I love Dickens!

As the nights draw in and the Christmas trees start getting lit up all over town, there is one English writer who seems to truly own the season.  I have heard it said that Charles Dickens really invented the jolly traditional Christmas, much as Coca-Cola invented the red and white-clad Santa Claus.  It is true that the Christmas party in Jane Austen’s ‘Emma‘ (published in 1815) bears very little resemblance to the ritual-laden splendour of the idyllic parties described in ‘A Christmas Carol’ (pub. 1843).  It is also true that post-1840s British fiction tends to depict festivities which are significantly closer to the Dickens’ version than the ‘just another party’ feeling you get with Austen.

The reason this is at the forefront of my mind so early in December is that I visited The Charles Dickens museum in London yesterday and spent a lovely afternoon walking through holly-decked rooms.  It seems there’s an annual Christmas exhibition at the museum because, well, it’s Dickens.  This means the dining room is complete with a massive roast turkey on the table (turkey replaced goose as the most popular centrepiece of the Christmas lunch during the Victorian era), and another room has a beautiful fir tree (popularised in the UK by the royal family in the 1840s).  As it happens, I’m not even Christian, but I am a fan of English literature and the visit inspired me to write a long overdue post about my favourite Dickens novels.  They may not be the traditional best, but these are the books I return to time and time again, normally, as I said earlier, as the nights get longer and I start to see Christmas trees appear.

imgres-1‘Oliver Twist’ is probably the Dickens book I have re-read in its entirety the most times.  To be honest, the other books in this list owe their place to the fact that they contain specific chapters, scenes or set-pieces that I love.  When it comes to Oliver Twist though, I’m in it for the long haul and every re-reading reveals new moments to love.  For one thing, the plot contains so many turns and twists (quite literally) that I nearly always discover something new about characters and motivations.  From the indictment of the poor laws and workhouse system to the big-hearted Mr Grimwig, from the connivances of the fiendish Fagin to the melodrama of Bill Sykes and Nancy … I think Oliver Twist is a genuine must-read and a wonderful introduction to everything Dickens does so well.

imgres-2‘Nicholas Nickleby’ is another enduring favourite of mine.  It is probably most famous for the hideous ‘Dotheboys Hall’ (headteacher: Wackford Squeers) which shows Dickens was just as enraged by the inhumanity of the private Yorkshire schools system as by pubic workhouses.  The satire is as funny as it is biting though; I personally love every chapter that features a member of the hideous Squeers family.  In ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ we follow the fortunes of the genteel Nickleby family, complete with wicked Scrooge-like uncle, as they learn the ways of the world.  Other top characters include Lord Frederick Verisopht, Madame Mantalini and, of course, the Infant Phenomenon.  ‘Nicholas Nickleby’, as an early Dickens novel, also includes a genuinely interesting heroine in the put-upon but not infuriatingly meek Kate.

imgres-3I first encountered ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’ through the 1994 BBC mini-series, and remember reading frantically to try and keep ahead of the plot.  I was especially taken with Julia Sawalha’s flighty Merry Chuzzlewit and the malevolence of Keith Allen’s Jonas.  In the book, things are, if anything, more powerful and I continually return to the scenes featuring Merry and Jonas … and Mrs Todgers and Mr Pecksniff and young Bailey and Tigg Montague and Montague Tigg and Mrs. Gamp and Mark Tapley and the wonderful wonderful Pinches …
The novel is about the grotesque connivances of the Chuzzlewit family.  The hero, young Martin, is on a journey of maturity, and there is the general question of whether good will triumph over evil, but it’s mostly just a whole lot of fun.

imgres-4Last but not least, I have a huge soft spot for ‘Our Mutual Friend.’  Dickens’s last complete novel, it features a plot so convoluted that it’s hard to imagine any new, unestablished writer ever trying to get the mass of chapters and story-lines published.  There are mysteries that are solved far earlier than you’d expect and vendettas that go on for simply ages.  On the other hand, it is within ‘Our Mutual Friend’ that I’ve found some of my own personal favourite Dickens characters.  Any book that contains the social-climbing Veneerings and the couple they sponsor (consisting of a mature young lady and a mature young gentleman) has to be a winner.  And for romantics out there, I think the desperately-in-love Bradley Headstone beats Heathcliff any day.

