Book 11 – Three  Men in a Boat

A few weeks ago I wrote a short blog associated with my 2017 reading project discussing some of the books that will be forthcoming over the next few months. A friend commented and gave me several suggestions of what to read,  and ended her list  with the line “And one can never read Three Men in a Boat too many times”. And I realised that she was absolutely right!

Three Men in a Boat was the first novel by Jerome K Jerome. First published in 1889 it immediately became a success, despite some critical reviews. The success continues to this day because the book has never been out of print.

It is usually described as a comic novel,  and tells of a fictional rowing trip along The Thames from London to Oxford in a skiff. The participants are Jerome himself (referred to as J throughout the book), his friends Harris and George and Montmorency, Jerome’s fox terrier. The latter is an essential part of the story,  to the extent that the subtitle is “To Say Nothing of the Dog!” But the author originally intended it to be a travel guide for rowers attempting the journey,  though his wit and imagination gradually got in the way.  What we have ended up with is one of the finest gems of English comic fiction,  that interweaves historic facts,  descriptive and almost purple prose, reflections  on life and brilliant sparkling wit.

Witty comments such as this, as J watches his friends doing the packing:
“When George is hanged, Harris will be the worst packer in this world;”

Or (and did you know that Jerome coined this phase?):
“I like work;  it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.”

The humour, to my mind, is reflected down the years in Wodehouse and Pratchett, with the asides and anecdotes. In fact Wodehouse actually mentions one of the anecdotes in Psmith in the City.

But it’s the entirety of the book that makes it such a rewarding read.  There’s a wonderful meditation on being in the village of Runnymede on the day of the signing of the Magna Carta; and the story of the trout in the glass case; and the complete volte face on the subject of steam launches. And so on and so on.

It’s a wonderfully entertaining,  informative and witty book that also gives a good insight into late Victorian England. It has pride of place on my bookshelves, though my 1982 Penguin edition is finally falling apart – another trip to Toppings is in order!

Book 10 – The Flying Inn

G K Chesterton is a bit of a puzzle to many readers these days, but in his pomp in the first half of the last century he was a literary polymath. His output included novels, short stories, books on literature,  theology  and biography, to name but a few. He’s mainly known now for the Father Brown detective short stories, about a simple Norfolk country priest who has a knack for solving crimes, and to my mind this is rather a shame because he wrote some great stuff. 

The Flying Inn was written in 1914 and is probably one of his lesser known works, though it does contain one of my favourite poems. A taster:

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head. 

The story is of an aesthetic politician who manages to get through parliament a bill outlawing pubs because of his conviction that  Islam was the purest form of thought with its  ban on alcohol. Through a loophole in the law a publican named Pump and his Irish naval friend take the pub sign for The Old Ship, along with a barrel of rum and a large round cheese and open up wherever they place the sign. Hence the name, the flying Inn. 

It’s a somewhat bizarre tale that celebrates Englishness, drink and poetry and certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you know Chesterton then you might well enjoy this.

Book 9 – The Well of Lost Plots

The Well of Lost Plots is the third in the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde, an alternative history set in Britain at around this time but with a hugely varied history – the Crimean  War is still going on, for example. The main feature of these stories is that the line between fiction and reality is very thin and people can actually get into books and interact with the characters. Thursday Next is a literary detective and the first book,  The Eyre Affair, shows her, amongst other things, getting into the book Jane Eyre and altering the ending.

I first came across these when we found the first two books in the series in a secondhand bookshop in Oxford a few years ago. At the time I knew nothing of the author, nor of these books, but was immediately interested. After all, how can one resist a book with a heroine called Thursday Next? The whole premise proved to be clever, erudite and funny with dozens of literary allusions and a witty cast of characters. They are not funny in the “laugh out loud” style of, say, Pratchett or Wodehouse, but there is wit and style and a lot of clever writing.

I can strongly recommend these books to any with a love of English literature, as I think they will appreciate the intricate plots and the dozens of intertextual references. And Thursday Next is a very appealing character.

Jasper Fforde has written other books than just this series, and in my opinion the best, and certainly the cleverest is “Shades of Grey”. Before you have apoplexy I must point out that this book predates the more notorious book with a similar title and has absolutely nothing to do with BDSM! It’s a distopian novel set in a world where everything depends on the perception of colour and is a very good read indeed. 

Book 8 – The Etymylogicon

In the week running up to Christmas 2011 The Etymologicon, by Mark Forsyth was the BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week and I remember listening to some of it. It so impressed me that I popped into Toppings in Ely to buy it as an extra present for my wife , because,  like me,  she loves language.

I’ve always been a bit of a one for words and the English language;  in fact I’m rather a stickler for spelling and syntax and could be accurately labelled a “grammar nazi”. And etymology has always fascinated me. Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue is a favourite and this book ranks up there with it. Subtitled “A circular stroll through the hidden connections of the English language” this book is a fascinating tour of words,  their history and derivation , peppered with a sardonic wit that makes it an absolute joy. There are so many facts in here that were previously unknown to me that choosing which ones to illustrate this blog is really a matter of turning to any page and sticking in a pin,  but how about this beauty: there was a general on Union side in the American Civil War who was renowned for his vast moustache and the large quantity of hair than ran from his ears to meet it. His name was Ambrose Burnside, and such facial decoration was known as “burnsides”. The general vanished into history and his name became forgotten, but somewhere along the years the facial nomenclature became reversed, because these are on the side of the face and thus we now know them as “sideburns”.

