How to read happily in the year of the virus

I read the post of Stuck in a Book about reading in anxious times. It is not just fear at issue right now, but

 It’s the scary amount of choice, and the scary amount of time. Usually I grab something and read it on my lunch break, or after I come home from something, or for a few hours on a Saturday. Now I have seemingly endless time and seemingly endless options. It’s overwhelming.

So true and yet so important to get out of that state of mind. To see it as a period of being as in a library, dipping into a book as you would when deciding whether to take it out on loan. Don’t feel bad about doing that and then putting something back on the shelf thinking, ‘another time for that one.’ I love browsing in bookshops and I am hugely grateful that I have enough books in my own home, many unread, that permit me to do that now.

See your bookshelves as a new way of leaving your house each day to go on a journey, without any of the hassle of airport queues, squashed seats on planes, jetlag. Instead, with a cup of tea in hand, and, if you are lucky as I am right now, the sun shining in the window, you journey safely into the imaginative worlds an infinite* number of writers care to create for us. It’s the moment to celebrate and appreciate their never-ending gift to the world.

*because they will never stop

Martha in Paris and The Eye of Love by Margery Sharp

‘I’ve come,’ announced Mr Joyce, ‘to talk about Martha.’

That’s a real suck-you-in sentence which had me loving Martha without knowing a dang thing about her. I imagined that she’d run rings about Mr Joyce and that she’d make me laugh in the process.

Margery Sharp again manages to combine sheer elegance of language with heroines that are anything but. Martha is fat and plain, but she doesn’t give a toss – or not even that, it’s more that she hasn’t even ever thought about such trivial matters. She’s an artist, obsessed with shape, and then with colour. Nothing matters to her apart from that. Oh, she likes a good bath, and she eats like she is built. But if she had the least reason to think that either of those habits were bad for her art, they’d be out on their ear. Just like Eric.

In fact, just like her baby. She gets pregnant to Eric. Drops him without his knowing that – he had plans to marry and obviously then she’d give up art. She has the baby in secret, and then leaves it with a note at Eric’s front door. It’s the spitting image of him. He lives with his mother. She left formula for the baby. Sorted. Back to painting.

I suppose that all sound awful, but it isn’t. It’s just funny and admirable that she can live in such a male-like way, obsessed with the thing she does and survive even the potential inconvenience, if not trauma, of an unwanted pregnancy.


After reading this and picking up the other Sharp I’d bought at the same time, I discovered I’d read them in the wrong order. The Eye of Love is an account of the charming love affair between Martha’s aunt and her (spoiler) husband-to-be. It will come as no surprise that this pair is as unattractive as Martha. But they have only eyes for each other as those who attempt to part them discover. If you ask me, it doesn’t matter whether you read this or Martha in Paris first. But there is a third and I am pleased that I am going to read that last, when I am able to pick up a copy.

The edition I have of these two is just awful, not least because it wants to turn Sharp’s exceedingly clever writing into the most tawdry of chick-lit, or whatever it was called in the early sixties. The cover of Martha in Paris proclaims:

Martha went to Paris

to learn to paint…

and learnt to love instead.

It’s so insulting to Sharp when love of any kind, of her rellies, her baby, the father of the baby is just not happening. NOT HAPPENING. New English Library what on earth were you thinking?

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler

I went to the bookshop at the end of the street and picked this up. It prompted the memory of the last Tyler I read, which, it turned out was a bit of an ordinary disaster. I read it last year, went to review it and imagine my surprise to discover I’d done the whole thing before in 2016, including reviewing it here. How could I have no memory of that, not the least tiniest feeling that comes of already knowing the text? I was torn between hoping it reflected on me – early dementia? – or Tyler. Neither answer appealed.

So, I’m standing there, Clock Dance in hand, and I realised what I really needed right then was a book I’d read in a day without putting it down.  And that is more or less what happened.

A vastly underrated writer who would surely have made a splendid story out of my misadventure with A Spool of Blue Thread. She knows how people work, she loves them. In the reader’s eye there is no doubt about each person, they are as real as if they were standing in front of you. This is not a fashionable talent in the canon these days, but one day that’ll change. She is accused of being sentimental in a period where that is a misdemeanour, if not an outright crime. I fail to see sentimentality in this book; perhaps that means I am a petty crim myself – guilty as charged in that case.

