Pen In Hand- Tim Parks (Alma Books 2019) – A Books About Books Review

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Tim Parks’ latest non-fiction work is very much a companion piece to “Where I’m Reading From” which I read and reviewed last year. Subtitled “Reading, re-reading and other mysteries” it is a collection of articles written either for the New York Review Of Books or the New York Times between 2014 and 2017.

 These articles are linked by a Foreword in which Parks encourages us, in a bid to make us more active readers to always have a pen in hand whilst reading and not to be afraid to annotate and highlight the book and note down our thoughts on what we are reading whilst things are still fresh.  Needless to say, my overwhelming desire to finish a book with it looking as pristine as when I started it means that I could not do this with Parks’ work but I certainly can see where he is coming from.  I don’t think I would ever be able to borrow a book from him as he says; “These days, going back to reading the novels and poetry that have been on my shelves since university days, I see three or four layers of comments, perhaps in different coloured pens.”

What he is getting here is a rich resource on his observations upon the work and how  they might have changed over time.  For those of you like me who would find writing on a book difficult,  the E-Book, where markings can be erased and altered so easily may be the answer.  I do often highlight when reading on my Kindle but do not always go back to those highlights and never provide the running commentary on the text which Parks deems so beneficial.

 Elsewhere he covers a lot of fascinating ground on how to read and what it is to be a reader.  He admits that the same sources do tend to come up as examples and that is probably only to be expected – Primo Levi, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Elena Ferrante are amongst those who come under scrutiny and an author I found my interest piqued by – Karl Ove Knausgaard, who has to date passed me by and who in the articles evolves from someone who Parks feels everybody seems to be reading to one who is assumed to be a best-seller by those in the business but whose sales outside his Norwegian homeland do not reflect this.  I found myself considering taking out his “Death In The Family” from the library as a result of Parks’ focus, but then decided to leave it until another time. 

Parks does have a very Euro-centric view having lived much of his adult life in Italy and working as a translator and as in “Where I’m Coming From” I found his views on translated fiction the most fascinating.  In fact, the section on translations which comprises of articles on retranslations of existing translated work, comparing the work of translators on the same text and whether translators should be paid royalties made me wish I had kept up with languages and had been a translator of the written word myself.  A French A-level 30+ years ago would probably not cut it these days- so I think I’ve missed my chance!

 Despite this work being formed from articles I found that it did read well as a whole more cohesively than his 2014 collection.  I found many of Tim Parks’ ideas stimulating and some challenging (but still withheld and temptation to scrawl my objections in the margin as he would have wanted me to do).  What I haven’t done yet, and this is with a shimmer of guilt as I mentioned this last time round is to read any of his novels to see how this feelings about the world of fiction and the needs of the reader has been incorporated into his own work. But I will.

fourstars

 

Pen In Hand was published in hardback by Alma Books in May 2019.  I would very much like to thank the publishers for doing their homework and finding out that I had read and enjoyed Tim Parks in the past and sending me a copy of this to review.

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Paperbacks From Hell – Grady Hendrix (2017) – A Book About Books Review

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Subtitled “The Twisted History Of 70’s and 80’s Horror Fiction” I could almost feel this book calling to me from the public library shelves. Shockingly lurid cover art and written in a jokey style that had me, on occasions, laughing out loud this was a treat of a read. Grady Hendryx is a horror fan and has written a couple of novels in recent years but even he would admit horror writing is not what was in its heyday.

The genre, largely in the form of gothic romance, along the lines of Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca” limped along somewhat in the middle years of the twentieth century until three novels which dealt with the darker side of life topped bestseller lists. These were “Rosemary’s Baby” by Ira Levin (1967)- an outstanding example and one of my 100 Essential Reads; “The Exorcist” by William Peter Blatty (1971) which I remember as being badly written even when I read it as a teenager when I was most likely to devour such publications and “The Other” by Thomas Tryon, which I’ve never read.

