Dogs and Books

If I were asked to list my favourite things in the universe, dogs and books would be near the top of the list, so I’ve been pleased to see lots of both of them about lately.

Firstly, Inside a Dog, the website for the Centre for Youth Literature, was relaunched last week, with a new blog and loads of useful, interesting features. Go and have a look at the gorgeous photos of dogs reading books! I also liked the article about a greyhound who helps children learn to read. Children love reading aloud to Danny, because he

“does not criticise or correct their pronunciation. He just nods and pricks up an ear, although sometimes he closes his eyes and appears not to be listening . . . Some children even show Danny the pictures as they read.”

It reminded me of a learning disorders clinic where I used to work. My boss would bring in her good-natured poodle, who would sit on the verandah, looking adorable. I soon discovered that my students became highly motivated to finish their work if I promised they could pat the dog at the end of our session.

I’ve also been reading about Bamse, the St. Bernard who was the mascot of Free Norwegian forces during the Second World War. Bamse was an official crew member of a ship that managed to escape the Nazi invasion of Norway in 1940. While stationed in Scotland, Bamse rescued a sailor who’d fallen overboard, and saved another from a knife-wielding assailant, by pushing the villain into the sea. The crew bought Bamse a bus pass, which hung around his neck, and he would take the bus into town by himself to round up any crew members who were late returning to the ship. Bamse would often have a bowl of beer with the men, and he was an enthusiastic goalkeeper and centre forward when they played football on deck. When he died of a heart attack in 1944, eight hundred school children lined the streets to watch his flag-draped coffin being carried through the town of Montrose, where he was buried. Of course, I cannot resist squashing Bamse into Montmaray Book Three, even though his story doesn’t have much to do with mine.

I’ve also been thinking about beloved dogs in books, and came up with my favourite five:

1. Roger in Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals

My Family and Other Animals
'My Family and Other Animals' - 2005 BBC production
When ten-year-old Gerald and his eccentric family move to Corfu in the 1930s, they are accompanied by Roger, a woolly black dog of indeterminate breed, who causes a canine riot within minutes of their arrival. In a book full of endearing animals, Roger is one of the most lovable. As Gerald points out:

“He was the perfect companion for an adventure, affectionate without exuberance, brave without being belligerent, intelligent and full of good-humoured tolerance for my eccentricities.”

(Roger was also portrayed beautifully by a very clever canine actor in the recent film version of My Family and Other Animals.)

2. Heloise in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle

Heloise is the family bull-terrier, described at one point by Cassandra as

“gazing at me with love, reproach, confidence and humour – how can she express so much just with two rather small slanting eyes?”

Heloise is a loyal companion to Cassandra during her wanderings around the countryside, and even manages to get Cassandra into, then out of, an awkward situation with Simon by barking out the barn window at exactly the right time.

3. Miró in Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You

Miró is a standard poodle who “seems to think he is human” and watches “the simple canine ways of the other dogs with amused condescension”. His Manhattan family talk to Miró more than they talk to one another, but teenage James admits he’s often mean to the dog:

“I say things to him like ‘You’re just a dog. You don’t even have a passport or a Social Security number. You can’t even open doors. You’re totally at my mercy.’ Or ‘Get a haircut. Put on some shoes.'”

Needless to say, Miró is not bothered by these insults. He’s way too cool.

4. Edward in Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist

There aren’t many dogs in Anne Tyler’s novels (I have a sneaking suspicion she prefers cats), but Edward, a Welsh corgi, rules this book. Edward is responsible for Macon’s broken leg, which forces Macon to move back to the family home. Then Edward’s unruly behaviour leads Macon to hire Muriel, the crazy dog trainer, which results in scenes that any dog owner will recognise:

“During the course of the evening he chewed a pencil to splinters, stole a pork-chop bone from the garbage bin, and threw up on the sun porch rug; but now that he could sit on command, everyone felt more hopeful.”

In between attacking Macon’s boss and terrorising innocent cyclists and pedestrians, Edward brightens the life of Muriel’s son and manages to throw Macon and Muriel into a very unlikely but satisfying romance.