The lovely East Avenue Books people gave me two Margery Sharps I hadn’t yet read whilst I was humming and haaing over this one. Thank you Peter and Joan!

Scotland Before the Bomb by M.J. Nicholls

I’ve read this in an unconventional way and I haven’t finished it, but I’ve read a substantial portion. I began with a couple of the episodes that were on themes I warm to.

MJ Nicholls

The first, a diatribe on the Fringe Festivalisation of Edinburgh. As a resident of Adelaide, at the other end of the world, which vies each year to be bigger than Edinburgh, I entirely sympathise. These festivals suck. They suck the life out of theatre for the rest of the year. They suck the life out of originality and complexity. As Fringe Festivals around the world become more and more about extracting money ‘for the economy’ from back packers, many of whom have no English, linguistic complexity is an absolute no-no. Preferably one can dispense with language altogether. Physical ‘theatre’ take a bow.

The next one I turned to was about Amazon. Our future Amazon-driven world. I’ve listed this book under comedy, but the laughs are often bitter.

Having a couple under my belt that I immediately took to, I started dipping into others. This is a strange, compelling book, probably because the author doesn’t give a flying f*ck about the reader. He is doing what he wants. As Odetta (among others) had it:

I’m a rambler, I’m a gambler
I’m a long way from home
And if folks don’t like me
They can leave me alone

MJ makes me think of these words, it’s really lonely, doing what you want. The audience for this book is consequently niche, but I recommend you find out for yourself if you are part of it. At the very least it’ll do you good to be out of your comfort zone.

My favourite is Tickertape of Misery. Anybody who has read the book may laugh at the idea that I forced somebody to listen to me read the whole piece out loud. I’m pleased to be able to report we are still conducting conjugal relations.

Kudos to the author for employing a real artist to do pictures for the book, Alan Lyons has a striking style which genuinely adds to the finished work.

To end with a small rant about the ‘star’ system. I want to give this three stars, but we live in a world where that’s failure. I don’t think it is at all, but my opinion doesn’t count. So, I’ve given it four stars because I think that reflects how others use the star system and that probably matters.

How do you get teenagers to read?

I hope some of my reading friends here have ideas about this, but let me be more specific about the problem, as I think it’s a new one, twenty years ago it wouldn’t have existed.

The question is, how do you get hostile belligerent teenagers who are addicted to phones/social media and over whom you have no authority, though you are their teacher, to read for pleasure? And, by the way, this is a ‘nice’ school in Geneva, Switzerland; heaven knows how bad it must be in other places.

To complicate things further, these teenagers are learning English as a second language. Their grasp of it is very weak, A2 at best.

The best I’ve come up with so far is one teacher’s suggestion of The Hunger Games because what is relevant to teenagers is sex, death, violence and drugs. Relationships with each other and how to get through those. Are there more uptodate examples readers might suggest that will get kids reading?

And if these kids don’t even read in their own language, what are the chances of their reading anything in a foreign language they are being forced to learn?

The teacher referred to above posted here about his experiences.

Approaching adult themes
Perhaps the two most popular fictional series for young adults in recent years have been The Hunger Games trilogy and The Twilight Saga. They have been translated successfully into all the major languages so it’s clear that they have a universal appeal. They may appear to be very different from each other on the surface: the one being set in a futuristic dystopia while the other, although set in the contemporary world is a tale of rival gangs of vampires and werewolves. But they share a number of important themes in common. They are both works of fantasy. They both deal with relationships in the form of a love triangle. Violence and death and all of the emotional and moral conundrums therein are also central plot themes. These themes crop up again and again in young adult fiction. The prevalence of fantasy is easy to understand – successful books need to entertain after all. Vampires, werewolves and wizards may come and go according to fashion. But the human realities of surviving relationships, being different, coping with hardship, violence and even death are here to stay.

Looking at the top ten teen books being sold online at the moment, six fall into the science fiction/fantasy genre, two are set in futuristic dystopias. Four have romance as plot elements, while two deal with the issue of rape. It should come as no surprise that these themes have so much appeal to teenagers who are themselves coming to grips with issues surrounding relationships, sex, violence, and being different themselves, as they near adulthood. Books offer them a safe place to explore these ideas as they try and work out their own beliefs and how they fit in with the world around them.

I wonder if there are any A2 vampire stories out there? Perhaps that’s the way forward in this dispiriting conundrum.

