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Kate Sidley

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Humour’ Category

Old geezer hits the spot

There are only two stories: a man goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town.” So said someone. Not me, I’m only repeating. Clearly that’s nonsense, you say.

It would cover, say, The Odyssey, but what about the one where the woman got taken up in a space ship and got pregnant by an alien? Oh, yeah, that would be “a stranger comes to town”. Or how about the guy who went to live with the elephants? Uh huh, stranger comes to the bush. Fifty Shades? Yup, stranger with handcuffs. Drug stories? Journey to the dark self.

You see? Riffle through your mental catalogue of books read, but you’d have a hard time identifying a story that could not be encompassed by a sufficiently broad definition of strangers and journeys.

In fact, come to think of it, those two – a man goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town; familiar person in new place and new person in familiar place – are really one story: the clash of old and new. So there you have it. Given a generous dollop of definitional flexibility, there is only one story.

Let’s consider an example that would stand up to a rather narrower definition of journeys – The Hundred-Year-Old-Man Who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson.

I have had rather enough of peripatetic old folks, having recently read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which lots of people liked but I found rather, well, plodding, if you’ll excuse the pun.

Also, The Hundred-Year-Old Man is Swedish and one is not automatically drawn to Scandinavian novels, which generally feature gruesome murders and the translations of which can sound as if one is being shouted at by a slightly deaf Scandinavian person.

I’m glad I gave it a chance, though. It’s one of the more unusual, amusing and enjoyable books I’ve read this year. The hero, Allan Karlsson, climbs out of the window of his old-age home on the morning of his 100th birthday, leaving assorted dignitaries, TV crews and a large cake behind. He does a runner on impulse and without so much of a whiff of a plan.

While waiting for a bus to wherever it might take him, he steals a suitcase. Luckily for us, it contains money belonging to a criminal gang. Allan and an expanding motley crew of accomplices are soon being chased across Sweden by a gang of hardened criminals and some comically inept policemen.

This caper with a cast of delightful geriatrics is interspersed with flashbacks, detailing his involvement in key political events of the 20th century, from the Manhattan Project to the Spanish Civil War and hobnobbing with historical figures, from Mao to Churchill to Stalin.

Allan’s character has been likened to Forrest Gump, and it’s a fair comparison. He’s oddly unaware of the world around him, and remains calmly unperturbed and gently optimistic no matter what bizarre situation he finds himself in.

Throughout his strange adventures and mishaps, he is protected by improbable good luck and a sort of dumb innocence. Also, perhaps, by vodka.

If you are in the mood for picaresque satire, not Nordic noir, give old Allan a whirl. He is a man on a seemingly arbitrary journey and if you follow him, you will enjoy an adventure into an inventive and very funny world. And after all, who among us has never had the urge to exit the window, leave their life behind and journey forth?

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist


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Dark, empty streets and other horrors

Like a tiger recently escaped from a zoo, prowling the dark, empty streets, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Award has once more leapt upon us, grasping our heads between its dinner-plate-sized paws and sinking its teeth into our quivering necks as we beg for mercy.

That is a pretty awful sentence, you’ll agree. It incorporates many of the key elements of awful sentences – convolution, length, appalling metaphors, clichés – and it only took me a minute. It wasn’t difficult. I could write another sentence just as bad right now if I wanted, as bad as a fish curry from the night before last that you forgot to put in the fridge, or maybe worse, but that might be stretching my point like an elastic band between two lorries going in opposite directions. You see?

Okay, I’ll stop, but only out of concern for readers’ sensibilities, and out of a lurking fear that writing appalling sentences may be my true calling.

So, back to the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for the opening sentence of an imaginary novel, which is second only to the annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award in delighting those with literary pretentions and not much to do. The competition is run by the English Department at San Jose University and is named after the Victorian novelist Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who wrote the immortal opening sentence which starts: “It was a dark and stormy night .” and gets worse from that point on. Poor Edward is somewhat maligned, I feel, because he is also the originator of some fine phrases that have now become clichés, but were doubtless original, fresh and sparkling in their youth, including “the pen is mightier than the sword”, “the great unwashed” and “the almighty dollar”.

