Tag Archives: Penguin

Ammonites and Leaping Fish: Ageing with grace and eloquence

Cover imageBeing of a certain age, I have several over-80s in my life and have lost several more dear to me in recent years. Some have aged well – I have a lovely memory of my 90-year-old aunt executing high kicks in her kitchen a few months before she died, delighted when H couldn’t match her – and some not so well. Penelope Lively seems to be managing it with grace and eloquence. The first part of her evocatively named Ammonites and Leaping Fish is a meditation on how it feels to be old: the loss of a beloved husband, the bodily aches and pains, the solaces and the changes seen. It leads us to a chapter on Lively’s life, an essay on context: her childhood in Cairo, her experience of the Second World War, how it felt to view the Suez Crisis from Britain while feeling more affinity with Egypt and bringing up a family in the Cold War. The chapter on memory talks of Lively’s fascination with the way that memory works and how that fascination has played into her fiction. We learn more of her own life through a series of snapshots – her most vivid memories from each of her eight decades – illustrating the way in which our memory changes as we get older. Perhaps inevitably, my favourite chapter is on reading and writing. Reading has always been a fundamental part of Lively’s life. She talks eloquently of the way in which reading feeds into writing, of finding what you like often through reading what you don’t like, of the books to which she returns and names her three desert island novels – Henry James’s What Maisie Knew, William Golding’s The Inheritors and, much to my delight, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, a personal favourite. I defy any reader not to enjoy a warm cosy glow when they read the sentence ‘To read is to experience.’ The final chapter takes six of her favourite possessions, including the eponymous ammonites and leaping fish, illustrating them and explaining why they are so important to her. It’s not so much a memoir as a series of carefully considered reflections which together form a beautifully expressed illumination of a long life.

The Observer’s New Reading column mentioned several reviews on Amazon complaining about the rip-off price of £1.99 for Lively’s short story, Abroad, which both saddened and annoyed me. As H pointed out £1.99 will buy you around a third to a half a glass of wine depending on the quality, and I’m sure the quality was high. We’ve all become used to paying very little for books but perhaps we forget to consider how much enjoyment, and some times enlightenment, we’re buying, and how many people need to be paid to produce a book, not least the author although they often are at the bottom of the pile. What do you think? Is £1.99 too much for 4,000 well-chosen words or do you think it’s fair?

The Most Abandoned Books

This is not a post about lascivious, sensual reading matter: instead it’s the title of a list of books many readers have given up put together by Goodreads. Given my recent disappointments mentioned in Friday’s post I headed off to have a look and found many all too familiar titles – Moby Dick, Gravity’s Rainbow (both raved about by H), Finnegans Wake, The Naked Lunch to name but a few of my own abandonments – plus several I doggedly ploughed through before seeing the light including Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Master and On the Road, read when I was a teenager so I’m letting myself off the hook for that one. There’s an infographic associated with the list which analyses readers’ reasons for abandoning books but which also reveals that a stonking 38.1 % of us determinedly continue reading books we aren’t enjoying. Please stop now – there are so many other excellent books out there just waiting to be picked up.

Cover imageI’m not giving up Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation narrated by Kimberly Chang, a bright young Chinese girl who has emigrated with her mother to the States from Hong Kong. The jealous, exploitative Aunt Paula installs them in a filthy, cockroach infested apartment in a derelict district of Brooklyn with only an oven to see them through the freezing New York winter. Paula extracts rent and debt repayments from their pitiful wages earned in her clothing factory, leaving a pittance for Kimberly and her mother to live on. It’s cleverly written – Kwok scatters phonetics through the American characters’ dialogue giving us an inkling of what it feels like struggling to understand a language which isn’t your own. My own aunt and uncle have been staying with us over the past few days which has been a delight, both being the polar opposite of Kimberly’s ghastly relatives. They left this morning, M having abandoned Gone Girl which she wasn’t enjoying after I pressed a copy of Antoine Laurain’s wonderful The President’s Hat on her.



Beautiful Ruins: a good old fashioned bit of escapism

Despite the rain outside and the woolly cardigan I’m desperate to abandon but can’t seem to shrug off, it’s almost June and the holiday reading season is upon us. I’ve spent the last few days alternating between She Left me the Gun, Emma Brockes’s superb but harrowing account of finding out about her mother’s South African past and her abusive grandfather, and Jess Walters’s quirky Beautiful Ruins which has offered some welcome light relief.

Cover imageSpanning fifty years, it opens in Italy in 1962 the year that the movie classic Cleopatra, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, was shot in Rome. Pasquale Tursi is trying to make a beach in the impossibly rocky cove his hotel overlooks while the beautiful Hollywood actress, Dee Moray, rests upstairs in her room. It’s a charming opening to a novel which draws you in as it skips from 60s Italy to present day Hollywood taking its readers up little narrative side alleys along the way.