With the demand for these types of read soaring aided by successful and often notorious film adaptations the floodgates were opened and horror writing took off in a big way. In a flooded market it was important to attract the casual reader and this is where cover art kicked in perhaps like never before. A significant proportion oversold and misrepresented what was between the covers as the horrors suggested by the cover art were not always so effectively conveyed by the text. Whilst quite a bit of the art was astonishing (for various reasons) quite a lot of the authors were not.

Hendrix takes us through various genres that all had their day: Satanic possession, devilish kids and animals, haunted houses and misfiring scientific experiments amongst them and has lavished each section with the often trashy front covers. He looks at the key artists and writers. His text has the right balance between critical appreciation and an awareness of the ludicrousness in the perils these writers put us through.

I realised that during these golden years I could not have read anywhere near as much horror as I suspected I had. In the US hundreds of titles were being published every month with a significant proportion appearing in Britain. I think I was very aware of some of the book covers as many looked familiar but rarely ending up making the purchase. I have, however, noted down some authors who still seem to be in print and require further investigation.

The horror boom ended almost overnight with the huge success of “The Silence Of The Lambs” by Thomas Harris (1988) a book no less creepy than what had gone before but one which was marketed as a “suspense thriller”. When it became a huge seller many horror writers wanted to be marketed in this way and the earlier style of presentation went out of fashion.

This book revisits a recent phenomenon in the publishing world which has been quickly forgotten (although it did shift somewhat into the children’s market with some pretty ghoulish content and cover art in the successful “Goosebumps” series). Those novels that have managed to stay in print have had their cover art toned down since those glory days at least a notch. It’s thanks to Grady Hendryx that we can revisit this tawdry underworld of popular fiction.

fourstars

Paperbacks From Hell was published in 2017 by Quirk Books.

The Child That Books Built – Francis Spufford (2002) – A Real Life Review

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Francis Spufford has featured on my “Must Read” list since his debut novel, the historical “Golden Hill” took a Costa Award in 2016.  For some reason I still haven’t got around to it, although I am convinced I’d enjoy it very much indeed.  On the New Non-Fiction shelf at the library I discovered this with its by-line of “What would you find if you went back and re-read your favourite books from childhood?” Still slightly reeling from the sheer joy of Lucy Mangan’s trawl through the books in her past in “Bookworm” I thought this couldn’t be delayed until I got round to Spufford’s novel.  I was intrigued and couldn’t wait to read it.

I wasn’t that far through it when I realised it didn’t feel as up to date as I was expecting a book sat on the New Non-Fiction shelf to be.  After a little research (turning to the front of the book) I discovered that this was first published by Faber back in 2002 with 2018 being the date this paperback edition (made to look like “Golden Hill”) arrived.  So the image I had in my head of both Spufford and Mangan revisiting their childhood concurrently was a bit out of synch as he did this sixteen years ago.  Then I sensed a whiff of a cash-in.  This has obviously been republished because of the success of “Golden Hill” and probably “Bookworm” too.

The back cover is a tad misleading.  It had led me to think we would be in Mangan territory but with a slighter older male perspective.  It is considerably more complex than this.  Spufford is revisiting his childhood to see how his reading choices impacted upon him and how it formed him developmentally.  He is much more interested in the person rather than the books.  They are important for their impression they left giving it a stronger psychological basis and feel which basically I enjoyed much less than Mangan’s “joy of reading” approach.

Spufford did use books to escape (family ill-health mainly) but seems to have read with a fury which at times I felt a little unsettling and that I was being intrusive.  He was, despite being virtually the same age, a very different child from me anyway.  The first book he read alone, aged 6, confined to home because of mumps was “The Hobbit” a book I grappled with probably five years later (which looking back I still feel was too young).  From here we get the stages of his development through Narnia (which he, like most children of our generation was obsessed by, although for me it was largely just “The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe”).  Naturally, we did have many books in common and I was pleased to recall “Marianne Dreams” by Catherine Storr which has largely edged back into the mists of history but had a lasting effect on both of us (ie: it was terrifying!).  Spufford exhausted much of what children’s literature had to offer before finding Sci-Fi which filled that transition period (never really did it for me) to Ian Fleming (whilst at boarding school) and perhaps inevitably on to porn at the end of his teenage years.