Cathy Bryant, from Manchester, was judged the winner for this one: “As he told her that he loved her she gazed into his eyes, wondering, as she noted the infestation of eyelash mites, the tiny deodicids burrowing into his follicles to eat the greasy sebum therein, each female laying up to 25 eggs in a single follicle, causing inflammation, whether the eyes are truly the windows of the soul; and, if so, his soul needed regrouting.”

There are winners in various categories. In the crime genre, illustrating the importance of metaphor in bad sentence writing, we have this gem from Sue Fondrie of Appleton, Wisconsin: “She slinked through my door wearing a dress that looked like it had been painted on. not with good paint, like Behr or Sherwin-Williams, but with that watered-down stuff that bubbles up right away if you don’t prime the surface before you slap it on, and – just like that cheap paint – the dress needed two more coats to cover her.”

Last up, in the romance category, Dan Leyde from Washington: “‘Your eyes are like deep blue pools that I would like to drown in’, he had told Kimberley when she had asked him what he was thinking; but what he was actually thinking was that sometimes when he recharges his phone he forgets to put the little plug back in, but he wasn’t going to tell her that.”

Scott Rice, the professor who started the prize, said in an interview that the winning entries feature the kind of gaffes “under-talented and over-aspiring” writers commonly make. Once you’ve read a few, it’s not difficult to write a rather confusing, overwritten and inelegant sentence of your own. Try it.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist


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At home with the wombats

Communication is the cornerstone of any marriage. Fortunately, my husband and I are excellent communicators. Here’s a sample of a recent conversation.

“The average British sheep sold at Smithfield Market in London doubled in weight, from 38lb to 80lb, in the 100 years between 1700 and 1800,” I start, chattily.

This is an interesting fact that I have picked up from the audio book of Bill Bryson’s At Home which I’ve been listening to in the car. This book is very long, 16½ hours on CD, or 550 pages, and littered with fascinating facts, not all of them about sheep, that I am eager to share.

I add a bit of commentary to Bryson’s facts: “I’ve always though sheep an unlikely sort of beast, whose chances of surviving in the wild would be about zero. Also, their ankles are clearly too small for their fleecy cloud-like bodies, so I’ve long suspected something was up, genetically. Now I know that they were bred from scraggier, perhaps cannier ancestors.”

“Hhhhmmm?” he replies, before I’ve even finished on my sheep-related observations. He doesn’t always listen when I’m speaking; I can’t imagine why. He begins his own conversation. “Speaking of sheep, did you know that a tennis player’s racquet arm will be quite significantly longer than his other arm?” He is reading Alan G Morris’s book, Missing & Murdered: A Personal Adventure in Forensic Anthropology. Thanks to Prof Morris, my husband is now ready, willing and able – in fact, eager – to identify any stray bodies that might be lying around, particularly if they have unusual identifying dental patterns, such as those created by pipe-smoking or having your dentistry performed by the village shaman with a hammer.

“Uh huh?” I reply. “Well, funny you should mention that, because 13500 houses were destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666.” Another Bryson fact, you understand.

“Indeed. Not a lot of people know that you can tell a great deal about a person’s hobbies by the bones,” he adds. “A jogger may well have arthritis of the knees. And rock climbers’ bones are actually denser than a body builder’s bones. So, obviously, you know, if there was a body you might be able to work out what sort of lifestyle.”

“Well, if it was wearing a jogging vest or was found at the bottom of a vertical cliff face, you might not need to bother the bones,” I say tetchily. I had planned on sharing a few morsels about the development of the kitchen stove, but he just won’t let go of this whole bone thing. I fear he actually thinks he’s a forensic anthropologist.

It is often thus, when we read nonfiction. Personally, I tend to overstate my own grasp of the subject at hand and have to be restrained from performing surgeries, flying aeroplanes and giving advice to the International Monetary Fund on the basis of this or that book I’ve just finished.