5. King in Anne Holm’s I Am David

Oh, King! The most loving, loyal sheepdog in the world, who sacrifices himself to save David! I can’t type out a quote about King, because it will make me cry. Just go and read it (with a big box of tissues).

Hmm, I didn’t plan to end on such a sad note. Look, here’s a hilarious comic about a dog with . . . um, intellectual challenges and another one about the same dog having difficulties adjusting to a new house.

Also – don’t forget that the Montmaray give-away is open till April 5th, if you’d like to win a book.

‘Dated’ Books, Part Three: The Friendly Young Ladies

Here is a true story about this book. (You know how people say this, then the story turns out to be not very extraordinary at all? This is one of those stories.)

When I was fifteen, my family moved house right at the start of the summer holidays, to yet another country town. I didn’t have any school friends, because I’d just arrived, and there didn’t seem to be anyone of my age left in the surrounding streets – they’d all gone somewhere more interesting for the holidays, and besides, I would have been too shy to approach them if they had been around. As a result, I spent the entire summer in the town library. One day, I came across a dark green paperback with an old-fashioned painting on the front cover and ‘Virago’ written on the spine. I had no idea what ‘Virago’ meant, but I thought I’d give this one a go.

The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary RenaultWell. It was a revelation. The girls in this book weren’t like the girls in any other books I’d read, or even like girls I knew in real life. All the girls I knew thought that the point of life was to make yourself as attractive as possible, so that lots of boys would fall in love with you, whereupon you would choose the most popular boy, fall in love with him, marry him, buy a nice house, fill it with nice objects and have a couple of nice children. I’d never had the slightest interest in doing any of those things, but I’d assumed I would when I finally ‘grew up’. This book dangled in front of me the tantalising possibility that I might grow up and still not want those things. The girls in this book wore whatever they felt like, and sometimes wore nothing at all; had fascinating jobs but no husbands or children; had lots of intriguing, oblique conversations with one another; and lived with their best female friends on houseboats. The word ‘lesbian’ was never mentioned, but I probably wouldn’t have understood it, anyway (it was the eighties, and I was a very unworldly teenager). As it was, quite a lot of the book went over my head, but I didn’t mind. I was absolutely loving swimming around in all that deep, opaque water.

I had to return the book eventually, but when I went to look for it a few weeks later, it was gone. Stupidly, I hadn’t written down the author’s name, and I couldn’t even recall the title – something about ladies? I wasn’t quite stupid enough to ask the librarian if she could locate ‘the green book about ladies’, but I made attempts to find it over the next few years, at that library, at other libraries, at various bookshops. Then I gave up and almost (but not quite) forgot about it.

Twenty-five years later, my friend H was on holiday in the UK and browsing through second-hand bookshops.

“Hey,” she e-mailed me. “I found this great book I think you’ll like. It’s really clever and funny, and it’s set in 1930s England, and it says on the back that it’s the antidote to The Well of Loneliness, so I thought of you straight away! Not that you’re anything like The Well of Loneliness.”

“I haven’t ever been able to bring myself to read The Well of Loneliness,” I e-mailed back. “Sounds too depressing.” Then something swam up from the depths of my memory. “Hang on. This book isn’t about two girls living a bohemian existence on a houseboat, is it?”

“Yes, and the little sister of one of them runs away from home and comes to live with them, and there’s this hilariously awful doctor who fancies himself as God’s gift to women and tries to seduce all three of them – for their own good, of course.”

“This book isn’t green, is it?”

“Yes, and it’s got a lovely painting of two girls in 1930s clothes on the cover.”

“And is there a scene where the little sister gets badly sunburnt, so they use green face powder to disguise it?” (For some reason, this was the scene that had stuck with me. Green face powder. Would that really work?)

“Maybe,” she said. “Haven’t got up to that bit yet. I’ll send it to you when I’ve finished.”

And it was the very same book – well, the cover was different, but it was still green. It was Mary Renault’s 1944 novel, The Friendly Young Ladies, and it was just as good as I’d remembered. Lots of sharp social satire, and some wonderful insights into the convoluted thoughts and emotions of the characters. For example, here’s the self-satisfied doctor, who sees himself as a saviour of lonely female patients:

“His dislike of hurting anyone was entirely genuine, as traits which people use for effect often are; and from this it followed that if anyone insisted on being hurt by him, he found the injury hard to forgive.”

