More Books For Christmas Part Two
This selection pretty much sums up my appallingly narrow range of guilty pleasures, although there’s not a good film book here as they seem to have fallen out of vogue, and there are no books exploring the back-alleys of British history this time.
First up in Pen Vogler’s ‘Scoff‘, a delightful look at foods so ubiquitous that we haven’t really bothered studying them much in British cuisine, like potatoes, stews, high tea and roast beef. The author delves into the reasons why they occupy such positions in our diet, looking at their history and mythologies.
Her section on the snobbery surrounding tinned food reminds us that consumers were suspicious because they couldn’t see inside the tin, and had every right to be so because producers used low-grade meat intended for overseas troops that went rotten before it had even arrived. Her take on our former national fast food fish and chips (now replaced by curry) is enlightening, and the book is peppered with her personal experiences. Inevitably, class has much to do with what we eat, and Vogler provides a welcome antidote to the ghastly middle class reminiscences of cookery’s simpering Nigellas.
Killer, Come Back To Me
If you only know Ray Bradbury from his beautiful fantasy fiction, especially the evocative ‘Dandelion Wine’, ‘Killer, Come Back To Me‘ will come as a bolt from the blue. Collected together for the very first time are all of the early crime stories Bradbury wrote. The volume feels like Bradbury’s bridge between pulp noir and gentle fantasy, and has been published for his centenary.
The Oxford Book of Theatrical Anecdotes
I don’t know anybody who actually likes Gyles Brandreth, from his annoying name and his horrible jumpers to his smugly avuncular TV-friendly face, but we put up with him because he occasionally comes up with the goods. Here, with the power of the Oxford University Press behind him, he updates Ned Sherrin’s earlier volume of ‘Theatrical Anecdotes‘ to extend both forward and back, including a rich array of tales, some retold so often that they have ascended into the realm of myth.
Starting with Shakespeare we move through theatre’s finest period to low comics, high art and inevitably, the foot-in-mouth ‘Gielgudisms’ of John Gielgud – although I also enjoyed Ralph Richardson falling through the floor of Vivien Leigh’s house. Some tales are not so much anecdotes as memories that haunted players, which makes the book richer and more evocative. It’s a charming treasure house of theatrical history, more erudite than expected but nicely gossipy in places.
Oliver! A Dickensian Musical
One more book on the theatre, rather more unusual, an academic volume but a fascinating one. Marc Napolitano’s volume on ‘Oliver!‘, about the evolution of the project (for which we could read any theatre project) over the years, shows us the writer Lionel Bart adapting Dickens through the prism of English music hall, cockney argot and East End Yiddish theatre. From its inception as a pop musical to its massively popular screen adaptation, upsetting and dazzling the purists in equal measure, it remains one of the world’s great theatrical hits. What’s most surprising about seeing the adaptation of Oliver Twist now is that it managed to capture more of the novel’s essence and authenticity than you remember.
The study shows how difficult creative choices evolved through the lengthy development process and how international markets received this extremely English production. How, for example, did it find an ‘authentic’ English voice, and why did the play become a success in Japan? Fagin’s song ‘Reviewing The Situation’ was apparently based on a Hebrew chant – indeed, much of the music was informed by Bart’s Jewish background, which goes a long way toward defusing traditional complaints about Fagin’s character. At the time, it was noted that the representations of Jewish cultural influence in the musical play and film were deliberately heightened to reflect London East End life, where the project had originated.
The Artful Dickens
There are too many Dickens biographies and far too many about the man behind the words. How much do we need to know about any writer, beyond the fact that their formative years created their memories? So I welcomed John Mullan’s ‘The Artful Dickens‘, subtitled ‘The Tricks and Ploys of the Great Novelist’ as a new chance to see how he mentally handled so much rich material, and how he came to create so many memorable turns of phrase.
These are basically essays, so they lack a through-thread that would make the book more compelling to read, For example, I would have arranged the chapters according to the construction of a novel, but here the essays are thematically built around on hauntings, coincidences, names, tenses, breaking the rules and so on. Within the essays themselves, though, are plenty of fresh thoughts. The reminder that ‘Bleak House’ has opening paragraphs without a single finite verb in them is not lost on me; I consciously imitated them in the opening of ‘The Burning Man’. Even my editor missed the joke.
By giving every detail equal weight, though, Mr Mullan’s volume is not for a casual dip-in. His reference range is enormous and darts from one modern author’s similarities to another’s, making it a far from fluid read. It’s best enjoyed as a series of fireside chats with an eminently knowledgeable Dickens scholar, and that’s no bad thing. The question What’s so good about Dickens novels? is answered, but the larger puzzle of how it was achieved remains a mystery, as it should. No amount of referencing and cataloguing can show you the shape of someone’s mind.