Thursday, August 22, 2013

{misc.} trains and buttered toast

John Betjeman Trains and Buttered Toast (2006)

Trains and Buttered Toast is my current on-the-go non-fiction book. I haven't actually finished it, but last night I read a chapter that I can't resist mentioning here. The book is a collection of Betjeman's radio talks for the BBC mostly from the 1930s to 1950s. The talks cover a nice range of interests - modern architecture, urban planning, the pleasures of the seaside, churches, famous men and women, wartime life, and so on. It is a lovely book to dip in to, and quite funny in places (his views on modern town-planning are pretty snarky). 

But the chapter which caught my eye was the transcript of a talk called 'Yesterday's Fiction', delivered on the Home Service on Monday 21st August 1944:
Instead of telling you about the best of this week's latest books, because there are so very few being published just now, I am going to review some old favourites. I am going to review some Edwardian novelists - the sort of people who were very popular before the last war.
Of course my ears immediately pricked up at that!
The names I shall mention are probably to be found on the back of a book within three miles, possibly within three yards, of everyone listening this evening who lives in these islands. I shall choose authors who have never produced a wholly bad book and often produced a very good one. And while you are are going away to get a pencil to take down the new names I mention, I will indulge in a short background sketch of Edwardian novelists.
So who does Betjeman rate? First up is Anthony Hope ("top of my list... for consistent high standards") - I do indeed have him on my shelves within three yards (or close!), as I really rate his The Prisoner of Zenda as a classic tale of adventure and chivalry. I have also read the sequel Rupert of Hentzau (Rupert is a very naughty young man indeed), but the rest of Hope's novels have passed me by. Betjeman already notes that only these two seem to be still read, and recommends The King's Mirror and The Dolly Dialogues (the latter he suggests is a combination of Kipling and Wilde!).  

And then - another favourite I want to explore further - George Gissing. His The Odd Women is indeed as Betjeman describes, "a deeply agonizing book". He suggests Gissing's The House of Cobwebs (short-stories) as a taste of something different. 

Next? Someone I've not heard of, but surely some of you keen explorers of lost classics will know the name of the "lighter and totally forgotten author" Miss S. MacNaughton [sic - it is in fact MacNaughtan]. Betjeman tells us he was recommended her books by "Miss Elizabeth Bowen and Miss Rose Macaulay", which is a pretty good recommendation!
Miss MacNaughton specializes in good, kindly people in fairly easy circumstances and her novels have happy and probable endings.
(He suggests A Lame Dog's Diary, available free at project gutenberg; but the one which caught my eye was "The Fortune of Christina McNab, the story of a raw Scottish heiress let loose on smart London society" - that sounds just my cup of tea.) 

Who else?
...Conan Doyle, Booth Tarkington, Leonard Merrick (always good), E. F. Benson (nearly always), N. and A. M. Williamson, Rider Haggard, Stanley Weyman (according to taste), Seton Merriman (often good), 'Q', Somerville and Ross (to me, always good), H. A. Vachell, A. E. W. Mason and many, many more.
Of these, Conan Doyle will likely never be out of favour. I thought Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Amberson's was a good read (I reviewed it here). Benson still has plenty of fans (myself included). I've not read any Rider Haggard for what feels like a century, and really should revisit him. 'Q', of course, was reintroduced to a new generation by 84 Charing Cross Road. The only other one who rings a bell is Mason, with his The Four Feathers (and who knew there'd been what sounds like a ghastly Heath Ledger remake?).

Betjeman notes two other highly recommended reads: Erskine Childers' The Riddle of the Sands as a classic spy story (true: but too much messing about on boats, and anything involving reading maps or train timetables is always wasted on me! - "there has probably never been written so alluring an account of the delights of the amateur yachtsman"); and - unknown to me - Mary Cholmondeley's (I assume that's a "Chumly" pronunciation?) Red Pottage. He adds the rather telling comment that "autobiographical novels are often an author's - and in particular an authoress's - best novel": apparently Red Pottage is "a picture of rectory life and mental cruelty and frustration and stupidity therein among the lush, lovely and uncaring landscape of Shropshire." Oh dear... 

(the Cholmondeley cover is an Arthur Rackham drawing and you can buy it for a mere $1750)

This was a nice little essay, which gave me quite a few ideas for future reading, and I am happy to note that the next chapter is 'Wartime Tastes in Reading', which I hope to find just as useful.