There are also some funny, irreverent comments about writing and publishing. One character, who writes cowboy books, describes herself cheerfully as a “competent hack” and says,

“Personally I always think people are rather sickening who make out they could write better than they do. It’s like losing a game and then saying you didn’t try.”

And here she is, complaining about an editor who says he wants to see more romance in her manuscript:

“I did put a girl in. I’m sure I did. Her name was Susie, or Sadie, or something. And I mentioned her again at the end . . . I always think it would save such a lot of trouble if you could just indicate it with a row of crosses, or BERT LOVES MABEL, or something quick, and get on with the story.”

So, lots to enjoy – except for the conclusion, which I’d forgotten entirely. And this brings me to why this book is ‘dated’.

As with The Charioteer, there are no descriptions of any form of sex. In an afterword, written forty years after the book was first published, Renault says,

“I have sometimes been asked whether I would have written this book more explicitly in a more permissive decade. No; I have always been as explicit as I wanted to be, and have not been much more so in recent books. If characters have come to life, one should know how they will make love; if not it doesn’t matter.”

That’s interesting, although I don’t agree with her. By her argument, if the characters have come to life in the first half of the book, then the reader ought to know how they’ll interact in the second half, so why bother writing the rest?

Renault also criticises the “silliness of the ending” of this book. She’s quite right, it is extremely silly, although so are some other aspects of the plot. As a discussion of this involves plot spoilers, I’ve hidden the next three paragraphs. Use your mouse to highlight the blank space (or use your browser to ‘select all’ text) if you’d like to read on.

It turns out Leonora, the tomboyish elder sister of runaway Elsie, had an unsatisfying sexual experience with her friend Tom when they were both teenagers. As a result, Leo has turned to women, and eventually ends up in a happy, satisfying, long-term partnership with the beautiful, talented Helen, who loves Leo devotedly but not possessively. It seems an ideal relationship, supportive without being suffocating. Leo is also close friends with Joe, who lives up the river from them. He’s handsome, clever, sensitive, a brilliant writer, from a wealthy family but not at all snobbish, able to fish, paddle a canoe, climb mountains, rescue drowning women and build houses with his bare hands. And, in the final chapters, he ‘cures’ Leo of her lesbianism by having (dubiously consensual) sex with her. Then Leo abandons Helen and goes off with him to America.

I mean, what?!

Renault thinks the conclusion is silly because Leo and Joe would have a chaotic domestic life, and this would prevent Joe from writing. I think it’s silly because Leo’s previous unsatisfactory heterosexual experiences are due to her being a lesbian, not the other way around, and that Leo abandoning Helen makes absolutely no sense.

Despite the conclusion, I think this is a terrific read. If you’re interested, Charles Taylor has written a very thoughtful review of the book.

More ‘dated’ books:

1. Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford
2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
3. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
4. Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham
5. Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
6. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
7. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
8. Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence

My Favourite Books of 2010

Lots of bloggers are listing their best and worst books of the year, and I’d like to join in. I do have a few problems, though. Firstly, I don’t keep a record of what I’ve read or when I’ve read it, so I’m not entirely certain whether some of these books were read this year, or at the end of last year. Secondly, I’m not going to name any books that I’ve disliked. It is true that I’ve been disappointed by a few books I’ve read recently. In each case, I’d been expecting something great, either because I’d liked previous books by that author, or because there’d been a lot of hype about the book. However, it isn’t the authors’ fault that my expectations didn’t match their books, so I don’t think I ought to criticise them for it. Thirdly, this year has been a bit unusual for me, with respect to my reading. I spent the first few months working my way through two enormous boxes of Australian YA fiction (and some non-fiction), because I was helping to judge a literary award. Then, for the rest of the year, I was immersed in non-fiction about World War Two (with some British 1930s and wartime novels for light relief). Here, then, is a list of the books I remember enjoying (or being intrigued by) this year.