That’s my list of my top Dickens reads.  I know it misses out many traditional favourites, but it’s been so hard to write about just these four without stopping mid-way to ignore the computer in favour of the books I’m describing.  Which novels would you include?  And, of the Dickens I haven’t yet read (‘Barnaby Rudge’, ‘Erwin Drood’ and ‘Sketches by Boz’), which should I look forward to starting first?

 

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A purr-fect winter treat: ‘The Lunar Cats’ by Lynne Truss (2016)

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Some people have a thing for cats, others adore books and many, myself included, happily fit within both camps.  If there is a special place in my heart and on my bookshelf for cat books, then pride of place has to go to those written by Lynne Truss.  In 2015, her brilliant ‘Cat Out of Hell‘ had its place secured on my best reads of the year by the end of the first chapter.  When I saw that Truss had a sequel out in time for this winter I knew that, despite all evidence to the contrary, 2016 was going to contain some real highlights.

‘The Lunar Cats’ picks up some time after the dramatic events of ‘Cat Out of Hell’.  Pedantic librarian, Alec Charlesworth and his faithful dog Watson are pottering through life, enjoying quiet pleasures and trying to avoid supernatural evil in general and demonic cats in particular.  If ‘Cat Out of Hell’ was a horror comedy which took its cues from Edgar Allen Poe, ‘The Lunar Cats’ sets out a slightly different path, introduced by Alec’s quietly bumbling independent research into travel writings, especially those concerning Captain Cook’s first Tahiti expedition.

This was, of course, an added bonus for me, because 2016 has finally seen me break my habits of reading exclusively fiction and branch out into a bit of biography reviewing.  Large chunks of ‘The Lunar Cats’ are spent re-telling adventures on the high seas, and all with a lovely dose of geeky expertise:
‘To any modern reader accustomed to contemporary norms of travel writing, eighteenth-century sea journals are astonishingly disappointing.  Wherever you expect a bit of ‘colour’ there is no colour.  Where you expect a climax, there is no climax.  Anecdotes are buried, punchlines never come; all dialogue is reported and flattened in the process.  After months at sea, the ship reaches its destination, and you have to keep checking the dates of the entries to be sure  that the momentous arrival has really taken place.  No wonder all the journals were handed over to a professional writer … but poor Hawkesworth was at a disadvantage in many ways when it came to writing it up.  First, he hadn’t been there himself.  And secondly, he was evidently an eighteenth-century landlubber essayist, accustomed to using a lot of abstract nouns, Latinate vocabulary, and costive constructions.’
When it comes to literary matters, no one is better than Truss!

I don’t want to mention too much of the plot for fear of spoilers, but it does include a demon kitten, a satanic idol, literally hellish bureaucracy and a long-established (cat only) club for scientific exploration.  With some significant animal assistance, Alec and the gloriously incompetent Wiggy must race against time to foil the most evil of feline plots.  The fact that the geographical hub of the action is the London borough of Bromley only adds to the mad-cap splendour of it all.

For all my reading resolutions this year, I am still more of a fan of the Gothic than of non-fiction, which is the reason I’ll give for not actually preferring ‘The Lunar Cats’ to ‘Cat Out of Hell.’  This didn’t stop me from laughing out loud nearly the whole way through reading though, the good news being that this time I was able learn from experience and not open the book on public transport.  Instead I cleared a weekend to ensure I could properly enjoy this winter reading treat.  I wasn’t going to put it off; besides badly needing cheering up as we reach the end of 2016, I had to find out if I should be recommending ‘The Lunar Cats’ as people start thinking about their Christmas present lists.  I’m delighted to report success on both counts.  Buy ‘Cat Out of Hell’, buy ‘The Lunar Cats’ and be prepared for a lot of laugher as the year comes to an end.

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Dark and Disturbing: ‘The Piano Teacher’ by Elfriede Jelinek (1983)

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It’s very hard to know where to start with reviewing Jelinek’s ‘The Piano Teacher’; it’s one of those short books that contains such explosive force that once the book has been opened and read it seems impossible to pack the subsequent barrage of impressions into anything resembling a coherent blog post.

