Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Reading the 80s - 1982

As far as I can remember the only books from 1982 I read at the time were both science fiction: the movie tie in for ET and Douglas Hill's Young Legionary, which I felt wasn't up to the standard of the books it prequeled. Mind you prequels weren't a thing then, so it may just have been my irritation at the whole concept. Of course there must have been children's books (I was nine) and even a child would have had to walk around with earplugs in and blinkers on not to at least be aware of Jeffrey Archer, Shirley Conran, Stephen King and V for Vendetta, but I was a little too young yet. 

The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, published in Portuguese in 1982, would have been so utterly off my radar and so far out of my range as to exist on another plane of reality . 

Published posthumously (Pessoa died in 1935) the book consists of fragments - diary entries of a character called Bernardo Soares who seems poised somewhere between fictional creation and Pessoa's own self: philosophical, introspective, mildly nihilistic, occasionally contradictory, convinced that the world of the mind is more important than the real world (or perhaps trying to convince himself of that) these diary entries follow no order, detail very little of day to day life -  and it's never clear why Soares feels compelled to write these snippets, how important he really believes them. 

The other thing about the work being written in almost entirely undated fragments is that the grouping of them is obviously fairly arbitrary. Pessoa never got the chance to edit and organise into a coherent whole, and perhaps never meant them to be published as a coherent whole at all. They would almost make more sense as a box of cards, which the reader could shuffle to read in any order they chose. 

It's a melancholy book, as I read it. A Book of Disquiet, in fact. 

My other 1982 book was The Man from St Petersburg by Ken Follett. A thriller set before the first world war, with Winston Churchill as a young man (thankfully appearing only sporadically, as I find picturing Churchill as a young man near impossible) and Germany arming themselves. Britain must ally with Russia before the storm breaks, and The Earl of Walden is detailed to persuade Aleks Orlov, an old friend, to sign the treaty. 

The Man from St Petersburg is Feliks, who follows Aleks to London to kill him and hopefully save thousands of Russian lives - after all what do the peasants owe the nobility that they should die in a war to support their British cousins? 

Outlining the plot like this makes it sound very dramatic and implausible and typically thrilleresque, and I admit there are coincidences and I spotted at least one twist before time, but it really, really doesn't matter. It's all written so well - every single character has a character. Feliks believes himself to have no fear, no feelings, and yet you can see how he got that way and that perhaps it isn't true. He's just numb. The Earl of Walden is a little stuffy but generous, his wife has been painted into a corner not of her own making, and even minor characters like Feliks' Irish landlady shine on the page (for example when he goes to get a cooking bowl to make nitroglycerin and she asks him if he's baking a cake, advises him not to blow them up, and strategically makes sure she's out for the day).  

It also raises the question, very pertinent in 1982, of who actually is the bad guy, or if maybe no-ones is and it's really just a matter of taking sides. 

The next year for this challenge is of course 1983, and my current plan is to reread Pratchett and Calvin Trillin and for the first time read Alice Walker's In Our Mother's Gardens, but now that shops are opening I also hope to incorporate more of a random element. Something that's made the challenge particularly difficult this time around is that I haven't been able to browse and pick up things that just happen to be published in a particular year, of which there are many, many more than appear in the Wikipedia and Goodreads lists top 200 or whatever, and so it's not really widening out my understanding of the time.  

Either way I should be back with those reviews on the 10th June.  

Sunday, 18 April 2021

The 1936 Club - How to Win Friends and Influence People. Dale Carnegie

First I have a confession to make - although I would have liked to have read the original 1936 text for the challenge, I left it too late to try and source one, so have actually read an ebook of what I'm fairly sure is a 70s text. In a novel this probably wouldn't matter so much as the text wouldn't have changed. Whereas in my copy the basic 'rules' of winning friends and influencing people are illustrated by a number of examples, none later than the 70s, and yet some which I'm convinced are from the original text because they're actually quite quaint (the quotes leap gleefully all over the place. Confucius and Napoleon and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and President Taft, who I'd never heard of before). 

