The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale

A new book from Kate Summerscale is reason for excitement. I don’t willingly read a lot of non-fiction (always preferred working on it as an editor to reading it for pleasure) and yet when I see that this particular author has published a new title my insides do a little dance in anticipation and said title doesn’t linger on my kindle for long.

The reason for this is that the author is dynamite at combining thorough research with wonderful storytelling. When I read her books I am not only entertained but educated in that best of ways – the way where you’re having such a good time that you don’t even notice. And I don’t just mean I learn facts and history – though I do. I mean that I find myself pondering all kinds of things about people, society and even myself, so that by the end of a book I have cogitated and discovered more about, well, life.

The Wicked Boy was no different. Like The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, it was intriguing, meticulously researched, written with great empathy and in a narrative style that takes the reader through the chapters as if they were reading – and trying to figure out – a mystery, rather than the details of a 120-year-old crime and the life of the sentenced thereafter.

In 1895 Robert Coombes and his brother Nattie are tried for the murder of their mother. They are aged 13 and 12. The boys seem neither upset nor ashamed of the crime, and though they try to cover it up (badly) they are keen to admit it when accused. The account of their behaviour, the crime and the public’s reaction to it at the time is fascinating, created by Summerscale with clever layering of source material. One of things I love about this author’s style is that you never feel as if she is telling you what to think, nor does she try to fill gaps where gaps cannot be filled. It means that you the reader are sifting through the information – that comes from a range of perspectives, it is never one-sided – and forming your own view of the situations being described. So while you are reading, you are also considering everything for yourself: Do I believe these boys committed matricide? Why do I think they did? Surely there must be a good reason or are they just insane? And while you are reading and pondering you are steered through the story with grace and a subtle confidence that only comes from a truly accomplished writer.

Back at the turn of the twentieth century, the trial concludes with Robert deemed insane and to have influenced his brother to help murder their mother, and is sent to an asylum where he lives a full if very quiet existence as an inmate. It is the best kind of that type of institution, a place where people are treated with care and respect, where they are given occupation and peace, and some, like Robert are moulded to return to the everyday world. When Robert is released he ends up serving with honour as a stretcher bearer in the First World War, and emigrates to Australia where he lives an unremarkable and quiet life in a small rural community. He is a tailor, a talented musician, a small-hold farmer. He is well-liked, intelligent and respected. He keeps in touch with his brother who, like him, also went to war, works hard and lives an unremarkable life.

An unremarkable almost hermit-like life, perhaps, but I was so interested in Robert Coombes and his decisions, and he is described with such empathy, that I was gripped to each page, wanting to find out another small detail, wanting to add to my picture of this child-murderer grown up who I was beginning to like and wanted to see happy in some way. Of course, the somewhat frustrating thing with non-fiction is that we rarely have neat, rounded, happy endings; we only have what the author can discover, what the documents can tell us. At the very least, in this case, what the author discovers about Robert Coombes is satisfying for the reader.

In the end, when reading The Wicked Boy we are reading a book of two stories: an account of a sensational murder trial in Victorian England, and the tale of one man’s search for redemption. Both stories are equally mesmerising, though the latter certainly affected me more; it is still sitting beneath my ribs, forcing the occasional deep and contemplative breath. I didn’t expect this when I first started the book. I thought I would be witnessing the retelling of a captivating trial and a shocking crime. I wanted to gawk and be thrilled. And I did, and I was. But I was also taken on the journey of a quiet man’s life, on his personal travels towards atonement. And I was fascinated, interested and, ultimately, touched. This is a fantastic book from Kate Summerscale that I would heartily recommend. It is skilfully written, a pleasure to read, and a work of great scholarship and compassion. I will not forget it in a hurry.

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.

F is for Friends

I fell for this book a little like I do for some men. Cute cover, intelligent-sounding, interesting ideas, quirky humour and, if we’re being completely honest (at least recently), a foreign origin. And a little like some of those other episodes, without stretching the comparison too far, I perhaps expected this book to turn out a little bit differently to how it did. But such is both the reading (and romantic) life.

You see – and we’re back on the subject of books now – our ‘F’ book is a little non-fiction number called How Many Friends Does One Person Need? and I was expecting it to be an insightful contemporary commentary on social networking. And Robin Dunbar’s book does touch on this and much to do with personal connections but in a much wider context than I expected, moving through a series of interconnected subjects and intriguing facts and research about the many, many different reasons people are like they are. And if I had thought about it more when I had read the blurb I may have realised this, but I had latched on to a particular notion of ‘what it was all about’, judged the book by its title and wasn’t considering what the book’s true aim was (and now we refer back to the ‘man’ scenario). It’s not necessarily a bad thing, just not what I had imagined, so I had to adjust my reading brain.

