Auntie Mame- Patrick Dennis (1955)

 

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In late 1950s America it’s likely that most people would know who Mame was.  This novel was a long-lasting best seller and spawned a highly successful play and film version both starring Rosalind Russell who went some way in the years following to adopting the persona of Mame herself.  Many readers believed Mame Dennis was a real-life person, reinforced by the author placing himself (well, his nom-de-plume) in a leading role in the book.  For a while even the publishing world was fooled by a pre-publication stunt involving correspondence from Auntie Mame threatening legal action to bookshop owners who sold the book.

 The whole thing is fiction.  Mame is the larger-than-life guardian for her orphaned nephew Patrick who is thrust into her New York lifestyle as a boy in the mid 1920s, arriving with his Irish nanny just as a party was in full swing and falls into this new style of upbringing very different from the one he had with his dour, conservative father.  Mame is a woman of the times, favours radical naked education and is unwilling to compromise with the legal stuffed shirts who administers the young Patrick’s trust fund.  In a series of what were initially short stories we move through Patrick’s upbringing to adulthood with the disasters wreaked upon him by his eccentric aunt never too far away.

 It reads like a slightly more edgy, camper American Wodehouse.  It is often laugh out loud funny and the humour is generally sustained throughout.  The author ensures we root for Mame.  She is eccentric but never objectionable.  He leaves this trait to the more conservative characters in the novel who provide a few moments which will have the modern reader squirming.

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 My knowledge of this came from the 1958 Rosalind Russell movie which turns up very infrequently on television.  One time it did I was recovering from a dental operation which had gone wrong and it certainly lifted low spirits.  It is also well known from the Broadway musical which dropped the auntie from its title and became another movie in 1974 starring Lucille Ball, which did okay in its day, despite feeling anachronistic for the mid-70s but is now rarely shown.  I haven’t seen it but I can sing the title song!

 I was reminded that I had bought this attractive looking Penguin reprint paperback and had it sitting on my shelves by Christopher Fowler’s “Book Of Forgotten Authors” which so far has introduced me to Margery Allingham, Georgette Heyer and Edmund Crispin.  Like his most famous character author Patrick Dennis was no stranger to eccentricity.  Born Edward Everett Tanner III his later works included photo illustrations of himself and his friends alongside the text and sold well but he ended up “killing” Patrick Dennis and becoming a butler for the owner of MacDonalds burger joints.  Matteo Codignola puts together some of the pieces known about the author’s life in an illuminating afterword but it is his fictional creation Auntie Mame who is very much the star of the show here.

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Auntie Mame was first published in 1955.  I read the 2010 Penguin Classics paperback edition.   

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100 Essential Books – Ladder Of Years – Anne Tyler (Vintage 1995)

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This is only the second Anne Tyler novel I have ever read.  2015’s “A Spool Of Blue Thread” was my introduction to her work and I described it as “a highly readable, high quality work with bags of appeal.”  I reviewed it under my 100 Essential Books thread and it appeared in my end of year Top 10 at number 3.  Although I haven’t read much by her I do know that she is a writer many readers hold dear for her beautifully written tales of American life.  This book confirms this.

“Ladder Of Years” was her 13th novel and appeared in 1995.  There’s a 1982 copyright at the front of the book which suggests it may have been around in some format for a considerable time before that publication.  Like many of Tyler’s novels it features a family living in the Baltimore area.  The most striking thing about it is how calm and quiet it is as a novel which places it at loggerheads with the dramatic decisions characters make but on this occasion this makes it seem all the more effective.

 Forty year old Delia Grinstead is feeling taken for granted, by her husband, a GP who practises from their home, the same house her father ran his surgery from; by her adolescent children and by other family members.  An infatuation with a younger man reaches a dead end and one day on an extended-family annual beach holiday Delia just walks away along the sands and into a new life.

 We’re never totally sure why she does this other than she fancies a change.  There’s no fireworks and little emotional trauma on show as Delia just knuckles down and begins again somewhere new.  It’s beautifully written, the reader knows how selfish Delia’s act is yet still wills her to succeed.

