A Misspent Childhood: Books I Wish I’d Read as a Child, and Well-Loved Books Worth Revisiting

IMG_20140826_210620Recently the memory of a book I was given as a child by my Dad re-emerged while I was telling a colleague an anecdote. He loves classical history, and I mentioned this obscure book that I had been given when I was around 11 or 12, that I don’t believe I fully understood at the time. I was edging my way into more adult literature around this time, and one day my Dad handed me The Night Life of the Gods by Thorne Smith – something he had read as a child and loved. His copy was well worn, proof of his affection for it 30 years earlier, and as any child might I idolised my father and took on his recommendation. I have a strong recollection of thumbing the fragile pages while we were on an excessively long holiday in California, sitting in the back of a rental car zipping across the Mojave Desert, listening to TLC on my trusty Walkman.

As much as I wanted to, I just didn’t really get it. There were whole chunks of the book that I remember being hilarious, but others that just sailed past me. After lending the book to my friend I was inspired to re-read it, convinced that I would have far more patience now. I opened it for the first time in 15 years, and sensory memories came flooding back to me when I touched the grainy pages and out fell an old ratty cotton bookmark I’d shoddily embroidered as a child.

The novel was written in 1931 about a wealthy eccentric American, Hunter Hawk, and his insufferable family, and reads like something between an Evelyn Waugh satire and a Neil Gaiman romp. With great effort, Hunter has perfected a method of turning people into stone statues, and with the help and magic of ‘The Little People’ he also learns to turn statues into flesh and bone, causing no end of havoc. While being comical, Smith often alludes to the corruption of wealth, the mindless parties, drug taking and heavy drinking that fills these people’s lives, and there is no small amount of romantic confusion that pivots around off stage sexual encounters. I’m no longer surprised that this book didn’t click with me when I was 11.

It really is a treat – an escapist, screwball delight that has you wrapped up in the pleasures of the gods. Smith knew exactly how to throw you off course, and give you the sensation of being carried away by a circus – all reason and rationality lost along the way. I’m so glad I picked this up again, and it’s such a shame that there is pretty much nothing by him in print any longer. It’s likely that this will be the only novel by Thorne Smith I’ll ever read.

Reading this reminded me of the things I chose to read as a child, and the things I ignored that I really shouldn’t have. I wish I had been a more adventurous reader as a child, as I feel sure that my 11 year old self would have truly loved books like Howl’s Moving Castle or His Dark Materials (as I certainly do now as an adult), and I wonder how reading books like these back then would have changed me. I would love to go back and visit myself, and hand me a copy of The Call of the Wild or The Wizard of Earthsea and wait for my reaction.

While thinking about the books I wish I’d read, I also considered the books I deeply loved as a child that I could get something completely different out of now as an adult:

BoyDahlBoy by Roald Dahl

I think anyone who grew up around Great Missenden, like I did, feels a special sort of connection with Roald Dahl in an almost possessive or territorial way, as he was a well know local. We used to drive past his home on the way to school, and I would stretch in my seat to glimpse the famous gypsy caravan through the bushes in his garden. I loved Boy because, unlike Dahl’s novels, it felt like reality with a lick of adventure, and not the other way around. He used to play tricks on locals and family members to pass the time, and detailed the brutal corporal punishment at his school that I always felt thankful wasn’t mine. I still feel emotionally attached to this biography, and I would love to have a read of it from the other side of my childhood.

Hitchhikers-Guide-to-the--001The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

I only recently found out that the novel was pre-dated by the radio series – I had always assumed otherwise. I remember listening to the series in the car on long journeys when I was small, when the main attraction was the silly words and names like Zaphod Beeblebrox, and then reading it some years later (after watching the 80s TV series too). I feel that Douglas Adams’ sense of humour influenced my own, and it’s again something I feel mildly territorial about as it feels so valuable to my formative years. It would be great to give it another read through, to see how little I probably remember.

silly verseSilly Verse for Kids by Spike Milligan

I loved Spike Milligan so much, from his riotous part in The Goon Show (another car journey treat), and his various TV shows that must have been repeated on the BBC when I was small, to his surreal drawings, and of course his poetry. I think revisiting his children’s verse is vital, as well as the vast collections intended for adults, to recapture the eye watering giggles they inspired in me 20 years ago.

emily-bronte-wuthering-heightsWuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

