‘Growing Up Gracefully’, Part Two

In ‘Correct Dress’, Mr James Leasor explains how much “good manners in dress” have changed since the war. Wartime clothes rationing meant most people had to ‘make do and mend’; nighttime bombing raids popularised utilitarian garments such as the siren suit; coal rationing led to theatre-goers and diners wrapping themselves in rugs and blankets to keep warm. Still, some things remain the same:

“What, in today’s world, is correct dress? Though no one now dresses up for every occasion, the rule about dressing is unchanged. You wear as nearly as possible what is being worn by the rest of the party you are with.”

So, it is “atrocious manners” to, say, visit a foreign church wearing shorts, a strapless dress or no hat. It is also bad manners to wear slacks and a jersey to dinner at a friend’s house, unless you know your host will be wearing the same – just as it is bad manners to put on an evening frock if no one else is wearing one. The only time you can dress as “gaudy and grand as you like” is at a wedding. Young men should wear morning suits and grey top hats, while for women, “no hat is too gay or too amusing”.

Mr Leaver also makes the important point that your clothes should suit your personality. If you hate drawing attention to yourself, don’t wear outrageous clothes. In general, “wearing clothes as an attempt to look conspicuous is nearly always a sign of an inferiority complex” and he gives the example of gangs of Teddy boys and girls, who “dress up to try and kid themselves that they are braver than, in fact, they are.” However, he makes an exception for artists, who tend to wear extraordinary outfits – that’s simply how the creative temperament expresses itself. He gives the example of two art students he recently saw at an exhibition:

“He wore an orange pullover over velvet trousers, and he had a beard; she wore tartan trousers, and a short sheepskin coat.”

'Artistic Dress' illustration by John Dugan

And they didn’t even realise what a sensation they were causing among onlookers! It all comes down to self-confidence:

“I sometimes think that the superb sang froid of a cat is due to its fur. Of course other animals have fur, but few wear it with such an air as does a cat. It is soft, usually a beautiful colour, and always a divine fit. All cats feel, I think, slightly superior to humans, and this may be based on the certainty that they are always perfectly turned out for every occasion.”

I thought Growing Up Gracefully had already covered polite conversation, but Miss Emily Hahn now contributes a chapter called ‘Conversations’, all about how young people can manage when they’re forced to talk to boring grown-ups. She reminds the young that older people are often not as confident as they seem and can be very sensitive. So don’t, for example, discuss their age or weight: “A remark like ‘I saw a woman yesterday who was even fatter than you’ does not go down well.” Try not to look at your watch or the door when they reminisce about the olden days. If stuck for conversational topics, talk about sport, the weather or the family. And remember, “truth isn’t always the first consideration in social intercourse.”

Miss Caroline Ball then provides advice on ‘Manners at Work’, beginning with how to apply to a job. A good letter of application is vital:

“Some employers judge candidates on their handwriting, style of letter, notepaper and neatness of folding it, quite as much as they do on scholastic achievements … Avoid scented notepaper … If you send a typewritten application, it is a good idea to enclose a specimen of your handwriting. It can take the form of a postscript to the effect: ‘I am adding this so that you may see what my handwriting is like.’ Stamps should be stuck on straight … Special note to girl applicants: don’t leave lipstick on the back of the envelope when you lick the flap!”

Miss Ball then gives detailed advice for the job interview – for example, “don’t even think of lighting a cigarette or producing a powder-puff.” Of course, clothes require careful consideration. Girls should avoid huge earrings and gaudy make-up; boys should resist the urge to wear “loud check sports jackets, flashy pullovers, wild ties and even wilder socks!” Instead, Miss Ball recommends the three Ns: “Nice. Natural. Neat.”

This is followed by hints for starting your first job, such as being pleasant and responsive, turning up on time, not resenting chores such as “carrying round teacups”, and not “sitting with your eyes riveted to the clock from five o’clock onwards”.

'Manners at Work' illustration by John Dugan

Presumably once the young person has been employed for a while, they will be able to afford to travel. Then they should consult the next section, which includes advice on ‘Manners Abroad.’