Australian YA Fiction

When The Hipchicks Went To WarI loved Pamela Rushby’s When the Hipchicks Went To War, which won this year’s Ethel Turner Prize in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. It’s a moving account of a teenage girl who goes to Vietnam to entertain the troops, told in a fresh, funny and very Australian voice. I enjoyed all the books on the shortlist for this prize (which is not very surprising, because I helped select the shortlist). I also liked Blue Noise by Debra Oswald. It’s an engaging story about some high schoolers who start a band, with an ending that was hopeful without being too neat or saccharine (also, hooray for an Australian book that is not set in a country town, and a story that does not rely on a teenage girl getting murdered or killing herself). I was also fond of Keepinitreal by Don Henderson (imagine the film The Castle, but with greyhound racing) and The Visconti House by Elsbeth Edgar (an old-fashioned mystery about an intriguing house and its former owner, featuring some beautiful writing).

Other Fiction

I must have read lots of other novels this year, but only two (well, three) remain in my thoughts. The Believers by Zoë Heller has had mixed reviews, but I thought it was terrific. I admit that the characters are extremely unlikeable, and I did find the conclusion to Rosa’s story irritating and implausible. However, I was intrigued enough by this very dysfunctional New York family that I re-read the book, and I enjoyed it even more the second time.

The Night WatchThe other novel that stuck in my mind was The Night Watch by Sarah Waters. Really, this book deserves a blog post all of its own. Suffice to say it’s the story of four people living in London during the Blitz, linked in ways that only become apparent at the end of the book, due to the very clever structure of the narrative. This was the first Sarah Waters book I’d read, and I was so impressed by her writing that I raced out and bought The Little Stranger. Which I did not like nearly as much (see what I mean about high expectations), even though it’s a very well-plotted ghost story with a fascinating setting (a crumbling country house in post-war England).

World War Two Non-Fiction

I read a LOT of books about wartime Europe this year, but it was for research purposes – I was interested in facts, not the literary qualities of the books. However, a few of them stood out because they were not only useful, but interesting and well-written enough to appeal to (some) general readers. Firstly, The Last Enemy by Richard Hillary was a fascinating, heart-breaking (and occasionally infuriating) memoir of a young RAF pilot who was shot down and badly injured during the Battle of Britain. The Last EnemyThe book gives an unsentimental account of his medical rehabilitation (his hands and face were surgically reconstructed by the pioneering plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe) and it describes Hillary’s evolving views on the war. The story is made more poignant by the fact that Hillary somehow managed to talk his way back into the air force (despite having only limited movement in his hands) and then crashed his plane during re-training, dying at the age of twenty-three. For a more general overview of Britain’s fighter pilots during WWII, I recommend Patrick Bishop’s Fighter Boys, which paints a vivid portrait of the individual (and very young) men who helped prevent Britain’s invasion in 1940. I also liked The Freedom Line by Peter Eisner, about the underground resistance in Belgium and France rescuing Allied airmen who’d been shot down over Nazi-occupied territory.

The best book I read about the experiences of civilians was Wartime: Britain 1939-1945 by Juliet Gardiner. Somehow, she managed to describe every aspect of wartime life, from rationing to the Blitz to the ‘invasion’ of Britain by American servicemen, in a way that was clear, coherent and accessible. However, at eight hundred pages, this book is probably only for those with a deep interest in the subject. For others, I recommend Keep Smiling Through: The Home Front 1939-45 by Susan Briggs, an intriguing collection of photos, cartoons, advertisements and newspaper articles from the war years, with just enough comment to provide context.

Other Non-Fiction

The God DelusionI think I only read two non-fiction books this year that weren’t about WWII, but they were both amazing. First was Kill Khalid: Mossad’s failed hit and the rise of Hamas by Paul McGeough. It reads like a thriller, but also explains the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. By the end of the book, I had a much better understanding of Middle Eastern politics, and felt thoroughly pessimistic about peace ever being achieved in that part of the world. Secondly, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins was, as I’d expected, a clear, rational argument for atheism. What I didn’t expect was that this book would be so entertaining, inspiring and plain laugh-out-loud funny. Admittedly, I’m an atheist, but I really feel this is an important book for everyone to read, regardless of their religious beliefs.

