Sunday, February 15, 2009

One of the nice things about blogs is that you can remark on books you are reading without having to even pretend it's anything like a real review. So you can pick out odd little points of interest, and make completely petty digs, as the accident will.

Recently, I've been reading Austerity Britain 1945-1951 by David Kynaston. It got an excellent review in Atlantic Monthly. The book is the first part of a social history of Britain which will eventually cover 1945-1979. Although it does make reference to Big History, most of it draws on personal accounts such as diaries and memoirs and the records made by Mass Observation. Quite a few of the sources are from biographies of well-known people, and their names are simply dropped into the narrative without explaining who they are. It's just assumed that you know enough to British culture to understand. My favourite example of this is in a section talking about the role of high street banks around 1950, which contains this remark:
George Mainwaring, that pillar-of-the-community bank manager at Walmington-on-Sea by now approaching retirement, would no doubt have nodded sagely.
The thing which is wonderful about this is that it doesn't explain who George Mainwaring it. Almost anyone of my age, plus or minus 20 or more years, instantly know that he is a fictional character from a sitcom, Dad's Army. It was made in the 1960s and 70s, but set during the second world war, and Captain Mainwaring was stuffy and opinionated bank manager. So this remark reinforces the tone of the quotation that preceded it because you've seen that program so many time that you can instantly picture him expressing his opinions. Without this explanation, the reader will probably skip this sentence and move on, no harm done. If Kynaston had stopped to explain, his book would have been a leaden mess, and probably twice as long as it is.

When I was checking this, I noticed a wonderfully gnomic line a paragraph later, in which some aphorisms from a stockbroker are quoted as illustrations of his gentlemanly code: "shoes have laces", "motor cars are black", "jelly is not officer food". Funny, I always though it was. Well, not the green jelly, but other kinds.

Scarlett Thomas's novel The End Of Mr. Y is my other current read. It's a book which is almost good, but spoilt by too many long lumps of philosophical explanations, usually in the form of little lectures from one character to another. Well, most of the main characters are supposed to be PhD student or academics, so I suppose it's not all that unrealistic. These discourses are interesting, but there's only so many of them you can hope to get away with in a novel, and N for this novel is greater than so. It's as if the book wants to bend your mind, but can't quite decide in which direction. If the author is anything like the protagonist, then she's a fan of Derrida, and though I have never read any Derrida, language log has given me all the fuel I need to have an irrational contempt for his thought. And, I'm sorry, but the only legitimate reaction to a sentence like Monday morning, and the sky is the colour of sad weddings is a long and loud farty noise.

An update. When I wrote this I hadn't quite finished The End Of Mr Y. Now I have, and (without giving away the ending), I think the author should be ashamed of herself. She uses a twist which belongs to 1950s pulp sf stories, as was hokey even then.

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