As a testament to Jelinek’s craft, I feel my overwhelmed response to the innocuous-looking 280 page paperback is challenging yet perfectly appropriate.  After all, the main character is severely repressed while simultaneously brimming with nearly uncontrollable passions.  The book begins as: ‘The piano teacher, Erika Kohut, bursts like a whirlwind into the apartment she shares with her mother.  Mama likes calling Erika her little whirlwind, for the child can be an absolute speed-demon.  She is trying to escape her mother. Erika is in her late thirties.’  Erika and her mother live together in a claustrophobic nest of superiority and obsession.  The focus of the obsession is Erika herself and her music and her genius.  ‘Erika gets to the heart of artistic and individual considerations:  She could never submit to a man after submitting to her mother for so many years.  Mother is against Erika’s marrying later on, because ‘my daughter could never fit in or submit anywhere.’  That’s the way she is.  She’s no sapling anymore.  She’s unyielding.  So she shouldn’t marry.  If neither spouse can yield, then a marriage is doomed.  Just be yourself, Mother tells Erika.  After all, Mother made Erika what she is.’

Submission and domination don’t just play a role in this tight, demented family unit, but throughout the Vienna that Erika traverses on her brief forays away from work and home.  Erika has her own games at domination, with her terrified students, the harried commuters she slyly bashes with her musical instruments and on her regular visits to porn shows.  We see the bitter satisfaction she reaps from such encounters, but as the book progresses this precarious balance of power starts to collapse.

An outsider male, one of Erika’s students, is determined to use Erika as his own fantasy romance.  He’s excited by the thrill of seducing his teacher and becoming a mature lover through the experience.  It’s a fairly bourgeois young-man’s narrative and for a nanosecond the reader is tempted to think it might work, after all Erika herself could gain  independence from Mother and even some potential normalcy from the relationship.

And then you realise it’s just not that kind of book.  Erika’s sexuality has been far too battered to allow her to play the ‘older woman’ from another novel.  When given the opportunity to act out her fantasies with a partner, we are shown a far deeper layer of damage in Erika, in her student, and in society at large.

‘The Piano Teacher’ is a breathtaking novel.  It is shocking and horrifying, but also blackly comic and bitingly insightful.  One of the most powerful books I’ve read this year (and also probably the book I’m most concerned about recommending to my mother!)

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I missed German Lit month last year what with all the Russians I was reading then.  I’m so pleased to be able to join now, and with such a great book!

Posted in Elfreide Jelinek, Nobel Prize for Literature, Reading in translation | Tagged , , , , | 13 Comments

An unexpected treasure: ‘The Buried Giant’ by Kazuo Ishiguro (2015)

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One of the things I most admire about Kazuo Ishiguro is the way he writes novels of different genres without any self-conscious literary games.  I love ‘The Remains of  the Day,’ a haunting historical novel set in a large country house, but then was thrilled when I saw  ‘Never Let Me Go’ was science fiction, set in the future.  These books are not post-modern re-workings or pastiches of established forms, instead they are refreshingly proud of their individual literary heritages and sit firmly within traditional genre conventions. The cover and reviews of ‘The Buried Giant’ hinted at the fantasy genre and I was intrigued to see if Ishiguro would be able to bring equal charm and conviction to a new literary form.

The answer was a resounding yes.  ‘The Buried Giant’ completely won me over and, in a quiet way, is likely to be one of my favourite reads of the year.  It’s set in Olde England, post-Roman, but pre-Norman conquest.  The land is war-torn, barely recovering from the Arthurian battles (not the Disney ones, the really bloody ones from Malory’s ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’).  Life is primitive, and society is made up of small insular communities, fearful and aggressive towards outsiders and scarcely more pleasant to their members.  In addition to these semi-historical difficulties, there are supernatural threats.  Some can be conquered by human strength, such as the various powerful monsters that prowl outside the settlement walls.  Others are less tangible, there seems to be a ‘mist’ of forgetfulness over the whole land.  Memories are hard to hold on to, and even harder to share.  This is not just a concern for the past; in the present, children are aware that if they wander too far from home it won’t be long before their parents stop worrying and forget that they ever existed.  It also adds a level of dread and pathos to the main quest that makes up the narrative, Axl and Beatrice have fought the mist and the habits of inertia to leave their home and visit their long-estranged son.  They are only working from incomplete memories however, both have lost hold of the reason why he first left them or even how long ago this was.

