“If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em!” (John Waters)

A couple of weeks ago I read an interview with Ricky Gervais in which he explained that, despite his partner being a novelist, he had only read one book, The Catcher in the Rye.  This got me thinking, if as a bibliophile you meet a bibliophobe, and they ask you for a recommendation, where would you even begin?  Of course, the answer is to go with what you know they’re interested in: the fantasy-lover starts with Tolkien, a seasoned traveller with the literature of a land they love, the feminist with Jong (who’s funny as well, I can’t help thinking it’s probably a good idea to go for funny when dipping a toe in the waters of literature, humour so often makes things seem accessible).  That’s the thing – you want it to be accessible.  Because why haven’t they discovered the joy of reading?  (And I really think this is something anyone can experience). Probably they’ve been given the wrong things to read (stuff they’re not interested in), or taught badly, and told there is “good” and “bad” literature.  I can’t stand this type of snobbery.  If you like it, then it’s worth reading. At the same time, you’d want to give your eager bibliophobe something you felt was well written enough to open their eyes to what books can offer.  Somewhere between the two extremes of rending your garments, wailing “I can’t believe you’ve never read Proust!” and half-heartedly tossing the latest celebrity embryo’s autobiography in their direction is probably the ground you want to occupy. So…we’re looking for something well written but accessible, funny but thought provoking, something that you can almost guarantee they’ll like as it speaks to everyone…I’ve got it.  The answer’s staring me in the face.  It’s The Catcher in the Rye.

OK – Salinger seems to have ensured this is my shortest post ever.  But I’ll go on to discuss two more books anyway.  I’m not suggesting these are where everyone should start, or that these are the greatest books ever written, because I don’t want to get into that “Oh, you simply must read…” snobbery that this theme dangerously skirts around.  I’ve chosen them because they both have something in common with The Catcher in the Rye, and they’re both books that I know people who aren’t big readers have read and enjoyed.

Firstly, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961, my copy Corgi, 1974):

Well written?   Accessible?

I think the fact that the concept of a Catch-22 situation is so understood and constantly referred to (to such an extent that I don’t feel the need to define it when writing this) shows how brilliantly Heller has captured something people identify with and find meaningful.  The wide range of readers shows its accessibility, the pervasiveness of the concept shows how smart it is.

Funny?

So funny – you have to read this novel.  It’s silly: one of the characters is called Major Major Major Major.  It’s dry: “What the hell kind of a name is Yossarian?” Lieutenant Scheisskopf had the facts at his fingertips.  “It’s Yossarian’s name, sir.” It’s scathing: “The enemy,” retorted Yossarian with weighted precision, “is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on, and that includes Colonel Cathcart. And don’t you forget that, because the longer you remember it, the longer you might live.”

Thought-provoking?

OK – here’s the definition: “Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”

It’s hugely thought-provoking about the madness of war, the impartial cruelty of bureaucracy, the struggle of an individual against power structures that try to oppress…about so many things, and sadly it hasn’t dated.

Things in common with The Catcher in the Rye – Written around the same time but published 10 years apart (as Heller spent seven years writing the novel) both consider themes of alienation within and cynicism about contemporary Western society. Both made Time’s list of the 100 best modern English-language novels ; both were rated by Modern Library as amongst the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Apparently it’s sold 10 million copies. Surely Time, Modern Library and 10 million people can’t all be wrong? I can’t help thinking Yossarian would snort with derision in answer to that question…

Secondly, The Crow Road by Iain Banks (1992, Abacus, my copy 1996):

Well written? Accessible?

Iain Banks is great at creating highly readable, plot-driven narratives that you can fly through. At the same time, this means it’s easy to overlook how beautifully he writes, without superfluity:

“Pencil-thin and nearly as leaden, the tall and still dramatically black-haired Mr Blawke was dressed somewhere in the high nines, sporting a dark grey double-breasted suit over a memorable purple waistcoat that took its inspiration from what looked like Mandelbrot but might more charitably have been Paisley.  A glittering gold fob watch the size of a small frying pan was anchored in the shallows of one waistcoat pocket by a bulk-carrier grade chain. Mr Blawke always reminded me of a heron; I’m not sure why.  Something to do with the sense of rapacious stillness perhaps, and also the aura of one who knows that time is on his side.”

“The rain fell with that impression of gentle remorselessness west coast rain sometimes appears to possess when it has already been raining for some days and might well go on raining for several days more.  It dissolved the sky-line, obliterated the view of the distant trees, and continually roughed the flat surface of the loch with a thousand tiny impacts each moment, every spreading circle intersecting, interfering and disappearing in the noise and clutter of their successors.  It sounded most loud as it pattered on the hoods of their jackets.

“Ken, are sure fish are going to bite in this weather?””

Funny?

Hopefully that’s apparent already.  There’s also no better example than the opening line, see below.

