|Book Project - January
||[Jan. 29th, 2016|10:06 pm]
I made many New Year's resolutions. Some of them are crazy, but one of the calmer ones needed to start quickly: I had to read two books each month, they had to be in genres I would not normally go for, and I had to buy them from a real shop. I've been sticking solely to Sci-Fi for too long, and there is a world out there for the reading!
January's were these:
“The Fly Trap” by Frederik Sjoberg
I'd assumed the title was a metaphor for human behaviour, as this was what the book was said to be about, but no. It's an actual Fly Trap. Instead of talking directly about humans, the author talks about flies... and then humans. I'd almost wanted a dry, serious book about human nature, but instead this is a lovely and funny conversation from an eccentric Swedish guy who is fully aware that people think fly collectors aren't sexy. His (translated) sentences are packed with wit and dry comedy, and slowly reveal a calm life full of obsession but also love. It's a window into a foreign culture, and totally shocking to a Londoner. People live their entire lives like this! On a quiet island, doing slow things, following in the footsteps of people from the 1800s whose own lives read like some unlikely Jules Verne adventure with a bit of crazy loneliness in it. But the author is so fun to read, so aware of the difficult job he'll have persuading anyone, and so whacky in his own quiet way, that I was grinning just two pages in. (It's the story about the time when he was a stage hand for a theatre, and had to get a live lamb on and off the stage every night, but the lamb was now well on its way to becoming a sheep and this was a problem...)
You will definitely learn a lot of new things from The Fly Trap. Some of them will be facts about obscure dead European entymologists and 1930s explorers, but much more are around the fascinations we all share as humans, and how we choose to get through life. (Also, hoverflies look like wasps. But they're so complicated you could collect them for years and never see anything like the whole range.) This was charming, interesting and definitely unique, and I keep thinking back to it. A very good start to my year of reading.
“The land where lemons grow” by Helena Attlee
Sadly the next one didn't keep up the level of quality. I really wanted to like this - it had lemons! And the beauty of Italy! And Sicilian marmalade! Surely this was a book which would engage people's passions for sunny, tasty, life!
But within a few pages it became obvious that here was a very different thing. It started with the author recounting how she, as a student, "chose to live in Sienna" even though it wasn't quite the right climate for the glimpse of citrus she'd had on an earlier visit. And then, as she moves on to talk about paintings from the 1500s, two things become obvious: 1) This entire book is dripping with so much privilege and wealth it's unbelievable. 2) She isn't going to grab the attention of anyone who didn't grow up with a trust fund. She hasn't a hope of engaging readers in sensual, sharp enjoyment of fruit or Italy because her sentences are written for 50 year-old white academic folk. She's the kind of person who can afford to earn money for years by "writing about the cultural history of Italian gardens". And this is a Problem.
I went from a book about a mad Swede who has very little to say that you're directly interested in, but is so funny and humane and self-depreciating that you're enjoying every minute of it anyway, to someone with a delicious subject I was excited about but who delivered a book where I would frequently realise I couldn't remember a single thing about the page I'd just read. It became an exercise in seeing how people richer than you can live. She went hunting for the plaster casts of the Medici family's rare fruit collection: she wanted to touch them and feel a direct line back to the 1500s. That's great! That's the kind of universal pull everyone would get a kick out of. Items that Princes touched 500 years ago are SEXY! But she's the kind of author who will include a sentence about how she had a cappuccino in a charming piazza before going to see her contact about the casts, and you know what? The reader doesn't care. I dream of trying oranges freshly cut open in warm Tuscan fields, but that remains a fantasy for me now, and most people forever. I grew up with enough money, but I recently lived in areas only 3 streets away from Stratford protest groups made up of mothers protesting council housing, eviction and rents in Newham. Enough money for a foreign holiday is a bad joke to thousands of people in the capital of the 7th richest country in the world, so we need a book which will take us on an Italian adventure instead. Something in Attlee's unshakeably unaware tone meant that I never felt I could replicate any part of her journey, and she mentioned herself too often to let the reader focus on the surroundings. Which is a shame, because the fruit is there to enrich all of us, not just those who proudly list that they have written for 'Country Life' magazine and 'World of Interiors'. Mandarin oranges, satsumas, clementines, *tangerines*, more varieties of lemon and citron than you can count... and the book ends up flavourless and lacking in any juice. Her style improves as it goes on, but the text remains strangely dead on the branch.
And the first book for February was:
"The Black Eyed Blonde" by Benjamin Black
Many years ago I read the sublime 50's noir thriller "The Double Shuffle" by James Hadley Chase. Ever since then I've had a soft spot for classic US crime/detective stories, but I haven't managed to actually read many of them. I've seen the movies of The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, and read those and some others, but apart from this my noir education has been thin. I wanted to look at Dashiell Hammett for this list (and I nearly picked up Red Harvest in the shop) or Raymond Chandler. It was TV which pushed me to do it now, with the end of the brilliant US crime series "Justified" (based on 'Fire in the Hole' by Elmore Leonard) and a tv adaption of the SF Noir 'Altered Carbon' on the way, which someone described as "The best hard-boiled detective novel not written by a guy named Hammett".
But instead of any of the classics, I randomly found a new official Philip Marlowe novel written by Benjamin Black (the pen name of John Banville). It's not only an official sequel starring the character from 'The Big Sleep' / 'Farewell, My Lovely' etc, it's also written to be as much like Chandler's original style as possible, and it really succeeds. Most of the cover quotes are exclamations of surprise at how this feels like his voice, which is a great thing.
From the opening pages when the high-class woman walks into the weary PI's seedy office, you know you're in safe hands. And when you come across the inevitable sexism (almost immediately) it stands out a mile and makes you think. This was written by a Man Booker winner in 2014, it's deliberate. It's what the genre was - or specifically what Chandler's books of the time were. It's like the way every person is smoking in every single scene, unless they're drinking. In what could be just a parade of clichés, the dialogue is excellent - you realise that people judged offence and intent from very different phrasing back then. It sounds authentic, even though every single trope possible is brought out for a respectful polish.
I frickin' loved this. It wasn't deep, but it was quite clever, and enormous fun. It's definitely got me back into wanting more 50's LA Noir. And it's invigorated my reading plan, which moves on next to:
"1606 - William Shakespeare and The Year of Lear" by James Shapiro
A look at the events which were going on and influencing Shakespeare in the year when he wrote both Macbeth and King Lear...