I'd still like to read the original. Still more would I have loved to have attended one of Carnegie's lectures. He is chatty and amusing and I can see how it would be impossible not to be enthusiastic. His rules (he calls them techniques) are in many ways very sensible as well. For example: Don't argue, even if you're right - it pushes the other person to defend their position and you'll never persuade them then - you only have to look at recent twitter spats on serious matters like Brexit or face masks to see the wisdom of this. One side insults the other's intelligence or (vice versa) calls them 'sheeples' and it changes not one single person's opinion but causes huge amounts of bad feeling. 

I won't go through all the rules. Some seem common sense, a few seem like hard work (hours of work for little pay off) and some - complimenting people but meaning it sincerely - the kind of thing some people do naturally and others would really struggle with. You can't make yourself feel an emotion you don't have. Fundamentally though all these techniques are based in a belief that everyone is better than you at something, and everyone is entitled to respect, and even if this book didn't always deliver the practical gains to it's hopeful readers that it seemed to be promising, it would make for a nicer business model (and world!) if we all remembered some of this stuff. 

Meanwhile, the examples are such fun. Occasionally he'll quote someone and you'll think something like 'you know they executed Socrates, don't you Dale - in purely practical terms he wasn't quite the success you're portraying here?' but that's partly because it is so very entertaining. I enjoyed reading it despite going in not being a fan of self help books, and low-key assuming it would be very cynical and manipulative (Only once did I feel it tipped over into recommending insincerity). I think people must have come out of his lectures feeling he was a pal, and trying to help them. 

I also had fun wondering what would happen if two people tried to apply the principle of letting the other do most of the talking at the same time, and it occurred to me that encouraging someone to talk about themselves is probably only effective with the more extroverted person anyway, but I'm guessing big businessmen who place orders (Carnegie was from a sales background, and it seems those were his bread and butter students) probably were pretty extrovert. 

It's also very easy to be critical because the things Carnegie was known for - teaching people to speak publicly, teaching people the 'soft' skills of listening and negotiating - are not new things anymore. In it's day it may well have been revolutionary to say to people in business 'avoid arguing, you lose if you lose and you lose if you win, too' or 'people can hear a smile on the phone'.

Of course there is a more sober side to the thing - people wanted these practical skills in the thirties for the simple reason that work was scarce. The foreword to the original 1936 text (printed at the back of my copy) points out that when Carnegie gave his Philadelphia lecture in 1935 20% of people were on welfare. Did people come to the lectures because Carnegie was a great speaker who fired them up or because they were half a decade into the Great Depression and clutching at straws? How helpful was it, when there were so few jobs to be had, to throw the responsibility back on the individual to change?

Anyway this is my last book for the challenge so thanks again to Simon and Karen for hosting these six-monthly clubs with a focus on a particular year. More book reviews from 1936 (and round ups from previous years) can be found on their blogs, and I look forward to another one in six months (see, I'm applying Carnegie's advice already! 😃)

Friday, 16 April 2021

The 1936 Club - Cards on the Table. Agatha Christie

I've read this book, oh, oodles of times, but until this reading it's never occurred to me to think what an isolated and in some ways rather pathetic figure Mr Shaitana, our murder victim is. Branded a 'dago' and 'too terrible but terribly amusing' by the smart people in London, not really well known to anyone, he lives life as a show, cultivating a fantastic and Mephistophelian appearance and a moustache that is not as luxurious as Poirot's own but 'tout de meme, it catches the eye', in the same way as Shaitana himself. He lives in London but no-one quite knows if he's Turkish or Greek or Argentine, and not being British he is rather looked down on but tolerated for his extraordinary parties. 

He throws one of his extraordinary parties for Hercule Poirot and three other sleuths (Scotland Yard's wonderfully impenetrable Superintendent Battle, the Great White Secret Service Hunter Colonel Race and celebrated authoress Ariadne Oliver, trying out a fringe and giving Christie a chance to poke fun at herself) to meet his collection of successful, unique, artistic murderers.

