One Hundred and Forty Characters in Search of an Argument — Andrew Rilstone
Rilstone is one of my very favourite writers — his blog is packed with all sorts of fascinating meditations on politics, Doctor Who, religion, Marvel comics, and pretty much anything else you might think of. He has a habit of leaping bafflingly from subject to subject, then pulling back the curtain and showing you how they were connected all along. Very clever, very enjoyable.
This particular book is his most recent — and, to be honest, perhaps not a good entry-point unless you’re interested in British politics and culture. More broadly, Rilstone engages with the problem of arguing on the Internet, and determining who is and isn’t actually interested in arguing as opposed to preaching. But for newcomers to his work, I’d recommend starting instead with George and Joe and Jack and Bob (his book on Star Wars or Do Balrogs Have Wings? (on Tolkien and Lewis).
Through the Looking Glass — Lewis Carroll
I re-read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland recently, mostly to give me the context for re-reading this one, which I remembered more strongly. In my memory, it’s not so much whimsical as outright disquieting, and my re-read confirmed that impression. There’s a pretty consistent nightmarish quality, as when Alice finds that every path she takes towards the centre of the garden brings her back to the house, or when she has to run as fast as she can merely to stay still. The centrepiece of the book, to my mind, is this exchange with Humpty Dumpty:
“That shows that there are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents, and only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!’
‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘
‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’
Would it be too much to describe that exchange as chilling? I think not. It starts as a knockabout word-game, and pivots suddenly to become a blunt assertion of power. I don’t know what Carroll intended by this passage, but to me it carries all kinds of thought-control resonances that are all the more disturbing in these days of a government that’s out to celebrate to 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta by repealing the Human Rights Act.
The Girl on the Pier — Paul Tomkins
I know of Paul Tomkins from his writing about football: he’s a careful, objective writer about Liverpool, the team I support, and has his own subscription website, The Tomkins Times (which I’ve written a couple of guest pieces for). I’ve been on mailing lists and websites with Paul for about 20 years now.
But although he’s written half a dozen books about football, The Girl on the Pier is his first work of fiction. The obvious point of comparison is Nick Hornby — not just because he, too, first established himself with non-fiction about football, but because the whole tenor of the book has a similar feeling of an ordinary bloke, writing straightforwardly and honestly about apparently everyday events that have deeper implications.
At least, that’s true of Part One, the first three quarters of the book, which reads like an engaging first-person memoir. But Part Two takes a distinct left turn into darker and more ambiguous territory. I don’t want to say more for fear of spoilers, but it’s a book that amply repays reading: I sprinted through the last third, keen to find out what had happened. It wasn’t what I’d guessed; but I wasn’t disappointed.
The Listerdale Mystery — Agatha Christie
Continuing my chronological trawl through the complete works of Agatha Christie, I came to this collection of light short stories. They didn’t do a lot for me, feeling mostly insubstantial and not playing to her strengths. The exception is the story Philomel Cottage, which is worth reading in isolation.
Stardust — Neil Gaiman
I got behind in writing these posts, and it’s now been a couple of months since I read Stardust. I literally cannot remember a single thing about it.
Having also read American Gods and Neverwhere, and responded to both with a hearfelt “meh”, I am about ready to give up on Gaiman as a novelist (although I am much more impressed by his graphic novel Sandman — at least, the two volumes that I’ve read.)
Why Didn’t they Ask Evans? — Agatha Christie
Nothing much to say about this one, beyond that the title is curiously resonant, and does turn out to be crucial to the plot. I suppose it would be asking a lot of Agatha Christie to not only churn out two or three books a year, but make them all memorable. Some are merely competent, and that’s OK: they leaven my heavier reading.
Here’s a thing. Of Christie’s 66 detective novels (ignoring for now her twenty or so short-story collections), 33 — exactly half — star the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Why so many? I know that Christie came to hate and resent Poirot long before the end — she found him “insufferable” by 1930, and some of this attitude leaks out in Captain Hastings’ narration. By 1960, Christie was calling Poirot a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep”.
So why did she keep writing Poirot books? Simply, because they work so well. (Why Didn’t They Ask Evans suffers from his absence.) The Poirot books are more memorable simply because the character is more memorable. Even when his characteristic traits have descended into self-parody, they still give us a convenient framework to hang the narrative on.
Something similar, but much stronger, happens with the writing of P. G. Wodehouse. I absolutely love the Jeeves short stories, and could happily read a hundred of them, even though they all have exactly the same plot. As ably summarised by Andrew Hickey:
Bertie has a new piece of clothing that Jeeves disapproves of. Bertie refuses to get rid of it, and Jeeves goes into a sulk. A friend or relative of Bertie’s gets into trouble, usually to do with romance, and wants Jeeves’ help, but Bertie says “no, I am just as good as Jeeves, and anyway, he’s in a sulk” and comes up with a solution by himself. The solution makes the situation worse, and what was one problem involving two people is now three separate problems involving five or six people, and the one with the biggest problem is Bertie. Bertie then says “Oh, OK then, we’ll ask Jeeves”, and Jeeves comes up with a solution which places Bertie in a hideously embarrassing situation, but which eventually sorts everything out to the point where everyone is happy. Bertie tells Jeeves to get rid of the piece of clothing of which Jeeves disapproves, and Jeeves says he’s already done so.
And yet, I find I just can’t work up any enthusiasm for Wodehouse’s non-Jeeves stories. I’ve made several attempts on Lord Emsworth and the rest, but the only ones that do anything at all for me are the golf short stories. Somehow, it seems that Wodehouse just struck paydirt with Jeeves, and quite rightly mined that seam for all it was worth. That character (or rather the pairing of Jeeves with Wooster) is magical in a way that Wodehouse’s other creations are not. And the same is true of Poirot: however much one enjoys her Tommy and Tuppence stories, or the Harley Quinn stories, no real impression of those characters remains. But no-one forgets Poirot.
I’m not sure what to make of this. I merely note it down as a true fact, in the hope that some insight will strike me (or. more likely, a commenter) later.
[Read on to part 6]