Thought-provoking?

Not in the way that The Catcher in the Rye and Catch-22 are, perhaps.  Those are novels that use their outrage to force the reader to confront uncomfortable truths about the world we live in.  The Crow Road doesn’t have this driving force, but as the narrator, Prentice, tries to find out what happened to his Uncle Rory who disappeared without a trace, he exposes the fault lines that run through the family.  While most families may not have such dramatic occurrences within them as those in The Crow Road, it does have something to say about how those we are nearest to are also those it can be hardest to communicate with, and that the ones we love the most can be the ones we hurt the most.

Things in common with The Catcher in the Rye – Fantastic opening line: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” Tell me you don’t want to keep reading after that?  And brilliantly, it distils into a few words so much about the story that will follow: it will be about family and death, it will be unnerving, absurd and funny.

I hope that whether you are a bibliophile or bibliophobe (probably the former as you’re reading this in the first place), I’ve convinced you to give these novels a try.  If nothing else, put them on your bookshelf, so should you bring anyone home who agrees with John Waters, success is guaranteed…

Sadly, reading brilliantly inventive fiction is no guarantee that you will become brilliantly inventive yourself.  I couldn’t think of a unique way of presenting these books, so here they are, unadorned, nothing phony – I hope Holden Caulfield would approve.

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“One can no more approach people without love than one can approach bees without care. Such is the quality of bees” (Leo Tolstoy)

Happy Valentine’s Day!  I’m late as usual, but I hope you spent the day feeling loved/with loved ones, whether it was with a romantic partner, friends, family or simply re-reading David Gandy by Dolce and Gabanna (don’t judge me).  For those of you feeling a bit unloved, may I suggest a dog? There are loads that need rescuing, and they will provide unconditional adoration and support.  Picking up excrement in public with a hand clothed in a plastic bag is a small price to pay in return (note: this only applies to dogs.  If a human being offers you adoration in return for picking up their shit, it’s totally not worth it.  Unless you enjoy that sort of thing, in which case, Congrats! You’ve found your soulmate). Anyhow, in much the same way that this post seems to have been hijacked by doggy-do, Valentine’s Day has been hijacked by romance.  According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, as well as being the patron saint of affianced couples, happy marriages and love, St Valentine is also the saint for bee keepers, plague, epilepsy and against fainting (it’s about time someone took a stand against impromptu unconsciousness).  So for this Valentine’s post I’m going to look at a play featuring a bee-keeper and a novel about the plague – who needs love?  (Not me, I’ve got David Gandy by Dolce and Gabanna).

Firstly, Constellations by Nick Payne (Faber & Faber 2012).  I know reading a play is secondary to seeing it performed, and also that sometimes reading plays can feel secondary to reading a novel, a form written to be read.  But I think it’s worth doing.  Theatre can be prohibitively expensive, and depends on you being able to see the performance within a set period at a location you can reach.  These factors can mean you never make it to the show.  Reading the playtext enables engagement with the art (sorry, I couldn’t think how else to phrase that, I know it sounds wanky, sorry, sorry) even if you never set foot in the theatre.  I saw Constellations performed, and it was astounding.  Reading the playtext doesn’t give you Rafe Spall’s and Sally Hawkins’ brilliant comic timing and emotionally nuanced performances, nor does it show you Tom Scutt’s beautiful design.  But it does give you the characters, the plot, the language.

Marianne and Roland meet and fall in love.  They meet and never see each other again.  They meet and date.  It goes well, it goes badly. They split up.  They stay together.  Roland keeps bees and sells honey.  Marianne is a theoretical early universe cosmologist.  Which is handy, as she can explain multiverse theory as we watch all the possibilities of their relationship played out across multiple universes:

“In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes”

Scenes are played out with minute changes and big changes, and the skill of Nick Payne’s writing ensures this stays fresh.  The layering of scenes on top of each other means we end up with a great depth of understanding of the characters, seeing how the same person can react differently given only slight changes in circumstance.  It does mean however, that it’s difficult to give you a quote from the play, as the dialogue really gains meaning within the set of scenes and the play as a whole.  What I’ll give you, as it’s Valentine’s day, is part of Roland’s proposal speech (that’s not a spoiler, as its only one of the many possible outcomes…)

“…in a strange sort of way I’m jealous of the humble honey bee and their quiet elegance. If only our existence were that simple. If only we could understand why it is that we’re here and what it is that we’re meant to spend our lives doing. I am uncertain when it comes to a great many things. But there is now one thing that I am defiantly certain of….Marianne Aubele, will you marry me?”