At the very least, we develop a tendency to go on and on, sharing random facts. This trait, I fear, may be genetic. Our son announces his presence with the news that the first toothbrush was invented in China in 1498 and, further, that a newborn kangaroo is small enough to fit in a teaspoon. “Hey, cool,” he goes on, flipping through a dog-eared copy of his favourite fact book titled, intriguingly, How to Avoid a Wombat’s Bum. “Leonardo da Vinci invented an alarm clock that woke you up by rubbing your feet.”

“That’s enough,” the parents announce in unison.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist


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A Small Dose of Proust

An unfortunate confluence of events has occurred in my reading life.

Firstly, inexplicably, my reading pace has slowed. Whereas once I could whip through books at a spanking pace while still getting the point of the thing and actually remembering it for a bit, more recently I toil slowly through the pages. Days pass before I get to the end. Weeks sometimes. As you can imagine, this is not a good state of affairs in my line of work.

In addition to the slowing pace, there are more and more bloated behemoths on the book shelves. I’m not even talking about your 800-page Ken Folletts. More about a regular decent novel that should be 450 pages but is, in fact, 550 or 600. In response to the question “What did you think of the book?” my most common observation is, “It could lose 100 pages.”

Often, such a book will start off promisingly. The writing’s good. You care about the characters. You’re engaged. But at the point where it feels that the story has been told and the book should be wrapping up, it shows no signs of doing so. In fact, like a child hanging around the outskirts of his parents’ dinner party, it seems the author can’t bear to bid us farewell and take himself off into that good night. “You can stop now,” you want to say. “Really, we got it. Off you go .”

You forget how much you enjoyed the first half, and become irritable with this book that just seems to go on and on for no good reason. “Surely you have someplace else to be?” you silently ask the author, trying to sound polite. “Because I know I do .” you mutter under your breath. And indeed, there on your bedside table is the book you’d be halfway through by now if only its predecessor had been more rigorously edited.

Nonfiction is even more troublesome. It’s tempting to blame Google and uncapped Wi-Fi, but I often think of the Duke of Gloucester’s observation about The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. “Another damned, thick square book,” he is said to have remarked. “Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr Gibbon?”

By way of contrast, I recently enjoyed a spare little volume called Proust’s Overcoat, by Lorenza Foschini. It tells the story of Jacques Guérin, a Parisian perfume magnate and bibliophile and collector, obsessed with Marcel Proust.

When Guérin fell ill and was treated by Proust’s brother, Dr Robert Proust, he discovered that the doctor had many of Proust’s books and manuscripts and had sold many more of his possessions to an antiques dealer.

Robert’s wife was ashamed of Proust’s homosexuality and disregard for the respectable bourgeois way of life and wished his notebooks, manuscripts and personal effects destroyed. Guérin went to great lengths over many years to trace and rescue invaluable literary memorabilia – the collection was later donated to Bibliotheque Nationale de France – but perhaps his greatest prize was the otter-lined overcoat that Proust wore in even the warmest weather and which in his last days, as he lay ill in bed finishing his masterpiece, he would drape over himself like a blanket.

I was delighted with this little sliver of literary detection and biography, which came in at just over 100 pages, and which could be finished in a few hours or, if you have a busy schedule, a couple of days. Foschini told her story well and when she’d finished, she stopped. Given that one’s reading life is short and finite, I appreciate that.


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A McBook and Fries, Please

It seems we must accept that book reading is an idea whose time has come and gone.

The book itself, as an artefact, is on its way out. No one wants to shell out money for old technology, apart from the fogeys who go on and on embarrassingly about the marvellous smell of paper books. In fact, reading as an occupation is on pretty thin ice all round, unless you write soft-porn bondage stuff, in which case you are bound to find a few gazillion devoted readers. Trying to inspire children to read is next to impossible. You may as well try to inspire them to do needlepoint. Whatever that is.

Anyway, it’s good to see that there are those smart enough to do what’s necessary – to bribe or otherwise induce the public into buying and reading books. Kudos, first up, to McDonald’s in the UK, which earlier this year gave away millions of copies of Michael Morpurgo’s books to customers who bought Happy Meals.

