Beautiful Books 13

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‘Songberd’s Grove’ by Anne Barrett (Puffin 1963) Cover & Illustrations by David Knight

I love this cover because it has that scratchy style of drawing so reminiscent of the great Ronald Searle (see Searle’s cover for Angus Wilson’s ‘Hemlock and After’, below) and a style which provides wonderful detail but not necessarily in a realistic way. I also love how Knight uses very few colours – grey, yellow, red – but manages to give a feeling of colour to the picture. And what lettering! Like Searle, Knight gives the title an off-kilter, playful look.

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Unfortunately I’ve been unable to find any biographical detail about David Knight – If anyone reading this knows anything about Knight, please get in touch!

Knight illustrated a number of books, not least some of Paul Gallico’s books for children: ‘The Snowflake’ and ‘Love of Seven Dolls’.

P.S. If you want a whole smorgasbord of Puffin gorgeousness, why not visit my sister site, Puffin Heaven

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Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

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Dear Brother,

I am sorrie to tel you that Judith, your daughter, is verie sick. We belief she has not manie hours left to her. Pleafe come bak to us, if you can. And make hast.

God fpeed to you, dearest brother.

Your loving sister,

Eliza

To get the obvious out of the way first, ‘Hamnet’ is named after the son of William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway. But this is not a novel about Shakespeare or writers or plays or literature. It is a novel about grief and loss and it is beautiful.

We first meet Hamnet moving through the streets of Stratford, his twin sister blistered with the buboes of plague, his mother (Agnes, a name Hathaway was known by) in the forest attuning to nature, extracting the supernature; his father away in London working in some way in some sort of theatre.

The first part of the book straddles this plague stalked time with the early years of Agnes and Shakespeare (although never named as such and almost voiceless throughout the book). Agnes, a girl born of nature, enriched with earthly powers, witchy and afeared in equal measure; ‘The Tutor’, a bright lad with ambitions far beyond the family glove business, the two coming together as a force of nature, against family wishes and hopes. It is a love story as tragedy, for we know (or think we know) how it will end.

These tangents lead to wonderful flights of fancy: the carefully crafted foreboding tale of how a flea from Alexandria brings plague to Hamnet’s twin; the myths of Agnes’s childhood, her flesh pressing fortune telling talent, her being at-one with a kestral.

And this is important for it is Agnes who dominates the book; her perspective dominates and, when tragedy strikes it is through her eyes and her emotions that we bear witness.

‘Agnes sniffs the cloth, she sniffs the air. She presses her nose to her sleeve, then to Susanna’s smock. She walks about the room. What is it? It smells like dying flowers, like plants left too long in water, like a stagnant pond, like wet lichen. Is there something damp and rotting in the house?

She checks under the table, in case one of Gilberts dogs has dragged in something. She kneels down to peer under the coffer. She puts her hands on her hips, standing in the middle of the room, and draws in a dep breath.

Suddenly she knows two things…She is with child, she feels. There will be another baby on the house by the end of winter…

She also knows that this smell, this rotten scent, is not a physical thing. It means something. It is a sign of something  – something bad, something amiss, something out of kilter in her house. She can feel it somewhere, growing, burgeoning, like the black mould that creeps out of the plaster in winter.’

The final part of the book concerns itself with repercussions: a mother’s grief for her child; parents struggling to find a way to cope; a couple struggling to understand; love trying to find a way. This section could be maudlin and depressing, but O’Farrell’s clear, simple prose gives it a lightness of touch, a balance which in the midst of darkness allows a flicker of light to shine. I left the book not sad but forlorn: I had witnessed the depths of grief but somehow the human spirit remained; I had learned something profound and remarkable about the human condition, a trait shared by the great novels and a category in which ‘Hamnet’ is destined to rest.

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This month’s book haul

First up is ‘rest and be thankful’ by Emma Glass. I loved her last novel, ‘Peach’, which was a disturbing look at a disturbed life. This new novel couldn’t be more pertinent for the times we are living in: ‘Laura is a nurse on a paediatric unit. On long, quiet shifts, she and her colleagues, clad in their different shades of blue, care for sick babies, handling their exquisitely frangible bodies, carefully calibrating the mysterious machines that keep them alive. Laura may be burned out. Her hands have been raw from washing as long as she can remember. When she sleeps, she dreams of water; when she wakes, she finds herself lying next to a man who doesn’t love her anymore. And there is a strange figure dancing in the corner of her vision, always just beyond her reach…’

‘Modern Times’ is a collection of short stories (‘snapshots of an unsettling, dislocated world‘) by someone unknown to me: Cathy Sweeney. However, it has been published by ‘The Stinging Fly’, an wonderful Irish publisher who  published my beloved Claire Louise Bennett as well as Colin Barrett: a sign of quality (fingers crossed!)

