The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham (1951)

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I’ve been familiar with this title since childhood, but hadn’t actually picked it up and read it. Perusing my Century of Books project, the year of 1951 was open and unfilled, so this was the perfect chance to take this title off the shelf. I think I knew the plot on a vague level – man-eating plants, scary, apocalypse etc. – but I do have to admit that it was a much better read than I had thought I was going to get.

This is a post-apocalyptic novel set in the days following an unexplained meteor shower that hits earth one ordinary night. Anyone who watched the meteor shower went blind, but the hero, Bill Masen, avoids that calamity by having had a previous accident to his eyes and being bandaged up that evening. The morning after the shower, Bill’s bandages are taken off, and he is plunged into a new world of mostly blind people and the triffids – clever man-eating plants who can walk around to trap their prey.

It sounds ridiculous, but it was a really good narrative. How does Bill survive when he is one of the few left who can see? How to live in this new world of shrinking resources and aggressive vegetation? Like any post-apocalyptic story, there are bands of people who battle for food and petrol, for clean water and for power, and although the book covers a short period of time, so much happens so quickly that you as the reader are taken along for the ride.

Written in the 50’s, it’s got the cultural references of the time with regard to gender expectations (men should rescue women, women love nice clothes and cook etc.), and it’s so interesting to watch them wrestle with these issues as their new world develops. Overarching everything are the triffids, the experimental plants that have escaped their enclosed yards and are now inching over the earth. They seem to be learning from experience, gathering together for strategy, and communicating with each other. They also have a ten-foot lash that they whip out unexpectedly to kill people.

I’m not usually a sci fi person, but I do tend to like spec fiction like this, and it was a good read overall. I just found out in Wiki that Brian Aldiss, a sci fi historian, called this “a cosy catastrophe” in that it’s a post-war apocalyptic world in which society is destroyed but for a handful of survivors who go on to enjoy a “fairly comfortable existence”. I wasn’t familiar with the term, but now that I know of it, it’s a perfect fit. This is sort of like gentle horror. It keeps your interest but isn’t too scary overall. I loved the read.

Wyndham based this tale on H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898) (I haven’t read it yet), and was very open about the influence. This Triffid book itself proved to have a long life with multiple versions of radio, movie and TV adaptations so perhaps we’ll track one of them down to watch (or listen to) this Christmas season.

Anyway, this was a surprisingly good read. I enjoyed it.

Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home – Nina Stibbe (2013)

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Coming of age as I did in 1980’s England, I always look back with plenty of nostalgia at that time: few responsibilities, lots of free time, great fashion (!), fantastic music, the belief that the world was our oyster… I just loved the whole thing, and so when I found a book that was about that time by someone who’d been around the same age and was English, I leaped at it. Not only was this by a peer from that time and in England, she had been as lost (future-plan-wise) as I had been, it was funny, and then — delirious joy — it was epistolary to boot.

“Love, Nina” follows the true story of a new nanny who has been employed by the then-editor of the London Review of Books who lived smack in the middle of London. The family was small, but the foot traffic and visitors through the house whilst she was nannying was chockfull of literary and arty superstars: authors, screenwriters, and all manner of other creative types would regularly come for a cup of tea, and all recounted in a series of letters sent by author Nina Stibbes to her sister in Leicester.

Author Deborah Moggach (who was also a neighbor up the street from the family) described this read as “Adrian Mole meets Mary Poppins mashed up in literary London…” and I think this analogy hits the nail on the head. As the book is written from Nina’s own POV, the reader goes through some of what Nina experiences and thinks, and TBH, it was hilarious in places.

(Note: There were quite a lot of names of people who I had no idea who they were, but once you get used to this and realize that this lack of knowledge doesn’t actually affect the story in any big way, you can move along. Don’t fret about not knowing who these literati are. Just jump over the names you don’t know. The book is still really enjoyable.)

So, nothing heavy in this read, but it was a very funny nostalgic visit to UK in the 80’s. I really enjoyed this book, and gobbled it down over one weekend. Highly recommended for anyone who lived firsthand through that fabulous decade and who is looking for a good solid read that makes you snigger with recognition on a hot summer day.