Morpurgo was the children’s laureate and is a prolific writer of children’s stories, including War Horse, which is now a major theatre show and film. Honestly, I feel his books are almost good enough that one might be moved to purchase one for one’s child without a side order of carbs, but I’m a bit old fashioned that way.

Enough with the sarcasm. Besides, the UK’s Booktrust charity and the National Literacy Trust are in favour of and do wonderful work promoting literacy and the notion of reading for pleasure. They point out that eight out of 10 families frequent McDonald’s. No doubt the percentage of families frequenting libraries and bookshops is significantly lower. It makes sense to introduce non-reading children and families to books in an environment where they are comfortable.

On that subject, here’s an alarming piece of information I came upon while noodling around on the web: NLT figures show that one third of British children don’t own a book. Book ownership, hardly surprisingly, correlates with better literacy levels and higher social mobility.

Fewer than half of South African households own books and their children are doubtless attending the 92% of public schools that don’t have libraries. I’d be delighted to see books given away with fast foods, frankly.

Here’s another novel way to promote reading. Inmates in Brazil’s prisons can get time chopped off their sentences as a reward for reading. Criminals must read a book within a four-week period and write a decent-ish essay on it. They can earn a maximum of 48 days off their sentences. This is no doubt very welcome because, as anyone who has ever watched Prison Break will attest, prison isn’t very nice. The idea is for the prisoners to leave with a broader world view. I’ve long believed that reading makes you a better person, so I would support that scheme.

Speaking of book-related promotions, the new online discount and reward programme from Exclus1ves.co.za is fun and easy. Registered users who visit the site earn smiley-face stickers by rating and sharing their favourite books. Collect enough Smileys and you will receive discounts of up to 25%. There’s a group discount element to it, too. If enough people drag and drop their Smileys onto a certain book, it triggers a 24-hour discount for all users of the site. They promise free delivery, too, so it’s a rather good deal all round.

With this sort of innovative thinking, perhaps the book might stick around for a bit longer. Hope so.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist


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Patchett and the piano

Home at last. I’ve been absent from these pages for a few weeks, on a little holiday on the bookslive.co.za website. (Thank you to the many thousands who stampeded the editor’s office to find out where I was and demand this column’s return).

It was some consolation that I was ousted by such an illustrious group of people – no less than all the short-listed writers from the Sunday Times Fiction Prize and the Alan Paton Award for non-fiction, whom you will have seen interviewed on these pages over the past six weeks. It’s rather an honour to give up your seat for the likes of Michiel Heyns.

One of the more enjoyable reads during this time was Ann Patchett’s new offering, State of Wonder. I’m a fan of Patchett for a number of reasons, some quite aside from her writing. For a start, she recently opened a bookstore in her home town, Nashville. The town’s independent book stores were decimated by the big chains, who in turn received a hiding from Amazon and this city of 600000 people apparently found itself without a proper bookshop! (You see what can happen? Don’t say you weren’t warned).

Parnassus Book Store (tag line: An Independent Bookstore for Independent People) hosts reader events, children’s story time and so on. But here’s the thing – they have a piano. Nashville is evidently chock-a-block with crooners and strummers and ivory-tinklers, and every now and then someone will stop browsing and play a tune or two. Occasionally, other shoppers will join in and have a bit of a jam. Please, South Africa, bombard your local bookstore with requests for pianos.

Patchett won my further admiration when she took a big swing at the Pulitzer Prize organisers, who couldn’t get it together to award the fiction prize this year. Although they assured the reading public that the non-award was a reflection on the process (there was no majority decision), not on the state of fiction, it was a mess.

Patchett declared herself outraged as an author, a bookstore owner and a reader. There were plenty of excellent novels last year. Awards give winners and the whole book business a much-needed punt. Instead, readers are now left with the impression that nothing worth reading was produced in the previous 12 months.

I’m so with her. This is a major literary award, for heaven’s sake, and your judges have whittled down a list of 314 books to three (David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia and Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams). Play rock-paper-scissors if you have to, but don’t be such a bunch of drips (OK, so she didn’t put it quite like that – I’m editorialising).

