Monthly Archives: July 2007

Funny books for convalescents, please

You’d think the bookwitch would be a good source of advice for books, wouldn’t you? But her mind is a complete blank, and please don’t say that you had noticed a long time ago.

A friend of mine asked for recommendations for funny books, for when she’s in hospital, which might be next week. I think what she’s looking for is something funny enough not to make the reader depressed, but not so wildly funny that stitches start coming undone, and other disgusting things.

I can think of several children’s books, but I suspect that other adults aren’t quite as fond of them as I am. And when they are really funny like Roald Dahl’s The Vicar of Nibbleswicke they are a health hazard. When the bookwitch started reading it to Son many years ago she laughed so much she was unable to carry on and Son had to read it to her instead.

And there is a book I think my friend would enjoy, but it’s not out yet, so what do I do?

Any ideas, people?


The bookwitch understands that the Man United team passed through a certain airport bookshop on Sunday. Well, no, that’s wrong. The team passed through the airport. One player came into the shop. The goalkeeper appears to have an interest in reading and in keeping up with current affairs. Asked to be recommended something to read (hope shop management doesn’t find out), he then bought the suggested book. The bookwitch knows which one, and will only say it was a decent choice. She is so out of things she doesn’t even remember the player’s name. But he is a foreigner. And a fan came up and wanted him to autograph an England shirt… Don’t know how that ended.

English lessons, Scrabble and idiomatic phrases

For a very long time I was blissfully unaware of the shortcomings of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books. That’s the beauty of translations; sometimes you lose, but sometimes you gain. I was seven when I read my first “proper” book, i.e. one with no pictures in and lots of text. It was Five on a Treasure Island, in translation, and it took me a week. I speeded up slightly after that.

It was only when coming to live in England as an adult that I cottoned on to how “awful” the Five really are. They eat all the time (they did in translation, too) and they look down on the working classes. This didn’t translate, so went un-noticed.

I was reminded of Blyton when Marcel Berlins wrote in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago about learning English from Blyton’s books when he arrived in England as a child. And Lee on lowebrow blogged this week on bilingualism, which made me nod in recognition.

I had moved on from the Famous Five by the time I had an interest in improving my English. At thirteen I had discovered Agatha Christie. When the library ran out of translations, I started on Christies in the original to get more books.

At first I only understood about half the words, but I’ve always been lazy, so couldn’t be bothered finding a dictionary. I could always work out who did it, and there were always lots of retired colonels and things. I remember when the penny dropped and I made the connection between the printed “extraordinary” and that word from television “strodnri”. They were the same!

After Christie I started on Alistair MacLean, and used to stand in the corridors between lessons at school reading. The teachers shook their heads at this girl who not only read, but chose a foreign language to do it in.

The Christie stood me in good stead when I ended up in Brighton, staying with a family, while doing a course at Sussex University. England greeted me with what it used to do best; strikes. The rationed electricity caused havoc in my host family, who needed to entertain their ten-year-old when there was no television.

Games came out, and I wasn’t too good at Scrabble to start with. I remember golf crazy Mr G’s happiness over his seven letter word, that he felt the need to explain to his foreign lodger. It’s a real word, honestly. I knew that. Thanks to dear Agatha I’d known about niblicks for a long time. Good to murder people with. And handy in Scrabble.

However, the man who called at the G’s house on the first day when I was alone, was selling manure. I declined his kind offer, and then spent a while looking through my dictionary to work out what I’d refused. Years later I lived in Brighton, again, with the Resident IT Consultant, when someone from the gas company came to the door, going on about someone with egg on their face…

Honestly. Christie never covered that.

Harry on the screen

It wasn’t bad at all. Bookwitch and Daughter quite enjoyed Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Son thought it wasn’t very good. But you can’t really put a Rowling length book into a two hour film and not leave things out. Looked at purely as a film this one was a good action film, where someone who hadn’t read the book might just grasp what was going on. And it left me with the same feeling as the book; that friendship matters.

Neville Longbottom is getting more and more wonderful, and Fred and George continue being adorable. (Well, I think so.) And in my next incarnation I’ll be Tonks.

The Pullman pilgrimage

Or the nerd’s day out. Depends how you look at it. The bookwitch had some quality time with Son yesterday, while putting the blame squarely on Laurie Frost and her book The Elements of His Dark Materials. Laurie really wanted to know what the Oxford ring road looks like, and who can blame her? Anyone living in the depths of Alabama would suffer similar urges, sooner or later.

On arriving in Oxford we immediately made our way to where Sunderland Avenue meets Banbury Road. This, as everyone knows, is where Will found the window. We couldn’t see it, but then I believe Will closed it. We hovered for a while on the relevant grass verge and every aspect of the hornbeam trees was photographed. The road, of course, is single lane in each direction with a speed limit of 40 mph, and not an Alabama style monster four lane race track.

A fifteen minute walk took us to the northern end of Summertown, where we found Will’s cash machine on the corner of South Parade. No lurking Charles Latrom.

After nearly killing a cyclist while catching a bus back into town, we ended up at the Pitt Rivers museum. We’ve never come face to face with quite so many dinosaurs in our lives. And there were a few human skulls, so possibly what Lyra saw. I fell in love with some Connemara marble, while Son quite fancied the rather dead and stuffed Shetland pony.

The weather got hotter as we trekked through the groups of foreign language students all the way to the Botanic Gardens. Turning our backs on the fools doing their best to drown themselves by capsizing punts, we found “the seat”. We took turns resting on it, as Will and Lyra can’t sit on it together.