(P.S. Don’t be put off by the cover art. The read is better than it looks.)

Swabbing the decks…

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In a vague effort to clear the decks, so to speak, here is a quick review of some of my more recent reads…

So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Endures – Maureen Corrigan (2015). This was such a good nerdy lit crit read especially if you’re a fan of The Great Gatsby. (Actually, as I think aboutbook364 it, I would think that those people would be the only readers who would choose to read such a book…) I am such a person (see the gushing review here) and I just loved this read and gobbled it down in one weekend. I took rather sparse notes during my read though, so you might just have to take my word for it being so good. But trust me – it was.

I did learn about a theater company in NYC called the Elevator Repair Service group who do a 7-hour reading of the text of the GG every now and then. (I don’t know that I’d attend all seven hours, but I would definitely pop along to see some of it.)

I also learned so much about Fitzgerald and his rather sad life, about how the GG was received critically (mostly on the US shore), and then about how the GG slowly resuscitated itself after Fitzgerald died mostly through the efforts of his friends and then continuing on over the years on its own merits. Just how did it get on to so many high school and college reading lists?

”So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past…”

FITZGERALD/The Great Gatsby.

(Love that quote. Sort of sums up the Lost Generation time period for me.)

Now I’m searching through my TBR to see what would be a good follow-up to that…

book367Finally, an ILL arrived – a graphic novel this time, from Lucy Knisley (she who wrote Relish which was a great read). This one, The Age of License, was also a GN but about the author’s coming-of-age holiday when she traveled through several European countries trying to get over heart-ache and fulfill her book tour travels… Loved it.

book366The Railway Children (by Edith Nesbitt) was another good read (although totally different from Corrigan’s). I must have seen the BBC TV adaptation when I was a kid as I remember the waving of the red petticoats incident, but that was all I could recall so this was basically a new read for me. Lashings of ginger ale and no contractions in the writing, and reminded me a lot of the narrative style of the wonderful Paddington the Bear books. (Stick with the books. The film is not worth its name, TBH.)

And then I did spend quite some time trudging through the first half of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf, but then I couldn’t take the over-writing and endless descriptions of the sea storms, that I had to put it down. Now noodling which other classic to pick up to fill in that year (1904) in the Century of Books project I’ve got going on right now. Any ideas?

The Queen’s Houses – Alan Titchmarsh (2014)

book367It seems that every time autumn rolls around, I end up thinking about growing up in England as their autumns can be spectacularly good (and/or spectacularly bad) depending on the year. On the good years, it’s all about Keats’ “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” and as this is my favoritest season, I love the whole thing.

The England thoughts led to this book title, The Queen’s Houses by Alan Titchmarsh, which is a well produced and glossy invitation to look inside six of the grand locations that the Queen (and/or her family past or present) call home:

  • Windsor Castle
  • Buckingham Palace
  • Balmoral
  • Sandringham
  • The Palace of Holyroodhouse
  • The Royal Mews

You’d think that since I’ve grown up in England that I would know a lot more about these places than I do, but no, not really so this was a fun romp through the Queen’s private quarters with a knowledgeable and rather witty guide. (You know – I do think the photos could have been better, but the content was good.)

As it covered so many vastly different places, I took random notes and so here they are in bullet points for you:

Random snippets:

One of the

One of the “strewer of herbs” people in action…

  • Charles II (mid 1660’s) was very extravagant as King and had lots of servants with titles such as “Royal Comb-Maker for Life,” “Marker of Swans” (swans were sign of royalty), a Periwig Maker, and one lady called Mary Dowle whose job was “Strewer of Herbs” and who always walked before the King to strew herbs (literal name) as they were believed to ward off the plague.
  • In the 1780’s, there was a position in the Royal Court titled “Keeper of the Buckets”…
  • An awful lot of rebuilding of palaces etc. all took place during the nineteenth century with both Victoria and her earlier relatives. (Before that time, a lot of these royal houses were in various states of disrepair.)
  • George IV (another extravagant young chappie) took over the country estate of his parents (which included Buckingham then-House) just outside London (then much smaller in size), and added wings and other pieces (such as the railings in front etc.) to make it fit his idea of a metropolitan palace. Before this, Buckingham House was a fairly small country house (country home speaking).
  • VE Day (8 May 1945) marked the end of WWII and is so-called because the full title is “Victory in Europe” Day. I  knew what the day stood for, but not the acronym. Huh. This seems so obvious now, but honestly, I didn’t know that.

