A Book That is Nice Just to Have

A little-known fact about your humble blogger (though becoming more known as I seem to be publicly embracing it of late) is that I like birds. A lot. And I don’t just mean that I’m into all this bird jewellery that’s fashionable at the moment, but that I feel a particular affiliation and have a more than general interest in our feathered friends.

I have been living in London for almost three months now and have spent a fair amount of that time pointing at winged creatures and saying, ‘Well, just look at that little, erm, birdy.’ I lack the nomenclature, you see. Even the bird knowledge I do possess doesn’t necessarily transfer across the globe—a wagtail in England does not look quite as one does down in Oz.

So after announcing recently that I was going to buy myself an English bird book as a treat, my flatmate asked her dad to bring over their copy, which they suspected had never been used. Having worked on natural history books in the past I thought I knew what to expect—location maps, detailed and technically-correct drawings, some notes on breeding and habitat preferences. And all this I got. But I got it in a barely-touched 1975 edition of The Hamlyn Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe, and it is one of the most delightful books I have had (temporary) possession of in a long time.

There is something special about having an earlier version of a book that is still in print today—especially when it is such an attractive thing. Granted, if it had been stuffed in the pocket of a hiking jacket and carried from campsite to picnic area over the last 36 years it would now not be quite so lovely, though I suspect it would wear the added character well. It is now sitting on my bedside table for in-depth pre-sleep perusal, and on the next trip to the countryside, it will be coming along.

Speaking of the older editions of books, a month or so ago I was shown what is currently my very favourite street in the whole world. Cecil Court is lined with second-hand and antiquarian bookshops, a small street just steps away from the Leicester Square underground, it hides among the hustle and bustle of this crowded touristy area. I was there after closing, so most of the shops now wear an imprint of my nose on their front windows—especially the one that had the old copies of Winnie the Pooh and Enid Blyton’s ‘Adventure’ series on display—and I suspect that soon some of these stores will also have my cash in their tills. Perhaps one of them will have another 1970’s version of my bird-nerd book.

The Other Statue by Edward Gorey

Before moving digs to Britain I read The Other Statue by Edward Gorey as a welcome break to packing. I’m very good at taking breaks from the activity I should be focusing on. For example, I am writing this post when I should be editing a true crime manuscript. A friend said the other day, ‘Sometimes I feel like work gets in the way of a good break,’ and I tend to agree. I always get everything done on time but it takes a lot of ‘rests’ to get me through (and the occasional cup of coffee and late night).

The break from packing had more to do with trying to avoid thinking of what I was about to embark on. I kept getting teary every time the radio played a song with the word ‘home’ in it, which I’ve discovered is a surprisingly large number of tunes, and I needed something to distract me. I thought Gorey’s usual kooky themes and dark whimsy would cheer me up, and add a little spring to my step as I decided which socks to include in my suitcase.

Instead I found The Other Statue somewhat unrealised and rather disappointing. My understanding is that it is part one of a mystery and I haven’t read part two (in fact I’m not sure it was ever published), but part one of a story really should encourage a person to want to read the next instalment, shouldn’t it? Perhaps it was just the funny old mood I was in at the time, though previously I would have thought a funny old mood was just the spirit in which to read a Gorey story.

In the end I found it a kind of Gorey paint by numbers: take a melancholic tone, some quirky illustrations, a handful of funny names, and odd pairings of people and objects and throw it all at the page. Not that I’m a Gorey expert by any stretch but to me it seemed a somewhat random collection of sentences added to some spare illustrations he had lying around. Perhaps it’s unfair to judge a book I read as an avoidance tactic, and during a big upheaval, but for me The Other Statue lacked the heart and purpose of Edward Gorey titles I have previously had the pleasure of reading. Next time I need to procrastinate I’ll just re-read The Gashlycrumb Tinies.

T is for a Traditional Twelve

I’m a sucker for Christmas. The tinsel and fairy lights, the food, the family traditions, that electric charge of magic that hangs in the air for a couple of days. I love the songs and the stories, the movies, the stop-animation TV shows. Anyone who knows me can tell you that my favourite Christmas movie is A Muppets’ Christmas Carol, that I trawl discount shops for kitsch christmas albums and I can tell you that the day I finally accepted that Santa Claus wasn’t a real dude on a flying sleigh was one of pure devastation.