But this time Shaitana has miscalculated, and during a quiet evening's bridge in his charming if cluttered flat (sleuths making a four in one half of the room, murderers in the other) he is stabbed to death. 

Ariadne Oliver is, I think, the only person genuinely upset, but she bucks up at the thought of investigating a real life mystery, throwing out ideas like sparks and befriending one of the suspects and an old schoolfriend to get inside info, while Battle chats up (in his stolid respectable fashion) someone's secretary and Race digs out some long-buried rumours and Poirot, in a very subtle and polite way, asks seemingly irrelevant questions about room furnishings and grand slams that are not irrelevant at all.

What is clever in this book is seeing all those different and equally valid methods put into use and how each contributes, and that while Poirot with his little grey cells undoubtedly wins the game, none of the other sleuths are left with an empty hand. 

Again, thanks are due to Simon and Karen for hosting these six-monthly clubs with a focus on a particular year, and more book reviews from 1936 can be found here.

The 1936 Club - It Pays to be Good. Noel Streatfeild

There is a dedication at the front of this book where Streatfeild explains that having a tendency to make everyone in her other books lovable, she had written this one 'for the good of my soul' with a character presented purely to 'dislike and entertain'.  

The character in question is Flossie Elk, the astonishingly beautiful baby daughter of a perfectly normal kindly grocer and a thoroughly washed-out hardworking mother. 

Her father's reaction to her beauty - although he loves and indulges his child - is that beauty is a snare and best ignored. Her mother's is that beauty is an advantage - Flossie's passport to a different sort of life to the one she's had. Not that she hasn't been happy (in fact the quiet happiness and genuine affection of Flossie's parents, even when they don't agree, is one of the most touching things in the book) but she feels Flossie is entitled, surely, to use those looks God has given her and find something better. 

In the hands of a clumsier author this indulgence would be the reason Flossie grows up to be thoroughly selfish, and her mother would be a figure of fun and censure, but Streatfeild is never dogmatic about whether Flossie has been spoilt by others or was simply born both innately beautiful and (in modern terms) narcissistic. Like her startling good looks, Flossie's selfishness and ability to get her way just is

And a thoroughly ungrateful, manipulative brat she is and remains. Her mother scrimps to get her dancing lessons, takes trams into the West End for Flossie's benefit even though they make her feel horribly dizzy (she's never been quite right since Flossie was born and has been told very strictly to have no more children) sews and cooks long past the age Flossie could help, while Flossie takes the charming view that people who want their children to help, shouldn't have a child like her. 

So - given our horrible heroine - what carries the book? 

A number of things actually. Firstly the people around her. Her parents with their modest ambitions and quiet success in 'making a go of it', dance teachers who never quite made it as dancers, associates in the theatrical world she moves into with their money worries, irregular but friendly relationships and sometimes blunt remarks (this would be a good book for anyone who thinks society was utterly rigid until the sixties in fact, although no doubt it was more rigid for the real life contemporaries of Flossie's parents than for the theatrical set and the aristocracy). 

Then there are the interesting potted histories that Streatfeild writes so well that they don't feel strained,  the details and descriptions of what theatre was like in the 30s and the different talents required - natural star or real ability to dance, genius or a trick for getting them through the door - that, again, are so relatable to now. 

Last but not least the writing is excellent. Streatfeild is wonderfully witty but still has sympathy for everyone (even Flossie) and I left the book wanting to know what happened next to several of these people (not Flossie though). 

Thanks as always to Simon and Karen for hosting the 1936 club. More book reviews from 1936 can be found here.


Friday, 2 April 2021

Reading the 80s - 1981

Yes Minister by Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn never struck me, when I was a child, as a story of white, male, upper-middle class privilege, despite the fact I was living on a council estate myself. I suppose I just accepted that the people in charge mostly looked like that and talked like that, in the same way I accepted many of the characters in Golden Age Crime fiction went to parties in country houses, and even sympathised with their desire to maintain the status quo. 