Victoria snippets: queen-victoria

  • * Victoria had five attempted assassinations on her during her reign.
  • * When Victoria moved into Windsor Castle in 1837, it was a huge event with a big celebration including “the only English female aeronaut” Mrs. Margaret Graham. She went up in a balloon named “Victoria”. Apparently Mrs. Graham had several falls (presumably from high places), and one was described as “although the ground was very hard, there was an evident of her form upon it.” Despite this tendency, she lives to a grand old age for the times.
  • Victoria (oh, Victoria, how I love thee – you’re so weird!): After Albert had died and after her friend John Brown had died, she took an interest in two Indian servants. One of the two was called Mohammed Abdul Karim (or the Munshi for short) and Victoria developed a very close relationship with him. She even spent the night with him in a cottage on the Balmoral estates (much to everyone’s horror). He was not generally well liked – one person described him thus: “his one idea in life seems to be to do nothing and to eat as much as he can”… However, despite such widespread disapproval amongst the Court, Edward VII allowed Munshi to be the very last person to view Victoria’s body and then to take part in her funeral procession. He was subsequently dismissed and returned to India. (I wonder what he did then?…)

QEII snippets:

Local Input~ ROYAL QUIZ- Q30 - Queen Elizabeth II in her coronation crown, 1953. Known as St Edward's Crown, it was made in 1661 for the coronation of King Charles II, and is reputed to contain gold from the crown of Edward the Confessor. It is set with 444 precious stones. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Queen Elizabeth II in her coronation crown, 1953. Known as St Edward’s Crown, it was made in 1661 for the coronation of King Charles II, and is reputed to contain gold from the crown of Edward the Confessor. It is set with 444 precious stones. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

  • The Queen (QEII) has two birthdays, one of which (the “official” birthday) lands in the middle of June. This tradition was started in 1908 by Edward VII who had a November birthday, and whose outdoor birthday celebrations were invariably squelched by bad weather. (For for some reason, I had thought that this was a centuries old tradition.)
  • Re: Other country’s State Visit to England: no more than two countries accorded a state visit each year, and the cost is met by the Royal Treasury.
  • Re: 21 gun salutes: This is a standard gun salute for heads of state but the number can be increased to 41 if the salute is given in a royal park. President Obama and First Wife Michelle were given a 41-gun salute during their May 2011 trip to England. (They were in Green Park, a royal park.) That seems a really long time to stay interested in the event (at least to me). Still, lovely idea.
  • Speaking of processions, it wasn’t until 1953 that the Mall was resurfaced with an application of iron oxide pigment to give the idea of the royal processions walking on a red carpet. (Another thing that I had thought was really really old.)
  • Re: state banquets: The Butlers’ Guild (real thing) says it takes about 15 minutes to set each place setting, and soup has been abolished from state banquets as soup takes at least 20 minutes to serve, eat and then clear away which makes the occasions far too long.

Royal horses snippets: royal-mews

  • The Royal Mews – all this time and I haven’t gone to the Mews so this has been added to the list for next time we’re over there. Called the Mews because the earliest records mentioning that location, back in 1377, said it was the place where royal hawks (usually falcons) were kept during their moulting (or mewing) time from late April to early October. (Mew is from French muer – to change, apparently.)
  • The Royal Mews were originally where Trafalgar Square is now, and were demolished in 1835.

And so it goes on with all sorts of intriguing little nuggets of information about royalty. If you’re curious about the domestic lives of royalty, you will love this book. A potential Christmas pressie, perhaps?

From Middle England: A Memory of the Thirties – Philip Oakes (1980)

book363I have no idea where I found this title – probably a random pick at the FoL sale one year – but the title jumped into my hands when I was scanning my bookshelves the other day. What it is, actually, is an autobiography of a man’s childhood in the 1930’s up in Stoke, near what’s called “The Potteries” in England.

