Fall by John Preston
This is a full and thorough biography of the late Robert Maxwell by John Preston, who also wrote The Dig and A Very English Scandal. John is my friend, (though don’t let that put you off him), and he is very funny in person and his typical impishness comes through in his portrait of the absolute madman Maxwell. I laughed many times, as I’m sure John wants reader to, at the more manic episodes of Maxwell’s life. If you don’t usually read non-fiction, take a punt on this as it’s very entertaining – part thriller, part psychological dissection, part whodunnit. And if you are someone very uptight and non-risk like me, you will relish stories of people like Maxwell who just do whatever the fuck they like.
The Secret Countess by Eva Ibbotson
Someone here recommended this to me – I’m sorry, I can’t remember who – as an unchallenging love story, the sort of thing you sometimes need to read if you haven’t managed to finish a book for a while. The premise is that it’s the turn of the century and a Russian Countess fleeing the Bolsheviks fetches up at a grand English Manor House as a skivvy/maid. But wait, who is this returning from war? It’s the handsome new Lord of the old doo-dah. Fill in the rest. I really liked it, though. About 80% non-cringe, which isn’t easy.
Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead
Set in a sort of New England/Maine upscale WASP America place, this tells the story of the weekend before a wedding. There’s the pregnant bride and her difficult, slightly mad sister, the mother who is or is not a water sprite, the mid-life-crisis sleazy dad and a sprinkling of general douchebag frat boys. I didn’t quite see the point of it and the lack of comedy at any point, despite all the ingredients for one great, comic scene, was a bit disappointing. Sometimes even in a book that is downright downbeat, there can be one bright shining moment of humour that makes you re-frame the entire book as a set up for this one, fabulous joke and it makes it even funnier – like how all Trigger’s lines in Only Fools and Horses are that much more amusing for him being such a sort of earnest Eeyore. This book is no Only Fools and Horses, though. It’s alright. Like 6/10.
A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson
Anne Tyler is a huge fan of Mary Lawson but on the evidence of this book I can’t really see why. A Town Called Solace opens with a seven year-old girl freaking out because her (stupid, unlikeable?) teenaged sister who hates their father for no reason made clear, is missing. A dude moves into an old lady’s house next door. There’s a significant cat. Again, the major problem for me is the critical lack of humour that abounds in Anne Tyler’s books. I once laughed until I cried during her description of a light aircraft pilot and I’m not sure it was even intentionally funny. Worse than being not funny there is even, weaving through A Town Called Solace, an icky smear of sentimentality that I had to sort of skim over with my eyes. I can only assume that Lawson’s other books are better, or that Lawson is e.g. Tyler’s less successful writers-group friend and Tyler is trying to big her up so that she doesn’t feel so guilty for being demonstrably more talented.
Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler
In order to understand why the literary critic and all-round young (30!), scary feminist New Yorker literary critic Oyler has written this dense and meandering book, you have to know that her favourite sub-genre of book is what she calls “sad girls in Europe”. This is the ultimate sad girl in Europe book! Until I did a bit of research on Oyler herself, I was baffled by Fake Accounts where literally nothing happens. Okay, not nothing – there are two pivotal plot points, but that’s it. There rest is an interior monologue reminiscent of Anna Karenina’s stream of consciousness while she is on her way to the train station (if Anna Karenina was a highly cynical, internet-literate feminist).
If you approach Fake Accounts as I suspect it is intended to be, which is a modern homage to and spin on this “sad girl in Europe” genre, then you will enjoy it. I totally get what she’s trying to do here, which is somehow render life as it really is and it really happens, rather than taking a theme and then inventing B plot characters and hero debates and grand finales in order to create what Zadie Smith has termed “hysterical realism”. And Oyler does a good job, it’s good, modern, cliche-free writing (except when she paraphrases the first sentence of Mrs Dalloway, which is the second book I’ve read in three months to do this. Get over it!)
If you are looking for anything approximating bestseller fiction or book club fiction, you will just be flummoxed by the nothingness and infuriated by the wordiness of Oyler’s sentences such as this: “Detrimentally trustworthy, he categorically rejected the films of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, albeit I suspect regretfully, and was a designated driver in college; a woman who would go to catalyse significant plot lines on a reality TV show once puked in his car.”
You know, this is really unfair of me considering how completely obsessed I was with relationships before I was married, but I was also a bit disappointed by how this book, by this young hope, this scary feminist New Yorker literary critic is, despite all its modernity and wordiness, just another book that pivots completely around a man. And not even one who is worth it.
I am reading A Town called Solace at the moment and not enjoying it much, but in defence of Mary Lawson, I thought her first novel Crow Lake was terrific. Admittedly not big on humour, but powerful and with much better plotting and structure than her latest.
Thanks Charlotte… I assumed that maybe this was not her best work
Hi I can second The Fall it was a great read. A horribly fascinating character very well written
Anne Tyler is so funny. She has even had me laughing through tears which is an absolute gold standard reading experience and very rare. I think that’s why I loved Less so much – it was hilarious. And why I loathed A Little Life so deeply. Even Lolita, which it ripped off, was funny, though I have not been able to re-read since having nieces. Speaking of biographies, Red Comet – the short life and blazing art of Sylvia Plath – brilliant, if you can face 900 pages.
Which Anne Tyler book has the pilot description please?
It’s The Accidental Tourist
Thanks, just finished it – really enjoyed
Just consumed The Secret Countess in less than 24 hours after exactly the drought you described. Delicious and just what I needed. Have recommended to a couple of world weary friends. Thank you.
I used to read two books a week. Even when I had babies. This nonsense has floored me.
I love Ibbotson; try The Morning Gift next if you want to read more.
I also rocketed my way through The Secret Countess, perfect one year in lockdown read. Am off to download The Morning Gift!!
Thank you, I did and was halfway through it when I realised that I’d read it before, but a long time ago and obviously at breakneck speed. Loved it all over again.
If anyone is ‘enjoying’ the Terror on BBC 2, Michael Palin has a recent book out called Erebus which I’m enjoying at the moment.
Very much enjoying The Fall, Maxwell is an incredible character in all the worst ways.
Thank you for the book recommendations, I trust your insights.
I have really enjoyed Motherwell by Deborah Orr and Lowborn by Kelly Hudson. Both memoirs. Both excellent.
I started Fake Accounts and just couldn’t continue. And feel guilty doing that! Glad to see am not alone!