Phew! I seem to have read a lot of Very Serious Books this year, but this really wasn’t a typical reading year for me. I’m also sure I’ve left out some wonderful books that I’ve simply forgotten (due to my brain being over-stuffed with Very Serious Thoughts). What I have decided is that, from the first of January, I’m going to write down the title of each book I read, with a very short comment. I already have some book titles for my 2011 pile, including:

India Dark by Kirsty Murray
Monster Blood Tattoo Book Three: Factotum by D. M. Cornish
Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley
Anonymity Jones by James Roy
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

and possibly, Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist, depending on how brave I’m feeling.

Hope you’ve all had a great reading year, and that 2011 brings you lots of smart, enthralling and inspiring books!

Top Ten Girls in Fiction

Earlier this year, CMIS Evaluation Fiction Focus listed their “top 10 female protagonists in recent Australian YA literature”, to mark the occasion of Australia’s first female Prime Minister being sworn in to office. I was chuffed to see my very own Sophie FitzOsborne make the list, and it got me thinking about my own favourite fictional girls.

I found it surprisingly difficult to come up with ten of them, though. There are a lot of great girl characters in my favourite books, but often they had some fatal flaw that kicked them off my list. For example, Hermione in the Harry Potter series is clever, hard-working and loyal to Harry – but has an inexplicable fondness for Ron Weasley, a boy who spends six books mocking her intelligence, forgets to ask her to the Yule Ball and shows a complete lack of regard for her feelings (I pretend that the epilogue to Book Seven doesn’t exist). Here’s my final list, although I didn’t restrict myself to “recent”, “Australian” or “YA” fiction.

1. Myra in Apple Bough (Traveling Shoes in the US) by Noel Streatfeild

Myra broke my heart when I read this book as a ten-year-old. Myra, a “funny, solemn little thing”, is the eldest child of the Forum family, and the only one without any discernible artistic or musical talent. Her brother Sebastian is a musical prodigy touring the world and earning millions; Wolfgang is a child actor; Ettie is a celebrated dancer. All Myra wants is to live at Apple Bough, the family home, with her dog Wag, but both of these are taken away from her by Sebastian’s career – yet she still unselfishly looks after Sebastian, Wolf and Ettie for years. Myra finally starts to realise how important she is to her whole family after her perceptive grandfather tells her,

“You have a trouble which is unique in your family. You underestimate yourself.”

(Yes, Myra is finally re-united with Wag. Thank goodness.)

2. Claudia in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg

Claudia is imaginative and sensitive enough to want to escape the “injustice” and “monotony”of her suburban life, but she’s smart and organised enough to plan her running-away down to the smallest detail. She’s also absolutely hilarious in her attempts to control her uncontrollable little brother. I love how Claudia grows up (with some help from Mrs Frankweiler and ‘Angel’) at the end of the book.

3. Cassandra in I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Cassandra can be an infuriating snob (for example, see her horrible treatment of Stephen), but she’s so honest and curious about life, and so charming and articulate, that most of the time, I can overlook her flaws. It helps that she loves books as much as I do, and that she has a couple of adorable pets in Heloise and Abelard. And that she lives in a castle.

4. Nona in Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden

I just adore Nona. Despite feeling shy and miserable and lost, she devotes herself to building a dollhouse for poor, homeless Miss Happiness and Miss Flower – an authentic Japanese dollhouse, even though Nona initially knows nothing about Japan. By the end of the book, Nona has drawn together not only her new family, but half the neighbourhood. She’s such an inspiration.

5. Madlyn in The Beasts of Clawstone Castle by Eva Ibbotson

Madlyn is a “very pretty” blonde who loves shopping (which is usually enough to stop me liking a girl character), but she’s also smart, sensible and caring, particularly when it comes to her eccentric little brother:

“She soothed him when stupid people asked after his skunk instead of his skink; she stopped the cleaning lady from throwing away the snails he kept in a jar under his bed; and when he had a nightmare she was beside him almost as soon as he woke.”

Madlyn doesn’t really want to spend two months at gloomy old Clawstone Castle, but she doesn’t complain about it, and she comes up with an ingenious plan to save the threatened Beasts. She’s also very brave during the terrifying showdown with the villains.