‘Growing Up Gracefully’, Part One

'Growing up Gracefully', edited by Noel Streatfeild

Memoranda readers may recall The Years of Grace: A Book for Girls, a fascinating (and often unintentionally hilarious) collection of wise advice edited by Noel Streatfeild. She must have realised there was a lucrative market for this sort of thing because in 1955, just a few years later, she produced Growing Up Gracefully, a guide to good manners for young people. Of course, I had to read it. And with chapters such as ‘Manners Abroad’, ‘When and When Not To Make A Fuss’ and ‘Don’t Drop That Brick or The Gentle Art of Avoiding Solecisms’, I’m sure I will find this book highly relevant to modern life. Perhaps I can send a copy to some of the people currently filling up newspapers with reports of their bad behaviour.

However, I have to admit that the book doesn’t get off to a good start. Mr Gilbert Harding, the author of ‘Manners’, is an old grump who thinks young people should only “speak when spoken to”. He spends most of his chapter disapproving of “the excessive party-giving which seems to me to be one of the scourges of modern life.” If you absolutely must host or attend a party, he huffs, well, just pretend to enjoy it, although “this can be a difficult impersonation and may call for practice in private.”

'Graceful Dining', illustration by John DuganMiss Nancy Spain is far more entertaining regarding ‘Eating for England’, providing a lot of useful information for young people facing the terrors of an English dinner party. She explains how to drink soup and eat a bread roll gracefully, then tackles really tricky dishes such as asparagus and artichokes (eaten with fingers) and corn on the cob (impale on fork and nibble daintily). I was especially interested to read how to eat an “avocado pear” (which “should be eaten with a teaspoon as though you were scooping the ice-cream out of a carton”, rather than, say, smashing it onto toast). There’s also advice on how to use a finger bowl and fish knives (this includes a nice little dig at Nancy Mitford’s snobbery), what to do if you drop your fork or start to choke, and how to deal with fresh fruit (“I never touch grapes and advise you to make the same rule, there’s a right way to eat them, but I know few who have mastered it”). Also, never drink gin and tonic with oysters, because “gin turns oysters into little lumps of indigestible indiarubber”. Also, apparently the port after dinner needs “to be passed from your right hand to your left and it has to be kept moving” because if it settles for even a second, it’s “far worse luck than walking under a ladder.” (Unless you’re a girl, in which case you’ll have had your eye caught by the hostess at the appropriate time and will have withdrawn to the drawing room to wait for the gentleman. Now I’m wondering how Miss Spain found out about the mysterious rituals of port-passing. Maybe she has a spy on the inside.)

Miss Spain also gives handy hints for young people without their own “establishments”, who wish to entertain their friends in a restaurant. Obviously, most won’t be able to afford a famous restaurant (which “will cost you at least £1, 10s. a head”) so she recommends a “good but cheap restaurant” and helpfully explains how to deal with intimidating waiters, menus written in French, wine ordering and bill paying. She concedes that by now, the reader may have begun to think that:

“…Table Manners are a bit of a bore. Well, if you do, just try to imagine the banquet of mediaeval times. Everyone blind drunk, everyone pushing and shoving and dipping their knives in the salt cellar like mad things. Imagine trying to get pork fat off your best jerkin sleeves afterwards (no dry cleaners, remember). Then I think you will bless, with me, the invention of Table Manners.”

In the next chapter, Miss Lorna Lewis explains how to introduce people to one another. Luckily, most young people won’t need to concern themselves with the Order of Precedence (“you probably won’t have to know whether a bishop’s widow ranks higher than an admiral’s wife”), but she does think it vital to introduce Inferior to Superior (“a child rates lower than a grown-up, a man is Inferior to a woman, juniors in a profession must always be introduced to their seniors…”). It’s also useful to provide some information to get the conversation started. So, for example:

“Carola, this is my grandfather’s friend, Colonel Stump. Mrs Jack Sprigg. Carola and I were at school together, Colonel. Just imagine, Carola, Colonel Stump rode me on his knee when I was small, so I think you should know each other.”

The correct response to an introduction is to say ‘How d’you do?’ or smile. You must NEVER, EVER say ‘Pleased to meet you’ or ‘Hello’. (Really, ‘hello’ is forbidden? And what if you are pleased to meet them?) There’s also advice on shaking hands (“shake it with a firm grip; and by firm I do not mean “Try Your Strength”), dealing with boring people (don’t look over their shoulder for an escape route) and meeting Royalty (men should “bow slightly” and women should “drop a little curtsey”, although if you’re attending Court, you need to do a deep curtsey and “must go seriously into practice”).