 The title refers to a metaphor used by one of the older characters who employs a playground slide ladder to convey how we climb up through life, with others following close behind leading to the moment when you have to go over the top and commence the slide downwards – there’s no turning back.

 The introduction of a couple of cats into the narrative caused me momentary stress (in case something bad happened to them) but Vernon and George are great cat characters who enrich the lives of those they meet.  As with “A Spool Of Blue Thread” I couldn’t imagine a book which examines the details of American middle-class family life would have much resonance for me, but I was wrong and I’m not yet sure how Tyler has managed with both offerings to really reel me in.  It could be seen as a simple tale of a female mid-life crisis but it is much richer than that implies.  There’s no gimmicks and no real set pieces here.  When there is a dramatic situation – a confrontation at a family event, Delia’s walking out and last- minute wedding jitters, for example, they are pretty much underplayed for their dramatic potential and it really works.  It is just the quality of the writing and the deftness of characterisation that has me hanging on every word, not wanting it to end and that is what makes it a five star read.

 I actually don’t think that us Brits can fully engage in  quite the same way with feeling that we know these characters, their locations and lives in late twentieth century Baltimore anywhere near as much as her American market would and this also adds to the achievement in winning me over.  I did have some reservations about the ending but then life doesn’t always turn out as we expect, so why should it in fiction?

 Structurally, “The Ladder Of Years” is a simpler novel than “A Spool Of Blue Thread” and I think it may just be behind it in the impression it has made on me but without doubt Anne Tyler scores 2 from 2 for me with five star essential reads.  

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I read the 1996 Vintage paperback edition of “Ladder Of Years”.  It was first published in the UK in 1995 by Chatto & Windus.

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.

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

The Man Who Loved Children – Christina Stead (Apollo 2016)

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When I heard that Apollo were launching a series of 8 novels under the banner of “the best books you’ve never read” I was most excited about this title.  A weighty tome from 1940 this was the fifth novel of an Australian born writer who used her upbringing placed into an American setting.  I was in the mood for a lengthy family “comic masterpiece” and was further enchanted by the lovely cover illustration, a detail from Norman Rockwell’s “Coming And Going”.  All this led me into thinking this could be the great under-rated American novel.

There is no doubt that it is impressively well written and carried out with great style- but did I enjoy it?  Not really.  The problem is with the main adult characters, the parents.  The titular “man who loved children” Sam Pollit is perhaps one of the most irritating fictional characters I’ve encountered.  He is the biggest child amongst his six offspring.  He torments, bullies and judges in what he considers his “good-natured way”.  He often talks in invented infantile language and has umpteen nicknames for his children.  He is full on from morning to night and the end result for me was neither funny nor endearing.  At one point he goes abroad on an expedition and I breathed a sigh of relief but that only brought wife Henny into sharper focus.  The two rarely speak other than to bicker, using the children against each other.  She is morose, melodramatic, threatens to hurt or kill her children at regular intervals, steals money off her thrifty  young son and is especially vile to her stepdaughter.  I think humour has changed significantly since 1940.

Stepdaughter Louie, the eldest, aged 11 at the start of the novel embodies many of the author’s experiences.  An unsurprisingly sullen child who is put on by everyone and teased and barracked by her parents she comes alive when she develops a crush on her schoolteacher, the only woman to show her any real kindness and it was moments like these which kept me reading.

If you are expecting (as I was) a nostalgic wallow in the lives of a cash-strapped family living near Washington this might not be for you and I think reading groups would find that many would give up because of Sam’s exhausting, continual banter and disturbing philosophies.  If you are looking for something dark and dysfunctional where the humour (still can’t see it myself) is decidedly black then you might join authors such as Jonathan Franzen who praise it highly and others who see comparisons to Mark Twain and Tolstoy, but because of the bitterness which runs throughout I remain unconvinced.

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The Man Who Loved Children was published by Apollo in 2016

100 Essential Books- Rosemary’s Baby- Ira Levin (Corsair 1967)

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As a teenager I read all Ira Levin’s then-published novels in a short space of time.  This was the book that kick-started my Levin frenzy and I was interested to see how well it has stood the test of time.