I felt there was a bit of an absence of female writers/female characters on my list, and I’m still wondering why that is. However, Wuthering Heights got me around 14 years old, and I have re-read it 2 or 3 times since. It really shaped how I felt about love and romance for a long time, making me believe that anything I may have felt for someone that was less than earth shattering really wasn’t worth the bother. A dangerous notion in the hands of a teenager, and probably the reason for my very romantically unsuccessful adolescence…

only-you-can-save-mankind-2Only You Can Save Mankind by Terry Pratchett

This was my opener – the gateway book which would lead me to the harder stuff: Discworld. It seems as though Discworld overshadows a huge amount of Pratchett’s other work which, although inevitable, is sort of sad. The Johnny Maxwell series grabbed me instantly as a child – the nonsense and chaos, combined with adventures that seemed tantalisingly possible. These are some of the few novels Terry Pratchett set in our reality, and they really are so much fun, as well as offering an alternative world-view integral to broadening children’s minds.

Book Slam at York Hall, 12th August

viv Kate Tempest hillmann Book-Slam-Irvine-Welsh-credit-Nick-Cunard

Recently I bagged myself a much coveted ticket to the first Book Slam to take place at the infamous East London boxing venue, York Hall, in anticipation of an excellent line-up.

If you haven’t heard of Book Slam, then it’s time to get on it. It’s a (sort of) monthly literary club night taking place in various locations around London, most often in the Clapham Grand or the Tabernacle near Ladbroke Grove. It’s a fantastic hub of creative talent, usually hosted by a popular or up-and-coming comedian, to showcase the talents of well-known and not-so-well-known writers. These writers usually have something to promote, so it’s also a brilliant platform for them too.

Last night’s show felt particularly special, and naturally drew in a large crowd, because of the calibre of the writers present: Irvine Welsh, Viv Albertine, Kate Tempest, and debut writer Bill Hillmann. We began with Bill Hillmann, ‘one-time street brawler, drug dealer, convict, Chicago Golden Glove Champion, and bull runner’. He read an extract from his new novel The Old Neighborhood, a story of three boys caught in the snare of Chicago’s vicious street gangs, and their struggle to survive or succeed. Hillmann stood in the centre of the boxing ring and read an extract with the thick, gravelly Chicago timbre you would expect, and firmly set the fear in all of us when explaining that the passage was inspired by the drive-by shooting of his sister.

After a short break Hillmann was followed by Viv Albertine, former front woman of legendary punk band The Slits, reading from her knew autobiography, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys. She was incredibly bold and candid with the audience when discussing her bouts of cancer and failed marriages, oozing an atmosphere of ‘say what you want, I couldn’t give a fuck’ – albeit a very friendly one. She signed a book for me in the interval, and seemed genuinely surprised by how well she went down, which only served to make her more endearing. She was quickly followed by Kate Tempest, the poet-cum-rapper who bizarrely I shared a couple of English courses with at Goldsmiths. She is a force of nature when performing, and I feel that seeing her poetry on the page can never do justice to how it actually feels watching her on stage. She brought the crowd to their knees while she popped and sparked in the ring, and alerted us to her new collection of poetry edited by none other than Don Paterson.

Finally, Irvine Welsh arrived in the ring. He was present to promote his new book, The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins, but wisely chose to not read from this novel as it is populated by young women from Florida, which would have sounded pretty weird spoken in his deep Scottish drawl. He instead read an extract of a novel due to be published next year, based around the crowd pleasing character, ‘Juice’ Terry, who appears in several of Welsh’s books. After Kate Tempest and Viv Albertine, Welsh felt a little uninspiring, though I think that is only testament to how great all of the writers were.

If you have never been to a Book Slam, please GO. This was my fourth time, and every time I’ve gone has been seriously fun. There is good food, good company, a good show, and it all only costs a fiver. You have no excuse.

Bookslam logoCheck out upcoming Book Slams here.

 

Review: Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

IMG_20140802_164751I found Suite Française a struggle. Not because it’s difficult to understand or hard to read, but it becomes an emotional wrench to pick up a book on a sunny day and contemplate the realities of the experience of war. This of course makes it all the more important to carry on picking it up each day, sunny or not, and plough through. 