6. Brownie in The Hole in the Hill by Ruth Park

Another elder sister (I am sensing a theme here), who’s smart, responsible, and practical. Brownie’s also quietly courageous – for example, when necessary, she grits her teeth and walks along a ledge under a gigantic waterfall, even though she’s terrified of heights. At the start of the book, her father says, “Good grief, you kids of today have no more initiative than a jellyfish”, but by the end of their adventures, he’s forced to eat his words. Go, Brownie!

7. Jo in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Is there anyone who actually prefers Meg or Amy or Beth? Okay, Jo should have married Laurie instead of that old German guy, but in every other way, Jo March is awesome.

8. Sophie in Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder

Only a girl as thoughtful, inquisitive and imaginative as Sophie could possibly make sense of all those mysterious letters and postcards that arrive in her mailbox (or in her hedge, on her bedroom floor or stuck to the kitchen window). She’s not afraid to question her teachers and her mother during her search for philosophical truth, and she has a great sense of humour. I also really like Sophie’s real-world ally, Hilde.

9. Anaximander in Genesis by Bernard Beckett

All right, I’m taking some liberties with the definition of ‘girl’ here, but as Anaximander is described as young and female, I think she counts. Her compassion, intelligence and determination to uncover the truth is inspiring – or it would be, if we didn’t slowly realise where it was leading her. (Oh, that book’s conclusion!)

10. Agatha in Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler

Agatha is possibly my favourite Anne Tyler character ever, which is really saying something. She’s another eldest child, left to look after her siblings by hopeless parents, but unlike Madlyn, “Agatha never concerned herself with appearances”. She’s bullied by her classmates, but by high school, she’s “supremely indifferent, impervious” to them (“You could tell she thought prettiness was a waste of time”). However, the main reason I love Agatha is her ferocious intelligence. She’ll take on anyone in an argument – even God. Here she is having a theological debate with her Uncle Ian, who’s getting rather flustered because he’s losing:

“‘Agatha,’ Ian said, ‘there’s a great deal in the Bible that’s simply beyond our understanding.’
‘Beyond yours, maybe,’ Agatha said.”

She ends up becoming an oncologist, marries a handsome, charming doctor, and earns piles of money. I just wish there’d been a final scene where she attends a school re-union.

‘Dated’ Books, Part Two: The Charioteer

Is this book ‘dated’? Well, not in the same way as Wigs on the Green. The Charioteer wasn’t out of print for decades, it was never rejected by its author, and it continues to be discussed and admired by readers. However, it is definitely a novel of its time. It’s set during 1940, and was written in the early 1950s. The author, Mary Renault, was a nurse during the Second World War. She looked after soldiers who’d been evacuated from Dunkirk, and she worked in the same sort of hospitals described so vividly in the book. In part, the novel is about the war, about the moral (and occasionally physical) conflict between wounded servicemen and young, male conscientious objectors. However, to quote the summary on the back of my 1968 paperback edition:

“The theme of this compassionate and deeply understanding novel is homosexual love . . . Each [character] in his own way wrestles to compensate for what he feels to be biological failure.”

And doesn’t that sound like something out of a 1970s journal for psychotherapists, and make you want to avoid this novel like the plague?

'The Charioteer' by Mary RenaultBut if you did, you’d be missing out on a compelling story. Yes, this is a deeply serious book, with little of the humour that lights up Renault’s earlier novel, The Friendly Young Ladies. Yes, The Charioteer does go to ridiculous lengths to ‘explain’ (or perhaps ‘excuse’) the homosexual natures of the characters. Most modern readers will feel a bit bemused by the author’s careful explanations that Laurie, the narrator, had a philandering, alcoholic father who abandoned his family; that Ralph’s mother was a religious fanatic who had him flogged as a six-year-old after she caught him ‘discussing anatomy’ with the little girl next door; and that Andrew’s father died before Andrew was born and was probably bisexual. At social gatherings, the characters all sit around and have solemn debates about whether homosexuality should become legal, with one arguing:

“I didn’t choose to be what I am, it was determined when I wasn’t in a position to exercise any choice and without my knowing what was happening . . . I think we’re all part of nature’s remedy for a state of gross over-population . . . I’m not prepared to let myself be classified with dope-peddlars and prostitutes. Criminals are blackmailed. I’m not a criminal.”

