Thursday, 15 September 2011

Paperboy - Christopher Fowler

The author of the Bryant and May detective novels, amongst many others, describes his childhood and teen years in this lovely, evocative memoir.  With a father cowed by his own domineering mother, a mother who thought she might come to love the man she married, this lonely child withdrew into the world of books, encouraged by an elderly librarian who let him read adult books provided they were not removed from the library, and cinema, where he learned to love British films.   Like lots of men (I think it is a particularly male practice) he kept lists - notebooks full of lists in fact, and what lists they were, films seen, books read, books to read, ideas for books not yet written, etc.  He also has a photographic memory for things long gone - Spangles, Mivvi's, Saturday morning pictures and the smell of old cinemas, Frys Mint Creams;  he brings a smile to your face because of that, and a tear to your eye for his loneliness both at home and at school.  If you were brought up in the 1950s and 60s, you will remember lots of things here including outside toilets and Barry Bucknell's DIY craze, but even if you are younger, this glimpse into the world of a boy who desparately wanted to write but didn't know how to get going will entertain you hugely.
NB: [from The Guardian, Dec 2010] Last December, Christopher Fowler won the inaugral Green Carnation Award for this book.   Paul Magrs (Never the Bride and others), who is  a lecturer on the Manchester Metropolitan University's creative writing MA, helped set up the Green Carnation prize earlier this year after realising there was no literary award for gay men's books in the UK. He described the lack of such a prize as "scandalous", saying: "There ought to be something that celebrates and publicises the breadth and variety of their work. Writing by gay men can be funny, exciting, harrowing, uplifting and challenging – and it can range right across the genres. It can also be created by men from all classes and races."  The prize, which has no cash value, is named after the green carnation historically sometimes worn as an emblem of homosexuality – Oscar Wilde often carried one on his lapel.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand - Helen Simonson

Wonderful  observation of the human condition in all its forms.  Major Pettigrew is a sixty-something, widowed man with a house, a son and friends at the golf club.  The house looks onto the farmland belonging to a local manor house, the son is a self centred city whizz-kid, and the friends at the golf club are just people who accompany him in a round of golf.  Into his lonely life comes Mrs Ali, shopkeeper of Pakistani descent, widowed, well read, and with family baggage.  It is not long before they discover that they love the same things, and read the same books.  The major has a soft spot for Mrs Ali!  But he is a rather pompous soul, knows what's right and what's wrong, and does not understand the younger generation at all.  Then his brother dies, and his world is turned upside down for a number of reasons.  The village ladies, a cotterie of women led by the vicar's wife, believe that they know what he needs, and leave no stone unturned in trying to persuade him what that is.  One of their number is married to a golf club friend of the Major's, and it is she who is the prime mover in theming this year's dinner and dance at the club - in costume, and with a special theme harking back to the last days of the Raj.  The Major takes Mrs Ali as his guest.......
There were characters I detested, characters I loved, and all the while I was cheering for the Major with his pomposity just waiting to be pricked, his sharp and scathing sense of humour, and for Mrs Ali too, with all her family problems that were not of her making.  Helen Simonson is British, lives in the USA, and is obviously a great observer.  There wasn't a character in this book I didn't recognise.   A great little read for your holiday, an afternoon in the garden, a winter read by the fire.   A lovely story which kept me away from the housework!


Laura Shaine Cunningham's Sleeping Arrangements



I am so glad I found this.  I don't read a lot of non-fiction, and very few biographies, and when I do they tend to be memoirs - just part of a life.  This is one such.  Lily lived with her mother, whilst waiting for the war to be over and her father to join them again.   But although she has a name, its likely that he was never there in the first place, perhaps her birth was the result of a very short affair or a one night stand.  Lily and her mother Rose set up home in a studio flat in a tower block in a Jewish area of the Bronx, New York.  They enjoy life and everything is perfect - until Rose has to go into hospital and never comes home.  Lily is eight years old.  Uncle Gabe, who has been looking after her whilst her mother is away, and his elder brother Len, make up the family unit by moving in with Lily, and have to learn to cook, to do the housework, the laundry ( in some cases with limited success!).  Later, having moved to a bigger apartment in the same block, their mother, and therefore Lily's grandmother, a Russian Jewess who shares Lily's bedroom and is prone to stealing clothes, hairgrips, cheap jewellery and anything else she can grab from Lily, completes the family - or in Etka from Minsk's own words "mein family".
Tuna fishcakes or popcorn for breakfast  - "well, its corn, isn't it?  Cornflakes, cornbread, why not popcorn?"; clothes all sent out weekly to the laundry, and therefore always "fully creased" on return;  Uncle Len cooking in a pith helmet.  This little family is truly eccentric.  And how lucky she was that the uncles were family, or she might have been taken into care and fostered, instead of being loved by this odd couple.  It was a pleasure to read.   I loved it.