It’s a pretty normal childhood – nothing too extremely bad or great – a fact that made it very easy for me to connect to the author and his life as explained by his writing. In fact, this certainly reminded me of “Cider with Rosie” (Laurie Lee, 1960), but this one with a more serious and slightly different tone to it.

Oakes’ childhood mainly took place in the 1930’s in England. It’s a time of childhood fun, but also the time is tinged with the unavoidable memory that WWII is just about to break out (1939), and so there is a persistent and vague sense of anticipation and excitement for Oakes. He is a child after all, and all he knows of war is what he’s read in books and heard from relatives similar, as Oakes describes, as the “excitement before a birthday party”…

Oakes’ family lived in the Potteries in northern England, an area known for its pottery industry (thus the moniker) and all that is associated with that: heavily working class, factories, smoke in the air (and the smell)… His mother was a single mother (a stigma in the 1930’s) who was also struggling with severe ill health, so money was tight.

Stoke on Trent (or the Potteries) is quite high up on the left...

Stoke on Trent (or the Potteries) is quite high up on the left…

However, the one thing that his relatives put above all else was the importance of a good education, so when young Philip was offered the opportunity to attend an elite private school down south, the family must have been so excited knowing that this was the chance for Philip to leave his childhood to become something more that was possible otherwise. (Not so sure about Philip!)

So he goes to boarding school down south which is of course a different world for him – new friends, new school, new uniform, new rules…

“Dawdling was not allowed. It frayed moral fiber. It encouraged idleness. It was the antithesis of all that Mr. Gibbon [school headmaster] stood for…”

The private boarding school takes both boys and girls, but the genders are divided by living in separate wings of the establishment so they rarely seem to meet. The narrative relates the antics enjoyed by Philip and his new friend Carpenter: they raid the kitchen late at night for midnight feasts (sometimes helped by the maids who were only a few years older), they scrump apples, and have a secret club in the boiler room… Very Enid Blyton (except not so cuddly and warm).

It’s the 1930’s but the school is very old-fashioned with a lengthy history – strict uniforms were the rule, an hour to write home on Sundays and expectations that pupils support their school houses in football/soccer by standing on the lines in the rain on dreary Saturday afternoons.

Interestingly enough, a lot of the memories that Oakes mentions happened to overlap with mine of life in my old private all-girls school (about 650 students) growing up in England even though it was fifty years later. (The more things change…) My twin sister and I attended the same school (along with 90% of our friends) from when we were 6 to until we finished our A-levels when we were 18. We were very lucky in many ways to have this experience and it’s one that I look back on with fondness most of the time.

My old school in England in 1982 - Bedford High School....

My old school in England in 1982 – Bedford High School….

Our school had very strict cultural rules which governed friendship, lunchtime, and all the other important parts of growing up in that milieu. Lunchtime rules and expectations was that whoever sat at the head of the table (and rules decided which end of the table was “head”) would serve lunch to the others sitting there and then after lunch, the playground opened up to another set of generally accepted rules. One lunch rule that I clearly remember was that the first person to touch the salt and pepper and say “veins” would also be immune from doing “the cloth” which referred to wiping down the table after lunch. (Gross at the best of times.) Anyway, these expectations weren’t really talked about but everyone was aware of them and generally followed them to the letter.

Oakes’ descriptions of the school’s morning assembly was really similar to how our school organized ours, even down to the typical hymns that were chosen on special occasions, the organ that accompanied them and the rows of school pupils listening to the headmaster (or mistress in our case) as s/he read the results of the cricket team, the date and topic of the next school debate, and asking who had engaged in minor misdemeanors such as a missing pair of gloves from someone’s coat pocket.

As I look back on that experience of going to a public (which means private in England) school in England, it was idyllic in a lot of ways as an educational experience, but I must admit that I did leave it feeling very unprepared to face the world. (It was generally assumed by the school that most pupils would be going to university, but if you weren’t one of the pupils who followed that well-worn path (i.e. me), the school wasn’t really focused on giving you tools to handle that. If you’re going to go to the Great Unknown such an American university (which we did), then you’re on your own, sister.

