Sunday, 28 March 2010

A bookshelf at blogtime (featuring two ghost stories and a photograph)

Since I last posted about reading I've actually, somehow, managed to read three books.

I was supposed next to be reading a bit of escapism, Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella.

But then it was the beginning of March, I was signed up to the Secret Post Club, and my recipient, Nualacharlie, was (and is) an amazing photographer with a passion for books.  So I knew I had to send her The Photograph, by Penelope Lively.  The thing is, though, I hadn't actually read it myself.  I've read other books by Penelope Lively, but I only know about this one because of an article by Jane Shilling that I printed out from The Times (pause for brief intake of horrified breath at the concept of paying for an online newspaper... there goes my Times reading) in 2003 and have had, preserved inside one of my photo albums, ever since because I was so struck by what she said about photographs and memory, and the way in which we construct our memories from photographs.  I always think that my first memory is of going swimming with my parents. I was wearing a green swimming costume.  But it's not. I don't remember that at all. I've just seen a picture of it.  A fact I'd forgotten until I found the photograph a couple of years ago.

Anyway, as I say, it seemed like the perfect book for NualaCharlie, and I was delighted when I bought it.  But then there it lay, all new, with an unbroken spine and that wonderful smell of new book.  So,  (with big apologies to her) I read it.  I couldn't not, really.  But I was very careful not to break the spine.

And here's an awful admission.  I can't really remember it, even though I only read it at the beginning of the month.  I fell back into my old ways, devouring it so as to have finished it before I had to put it in the post.  I remember pausing to enjoy phrases, and re-reading pages because I loved the images she conjured up. I remember a feeling of melancholy, but not of sadness.  Of wistfulness and of waste.  But I can't remember any of those phrases or images.

Also, Jane Shilling had ruined it for me by telling me what the end was. 

So after that, I was back to where I had started, with Twenties Girl.  I've enjoyed lots of Sophie Kinsella's books before (although not the Shopaholic series which I find immensely irritating) and this one was no different.  But in reading it I realised (with apologies to Ms Lively) that my proper reading is paying off. I found the way she wrote, and in particular the complete lack of self-awareness of her main character (which might have been deliberate, but which has struck me before about her characters so I suspect it isn't, unless she really intends them all to be the same) niggled at me, like the label on a new top where it digs into your neck. 

That said, I did enjoy it: Lara's life is not going at all well until she starts being haunted, in an utterly benign way, by the ghost of her 105-year-old Great-Aunt.  Various pitfalls ensue, but Lara ends up (and honestly, I'm not ruining this for you, it's pretty obvious what's going to happen) a lot happer and more sorted:  job, man and life all firmly back on track.

It's silly stuff but it struck a chord with me, if only because of my own amazing Great Aunt, who died nearly three years ago now about a month before her 100th birthday.  I don't know if amazing twenties Great Aunts are more common than I realise, or if Sophie Kinsella is actually a pseudonym my sister is using, but she could have been talking about the wonderful woman I knew and loved.  There's another post in me I think all about the glamorous Miss Schofield, but you couldn't not love a woman who turned Douglas Fairbanks down and got bought a car by Ernest Kleinwort (of Kleinwort Benson) ("but I didn't fancy him darling.  I just liked the car").  Who loved dancing at the 51 club ("Do you go, darling?") and who used to leave her little dog with the hat-check girl while she did so...

My next book was supposed to be Wolf Hall, but I left it at home when I went to my University reunion last week and so had to buy a new book at Kings Cross in a panic of ohmygoodnessIhaven'tgotabookwithmewhatwillIdoifIneedtoreadsomething?????  Which actually turned out to be a good thing after our train got enormously delayed on the way back to London on Sunday.  The book I bought was The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.  It was a rather good choice after the Sophie Kinsella, because this too is a ghost story, but this time it's the sort that you have to read with the lights on, and which you have to stop reading at eight o'clock every night so that you will sleep and not see mysterious black marks appearing on your walls, or hear childish footsteps pattering up the stairs (actually that last happens whether I've been reading ghost stories or not).

I was terrified.  It starts so benignly and ordinarily and the tension is slowly and imperceptibly increased until you're jumping at anything and the black smudges of the printers ink accidentally left on page 196 start to look anything but accidental.

But it's not just a things that go bump in the night story. I found the ending fascinating - and would be fascinated to know what others think -  because she avoids the temptation of a glib explanation and instead left me wondering which of several possibilities was the real truth.  So much so that I have now re-read the last twenty pages three times, and each time come away with a different answer.  It's also a fascinating meditation on class.  Not only on the impossibility of the old-style landed gentry surviving unchanged in the modern post-war world, but also on the way in which old attitudes and old senses of the fixed and unchanging nature of one's place in the hierarchy linger on. Like so many unresting souls.

Next up? Wolf Hall.  I have heard both good and bad things, and I don't have a good history of agreeing with the Booker judges so we'll see.


  1. I like this book at blogtime idea - nice to get some fresh ideas about books. I like the idea behind the Penelope Lively book, may have a look at that.
    What have I been reading? A friend lent me the third in the Sheila Hancock autobiography which I enjoyed so I must now try to go backwards and read the others.
    I've now started on a new Douglas Kennedy, "Leaving the World". I've read a couple of his and there is always a spark of intelligence in his writing which lifts it from the usual forgettable fiction.

  2. Ooh. I haven't read any of Sheila Hancock's autobiography, and although I'm normally more of a fiction than a non-fiction girl, I think she's amazing (as was John Thaw) so I could be tempted. Haven't heard of Douglas Kennedy at all either, so another one that I will have to discover in due course. Thank you!

  3. Currently reading Wolf Hall so be interested to see what you think of it

  4. Excellent! We can compare notes. I am loving it so far...


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