Confessions of Another Common Reader

Josephine Tey – The Franchise Affair


Although hopelessly drawn to print in its many forms, I count the Guardian Review as one of the most potent drugs in my personal pantheon of addiction. As well as engrossing me for an hour or so every weekend when I could be actually shrinking the tottering stacks, I frequently come away from an issue with several more books on my list.

It was under the Grauniad’s insidious influence that The Franchise Affair made its appearance on my TBR list: Sarah Waters provided a long piece describing it as a key influence on her Booker-shortlisted The Little Stranger (warning: don’t read her piece until after you’ve read the book as it does CONTAIN SPOILERS). Despite owning a couple of her books, I’ve still never read any of Sarah Waters’ own novels – but the piece was completely compelling as an advert for Josephine Tey.

The copy I read fell into my hands over the summer, as part of a haul from a fabulous house-party in Somerset hosted by a former university room-mate. (Incidentally, I strongly recommend her house to you as a holiday destination, if you can club together enough of a party to make the most of it: it’s available for holiday lets, and it has the most wonderfully capacious and eclectic library). We were only there for a couple of days, so I didn’t manage to read everything on which I laid my grubby little hands, but mine ever-generous hostess graciously allowed me to borrow a few. Enabler.

The Franchise Affair is a fantastic read. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a book that is both so completely of its period and social class – the tea tray in the office, the telephone calls placed via a manual operator at the exchange, the servants – and yet so totally modern (because completely timeless) in its observations of human behaviour.

The story is seen mainly from the perspective of country lawyer Robert Blair. Despite having no interest and little experience in criminal law, being a basically decent human being, he finds himself compelled to go to the aid of the hysterical woman who rings him up late one Friday afternoon. Marion Sharpe is searching for a lawyer to support her as she and her mother are questioned by Scotland Yard in relation to their alleged kidnapping, imprisonment and beating of Betty Kane, a teenager who has been missing from her home for a month. Betty’s account of her captors and her prison seem to match exactly the Sharpes and their remote home, the Franchise – right down to the suitcases in the wardrobe.

I was totally absorbed in the unfolding of the plot: the book is shot through with such clarity of insight into the whole business of reputation, and how quickly it can be torn to shreds, as well as furnishing some clever observations on the nature of criminality. The characters, if perhaps a little clichéd by modern standards, are thoroughly engaging, and it keeps the suspense up for a very respectable portion of the narrative.

Fans of Dorothy L Sayers should love this, as indeed should anyone who has an interest in the minutiae of a particular slice of English society at that time in its history. I gulped it down, and am really looking forward to reading more of Miss Tey in 2010.

On LibraryThing, there are no post titles


For something like 18 months now, I’ve been posting my reading thoughts on LibraryThing’s astonishingly lively 75 Book Challenge group – ‘astonishing’ in that this year, it has attracted more posts than the scifi and fantasy reading groups, who all love to hang out online so very, very much.

I’ve done so because the community is wonderful – great feedback, great conversations, oodles of new book recommendations that I would never have come across otherwise, in part due to the group’s global composition: although it’s dominated by American readers, posters I follow regularly include readers based in New Zealand, Poland and South Africa (I’m just cherry-picking some of my favourites here).

I started this site up years ago with the intention of using it to extend my understanding of the world from both a technical and a verbal perspective. And as you will see, I haven’t posted here for over six months (oh-so-ironically titled ‘Renaissance’), and before that the gap was even longer.

So. I need something to bind myself more firmly to my supposed internet home, and since we can’t have babies together, the next best thing I can offer is my thoughts on what I’m reading.

Unfortunately, I completely suck at copywriting and therefore my post titles will be very poor indeed. Which is something I never had to worry about on the 75 Book Challege.

I’m not planning to abandon my challenge group. But I am going to try out posting my reading thoughts here first and linking back. It will be an interesting experiment… and I will probably fall flat on my face. But I do hope that if I do, you’ll help me up rather than standing over me sniggering. Fingers crossed.

Lorrie Moore: Opposites


Great event at the shop last night. Lorrie Moore read the opening story from her Collected Stories – not as dramatic as Anne Enright, but still lovely to listen to. Great story about Daniel Handler winning an Ebay auction in aid of the First Amendment Project to have a character in her next published work named after him – The New Yorker agreed to it and a seedy Caribbean masseur named Dan Handler duly appeared.

May has been particularly insane, and my pre-event re-reading only managed to take in Self-Help and Birds of America. Like David Lodge, it’s really interesting to see how what I take away from it and what really grabs me has changed over the intervening ten years. Trying to understand what it is that is so special about how she writes, I come to the conclusion that it’s her contradictions.

