Monday, June 17, 2013

Books I read in May


Moondust, Andrew Smith. Since the dawn of time, humanity has longed to grind the face of the moon beneath its collective boot. Yet it wasn't until the 1960s that technology became sufficiently advanced to propel to the lunar surface not only boots, but people, too. (All the better for sending more boots.) Thanks to the political will of John F. Kennedy and the efficient German know-how of various former Nazis, between 1969 and 1972 twelve American men had the honour of standing 'pon Luna's pock-marked surface. In this delightful book, journalist and probable boot-wearer Andrew Smith seeks out the remaining moonwalkers (there were nine at the time the book was published; Neil Armstrong of course died last year), to find out what, if anything, of this extraordinary experience can be conveyed to the rest of us mere mortals.

Doubtless there are heaps of good books about the Space Race and the Apollo Programme - I have Wolfe's The Right Stuff on my shelf, and Andrew Chaikin's  A Man on the Moon sounds terrific - but I can't imagine many are as purely enjoyable as Moondust. In just 350 pages, Smith sketches a lively portrait of the Apollo era and its major personalities, its tragedies, triumphs and scandals. He tracks down even the most reclusive astronauts - the notoriously private Armstrong, for one; also Apollo 15's elusive David Scott - and coaxes them into discussions that range from blunt to enigmatic, all handled by Smith with skill and compassion. He also finds time to discuss various aspects of humanity's relationship to the moon, and, by extension, our often ambivalent relationship with space exploration.

Smith is a diligent, skilled journalist, and it's obvious that he enjoyed being let off the chain here. He makes for a warm, witty companion, and even the inevitable "journey" narrative - now apparently required of all authors of book-length non-fiction - is relatively unobtrusive.

The Other, Thomas Tryon. Creepy twins and plenty of them! Well, two. And only one is creepy. OR IS HE? (Spoiler: yes.)

Tryon was a B-movie actor who, according to the bio in my copy, was so bullied by Otto Preminger on the set of The Cardinal that he threw it in and became a writer. The Other was his first novel, and what a nasty, dreamy, sneaky thing it is. Much like its twisted protagonist! But hush, I have said too much...

One of the great things about The Other is that it has a twist, and I knew it had a twist, because of course it had a twist, but then, then the twist twisted in a different direction than I was expecting! So that was good. I also enjoyed Tryon's nostalgic, beautifully detailed evocation of a 1930s New England childhood, which gives the novel a vaguely pre-modern, old world feel. Oh, and there are creepy bits and gory bits and lots of other stuff, too. A rich novel, worthy of its pleasing new NYRB Classics edition.

The 13-Storey Treehouse, Andy Griffiths & Terry Denton. I read this to my 7yo while she was laid up with an ear infection. Coaxing belly laughs from an ill child is no mean feat, but Griffiths and Denton are so much fun here. The book is about the writing of the book, albeit a fictionalised account, unless Griffiths and Denton do live in a massive treehouse and regularly battle sea monsters with the aid of a flying cat. Which they might. I don't know them personally.

The interplay between Griffiths' words and Denton's illustrations is hilarious, as are all the crazy metafictional twists and turns.  Kids appear to be naturally comfortable with such playful artifice. If a novel for adults was built around similar conceits it would probably be labelled "pretentious" - or, just as damning, "experimental". Here, it is allowed to be what it is: great fun.

Beauty's Sister, James Bradley. Beauty's Sister is a superb novelette. A version of the Rapunzel tale, it balances the "feel" of a traditional fairy tale with a distinctly modern sensibility. The key to the story's success is its total lack of quaintness. Bradley doesn't attempt to impersonate the Grimms; rather he writes with contemporary directness leavened with a kind of timeless, otherworldly demotic. The pacing, too, is perfect, building, as a good fairy tale must, to a surprising, yet logical, close.

Formerly a digital-only Kindle Single, Beauty's Sister is now available in paperback, resplendent in orange Penguin livery. It comes highly recommended in either format.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson. A masterpiece of unreliable narration, up there with Pale Fire, The Turn of the Screw, and George W. Bush's Decision Points. This book ticks so many boxes for me: screwy adolescent narrator, hermetic setting, idiosyncratic ritual, generalised misanthropy, crackpot uncles, mysterious poisonings. I found the Gothic atmosphere, black humour, and especially the narration irresistible. I love strange little novels, and this is one hell of a strange little novel.

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