The Stinging Fly connection continues with Naoise Dolan‘s ‘Exciting Times’, part of which was originally published in the magazine of the same name. Described by Hilary Mantel as ‘Droll, shrewd and unafraid‘, ‘Exciting Times’ concerns the relationships and situations ensuing from a 22 year old’s gap year. Comparisons to Sally Rooney have been made…

The final novel of the month is Garth Greenwell‘s follow up to ‘What Belongs to You’, a book I had very mixed feelings about. ‘Cleanness’ comes from the same world as ‘What Belongs…’ (gay relationships in a former Eastern Block country) and I thought I would give Greenwell a second chance…and the book a SO lovely, a solid block of orange with grey edging to the pages. Let’s hope the insides match up…

Finally, another photographic piece of joy from the Hoxton Mini Press. Over the past couple of years this small, London based press have been producing photographic books, not least their ‘Vintage Britain’ series, each with a specific theme or artist. The latest is ‘Butlin’s Holiday Camp 1982’ and delivers just what it says on the tin. A cheery slice of homely fun with a slight edge of melancholy. I can’t recommend these books highly enough (especially ‘Paradise Street’ which collects photos of children at play in the street, and ‘Dog Show 1861-1978’ which focusses on a lesser known works of the great Shirley Baker, more famous for her street photography) www.hoxtonminipress.com

 

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Beautiful Books 12

or, ‘You can(sometimes!) judge a book by its cover’

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‘This Sweet Sickness’ by Patricia Highsmith. (Pan 1963) Cover by Laszlo Acs

I’ll be honest here: I haven’t actually read this book yet. I have read some Highsmith in the past and liked them, but this little beauty had to be bought simply for its cover, and the fact that it was dirt cheap in a charity shop!

And what a cover – a frightened man, hands up, in a spotlight and targeted by what could be a hypnotic spiral. He casts a long shadow which seems to become the outline of a dead body…or is it the shadow of an assailant: is the victim glancing over his shoulder as the hunter advances?

The cover brings to mind the poster for Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ (1958) with its use of spiral and shadow to suggest a taught struggle between hunter and hunted. Of course, Hitchcock was no stranger to Highsmith, having directed a film version of her book, ‘Strangers on a Train’ in 1951.

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The artist, Laszlo Acs was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1931 and studied art in Britain at the Hornsey College of Art. He illustrated many books and posters.

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Finally, in tribute to Patricia Highsmith, here are Matmos with ‘Snails and Lasers for Patricia Highsmith’ from the GREAT album of tributes to queer icons, ‘The Rose has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast’

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True Crime – a ‘guilty pleasure’?

I’ve never really approved of ‘guilty pleasures’: you either like something or you don’t. But there is one category of book which, for me, come closest: true crime.

Go into most large books shops or check out the late night TV schedules and it is clear that true crime holds a morbid fascination for many, perhaps due to how, at it’s best, it can highlight the depths to which human behaviour can plummet and, in most cases provide a resolution to save the audience from nightmares.

And yet, despite my reassurances that such works are noble exercises in the public interest, there is still a pungent sordidness, a tang of exploitation about these works. Some might cite ‘classics’ such as Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ or Norman Mailer’s ‘The Executioner’s Song’ in order to refute such charges but I am never fully convinced that beautiful writing should pardon the activity.

But, like a vampire to the jugular, I return.

I should add that I am no expert in this field: I try to chose my true crime carefully, selecting by either the author or the nature of the crime itself…and I’m not sure that ‘pleasures’ are quite what such books give me: a frisson of horror, a shudder, a gasp of incredulity, maybe.

There are a number of  ‘true crime’ books which I return to:

Brian Masters’ books are razor sharp investigations, full of psychological insight into1m reason and motive: his books on the gay serial killers Dennis Nilsen and Jeffrey Dahmer are fascinating, hinting, perhaps, that 20170808_182221_resizedthe results of society rampant with homophobia: a hidden, furtive life which made relationships difficult and laced with feelings of guilt, became warped into the notion that the only way to ‘keep’ a man for a relationship was to kill him and live with the corpse. A heady brew.

 

‘Murder in the Heart’ by Alexandra Artley is a different beast entirely, a less forensic study of a case which is no less brutal. In 1988 the police were called to a house in Preston where they found a woman and her two daughters waiting quietly beside the body of the husband and father of the house, dead from a gun shot wound. At the trial the two daughters, June and Hilda – both in their late thirties –1j were found guilty of murder, but the judge gave them a suspended sentence, as ‘in a sense (they) had taken (their) punishment before the event’

This book is about Artley befriending the remnants of this hideously damaged family, unearthing the many years of physical, sexual and psychological abuse which would only end with the murder of the paternal perpetrator. It is a heartfelt book which doesn’t flinch from the horror behind closed doors. It also considers how the victims of such crimes can come to terms with their freedom: freedom from a life which, in the case of June and Hilda is the only life they have ever known. This is a book which made me cry.

