Not as sad as Dostoyevsky, not as clever as Mark Twain

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(not terrific, but it’s competent, I hope ..)

1. The Closed Circle- Jonathan Coe
2. Dibs in Search of Self- Virginia Axline
3. Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case- Agatha Christie
4. 99 Ways to Tell a Story- Matt Madden
5. Fragile Things- Neil Gaiman
6. Lost Worlds: What Have We Lost and Where Did it Go?- Michael Bywater
7. Exercises in Style- Raymond Queneau trans. Barbara
8. The Atom Station- Halldór Laxness trans. Magnus Magnusson
9. Sweets: the History of Temptation- Tim Richardson
10. Alias Grace- Margaret Atwood
11. Notes from Underground- Fyodor Dostoyevsky
12. Seeing Things- Oliver Postgate
13. Letters from a Lost Uncle- Mervyn Peake
14. Queuing for Beginners- Joe Moran

Alias Grace- Margaret Atwood
This one’s based on the true story of Grace Marks, a maid in Canada who was convicted of helping to murder her employer in the 1840s, and spent 30 years in prisons and asylums before being pardoned. It’s told from both Grace’s point of view, and from that of a young doctor who’s fascinated by her case. I particularly like books where you see the same events from different character’s perspectives, and I’ve always liked Margaret Atwood’s refusal to give simple trite answers, or simplify people’s motivations in the name of having a neatly tied up plot. I’ve enjoyed every book of hers that I’ve read, and this was no different.

I certainly never learnt anything about Canadian history at school. Plenty about the UK, US, Germany and Russia, but never a word about Canada. I think pretty much anything I know about the history of Canada either comes from Margaret Atwood books or Hark! a Vagrant (both recommended)

Notes from Underground- Dostoyevsky
I’ve been on a Dostoyevsky kick recently. He’s a cynical old bastard, but he makes me smile. I read this a few years ago as Notes from the Underground (they don’t use articles like the or a in Russian, so you can translate it either way). It’s strange how changing one word in the English translation can give it different overtones. The Underground brings up ideas of living in some kind of defined subculture, but plain old Underground sounds like being buried. I think I’d go without the the, personally. Anyway, what happens is that a self-described loser has a rant and takes the piss out of utopian visions of Russia’s future (take note Lenin), and then tells the story of how he humiliated himself in front of assorted school friends and a prostitute. Read more Russian stuff, you. (This is not the book for people who find tv shows like the Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm horribly painful.)

Some quotes:
“A lazy man! – that is a name, a calling, it’s positively a career!”
“Well, in short, the Golden Age will come again. Of course it is quite impossible to guarantee that it won’t be terribly boring then (because what can one do if eveything has been plotted out and tabulated?) but on the other hand everything will be eminently sensible. Of course boredom leads to every kind of ingenuity. After all, it is out of boredom that pins get stuck into people.”
“Ah, gentlemen, what will have become of our wills when everything is graphs and arithmatic, and nothing is valid but two and two make four?”

Letters from a Lost Uncle- Mervyn Peake
The Gormenghast books are some of my favourites. I got the dvd set for my birthday last month, but I haven’t got round to watching it yet (in for a treat there). I wish Mervyn Peake had left the third book out though, it’s rubbish and you can tell that he was struggling with dementia while writing it. My copy of Alice has Mervyn Peake illustrations too, which certainly add something, as you can imagine. This is the story of an intrepid arctic explorer uncle dying in the frozen polar wastes, sending his unnamed nephew letters of his exploits with his tortoise-headed sidekick. The book’s all pencil drawings overlaid with typewriter text on yellowing paper and fake bloodstains on occasional pages. I’ll scan some pages when I have time, they’re special.

Queuing for Beginners- Joe Moran
I love pop sociology books and useless trivia. This one’s about how the unthought about minutae of daily life in modern Britain came to be, like why queue in a certain way, why have your office set out just so. It starts with breakfast, and continues through a bog-standard office day. Interesting and informative.

I’m going to write about the Oliver Postgate book another time.

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