It has.  By twisting horror story conventions it manages to convince as one of the most successful pieces of horror writing of all time, even though it is mainly frightening by implication.  How does it do this?  Firstly, Rosemary is likeable.  Too often the “victims” in horror writing have some flaw that means we feel a little less sympathy for them when the bad things start happening.  Rosemary may be a little irritating and gullible but comes across as an ordinary girl in love, living in a place she had aspired to and contemplating starting a family.  Secondly, we have a glossy urban setting which feels cool and modern.  A lot of the references throughout the book would have resonated with the 60’s audience who would have seen Guy and Rosemary’s life as both aspirational and stylish.  Midway through Rosemary reinvents herself with a then-so trendy short Vidal Sassoon cut.  (It isn’t entirely successful- the damage to her physical health caused by what is lurking inside her leads to one of her friends to refer to her as “Miss Concentration Camp 1966″).  The darkness of traditional Gothic stories is replaced here with the lights of urban New York, but the darkness is there simmering, like the devilish bun in the oven.

Thirdly, it works due to its length.  Levin was a brilliant story-teller and keeps the story moving throughout with the right balance of plot development and almost trivial asides.  No long-winded build-up here. This is even though at first it seems miles away from a horror, a young couple set up new home and  make new friends, but this actually causes the reader to read very carefully with heightened awareness throughout, hanging on the details.  Levin keeps us all on a tight leash.

There’s great characterisation here.  Rosemary and her actor husband, Guy, trying to push himself ahead of his rivals and also their neighbours Roman and Minnie Castevets who smother the couple in good intentions.  Everyone feels real and that is important as Rosemary’s paranoia sets in .  Who is to be trusted?

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Plot-wise, everyone knows this is a story of modern Satanism both from the book’s fame and the equally excellent 1968 Polanski directed movie. Starring a superbly cast Mia Farrow as Rosemary it follows the dialogue from the book extremely closely.  The plot is slight, but so gripping and even more chilling because of its slightness.  I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading this.  I thought perhaps the world of horror had moved on from this and that it might come across as either dull or plain trashy.  It’s neither.  It is an important horror classic and a perfect example of mid-60’s American paranoia.  Anyone searching for that Great American novel – here is an outside the box contender.

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Rosemary’s Baby was originally published in 1967.  I read the Corsair 2011 edition with an introduction by Chuck Palahniuk.

My Top 10 Reads of 2014 – Part 1 numbers 10-6

It’s still January (well only just) so just to give you a better idea of me as a reader I thought I’d bring you my rundown of my favourite books read in 2014.  I got through 65 books last year ( a few less than previous years).  As I tend to be a bit of a book hoarder and, probably like most book bloggers have probably hundreds haven’t got round to reading yet piled up around the house I get pretty ruthless at the end of the year.  Anything which has been read and didn’t make my top 10 is out.  So here are the survivors that are still sitting on my shelves at the start of 2015.

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10. Dead Man’s Footsteps – Peter James (2008) – Read in March 2014

This is the fourth Peter James book I’ve read. My favourite so far is “Dead Simple” and this is not too far away from the standard of that. Like all the books I’ve read by James this features DS Roy Grace.   In Brighton, a body is found in a storm drain and a woman with a secret gets stuck in a lift (very tensely written). This is interspersed with a bit of back story- New York on 9/11 with a character about to have a meeting in the Twin Towers. All plot strands are handled well. It’s gripping and there are lots of twists and turns. There was a slight dip in the middle but things pick up nicely for an exciting last third. I enjoy these Brighton based novels (particularly as I used to live there) and there will be more from Peter James later on in this list, as he is the only author who features twice.

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  1. Dodger – James Benmore (2013) – Read in March 2014

This was a review copy I was sent by newbooksmag and my review can be found on their website www.newbooksmag.co.uk (make a note of it- don’t move away from my blog yet!) To stop you doing that here is my review.