Miss Norah Lofts then advises on ‘Don’t Drop That Brick’ – that is, don’t be accidentally rude (here she notes the old saying, ‘A gentleman is never rude unintentionally’). Don’t mention Religion, Politics or Money in general conversation, she stresses, because people tend to have strong feelings about these issues:

“…when we find ourselves in company we are dangerously ready to think and assume that we are all of one mind … This apparent, and deceptive, likeness amongst a gathering of civilised people is due to the fact that the well-behaved do not flaunt their prejudices and preferences in serious things and this makes it dangerously easy for the careless talker, at the beginning of his social career, to give offence.”

Avoid making slighting remarks about any “type, class, trade or profession”, don’t make fun of local accents, don’t correct others’ pronunciation mistakes, and consider whom you might be offending before you embark on a ‘funny story’, especially if it involves sex. This is very sensible advice. A lot of people on Twitter and Facebook would benefit from reading this. Miss Lofts even forestalls those who might complain about Political Correctness:

“It may now seem that if so strict a watch must be kept on one’s tongue, easy and natural conversation will be impossible and there will be nothing left to say. This is a groundless fear – for two reasons. First, because everything pleasant and agreeable is left to be said; the kindly, tolerant, amiable remark never comes amiss. Closely analysed, most dropped bricks show something critical, and either consciously or unconsciously, superior in the attitude of the speaker. The person who believes in the equality of men is never in any danger of rapping out the word ’nigger’ whether the nearest coloured person is in the next chair or a hundred miles away. Secondly, because after a very few times of being consciously extended, those sensitive feelers will reach out automatically and take charge of any conversation. Then their happy owner gains the enviable reputation of ‘never putting a foot wrong’…”

This doesn’t mean you need to be a jellyfish – sometimes you will need to speak out or disagree with others and you might find yourself in a minority of one. However, your reputation for “amiability and social poise” will mean “your disagreement will carry far more weight than it otherwise would” and others will be far more likely to consider your thoughts carefully.

Well, I now feel capable of meeting people at a dinner party and having a polite conversation with them. But what should I wear? Fortunately, the next section includes advice on ‘Correct Dress’.

‘Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation’ by Elizabeth Pisani

This is a fascinating book about a year spent travelling around the Indonesian archipelago, written by a multilingual British woman who has spent much of her adult life in this diverse nation. She began her career as a journalist, then became an epidemiologist employed by the Indonesian Ministry of Health. In 2011, she decided to take time off to travel and learn more:

'Indonesia Etc' by Elizabeth Pisani“I only had one rule: ‘Just say yes’. Because Indonesians are among the most hospitable people on earth, this made for a lot of yesses. Tea with the Sultan? Lovely! Join a wedding procession? Yes please! Visit a leper colony? Of course! Sleep under a tree with a family of nomads? Why not? Dog for dinner? Uuuuh, sure. This policy took me to islands I had never heard of. I was welcomed into the homes of farmers and priests, policemen and fishermen, teachers, bus drivers, soldiers, nurses. I travelled mostly on boats and rickety-but-lurid buses that blared Indo-pop and had sick-bags swinging from the ceiling. Sometimes, though, I lucked into a chartered plane or rode cocooned in a leather car-seat behind tinted glass. I can count on one hand the number of times I was treated with anything other than kindness. I can also count on one hand the number of days that I did not have a conversation about corruption, incompetence, injustice and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

This is saved from being one of those ‘patronising white person blogging about their year of backpacking though a developing nation’ books by the author’s wide-ranging and first-hand knowledge of Indonesia. She displays genuine curiosity and warmth as she visits each community, but she’s also able to draw on her previous experiences. For example, there’s an excellent chapter on Aceh, the province that’s been wracked with separatist violence for decades. She provides a good summary of its complex post-colonial history, explaining why Aceh’s separatist movement is completely different to those in East Timor and West Papua, but she also relates anecdotes from working as a journalist in Aceh in the 1990s:

“At the time, it was impossible to tell who was behind the attacks. Only once, we saw a letter addressed to Indonesian newspaper editors, claiming responsibility for this wave of raids. Written entirely in lower-case, the letter was an eccentrically spelled mish-mash of anti-Javanese invective, childish threats, wounded pride and separatist rhetoric […] People called the troublemakers the GPK, just as the government did, and they had many theories about who they were. Most involved some combination of the following: disgruntled former soldiers who had been fired in a short-lived campaign against corruption in the military; thugs who wanted a bigger share of the marijuana trade (saus ganja was once a common ingredient in the cuisine of the region, and Aceh remained a centre of production for the crop); hot-blooded separatists back from training in Libya. It seemed wildly improbable to me that an organisation that didn’t have a shift key on its typewriter and couldn’t spell its own name would be linked to international terror training networks; it was only years later that I found that some of the fighters were indeed graduates from Middle Eastern training camps, though all the other theories also proved to be true.”