For Alx and Beatrice, things seem simple.  They wish to understand the ‘mist’ or fog of forgetfulness that has infected the country and they trust to their enduring love to see them through all difficulties.  These two beliefs become firmly intermingled when, early on in their journey, they meet a single women who has been abandoned to her quest without a companion.  She tells them of a boatman who carried her husband away from her to an island whose inhabitants all live alone.  She is hurt and angry, knowing that there are some exceptional cases, of men and women who are ferried over together.  The boatman explains his own methods ‘If it’s a couple … who claim their bond is so strong, then I must ask them to put their most cherished memories before me.  I’ll ask one, then the other to do this.  Each must speak separately,   In this way the real nature of their bond is soon revealed.’  For the rest of the novel Alx and Beatrice will be haunted by the fear of this moment, the separation and revelations it could bring.

I would probably have loved this book for the beautiful romance and the mystical quest alone, but, like the best fantasy books, ‘The Buried Giant’ is not just escapism, it has important relevance for life today.  Frankly, I couldn’t believe while reading that this book was published in 2015, and not in the wake of the Brexit vote.  Its presentation of an utterly disunited country, with Briton and Saxons tribes separated by customs, allegiances and even language.  The war-torn land and fearful, isolated settlements seem far closer to historical truth than any myth of an independent Britain’s glorious and shared heritage.  ‘The Buried Giant’ is offers oblique commentary on what makes a nation, and the conclusion has to be that openness and a willingness to accept rather than demonise strangers are of paramount importance.  Ishiguro’s latest novel is beautiful, thought-provoking, moving and very timely, a perfect example of how fantasy novels can be essential for understanding ourselves and the world around us.

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Getting the most from genre fiction: spy novels

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This last month I’ve been really enjoying the BBC series ‘Sleuths, Spies & Sorcerers: Andrew Marr’s Paperback Heroes.’  For all kinds of reasons, traditional escapist literature is very appealing at the moment, but there were additional causes for my enjoyment.

Although my literary tastes can often be defined within the hideous genre title of ‘literary fiction,’ I do try to read widely and cover as much ground as I can.  I’m very aware that many of my favourite novels fall within the Gothic tradition and once you go down that route, differences between high and low-brow literature get pretty fluid.

I can also feel a rather smug and knowledgeable when it comes to some genres.  This year, through the blog, I’ve been getting to grips with great sci-fi, but even before then my reading past has been punctuated by passions for this or that genre.  I can look back with pleasure at my reading habits over the years, when, in addition to a steady and continuous diet of classics, I can define my reading ages fairly neatly:

  1. Early teens – fantasy novels, starting with my father trying to engage me with ‘Lord of the Rings’, but really coming into its own once I discovered Terry Pratchett and his sprawling, enthralling Discworld series.
  2. Late teens – romance novels, most memorably Georgette Heyer and Jill Mansell, but I read everything I could and remember regular library trips with a ratio of 5:1, books with a glamorous beauty on the cover: heavy-weight literary classic.
  3. Early twenties – crime, crime and more crime.  I read lots of Patricia Cornwell and other top crime writers, but I wasn’t fussy and devoured anything that looked like suitably chilling and gory escapism.
  4. Late twenties – maybe it all got too much for me at this age, because I associate these years with cosy crime, especially Agatha Christie.

Basically, I was really on board with a BBC series about genre conventions.  The first episode worked through the history and traditions of the crime novel and I felt fully within my comfort zone. It’s true that I don’t read much crime these days, but I know that it will be there waiting for me when I next need it.

The second episode was about fantasy.  The timing was perfect; not only had I just finished and loved Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘The Buried Giant’ but I was watching very shortly after realising 2017 would be the perfect year to finally re-read ‘The Lord of the Rings.’  Things were looking good.

Then I got to the final episode, all about espionage novels.  I have a confession to make.  Apart from the food bits in Fleming’s books and the action adventure moments in such classics as ‘The Riddle of the Sands‘ and ‘Trouble on the Thames‘ I have a hard time with spy novels.  The truth is that I’ve always preferred Austin Powers to James Bond and I’ve only ever liked spy books if I could laugh at them.  The only possible exception is Helen Dunmore’s ‘Exposure‘ which I read earlier this year, but I think my appreciation came more from The Railway Children references than the spy novel conventions.  I’m ashamed to say that my experiences with John Le Carré have always left me cold and I honestly can’t remember ever really getting engrossed in a modern spy novel.