To which, another retorts:

“[The authorities have] learned to leave us in peace unless we make public exhibitions of ourselves, but that’s not enough, you start to expect a medal. Hell, can’t we even face the simple fact that if our fathers had been like us, we wouldn’t have been born?”

(Actually, perhaps this isn’t so dated, after all. The same debate is being played out right now in the Australian parliament, except over same-sex marriage, rather than the decriminalisation of homosexual behaviour. Conservative politicians continue to trot out the ‘But they can’t reproduce!’ line, along with other, equally idiotic, ‘arguments’ against gay and lesbian rights.)

Anyway, the characters of The Charioteer live in England in 1940, so their lives are ruled by terror. As if the war isn’t bad enough, they’re also terrified of attracting the wrath of the police, their commanding officers, their families and God. Not surprisingly, many of them are suicidal, alcoholic or drug-addicted. Also not surprisingly, they have enormous difficulties being honest with each other. It’s the sort of book in which many of the characters’ problems would be solved if they simply sat down and talked about how they felt. But no, Ralph can’t tell Laurie he’s in love with him, because he thinks it will turn young Laurie gay. Laurie can’t tell Andrew he’s in love with him, because he thinks Andrew is too religious to cope with the knowledge. Ralph still can’t tell Laurie he’s in love with him, years later, because he knows Laurie is in love with Andrew. Andrew can’t tell Laurie he’s attracted to him because . . . Arrgh! It made me want to smack them all over the head. Still, I kept turning the pages, desperate to find out what would happen next. And the writing is superb – thoughtful, rich, beautifully-paced. The only issue I had with it was the coy fade-to-black whenever anything sexual happened, which again, is probably due to when the book was written. Perhaps the publishers censored it; perhaps the author censored herself? Still, after Laurie obsessively describing every thought, word and eye twitch during his interactions with Ralph and Andrew, it seemed bizarre that when he finally went to bed with one of them, there was a big blank in the narrative. I doubt a modern writer would have flinched at describing the scene (for example, see The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, set during the same period but published in 2006). Surely how these two men interact in bed is just as significant to the story as how they act when they’re eating a meal together in public?

So, yes, The Charioteer is ‘dated’. However, it’s an authentic depiction of the experiences of gay men during the Second World War, and I found it impossible to put down.

More ‘dated’ books:

1. Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford
2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
3. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
4. Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham
5. Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
6. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
7. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
8. Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence

The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard

This series is one of my favourite comfort reads, and has the added benefit of being set before and during the Second World War (this means that I can pretend I’m re-reading it for ‘research purposes’).

It won’t be to the taste of those who expect novels to be tightly plotted, with a single protagonist whose goal is clearly stated on the first page and achieved by the last. However, for those of us who love rambling, realistic family sagas set in a fascinating period of history, these books are just about perfect.

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane HowardThe first book, The Light Years, introduces the Cazalets, a middle-class English family who are rich enough to own houses in both London and Sussex; to send their sons to expensive ‘public’ schools and hire a governess for their daughters; and to have a large number of maids, kitchen staff, gardeners, chauffeurs and secretaries. The story is told from the point of view of all three generations of Cazalets, as well as various servants, friends and mistresses, which does make things confusing at first. Who is the eldest out of the Cazalet brothers? Is Christopher the cousin of Teddy or Simon? On my first (and even my second) reading, I often found myself having to refer to the family tree and the list of characters at the front of the book. However, once all that was sorted out, I was drawn to the teenage Cazalet girls: melodramatic Louise, who longs to be an actress; kind-hearted Polly, who dreads the idea of another war; and plain, clumsy Clary, who hates her stepmother, brother, cousins and practically everyone else in the world, but has a vivid imagination and a wonderfully honest outlook on life (as you can tell, she’s my favourite). The girls’ worries, resentments, dreams, tragedies and triumphs are beautifully portrayed. Their parents are equally realistic, but less easy to like. They vote Tory, believe the British Empire will last forever, think of women as weak, intellectually-inferior beings, have a vague dislike of Jews . . . all typical attitudes of their class and time, but it doesn’t make them very endearing to most modern readers. However, this attention to historical accuracy is one of the strengths of the series. The author describes everything, from what people ate for breakfast, to how they reacted to the Munich Crisis of 1938, so clearly yet so unobtrusively. (This may be because a lot of the story is autobiographical.)