His focus is very much on development.  Good old Jean Piaget is referenced often (taking me back to my Theory of Education days) and Spufford opts to see these developments in physical terms (forest, island, town, hole).  I didn’t follow all of his arguments, in fact it did often remind me of what he pinpoints as one of the memorable stages of learning to function as an independent reader when you pick out what you can as you go along to get the general gist.  (Spufford perceptively says we do this in early years and then again when we discover classic novels.  Well, I found myself doing this quite often here!)

Where this is strongest is when he lets the books take centre stage.  There’s a good section on Laura Ingalls Wilder where I felt totally involved, for example.  I would have liked a list of the books he revisited to really get those nostalgic juices flowing.  I think I’m being largely niggly because this book wasn’t quite what I thought it was going to be and so there was an underlying disappointment throughout.  At one point I was concerned that it might put me off reading “Golden Hill” but I think, having now finished this, that desire is still intact.

threestars

The Child That Books Built was published by Faber & Faber in 2002.  I read the 2018 paperback version.

100 Essential Books – Bookworm: A Memoir Of Childhood Reading – Lucy Mangan (Square Peg 2018)

 

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Thank you, Lucy Mangan. This book has brought me so much pleasure. I have relished every word, laughed out loud and been bathed in a warm, nostalgic glow which has made me late back from tea breaks and almost missing bus stops. I found myself yearning for a “snow day” so I could just stay at home and fully immerse myself in the author’s childhood.

Lucy Mangan truly deserves the title “Bookworm”. Reading, as a child, at every opportunity, eschewing social situations and getting through vast numbers of books makes her a true authority on children’s literature from a child’s perspective. I didn’t think I read as much when I was young as I do now but I realised I must have done as a sizeable number of books Lucy devoured I had also read. She is a few years younger than me but the world of juvenile publishing did not move as fast as it does today and many of the books in our libraries and schools in the 70’s had been published a generation before. I didn’t come from a home with a lot of books and whereas Lucy’s Dad provided her with a regular supply from when she was quite young, my Dad tended to do the same for me with comics. I have two older sisters so much of their abandoned reading material became mine, because as Lucy rightly points out as a child the bookworm will read whatever is available, so my knowledge of books involving characters such as “My Naughty Little Sister“, or set in girls boarding schools or about girls with ponies (the last being my sister Val’s staple reading diet) is probably greater than most of the men who will read this book.

Lucy is lucky enough to still possess her childhood books. She obviously didn’t have a mother so keen to donate “treasures” to jumble sales to either be sold for a few paltry pennies or occasionally bought back by myself.

Her memoir reinforces the importance of libraries. I can still remember the very first library book I borrowed, (it was a picture book version of “Peter And The Wolf” with a yellow cover. I took it out many times) so that experience obviously firmly imprinted itself in my West London mind as much as it did for Lucy on the South of the River in Catford.

Some of the titles alone brought back great memories – “Family From One End Street”, “Tom’s Midnight Garden”, “The Saturdays” “The Phantom Tollbooth”, “The Secret Garden”, “Charlie & The Chocolate Factory”, “Lion Witch & The Wardrobe”, The “William” novels were all great favourites with both Lucy and myself. (No mention of a couple of others I was obsessed by “Emil & The Detectives” and “Dr Doolittle”, maybe they were moving out of public favour by Lucy’s time).  She shares her strength of feelings against certain things, she had a limited tolerance of talking animals and fantasy (which saw off both “Babar The Elephant” and Tolkien) and does so in a way which is both stimulating and very funny.