Much of the conflict in Indonesia that’s reported in the Australian media as being due to ‘the rise of Islam’ turns out to have a more complex, but also more prosaic, explanation. For example, the gangs of leather-jacketed, motorbike-riding thugs previously employed by politicians in Jakarta to attack student demonstrators have now

“begun to appear in turbans or knitted skullcaps, long white robes and straggly beards [to] selectively smash up those bars, nightclubs and brothels that don’t pay them protection money. A friend in the music business told me they demonstrated against Lady Gaga only after her promoters refused to pay them to provide security for her concert. But they do not choose their targets indiscriminately. They never vent their wrath on the porn industry, for example, because it is said to be controlled by the military.”

Most of the book, though, is not explicitly about politics but about the lives of ordinary Indonesians, trying to earn enough money to raise their families while dealing with a corrupt and incompetent bureaucracy, but also doing what people all over the world do – attending school, playing games, visiting friends, celebrating birthdays and weddings, and, even in the remotest islands, Facebooking on their mobile phones. It’s all related in a warm, entertaining style by an intrepid traveller. I think even readers who aren’t much interested in Indonesia will enjoy this book.

‘The Book That Made Me’, edited by Judith Ridge

Disclaimer: I’m acquainted with several of the people involved with the creation of this book. But I wouldn’t be writing about it here if I didn’t like it – I’d just pretend I hadn’t read it.

'The Book That Made Me' edited by Judith RidgeThe Book That Made Me is an interesting collection of personal stories by thirty-one authors and artists (mostly Australian, mostly writers for children and teenagers) about the books that “made them” – made them think, feel, laugh, made them want to create their own books. As with most anthologies, there’s a wide variety of pieces and I found some more compelling than others. Shaun Tan contributes a thoughtful essay about books that disturbed him, starting at the age of seven or eight with his mother reading him Animal Farm as a bedtime story, under the mistaken impression that it would be a charming fairytale (he decided it was “no more disturbing than stuff I witnessed at school each day”). His charming, whimsical illustrations can also be found throughout the book.

Other favourite pieces were those which had something in common with my own experiences. Simmone Howell writes about how she tried (and failed) to become a proper teenager using the wisdom contained in the Sweet Dreams and Sweet Valley High series. Catherine Johnson explains how she “never expected to see [herself] in a book … everyone back then knew only white people lived in books and had adventures”. Jaclyn Moriarty discovered, aged six, how her secret rage at the injustices of life had been transformed into a book called The Magic Finger. I also enjoyed Fiona Wood’s discussion of the helpful life lessons contained in Anne of Green Gables; Emily Maguire’s description of how Edith in Grand Days encouraged her to take risks and celebrate her teenage mistakes; and Julia Lawrinson’s entertaining account of her obsessive identification with Laura Ingalls Wilder. Most of these writers were already familiar to me, but I’d never heard of Catherine Johnson and now I feel a pressing need to read some of her children’s books, in which she says she “made sure to put children like me [that is, mixed-race kids] right in there, riding horses, wearing those amazing frocks, and mostly having adventures, just like everyone else.”

There was plenty of book nostalgia for me to wallow in (Dr Seuss! Little Women! Trixie Belden!) and I’ve added some recommended books to my To Read list, including Tom’s Midnight Garden by Phillipa Pearce, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and Displaced Person by Lee Harding. This book contains potted biographies of all the contributors and I was pleased to see a thorough index. The Book That Made Me is published in Australia by Walker Books and will be published in North America this year by Candlewick Press, with all royalties going to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

‘Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead’ by Paula Byrne

I really enjoyed Mad World by Paula Byrne, which is an engrossing account of the people who inspired Evelyn Waugh’s novels – specifically, the troubled Lygon family of Madresfield Court, so similar to the Flyte family in Brideshead Revisited.

