Wednesday 28 December 2022

Top Ten Books of 2022 (Numbers 10-6)

 It’s that time of year again, time to count the top ten books of the year. I’ve read around 100 books this year and I enjoyed most of them but the best books shone brightly, making it an easy choice.

If you want to see if you’ve read what I’ve read, here’s the list.

I’ve also been naughty and bought too many books and here’s that list.

In at 10

The Belly of Paris - Emile Zola

I wrote about The Belly of Paris here. I’ve read quite a few French books over the year, many of them were depressing and money-obsessed, though very engrossing reads. (As an aside, my big take away from Les Miserables is that it’s not about misery but about hope. It’s also let down by sheer size, the great parts get swallowed up by all the other parts, good or not).

The Belly of Paris contained some elements of joy, a sheer ebullience of detail, a frothing cornucopia of food that ferments as the book continues. The first chapter, in Les Halles Market, with the dew soaked fruit and vegetables piled up in the early morning gloom is beautifully evocative and the last line is a wonderfully sardonic joke.

At number 9

Hermsprong - Robert Bage

I shall shortly review this book. As a spoiler, it’s far more entertaining than it suggested itself to be, a sitcom more than a satire. The character of Hermsprong himself might be a bit dull but his impact on those around him is very funny.

Number 8

I’m The King of the Castle - Susan Hill

I’ve read two Susan Hill books before, The Woman in Black and The Small Hand, both of them ghost stories. I’m the King of the Castle is far more haunting.

The Hoopers, father and son, live in a gloomy house in the country. Mr Hooper invites the widow, Mrs Kingshaw to be his housekeeper, though he’s hoping a relationship might come from it. She brings her son, the same age as Mr Hooper’s and they two single parents expect their sons will hit it off and become friends. That’s not exactly what happens.

Immediately, the strange and petulant Hooper send Kingshaw a note to inform him that he’s not welcome. He’s boastful and bullying, insisting on his mastery of the house over Kingshaw. When he discovers some of Kingshaw’s fears, he makes use of them, locking him in the room of dead insects and putting a stuffed crow in his bed. What’s impressive is that although Kingshaw is scared, and he grows to be very scared of Hooper, he fights back occasionally but, more impressively, doesn’t.

Kingshaw decides to run away and goes into the deep wood, Hooper follows him. In the wood, the roles are reversed, Kingshaw finds himself far more competent than Hooper, he also finds himself braver. When a thunderstorm hits the wood, Hooper wets himself in fear, but soon after, he’s trying to assert himself again. It’s a brilliant depiction of a bully, Hooper is scared of many things but at the times he isn’t filled with fear, he is on the attack. Kingshaw shows that he is a better person, helping Hooper when he bashes his head when trying to fish. There was a point when I thought the rest of the book would take place in the wood and it would have been an interesting book if it had. However, I think it was a better book to save them from the wood and show how quick the status quo resumes.

There’s a chapter later in the book which actually takes place in the ruins of the castle. Again, it showed Kingshaw’s decency and the fear that drives Hooper’s actions. 

The boy’s war of attrition is contrasted with the growing romance of the single parents. Their actions also show how little they actually observe their children and their decision to become a family is the final push into tragedy. A tragedy that Hooper responds with ‘a spurt of triumph’.

This book is a chilling look at the a bully/bullied relationship, the weakness that drives the bully and the helplessness of being bullied. Forget ghosts, the real chills come from the people.

Number 7

Memoirs of the Formosan Fraud - George Psalmanazar

I’ve written about this book not only one part, not only two but three.

I found George Psalmanazar fascinating and I was so excited to hear him in his own words. I got more than I expected. Not only did I get to find out the strange and thrilling story of a man from France who pretends to be Taiwanese and, for a time, succeeds; I also got a wonderful account of what it was like being a hardworking denizen of Grub Street. It’s possibly the fullest account of that hack life that I’ve read and it was a great bonus.

Number 6

The Chase - Louisa May Alcott

Little Women was my favourite book the year I read it but it was interesting to find out that Louisa May Alcott thought it boring. She was more into her racier novels and when asked to write one for serialisation she wrote A Long, Fatal Love Chase, which was deemed ‘too sensational’ for publication. My copy, published in 1995 is more simply (and less spoilery) titled The Chase.

Eighteen-Year-Old Rosamund Vivien declares that she’s sell her soul to Satan for a year of fun and then essentially does just that, becoming the bride of Phillip Tempest, a sexy man in his mid-thirties who arrives at her island home on a boat and in a storm. She’s swept away by him and they have a glorious year together before she starts seeing cracks in his facade (other than the fact he’s always boasting about how evil he is). Realising her marriage is a fake and her not-husband is a murderer she runs away and he chases her, ending in a grand climax which proves fatal - the spoiler was in the title, or indeed in the vision he tells her in the second chapter.