Through the books she read we learn much about her family life which brings in a whole new level of richness into the work. I’m also totally with her on the subject of re-reading, which in my teaching days was often a bugbear for some parents who wanted their children to forge ever onwards to “harder” books. She puts this over masterfully;

“The beauty of a book is that it remains the same for as long as you need it. It’s like being able to ask a teacher or parent to repeat again and again some piece of information or point of fact you haven’t understood with the absolute security of knowing that he/she will do so infinitely. You can’t wear out a book’s patience.”

As well as examining the past she looks to the future and to her own young son, not yet so fussed about reading and announces: “It is my hope that our son will read our amalgamated collection and become the world’s first fully rounded person.” I love that!

Expect perceptive insights on all the major players and books from the period – from the still very popular Enid Blyton (“She was national comfort reading at a time when mental and emotional resources were too depleted to deal with anything more complex”), the religious elements (which also completely passed me by as a child) of CS Lewis (“no child ever has or will be converted to Christianity by reading about Cair Paravel, Aslan, naiads, dryads, hamadryads, fauns and all the rest. If they notice it at all, they are far more likely to be narked than anything else. And they probably won’t notice it at all.”), the development of the first person narrative dating from E Nesbit’s “Story Of The Treasure Seekers” to her 80’s obsession with “Sweet Valley High” (that whole publishing phenomenon passed me by as I was no longer a child by then).  Her thoughts on the joys of reading pile up one after another in this book. I cannot imagine enjoying a book about children’s literature more. It is an essential read for all of us who like to look back and who like to feel we are still young at heart!

fivestars

Bookworm was published as a hardback by Square Peg in March 2018 . Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

Where I’m Reading From – Tim Parks (2014) – A Book About Books Review

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Tim Parks is a Booker shortlisted British novelist who has developed a global following.  This has come about from a lengthy career of 16 novels, for his non-fiction work, from journalistic pieces in Italy where he has lived for many years, for his translations from Italian to English and as a contributor and columnist for the New York Review Of Books where these essays first saw the light of day.

His emphasis here is on reading and writing and he posits many thought-provoking ideas on these subjects.  How we behave as readers and how writers behave as writers are both examined.  I couldn’t help but notice that Parks differs from me very early on.  He’s a one for not finishing the books he is reading and I can follow the reasoning behind “if only because the more bad books you finish, the fewer good ones you’ll have time to start”.  I personally find it very difficult to give up on a book, I’m not sure when I would have last done this but it would have been, quite frankly, years ago.  Parks attributes my particular reading behaviour to some throwback to my childhood when finishing a book felt like such an achievement that it was to be celebrated and that I’m still in that mindset many years on.   Okay, maybe that could be the case but I also feel that finishing a book I haven’t enjoyed helps me clarify exactly what I like/don’t like about books.  Maybe, also my Magnus “I’ve started so I’ll finish” Magnusson approach is because of the respect I hold for the achievement of the writer of getting the book to the finished and published stage, whatever the quality.  

But wait a minute! Parks also advocates that it is permissible to give up on a book you are enjoying if you feel that you have reached a natural place to finish, even if it is not the end.  What?  This sounds to me like eating a piece of cake and thinking “I’m really loving this but I’ll think I’ll leave it there and not eat the rest”. That’s not going to happen with me but I suspect Tim Parks would do so.  He’s going to be much slimmer than me too isn’t he?

An area I found interesting was his views on the globalisation of the novel.  As worldwide markets grow authors are writing books without the local colour and themes which might restrict their sales markets.  This is happening both in English speaking markets and also translations where too much region-specific writing and ideas may prove problematic for translators and lessen the author’s chances in selling worldwide.  I know that one of my regular contributors to this blog, Monika, would find Parks’ views on translations interesting as they reflect ideas which she has aired herself on here in the past.  To be honest, I’ve never really given that much thought about the art of translation and I was interested by the author’s viewpoints.  As an aside to this book what Parks mentions is happening in the world of literature is also now prevalent in popular music where streaming has led to a globalised market.  Watching a chart rundown recently it was impossible to tell where artists come from as (and I don’t think it’s my age here) it was all sounding pretty much the same.