A Connoisseur’s Case by Michael Innes

Hard not to love an archetypal English countryside mystery first published 1962, that has a homage to Tom Lehrer in it.

‘A piano, you idiot?….I’m not expecting a piano. What should I want a piano for? To play myself to sleep with Mozart and that crowd?’ Channing-Kennedy gave a short, sharp bellow of laughter on this, so that one had to suppose he considered it a considerable witticism.

It is undeniable that the story line is thin – a fan tells me that is often the case – but it isn’t why you read an Innes. You read it to share his lighthearted love of language, the fun he has with it, the droll wit. It’s so jolly English, what.

I complained in my review of Donleavy recently that he is frequently described as having a staccato style, which I think is predicated on a misunderstanding of how he writes, perhaps because Donleavy himself played the master of the manor. But here Innes captures exactly that staccato upper class English way, that inability to construct sentences. Having read these books back to back it really struck me, the contrast between this, and the dreamy melodic nature of Donleavy’s prose.

‘I’ve no idea, my dear. I’ve never heard him mentioned for years. Went off the rails, they say. But I don’t know how badly. Sad thing, when a decent family produces a rotter. Came across it once or twice in the Regiment. Honoured name, you know. And then suddenly you have a boy forging a cheque or cheating at cards. Embarrassing.’ For a moment Colonel Raven looked extremely serious. Then he brightened. ‘But I see that Tarbox has let us have the Stilton,’ he said. ‘Dig into it John. It’s really not bad – not as Stilton goes nowadays.’

The words make pictures in your mind, it’s hard to believe that Appleby’s stories haven’t been filmed. And I wonder if Sir Humphrey Appleby, the star of Yes Minister, is deliberated named as a tribute to Michael Innes for word games in the English language.

Wiki’s done a good job of summarising the nature of these books:

Between 1936 and 1986, Stewart, writing under the pseudonym of Michael Innes, published nearly fifty crime novels and short story collections, which he later described as “entertainments”.[1] These abound in literary allusions and in what critics have variously described as “mischievous wit”, “exuberant fancy” and a “tongue-in-cheek propensity” for intriguing turns of phrase.[1][3] Julian Symons identified Innes as one of the “farceurs”—crime writers for whom the detective story was “an over-civilized joke with a frivolity which makes it a literary conversation piece with detection taking place on the side”—and described Innes’s writing as being “rather in the manner of Peacock strained through or distorted by Aldous Huxley“.[4] His mysteries have also been described as combining “the elliptical introspection … [of] a Jamesian character’s speech, the intellectual precision of a Conradian description, and the amazing coincidences that mark any one of Hardy’s plots”.[1]

For: when you want to be entertained with a deft touch that keeps a smile on your face
For: appreciation of the English language
For: the butler

The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B. by JP Donleavy

Once a darling of the literary world due to his first novel, The Ginger Man, he is now of that period, only old enough to be out of fashion, and I don’t know if he’ll get to be classic. I was put off Donleavy long ago by failing at my attempt to read The Ginger Man and then later by failing also with The Unexpurgated Code: A Complete Manual of Survival & Manners.

Late last year, however, I went to an English booksale in Geneva, which had the following rule: once you had 30CHF of books in your bag,  you could continue to fill your bag with books at no further charge. I have not been buying books at fairs and fetes and sales and op shops since I could walk to no effect. Stuffing books in bags? It is a skill I could put on my CV. Knowing the rules of the game, I bought various books that otherwise would not have made the cut and this was one of them.

Evidently somebody had died and his books had been donated to the sale. He was clearly a man of literary taste and I hated to see so many of his books just sitting right at the end of the sale, not the sort of thing read these days. Hrrrrumph. There I was, therefore, practically obliged to take this book, by a writer with whom I had no affinity. I wanted it to have a home.

Twenty or so pages into the book, my opinion had not wavered, my previous judgement of him more or less confirmed. I might have stopped reading….but I didn’t. And suddenly things turned around. Far from wanting to stop, I couldn’t put it down.

The fact is one might criticise this, and perhaps others of his, since I gather Donleavy tends to write about the same thing, for various 21st century crimes. His hero, a tragic hero no less, is a young rich white male. One feels the misogyny of Donleavy and a patronising of ‘the lower classes’ which goes with his image. He bought a big country house in Ireland and dressed in the outlandish way Balthazar does.

