Wednesday 6 April 2011

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

I REMEMBER NOTHING by Nora Ephron. Doubleday hbk. £12.99

This is a bit of a pricey book. It’s also a very lovely object to handle, so anyone who can find it cheaply on Kindle or some such will be saving money but denying themselves the great pleasure of holding something that’s beautiful and satisfying. It’s a small, square-ish volume that fits most neatly into the hand. The typeface is lovely, the paper is thick. What, as a Nora Ephron character might say, is not to like?

Ephron is famous for having written the screenplays for When Harry met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. She also wrote a terrific novel called Heartburn * (better than the movie of the same name) about her divorce and what led to it. This novel has recipes in it and she’s a good cook. Anyone who’s familiar with any of the works I’ve mentioned will know what to expect: sharp, funny, clever and occasionally very moving short essays written by someone who knows how to grab your attention from the very first word. Ephron started her writing life as a journalist and it shows. This is prose with not an ounce of flab on it. Her general theme is ageing and the pleasures and indignities which accompany it. Every piece she writes is perfectly structured and whether it ends in a laugh or a tear or a mixture of both, the reading is nothing but unalloyed fun. She has very good instincts for the most part and you do (or I did!) find yourself shouting: YES! all through the book. But there are certain things she says with which I fervently disagree. For instance: never buy a red coat. I’ve bought lots from time to time since I was 18 and I’ve never regretted a single one of them.

She talks, amongst other things, about how she forgets everything, about the internet, about her family, about New York, about Lillian Hellman, about a meatloaf named for her in a restaurant and about white egg omelettes. She’s got interesting things to say about almost everything. This book would make the perfect present (and here I’m addressing the younger readers of this blog) for any mother who’s over 60. Together with its hilariously-named companion volume, I Feel Bad About My Neck and other thoughts on being a woman, it makes an exhilarating read for anyone who’s left their first youth behind them. Do try these books.

*Nora has three sisters. One of them, Delia Ephron, wrote a good novel about their father called Hanging Up. That, too, is worth reading.

MOON PIE by Simon Mason. David Fickling Books. hbk. £10.99

I read this book in proof and if that’s anything to go by, Simon Mason’s new novel will be much the same size and shape as Ephron’s essays, discussed above. I also think that if Nora E could read Simon M’s book, she’d love it. She may not share my taste in coats but I reckon we might like a lot of the same novels and this one in particular would strike a chord with her because her own mother became an alcoholic. Mason’s book is about the way two young children deal with the problem of a father who’s become alcoholic after the death of his wife.

The cover image, which I’ve only seen on the internet and not in real life, is attractive enough but I’m not sure it gives a very good idea of what sort of book this is. For one thing, Martha, the eleven-year-old heroine, is such an outstandingly-drawn character that you have a strong image of her in your head and an artist’s representation isn’t going to satisfy you. Also, the cartoon-ish style of the artwork somewhat belies the seriousness of the novel. Which is not to say that it’s gloomy or depressing. Trying to work out why a subject which should be so grim to read about is actually uplifting , I came to the conclusion that it succeeds in avoiding misery by emphasising throughout how very devoted the protagonists are to one another. The whole story is about different kinds of love, and that makes everything bearable and better in the end, even if it leads to heartache along the way. The Dad who’s drunk is not a baddie. Sister and brother are very close and brought even closer because of the circumstances in which they find themselves. Even a pair of grandparents who could be seen as less than lovely are doing their best and love the children, albeit in ways that Martha and her little brother Tug don’t quite know how to deal with.

The characters make this book live. They positively spring off the page. Tug is one of the most loveable and believable five year olds I’ve encountered in a book. Martha’s friend Marcus is wonderful, both as a character and as a support to Martha. It’s through him that her theatrical ambitions develop and the ending...well, I shan’t say a word about that. Critics will use the word ‘heartwarming’ about this book and they’ll be right. I’ve seen one review which suggested that the way Martha behaves and thinks is too mature for her years but I don’t agree. The whole narrative rings true and the reason that it does is due in part to the story being beautifully told in the third person and the past tense (somewhat of a relief to me, I have to confess!) Because it is, the writer isn’t limited to a young girl’s language. In any case, there are eleven-year-olds and eleven-year-olds. Martha is one of the mature ones, taking her place most appropriately alongside Anne of Green Gables, another famous redhead, who’s important in this book as well. The blurb on my proof says: “ A funny tender novel about families, dreams, being yourself …and pies.” All of that is true and I’d only add: it’s heartwarming as well.

FAMILY VALUES by Wendy Cope. Faber hbk £12.99

I’m adding an extra book this time round. Wendy Cope and I were exact contemporaries at university and also at the same college, and I’ve been a fan of her work since the (in restrospect) revolutionary Making Cocoa For Kingsley Amis. I say, ‘revolutionary’ because Cope is a believer in rhyme and scansion and words making sense: quite unfashionable in some circles when she first came on the scene and still today not every critic’s cup of tea. Because she often writes humorously, there are those who classify her work as Light Verse, but it’s much more than that and in this volume in particular, many of the poems strike a more serious note, though never a solemn or pompous one. You’ll want to come back to your favourites again and again. Mine (and it was hard to choose) was a poem about the reading of the Shipping Forecast at the BBC but there are gems throughout the book and many wise reflections on life and love and literature. Great stuff.


karen ball said...

I LOVE Wendy Cope. 'Bloody men are like bloody buses....' She's been a great champion of respecting copyright, also.

Ms. Yingling said...

Do love Ephron, but she's definitely wrong about the red coat. Love them and red shoes. Do think I will give up red pants, however.

adele said...

Red bags are terrific too! And I read in the TImes just the other day that Red Jeans are all the rage...go for it!

Miriam Halahmy said...

Wendy Cope wrote one of the best poems after 9/11 - 'If love is all there is' after a line in an Emily Dickenson poem.
Excellent reviews, many thanks Adele.