Friday, April 07, 2017

march-april 2017 books…

Mystery In The Channel (Freeman Wills Crofts): Yet another escapist novel from the British Library Crime Classics! It was first published in 1931 and is very much of that era (although with a modern sub-text, given these days of austerity and the murky world of City finances). Two bodies are discovered on an otherwise deserted yacht in the English Channel… another challenging case for Inspector French! Like many of the crime novels of its time, the plot is hugely contrived (but intriguing, nonetheless) – one almost gets a sense of the author endeavouring to show his ‘cleverness’ to his fellow writers. Of course, I had my strong suspicions by page 48!
The Poisoned Chocolates Case (Anthony Berkeley): This is a very clever and frequently very funny book (first published in 1929). Yes, I apologise that it’s yet another escapist crime book but, having commented about crime writers trying to show off their cleverness (see previous book ‘review’!), the author takes some pleasure in highlighting the somewhat outlandish way in which his fellow crime writers compete to come up with contrived puzzles which their brilliant, deductive detectives solve – but which, in his view, seldom stood up to close scrutiny. The basis for Berkeley’s book is a crime club of six detective novelists who regularly meet up for dinner and conversation… but whose President comes up with the suggestion that they should each try to solve a recent unsolved, ‘real-life’ crime involving the poisoning of an attractive, rich, society woman. They take it in turns to offer a solution… each one more convincing than the last. Unusual and very entertaining.    
The Tomb Of The Unknown Craftsman (Grayson Perry): Moira and I went to the British Museum in 2011 to see Grayson Perry’s remarkable, fascinating exhibition. His work is accompanied by treasures trawled from the British Museum’s own collection. Although we bought the accompanying book, I hadn’t really read it until now (yes, I’d looked at the pictures, but that’s about it!)(actually, there aren’t that many words either!). It’s been particularly interesting after several recent chats to daughter Ruth about the status of craftspeople/makers in today’s art world. Perry is a bit of hero of mine, but I’d be the first to admit that, with him, it’s about ego and self-promotion (as well as huge artistic talent). I was particularly struck by Jacob Bronowski words included in the book’s introduction: “The most powerful drive in the ascent of man is his pleasure in his own skill. He loves to do what he does well and, having done it well, he loves to do it better. You see it in his science. You see it in the magnificence with which he carves and builds, the loving care, the gaiety, the effrontery. The monuments are supposed to commemorate kings and religions, heroes, dogmas, but in the end the man they commemorate is the builder”. The book, like the exhibition, is full of beautiful pieces, but it also left me reflecting on all the craftspeople whose talents were never fully recognised or rewarded… and how this situation remains for so many of these skilled artists today.
Death On The Riviera (John Bude): Ok, I really think I’m coming to an end of my ‘crime reading’ phase (I’ve just been attracted the British Library Crime Classics’ covers)! Another John Bude/Inspector Meredith novel (first published in 1952)… but no actual body appears before page 170! Set on the French Riviera, Inspector Meredith is sent to trace the whereabouts of renowned crook and forger… and action centres on the rather grand residence of an eccentric Englishwoman. Easy reading, entertaining, funny (at times), hugely dated (of course) and, as ever, pretty contrived… at one point, towards the end of the book, I even found myself saying “don’t tell me, you’re about to announce a somewhat ridiculous device that will magically solve all your plot problems” (and he duly did)! Hey ho… time I got back to ‘real life’ perhaps.
The Dark Flood Rises (Margaret Drabble): I’d never read a Margaret Drabble book before this one (Moira passed it on to me). I was duly impressed. She writes beautifully. It’s a novel about old age and dying (so, not a bundle of laughs then – although, actually, it is rather funny at times). The book’s main character, Fran (aged 70+), is a rather lovely, ordinary-but-special lady who lives on her own in an insalubrious tower block. She enjoys spending the odd night in a Premier Inn during the course of her work, being in touch with her friends, worrying about her children and feels a ‘duty’ to deliver ready-cooked meals to her first husband Claude (her second husband is dead). Fairly early on in the book, Drabble acknowledges that while life expectancy has increased, it’s reckoned that the majority of us can expect to spend the last six years of our prolonged lives suffering from a serious illness, in some form of pain and ill health. Fran, who (somewhat ironically) continued to work for a charitable trust researching sheltered housing for the elderly, was far from impressed: “Fran found this statistic, true or false, infuriating. Longevity has fucked up our pensions, our work-life balance, our health services, our housing, our happiness. It’s fucked up old age itself.” It’s a gentle, poignant book… but also one that I have to admit that I found rather depressing (probably just down to my current mood?). The beginning of the end? Oh dear me!

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