Having read Birds of America pre-children, the paediatric oncology story chilled rather than engaged me on first reading; 3 babies later, I found it completely heartbreaking, intense, immediate. The naming of the characters (Mother, Husband, Baby) has a peculiar effect, both distancing and grappling closer the reader at one and the same time. The way it recalls the language of children’s stories makes it especially nightmarish: there’s a particular book by Helen Cooper, The Baby Who Wouldn’t Go to Bed, in which the Mother and the Baby are the main characters. I’m sure Moore didn’t have this particular story in mind, but it’s a common device in picture books, and the ghost of those stories hangs over the events of this piece.

In response to an audience question, she spoke at the event about the opposition of comedy and tragedy in her work; in her view, her characters’ discovery of humour in bleak situations captures a common impulse to recovery – “not immediately”, but later; a need to laugh about tragedy in order to begin to heal.

Although sometimes criticised as aphoristic and overly jokey because of her love of wordplay, Moore uses cliché very deliberately in characterisation. Again challenged about her character’s “ready wit”, she argued that humour was a kind of tragedy for these characters. They take refuge in their snappy comebacks and puns, and there is something sad and concealing in the ways in which they deflect attention away from the real issues in the way they use language.

But when she’s not deploying cliché as an aid to characterisation, Moore’s work is astounding in its apparently effortless ability to find new ways of communicating old feelings. She spoke a little about how she feels the short story format in particular lends itself to this kind of writing: discovering something in a very intense manner, staying with its characters for a defined period of time in order to shine a particular kind of spotlight on them. (Although it really made me want to send her a copy of Jon McGregor’s If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things – a novel with not a word wasted that still met all her criteria for a short story). Her metaphors are breathtakingly inventive yet never read as if they have been painfully constructed or sculpted, avoiding the frenzied overwriting that can be exhausting in other very imagistic novels. She conveys the deep essence of experience without needing to lay out the rather more well-worn pebbles that I always seem to pick up.

The first question she was asked (after I’d asked about Dan Handler!) was about where her imagination came from. Everyone has it, was the reply; it’s just that writers set it down and get all the credit. Carry a notebook. Notice things. Take notes.

So I’m trying…. it’s painful, but it’s a start.

How Far Can You Go?


I’ve had to move into temporary accommodation back here (edit: that would be at, despite the dustballs, after my lovely site got hacked to pieces. Not that I was really maintaining it (probably why it got hacked to pieces as I wasn’t paying attention), but I still feel the same sense of violation that someone decided to use it for spamming. Anyway, I’m having some problems rebuilding the site. Since I foolishly signed up last night to Blog a Penguin Classic, and have therefore committed myself to reviewing The Narrative Of Arthur Gordon Pym Of Nantucket within the next six weeks, I thought I’d better have somewhere to write it – and also get back into the swing of writing stuff like this online. Not that I was ever really in it in the first place to get back into it, but that’s beside the point.

On a bit of a David Lodge binge at the moment, in order not to arrive at his event at the London Review Bookshop on Thursday with insufficient recall. Wolfed down The British Museum is Falling Down in the space of 24 hours, which I remembered not at all (even though I’m sure I must have read it before) but enjoyed, and now getting stuck into How Far Can You Go?, which is more interesting with a higher degree of understanding of Catholicism than it was when I first read it at university.

I’m trying not to think about how much all the rereading I’m going to be doing during May (I have to swot up for Lorrie Moore at the end of the month too) is going to set back my progress through my immense backlog of yet-to-be-read books. Still wish I could identify that marvellous essay in the Grauniad Review x years ago about how many hours there are left in one’s life to read books. I’d like to have it etched on my soul.

Some thoughts on identity


My basic problem comes down to the fact that I have fundamentally equal but opposing needs to be both completely unique and special, and to fit in seamlessly.

So, I get down and dispirited about the fact that I am “basically just really weird” – married at 20, a mum twice over at 27, nominally a committed (if denominationally confused) Christian, no real abiding interest in “popular culture”, excited by classical music, the list goes on – and desperately seeking for the place in the puzzle where I fit in nicely; then the next thing I know, I’m despondent about the fact that basically, I’m not particularly special, and in fact many other people have a similar combination of attributes and are doing a helluva lot better than me, despite my supposedly having an army of natural advantages (not least the ability to function on very little sleep, which I think is a must for any mum that needs to do anything besides parent and get through the day job with a moderate degree of competence).

Just discovered via a post linked to by Eric Meyer, and now I feel down about the fact that here is someone with the same setup – two kids, an English degree, an interest in web technology – who has managed to produce a beautiful and interesting site, AND set up on her own, while here I am really only just starting out. Everyone out there seems to have a headstart on me – and I never have been good at competitive sports.

“Just deal with it and move on.”