The fun in this book comes from the whole ‘dun-dun-dunnnnn!!’ level of goofy the book frequently provides. Our first overtly evil action of Phillip is in the one chapter which we spend away from Rosamund, where he murders a man with a heart condition by making his take extreme exercise and then making him go in a stuffy church. The pattern of the book is that Rosamund does something fairly Loony Tunes (like crossdress or hide in a basket) to escape Phillip and he does something equally Loony Tunes (like crossdress or bribe a priest) to find her again. When he suddenly turns up, it’s handled as a cliffhanger of a cheap soap, a moment of shock but also a moment of lust. It’s not directly in the text but there’s a dual ‘oh-no’ and ‘hubba-hubba’ element to his reappearances - at least for the first few. After a while the reaction becomes a little more ‘oh, you again’ but the book ups the ante shortly after and ends with the cheesiest statement of possessive love I’ve ever read. This would make a wonderfully cheesy mini-series.

I principally enjoyed the book for the inventive escapes and captures and to laugh during the over-the-top moments, but I’m sure I was laughing with this book rather than at it. The heightened nature of it all invites a playful approach to the text and it certainly provided me with a lot of entertainment which is the core purpose of commercial, serialised fiction. 

Next week I shall count down 5-1

Wednesday 21 December 2022

Review: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potocki

 The Manuscript Found in Saragossa is one of the most difficult books to describe when asked what it's about. Far easier is it to describe what it’s doing, a character goes about and meets people who tell him their stories, and in their stories are people who tell them stories, and in those stories there are people that tell stories until it’s a big nested set of stories in stories in stories. Though people tend to look a bit confused when you explain that, so you explain the author was a Polish count who killed himself with a silver bullet because he thought he was becoming a werewolf - that tends to end the conversation.

The frame story itself is far more interesting than I expected. Beyond the outer frame of a French soldier finding the manuscript in an abandoned house in Saragossa, the inner frame of Alphonse, the Walloon officer is fascinating in itself. The blurb seemed to suggest that Alphonse was stuck in an inn and would listen to the stories there, rather like The Decameron or a static Canterbury Tales, instead it’s a whole peculiar adventure in itself.

If anything Alphonse’s story reminded me (at first) of the first book of Don Quixote. Not only is Alphonse a fairly quixotic character himself, dedicated to a specific military form of honour but he wanders the Sierra Morena and gets into scrapes. Not only that, but the interpolated stories in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa are structurally similar to Don Quixote. They have a very different tone though, gothic with hints of demons and supernatural goings on. The beginning is almost structured like a nightmare, with Alphonse trying to get as far away from the gibbet as possible but always waking up underneath it.

What’s more, the gothic/supernatural elements are quite extreme. At one point it is heavily suggested that Alphonse has partaken in an incestual, diabolic, necrophiliac, gay threesome and that numerous other characters may have done also. Being a fan of the gothic, particularly the more outrĂ© versions of it, I was fascinated by these sections and was really keen to know what was going on, who were the mysterious Emina and Zubeida and what was the deal of the Great Sheikh of the Gomelez.

In the early parts, I particularly liked the character of Pacheco. He had been visited by the possible succubi who had led him to devils. One of these devils had pulled his eye out and “darted his burning tongue in my eye socket and licked my brain” before ripping his leg open and playing the tendons like a guitar. My favourite thing about him is how he lurched about, an Igor like figure until the hermit commanded him in the name of his saviour to speak and then he let out a howl of pain before telling his story in a cultured and straightforward manner - it’s like a Mel Brooks joke.

Alphonse meets other characters; a cabbalist and his cabbalist sister, a man who sees the whole world through mathematics who annoys the other characters with his pedantry, and a Gypsy Chief. This Gypsy is the main source of stories through the middle and into the end of the book, with the people in his stories often telling stories also (and those in them, and those in them). The nature of the stories then change, veering away from the uncanny. The Gypsy’s own story is a classic bildungsroman, he finds himself in many stations in life, takes on many identities and sees his society from top to bottom as he grows older. Unlike many figures in these sorts of stories, he even spends some time as a young lady when he swaps with a woman who is not interested in her suitor. This is drawn right up to the line and I almost thought he’d end up being married. He even repeats the crossdressing act a little later.

The stories the Gypsy collects are largely amatory tales and amatory farces. Chief among these is the story of a merchant’s son who falls in love but is constantly thwarted by the ‘help’ of a meddling idiot called Busqueros. This character is probably the one who changes the most in the book as he is met by other characters in the stories in stories at different points. I suppose most of the people we ‘meet’ in the book are largely at the end of their story but Busqueros, never actually being met is always in a state of change. He changes from being a meddling idiot to a grade A creep, describing his childhood as a peeping Tom, a habit he continues into adulthood. As the stories then take a turn away from the romantic and towards the political, he becomes a spy and the chief antagonist of those within the story of the story.

