The joy of disastrous love affairs

On Thursday I went to Elizabeth Jane Howard’s memorial service and wrote about it here for The Bookseller.

Right now, I would like time to stop so that I could reread everything she ever wrote. I’d start with The Cazalet chronicles – I want to submerge myself in the gloriously messy affairs of Polly, Louise and Clary – then all the other novels and then go back to her autobiography Slipstream and look again at the extent to which EJH mined her own experiences to create her work.

I go a lot with my husband and child to the wetland centre in Barnes, founded by EJH’s first husband, Peter Scott. We have trained our four year old to say, ‘Hello, Sir Peter Scott’ to the statue at the entrance. I’ve started telling him about EJH.

‘She wrote lots of novels and had lots of husbands.’

‘Why did she have lots of husbands, Mummy?’

‘Sometimes people do.’

The first time I read The Cazalets I didn’t have a child and had no interest in them so I failed to appreciate that EJH draws children better than any other writer I can think of.

Please do read her, if you haven’t already, Start with either The Light Years or Slipstream. Tell me what you think.

What Gatz and Fifty Shades of Grey have in common

Greetings from my holiday in Holland where it is raining relentlessly. I’m used to spending my holidays in Holland in the rain but this year there is the vague consolation that I would be equally as wet and cold in London. As indeed I was on Friday when I went to see Gatz with my friend Julia. Gatz lasts about eight hours and is the entire text of The Great Gatsby read aloud with no deletions or additions. The set up is that an office worker can’t work his computer so starts reading a book instead and gradually his co-workers join in. There are four intervals and during every single one I overheard a snippet of Fifty Shades of Grey conversation. Old, young, male, female, black and white were all talking about a book in an interval at the theatre. Continue reading

Seriously bad love…the only kind that really works

It is a truth not particularly universally acknowledged that simple, plain, uncomplicated and stress free love doesn’t really work in fiction. Almost all romantic fiction stops at the point when the amusing misunderstandings have been cleared up and the happy couple walk off into the distance together to enjoy three years tops of uncritical staring into each others’ eyes before they make compromises, have children or get divorced at which point they may (just) become fictionally interesting again. During the loved up phase they are of absolutely no interest to any reader of novels. So much is this the case that I offer you a challenge. I have a theory that if you meet a happily married couple at the beginning of a novel then one of them is about to get run over by a bus or will turn out to be perpetrating some terrible undercover activity, like being a Russian spy or a serial killer. Seriously, happy love has no fictional purpose other than to be destroyed. Continue reading

Hopes and Dreams – Debut Fiction in 2012

I’ve been thinking about the turn of the year and about what it is that makes reading debut fiction so appealing and have decided that there is a lot of common ground based on the triumph of hope over experience. In the case of the New Year, the resolutions are unbroken and still hold out the glorious promise of self-improvement. In the case of pre-publication debut fiction, the dreams for the author and the book are still intact. On the 2nd January we can all still believe that we will be better, thinner, brighter people and that all the novels that we love will achieve every possible measure of success.

I’m don’t want to dwell on what might happen later on in the year (oh, the heart breaking thought of all those undrunk sachets of miso soup and usold books!) so will get straight on to my favourite debuts from January, February and March.  Continue reading

Little People v Erotic Despair

I’ve admitted before that I have irrational prejudices which often turn out to be nonsense and I caught myself at it again today. This morning I finished The Land of Decoration, a powerful debut which publishes next March. It is about a ten year old girl called Judith whose Father takes her knocking on doors to tell people that the world is going to end. As she sits in her bedroom waiting for Armageddon and worrying about getting her head flushed down the toilet at school, she starts having conversations with God and becomes convinced that she is his instrument.

It is a wonderful novel, beautifully written with flashes of absurd humour and an uplifting ending. I urge you all to read it. Continue reading

Books, cheese, soppy stuff

Books, cheese, soppy ramblings

I’m in Edam, in Holland in the house where my husband grew up. It is a typically Dutch house, with lots of wood, very steep stairs and a canal flowing by outside.

What is slightly more unusual is that it full of books, packed with books, everywhere you turn you see yet more books. Shelves upon shelves. Art books, encyclopedias, history. Whole shelves full of Biggles or Simenon or thriller writers I’ve never heard of.
My father in law who died earlier this year was a bibliophile, a collector. He couldn’t pass a second hand book stall without acquiring something. Even when poor health made it more difficult for him to sell them on, he just couldn’t stop buying books. Continue reading

His, His or Her, Their – Julian Barnes II

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‘What should I read first of his other books?’ asked lots of lovely people today about Julian Barnes. I had a wonderful day today. I felt high and happy about the Booker, And lots of people were very nice about my Booker blog post.

The answer, as with all book recommendation, lies in the reader. What is it that you want? Want sexual jealousy? Then go for Before She Met Me. Coming of age? Metroland. France, French stuff? French kissing, French letters, French toast? Well, most of it but Flaubert’s Parrot is the one that most floats my bateau. Short stories? Tricky. I’ve a fondness for Cross Channel (see? It’s that French thing again) but The Lemon Table is good if you’re interested in ageing and fear of death and the last story in Pulse is a very fine thing indeed. (Go buy it. Read the bit about the herbs. If you don’t think it’s a staggeringly good piece of writing then I’ll eat my chapeau.) Continue reading