T is for Tony Parsons

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I chickened out with my T this week – it was meant to be Thomas Hardy but I had a flick through Jude the Obscure, carried it around for a couple of days and then decided to read Tony Parsons’ My Favourite Wife instead. I will read Thomas Hardy, but I think it’ll take me a bit longer than a week to do it, and I wanted to read it under less tense conditions. I might start off with Far from the Madding Crowd or Tess of the D’Urbervilles anyway.

I’ve read most of Tony Parsons’ books before (you know, the ones with Darth Vader on the cover) and to be honest, they’re nearly instantly forgettable. I know I’ve read all of the Man and boy type ones, but when I read the synopses on the back I didn’t remember anything about them.

He’s got an obsession with Japan and the East which borders on unsettling, and induces a kind of impatience in me where I end up thinking “if it’s so good, then why don’t you bleedin’ live there”, which is perhaps a bit uncharitable, but there you go. He does have a Japanese wife, and by all accounts he visits a fair amount. Wikipedia comes to the rescue again. Another fun fact I learned was that he was married to Julie Burchill. I cannot stand Julie Burchill – she’s one of those snotty, smug and spiteful feminist journos I try to avoid at all costs. In fact, I was under the impression that her and Cosmo Landesman had had a lesbian-ish love affair all of their lives. I also dislike Cosmo Landesman. I can’t stand condescending film reviews, where they’re all one star unless there’re subtitles.

Anyway, enough about my personal likes and dislikes.

My Favourite Wife is the story of Bill Holden, hot shot London lawyer, who moves to Shangahi with his wife and child, amidst warnings of doom and gloom from family and colleagues alike. For a little while, it looked like the high life was being lived – limos, flowers, servants… As soon as the band of foreigners arrive at Paradise Mansions though, they realise that there are a lot of well dressed young Chinese women who get picked up by older men in nice cars, if you catch my drift. This immediately rankled with me – why would a successful law firm house a young family in a known spot for mistresses? Predictably, Bill falls in love with one of the girls, JinJin Li. Conveniently, his wife and child move back to Britain and she also has an affair/nearly affair, which makes it okay for Bill to have an affair.

This was the biggest problem for me. Perhaps I’m too black and white, perhaps I’m missing the point, but I always find it difficult to feel sorry for philanderers, no matter what their gender, age, circumstances etc. In this instance especially, “My wife doesn’t understand me” is not going to cut it. Bill spends a lot of the book wracked with guilt over his bit on the side, but I found these sections tedious. If he feels that guilty, why can’t he tuck it back in his pants and talk to his wife?

Aside from this, I enjoyed Shanghai as a character of its own (although I was cursed with singing the Ed Harcourt song all the way through the book) and I do want to visit China one day. I was disappointed with the heavy handed clumsiness around the sections dealing with factory workers in China, and the sheer difference between the rich and the poor. It was the equivalent of being poked in the face with a sharp stick: “See how bad you are, all you westerners with your money and your penchant for Gap jumpers, you’re killing the children and the country’s flooding and you’re up there in your ivory tower”. Like seeing adverts about African children – it makes me switch off. Unless there are starving puppies involved, then I weep like a little girl with a skinned knee.

Read My Favourite Wife if you can sympathise with adulterers, appreciate a clear message and aren’t looking for something you’ll remember in a week.

Next week I’m reading Buffalo Gals and other Animal Presences, by Ursula le Guin. Guess which song I’ll have in my head.

S is for Steve Martin

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My S is for Steve Martin. Yes, that Steve Martin. He of Planes, Trains and Automobiles and The Jerk fame. According to the internet he’s written no less than three, which I thought was pretty impressive, probably more so because I’d only heard of Shopgirl. Of course, this will come as no surprise to Steve Martin fans, who will know that he’s written a lot of scripts, including Three Amigos and The Man with two brains. (Thank you, imdb)

Shopgirl is the story of Mirabelle, a girl who works in the glove section of a department store in Los Angeles. She keeps herself to herself, although her inner monologue reveals someone who wishes she could create and maintain the kind of relationships she sees everyone around her having. Her friends appear to be disinterested, even cold, as they constantly forget about her. They even neglect her on Thanksgiving, after they made plans. I felt sorry for her, but it’s difficult to know how much is the way she portrays it, simply because it’s told from her point of view.