So it seems fitting that while I’m still munching on shortbread and sporting my Snoopy Christmas T-shirt, that I indulge in some festive reading. It’s the second of January – the ninth day of Christmas – and just before the first day (that’s Christmas day, by the way), with patridged pears a-go-go, I read John Julius Norwich’s lovely little book, The Twelve Days of Christmas.

There’s nothing like a cute, funny, sweet book to slip into a Christmas stocking and Mr Norwich’s is just such a thing. A comedic retelling of the traditional carol, a woman is beleaguered by her admirer’s generosity in sending her a gift each day based on the song’s lyrics. It all starts well with some darling birds but quickly escalates into chaos once enormous geese, naughty dancers and lecherous lords start taking over the garden. The book would make a great gift whatever it’s appearance but the fact that it is a classy illustrated hardback makes it a desirable object; and the fact that the illustrator is Quentin Blake makes it a thing just about anybody would want to get their hands on.

Quentin Blake’s artwork peppers my childhood reading memories more than just about any artist I can think of because of his collaboration with Roald Dahl. His particular style is instantly recognisable and if I spy it on a book’s cover you have a guarantee that I will pick it up. In The Twelve Days of Christmas his quirky, humourous, naughty illustrations match the tone of the text excellently.

John Julius Norwich and Quentin Blake’s book has a total page count of 32 leaves, it could fit in a large pocket, weighs less than a block of chocolate and due to its seasonal subject you can probably only read it at one time of year for optimal enjoyment. Yet all these small particulars in no way impart the enormous glowy feeling of happiness this book creates in those lucky enough to read it. After I read it the first time I purchased multiple copies before even deciding who I was going to give them to. And I do know someone who was carrying it around in his pocket, so that he could show it to everyone who crossed his path. It’s a little book; by no means life-changing, intellectually rigorous or world-important. At the same time it embraces all that is so lovely about this most wonderful time of the year, and I think I’m going to add a reading of it to my Christmas traditions in the future.

G is for Gorey

Starting my previous post comparing my habits in selecting men with choosing books seems to have caused a bit of a stir, but unfortunately I have no clever gimmicks this time. Just wait, I’m sure some more horrific personal divulgences will come. But in the meantime, let’s focus on the simple pleasure of having in your hands a delightful little book-shaped package which makes you smile.

I like to think I’m not overly wedded to ‘things’ but give me a cute little hardback filled with wonderful illustrations and a darkly humourous outlook on life and I’m a sucker if ever there was one. Last year, at the pointy-end of things, I stumbled across the works of one Edward Gorey, and my life changed. Not in a monumental we’re-all-moving-to-tahiti kind of way, but it was still a significant experience. It was one of those ‘Where have you been all my life, Author?’ moments.

G is for Gorey, and two books were read for this illustrious posting: The Doubtful Guest and The Iron Tonic (Or A Winter Afternoon in Lonely Valley). ‘Read’ is such a plain verb. They were lovingly caressed, delicately leafed through, pored over with reverence. When I turn the pages of a Gorey story I get that balloon-shaped swell in the top of my chest that I get when I read my favourite authors or a particularly delightful story. McCarthy, Camilleri, Deaver, Dickens, Austen, Bennett, Saunders, Atwood… I get this same feeling with Gorey. It is a mixture of anticipation, wonder, uncertainty, amusement, thought-stirring and simple delight in the joy, yes the joy, of reading something which tickles and turns-about both your mind and soul.

My copy of Iron Tonic (or Lonely Valley, as I think of it) wears a little black sticker proclaiming the book to be ‘the bracingly bleak tale’. The bracingly bleak tale? Seems to me that explains them all. (And it’s just the kind of description Gorey would use – I see figure skaters in the ‘bracingly bleak’ drawing for some reason.) Sad but in such an endearing way; so grey and fittingly morbid one can’t help but, well, smile. And the sloth-like creature in its little white trainers in The Doubtful Guest positively makes me want to leap into the pages of the book and give the old plate-eating, towell-hiding muppet a big ol’ hug.