Monday, August 12, 2013

{review} tampa

Alissa Nutting Tampa (2013)


Cover of the year, surely?
I could smell the mint chewing gum on his breath -- he'd indeed prepared himself for a make-out session. Could consent have been any more transparent?
This is a controversial book. Its taboo subject matter has led to some informal banning in Australia; it has also polarized readers with regards to literary merit (is it the new Lolita?), its categorization as 'satire', the narrative value of its relentless sex scenes, and so on. It will not be everyone's cup of tea. 

Yet, if one can enjoy a book despite the repugnant theme of paedophilia that forms its core, then I suspect that the author has pulled off quite a coup. I think Nutting has accomplished a remarkable satiric take on her topic. Even more to be admired, Nutting's work forces the reader to have a really good think about the double standard whereby female desire for pubescent males is considered less morally repugnant (and/or illegal) than that of male desire for pubescent prey: "What that jury saw was a red-blooded American teenage boy asked to repent for nailing a hot blonde. I think our chances are good." {spoiler there, obviously!} 

The protagonist is devastatingly upfront with the reader about her desires and how she will achieve them. Calculating and ruthless, obsessed with youth and her prettiness (her own and her victims': "I had a face that denied excretion"), she is utterly fascinatingly monstrous. She will do anything to achieve her ends, and anything to protect herself from exposure (although, like most narcissists, she never really factors in this exposure - "People who look like me don’t go to jail."):
I also had the fear that with the right photographer, the real me might accidentally be captured -- that in looking at the photo, suddenly everyone's eyes would widen and they'd actually see me for the very first time: Oh my God -- you're a soulless pervert!
She will mold her body into a tool to assist her achieve her ends. She will spend years studying a profession which interests her only as a means to gain access to her prey. As a teacher, her only interest is using her classroom texts (brilliantly apt: Romeo & Juliet, The Scarlet Letter, To Kill a Mockingbird; and she had studied classics at college) to get her class to talk "sex talk veiled behind a thin veneer of literary studies". 

She is absolutely aware that she is a predator: "Nothing would keep me from him."
But I wanted him to know this was certainly out of the ordinary. After a moment of debate, I decided it was worth it. "I don’t even do this with my husband," I added. This wasn’t entirely true of course, but I doubted that saying We do this when I want Ford to feel indebted to me and I've doped myself to the moon on barbiturates would have the same persuasive vigor.
She sees "consent" in any minor gesture; pausing only once to examine if she has gone too far, if her victim was "too out of control — too molested perhaps, his orgasms a seeming consent to acts he didn't fully enjoy."
I knew I'd find it hard to cut the girls in my classes any slack at all, knowing the great generosity life had already gifted them. They were at the very beginning of their sexual lives with no need to hurry -- whenever they were ready, a great range of attractions would be waiting for them, easy and disposable. Their urges would grow up right alongside them like a shadow. They'd never feel their libido a deformed thing to be kept chained up in the attic of their mind and to only be fed in secret after dark.
This is a gung-ho portrayal of total female narcissistic sociopathy. Even her ability to fake empathy is secondary to achieving her goal:
I knew I should produce a look of worry or strain, but habit prevented me from forming any facial expression that might aid in the development of fine lines.
What interested me a lot about this portrayal (which we receive through her own voice) is how few excuses we are offered. There is no aetiology. The abuse card seems absent. What has made her the predator she is today? There is a slight nostalgic element, but that's about it (little family background, for instance). What if there are no excuses? What is clear is her own utter repugnance at sex with anyone older than her ideal, including her hapless husband, a policeman. For him, her extreme efforts to remain youthful have rendered her a perfect trophy wife ("The more I did for Ford's ego publicly, I'd found, the less I had to do to satisfy him privately"); his desires - and her occasional inability to fend him off (to "pillage me... to ruin the landscape") - are controlled with sleeping pills and alcohol.
My real problem with Ford is actually his age. Ford, like the husbands of most women who marry for money, is far too old. Since I'm twenty-six myself, it’s true that he and I are close peers. But thirty-one is roughly seventeen years past my window of sexual interest.
The obvious comparison text to Tampa is Nabokov's Lolita. It might be considered more of an intertext than a comparative text - the verbal 'music' of Nabokov's text is not echoed, for instance, and Tampa is sometimes crushingly obvious ("There was something repulsive (and revealing) about talking on a cell phone while handling garbage. Why did anyone pretend human relationships had value?"), but to appreciate fully Nutting's takedown of another sexual double-standard, Lolita is an essential text. "If you were a teenage male," the commentator began, pointing a leering finger back at the photo, "would you call a sexual experience with her abuse?" 