It’s great to live in a world with widely accepted rules and most of your friends in the same boat, but when that was the case (as in moi) and you leave that educational vacuum, it’s strange to need to make new friends and not have the comfort of a regimented class schedule.

Our group of (naughty) friends on a BHS trip to Boulogne (or Calais) in 1978...

Our group of (naughty) friends on a BHS trip to Boulogne (or Calais) in 1978… (I’m in the middle.)

Don’t get me wrong: I adored the experience of going to a private school and would probably have been eaten alive in a comprehensive if I needed to go there. If I had kids, I would try and replicate the social side of my old school life for them. It’s just that the whole school thing didn’t really give me the tools I would need to succeed once I’d stepped outside into the real world for the first time. (Sink or swim after that, my friends.)

However, lessons were learned, skills were developed, all is well and I expect that the overall school experience is very different now.

Way off track there wrt the book, but if you’re ever curious about life in private school in the early-mid twentieth century (and up to the 70s), then this book will give you a good idea. I really enjoyed it and it brought back many happy memories of school days. Recommend it.

Aurora Floyd – M. E. Braddon (1863)

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Mary Elizabeth (M. E.) Braddon was a prolific writer (approx. 90 (!) books between 1860 and 1915) and her output consisted of plays, poetry, essays, novels and a number of literary magazines. She had also been an actress in her earlier days, an experience which is said to have helped with her sensation novels published later. (Both Lady Audley’s Secret [1862] and Aurora Floyd [1863] were wildly popular, so much so that certain groups were threatened by her writing and she was criticized as a “purveyor of immoral fiction.”)

Sensation novels were a literary trend in Victorian times usually characterized by mystery, strong passions and opinions (unseemly at the Victorian time) and intricate plotting, all of which are there in large quantities during Aurora Floyd. (See here for a review of her earlier novel, Lady Audley’s Secret.) If you know to expect over-the-top everything going in, it’s a great ride for the reader. It’s a roller coaster ride which speeds along and then ambles in places, but it’s always enjoyable.

The novel spins its tale of murder, intrigue and family over three volumes (at least in my Kindle copy) – this sounds long, but it’s a fast experience as a reader. It’s a fun tale of Gothic romance, incredible coincidences and massive amounts of overwriting, but it worked.

The plot involves the titular Aurora Floyd, the young beautiful daughter of a rich widower in northern England who married a ne’er-do-well husband in her early years, a decision that comes back to haunt her and that involves blackmail, secret-keeping, and loads of money. (You can just feel the frisson that was felt by well-bred Victorian ladies reading this behind their fans in the drawing room on a rainy Monday while their husbands checked the Stock Exchange numbers.)

Typical of sensation novels, Braddon runs a lot of different lines of plot throughout this read, but as each string is added one after another and then linked back, it’s surprisingly easy to keep track of who is doing what to whom. (“Dickensian” was the way that I’d describe this although this was much more Mills and Boon without delving into the hard-hitting social issues quite so much at all.)

ME Braddon in her younger years

I enjoyed it also as a look into the world of domestic life slap in the middle of Victorian times, for a look at rural vs city life, and also to see how slow and difficult murder investigations must have been before the inventions of cars, telephones, forensic evidence and the internet.*

It’s a fun read, and one that I kept returning to before, during, and after vacation, so it obviously kept my attention and interest. If you’re in the mood for anything Gothic, murder, fainting heroines, black mail, and dastardly husbands, you would probably enjoy this. It’s nothing too deep, but it’s a fun read and I recommend it.

(*Slightly relevant historical side note: The concept of professional police (as opposed to private paying for whoever was willing to do it) was officially introduced in England by Sir Robert Peel when he became Home Secretary in 1822. His work led to the Metropolitan Police Act 1829 which established a full-time professional and centrally-organized police force for greater London are known as Metropolitan Police. By the 1850’s, police forces were established nationally across England, Scotland and Wales.

