Friday, 4 May 2018

In which I fall over Sir Tom Stoppard


            ‘There is a way to die and a way not to die. That is very important. Hence my admiration for George the Fifth who - on his deathbed, in reply to his physician who told him that in a few weeks he would be recuperating at Bognor Regis - said: Bugger Bognor, and died... Bugger Bognor. Ah, would that I might die with a phrase half so sublime on my lips! There you have a man who at the moment of death manages to put life into perspective.’ He paused. ‘Well, I might as well hear your journal anyway.’
            ‘I - I set fire to my notebook, Lord Malquist.’
            ‘Out of pique?’
            ‘No... It got wet and I was drying it.’
            ‘Oh, dear me. Well don’t despair, dear fellow. Wasn’t it Mr Gibbon who sent his manuscript of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to the laundry?’
            ‘I don’t know, Lord Malquist.’
            ‘Not many people do. But my great-great-grandfather was present when his publisher received a parcel of dirty linen. Hansom cabs were summoned at once but it was too late, and Gibbon had to begin all over again, wearing a soiled collar, hence the uneasiness detectable in the first chapter. What’s the most implausible thing about that sentence?’

Dimly aware that Sir Tom Stoppard had once written a novel, and even more dimly never having researched its publishing status, I was fortunate to quite literally fall over a copy in The Last Bookshop in Bristol. (For anyone not in the know, please stay out of it because I want to buy all the books in there... No really. OK, it’s a haven entirely comprised of remainders with an excellent range and it’s almost criminally cheap.) This was yesterday. I have now read Lord Malquist & Mr Moon, marked most pages as ones that should be learnt off by heart and begun reading it to my partner so that I have someone with whom to share the joke.

Friday, 27 April 2018

Forget what you've been told. Forget stories about "growing up". Marlena doesn't get to.


‘She’s the way I swear and how I let men look at me or not, she’s the bit of steel at my center, either her, herself, or the loss of her. Before that year I was nothing but a soft, formless girl, waiting for someone to come along and tell me who to be...

She lied to me all the time.’

I have begun so many sentences with something along these lines: ‘Julie Buntin’s Marlena is a novel about...’ and then I stumble over horrendous words like, ‘friendship’, ‘girlhood’, and that dreadful phrase ‘coming of age’. Because these are lazy ways that we pigeon hole a novel so that some imagined intended audience will find it. Have you ever heard anyone actually say ‘oo I love a coming of age story’. That’s not how anyone I know thinks. Marlena, is about so much and to write about it as a book concerned with intense female formative friendships misses about eleven other angles from which it speaks.

So, where to begin. The narrator Cat, or Catherine, or Cath, depending on her age and with whom she is speaking, is spurred by a phone call to remember the year in which she moved to Silver Lake, Michigan, aged fifteen, and became best friends with this torrent of beauty, pills and sorrow, Marlena. Who knows if they would have remained friends forever, probably not, but Cat never gets to find out for sure - Marlena drowns. Now she is in some way always with Cat.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

A Monstrous Beauty - 'Ponti' by Sharlene Teo



What a delicious mixture of cruelty and love, of blood and youth. We have all read books where multiple characters are introduced whom the reader begins to tie together, seeking connections and unravelling their pasts. Sometimes the clever links and the wish to uncover them earlier than the author allows mask a poorly written journey. On occasion one is busy trying to second guess the ending and doesn’t notice a paucity of skill in the winding together of the stories overridden by a shock factor. No such criticism can be levelled at Ponti, the debut novel by Sharlene Teo. She throws you straight into the winded lives of Szu, Amisa and Circe, living in Singapore across sixty years, and, if the options are sink or swim, I swam breathlessly alongside them for the two days over which I lived this book. Where a multi-voiced book could follow artificial links between characters and an overly clever plot line indulging too many coincidences, this is more an insight into how the three understand themselves and through that each other, how they perceive where their lives have taken them, how ghosts both haunt and help their prey.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Brighter Writings from Bleaker House

Sometimes, when my cat is attempting to hunt something - usually a ribbon or an unsuspecting guest’s foot - he focuses on it for a while, builds up momentum through a strange wiggling movement and then goes barreling towards it at top speed. Other times, he retreats from the object of interest, takes up a subtle hiding place (apparently unaware that he is bright white and stands out against the orange floor tiles) and then plans how to sneak up on the object. So focussed is he on his goal that he doesn’t notice, until he literally falls over it, the other often better toy waiting in his path. I wonder if this is how writing works, at least how it works for Nell Stevens. So focussed was she on the need to write a novel that she didn’t see the brilliant story lying in wait along that path until, fortunately, she fell over it.The result is her wonderful book about trying to become a Writer. Potential Writers everywhere: form a disorderly queue to add another layer of meta to writing a book about writing, by writing notes from this book about writing a book about writing.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

The Show that Sank a Thousand Careers


I had in mind to watch Troy: Fall of a City twice: once with my classicist hat on and once with my ‘I like watching TV’ one. I thought that even if I became frustrated or struggled to enjoy aspects with the former hat on, the latter might be more successful. As it happened, I can’t face watching this show ever again. Nor is it so mentally taxing that I would need to watch it more than once to take it all in. In fact, I found I had time to start writing an article and make a cup of tea without missing much. Except maybe a few extremely sweaty sex scenes.

Films and TV dramas based on great classical texts tend to fill me with both joy and loathing. The number of children who take Ancient History based on having watched the dreadful 300 is great, right? A film has made them want to study a fascinating subject. Unfortunately, my own experience is that they aren’t that interested in finding out what Herodotus actually wrote about the Persian Wars. But then there are shows like Rome and obviously the film Gladiator and I reason that getting anyone talking about or interested in the ancient world must be a good thing.

Well. In walks the BBC’s new drama.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Bringing 'Dark Tales' into the Light



Haunting. Menacing. Horrifying. Nightmarish. These appear to be compliments when describing horror.


Aged 13, there was a period when sleepovers with friends were accompanied by the watching of a horror film. Despite protestations, I have therefore seen various numbers of Saw films in no particular order, The Ring, The Grudge, What Lies Beneath, Scream, Wrong Turn and the few parts of It during which I brought myself to look at the screen (not recommended). Not only did this result in sleepless nights and a fear of taking my eyes off the mirror in the bathroom, in case I blinked and found some monstrous being had appeared there, but I also could not see any reason to watch the films in the first instance. I did not find them entertaining or clever or cathartic. And they all seemed to end at random, as if the lead actress simply couldn’t back-brush her hair anymore that day or the writers had temporarily run out of horrendous uses for chicken wire, so that there was neither closure nor a great deal of sense in the ending but merely a certainty that there would be another film a year later in which much of the same occurred, very likely more violently.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Book of the Year? Perhaps Reservoir 13


In anticipation of the Costa Book Awards announcement on 30th January, I began feverishly to read Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13. I stopped only when I forced myself to take a break and think some more on what I had read and, I’ll admit, to have a night’s fitful sleep before continuing. Between the afternoon when I had started reading and the morning when I finished, Helen Dunmore’s collection of poetry had won the award. I had announced just prior to this news that it was surely between Rebecca Stott’s In the Days of Rain and Reservoir 13. To me, the only reason it would not be the latter was that the novel won it last year and it was a different category’s turn.

In which I fall over Sir Tom Stoppard

            ‘There is a way to die and a way not to die. That is very important. Hence my admiration for George the Fifth who - on his dea...