Dee has been dispatched to Porto Vergogna, cruelly tricked by Michael Deane, Cleopatra’s publicity fixer, into thinking she has stomach cancer when she’s actually pregnant – it might be a little hard to suspend your disbelief at this point but, as with so many details in this clever novel, all becomes clear later. She’s waiting for her lover, a famous movie star, who never arrives, and the gentlemanly Pasquale decides that he must rescue her setting in train a series of events which remain unresolved for fifty years when he travels to Hollywood to track her down.

Each character in Beautiful Ruins has their own love story. Pasquale has left his beloved Amedea behind in Florence to care for his widowed mother; Dee is besotted with her famous movie star; Alvis Bender, who returns to Porto Vergogna to write his book every year, falls for Dee; Dee’s son, has written a love song about Lydia which touches the hearts of all who hear it; Claire, Michael Deane’s assistant, can’t decide whether or not to ditch her porn-addicted boyfriend – and the lists goes on. There is a good deal of gentle humour in Walters’s novel and Hollywood’s self obsession is nicely mocked. Occasionally the narrative’s many diversions seem a step too far – Alvis Bender’s one and only chapter, Shane, Pasquale’s accidental translator’s movie pitch – but all is satisfyingly tied in later in the story.

Billed by the publishers as ‘this summer’s ultimate beach read’ Beautiful Ruins is better than that: both amusing and absorbing it’s much more cleverly put together than the usual holiday reading romp. One to sit back and enjoy, come rain or shine.

The anachrohumph: a definition

Yesterday evening after a long day spent reading – me the intriguing Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux and my partner a pile of dissertations for marking – we decided to plonk ourselves on the sofa and catch up with Endeavour, ITV’s prequel to Morse. Along with most of the UK, I seem to be hooked on quality crime TV although I rarely read crime fiction. Broadchurch, the BBC4 Scandi-crime roll call, not to mention The Sopranos and The Wire are all up there at the top of my viewing favourites. For most people, I’m sure, Endeavour is cosy, relaxing viewing but for us it’s fraught with tense moments which have little to do with the plot for, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, my partner is a contemporary historian and the 60s are one of his stomping grounds. Things went pretty well last night, just a couple of phrases: ‘I’d like to speak with her’ – ‘to her’, we Rotters Clubchorused – followed by ‘they were gifted it’ which met with a groan but there have been so many harrumphs over anachronisms in the past that I felt moved to come up with a description and anachrohumph seems to fit the bill. The worst outbreak of anachrohumphing I can remember was twenty minutes into Stephen Poliakoff’s Glorious 39 when H anarchrohumphed right out of the cinema. Still, at least I was left in peace to enjoy the rest of the film. Ignorance really is bliss occasionally. Novels set a few decades ago are dangerous territory, then, but Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club passes the test with flying colours. Set in Birmingham, four school friends face the combined terrors of growing up in the 70s: strikes, IRA bombs not too mention appalling fashion. It’s a political novel with a seriously funny heart which excels when Coe turns his talents to the minutiae of British life. And it’s guaranteed anachrohumph-free.


Hello World

As anyone who’s started a WordPress blog knows, the first dummy post is generated for you headed ‘Hello World’. Given that this is a blog about books and that I’ve just finished reading design critic Alice Rawsthorn’s Cover imagefascinating book, Hello World, it seemed appropriate to let the heading stand. Rawsthorn knocks designers off the pedestal they climbed on to, or perhaps were raised up on to, at some point in the ’80s when everything considered to be of superior quality was proclaimed ‘designer’ this or ’designer’ that.

Design pervades every aspect of our lives. Everything is designed by someone and, as Rawsthorn insists, if you find yourself struggling to get to grips with your new DVD player, unable to get your flat pack bookshelves to stand up or access all the many and varied functions of your smartphone, it may well be the designer’s fault rather than yours. I usually have my head in a novel but Rawthorn’s style is so readable and her arguments so refreshing that I found myself thoroughly engrossed by her book. It’s stuffed full with interesting anecdotes, from the story of the Tube map design to how Ann Summers’ shops got their name. She has an eye for vivid example, choosing the skull and crossbones to exemplify good design conveying as it does exactly what you need to know. Towards the end of her book Rawsthorn looks at the effect of design on the developing world illustrating how designers from the developed world can sometimes make things worse, no matter how well meaning they are. Good design comes from fully understanding how something needs to function in the environment in which it is to be used. By the end of this excellent book I wanted to thrust a copy of it into the hands of all designers, aspiring or otherwise.