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However, there is one true crime book which I believe towers above all others: ‘Happy Like Murderers’ by Gordon Burn, which concerns the lives and crimes of Fred and Rosemary West, who were responsible for the murder of numerous women over a number of years.

What makes this books different from the others is that while those authors write about the cases from a distance Burn attempts to take us, immerses us into the world of the Wests – a sordid and depraved world dominated by unhealthy, sickening levels of sexuality and violence – by piecing together their day-to-day lives. What did it feel like to live in that hot house of fetid bodily fluids and casual violence? How on earth did the lives of what should have been an ordinary family become so perverted? How did their children feel? How did they manage to live for so long – undetected – alongside neighbours, some of whom joining in with their activities?

‘And the children were untied from their beds and led up the stairs looking up to what would have recently been the sky but was now a ceiling of artex and railway-sleeper beams. All this noise and bright lights and swirling smoke and the smell of drugs and what Stephen regarded as all these wrecked and druggy bloody useless people. Some of them lodgers. Many of them black. In the noise and the smoke and some of them naked and having sex with each other in corners and under tables, They were untied and led up the stairs into this and then tied again around the base of the tree that stood in the middle of the room holding the extension roof up. Heather and May and Stephen held their hands out as they had been ordered and had rope looped around them and then sat at the base of the tree as they had been told to do. Sitting under the canopy of smoke, tied up together and tied to the tree and confused and frightened. People having sex together on the floor; under tables. They were staring at the floor. It went on for a long time. Heather nodded off until she was woken up by her mother. ‘Wake up, you stupid bitch.’ It seemed like days and days. ‘You’re a pretty little girl.’ Druggy bloody useless people. Heather was crying, Heather was being raped by a black friend of her mother’s. His mother was touching Stephen. The room seemed to get busier. Other women touching him. The room was packed. Everybody laughing. There was another man. Stephen’s dad called him ‘Snooty’. He started urinating on Heather. ‘He started weeing all over Heather. Then he turned around and weed all over me…It never happened again and it never happened before. It seemed to be a one off idea. The most degrading night.’

 I am sure that when the crimes became public there must have been a good number of other people Gloucester who were very, very nervous.

‘Happy Like Murderers’ is a truly great book, but one which I would advise all readers to approach with caution. It is most definitely NOT one for the feint-hearted.

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A Small Revolution in Germany – Philip Hensher

I always look forward to the latest Philip Hensher novel, not least those which are set in Sheffield, a city I love, such as the Booker nominated ‘The Northern Clemency’ and his last, ‘The Friendly Ones’

Mr. Hensher’s latest novel, ‘A Small Revolution in Germany’, is based in Sheffield (the centre of what was once dubbed ‘The Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’) with scenes in East Germany and Berlin and cuts across from the Thatcher years to the current day. In essence it is a meditation on ideals and whether, how and why these principles which have invigorated our teenage years are diluted or discarded with age.

It is 1982 and 15 year old Spike lives with his Civil Servant father and attends the local comprehensive school where his search for meaning brings him in line with a merry band of self styled revolutionaries: Percy Ogden, the outspoken group leader, Tracy Cartwright, who quotes Russian anarchists (“I love, love, love Bakunin … He’s my 1aaaagod”),  Mohammed Ahmed, in flight from a life “among the grocers, the mosque”; Eric Milne, “who had been told by a master that he should take up sprinting, for no other reason than that he was black. Injustice was strong in him.” and James Frinton, son of a pub landlord father and a depressive mother who self-medicates with Eartha Kitt videos. The group soon merges with an older Trotskyite ‘Spartacist League’ and becomes engaged in advancing the revolution through minor acts of civil disobedience. One awakening leads to another and via the League’s meetings in Sheffield’s iconic Park Hill he meets Joaquin, a refugee from Chile, who becomes his lover and lifelong partner.

“From now on I resolved to devote my life to the liberation of the urban proletariat.”

And therein lies the heart of the novel: Spike thoroughly believes these theories and takes them into his future, whereas others – the loudmouths, the protestors, the rest of his group of socialist ‘warriors’ – quickly shed the convictions of their youth, proving Spike’s belief that there is often “so much difference between the espousal of principles and the living of lives”. Percy Ogden has become a journalist,  Kate is a lauded poet, Milne a peer and QC, and James Frinton is Home Secretary and a Tory to boot.