For me, the Goreys touch that part of the reading-you who occasionally likes to be, well, melancholy. Or at least quiet and a little thoughtful. They speak to that part of you who is secretly pleased when it’s a cold rainy day and you can curl up in a big armchair under a blanket with only the parts of you from your nose up sticking out. The you who occasionally feels like having a day where you don’t have to speak to anyone; who has a weekend where you’re happy to keep to yourself and re-organise your bookshelves.

I don’t usually encourage passivity but one thing I like about the Goreys I have read are how his human-characters have all this ‘stuff’ happen to them. Death, tragedy, annoyance, bizarreness, irony, solitude – it rolls in like a cold fog and … occurs. And that’s it. It’s like the characters are in this permanent state of how we all sometimes feel and how life somehow is. 

There’s nothing wrong with exploring ‘the sadness’ within us every now and then. As long as we make room for the quirky side of life as well. And that’s what Edward Gorey’s books do and it’s why I like them so much. It’s the combination of the bleak and the kooky, matched with the wonderful illustrations, which make them so perfect.

Book 31, 32, 33 and 34: The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy by Tim Burton and Edward Gorey triptych

Shut up, it’s not cheating. We may be days away from the end of 2009 and my aimed-for 52 books, but including these 4 little titles in one post is due to their interconnectedness, not because I’m scrambling to make up numbers. If I really wanted to cheat I would have sat down this morning with my full english and made my way through the Mr Men backlist. Done. 52 books sorted. Re-reading Mr Bump would have been immensely enjoyable. But I am not cheating. Just because they’re short and have pictures, don’t mean they aint books worth talking about.

So there I am plonking away some time in a colleague’s office when I come across our first specimen: The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey. It’s an ABC book. That is each page progresses you through the alphabet by focusing its story on a letter and accompanying it with a divine illustration. The alternative title for this story is After the Outing and we hear of 26 ill-fated children (I like to think of them as orphans) and their awful demises. So we start with ‘A is for Amy who fell down the stairs’ and end with ‘Z is for Zillah who drank too much gin’. Roundabouts the middle we have my favourite: ‘N is for Neville who died of ennui’. Ennui! After lounging on my colleague’s desk to gobble up this dark, hilarious tale, and reading out loud from its pages to anyone who dared walk by, it became my mission to read and own everything of Mr Gorey’s that I could get my hands on. And so I started my mission with another alphabetical title called The Glorious Nosebleed and an odd little Christmas fable, The Haunted Tea-cosy. In Nosebleed we sail through illustrations focused on adverbs. Yep, adverbs. That most overused grammatical device (and most incorrectly used?). Thus ‘She knitted mufflers Endlessly’ and ‘He exposed himself Lewdly’ (how else does one expose oneself?). A less connected collection but still a delight in its morbid, clever, adult concoction. And though not my flavour of yuletide, Tea-cosy is, as the subtitle suggests, ‘a dispirited and distasteful diversion for Christmas’ and makes me want to be able to shrink like Alice and climb into Mr Gorey’s imagination. I’m abuzz with the discovery of a new author. I’m doing google searches and purchasing backlists on blind faith that I will adore them. Don’t you just love that feeling?

Who was Edward Gorey? These folk can tell you.

And amongst the insanity of Christmas preparation I found the perfect little book for a friend and decided it was also a perfect little book for me. After all, Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice are two of my favourite movies, why wouldn’t I like a book of illustrated ‘stories’ by Tim Burton? Although in this case it was the illustrations and ‘concepts’ I enjoyed rather than the tales – odd rhymes not totally realised and perhaps felt needed to ‘fill out’ the pics – but maybe that’s why Mr Burton is a filmmaker and not an author.

Still, The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and other stories is a fun, thought-provoking diversion and it sits well and happily with the Gorey creations. Macabre and fascinating, imaginative, childlike yet completely adult, funny in their awesome moroseness and creepiness. There is something concurrently delightful and ‘off’ about the images on all these pages. It’s like you have been let in on a secret, like you have been acknowledged as one who will understand this odd world we live in and the even odder world in many of our heads. The Burton stories may be slightly squeamier than Gorey’s though they lack a certain subtlety infused in his predecessor’s work. Mind you, if Mr Gorey had tried to make movies, perhaps they wouldn’t have been as perfect as his books?