Peel had this philosophy based on “The police are the public and the public are police” (or “policing by consent” as it’s known in UK circles). These “Peelian Principles”, as they are known and upon which an ethical police force are based, are as follows:

  • Every police officer should be issued an identification number to assure accountability for his/her actions
  • Whether the police are effective is not measured on the number of arrests, but on the lack of crime
  • Above all else, an effective authority figure knows trust and accountability are paramount (thus the idea of “policing through consent”)

(Interesting aside #1: UK police used to have a height requirement for all applicants: at least 5 ft. 10 inches until 1960. [Ah-ha: That’s why Dixon of Dock Green was so imposing…] This was not removed until 1990 when minimum height requirements were dropped. The shortest recorded UK police officer is PC Sue Day of Wiltshire Police at 4 ft. 10 inches.)

Well then. Now you know these things….

(One more slightly interesting aside #2, this time related to the book: There is a 1912 American silent movie of Aurora Floyd which was quickly followed by another US version in 1915. And if you were alive in 1863, you could have seen a stage version in London whilst BBC Radio 4 did a radio version with Colin Firth called A Cold Embrace in 2009 if anyone caught that. Luckily, no one has attempted to do a version only doing mime just yet.)

DixonofDockGreen (Above) This is Dixon, of the TV show “Dixon on Dock Green” which was on the BBC from 1955-1976 and featured the daily life at a London police station.

Vanishing – Gerard Woodward (2015)

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One of the largest (page count) books* that I’ve read this year (which is one of the reasons why it took so long to finish this sucker), this was a pretty good book overall. I didn’t have the stellar experience that I’d had with one of Woodward’s books before (see my review of August here), but I think some of that can be attributed to the time and energy required for my new job responsibilities combined with the fact that the plot was really pretty complex – both of which made the read quite demanding at times. I ended up picking it up and putting it down in small spurts when I think that the best way to approach it would be to attack it in huge long sections. (“It’s not you. It’s me.”)

Photo credit: Pan Macmillan (Charlie Hopkinson).

Photo credit: Pan Macmillan (Charlie Hopkinson).

The plot is set close to the outbreak of WWII in England where protagonist Lieutenant Kenneth Brill is being court-martialed for possible treason linked with his making drawings of a classified location. Emotions were very high for everyone at this point in history, and so authorities were easily triggered by even the most seemingly innocent of actions. (In fact, the location was a hamlet called Heath which was actually destroyed during this time frame to make long runways for the war effort. It later became known as Heathrow Airport. Huh. Whooda thunk.)

So, LT Brill is arrested for drawing this classified construction site, and we, as readers, are then taken back and forth in time to explain how Brill ended up in this position of being court-martialed. For the remainder of the book, Brill’s life is covered in detail and, as the trial continues, we learn of his childhood in this particular rural area and then his later years. This alternating narrative between past and present is what makes the book benefit from those extended periods of immersed reading I mentioned previously, and that was exactly what I couldn’t give the book during my last few busy months.

With these few and far between snippets of reading time and with the large cast of characters along with the time flip-flops, I often found myself rather confused about who was doing what when. (A confusing plotline was not helped by a couple of the main characters having remarkably similar names.) Another point that started to weigh rather heavily was the not-very-subtle (I might say “blindingly obvious”) hints of repressed sexuality in the detailed sex scenes. Please – if I read one more mention of someone’s “loins”, there’s going to be trouble.

So, in the end, this book presented itself as more of a vanity project for the author and actually nowhere near as good as that read of one of Woodward’s earlier works. I’d recommend that you start with August and go from there. This was not Woodward’s best work. (However, don’t let this stop you. It might be right up your alley if you like that sort of thing.)

* See the Scary Big Book Project for more on big books and how I tend to fear them….

(Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.)

Little Bee – Chris Cleave (2008)

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Although I expect that a large number of people have already read this book, if you haven’t, you’ll be doing yourself a solid if you go and do so right now. This is a great read – strong narrative, great characters, and amazing character development.

I’d like to tell you more, but I’m afraid that if I do, I’ll wreck the plot for you and I really don’t want to do that and ruin this reading experience.

Suffice to say, that it’s about two women from two very different places whose lives overlap with enormous ramifications. I found it very hard to put down, and I would think that you may have a similar experience.
And that’s all I can say, really.

Go. Now. Read.