That one comes to sympathize (to some extent) with this woman and her fears of ageing and becoming sexually unattractive to boys, is also due in no small part to the fact that this book is as funny as it is devastatingly unsettling.
His hands slid up to his face and over the back of his head. "God," he said. His breathing broke into an unusual pattern; for a moment I thought he might cry. "You can see into my bedroom from the street? But it’s so far back on the side..."
In a perfect world, I could've assured him that without binoculars one probably couldn't see inside very well at all, but discretion warranted I keep this detail to myself.
This book raises all sorts of questions, of course, perhaps the most interesting being that of whether satire has any boundaries it cannot cross or any finally definitive taboos that it cannot challenge. Then again, after Lolita, what ground can Nutting retread that could so profoundly and deliberately shock our sensibilities? 

I almost daren't offer an "If you liked this...", but I was reminded of another extremely funny sexual satire upon an unpromising topic - sex work in the office - which I read last year, and which gives a taste of the tone of Tampa, without the paedophilic content: Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods {REVIEW}. It is not, I suspect, a coincidence, that the sex of both of these authors has influenced my tolerant responses.


{READ IN 2018}

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  • 26. The Grave's a Fine & Private Place - Alan Bradley
  • 25. This is What Happened - Mick Herron
  • 24. London Rules - Mick Herron
  • 23. The Third Eye - Ethel Lina White
  • 22. Thrice the Brindled Cat Hath Mewed - Alan Bradley
  • 21. As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust - Alan Bradley
  • 20. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches - Alan Bradley
  • 19. Speaking from Among the Bones - Alan Bradley
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{READ IN 2017}