And his comic pieces, which are oddly thrust into the book here and there, once they are set in Ireland, are coarse caricatures. The harridan of a wife, who sets upon her husband and young women, who sees the merest thought of sex as rape. Really? Now we would think like this: that these poor women were divided into those who had to keep becoming pregnant with all the attendant risks and the ones so young they didn’t yet understand those risks.

But then I think of the Irish couple I used to know, the tough woman with her eye fixed on her husband, the fact that it was with good reason, since he had lust perpetually in his face, though he may always have been too scared to act upon it.

And in any case, with the bulk of the book lyrically, if harrowingly sad, perhaps these pieces of silliness were essential to provide some balance.

Here we are, then, expected to laugh at things which are inappropriate to laugh at these days, and expected to feel sorry….for a rich, handsome, young white male? That’s really challenging the reader. It reminds me of a musician I used to go to see in Melbourne. He used to rant at his audience about how hard it was being part of this minority, the rich white male. The ‘rich’ seemed particularly obscene for him to complain about because he performed with a longtime member of the live folk scene in Melbourne, who had not a cent to his name. Errrm. Give all your money to Pete? We’d all be better off?

So here we have the hero of this book, Balthazar, a beautiful soft fearful young filthy-rich white male. Women fall for him like flies, but he is too paralysed with his fearfulness to be able to take advantage of this. In the entire book, over a long period of years, he has almost no sex. And he experiences almost no love.

He has all the get up and go of something small which has been squashed almost to death, perhaps by a copy of this very book. He has even less initiative and when he does, on rare occasion, exercise it, disaster befalls. If you ask me, such a person should make you so jolly irritated that you want to throw the darn book at the wall. And why on earth should you waste one moment of that shrinking number of moments you have left feeling sorry for him?

Ah, but you do. The fact is that there isn’t one moment in the book when you don’t feel for him. Somehow, despite all his natural advantages, despite his almost slothful approach to the world, despite his complete failure at any time to see any point to existence, despite all of that, you don’t want to box him around the ears whilst yelling at him to get real and wise up.

And it seems to me, that there is some aspect of genius at work, affecting the reader in a way where their very digestive system is wreaked havoc upon by the words of Donleavy, the order in which he puts them, and that way he has. Just google ‘Donleavy and ‘staccato’ to see the common observation-come-criticism that his delivery is staccato. But nothing could be further from the truth. The remarkable thing about this way – I wouldn’t want to use such a cold word as technique – of Donleavy is that although many of his sentences are not proper at all, but merely parts of sentences, they have a lilting, lyric quality of – well, one might say poetry there, but in fact it is much more complicated than that. I’ve tried to read this book out loud, thinking that it demanded to be, but no. So far my conclusion is that although it seems like it should be read aloud, in fact that is impossible to do and give justice to the words and their order. I’m fairly sure that this is not my fault for being an inadequate interpreter (though I may be). Rather, it is remarkably hard to read this book except in your head. I wonder if others have thought about this? I’d love to know if my idea about this is right or wrong.

To show what it’s like, this strange hypnotic prose, but at the same time to have this doubt, that to take a passage will reduce the very thing I’m trying to expose. Still. Take this, for instance. There is a context. The war which has ended. His abject loneliness. His constant yearning and complete inability to address that.

Balthazar B sat down on a crimson seat beneath a strained glass window and perused this oriental menu. The black dressed waitress brought a large cup of coffee and plate of glistening brown topped currant buns. A dish of gold balls of butter. A woman with a priest. Two red coated girls with refined small fingers sticking out form their cups of tea. Little clanks of cutlery on the glass. Heaped pots of sugar pieces. Warm fragrant coffee in the mouth. To open an evening newspaper and read that a cow escaped onto a road and gave the garda a wild chase into a village where the beast entered a public house and set the occupants to holding their pints high over their heads so as not to have them spilled. A wondrous simple peace. Without years of lonely grey. And upturned rafters in brick debris. With bombs and cannons chattering up against the night and searchlights waving over a terror torn sky.

To walk back down again this bustling street. The shop lights go on. A sweet smoky air descends. My drop of dew on a blade of grass. Is my gladness. Hovering above the ground.

High and still
Sparkling so
In Dublin

And that thing he does, slipping from third to first person. Marvellous.