Suite Française is a fictionalisation of the early days of occupied France during WWII, seen through the eyes of several individuals, strangely and obliviously connected to one another. It is broken into two parts (although the intentions were for it to eventually be five, the author’s life was tragically cut short before she finished by the very war she wrote about), the first covering the defeat of France and the mass exodus from Paris, and the second covering the beginnings of life under German rule in rural France. Némirovsky describes her multiple subjects’ moods and decisions in fine detail with such unassuming grace that they feel truly present, like people you might have met before. They feel tangible and familiar, especially those characters that are immediately repugnant – you don’t want to believe that this is how someone could react in these circumstances, but at the same time it seems all too depressingly possible.

Irène Némirovsky illustrates this incredibly well, making me genuinely terrified of myself. I want to know what principles I would cling to once my freedom has been taken and my life is in danger, whether my hopes that I would be brave and idealistic are in fact foolhardy and smug, and that realistically I would still get stroppy in shop queues or moan about not having jam for my toast. Némirovsky’s narration of people’s torturous and recalcitrant snobbery in the direst of circumstances is when she is at her most interesting. I find it interesting that given Némirovsky’s own thoroughly middle class (if not upper middle class) roots, spanning from her childhood in Kiev to her adulthood in Paris, she is so scathing of the selfish and callous nature of the Péricand family in the first part, ‘A Storm in June’, and even more so of the Viscountess de Montmort in the second part, ‘Dolce’. Their unwillingness to share what they have with those less fortunate around them is implied as abhorrent.

Because of these characters and others, I find it hard to reconcile the criticisms laid out against Irene Némirovsky. She is regularly painted as an unrelenting anti-semite, and was plagued by self-loathing because of her own Jewish background. There appears to be plenty of evidence to confirm this, such as her association with French politicians on the far-right and pleading letters sent to Marshall Pétain (Prime Minister of Vichy France) in which she affirms her ‘dislike’ of Jews. However, during this period she was in great danger under the vicious anti-semitic laws sweeping across France and was evidently doing anything she could to protect herself  and her family, whether her pleading statements were genuine or not. It is even more tragic then that these desperate and potentially shaming tactics did not work, and in July 1942 she was taken to Auschwitz where she died a short time later.

Although discussion of her dislike of the Jewish people may seem irrelevant when talking about Suite Française as there are no Jewish characters in the novel, it does still hold some weight. The very absence of Jewish characters is conspicuous, given Némirovsky’s experiences as a Jew in Vichy France, and her known allegiances with collaborators casts an interesting light on the characters Lucile and Bruno in ‘Dolce’. Lucile lives with her mother-in-law in the small town of Bussy, awaiting news of her husband who is currently being held as a prisoner of war. Bruno is a German Officer who has been allocated a room in their house to stay in during the German presence in Bussy. Bruno is a very sympathetic character, although we rarely get a true glimpse at his political beliefs. He is all honour and chivalry and charm, with a dash of exciting musical proficiency, which of course draw in lonely Lucile who constantly second guesses her affection for him, while they involuntarily become closer and closer.

I am always fascinated by any story that remarks on the shades of grey in any situation, and perhaps naively I believe that no one is ever entirely bad or entirely good. This is probably why I enjoyed ‘Dolce’ so much, as this is expertly handled (however you might feel about Némirovsky’s intentions); the perception that many German soldiers had been swept up into a war they may not necessarily agree with or want to fight in, just as the French soldiers had. She gives Bruno a humanity not often afforded in depictions of German soldiers during this period, making the blossoming romance between him and Lucile even more fraught and morally confusing.

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Michelle Williams and Matthias Schoenaerts as Lucile and Bruno

It’s interesting that the film adaptation of this book will be released imminently, as while I was reading it the thought that this book would be unfilmable had crossed my mind, due to the amount of characters and individual histories told. It’s understandable that writers and director Matt Charman and Saul Dibb have chosen to draw their focus on ‘Dolce’, as it contains the most developed and engaging characters, and the fascinating relationship that builds between the occupiers and the occupied. The casting looks like it will do the characters justice (Michelle Williams as Lucile, Matthias Shoenaerts as Bruno, Kristen Scott-Thomas as Lucile’s mother-in-law), and I definitely look forward to seeing the book realised on screen, but I can’t help but feel it will be hard to eke out the same emotional experience I had with the book. It really is a masterpiece, and I would recommend reading it even when it makes you despair, and make sure you question everything, from Madame Péricand’s snobbery and Bruno’s ambiguous moral compass, to Irene Némirovsky’s own desperate and tenebrous pleas for her life.

 Suite Française is published by Vintage, and available in all good bookshops for £8.99.