Yes. We’re reading non-fiction. And a book on evolutionary biology of all things. Well, a change is as good as a holiday (a recent one on which I barely turned a page – the shame!). But I’m not very good at reading non-fiction for pleasure, unless it is presented in a narrative fashion,  even if I find the subject matter interesting and the writing entertaining. Both of which, I am keen to point out, I do in HMFDOPN?

I’m just not skilled at reading information for information’s sake. I seem to require stories, some kind of narrative arc to guide me through the data, a character to follow. Give me glorious facts and theories, and though I truly do sit there and think, ‘Isn’t that bloody amazing/wondrous/smart/mind-boggling’, I struggle to keep my attention on the book and its structure and fail to retain a lot of what I’m ‘learning’. It’s a bit like the mental version of those vague notes and diagrams you used to sketch for yourself in university lectures thinking they would jog your memory later, only to discover at assessment time that they jogged nothing. And that’s the other thing when reading ‘books about stuff’, I worry the whole time that I’m not taking in anything and feel a little like I’m going to be tested afterwards.

I mention these things to illustrate my failings as a reader, not of Robin Dunbar as a writer (and presumably an evolutionary biologist). Because his book really does contain many intriguing and fascinating insights into human behaviour. He has a lovely, delightful tone and his writing is chatty but still intelligent. I would like to have lunch with this man. Several long lunches, in fact, where I hope a mere skerrick of his smarts would rub off on me and I could discover so much more about why human babies are actually born 12 months earlier than they should be, how women developed language, why skin colours vary, why we tell stories. I recall these things now because the book is fresh in my mind though I am already forgetting the reasons why these things are so. I’m starting to worry about that test.

Fascinating, entertaining and approachable, cute package. Not a bad thing in a book or a bloke. But alas, I am not a reader made to feel compelled to keep reading this kind of book out of a sheer will to learn more facts and theories. It’s not what I want to snuggle up in bed holding or loll about on a banana lounge with – for that I need stories. How Many Friends Does One Person Need? is more a Saturday morning, eating eggs kind of reader, where you can look up from your page and say to your pancake-eating partner (or dog, or whoever is there), ‘Did you know…?’ before getting back to those eggs.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the answer is 150. That’s how many friends we need; in fact that’s in the upper limit of people we can accommodate in our social networks who we actually know, socialise with, enjoy their company and care about to some degree. The author describes them as someone you would be happy to approach and catch up with when you see them across an airport transit lounge at 3 am. Everyone else is an acquaintance, a colleague, a family member you’re not close to, someone you met once, or you know, only a Facebook friend.

E is for Editing

Chicago is some folks’ kind of town (the Blues, Obama, deep dish pizza…) and The Chicago is my kind of style guide* – there’s some swot editorial dagginess for you. Trust me, book editors everywhere are sniggering over their cappuccinos right now.

I warn you that posting on our ‘E’ book, The Subversive Copyeditor: Advice from Chicago by Carol Fisher Saller, may result in your humble blogger ranting about her job and the annoying questions people ask when you tell them you’re a book editor, so for all our sakes let’s get four things out of the way:

1. Yes, I read a lot.

2. No, my job does not solely involve reading and correcting spelling.

3. No, I can’t help you get your book published.

4. Yes, my job is interesting, I do love it, the pay is awful and no, I still can’t help you get your book published.

I hope we all feel better now. But why oh why am I blogging about a book most of you aren’t going to have any interest in reading? Well, isn’t that just the great thing about books? There are tomes for every taste and interest and knowledge-need out there, and though this particular title may seem a little overly specific for most, what I want to write about is that wonderful ability of certain books to do a wondrous thing for their readers – to teach, inspire and make them feel like they’re not alone.

Editing can be a lonely job. I work with a team of wonderful editors but the work itself is often solitary, taking a lot of concentration and ‘quiet time’. It can be a job of all responsibility and worry, yet no power or glory. But it can also be a job of immense pleasure – creative, collaborative, nurturing, challenging, enjoyable, educational and edifying. A well-edited book is a triumph of organisation, language-wrangling, consistency, understanding, specialised knowledge, relationship-building, hard work, a graceful mind and careful hand, talent, ability, design, structure, decision-making, time  management, whimsy and a little luck. And Fisher Saller ‘gets’ all this and so for your blogging little black editing duck it makes The Subversive Copyeditor a winner.