Onto the novel. State of Wonder centres around Marina Singh, a scientist at a pharmaceutical company. When her colleague is reported dead on a trip to the Amazon jungle, Marina is sent off to find out what happened to him and to complete his mission to track down the brilliant and eccentric Dr Annick Swenson.

Swenson has been studying the Lakashi tribe, which has an interesting and potentially massively profitable anomaly – they remain fertile into old age – but has gone “rogue”, refusing to report back to the pharmaceutical company funding her research. There’s a brooding, dangerous quality to the Amazon – Heart of Darkness meets Poisonwood Bible – with its determined insects, deadly snakes and cannibal tribes. It’s a fascinating backdrop for Patchett’s well-drawn characters, and for Marina’s efforts to uncover the secrets that lie there.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist


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Britannia rules no more

There used to be two types of people in the world – Encyclopaedia Britannica people and World Book people. Well, three types, really, if you count the vast majority of humanity, for whom this is a completely meaningless topic for discussion, as type three. Having been in continuous print since 1768, Encyclopaedia Britannica recently announced that it will no longer be offering a print edition. There will be an online version and various apps, ranging in price, depending on bells, whistles, and the amount of dreadful online advertising you are prepared to stomach. For $70 a year, you get the full Monty. The print version would have set you back over $1300 and, by the time you cracked the spine of the “A” volume, it would have been dated. No matter how much we bookish types like to wax romantic about the smell of paper etc etc, there are some things that digital indisputably does better – encyclopaeidiaing, f’rinstance.

Back in the day, when I was a kid, the Encyclopaedia Britannica was the trusted arbiter of all knowledge and to own it was a marker of success and prestige. To have a set lining your bookshelves showed you as someone with intellectual standing or pretensions and social cache (even more so than World Book owners, it seems). I can’t quite think of what today’s equivalent would be – not quite the flat screen tv, because the underlying impulse behind the purchase was to either be or look smarter. Maybe some sort of combination of children’s violin lessons and the flat screen tv.

It’s hard to imagine, now, families paying off over many months, a set of books. But they did. If ever there was a dispute about the length of the Nile, the causes of the Napoleonic Wars, or the name of some ancient Egyptian god, one could turn to the shelf of encyclopaedias (leather-spined, if you had really made it, and gold-lettered) and turn the strangely thin paper pages, allowing the voice of all knowledge to speak on the subject, in rather tiny text. My school projects were generally compiled with reference to the library’s set of EB (we didn’t have our own set) and elderly copies of National Geographic. There was no cut-and-paste, which the fortunate youf of today so revel in – we were subject to the inestimable hardship of copying chunks of source materials out by hand.

In its heyday, the company sold 120 000 sets in the US. Many, at least in the 70s, were sold by individuals schlepping samples around the suburbs. The door-to-door encyclopaedia salesman has been the butt of jokes, skits and barbs. They’ve been portrayed fast-talking their way into homes; suckering parents, keen to give their children the best start in school, into buying sets of books they didn’t need and couldn’t afford; seducing bored housewives.

One salesman interviewed for his recollections of those days gone by, tells how he memorized his 90 minute spiel about the books, how to use the index, other products in the range, so that he could reproduce it flawlessly. Can you imagine (a) letting a stranger into your house and (b) allowing him to waffle on for an hour and a half? It’s inconceivable.

Try wandering around the suburbs of Johannesburg in the late afternoon, when even the broom sellers and the mielie ladies have left, hefting a heavy suitcase through the streets, with nothing but a smile and a positive attitude to see you through. If you made it to your destination without being mugged by a passing tsotsi (who would be very disappointed to find a bunch of boring old books in your nice briefcase) or bounced by a private security company, you’d find a gate and a 2-metre wall between you and the homeowner. Pressing the intercom, you’d be met with the customary South African greeting “No thank you”, uttered against the barking of attack-trained Rottweiler and depressed panic buttons. And forget the 90 minute spiel. We are a generation trained to cut off estate agents, bank representatives, cell phone company upgraders and the like with the tersest of responses before they get to sentence three.