Yes, Constellations is romantic.  But looking at all the possible outcomes means it is resolutely realistic as well, despite the unreality of watching a multiverse romance from our monoverse (is that a word?) perspective.  Throughout the different multiverses one event recurs again and again, unchanging.  This underpins all the variations and creates a dramatic tension, pulling the characters towards a single conclusion.  Even if you don’t usually read plays, Madame Bibi highly recommends you give the inventive and thought-provoking Constellations a shot (in at least this one of the many multiverses, you’ve got all the others in which to totally ignore me…)

Secondly, Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (4th estate, 2001).  Based on the true story of the village of Eyam, it tells the story of a village that chose to quarantine itself from the outside world in 1666 when plague struck.  The narrator of the story is Anna, a young woman who loses her family and watches the village assaulted in body, mind and spirit, as the disease and its consequences takes its toll.  Everyday life in extraordinary circumstances is sensitively described, such as when Anna starts acting a midwife for the village:

“Randoll burst through the blanket-door when he heard his lusty son, and his big miner’s hand fluttered like a moth from the damp head of the babe to his wife’s flushed cheek and back again, as if he didn’t know which of them he most wanted to touch… We laughed. And, for an hour, in that season of death, we celebrated a life…But even in the midst of that joy, I knew that I would have to leave the babe nursing at his mother’s breast and return to my own cottage, silent and empty, where the only sound that would greet me would be the phantom echoes of my own boys’ infant cries.”

At the time of the plague, Britain was caught between an age of religion and an age of science, and the villagers struggle between these two forces as they try to find an explanation for what they endure.  In that year witchcraft, madness and illicit passions stalk the village while wild justice is meted out.  By the time the year ends, every inhabitant of the village is hugely, irrevocably changed.  But in the midst of the tragedies, there are miracles.

Geraldine Brooks never lets her research get in the way of the story as you sometimes find with historical novels, and the balance between historical detail and narrative drive creates a novel that is both vivid and gripping.

Bees and bubonic plague – feel the love, people……….

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“It is the test of a novel writer’s art that he conceal his snake-in-the-grass; but the reader may be sure that it is always there.” (Anthony Trollope)

Happy Chinese New Year!  This year is the Year of the Snake, so I chose a snake related quote to start, and had originally planned to take a snakey, not-too-obvious look at literature for Chinese New Year, but sadly my brain failed me.  So I’ve gone the more obvious route of choosing two authors of Chinese origin; there are two great novels and I hope you like them.  (I had intended to be much more timely and publish this post on 10 February, but with a belly full of celebratory Peking duck and seafood noodles working their soporific effect, I failed in this also.  So far it’s fair to say that the year of the snake is not off to a flying start with me).

Firstly, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo (Vintage 2007).  The female protagonist of the novel, Z (because the Brits can’t pronounce Zhuang), arrives in London speaking minimal English.  Over the course of a year in which she has a relationship with an older British man, she learns the language and some life lessons.  The novel is divided up into months, charting Z’s year, and each section has chapter headings of words and definitions that Z learns as she masters the English language.  For example:

“Confusion

Confuse v mix up; perplex; disconcert; make unclear

English food very confusing. They eating and drinking strange things. I think even Confucius have great confusion if he studying English.

….I confusing again when I look at whipped cream on little blackboard. What is that mean? How people whip cream? I see a poster somewhere near Chinatown. On poster naked woman wears only leather boots and leather pants and she whipping naked man kneeling down under legs.  So a English chef also whipping in kitchen?”

This fresh take on the English language makes for a really entertaining read.  Obviously the image of some sort of BDSM kitchen in a café offering afternoon tea is funny, but it also makes you consider why we use the words we use, and the way language can seem arbitrary.  Certainly she highlights oddities like:

“why there two go for one sentence? Why not enough to say one go to go?…”I go” is enough expressing “I am going to go…”Really.”

She’s right – why do we say “go” twice?  And language snobs take note, language is not set down in golden, irrefutable, unchanging rules :

“One thing, even Shakespeare write bad English.  For example, he says “where go thou?” If I speak like that Miss Margaret will tell me wrongly.”

While exploring language in a truly inventive way, Guo has done a great job of creating a distinct character’s voice, and not just because she starts off in stilted English and becomes more fluent throughout the year (by the end of the book Z writes: “I take the snowdrops. I gaze at the flowers in my hand. So delicate, they are already wilting in the heat of my palm.”)  It’s because Z is forceful, unique and engaging person who you really feel you know by the time you turn the last page.

For the second book I thought I’d look at Sour Sweet by Timothy Mo (Abacus 1982). The voice in this novel is very different to Z’s.  Guo’s novel is written in the first person, a very forthright engagement with the reader including direct questions. Sour Sweet is written in the third person and takes a broad look at the Chinese community in 1960s London through the Chen family and the Triads.  When these two “families” intersect, tragedy ensues.  The third person narrative allows for an ironic distance, but simultaneously you really feel for the characters.  When Chen meets the Triads to ask for a loan he constantly tops up the tea they aren’t drinking and fears his fruit offering is damaged:

“He noticed his best shoes had become quite sodden with tea. He exclaimed and moved away, seeing that the fruit in the bags had indeed been squashed and, as he had feared, there were greasy-looking patches on the brown paper.  The bags were already starting disintegrate.  Perhaps this was why they had rejected his offering.”