'Mad World' by Paula ByrneThe true story of the Lygons turns out to be even more dramatic and tragic than that of their fictional counterparts. Lord Beauchamp, a very grand earl, didn’t merely choose to live away from England with his lover because he disliked his pious wife – he was forced into permanent exile in 1931 to evade arrest for “committing acts of gross homosexual indecency” with his servants. While aristocratic men of the time often got away with flouting this law, Lord Beauchamp had been flagrant in his disregard for social and legal conventions. This became a problem when it appeared one of his daughters, Lady Mary, might marry Prince George. The King took action and recruited Beauchamp’s brother-in-law, Bendor, the Duke of Westminster, who’d long resented Beauchamp:

“It seemed grotesquely unfair that his brother-in-law should have three sons, a loyal wife, a string of homosexual lovers, a glittering career and great standing in politics, while he himself had got through three wives without producing a single male heir … Bendor set about his task with great relish and ruthless dispatch.”

The Lygon family was torn apart, with most of the children taking their father’s side and refusing to forgive their mother for divorcing him. The girls, previously the most eligible debutantes of their time, were unable to make ‘good’ marriages, due to the scandal. Lady Mary, the most beautiful, eventually married a philandering Russian aristocrat, who left her penniless and battling mental illness, alcoholism and loneliness. The heir, Lord Elmley, married a much older woman and had no children; Hugh, the model for Sebastian Flyte, quickly lost his good looks and his money and spent the remainder of his short life in a drunken stupor, trying to block out the guilt and shame of his own homosexuality; only Lady Dorothy, portrayed as Cordelia Flyte, seemed to live a relatively happy and productive life, although she had her own brief and disastrous marriage.

The author says that she wrote this book because she believed “that Evelyn Waugh had been persistently misrepresented as a snob and a curmudgeonly misanthropist.” However, I finished this book disliking Waugh, as a person, even more than I already did, which I didn’t think was possible. He was a snob. He spent his life attaching himself to a series of rich, aristocratic families, happy to be their court jester if he got to stay in grand country houses for extended periods at their expense, especially if it also provided him with good writing fodder. From his earliest years, he was spiteful and nasty, bullying anyone he regarded as his inferior in either social status or intelligence. He may have possessed wit and humour, but it always had a sharp edge. There is a lot of description of his idiotic drunken escapades with friends, which we are meant to admire:

“…to an outsider, the banter and play that characterised Mad World [that is, life at Madresfield Court with the Lygon siblings] appear frivolous and jejune, but in reality the comedy was a means of survival and a manifestation of love.”

'Brideshead Revisited' by Evelyn WaughHmm. Waugh at least had some self-awareness and admitted, when proposing to the woman who would become his second wife, “I am restless and moody and misanthropic and lazy and have no money…” (It reminded me of Mr Mybug in Cold Comfort Farm trying to appear more interesting to Flora by hinting at his dark depths.) Perhaps the poor woman thought he was joking, but she agreed to marry him and then spent years living in the country, perpetually pregnant, looking after their huge brood of children while he caroused around London. Despite his fervent Roman Catholicism, he had no moral qualms about buying the services of prostitutes, including “little Arab girls of fifteen and sixteen, for ten francs each” in Morocco. Even his brief military service during the war was marked by impropriety, when he falsified the official record of his battalion’s withdrawal from Crete in 1941. He told his friend Nancy Mitford that his behaviour would have been even worse if he hadn’t been under the moral influence of the Church. The mind boggles.

Paula Byrne provides an interesting analysis of most of Waugh’s books, including Vile Bodies, A Handful of Dust and the Sword of Honour trilogy, but I found her detailed chapter on Brideshead Revisited the most fascinating. She examines his descriptions of Oxford, homosexuality, Roman Catholicism and aristocratic life, linking the major characters in the novel to their real-life counterparts. I think readers who love Waugh’s writing will find this book rewarding – but don’t expect to feel very fond of Waugh by the end of it.

My Favourite Books of 2016

It’s not quite the end of the year, but here are the books I’ve read in 2016 (so far) that I loved the most. But first, some statistics.

I only read 46 new books this year (new to me, that is), fewer than I usually read. This was partly because I was studying for most of the year, plus I’d started a new job, both of which took up lots of mental energy. I also read a great deal of (mostly depressing) political news in newspapers, magazines and blogs. So when I wasn’t doing that, I escaped into the comfort of old favourites from my bookshelves, including a dozen of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s books and a re-read of all the Rivers of London novels in preparation for the release of Book Six in that series.

So, what type of new books did I read this year?

Type of books 2016

Author nationality for books read in 2016

It was the year of British literature, it seems.