Spike, on the other hand, lives quietly as a lecturer and trying his best to stay true to himself, tested, not least via a trip to East Berlin which tries him both politically and personally, and while Spike is proud to have stayed true to his young self, doubt does creep in: “I had kept my principles. I had remained what I was, a boy.” Have the others simply grown up or have they sold out for power and success? Must principles be extinguished to achieve success? 

Hensher is great on the travails of growing older while staying politically engaged, not least on clashing with modern thought:

‘We are not old farts. We keep up with stuff. We like an argument. We were both expelled from the local LGBT group, as it now calls itself, for shouting at a man in a dress who called himself a lesbian. When the chair told us we had to leave, Joaquin, thinking he might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, punched the man in the dress who called himself a lesbian. He came with his wife; he had told two real lesbians to sit down and shut up. We are now rather the heroes of the real lesbians. Not that they have heroes.’ 

…and watching peers leap-frog into positions for which they hold little merit:

‘Ogden has ‘come out’ in print a year before, saying that the time had come to ‘admit’ that he was homosexual. It was as if he were a criminal in the dock, facing a bundle of new evidence. His standard fare as a columnist was ecological tragedy, predictions of catastrophe when Britain left the European Union, and the urgent need for a new party, occupying the middle ground of UK Politics. It seemed utterly footling to us. Even more absurd were his occasional ventures into sexual politics, taking on the new role, at fifty three, of an undisputed leader of ‘queer politics’ as he called it. We definitely didn’t call it that. This was one of those weeks. It began, ‘It’s time that gay guys like me took the lead, and drive the disease of transphobia from queer politics, where its got no place at all, and never did.’

There is an anger in this book, not at any political position per se (although some might see it as an attack on the left’s romantic belief in revolution) but rather at politics in general and the modern disease of our politicians and commentators believing in nothing but themselves and their individual betterment.

‘A Small Revolution in Germany’ is a thoughtful, intelligent novel which said a lot to me about my generation and what the future might mean for us (I am approximately the same age as Hensher). I would be interested to see how younger people would view it, those who have – for better or worse – grown up in a world dominated by spin and self aggrandisement, and for the simple fact that while the novel spoke to me it isn’t a novel I actually enjoyed, lacking as it does, the quite down-to-earth humanity of my favourite Hensher, ‘The Northern Clemency.’

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This month’s book haul

I so miss bookshops. That lovely mooching and fingering and stumbling across titles you  so desperately want, never even knew existed, or which you never even knew that you desperately wanted. That enticing awareness of so many books, so little time. The sweet,  tobacco-like aroma of second-hand volumes…

The internet is great, of course, and during these times of isolation it’s the only way to get our hands on new tomes…I do still get a thrill when I receive a parcel through the post (something which goes all the way back to my childhood when I got a telegram from my uncle for my birthday) and I get way too excited when I spot something lovely on ebay or direct from a small publishing house (I’ve just ordered a lovely collection by Cathy Sweeney direct from The Stinging Fly in Ireland). But it’s not quite the same is it?

However, at this time pining for bookshops really should be the least of our worries, so lets get on with what I’ve bought this month:

First up is a pair of Muriel Sparks to add to my collection. I am most thrilled by the copy of ‘The Ballad of Peckham Rye’ which has the most glorious Victor Reinganum cover. This is one of Spark’s earlier novels, from 1960, while the other, ‘Reality and Dreams’ is one of her last, from 1996.

Next up is the return of an old favourite, Evie Wyld, with ‘The Bass Rock’. I loved her first two novels, ‘After the fire, a still small voice’ and ‘All the Birds, Singing’ so this should be a treat. Olivia Laing’s first novel, ‘Crudo’ I found disappointing, but I hope her collection of essays – ‘Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency’ – will be more enlightening. It contains stuff on Derek Jarman and Ali Smith, which is a good start and I’ve just noticed an interview with Chantal Joffe, whose work excited me a while ago and about whom I know nothing.

Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Thousand Moons’ is the sequel to his much-loved ‘Days Without End’, which concerned the story of two young soldiers in the US Army of 1850 and their adoption of a young native-Indian girl. I still haven’t read my copy of that prequel, so this may have to wait awhile until I catch up!

Another book which has had rave reviews is Maggie O’Farrell’s ‘Hamnet’:

On a summer’s day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is 1pnobody at home? Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London. Neither parent knows that one of the children will not survive the week.

Hamnet is a novel inspired by the son of a famous playwright. It is a story of the bond between twins, and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief. It is also the story of a kestrel and its mistress; a flea that boards a ship in Alexandria; and a glovemaker’s son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves. Above all, it is a tender and unforgettable reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written.

I started this last night and, so far it IS great.

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