Funny Girl – Nick Hornby (2015)

book339This was one of the New Releases Books at the library and I tend to love Hornby as an author, particularly his book columns, and yet hadn’t heard anything about this new fiction coming out. It follows the life of a young Northern 1960’s beauty queen who is chosen to star in a new sitcom of the time which becomes extraordinarily successful. She works with a small group of writers and producers and the book tracks the natural ups and downs of being in the TV business. This wasn’t a deep and meaningful book, but was a nice optimistic kitchen-sink drama with a female protagonist and from her perspective.

A good read, and will probably be made into a film at some point. (In fact, it seemed rather written for a film in retrospect which doesn’t make it any less of a good read really.) I liked it, but even so – when I put the book down, it didn’t always scream to be picked up again. However, that might’ve been me. (“It’s not you. It’s me” type of situation.)

Glad I found it at the library, but I’m also glad that I didn’t buy this in hardback (like I have Hornby’s Believer columns.) Aaah well. Can’t have a home run every time, can you?

Raymond Briggs – Still Great…

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Continuing with my graphic novel binge from our Snow Day the other day….

book343I dug in my shelves and found “Ethel and Ernest: A True Story” (1998), a GN by English author Raymond Briggs. (You might know Briggs from his work, “The Snowman”, which sometimes comes on TV at Christmas.) This was a wonderful read, poignant with crayon drawings (as opposed to the harsher pen/ink) and closely follows the biographies of two ordinary people who get married and live their lives through the twentieth century. Based on the story of his parents’ lives, this is structured so that the reader sees UK history through the lens of these two people as it happens: WWII, rationing, austerity, stereo, TV, buying their own car, Labor government. They move on as best they can with the husband having stronger political views and the wife pretending to not know and just agree when she really does understand events. Her gentle teasing of her long-time husband, familiar to anyone in a long-term comfortable relationship of any gender combination, will ring true along with a realistic portrayal of aging which, in this case, eventually shows one of the pair having Alzheimer’s. The couple lived in the same house for 41 years which provides an unchanging backdrop to the ever-changing world about them. A lovely and poignant story written with love.

book344Then, I found another Raymond Briggs’ work, “Fungus the Bogeyman” (1977). I had read this when it first came out and when I was 14 and I enjoyed it then, but this reread was a much deeper appreciation as I saw Briggs’ many literary and word-related sly jokes which had gone right over my head when I was younger. The actual story is presented as a “Day in the Life…” of Fungus the Bogeyman who, with his family, lives in dread of clean and dry places up above his home in the open air. He’s not the only Bogeyman, but lives in a community of others, most of whom go up to do their daily jobs of scaring unassuming quiet vicars on an evening walk and waking up babies from their sleep. However, along with this fairly humdrum life, Fungus is also dealing with an existential crisis of his own, pondering the meaning of his life and asking himself: What was the point of being a Bogeyman? He analyzes his life: a lovely dirty wife, a lovely dirty boy called Mould (respecting the UK spelling there), and pets called Mucus. But what more was there for him in his life? Readers are given a detailed field guide (of sorts) to how the Bogeys live and it really was very sly witted on so many levels. Bogeys love literary quotations, but always misquote them so it was fun (and tricky!) to try and work out which ones he was quoting on his bicycle journey to the outer world. I enjoyed this when I first read it in 1977, but I really appreciated the clever wordplay when I read it on Friday.

Scab and matter custard,/

Snot and bogey pie,/

Dead dog’s giblets,/

Green cat’s eye./

Spread it on bread,/

Spread it on thick./

Wash it all down with a cup of cold sick.*

(Children’s rhyme from England, oral tradition.)

(And related to not much — look what I found in my bookshelves the other day looking for graphic novels…a 1974 Star Trek Annual with scary illustrations of Spock and Kirk and co.)

Star_trek

* The word “sick” (in my English childhood) referred to the actual product of vomiting (i.e. the vomitus). It wasn’t the verb (meaning “generally feeling unwell”) that it is in the U.S., and so when I first arrived in Texas and people referenced that they were (or had been) “sick”, I just thought that there was a lot of throwing up going on which I found to be confusing as ‘Mericans tend to be quite healthy. (I know this small nugget of memory is fascinating and amazing for you all.)