The introduction to the book by the translator, Ian Maclean is really good, especially because it doesn’t spoil any of the surprises in the book but it does say the ending falls a little flat with most people. It did with me as well. All the exciting, peculiar gothic stuff at the beginning of the book was orchestrated as a set of trials to test Alphonse’s suitability to father the heirs to the Grand Sheikh of the Gomelez, a (literal) underground society of shiite muslims. There were no succubi or demons and my boy Pacheco was a circus performer playing a part. Maclean suggested in his introduction that Potocki had changed his mind about the tone and veered into something more grounded, but I actually think the reveal is consistently set up.

After the introduction of the Gypsy Chief, the stories do become less supernatural and the supernatural occurrences in all of them are eventually explained away. Busqueros poking is head in a window is mistaken for a ghost and the ‘dead’ Leonora is a fake out. Most telling was the story of the Knight of Torres. He was a playboy who didn’t worry about purgatory until his friend told him he was going to a duel and if he died would confirm or deny purgatory to him. That night, the Knight hears a sound outside his window, flings it open and calls to the air if his friend is dead. A voice replies in the affirmative. He then asks it if there is a purgatory and the voice again replies ‘yes’. It’s over a hundred pages later when we get the story of Lope Soarez, who climbs up a ladder to see his love, gets the wrong window, is knocked out by a flung shutter and dazedly answers ‘yes’ to the questions he’s asked. This story establishes that even earlier supernatural stories in the book have daft but worldly reasons. As such, the second half of the book builds a slow disenchantment which sets up the ending. The book is set in a world in which people go to fantastical lengths to reach their goals but there’s no hocus pocus.

This is a fascinating and unique book and I recommend it to anyone prepared to put the effort in. While I certainly preferred the stranger first half to the more grounded second, and I did think the book hit a bit of a rut for a while, it’s worth reading and will probably be worth re-reading.

Wednesday 14 December 2022

Johnson's Selected Essays at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

On Tuesday 6th of December, the Dr Johnson Reading Circle met to discuss Johnson’s essays, chosen from Penguins Selected Essays. There were ten essays, four from The Rambler and three from The Adventurer and The Idler, with the first nine written while he was in residence at Gough Square. The topics ranged from literary discussion, Johnson’s interest in biography, musing about grief, and the nature of beginnings and endings. 

First, we talked about the physical nature of the essays. That The Rambler and The Adventurer were single sheets, bought cheaply or subscribed to by public places like coffee houses. They were intended as quick reads, to prompt thought and discussion, with an estimated circulation of about five hundred. The Idler was a running column in a larger magazine. Johnson didn’t receive percentages from the sales but sold the copy to the print-seller who could do with the work as they wished.

While not a massive success, collected editions of Rambler pieces, combined with the finished Dictionary were the works that established Johnson’s reputation in the public mind. Boswell was on the hunt to meet Rambler Johnson, not Dictionary Johnson; and Goldsmith, in a piece published before he met Johnson, had him swept to fame for his essays and not his lexicographical work. Even Johnson regarded The Rambler as the truest expression of his works, describing the others as “wine and water” but those essays as “pure wine”. When he showed the early editions to Tetty, she exclaimed;

   “I did not imagine you could have written something equal to this.” A bound copy of The Rambler was his last gift to her, shortly before she died.

Before beginning the first Rambler, Johnson wrote a prayer, hoping for the work to have a positive moral impact and to do good. The first essay comes across a little diffident, shy behind a gruff exterior as Johnson bemoans the difficulty of making a good first impression in as short a work as an essay. He also jokes about how the shortness of the work is a benefit, the reader hasn’t wasted much time in reading it, nor the writer in writing it. The shortness of the essay also meant that the writer could make small experiments, with nothing much lost if those experiments go wrong.

Johnson made use of this benefit, filling his essays with short stories, character sketches, playful rants that could almost be observational comedy, and pretend letters from readers. It’s unfortunate that very little of this can be found in Penguin’s Selected Essays, with David Womersley choosing essays that focus on Johnson the stern moralist, a stentorian voice that reasons from generals to specifics and back out again. Despite that, there was a lot we found universal and recognisable in the essays we did read.

Rambler 23 was about editors and critics. Johnson was obviously getting some helpful comments a few months into his essays about how he should be more like The Spectator and should do jokes about funny clubs. He maintains that he is his own person and his own writer and can only follow his own path. He also makes some interesting comments about how a printed word has authority a manuscript doesn’t and everybody feels they can add something to a manuscript. Some people even feel they need to so that they are not “consulted for no purpose”. The editors in the room nodded at that.