Author gender for books read in 2016

And women writers dominate, yet again.

Now for my favourites.

My Favourite Adult Fiction

My favourite novels this year included Breakfast with the Nikolides by Rumer Godden, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Slade House by David Mitchell and the latest installment of the Rivers of London series, The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch.

My Favourite Non-Fiction

It was non-fiction that really captured my interest this year. Favourites included The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists by David Aaronovitch, and two of Bill Bryson’s books, At Home: A Short History of Private Life and The Road to Little Dribbling. I’m only halfway through Stalin Ate My Homework by Alexei Sayle, but I’m really enjoying it so far. However, my absolute favourite of the year was Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, a brilliantly incisive yet accessible discussion of neurocognitive research into sex differences, which I realise I didn’t actually review on this blog because I was too busy writing assignments at the time. I will try to remedy that at some stage in the near future, but in the meantime, here’s a good review.

My Favourite Books for Children and Teenagers

I loved Iris and the Tiger by Leanne Hall and Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. I was also beguiled by the first book in Antonia Forest’s Marlow series, Autumn Term.

My Favourite Picture Books and Graphic Novels

I was entertained (and occasionally enraged) by a collection of First Dog on the Moon’s political cartoons, A Treasury of Cartoons. I also enjoyed Night Witch, a graphic novel in the Rivers of London series, by Ben Aaronovitch, Andrew Cartmel, Lee Sullivan and others (although it wasn’t as good as the prose novels).

Thank you to everyone who contributed to Memoranda in 2016. I hope you’ve all had a good reading year and that 2017 brings you lots of inspiring, informative and entertaining books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

Favourite Books of 2010
Favourite Books of 2011
Favourite Books of 2012
Favourite Books of 2013
Favourite Books of 2014
Favourite Books of 2015

‘Olive Kitteridge’ by Elizabeth Strout

'Olive Kitteridge' by Elizabeth StroutI’ve been engrossed in this collection of short stories, most of them set in a small coastal town in Maine and all connected in some way to the central character, Olive Kitteridge. Olive, a retired high-school teacher, is fascinatingly awful – irritable, moody, impatient and highly critical of just about everyone she knows, including her sweet, long-suffering husband, Henry. Olive is an intelligent and perceptive woman and she can be compassionate to those in need of comfort – a suicidal former student, a young stranger with anorexia, a newcomer to town who’s recently bereaved. However, she’s also tragically incapable of seeing her own flaws and is baffled when her son chooses to move to the other side of the continent to get away from her. There’s some beautiful descriptive writing and lots of thoughtful commentary on the complex ways people behave and relate to one another. I must admit it does get a bit grim, what with all the characters being cheated on and abandoned and wanting to kill themselves, but it does end with a suggestion of hope, with Olive musing:

“… if love was available, one chose it, or didn’t choose it. And if her platter had been full with the goodness of Henry and she had found it burdensome, had flicked it off crumbs at a time, it was because she had not known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered.

[…]

Her eyes were closed, and throughout her tired self swept waves of gratitude – and regret. She pictured the sunny room, the sun-washed wall, the bayberry outside. It baffled her, the world. She did not want to leave it yet.”

Recommended for those who like the short stories of Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood.

Miscellaneous Memoranda

John Banville provoked a lot of responses, most of them derisive, when he said in an interview about his new memoir, ‘I was not a good father. I don’t think any writer is.’ As Joanne Harris said, ‘Not only is Banville’s claim ludicrous, it reinforces the myth that women can’t be Proper Writers because of all the Caring they have to do.’ I especially liked Julian Gough’s response in The Irish Times, which discusses the ‘historical cultural catastrophe’ that bent many Irish men ‘brutally out of shape’ but expresses hope about the new generation of male writers.

I also enjoyed this article by Matthew Gallaway, in which six writers discuss book covers and blurbs in an very entertaining fashion, and this short piece by Christie Nieman on the joys of ‘quiet’ Young Adult novels.

In more depressing news, Stealing Books in the Age of Self-Publishing explains that “in the world of self-publishing, where anyone can put a document on Amazon and call it a book, many writers are seeing their work being appropriated without their permission”, with enterprising plagiarists getting rich and escaping punishment. And even if you don’t get plagiarised, there are plenty of other “spiky little soul-destroying aspects of the business” of literature, says Krissy Kneen, who is suffering from Mid-Career Malaise.