The second book, Marking Time, begins when war is declared. The women and children move into the family’s country house and most of the men join the forces. By the third book, Confusion, tragedy has hit the family hard and the girls are embarking on adult life with various degrees of success and happiness. Both books examine war from the perspective of women and girls, and are absolutely fascinating. I also like some of the new characters who appear – for example, Stella Rose and her family, who moved to England from Austria before the war.

The final book, Casting Off, is set in the immediate post-war years, and wraps up the story for each of the characters, not always realistically. I devoured this book, just as I did the others, but it does consist mostly of ‘then X married Y’ – unless X had been unhappily married, in which case it’s ‘then X divorced Y’. Polly’s story is particularly silly, but even Clary’s happy ending doesn’t seem all that believable to me. Still, the male characters who’d been getting away with horrible behaviour for years (specifically, Edward and his nasty son Teddy) do get their comeuppance in this book, which made me very happy – however unrealistic it might have been.

The Cazalet novels were made into a BBC television series, which I haven’t seen, and I’m also curious about Elizabeth Jane Howard’s memoir, Slipstream.

EDITED TO ADD: BBC Radio 4 is broadcasting a series based on the Cazalet books in 2013 (thanks to Jed for the link). This interview with Elizabeth Jane Howard also says, “It looks as if 2013 will be the year of Howard’s maturation: while the nation tunes into the story of the Cazalets, Howard will be finishing the fifth volume of the Chronicle.”

See here for my thoughts on All Change, the fifth volume of the Cazalet Chronicles and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s final novel.

Top Ten YA Books

Earlier this year, Adele from Persnickety Snark ran a poll asking readers to nominate their favourite Young Adult (YA) books of all time. The final Top 100 had a lot of predictable titles (Twilight), as well as a few books I’d thought were either adult (Pride and Prejudice) or children’s literature (Harry Potter). There were also some books that made me think, ‘Oh, why didn’t I remember to add that one to my list?’ (for example, Little Women). Anyway, here are the books that I nominated this year as my favourite YA books of all time:

10. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
Possibly the funniest book I have ever read. Flora decides to improve the lives of her unfortunate relatives, whether they like it or not.

9. I am David by Anne Holm
A boy escapes from a concentration camp and makes his way across Europe in search of his mother. Devastating, but ultimately, there’s a message of hope.

8. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
They live on a houseboat. Leo writes cowboy books for a living and Helen gets paid to draw gory operations. What’s not to like?

7. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
A fabulous adventure. Pirates, buried treasure, a marooned sailor, a brave teenage lad – and Long John Silver, one of the scariest villains ever, because you never quite know whose side he’s on.

6. The Hole in the Hill by Ruth Park
I nearly chose Playing Beatie Bow instead, but this book is special. A group of smart, resourceful kids get lost in a mysterious cave system in the wilds of New Zealand and discover something amazing.

5. Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
A history of philosophy for teenagers. No, wait, don’t run away! It’s funny and exciting and very accessible, with a great twist in the middle and two terrific female narrators.

4. The Shape of Three by Lilith Norman
Only Lilith Norman could make ‘twins separated at birth’ into this kind of convincing, emotionally-wrenching drama. She also paints a wonderful portrait of Sydney in the 1970s.

3. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
One of the loveliest coming-of-age stories ever (even if I still can’t understand how Cassandra could treat poor Stephen the way she did). And it’s set in a castle.

2. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
An adopted teenage girl gives up her religion, her family and her whole community after she falls in love with another girl. But it’s not depressing! It’s funny, warm and smart, and a real inspiration for anyone who’s ever felt different.

1. Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You by Peter Cameron
A teenage boy in Manhattan anxiously contemplates adult life, meanwhile managing to alienate everyone around him. Brilliant, hilarious, touching – the best book about a teenager that I’ve ever read.