The wit that Forsyth employs is wicked,  but extremely funny. In a discussion on Peter Pan he refers at one point to “W.E Henley (the poet who wrote Invictus and not much else)” with the footnote “Thank God!”

Can you tell that I really liked this book? If you can’t get hold it, then I strongly suggest that you turn to Forsyth’s blog, The Inky Fool (blog.inkyfool.com) where you can find much of the writing that this book came from.

Almost Two Months Done, What Comes Next?

The 2017 reading project has so far proved to be very interesting. Four novels of various sorts, a double autobiography  and a travel book, with the current one being a volume on etymology. 

There hasn’t been any particular reason any one of these was chosen, apart from perhaps the first week where I was constrained to what was on the Kindle.  For the rest,  I’ve looked at what is both close at hand and appeals to me and have gone from there. As a working model this approach is not really going to change and there’s no grand scheme of what is going be read. But there are a few general ideas, so I decided to jot down a some notes about books I intend to read in the next few months. 

For a start,  there’s going to be at least one Pratchett, probably Night Watch which I regard as amongst the very best of the Discworld books. There will very possibly be another Wodehouse book, but if there is then it will be one I’ve never read before. And I think that it’s well nigh time to reread  Lord of the Rings,  a book I used to read every year. 

My family has been enthusiastic about suggesting books  to read – well they do have four English degrees between them! Thomas Hardy, Haldor Laxness and Maurice Herzog will all make an appearance.

Then there are books around the house that I’ve bought but have not yet read. So expect Owen Jones, Robert MacFarlane, Saint-Exupery and Stephen Hawking to appear. On top of that there are books that I’ve always intended to reread: Mary Beard, Charles Dickens, Jasper Fforde are being lined up, at a minimum. 

What else though? If anyone has suggestions as to what could appear in the next 10 months then I’ll be happy to consider them,  though I make no promises! But give me your best shot.

Book 7 – Money in the Bank

As I said in my post last year announcing this project of reading a book a week for a year,  some of the books involved would be ones I’d  read before. Money In the Bank  by PG Wodehouse is such a volume. 

Wodehouse is probably best known for the Jeeves and Wooster stories and the Blandings Castle  saga (as he named it). But a significant portion of his books are standalone stories, albeit  sometimes the  same characters occur in different books. 

First published  in 1942 Money in the Bank is one of these, and is in my opinion one of his very finest books. It contains a wonderful character in Lord Uffenham, the hero is the England scrum half and in Anne Benedick has arguably his finest heroine. It can fairly be said that as his writing progressed through the years the young female characters in Wodehouse’s books became more of a lightly drawn sketch, rather than a fully developed character, but Anne is a living woman who leaps out of the page.

One characteristic of Wodehouse books is the recurring theme of The Imposter, something that occurs innumerable times. Almost every Blandings book has at least one person pretending to be someone else. Money in the Bank has four of them, including Jeff Miller, the afore-mentioned England scrum half and Cakebread the butler who for long and complicated reasons is actually George, Viscount Uffenham. 

The book has charm, wit, humour and tells the story well. But it also has a great description of falling in love. An example:

“Anne Benedick gave a sudden laugh,  so silvery, so musical,  that it seemed to Jeff that his great passion, in the truest and deepest sense of the words, really dated from this moment. Ever since she had come in, shimmering across the threshold like the spirit of the June day,  he had known,  of course, in a sort of  general way that the strange emotion she woke in him was love,  but this laugh – hitherto she had merely smiled – seemed to underline the facts and clarify his outlook.  There was all Heaven in Anne  Benedick’s laugh.  It conjured up visions of a cozy home on a winter’s night,  with one’s  slippers on one’s feet,  the dog on one’s lap,  an open fire in the grate and the good old pipe drawing nicely.”

The feelings between Anne and Jeff change through the book before the inevitable happy ending,  and in my opinion it is better described here than in any other Wodehouse – certainly better than in any of the dozens that I have read.

This is a brilliant book.  If you are a Wodehouse fan then you probably know this anyway,  and if not then you are strongly encouraged to give it a go. 

Book 6 – A Madness of Angels

Another daughter, another book. A Madness of Angels came from Kat as a Christmas present. She’d read it and really enjoyed it, and told me she thought I would too. And I must give credit where credit is due, because enjoy it I did.

Written by Catherine Webb under the name of Kate Griffin, this is her first adult fantasy novel. The publishers say she has written books for young adults as herself, but I’ll admit to never having heard of her before. But after this I will keep an eye out.

A Madness of Angels is another story of magical fantasy set in modern London, though it’s very different in tone from The Hanging Tree (see week 2). It has a truly different hero for a start – but you’ll have to read the book to find out just how different. The magic comes from all life, including the mechanisms invented by man. Suffice it to say that the ghosts of every phone call exist in the phone lines and talk to those who can hear. It’s a story of self discovery and revenge, of gangs, criminals and immensely powerful sorcerers and magicians (and there is a difference between the two).

It explores in greater depth than anything I’ve read since the Witches books of Pratchett’s what magic is and where it comes from, and for that alone I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading modern fantasy. It’s not a great book, but it is a good read.