked it enough to go to Barnes and Noble and seek out – although not, in the end, buy (luggage allowance) – a couple of her other titles.

Superficially, it reminded me a lot of Sweet Caress by William Boyd. Both purport to tell the story of a woman, born more or less at the turn of the last century, and trying to navigate her way through the twentieth century and whatever that meant. The fact that the two novels are really nothing alike is a testament to both the century and the writers; as Boyd has his main character note, however full a life one lives these days, the world is so complex that we’re always going to feel as if ‘the century was galloping away without us’. However, one of these novels surprised me in a good way and one disappointed me, so I thought I’d deal with them together to soften the blow.

Let’s deal with the problem child first. I liked ‘Any Human Heart’ (I read it before the miniseries, thank you very much), and I also liked Boyd’s lesser-known but similar-format ‘The New Confessions’. ‘Waiting for Sunrise’ was better than OK, as was ‘A Good Man in Africa’, and I more-than-liked ‘Restless’, the only attempt of Boyd’s that I’ve read where he writes a female protagonist. Reading the blurb for Sweet Caress, then, I got very excited about Boyd’s century-charting story of Amory Clay.

Oh dear. It was…it was fine. There were great bits; Boyd is, on the whole, a fantastic writer; the moment when Amory comes into contact with British fascists, in particular, haunted me. And he prods Amory to get on her soapbox about some really important issues (euthanasia, war, the power of the state to shape individual lives), and to be very eloquent in her views of them.

But the thing as a whole just left me cold. I wasn’t convinced by her voice. In particular, her habit of describing in detail the penis of every man she slept with irritated me; it felt very, very male. (He never did this in ‘Restless’, which contains one of the best female-point-of-view first-kiss moments I’ve ever read.) In the end, it just annoyed me too much for me to be able to give Sweet Caress more than three stars, however much I wanted to.

The Boston Girl, on the other hand, was a delight. Charting the life of Addie, the first in her family to be born in the United States, it captivated me completely. There was an unbleak, but unflinching, portrait of growing up in poverty in early twentieth-century Boston; there was a lot about culture clash among first-generation immigrants. There was a constant thread about the redemptive power of art. An early ‘men-are-b*stards’ theme was successfully reined in and counteracted later on. And the ending, coincidentally in the same year as Sweet Caress, was charming, and full of hope.

At bottom, I think Sweet Caress is very British, and The Boston Girl very American. That is a sweeping generalisation for which I have very little evidence or justification, but here goes: The former deals with the years more evenly, and in particular has the big 20th century wars as defining events, but most particularly seems to subscribe to the theory that everything is getting just a little bit worse. (I won’t give away the plot. But read it, and you’ll see what I mean.) The latter is skewed very heavily towards adolescence, and the immigrant experience, a part of the American story still written so large in the nation’s history that – to an outsider, at least – it almost eclipses everything else. The later years are dealt with in comparatively few pages, but the narrative is explicit – very explicit, and down to its closing sentence – in its message that things are getting better, not worse.

Thing is, I prefer the American message. And Diamant wrote her Addie far more convincingly, to my mind, than Boyd his Avery. If there was a cage fight between these two novels, then for me, the American wins hands-down.

Sweet Caress by William Boyd – ***
The Boston Girl by Anita Diamond – ****