Another hot and dusty trek along the High Street to Exeter College. We could see where Lyra clambered on to the roof, but didn’t try it. Then to the day’s most pointless exercise; the crossroads of Broad Street and Cornmarket. It’s really only a very busy crossroads, with shops, cars, buses and too many tourists.

The Ashmolean was a welcome haven, and offered some nice tea in their courtyard, even though this wasn’t in the book. Then next door for a peep at the Archaeology Institute, where Will did something or other. Waved at David Fickling Books as we went past, but didn’t personally see “the Lancashire comedian”. (This tale is full of literary hints…)

Our final goal for the day was Jericho and the narrowboats. There are plenty of narrowboats still, Laurie, even though part of the canalside was blocked off by you know who. (Not Voldemort.) Jericho’s an attractive little corner of Oxford and we chased up and down most of the small streets.

On the recommendation of Mary Hoffman we finished up at a Lebanese restaurant, where we had a rendezvous with assorted cousins. Ours, I hasten to add. They are virtually neighbours of Pullman’s and couldn’t see why we didn’t come and gaze adoringly at his house. But it was a purely literary trail. For fun. Almost Mecca, Laurie. Almost.

What ARE you buying?

Maybe I ought to have investigated this properly before jumping right in and making statements. But I’m lazy.

As a liker of lists I often look at the selling lists in The Bookseller and in Publishing News. There’s one, listing the twenty most sold children’s books during the past week. And it makes me want to cry.

On behalf of bookshops I’m obviously glad they sell anything at all. But out of the twenty it’s something like a third only that actually has an author name next to the title. All others are Doctor Who this or Pirates of the Caribbean that. So they are more toys than books.

The most reliably found authors tend to be Jacqueline Wilson, Anthony Horowitz, Cathy Cassidy, Darren Shan, Francesca Simon. I like these people and their books, but where are all the other good books? If these authors are to drive even a Fiesta, they need to sell.

Children’s books are so cheap, at least the paperbacks. More people could afford to buy more books. Book books, not film tie-ins.

I like Shrek. But I prefer him in the cinema and not on my bookshelves.

Is it because of Harry?

Can it be the Harry Potter effect that has so many good books out in July? First I thought it was strange. Then I wondered if publishers were trying to make me particularly happy for the summer holidays. But now I suspect they are hoping to compete with Harry. Which, being a Potter fan, I feel is silly, but I suppose if you don’t want the much awaited number seven, then you’d feel hard done by if there was nothing else.

But surely, publishers don’t really believe that I will make a choice between either Harry Potter or their new book? It’ll have to be more than one. And no beach life for me, with a mountain of books to read. I feel the risk is that for those who will buy only one book in July, and that book is Harry Potter, there are some excellent reads that will go un-noticed.

Before I Die

I’m almost more interested in the fact that David Fickling is publishing this book at great speed, than what the book is like. It’s about death, and I wonder if death is in at the moment. It’s not the only one out this summer.

Everyone is raving about Before I Die, by new writer Jenny Downham. And it is a very good book. It’s about sixteen-year-old Tessa who is dying, and what she does with her last months in life. Tessa has a list and she follows it point by point, until she discovers what she really wants.

It’s a very thought provoking story, because it makes you think what you’d do in her place. I can understand Tessa, but I can’t identify with her, because my list would be very different. But it’s touching, and I don’t expect any reader to emerge dry-eyed.

As I said, it’s also interesting that a book can be published so fast, when books tend to take an age getting anywhere at all. You’d have thought computers could speed up the whole process, But I suppose it’s commercial interests that slow things down again. Whether the speed caused any of the few, but to my mind irritating, details that look wrong, I don’t know.

It’s a book everyone could do with reading.

Charlotte Sometimes

Granny, what a good book you wrote! Now, I’m not trying to be impertinent here, as Penelope Farmer, author of Charlotte Sometimes, goes under the name of granny p when writing her blog. It’s only very recently that she owned up to being Penelope.

The bookwitch got curious when she read other blog visitors’ comments about how much they had enjoyed Charlotte Sometimes when they were children. Never having heard of either the book or its author, it was time to investigate.

Charlotte Sometimes, now a Red Fox Classic, was first published in 1969. Sometimes I feel that books from that era (and how long ago that was) don’t travel well into the next century. But that was certainly not a problem with Charlotte, who apart from the fact that she is politer than children of today, could easily pass as a heroine of the present.

Though, in actual fact, the story is about passing into the past, even then, by slipping back to 1918. Charlotte alternates between the last months of world war one and some time over forty years later. You couldn’t explain it, but it works so well and is so plausible. It reminded me a little of Mary Hoffman’s Stravaganza series, where children also go to bed and wake up in a different era.

Granny, I had to delay my kitchen chores until I had finished the book. And I almost had a little cry at the end. Wish I had read it in 1969.

To read again, and again

I’d had the idea of discussing the re-reading of books for some time. Then someone opened a real can of worms on the Guardian blog on that very subject, so I’m not sure it’s ok any longer. Hundreds of people with opinions.

Do you have time to re-read books in this day and age? I’m trying to work out if it’s the same for everyone, or if it’s just that I’m no longer a child.

I used to re-read books a lot. If I liked them. If I had nothing else to read. If I had nothing better to do.

Now, I hardly ever do. There are far more books available now. And less time. But is it a sign of the times that I have less time, or simply that at fifty (ok, fiftyone) I’m too busy doing other things?

One way of “re-reading” has been to listen to books on cassette while doing the ironing. But I hardly ever do that now, either. The listening, not the ironing.

What do others do? Do you have a book that you keep returning to?

My wishlist is long, but the only book I’ve re-read recently is How I Live Now. The last time in translation, to see how that felt.

My piano tuner revealed that he was reading Dr Johnson, again. I don’t expect I’ll ever get there.