This passage demonstrates so much about the novel as a whole: the insight into a culture and power that operates across countries, the pathos of every day life, the humour of every day life.  Small tragedies that can escalate.  Failures to communicate even when you speak the same language.

And I suppose the idea of communication is what unites these novels as well as their consideration of Chinese cultures.  Both highlight the inadequacies of language, and the inadequacies of language users, as we try to reach out to others through imperfect means. Both are funny, both are sad.  Sour Sweet indeed.

Here are the books with a laden plate of what I know, from having read these novels, is wholly inauthentic  Chinese food.  (Which looks awful – I’m clearly not cut out to be a food blogger). But it was delicious.  I wish I could tell you that the picture represents all the Chinese food I ate that night, but that would be so very untrue…

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“Anyone who doesn’t take truth seriously in small matters cannot be trusted in large ones either.” (Albert Einstein)

Two days ago I went to a talk at the London Review Bookshop entitled The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things with Paula Byrne and John Mullan. These two authors have both recently published works on Austen, and realised that they shared common ground in their consideration of the treatment of “small things” in her work, hence the joint talk.  I hadn’t read either of their books, but if they are as lively, learned and accessible in print as they are in person, and you are interested in Jane Austen, I would hazard a guess that seeking out their work would be time well spent.

So this got me thinking about the treatment of small things in literature and I came home to peruse my bookshelves and decide on which books to discuss in this post. I was struck by how many were suitable, how many look at the small things in our lives.  I suppose novels lend themselves to this – it is an intimate form, taking us inside people’s heads, but via our own internal voice.  The gap between ourselves and the story becomes almost imperceptible. Novels can detail the minutiae of life, and I often think that is where the intimacy is.  You know a person well when you know the small things.  A writer who knew the value of small things is oddly, a writer whose most famous work was epic.  James Joyce, author of Ulysses, used to document what he called epiphanies, to use in his work.  What exactly constitutes an epiphany and how to define it is a matter of debate, but I don’t think it matters that we can’t exactly say what they are. In Stephen Hero (an unpublished precursor to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) Joyce defines epiphanies as “the most delicate and evanescent of moments”. Not all of his recorded epiphanies survive, but an oft-quoted one is as follows:

“The Young Lady-(drawling discreetly) … 0, yes … I was … at the … cha … pel …

The Young Gentleman- (inaudibly) … I … (again inaudibly) … I …

The Young Lady-(softly) … 0 … but you’re … ve … ry … wick … ed .”

The meaning that Joyce found in this delicate, evanescent moment cannot be known for sure, but the epiphanies show us that this great writer took small matters seriously and sought out their truth.

If you’ve given Ulysses a bash & given up, you are far from alone.  I only know one person who’s finished it.  But don’t let that put you off Joyce entirely.  Dubliners is a collection of 15 stories set in the Irish capital and is far more accessible than Ulysses.  Deceptively so, as the more you look into the stories the more complex and multi-layered they reveal themselves to be, a bit like the small things in life that we actually attach great meaning to. But the stories can be read easily and a lot gained from doing so, without even exploring their complexities.  They are written in groups of ages, starting off with tales of childhood, then young adulthood, progressing to the final story, The Dead. Eveline is the fourth story, (from the young adult group) and begins:

“She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue.  Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne.  She was tired.”

In these opening three sentences Joyce evokes so much about Eveline’s situation through the small things: exactly why she is tired, why the curtains are dusty, and why she is looking out into the city become more apparent throughout the story, and these small things have a cumulative meaning of great significance.  But Joyce never explicitly states the epiphanies of his stories, leaving it instead for the reader to extract meaning.  The stories are determinedly small (like Austen’s “two inches of ivory”) but at the same time, by allowing readers to decide for themselves, Joyce ensures they are also limitless.

I saw Annie Proulx interviewed once and she said the short story was her favourite form as every word counts. Joyce described the style of Dubliners as one of “scrupulous meanness”, and he famously spent days constructing sentences: “the right words in the right order” (how did Ulysses ever get finished?), making every word count.  I think this is what makes him both the perfect observer and constructor of small things.

In keeping with the theme of this post, I’m only discussing one book this time.  There didn’t seem to be another one as perfect for this theme as Dubliners, so I decided it was clear I should keep the post a small thing in itself.  (There were lots of contenders though; I’ll have to work out how to squeeze them into another theme). And rather than a photo, this time I’ll leave you with a question raised in this video of one of the greatest moments in one of the greatest sitcoms: are small things really small, or just far away……?