Not that any one of the three main characters in Yes Minister is actually malicious, Hacker is even quite idealistic in spots, with his belief in collective responsibility and the caring society, and it helped, of course, that I had seen the TV programmes first and the three main actors - Paul Eddington, Nigel Hawthorne and Derek Fowlds - played their parts so beautifully. 

It's still their voices and expressions I hear and see when reading the book and it's still very funny, with a rich vein of cynicism woven in that passed me by originally, as well as some valid points about how much competence can be expected from a Minister who is suddenly in charge of a government department about something he knows nothing about, with officials who have been specialists for years, while still having one eye to pleasing the party and the PM rather than his conscience or the people who voted for him.  

So does Yes Minister still stand up now? I think it does, actually. Even when it came out it existed in a kind of alternative universe where Thatcher never existed, so actual relevance is an irrelevance really, and although the books are set out as Hacker's memoirs, written many years later, interspersed with Woolley's point of view (in conversation with the authors), the occasional letter, and other bits of biographies that have 'come out' since, which sounds like a dreary format, it actually works really well. My version is a three book compendium, and I was tempted just to carry on. 

Muriel Spark: Loitering With Intent

Although published in 1981 Loitering with Intent is set in the late 40s, although it's clear throughout that the narrator, Fleur, is writing at a later date - looking back on a particular time of her life when she was young and carefree and writing her first novel Warrender Chase while also making a precarious living providing occasional articles and reviews for magazines and doing short secretarial stints. 

She takes a job at something called the Autobiographical Association, which organisation at first seems rather pathetic, then possibly a scam to obtain blackmail material, before moving into more sinister territory still - unless Fleur's obsession with Warrender Chase is causing her to see things that aren't there.. 

Like all of Spark's books that I've read this is short but packs a lot in. The characters and Fleur's cold, clear thoughts on them (she is described as 'unnatural' by one of the friends who has read her book) are particularly entertaining. Spark has a gift for making the reader like people who aren't actually that likable, and the descriptions of Fleur's life are just enough - down to the intricacies of shared telephones and utility clothing - to make the whole mad mess feel completely real. 

Thursday, 25 February 2021

Reading the 80s - 1980

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (trans by William Weaver) is quite the tour de force. Taking the form of a mystery novel, it actually has more to do with the political and philosophical issues around the Catholic church in the fourteenth century. The reader looks through the eyes of Adso, a novice monk, whose master William of Baskerville (a clear nod to Conan Doyle) is acting as mediator between certain factions,  giving Adso lots of opportunity to try and puzzle out the politics and religious debates both from what he hears of the world and from the spats and the forms of justice he witnesses in the smaller world of the abbey. 

It's a big book - especially for something in the shape of crime fiction - weighing in at 500 pages, partly because Adso is lyrical in descriptions and inclined to provide great lists of everything he sees, and partly because of the sheer amount of work Eco is putting in to make us comprehend a world where heresy and witchcraft are considered far worse crimes than the string of murders the abbot has asked William to investigate.

Is it good? Yes. Would I have finished it if I weren't reading it for this challenge? I'm not sure. 

Life on Earth - David Attenborough. This is the one I already had on my shelves although I never read it before. It's unsurprisingly dated now - not because of the language (like a lot of people in 1980 Attenborough uses the word 'man' rather than 'human being' and also writes in the singular, as if we're talking about one man, not a group of people of different ages and genders, but that was how people wrote then and he doesn't do it now) - mostly because of the format. Almost every second or third page is a full colour picture, like an encyclopaedia, which is of course because there was no internet and not that many TV channels, so pictures had to be shown beside the text, because the reader wouldn't have seen these things before. 

The other thing that dates it is the lack of focus on DNA. It is mentioned, described - but not used. Animal relationships and lineage are inferred through skeletons, teeth, production of milk. I wondered as I read it how much we might know to be wrong or have confirmed right by now. It's been 41 years, and science has obviously moved on. 

