On Reading, Part One

Summer is book time. Like winter, it’s full of long days in which you can read yourself stupid, though I don’t suppose that comes as a surprise to anyone. In between working and catching up with friends, I generally unwind with a book; the best way to fall asleep on a warm summer night is to read, to immerse yourself into another world and just let yourself go. (Another thing that I’m quite fond of is drawing connections between books, making links – either implicit or explicit – and seeing what can be made of them. But I’ll save that for later.)

Some years ago, I read Tracy Chevalier’s [then newly-released] Remarkable Creatures, a book about the fossil hunter Mary Anning and her friendship with Elizabeth Philpot. It’s a wonderful bittersweet Georgian odyssey of a book, about a time when science and discovery – both exploratory, intellectual and metaphysical – were progressing in leaps and bounds of a standard and rate unthinkable today. I loved it, and yet it seems strange now, in hindsight, that it’s taken me almost the three years since then to read another of her books.
Burning Bright is set in the London of 1792, at a time when poet William Blake was writing his ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’, when the French Revolution was underway, when there was still a very obvious and distinct demarcation between city and country. Again, there’s nothing truly groundbreaking to it, nothing terribly important or zeitgeisty about it, but again, I thoroughly enjoyed it. The books of hers that I’ve read tend to work to a formula, not so much structurally as in their inspiration; it’s a bit like a recipe – take one historical setting, find one historical figure and fictionalise suitably, creating a world around this new form, serve with new fictional characters and a slight embellishing of the recorded facts. I can imagine them being films, in much the same style and way that her Girl with a Pearl Earring was; there’s a rather filmic quality to Chevalier’s books, not necessarily in their scope, but in the richness of her worlds, the total immersion into the periods and lives of the characters she has created. You feel and smell and taste and can almost see the smoke and fog, the harsh tang of the sea-breeze, the distant Thames and the mud in the streets, the pubs and alehouses, the fields and villages.
I decided to give Peter Carey another go. I read Oscar and Lucinda two years ago and loved it (the film, too, is gorgeous, and has a young-ish Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett as the titular pair), and had read The True History of the Kelly Gang a few years before that and thought it was a decent if slightly too romanticised interpretation of the Kelly’s. (I read Jack Maggs whilst at school, and the only bit I can remember in any detail was the beginning, and its Dickensian atmosphere. It wasn’t until four years later that I discovered it was in fact Carey’s reinterpretation of Dickens’ Great Expectations, from ‘Magwitch’s’ point of view.) I tried to read his latest offering, The Chemistry of Tears, about this time last year, but found it quite heavy going so I unfortunately stopped, but the idea behind Theft; a love story has always seemed rather tantalising. And it’s an absolute hoot. It’s got a bit of everything, really: an art heist, art fraud, a crazy love story, two brothers, and a whole string of bizarre sequences, punctuated with periodic riffs on the immortal literary confectionary of The Magic Pudding. As with a lot of Peter Carey’s fiction, the idea is so bizarre it really shouldn’t work, but it does because of his language, the way he writes either sucks you in completely, pulls you under, or else spits you out in a big glistening gob of wordly ambergris. And yet, part of the thrill of a Peter Carey novel is his delight and use of language. While he does have his own style of writing, there are at times echoes of Tim Winton’s sparseness, Helen Garner’s dense poetry, Neil Gaiman’s cheekiness, wittiness, and inventive turn of phrase; he is able to turn his hand to almost anything, and the results are often deceptively disarming, quite unexpected and not-at-all what they set out to be in the beginning, when you started the book.
After reading Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant last September, the story of William Dawes and Patyegarang has stuck in my head, made me want to find out more about them. On my hunt for books about them, I chanced across Ashley Hay’s The Body In The Clouds, a book about three men (and women) whose lives are all interlinked with the act of witnessing a person falling from the sky, off the Bridge and surviving. At first I thought it was contrived, a bit too forced, but as I read on, the book worked its magic on me and by the end of it I was a blubbering mess, but that could also have been the personal emotional connection to it, the people it reminds me of, the stories and long days spent wandering around the Rocks and the city with Gramps when I was younger… Hay’s book reminds me of the flight of bumblebees – trails of thought and story buzzing around each other, overlapping, cross-pollinating from-into each other, intersecting, looping back over themselves before finally drawing together in a rhapsodic kind of fugue; in fact, the whole book is a kind of fugue, in a way, as many things seem to be at the moment. It’s nothing groundbreaking or world-changing, but it knows what it is and does it well. I think that’s all you can really ask for from a book, from anyone, from anything.

What I’ve read this year, part one
The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers and Selected Stories, Delia Falconer
James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl
Burning Bright,
Tracy Chevalier
Falling Angels,
Tracy Chevalier
Cuckoo In The Nest,
Michelle Magorian
Rust and Bone, Craig Davidson
The Body In The Clouds, Ashley Hay
Theft; a love story, Peter Carey

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