Fisher Saller is an editor speaking to editors in a knowledgable and entertaining way about their craft. And that doesn’t happen very often. (After all, we may be the ones who make the books, but we don’t write them. It’s like writing a book for the stage manager instead of the leading performers.) I don’t know if this scenario is also the case for other professions. Maybe the shelves at engineering firms practically groan with entertaining and inspirational dusty tomes on bridge-building and urban structures (apologies, I’ve never been quite clear about what engineers ‘do’), maybe there’s a pocket-sized book on how to get more out of being a caterer that hairnet-wearing cooks the world over like to carry around in their aprons. I imagine, though, that all of us are a little lacking in well-written books that talk to us about what we do. What I do know is that even if you are someone who is passionate about their ‘job’, who has a craft, a philosophy on why they do what they do, who can, honestly, most of the time, tell people you love your job, you still need a little inspiration now and then, a voice in the dark that says ‘I know what you do, I know what you worry about and I have some ideas on how you can make it better’.

I’m not trying to sound like a born-again publishing professional. The Subversive Copyeditor is a great little book full of tips, advice, knowledge and a good dose of editorial humour (trust me, we’re a very funny people). But it is just that, a little book. It’s not going to change anyone’s world, but it may help its target readership do their jobs a little bit better, it may help remind them in those stressful, overworked, unappreciated times why they do what they do, and why it really is a pretty awesome job.  I recommend it to editors and proofreaders, I recommend it to writers and wannabe-writers who want to know more about ‘editing’ and book-making, I’d like to hand it out to all those people I meet at barbecues who think I just sit in an armchair and read all day.  

I hope there are books like this out there for engineers and caterers, mechanics and zookeepers. We spend so much of our lives at work it’s nice to like your job. It’s even nicer if you can indulge every now and then in a literary ‘discussion’ with someone who ‘gets’ it, you and why you do what you do. We all need a little inspiration and guidance now and then and The Subversive Copyeditor provided that for me.

* A style guide is a reference book editors use to make decisions about consistency of language style in a manuscript. It covers everything from how to deal with numbers, to capitalisation, foreign words, colloquialisms, referencing and more and more. The Chicago Manual of Style is a well-known and much-used style guide.

Book 28: Writing Home by Alan Bennett

I’m not very experienced in reading diaries, unless you include Robin Klein’s Penny Pollard works and Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole series when I was a young one. But I’m fascinated by what makes someone decide (or be convinced to) publish their diaries and what makes us, the reading public, want to read them. In saying that, I didn’t read Alan Bennett’s diaries through any call of literary research; I love his writing – prose and theatre, fiction and non-fiction, TV and movie scripts – and would happily devour a collection of his shopping lists if they were offered to me. This particular doorstop had been in the pile for a very long time.

My own diaries, when I have had stabs at keeping them, have been consigned to a ritual burning after not very long, for fear that someone may actually read them one day and realise me for the pathetic creature that I am. When I mentioned this to a friend she said that she shreds hers, so I’m not alone in the feelings of shame and unease. In any case, I haven’t kept much of a diary since I was a teenager and they were all filled with ‘oh my god he is so hot’ exclamations and adolescent outrage at the ridiculousness of the world. I often still find myself outraged at the ridiculousness of the world (and find certain men hot) but I don’t feel as much of a need to record it. I try to keep a journal when travelling, and though the Canada one was completed and perhaps my best attempt at an experience-filled, ponderous expression of the electric currents pulsing through my grey matter, it may meet a similar firey end to its predecessors. We’ll see.

The opportunity to discover what lies beneath the public persona of a favourite or infamous person is too tempting to pass up for many of us. The writing of a diary is often a form of therapy (at least it is for me and I imagine it is for many others, except those meglomaniacal types who truly believe the world is just begging to read their brilliant take on life and what they like to have on their toast in the morning).  Journals hold brain dumps, meandering thoughts, vague attempts at trying to explain how one feels and why; they hold secrets, confessions, un-verbalised desires, notions and prejudices. They can hold little reminders or fleeting thoughts, meaningless at the time but spun with significance later.

Mr Bennett’s collection of diaries, essays, articles and notes on his life and career kept me entertained on a 3-day train journey across North America, and warm at night in the Canadian Rockies. He is one of those authors whose books I read with a permanent smile on my face. He’s so clever and funny, so well-meaning, subtle and droll. It didn’t even matter that sometimes I had no idea who these bastions of British theatre and performance were that he was talking about, or quite get a joke about a certain part of England, or that there was a whole lot more in there about Kafka than I was expecting. Writing Home is like all of Alan Bennett’s works, wonderfully clever, insightful and entertaining, with that edge of tally-pip English. I have his second doorstop of diaries and writings in the pile, and that may just get a run over Christmas.

Oh, and for goodness sake, if you haven’t read The Uncommon Reader, bring a little joy in to your life and do so.


Canadian depository: Book exchange sideboard, Lake Louise Alpine Hostel, Alberta.