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe - Douglas Adams. This is also from my own shelves and has been read multiple times, as well as listened to in the form of the radio play and (back in the day) watched on the TV. Perhaps too much, because I can now see the jokes coming a mile off, which obviously weakens them. Another factor in my not enjoying it as much this time is that because Douglas Adams was so good at noticing things that were happening around us all (digital watches, the proliferation of shoe shops) and weaving them into stories, inventing fantastical explanations, now the time of those things has passed, the stories no longer resonate as they did. 

Disaster Area, for example, the rock band so loud their fans listen in a concrete bunker, whose climax of the show is to have a stunt ship dive into the sun. The host at Milliways, reminiscent of every slightly unnerving TV show compere still floating around when I was a child.  That world has gone. It would be twitter now, and motorised scooters. It's a shame - more than a shame - that we'll never have the fantastical theories that could have been woven around those. 

Sunday, 7 February 2021

Ngaio Marsh - Light Thickens

This is the last of Marsh's books, published in 1982, and we're back in the Dolphin Theatre where Peregrine Jay is producing Macbeth. 

I've never actually seen Macbeth, but it's one of those cultural phenomena that it's impossible not to pick up a lot of information about from other sources. In my case that was primarily from Blackadder - both the ghost and the three witches are referenced in the first program of the first series (in 1983, when I was ten) - and later, in the 90s, when Pratchett inverted it for Wyrd Sisters. 

Off the top of my head Agatha Christie also mentions Macbeth at least three times:

In Sparkling Cyanide when Tony is speaking to Race: 'Ah but what Macbeth saw really was a ghost! It wasn't a ham actor wearing Banquo's duds! I'm prepared to admit that a real ghost might bring it's own atmosphere from another world.'

In By the Pricking of my Thumbs (which title is taken from the play) when Tuppence quotes it and then goes on to propound her theory that Lady Macbeth egged Macbeth on because she was bored, and incidentally (I paraphrase) particularly bored of Macbeth.  

And again in The Pale Horse when the three witches are discussed and someone (I forget who) suggests that more effective casting than the usual prancing around and in your face evil would be to have three old women just looking slyly at one another. That the very banality of evil somehow makes it more disturbing. 

I don't know if theatrical fashion ever swung that way - The Pale Horse was written in 1961 - but if it did I think it must have swung back again by the time Marsh is writing. Her witches are every inch in your face. Choreographed to leap off gibbets and leer malevolently. 

In fact sometimes in this book it seems as if this whole play is not being so much acted as danced. The fight scene in particular is laboriously choreographed, but many other scenes are rehearsed so often and Jay's vision for the whole thing explained so thoroughly that the reader (this reader anyway) is left with a real hope that all this dreary repetition is relevant.   

Not that there aren't moments of tension. Someone starts leaving the most frightening props - the false severed heads - in places designed to startle and scare. Macbeth and Macduff don't get on, which is particularly concerning given that fight scene. Certain members of the cast have secrets and others are strong believers in the Macbeth curse (which again I think I first learnt of via Blackadder. This time in series 3, in 1987). But these interesting details seem lost in a sea of stage direction and visits to the pub and drives up and down the Embankment (something very much of the time I think. Twenty years before when we first met Jay, even quite well off people walked, and if it was dark or the weather was bad they took taxis. By 82 they drive everywhere.)

Anyway, after the murder, things click into place. The pace either accelerates or appears to. Alleyn investigates. Fox turns up. Secrets are revealed. Jay's sons, who seemed an irrelevance on first appearance, become more rounded - yet without turning into tiresome miniature adults. Emily, Jay's wife, shows signs of still having a personality beyond feeding him, and we are reminded she is also of the theatre.

Macbeth will close of course, but the Dolphin (under the bequest of the late Mr Conducis) carries on, as immortal as Alleyn. 

Which wraps up this challenge. I'm not going to end with an analysis of whether Marsh deserved her title of one of the Queens of Golden Age Detective Fiction. It seems obvious to me she did. People went on reading her books through five decades, and it's not hard to see why. 

I am tempted to start a Margery Allingham or Gladys Mitchell challenge next, but not until I get the 80s out of the way..