This is probably an appropriate place to quote NOT A WOLF, who is definitely not a wolf pretending to be a man:

@SICK OF WOLVES

However, there are hopes that the new Australian Senate will refuse to pass the government’s proposed legislation to abolish territorial copyright.

And if you’re in a French railway station, you now have easy access to stories via vending machines that ‘dispense short stories printed on paper — for free — with passengers able to choose a story of either one, three or five “minutes” in length’.

What I’ve Been Reading

There are times – for instance, when the world appears to be heading to hell in a handbasket – when even the most politically engaged, newspaper-addicted reader needs to escape into some frothy fiction. And fortunately for me, two of my favourite writers happened to have new novels out.

'The Hanging Tree' by Ben AaronovitchThe Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch was a very satisfying new installment of the Rivers of London series. It was good to see Peter back in London where he belongs, solving crimes, making new enemies and nearly getting killed in various dramatic and supernatural ways. He’s assisted by all the old crowd – Stephanopoulos, Guleed the Somali Muslim Ninja, the Rivers, Dr Walid, Kimberley the FBI agent – and it’s nice to see the subtle development of his relationship with his boss, Nightingale (who is actually observed smiling, and at one point, even winking, at Peter in this book). There’s also not one, but two new groups of magicians introduced, who may or may not be Peter’s allies, and there are important revelations about the Faceless Man and Lesley. With the author juggling so many characters and subplots, it’s not surprising that he occasionally drops one, kicks it under the sofa and pretends it never existed. What, for example, has happened to Abigail? But Peter’s narration is so entertaining and the action is so exciting that I honestly didn’t mind the odd plot hole – and in fairness to the author, he does tend to address these sorts of issues eventually, even if it does take a few books before you find out who, exactly, that strange fox-obsessed guy is, or what’s happened to the Quiet People. I also really enjoy the bits where the author goes off on tangents that have absolutely nothing to do with the story – for example, there’s a hilarious scene where he pokes fun at the sort of pompous old white men who keep getting short-listed for the Booker Prize, which makes me wonder whether Ben Aaronovitch ever had an unpleasant encounter with, say, Martin Amis at the BBC one day (although really, the fictional novelist could be based on any number of British male writers). Anyway, The Hanging Tree was well worth the wait and I think I might need to check out the Rivers of London graphic novels while I’m waiting for the next book.

'Vinegar Girl' by Anne TylerAnne Tyler also has a new book out, this one a modern retelling of The Taming of the Shrew. It’s part of a series commissioned by The Hogarth Press, with Jeanette Winterson doing The Winter’s Tale, Margaret Atwood The Tempest, Howard Jacobson The Merchant of Venice and so on. Now, I really, really hate The Taming of the Shrew, but I figured if anyone could find some charm and humour in the story, it would be Anne Tyler and indeed, I did enjoy a number of scenes, particularly the ones in which Kate, in this version a preschool assistant, interacts with her four-year-old students. The problem is trying to make modern-day Kate’s situation plausible, while staying true to the events of the play. Tyler decides to make Kate the intelligent, strong-minded 29-year-old daughter of an eccentric Baltimore scientist, Dr Battista. His brilliant Russian assistant’s visa is about to expire, so Dr Battista starts a “touchingly ludicrous” campaign for Kate to marry the young man, enabling Pyotr to qualify for a Green Card. This makes no sense whatsoever. If Kate is so smart and stubborn and independent, why is she still living at home acting as an unpaid servant for her selfish father and younger sister, and working in a dead-end child-care job she dislikes? Why does she have no friends and why has she never had a boyfriend (or girlfriend)? She’s not even particularly shrewish, just a bit tactless. If she wants to improve her life, which she does, there are dozens of ways to accomplish this without having to marry a man she barely knows, and who rapidly reveals himself to be a sexist jerk with no social skills. All the characters are paper-thin, but I kept reading, mildly engaged with the story, until the climactic scene in which Kate gives a speech that nearly made me throw the book across the room. Hey, did you know that it’s totally fine for men to be verbally and physically abusive, because “it’s hard being a man”? They just get frustrated because they have to be in charge of everything and have all the power and success in society! They just don’t get enough practice expressing their feelings and their “interpersonal whatchamacallit”! Then Kate and Pyotr live happily ever after, the end. So if you haven’t read any Anne Tyler before, please don’t start with this book. I don’t know what she was thinking. Unless she thought a vile misogynist was about to become President of her country…