I really hate admitting that there’s a whole genre of literature that I have written off, but watching the show I realised that this had nearly happened.  Now I’m begging for good recommendations for espionage novels.  My mission for 2017 is to learn to love a new section of literature, and right now I don’t know where to start.  Please do get in touch with non-intimidating introductions to spy-fiction; who knows, it could be that the genre for my mid-30s is just round the corner.

Posted in How to pick which book to read | Tagged | 18 Comments

Escapism beyond my wildest expectations: ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’ by Cao Xueqin

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To start with a confession.  Until recently, I hadn’t heard of ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’ or ‘The Story of the Stone’ or ‘The Dream of Red Mansions’ or this epic novel by any of its translated titles.  I dredged it up from a pile of non-European classics when trying to find an X to complete the A-Z of diverse authors that formed my reading project for 2016.  In a small way, this was  a mistake; with my Western ignorance I hadn’t realised that Cao Xuequin’s names were transposed and so he really belongs under ‘C’ not ‘X.’  In a more significant way, it was a success beyond anything I was hoping for.  ‘The Story of the Stone’ (as it was called in my fantastic Penguin Classics translation) is simply wonderful.  If you love long novels, this is up there with the best of them.  Ridiculous though this is for a single blog post, I’m going to do my best to explain why this epic novel is a must-read for English-language fiction lovers.

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The protagonists of the book are young, intelligent, passionate and incredibly well-realised.  Continuing my use of superlatives, I honestly think the novel as a whole gives the best depiction of childhood I’ve ever read.  There’s certainly nothing in contemporary European literature that comes close.  My edition’s introduction quotes Cao Xueqin who wrote ‘I found myself one day, in the midst of my poverty and wretchedness, thinking about the female companions of my youth.  As I went over them one by one, examining and comparing them in my mind’s eye, it suddenly came over me that those slips of girls – which is all they were then – were in every way, both morally and intellectually superior to the ‘grave and mustachioed signior’ I am now supposed to have become.’  This conviction underlies the narrative of the novel, but without ever slipping into saccharin sweetness or sentimentality.  The girls are mischievous, intense, intelligent and self-conscious.  None of them has much control over their lives, but they react to situations in different and wholly characteristic ways; throughout the hundreds of pages I spent with them, I think I identified with nearly all at different stages.  I even caught some of Cao’s nostalgia, and found myself viewing my own childhood memories with a clarity and precision that I rarely achieve.  The friendships, the fights, the kindnesses and the companionship bring these eighteenth-century characters to life with a skill rarely achieved in fictional depictions of adults, let alone children.

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If the novel is generally more interested in the young than the old, it is absolutely more interested in the female than the male experience.  I feel like I now have a really good idea of what life was like for a girl living in an upper-class estate in Manchu ruled China.  I have no idea what it was like for the boys – the hero Bao-yu has so little interest in manly pursuits that five volumes of his life have taught me next to nothing about what such pursuits even were.  Bao-yu’s affinity for female companionship and pastimes is consistent and unswerving.  The result is an utterly charming insight into what it was actually like to be a privileged girl in a specific time and place.

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The location and period is of course significant.  Nearly the whole book takes place within one family’s home, a complex estate filled with hierarchies and alliances, from the domineering grandmother at the top to the hundreds of servants who are present in nearly every scene.  The level of wealth and social inequality is staggering; far more unexpected were the hints that this status quo is seen as neither divine nor even required for the good of society.  I suppose my surprise comes down to my familiarity with the Christian doctrine that underpins all contemporary English literature.  Within ‘The Story of the Stone’ there is no familiar Western morality, characters are given equal personality whatever their social status and no one is grateful for a worse lot in life.  Instead of seeing superior masters with happy and deferent servants we witness the abuse of handmaidens, the vulnerability of concubines and the miserable isolation of the most socially successful of Bao-yu’s cousins.  If you ever wanted to understand the complex web of transactions that create a feudal society, this is a more helpful book than any Western romanticised narrative of knights and peasants.