Making a familiar character the centre of a new series of books is a brave move. Done well , it can overcome any introductory novel awkwardness, as it feels like we know the characters already- done not so well it can end up diminishing the characters’ previous incarnation. The Artful Dodger is such a great creation by Dickens and yet there is considerable unexplored potential. Probably James Benmore is not the first to realise this but, in his debut novel, he develops this potential so well that I am already looking forward to the next of the series.

Jack Dawkins returns to London after a period of enforced resettlement in Australia not knowing of the fate of Fagin, Nancy and Bill Sikes but on a mission which necessitates re-exploring his old haunts. He is accompanied by a compelling new character , his aboriginal “valet” Warrigal. Narrated superbly in Dodger’s voice this is an imaginative, involving and great fun tale with enough touches of Dickens and enough of a modern crime novel to make a potent brew. The odd familiar character pops up for a cameo but this is very much Benmore’s tale. This reinvigoration of the Artful Dodger is the best I have read using a previously established character. It is both refreshingly new and comfortingly familiar.nicetoseeit

8.Nice To See It To See It Nice – Brian Viner (2009)- Read in April 2014

This is subtitled “The 1970’s in front of the telly”. Viner hits home because he is exactly the same age as me with the same cultural references and he might have spent more time watching television as a youngster than I did! It seemed so familiar that I felt that at times I could have written this. But I didn’t, Brian Viner did and great credit to him. Some very funny little stories, a very journalistic approach and highly enjoyable. It was like reliving your childhood all over again. Nowadays, the sheer variety of leisure/viewing options means that such strong cultural imprinting would not be possible, in the 70’s a whole generation would know that you followed “Boom Boom Boom Boom” with “Esso Blue” , which would mystify today’s teens. I laughed out loud quite a few times, which I might not have done if I was somewhat older or younger but for me Viner got it more or less spot-on.

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  1. Ethan Frome – Edith Wharton (1911) – Read in October 2014

Up to this year I had never read any Edith Wharton. I put that right this year by completing this and “House Of Mirth” (1905) and “The Age Of Innocence” (1920). This was the book which impressed me the most. This is atypical Wharton in terms of setting (a bleak New England winter instead of New York), narrative (a story within a story – a la “Wuthering Heights”, a structure I’ve always warmed to) , class (the poor rather than the social climbers associated with her work) and character (a sympathetic lead). It’s a sparse tale of Ethan, who we know early on has been hit by tragic circumstances and in back story these reveal themselves as we are told the tale of his love for Matty, the cousin of his bitter, invalid wife who arrives bringing sparkle to his bleak existence. The sexual tension between the two, Frome’s turmoils of jealousy, despair and hope is extremely well done. The reader knows the outcome will not be good but the build-up is so effectively developed . This is a classic short novel. Sometimes, I can find it hard to commit to short fiction but this had me involved throughout.

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  1. The Suicide Exhibition: The Never War – Justin Richards (2013) – Read in January 2014

This was another book I was asked to review by Newbooks and here is my verdict- which can also be found on their website.

I don’t always get on with science fiction titles and too often series novels just stretch the story out too much for me but Justin Richards’ introductory title in “The Never War” series surprised me on both counts. This is a cracking, exciting start to a series. I can’t remember when I enjoyed a title marketed as science fiction more. It is also a thrilling tale of World War II. Strange sightings are coming up on the recently introduced Radar and it becomes evident that the Nazis are not only aware of this but are harnessing these strange forces in some way. Good characterisation, excellent use of “alternate reality” and a genuinely exciting storyline follows. The Sci-Fi aspects simmer and build rather than dominate the first of this series and hiding the threat of alien invasion amidst the paranoia of the war works superbly. The combination of Nazis and aliens might get not seem a match made in heaven but anyone searching for a thoroughly entertaining read (even if not a sci-fi fan) should check this out. Its accessibility and almost old-fashioned (in a good way) thrills suggest this should attract a wide readership. I’m looking forward to the second part.

So that’s numbers 6-10 with my Top 5 to appear in a separate post.