So, goodbye door-to-door salesmen and to bookshelves full of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Instead, embrace an ever-updated, up-to-the-minute, hyper-linked, multi-media, reader-accessible Wiki world. Right now, on a cell phone near you.


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A guaranteed bestseller

There are few things as satisfying as a list. Not a “to do” list; those just fill you with guilt and despair. Rather, a list of best, worst, most, highest, smallest and so on. The world in its raw form is confusing, complex and nuanced, whereas a list is neat, confident and uncomplicated. Sadly, also, often inaccurate. But that’s the price you pay for certainty.

Let’s not even go there. Where we are going instead, is into the area of bestselling books. Every now and then someone produces a list of the bestselling books of all time. Inevitably, a minor controversy breaks out. Not a Joseph Kony controversy, or a nationalisation of the mines controversy – these are book people, after all – but more like “Well, I’m not sure that The Catcher in the Rye should be at 18. Perhaps 19, by my reckoning?” Whereupon, I imagine, they agree to disagree and break for tea.

The reason for the controversy is, of course, that it’s difficult to know for sure how many copies of the old books – the Bible or Chairman Mao’s Quotations, for instance – have been printed and distributed. Estimations for the Bible, in thousands of languages over many centuries, range from around three billion to six billion copies.

Even as far as modern books go, it’s not always easy to get a precise number. Nonetheless, even give or take a few thousand, A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens’s 1859 novel, is remarkable for its 200 million copies. Another early adopter of cult novel status was The Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien, which sold 150 million copies. Other novels in the top rankings are Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by JK Rowling; And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie; and The Hobbit, by JRR Tolkien. Also selling like hot Swiss on a roll are She, by H Rider Haggard; The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown; The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery; The Catcher in the Rye, by JD Salinger and The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho.

In the strange-but-true category we have the unfortunately named Scouting for Boys, by Robert Baden-Powell and the American Spelling Book, by Noah Webster. It’s a wonder boys aren’t more resourceful and Americans aren’t better spellers, when you consider the figures. You’d think the world would be full of people making fires without recourse to matches and including the “u” in the word colour.

So, what lessons can the ambitious modern-day writer learn from the bestselling books lists?

First, religious books do well. In addition to the Bible, an estimated 400 million copies of the Koran have been printed. The Book of Mormon, and the Jehovah’s Witness tract The Truth that Leads to Eternal Life, are both on the list, with more than 100 million copies.

Second, if you are able to make your book compulsory reading in your country or movement, your chances of hitting the big time are greatly increased. Take Chairman Mao’s Quotations. The stated objective was for 99% of the population of China to read the book, and to facilitate this, many new printing works were built. As a further facilitation, the Red Guard would pop in just to check you had a copy at hand. It worked. Close to a billion copies were produced and distributed.

Mao also sold 400 million copies of his poems – a feat, you’ll agree, even with the Red Army’s assistance.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist


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Full lips and other pet hates

My husband, a newly published novelist, was accosted by a friend the other day. “I bought your book,” she said. “I was really looking forward to reading it but I won’t be able to. It’s written in the present tense and I can’t read anything written in the present tense. Even yours, sorry.”

I was astonished. We all have our preferences, of course, but that seemed unreasonably strict.

“What a weirdo,” I said to my husband, who then reminded me that I am physically distressed by a particular typeface. It’s that one with the F that looks like a 7. They use it a lot in sign-writing and on the sides of bakkies, and it’s so horrible that I have to avert my eyes, which is potentially hazardous when driving.

I explained that my perfectly reasonable aversion to objectively ugly typography cannot be compared to this sort of weirdness. Quite different, obviously. Then he pointed out a few more of my allegedly unjustifiable positions – such as the fact that movies where it rains or snows a lot make me uncomfortable – and at that point, I shut the conversation down.

I mentioned pet book-related peeves to other reader friends. One was entirely sympathetic and offered his own bugbear: “Well, I can’t read a book with strange punctuation. Or absent punctuation. I know it’s all modern and stylistic and what have you, but I can’t bear dialogue without inverted commas. I want to know who’s talking and when they stop!”