I’ve never read any of Tim Parks’ novels but reading this book I feel that I should and it is hard not to be mentally adding works by other authors he references onto the to-be-read list.  I found this an interesting set of insights about reading behaviours and attitudes and just what book writing and publishing will be looking like in the future.

threestars

Where I’m Reading From was published by Vintage, an imprint of Penguin Books in 2014

The Book Of Forgotten Authors – Christopher Fowler (2017) – A Book About Books Review

 

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Now, this is just the sort of book to throw out my reading schedule. Novelist Christopher Fowler briefly examines the careers of 99 authors, who either used to be big but have faded from prominence or who deserved to be more popular than they were. It’s a fascinating, highly readable book which is both illuminating and nostalgic. The author has always been a voracious reader and book purchaser and he’s certainly done the groundwork for us here.

Christopher Fowler need not have any real fears of being forgotten, certainly not by me. You wouldn’t know it from this blog as this is probably his first mention in over 400 posts but since I’ve been keeping my own meticulous records of what I’ve been reading (I’ve always done this but lost a book which went back quite a few years), so we’re talking the last 23 years here, he is the author whom I’ve read the largest number of books by.

This book puts the Fowler total up to 15 (+ 1 I’ve read twice in this time) which pushes him further ahead from his nearest competitors , Charles Dickens (12) and Peter Ackroyd (11 + 2 re-reads). I’ve still got plenty of Fowler to discover, a quick tot-up of his books listed inside the front cover suggest 43 publications in total. I did gobble up a number of his horror novels in a short space of time in the mid to late 90’s after discovering “Spanky” (1994), a Faustian tale of a pact with the devil, which I still consider to be his best. In recent years he has concentrated on the Bryant & May detective series. I realise, with a fair amount of shock, that the last of his books I read was the third in this sequence “77 Clocks” and that was 10 years ago now! I haven’t forgotten you, Mr Fowler, honest! (I did last re-read “Spanky” in 2013).

Here the author tackles his findings alphabetically with considerably more than 99 names actually being thrown into the mix as in addition to the potted biographies and commentaries on individuals there’s also sections of forgotten authors linked to themes and genres.

It wasn’t long before I found myself making lists of those I’ve already read (not many and those a long time ago), those whose books I have unread on my shelves (5), those I can get from the library (36), those I can get on Kindle for free (4), for under £1 (8), or at a higher price (8) and those I can buy from Amazon (32). This left just those whose books do not seem readily available (4) or just too collectable for my budget (2). So thanks for all this, Mr Fowler, I’m supposed to be reviewing, not spending my time making lists!
And now I’ve got said lists I’m going to have to use them! So starting with what I have on my shelves already I hope over the coming months to unforget as many authors as possible. So this would include Margery Allingham, (a Golden Age of Crime Fiction writer who appears time and time again on recommended lists), I have a copy of her “Police At The Funeral” to start me off. There’s also Edmund Crispin (I bought a set of his Gervaise Fen novels from “The Book People”), Patrick Dennis (I bought his “Auntie Mame” because I love the Rosalind Russell film version and it’s pretty pricey on DVD), Barbara Pym’s “Excellent Women” (Book People purchase set again) and Edgar Wallace (a mammoth Wordsworth publication of “The Complete Four Just Men” taking up considerable shelf space). I’m adding these to the reading mix over the coming months and will of course be letting you know what I think and then I’ll move onto the others. Christopher Fowler has whetted my appetite so much I want to read them all!

This book would make a great present for bibliophiles – even those who claim to have “read everything” may find some hidden gems. A number of them are names that you’d remember from bookshop visits from your past, but may have never read. It could be time to put this right.

fourstars

The Book Of Forgotten Authors was published by Riverrun in October 2017.