A man of a certain age

Dublin: WordPress Free Photo Library

Charlie Savage by Roddy Doyle.
Jonathan Cape 2019

As a man of a certain age myself, the titular character of Roddy Doyle’s Charlie Savage is a kind of blood brother even though we don’t have the obvious things in common — football, the pub, dogs; for in this collection of reminiscences Charlie (via the author) reveals his bewilderment at changes in the world even while he valiantly tries to come to terms with them, a state of affairs those born in the middle of the last century may well recognise.

As a Dubliner himself Doyle is in an excellent position to portray Charlie’s daily habits in Ireland’s capital with a sympathetic eye — it helps that he appears to share a birth year with his eponymous hero — though we mustn’t be misled into thinking this Charlie is coterminous with his author.

The fifty-two vignettes, written as weekly instalments for the Irish Independent, chart Charlie’s stumbles through 2018, two years into a man-baby’s presidency and another two years before a global pandemic. But many of Charlie’s observations continue to have contemporary and, even with their Irish perspective, universal relevance.

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The Ruin of Books and Sarcasm

Cover generator: https://nullk.github.io/penguin.html

Alex, who blogs on fantasy and science fiction at Spells and Spaceships and tweets as (at)BlogSpells, posted this fun tweet recently:

Create your YA novel title:

The _______ of ________ and _______

1) type of place you like travelling to most — forest, church, castle etc.
2) Last thing you held in your hand other than your phone
3) thing you’re most scared of

Mine, as you can see, came out as The Ruin of Books and Sarcasm which I fondly thought had the enigmatic feel of titles like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainance.

I also used this cover generator to produce a suitably official-looking Penguin Classics title using a photo of part of a mural I saw in Bristol.

Here is a summary of the imagined blurb on the back cover, which may or may not encourage you to go out and buy it — virtually of course!

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Spines tingled, funny bones tickled

Penny dreadful of Spring-heeled Jack

Philip Pullman:
Spring-heeled Jack
Illustrated by David Mostyn
Puffin 2018 (1989)

From 1837 onwards reports began circulating in London of a terrifying devilish figure who terrorised women: sporting horns he breathed fire and leapt superhuman heights and distances. As is the way with urban legends there were several sightings with conflicting descriptions, even sensationalised accounts in penny dreadfuls, but nobody ever convincingly explained the phenomenon.

In due course Philip Pullman took this enigmatic figure and turned Spring-heeled Jack from a legendary molester to a cartoon crimefighter:

In Victorian times, before Superman and Batman had been heard of, there was another hero who used to go around rescuing people and catching criminals.

With the aid of a sidekick, cartoonist extraordinaire David Mostyn, Pullman tells the story of how Jack comes to the aid of a trio of orphans escaping the nefarious attentions of the orphanage superintendent, his assistant, and Mack the Knife and his gang.

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All in the cards

Queen of Hearts card

Anne Spillard The Cartomancer Pan Books 1989 (1987)

It’s odd how, re-reading this twenty-five years later, I find that I recall neither characters nor plot from that first reading other than that the narrator tells people’s fortunes from an ordinary deck of cards. That and the fact that there are a few obscure Arthurian references thrown in. This second rather more careful reading reveals there is a little more subtlety than at first appears from a cursory perusal, making it more satisfactory yet, curiously, curiouser.

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Shelfmark 400

A municipal library, Prague © Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar / CC-BY-SA-3.0
A municipal library, Prague © Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Sophie Divry The Library of Unrequited Love
Translated from the French by Siân Reynolds
Maclehose Press 2014 (2013)

I wanted to describe the battle between order and disorder, between love and bitterness, between conservatism and revolution. Shouldn’t literature always try to answer these two questions: what does it mean to be human? What is life? — Sophie Divry

Here is a short fiction about books and book-lovers, libraries and librarians, infatuation and infuriation. And how can one not be drawn by a novel with this particular title? Especially one which has been reduced in a sale, with a recommendation from the bookshop assistant that he’d only taken a short while to read it? (Perhaps that’s why it was at a bargain price: it had been ‘pre-read’.)

Other than long-dead authors there’s only one name in this book: Martin. Martin is a serious scholar using the facilities of some municipal library in the Paris region, ensconcing himself in the Geography and Town Planning section (Dewey class 910) located in the basement. He is lusted after by a frustrated spinster librarian who is fascinated by his neck, like the spine of a book. On this occasion she has discovered a hapless reader who while asleep had been locked in by mistake overnight, and takes the opportunity before the building officially opens to the public by subjecting him to a rant. A rant which for approaching ninety pages is one long paragraph.

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The only certainty

Holbeins Totentanz: der Sterndeuter - Holbein's Dance of Death / Astrologer -
Holbeins Totentanz: der Sterndeuter – Holbein’s Dance of Death: Astrologer

Terry Pratchett Mort Corgi 1988 (1987)

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get round to Terry Pratchett. Maybe it’s because the comic fantasy I’ve sampled up to now has elicited a lukewarm response, humour being such a personal thing. I like word play as much as the next reader, along with left-field concepts, but key literary ingredients such as plotting, a sureness with words and above all characterisation are a must for me; their lack becomes a triumph of superficiality over substance.

Pratchett’s Mort I’ve discovered has both substance and sheen. Fourth in his celebrated Discworld series he skilfully blends whimsy, high fantasy, allusions and, yes, wordplay with a rattling good story, peopled with characters that despite some caricature keep the reader interested right through to the end. Continue reading “The only certainty”

A masquerade in Venice

Alturia, Oliver VII

Antal Szerb Oliver VII Pushkin Press 2013 (1942)

Anybody coming fresh to this novel might assume it was a straightforward comic novel set in some Ruritanian backwater. Many times I found myself thinking that it would make an excellent stage play — its plotting is as complex as a Feydeau farce, and at times it reminded me of Shaw’s Arms and the Man (though the latter is set in Bulgaria rather than an imaginary country). And yet hindsight informs us that this was the Hungarian author’s last work before he was murdered in a Nazi death camp in the closing year of the Second World War. It’s confusing then that there is no hint of the bloody turmoil in the European theatre of war from Szerb’s tale, one centred on a bloodless coup and laced with humorous misunderstandings and engineered coincidences.

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