Thursday, 27 August 2009

I read some books

I keep reading things and meaning to blog about them, and then reading some more, so that the list of things to blog about gets longer and longer. I think I will do them a few at a time instead.

The Blackest Streets by Sarah Wise

Very interesting but startling book about a particular slum in London in the nineteenth century. It contains some extraordinary testimony given in the 70s by an old man who grew up there as a child. He lived with his parents, three older siblings, and later one younger as well, in a twelve-foot by ten-foot room in which they also carried on the family trade of breeding and training terriers. They paid three shillings a week for the room. His father sometimes got casual work at a local pub where he was paid two shillings for an eighteen-hour day. The poverty line for a family with three children was reckoned at the time to be eighteen to twenty-one shillings per week. This man's older sister was in charge of cooking the family's meals and doing other housework from the age of six, so that his mother was not interrupted in her home piece-work of making matchboxes for Bryant and May. The main emphasis of the book is on the various well-meaning but doomed attempts of people to sort all this out. It's interesting to see how different interpretations of Darwin's writings led to hugely different attitudes to the slum dwellers. In the end it was all knocked down, and the evictees couldn't afford the new, nicer housing built there.

The Rain Before It Falls by Jonathan Coe
I love all Jonathan Coe's books. His What a Carve Up! must be the defining book of the Britain I grew up in. This one is very different from the others, being basically about mother-daughter relationships. It quite blew me away, for two reasons 1) it's seriously good 2) it has all the ingredients of a Richard and Judy success, without compromising being seriously good. Why wasn't it more famous? A book with that sort of honest emotional core, but extremely well written, is a very rare thing indeed. Why wasn't it unavoidable, like Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture (than which it is certainly better)? Odd. I was sat on a packed train to Devon with a box of rats on my knee when I finished it, sat next to a woman who works as a an editor for Penguin. We had quite an interesting conversation about it. (You tend to end up talking to strangers more when you're in a packed train to the West Country with a box of rats on your knee.)

The Savage Detectives by Roberto BolaƱo
Sometimes while I was reading this I thought wow this is very good. At other times I just thought it was very long. It's about a school of young Mexican poets who call themselves the visceral realists. I think it's a very good book but I am oddly uncertain about that. It was a bit like eating something with a flavour so delicate that a lot of the time you just miss it. Anyway, it might well be one of those books which you find yourself thinking about long after the event, so that a year or two later you reread it and get more from it. I suppose the best bits were the descriptions of things actually happening, which at times were viscerally real. I think the author was a very clever man who may have done this on purpose.

Anyway because I've been having trouble finding reliably good stuff to read I have decided to do some rereading. I had one of those great anti-FML moments last night: at half past eight in the evening I decided I wanted to buy a copy of The Brothers Karamazov, mine being lost in packing; before nine pm I was sat reading the book with one rat dozing on my lap while two more chased around my feet. Hurray! Good books and rats are the secret to happiness.

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