However, there’s a strong sense, from my point of view anyway, that she could make her life better by just being ‘normal’. This is probably not as sympathetic as I could be, considering the girl’s on heavy duty anti-depressants, but I couldn’t help feeling that a short, sharp “buck up” would have helped.

Mirabelle gets involved in a relationship with an older man called Ray Porter, who I predictbly envisioned as Steve Martin. He’s described as trim, graying and rich. He’s also besotted with Mirabelle, which makes for interesting reading. Martin is able to write from a woman’s point of view with apparent ease – none of Mirabelle’s thoughts jarred with me and I even identified with some of them. One criticism of the tone is that there wasn’t enough difference between Mirabelle’s internakl dialogue, and Ray’s. Perhaps this was a deliberate attempt at showing the reader how similar they were internally. Maybe it was to show that everyone feels like Mirabelle, on the inside, at least. The other possibility, of course, is that Steve Martin isn’t particularly good at changing tone for his characters.

If I had to describe the overall tone of the book in one word it would be: wistful. There’s a sense of loss, of missed opportunities and faded memories throughout the book from all of the characters, which I found hard to shake off once I’d finished. This, by the way, did not take me long – it’s a slip of a thing at barely 160 pages long. Despite it’s brevity, I don’t think the plot suffered.

I have to say; perhaps because I imagined Ray Porter as Steve Martin, I found the matter of fact sex scenes slightly uncomfortable. Ray’s basically innocent daydreams of a square inch of Mirabelle’s skin, glimpsed through a gap in her blouse, didn’t sit as well as they could have done when Inspector Clouseau’s narrating. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t disgusting or anything, but I definitely found the odd use of profanities, especuially sexual ones, more shocking coming from Steve Martin’s mouth.

Shopgirl wasn’t all doom and gloom – there were darkly comic bits too. Mirabelle has a cat which lives under her sofa, as it’s too shy to come out. The conversations between Ray and Mirabelle are comical too, as they’re an exaggerated version of chats that men and women have been having for centuries, where neither party gets the message properly.

I suppose one of the main questions that Shopgirl asked of me was: should she be pitied for her loneliness or envied for her independence? I would be inclined to say that she pitied herself for her loneliness, and this pity prevented her from seeing the good in her independence, and crippled her socially so she could not forge new relationships.

As you may know, there’s a film version of Shopgirl, which may well be another reason I identified Steve Martin as Ray Porter. I actually haven’t seen it yet, but I’d probably say that it’s worth taking a couple of hours more to read the book first, and then watch the film.

R is for Roald Dahl

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This week I read the double whammy of “Boy” and “Going Solo”, in one volume. I read this countless times when I was younger, so it was very familiar.
Boy tells Dahl’s story from birth to the end of school, when he was 18 and went to work for the Shell Oil company. Going Solo continues directly on from Boy, when Dahl ships off to Africa to work for Shell, all he way through until the end of WWII.
Roald Dahl writes brilliantly. I’ve read a large number of his books, for children and adults, and his writing is compelling whatever he’s talking about. His stories always have a touch of magic in them, from Matilda to his adult short stories. In his autobiographies he applies the same approach – his anecdotes, especially his schooldays ones, tell tales of dead mice and grim headmasters – characters you can recognise from his fiction.
The best books are ones that can take you anywhere. In both of the books, his easy and descriptive prose transports you to wherever he is – swimming in the fjords of Norway, getting caned at school or flying fighter planes in WWII – the reader is right with him, all the way through.
Reading it again, probably more than ten years later, there are things I noticed for the first time. One is the lack of love interests, throughout both books. The next is the difference in writing between Boy and Going Solo – -the first is definitely written for a younger audience, while the second, which tells of snakes and lions and crashing in the desert, is aimed at an older audience. Both are accessible and friendly enough to not alienate either demographic.
If you like Roald Dahl and you haven’t read these, I recommend them. I have a copy which has them both in if you’d like a borrow…

Next week I shall be reading “Shopgirl” by Steve Martin.

