Tag Archives: favourite book

Author Jill Dawson talks about her Favourite Book

I’m really pleased to share a guest post from Jill Dawson author of Lucky Bunny and The Great Lover in which she introduces her favourite book The Girl in The Polka Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge.

My recent love is Beryl Bainbridge. I’ve come late to her but I am working my way through all of her novels. I think when I was younger I found them too dispiriting and opaque. Master Georgie struck me as particularly difficult to get into.  You have to live awhile to appreciate how funny she made things, and how unique as a writer she was in nailing pretension, emotion and sex in a prose style all her own. Famously hard-drinking and smoking, darkly humorous in her work Bainbridge relished the absurd, the inexplicable and the violent. These traits are in this last novel too, but another flavour dominates: melancholia.

The Girl in the Polka-dot Dress tells the story of Rose, a young Londoner who sets out for the States during the tumultuous summer of 1968 to meet a man she knows as Washington Harold, with only a polka-dot dress and a one-way ticket in her suitcase. The two of them aim to join forces to travel across the country in search of Dr Wheeler – guru and life-saver as far as Rose is concerned; something much darker for Harold.

It’s a novel of a hopeless journey, against a backdrop of violent episodes and assassinations—first Martin Luther King, later Bobby Kennedy—and the shift in public mood from optimism to despair. The elusive Dr Wheeler moves on, and we suspect he might never be found, or that finding him isn’t really the point. “I’m only doing what’s best. We’re all looking for something,” Harold states, towards the end, after surprising us utterly with his closing act.

The journey of the novel echoes the final one that Bainbridge herself was on, since her health was failing and she was close to death while writing it. For an answer to the question “What’s the point?”, Dr Wheeler’s earlier advice to Rose is: “If you want a compass to guide you through life, you have to accustom yourself to looking upon the world as a penal colony. If you abide by this you’ll stop regarding disagreeable incidents, sufferings, worries and miseries as anything out of the ordinary. Indeed, you’ll realise that everything is as it should be; each of us pays the penalty of existence in our own peculiar way.”

For Rose, the one moment of true love had been snatched from her by a mother, who saw it as “a dirty union between under-age fornicators . . . which was why it was necessary for the resulting infant to be given away. Mothers could always be depended on to know what was best.” One
might take this to be the author’s final comment on the matter, a cackling voice from the grave urging us to accept the unpalatable, to see that our dreams will fail, that whatever joy we experience will be stolen. Even in the last days of her life, Bainbridge was planning to get up and work, to fix the novel that had bewitched and eluded her for nearly 10 years.

So if life’s so pointless, how do we explain the author’s persistent and courageous endeavour to engage with it? Her novel offers joy and some kind of answer for the reader who takes pleasure in bloody good writing: the salty prose; the rationed cruelty towards characters; the wicked observation; the frugal way with adjectives, adverbs and sub-clauses; the deadpan tone; the punch. It might not be line for line as Bainbridge intended (as it was compiled by her sympathetic editor from the unfinished manuscript), but I urge you to read it.  Authentic, stinging and truthful, Bainbridge spoke as she found, in her own peculiar way.

I told Jill that I’d been meaning to read some Beryl Bainbridge and she recommended that I start with The Dressmaker, so I will be checking that out of the local library this week. I can’t recommend The Great Lover highly enough, but check out Jill’s other projects here.

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Author Peter Salmon talks about his Favourite Book

Peter Salmon, author of The Coffee Story

I always wonder what books authors like to read, so I recently contacted some of the great authors who have featured on my blog in recent years to ask what their favourite book is and why they enjoyed it. I’m pleased to introduce the first guest post from Peter Salmon, author of The Coffee Story.  I’m adding it straight to my reading list.

The Book of Daniel by E L Doctorow
‘On Memorial Day in 1967 Daniel Lewin thumbed his way from New York to Worcester, Mass … With him was his young wife, Phyllis, and their eight-month-old son, Paul … The day was hot and overcast … and the traffic was wondering – I mean the early morning traffic was light, but not many drivers could pass them without wondering who they were and where they were going … This is a Tinline felt-tip marker, black. This is Composition Notebook 79c made in USA by Long Island Paper Products, Inc. This is Daniel trying one of the dark coves of the Browsing room … Daniel, a tall young man of twenty-five …’

From the moment I started The Book of Daniel by E L Doctorow, I knew nothing would be the same. This is the most vicious, passionate, desperate, glorious and brilliant book I have ever read – The Coffee Story is basically a rip-off, and I’d owe Doctorow royalties if I earned any.

I won’t go into the plot – it’s loosely based on the execution of the Rosenbergs for spying in 50s USA –  but I do want to talk about it as a piece of writing. This was the book that first taught me that ANYTHING is possible in the novel – being a paid up member of the artsy wanky pomo clan before I read this, I was well versed in narrative techniques and saw them as some sort of intellectual game. Then this book came along and made me realise that when you embark on a novel the thing is to use every possible method to speak the narrative truth required. The Book of Daniel uses discontinuous narrative, time-shifts, POV shifts, not as a game, but because it’s a story that – literally cannot be told any other way.

And Doctorow tried. The first version of the book was written third person, calm, collected etc etc. Doctorow finished and realised he’d failed. So (and I’m exaggerating for effect, but not much) he threw the whole thing in the bin, and in sheer bloody frustration, wrote the opening paragraph above. And produced a howl of rage and pain that, in the end, can only be described by his own – Daniel’s own, summation of the work of Edgar Allen Poe, halfway through the book…

‘But historians of America fail to mention the archetype traitor, the master subversive, Poe, who wore a hole through the parchment, and let the darkness pour though… It’s Poe, not those other guys. He and he alone. It’s Poe who ruined us, that scream from the smiling face of America.’

Astonishing.

 

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