He proceeded to move on to another pet peeve – books that are at least 20% longer than they need to be. “Is it because they can’t stop writing? Or because they can sell the book for more? Or that the editor is too scared to chop out the boring bits?” (I often think of Elmore Leonard’s excellent advice to writers to “Leave out the bits that readers tend to skip.”)

Others chipped in. One person can’t bear a book within a book. “If you want to write the inner book, write that. If it’s not good enough to be a book on its own, why do we have to read it inside another book?” she complained.

“Trilogies,” said another. “What’s wrong with two books? Or four? Or one, for that matter? In a trilogy, at least one of the second two will be totally lame.”

Another is so put off by certain cover elements – photographs, or gold lettering, or excessively curly script fonts – that he wouldn’t even get to the book itself.

Another objects to “breaking the fourth wall” (a term from theatre, referring to a character or narrator acknowledging somehow that this is fiction, that the audience/reader is out there). She said: “Ugh! That smirk of intimacy when the narrator says, ‘And thus, dear reader …’”

“Not nearly as annoying as when a character looks at herself in the mirror and you get a full-on description of her strong jaw and too-full lips,” tossed in another.

Which reminded me that I can’t bear five-year-olds making comments that would be impossibly perspicacious coming from a 12-year-old. It is particularly insufferable if the child is the narrator.

At this point, one of my companions brought up the book Room, by Emma Donoghue. Five-year-old Jack has been captive in one room, with only his mother for company, all his life. He narrates part of the story and his perspective is wholly original and believable. Whereupon we agreed that in the right hands, all rules can be broken and all pet peeves overcome.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist


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Paper Weight

A friend described recently how she needs a brief period of recovery after reading a particularly fine book. She is very disapproving of the idea of flinging yourself into the next novel without properly letting go of the previous one with a little breather, a moment’s pause.

She likened an unseemly hasty dash into a replacement book to flinging yourself into the arms of another beau after the loss of a spouse. “You wouldn’t just go and get married again the next week, would you? It’s the same with a book,” she said, both making and stretching the point, I thought.

This conversation struck a chord because I had been in a state of reading limbo for a few days. I had been so absorbed in Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love, and so affected by it, that I couldn’t get used to the idea of reading something else. (An aside: this book is not new, but I picked it up after enjoying her more recent Great House. Second aside, for those who like a bit of literary gossip: she is married to Jonathan Safran Foer.)

Part love story, with a dash of mystery, The History of Love moves gracefully between wartime Poland and modern-day New York. The character who crosses these two worlds is Leopold Gursky.

When he escaped from his Polish village just ahead of the Germans, he lost or left his whole world – his family, his history, the girl he loved, and the book he wrote for her. It is this book that binds the novel together. When we meet him in New York, Leo is an old man, a retired locksmith, still broken by the losses he suffered as a young man, and unaware that his manuscript survived and was, in fact, published. Fourteen-year-old Alma, discovering that she was named after the heroine in the book that her late father loved, sets about tracking down the book and its story. Thus their stories come together.

Leo is defined by loss and longing and Krauss’s descriptions of his loneliness are devastating. His suffering as a young man is reinforced daily by the knowledge that he has a son who will never know him. He fears dying unseen, on a day when no one has noticed him, and to avoid this fate he makes small scenes in public, dropping coffee or spilling coins, drawing attention to his existence.

On this description, the book sounds like a downer but, surprisingly, it is rather amusing, as is Leo himself. Alma is engaging too, with her interest in becoming a survivalist and her clumsy attempts to salve her mother’s loneliness by setting her up with potential suitors. Oh, and she’s also trying to prevent her 10-year-old brother, who thinks he may be the messiah, from becoming a social outcast.

Having devoured that engrossing novel, I was left with the empty and dissatisfied feeling one gets in the wake of a favoured book. A few days of reading newspapers, magazines and Facebook updates and I was well ready for a new book. But it had to be something completely different.

To Sweden then, joining the low-life drug dealers and bouncers of Jens Lapidus’s Easy Money as they chase the big score which, of course, never comes easy and always has a price. Gritty, fast, raw – the very opposite of Krauss’s work.

It was just what was needed. After a break, of course.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist


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