  • 134. Third Crime Lucky - Anthony Gilbert
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  • 132. Death Against the Clock - Anthony Gilbert
  • 131. Give Death a Name - Anthony Gilbert
  • 130. Riddle of a Lady - Anthony Gilbert
  • 129. And Death Came Too - Anthony Gilbert
  • 128. Snake in the Grass - Anthony Gilbert
  • 127. Footsteps Behind Me - Anthony Gilbert
  • 126. Miss Pinnegar Disappears - Anthony Gilbert
  • 125. Lady-Killer - Anthony Gilbert
  • 124. A Nice Cup of Tea - Anthony Gilbert
  • 123. Die in the Dark - Anthony Gilbert
  • 122. Death in the Wrong Room - Anthony Gilbert
  • 121. The Spinster's Secret - Anthony Gilbert
  • 120. Lift up the Lid - Anthony Gilbert
  • 119. Don't Open the Door - Anthony Gilbert
  • 118. The Black Stage - Anthony Gilbert
  • 117. A Spy for Mr Crook - Anthony Gilbert
  • 116. The Scarlet Button - Anthony Gilbert
  • 115. He Came by Night - Anthony Gilbert
  • 114. Something Nasty in the Woodshed - Anthony Gilbert
  • 113. Death in the Blackout - Anthony Gilbert
  • 112. The Woman in Red - Anthony Gilbert
  • 111. The Vanishing Corpse - Anthony Gilbert
  • 110. London Crimes - Martin Edwards (ed.)
  • 109. The Midnight Line - Anthony Gilbert
  • 108. The Clock in the Hatbox - Anthony Gilbert
  • 107. Dear Dead Woman - Anthony Gilbert
  • 106. The Bell of Death - Anthony Gilbert
  • 105. Treason in my Breast - Anthony Gilbert
  • 104. Murder has no Tongue - Anthony Gilbert
  • 103. The Man who Wasn't There - Anthony Gilbert
  • 102. Murder by Experts - Anthony Gilbert
  • 101. The Perfect Murder Case - Christopher Bush
  • 100. The Plumley Inheritance - Christopher Bush
  • 99. Spy - Bernard Newman
  • 98. Cargo of Eagles - Margery Allingham & Philip Youngman Carter
  • 97. The Mind Readers - Margery Allingham
  • 96. The China Governess - Margery Allingham
  • 95. Hide My Eyes - Margery Allingham
  • 94. The Beckoning Lady - Margery Allingham
  • 93. The Tiger in the Smoke - Margery Allingham
  • 92. More Work for the Undertaker - Margery Allingham
  • 91. Coroner's Pidgin - Margery Allingham
  • 90. Traitor's Purse - Margery Allingham
  • 89. The Fashion in Shrouds - Margery Allingham
  • 88. The Case of the Late Pig - Margery Allingham
  • 87. Dancers in Mourning - Margery Allingham
  • 86. Flowers for the Judge - Margery Allingham
  • 85. Death of a Ghost - Margery Allingham
  • 84. Sweet Danger - Margery Allingham
  • 83. Police at the Funeral - Margery Allingham
  • 82. Look to the Lady - Margery Allingham
  • 81. Mystery Mile - Margery Allingham
  • 80. The Crime at Black Dudley - Margery Allingham
  • 79. The White Cottage Mystery - Margery Allingham
  • 78. Murder Underground - Mavis Doriel Hay
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  • 74. Zero Day - David Baldacci
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  • 69. The Listening Eye - Patricia Wentworth
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  • 67. Out of the Past - Patricia Wentworth
  • 66. Mistress - Amanda Quick
  • 65. The Black Widow - Daniel Silva
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  • 63. The Poet - Michael Connelly
  • 62. The Visitor - Lee Child
  • 61. No Middle Name: The Complete Collected Jack Reacher Stories - Lee Child
  • JUNE
  • 60. The Queen's Accomplice - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 59. Mrs Roosevelt's Confidante - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 58. The PM's Secret Agent - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 57. His Majesty's Hope - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 56. Princess Elizabeth's Spy - Susan Elia MacNeal
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  • 54. A Lesson in Secrets - Jacqueline Winspear
  • 53. Hit & Run - Lawrence Block
  • 52. Hit Parade - Lawrence Block
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  • 49. Triple Quest - E. R. Punshon
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  • 48. Dark is the Clue - E. R. Punshon
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  • 45. The Attending Truth - E. R. Punshon
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  • 42. Spook Street - Mick Herron
  • 41. Real Tigers - Mick Herron
  • 40. Dead Lions - Mick Herron
  • 39. Slow Horses - Mick Herron
  • 38. Everybody Always Tells - E. R. Punshon
  • 37. So Many Doors - E. R. Punshon
  • 36. The Girl with All the Gifts - M. R. Carey
  • 35. A Scream in Soho - John G. Brandon
  • 34. A Murder is Arranged - Basil Thomson
  • 33. The Milliner's Hat Mystery - Basil Thomson
  • 32. Who Killed Stella Pomeroy? - Basil Thomson
  • 31. The Dartmoor Enigma - Basil Thomson
  • 30. The Case of the Dead Diplomat - Basil Thomson
  • 29. The Case of Naomi Clynes - Basil Thomson
  • 28. Richardson Scores Again - Basil Thomson
  • 27. A Deadly Thaw - Sarah Ward
  • 26. The Spy Paramount - E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • 25. The Great Impersonation - E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • 24. Ragdoll - Daniel Cole
  • 23. The Case of Sir Adam Braid - Molly Thynne
  • 22. The Ministry of Fear - Graham Greene
  • 21. The Draycott Murder Mystery - Molly Thynne
  • 20. The Murder on the Enriqueta - Molly Thynne
  • 19. The Nowhere Man - Gregg Hurwitz
  • 18. He Dies and Makes No Sign - Molly Thynne
  • 17. Death in the Dentist's Chair - Molly Thynne
  • 16. The Crime at the 'Noah's Ark' - Molly Thynne
  • 15. Harriet the Spy - Louise Fitzhugh
  • 14. Night School - Lee Child
  • 13. The Dancing Bear - Frances Faviell
  • 12. The Reluctant Cannibals - Ian Flitcroft
  • 11. Fear Stalks the Village - Ethel Lina White
  • 10. The Plot - Irving Wallace
  • 9. Understood Betsy - Dorothy Canfield Fisher
  • 8. Give the Devil his Due - Sulari Gentill
  • 7. A Murder Unmentioned - Sulari Gentill
  • 6. Dead Until Dark - Charlaine Harris
  • 5. Gentlemen Formerly Dressed - Sulari Gentill
  • 4. While She Sleeps - Ethel Lina White
  • 3. A Chelsea Concerto - Frances Faviell
  • 2. Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul - H. G. Wells
  • 1. Heft - Liz Moore
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