Adventurer 138 talked about the life of writers. He describes them as ‘addicted to complaint’ (see Writer’s Twitter) but that they don’t have it so bad;

  “To write is, indeed, no unpleasing employment,” though sometimes ideas won’t come or seem to disappear as soon as they are about to be written down. Johnson tackles daydreams of inherited wealth in Adventurer 111, saying that, “life affords no higher pleasure than surmounting difficulties,” and painting the idle wealthy as “the useless filler of existence.” There’s a thoughtful discussion on The Black Act, and the widening of capital crimes in Rambler 114 and a fun look at why people disagree with each other in Adventurer 107.

Rambler 60 sets out Johnson’s views on biography. He explains how it’s an easy genre to exercise reflection and empathy, that all lives have their lessons that can be learned by all people and how the lives of ‘great’ people are most telling in their smallest details. No matter who the person is, they are best understood once “exterior appendages are cast aside”. This was precisely what Boswell would go on to do, to describe Johnson’s life in as much detail as possible, from conversation to smallest habit - he never did get a good answer to what Johnson did with his dried orange peel though.

The last Idler is about endings. There’s always a small pain in saying goodbye and so there was when time was up with the meeting. However, this goodbye was delayed, as all the restaurants were full with early Christmas bookings and we sat at a table in Johnson’s house with takeaway. It was a cosy and convivial time and it was with contentment that we said goodbye, happy to meet again in the new year.

Wednesday 7 December 2022

Goodbye to the Museum of London (for a bit)

 At 5pm on the 4th of December, The Museum of London closed after being at the Barbican for 46 years. It’ll resurrect itself as The London Museum at Smithfield Market in 2026.  The museum went out with a bang, holding a 24 hour goodbye party so I peeked in, earlier on in the celebrations at 3pm on the 3rd. 

I’ve got a personal fondness for the Museum of London, being one of the first museums I remember visiting. My family lived a little south of London and once a week in the summer holidays we’d go to the train station. If we crossed the bridge we were going on a train going right, which usually meant a trip to the beach and if we stayed on the platform near the entrance we went left, which meant to London. I think it was probably 1993, which would mean I’d just turned eight and my sister would have been two-and-a-half. We first went to Saint Paul’s Cathedral, which had wowed me and taught my sister the word ‘down’ after descending the dome. We saw a sign for the museum, didn’t know anything of it and went to check it out. 

What must have appealed to Mum was that it was free, this was before the major London museums were subsidised to do this and if St Paul’s was as comparatively expensive as it is now, then a freebie would have been very welcome on the budget. I have distinct memories of the Dick Whittingtons leading the way and amazement at the sheer expanse of stuff. I’d been to museums before, a trip to the Maritime Museum the year before gave me a lifelong fondness for pirates, but the scope was something else. Plus the museum had little models of London streets, showing how they looked in different periods. I got the guidebook, which I used to peer into, even if I didn’t understand all the words. (For old times sake I bought one of the discounted guidebooks in my most recent visit, as a bookend. Though, I’d have understood far more of the recent guidebook, it’s far more pictorial).

When I moved to London, I was skint and The Museum of London became one of my favourite ports of call. In the long, boring stretches of unemployment, I’d often take time out and visit - even though only the top gallery was open because the bottom was being renovated. I visited on my birthday, again with my sister. I was under the weather with what turned out to be Swine Flu, was overcome by sleepiness and had a nap in the Saxon house.

There was also a dark lure to The Museum of London, possessing, as it did, the best selection of books about London history and figures available. I bought the first of my Lathem Mathews Pepys books there (1660 of course) and it was not cheap. Another dark aspect of the museum was they kept advertising jobs I could do and then not interviewing me for them.

In more recent times, I visited the newly refurbished downstairs and had a giggle sitting in the Vauxhall Gardens, listening to dialogue from Evelina I had read on the tube getting there. It’s where I went to the fantastic exhibition on crime, and another on bodysnatching. I also went to the frankly bonkers ‘Beasts of London’. I saw a number of lectures at their theatre, including the one where part of this blog was featured, and I also went to a behind the scenes look at the fashion department and went up and personal with a potentially deadly dress.

Going round again, I was struck by how well everything is arranged and what a good story it tells. Back to the earliest humans the museum focuses on individual lives experienced in this patch of earth and amazingly, as the city becomes larger and more complex, the individual stories become more highlighted. The tour and the new guidebook both end with the cauldron of the Olympic flame from 2012, presenting it as London’s ultimate expression and, perhaps it was. Certainly, walking down the increasingly abandoned Fleet Street, or Oxford Street, empty of everything but American sweet shops that are money-laundering fronts, it would seem London’s best years are behind it. Though I’m sure that’s what the people of London thought when the Romans pulled out, or they saw the smoking ruins of the fire or the Blitz, hopefully the London Museum still has some exciting times ahead of it to record and interesting stories to tell.