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It’s not all social commentary though, there are also wonderful extended sections that take place entirely in a large ‘garden’ that the girls and Bao-yu are able to claim as their own territory.  One of their major projects is the setting up of a poetry club.  I’m guessing you’re reading this blog because you love books and literature.  I urge you to read the descriptions of the Crab-Flower Club’s origins, meetings and results.  It’s not just a superb introduction to Chinese poetry, it’s a reminder of just how much fun reading and writing are when shared with friends.

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It’s so hard to be concise when trying to share what is wonderful about this multi-volume epic!  This book deserves to be read and re-read over and over again.  According to Wikipedia there is an entire field of study (‘Redology’) devoted to this work and I can easily see how.  Personally, I approached it with absolutely no prior knowledge, so much so that I’d really only planned on reading volume one thanks to the mistaken assumption that, like ‘Swan’s Way’ from ‘In Search of Lost Time,’ this would present me with a discrete story in itself.  In fact, the book divisions are purely editorial, but by the time I realised this it didn’t matter – I was hooked.  All I’ll leave you with is the fact that so far I’ve only raved about the realist elements of the novel (which do dominate about 90% of the narrative).  What I’ve neglected to mention is that Bao-yu is the human incarnation of a magic rock and his female counterpart the incarnation of a flower.  The two met and fell in love before they were born in human form.  To be honest, I think everyone should read ‘The Story of the Stone’ for that reason alone; you’re unlikely to ever come across another love story like it!

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Those loveable rogues on Broadway: ‘Guys and Dolls and Other Stories’ by Damon Runyon (1932)

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After the all-too-real misery of the New York presented in Caro’s massive, masterful biography ‘The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York‘ (and I don’t even want to mention the election), I was in bad need of a pick-me-up.  In fact before I was half way through Moses’s career arc I had already decided on my next read.  It would be set in New York and in the same time period, but it’s hard to think of two more different books.

The title story in the collection, ‘Guys and Dolls: or The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown,’ is pure joy and completely enveloped me in a world far removed from the political machinations and social deprivation of Caro’s depression-era New York.  First we’re introduced to the hero ‘Of all the high players this country ever sees, there is no doubt but that the guy they call The Sky is the highest.  In fact, the reason he is called The Sky is because he goes so high when it comes to betting on any proposition whatever.  He will bet all he has, and nobody can bet any more than this.‘  This doesn’t mean The Sky always plays fair of course, but it does mean he has a reputation to maintain when he falls for the Salvation Army mission worker Miss Sarah Brown: ‘She is tall, and thin, and has a first-class shape, and her hair is a light brown, going on blond, and her eyes are like I do not know what, except that they are one-hundred-per-cent eyes in every respect.’  You’ll have to read the story to see if The Sky can ever win his Miss Sarah (but just to be clear, the ending is different, and far more satisfying, than the musical which shares the same characters and basic plot).

If the first story is probably the best, the others don’t fall far behind.  Nearly all are about guys trying to convince dolls to become their ever-loving wives.  Most of the others are about married relationships in which said ever-loving wives are more than a match for their gangster husbands.  When love isn’t at stake (and often when it is) the action centres around crime capers; a personal favourite has to be ‘Butch Minds the Baby’ in which Big Butch agrees to a ‘business proposition’ involving a safe and dynamite but only if he can bring along his son because ‘”I must mind the baby.  My old lady is very, very particular about this, and I dast not leave little John Ignatius Junior for a minute.  If Mary comes home and finds I am not minding the baby she will put the blast on me plenty.  I like to turn a few honest bobs now and then as well as anybody, but,” Butch says, “John Ignatius Junior comes first with me.”‘  The description of childminding at the scene of the crime (including a talking doll and paraphernalia for heating milk) is one of the funniest things I have read in a very long time.

Frankly, I could quote Runyon for ever.  He makes me long for a simpler time, where all guys hung out round Mindy’s restaurant, all dolls were on their way to becoming ever-loving wives and nobody, but nobody, used contractions.  It seems 1930s New York can be the perfect place for escapist fiction and I’m the joyful owner of another book guaranteed to make me smile.

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For examples of the size of smile I sported throughout the reading!

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