Q is for Quentin Crisp

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The Q is Quentin Crisp and his autobiography, “The Naked Civil Servant”.
Quentin Crisp recounts the hardship of being a flamboyantly gay man in 1920s London, while carving out a living by writing, life modelling and designing adverts.
There were major two problems with this, the first being that I found it hard to relate to his situation, as I am neither male nor gay. Of course, I can empathise, but not easily for a couple of hundred pages. The other problem was that the structure was very close to George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London” – both are poor and in London, basically. Comparing Crisp with Orwell’s writing means that Crisp loses, unfortunately.
The parts about his appearance were interesting, but he writes himself as so self-involved that the rest of the characters are sketchy, pale – see through. There’s barely a mention of his parents or any other family, and certainly no love interests. Crisp stumbles through fifty years of his life, describing it as a struggle and declaring himself to be largely useless. Based on his fame, this is either modesty or negative capability taken to the extreme.
Crisp has a gift for the one liner that’s reminiscent of Wilde, and these made the book bearable. One that stuck out for me came near the end: “an autobiography is an obituary in serial form with the last instalment missing”. This seemed fitting for him – he can’t even complete his autobiography, by his logic at least.

P is for Peter Falk

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My P is Peter Falk’s “Just One More Thing”, his autobiography.
I’ll bet everyone knows this already, but in case you don’t, Peter Falk is an actor who’s most familiar as Columbo, the bumbling detective. As I learned in the book, he’s also an accomplished film actor and started out in theatre. Oh, and you can’t forget ‘Grandpa’ in “The Princess Bride”, obviously.
The book is quite short, and it’s written very conversationally. In the opening chapter, Falk informs the reader that he doesn’t really get on with long books which have long chapters, so his is full of anecdotes which are perfect for reading just before bed. This was a nice touch, and definitely came in useful before bed when I was too tired to concentrate for longer than ten minutes.
The downside to this is that the colloquialisms became a bit repetitve, but he’s evidently such a nice man, you can forgive him for that.
Apart from the repetition, the anecdotes are fascinating. Falk reveals lots of juicy details about directors, actors and the role of Columbo, like when he talks about “The Godfather”. At the time, he was getting a lot of gangster roles, so he was sent the script for “The Godfather”. The way he tells it, the part that he was marked for didn’t have enough meat on it, so he passed.
That’s the next thing. With autobiographies, you take the author’s word for it. In every single action or story in life, there are three sides – yours, theirs and the truth. It’s not necessarily that you (or they) are lying, it’s just that everyone tells it differently, and that’s what makes autobiographies interesting.
Reading this made the recent news that he has
Alzheimer’s (although this is unconfirmed by the man himself) all the more poignant. Wikipedia lists his birth year of 1927, which is pretty amazing.
This is a nice, light read and is written so comfortably that you can almost imagine being in the Fred Savage position – having your Grandpa read his stories to you.

O is for Oscar Wilde

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So for O I read Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray”.
I’ve read half of this before, when I was at uni, but never go to finish it. To be honest, I struggled through this. The story is too familiar to be surprising, and not engaging enough to be interesting.
For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure: The Picture of Dorian Gray tells the tale of a man who makes a bargain that changes his whole life. An artist paints his portrait – a beautiful moment captured in oil, at the height of Dorian’s perfection. Wilde conveys his Adonis-like stature well – the description is all broad brush strokes, leaving the reader free to fill in the detail for themselves. When Dorian sees the finished portrait, he immediately laments the inevitable loss of his youth and strength, which becomes the bargain, where the painting grows old but Dorian does not.
I like Oscar Wilde, I like that his blue plaque on his childhood home in Dublin has “Poet. Dramatist. Wit” on it I would like to be a Wit. I think the book suffered for being read in a week, though. In a week the quirks and phrases of a writer are amplified more than they would be if you read it in a month, and, just as if you spend a lot of time with someone, these quirks begin to grate.
Obviously, Oscar Wilde was a gay man who wrote in the 18th century, so girl power isn’t going to be prevalent. There’re only so many references and flip judgements about how women are only useful when they’re not thinking or speaking, before it gets tedious. Good writing should surpass time and society constraints, but there are other things missing from the story.
Character-wise, I found Dorian to be a compelling person, but I also found that Wilde didn’t paint him as deeply as he could have. Although the book spans decades of his life, the sense of time isn’t there. Dorian’s meant to afflicted by immoral urges, which show on his painting, but the instances of these, although shocking, are few and far between. It felt to me like an abridged version, as if it should have been a play instead, where the gaps could have been filled in with meaningful looks and pregnant pauses.
One aspect I did find interesting was the idea that the painting was the visual representation of Dorian’s soul – not just the place where his wrinkles go. For each mean spirited action or thought, there is a marker on the painting. It made me wonder what my own Dorian Gray portrait would look like. Maybe I would regret it if I did see it.