Paperback book reviews including Simple English by Simon Heffer and All Day and A Night by Alafair Burke

Also What You Want by Constantine Phipps and The Storied Life of A.J.Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

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The Independent Culture

SIMPLY ENGLISH BY SIMON HEFFER, WINDMILL BOOKS £9.99

Grammarians may take a descriptive or a prescriptive approach to their subject; but few take prescriptivism quite as far as Simon Heffer in this alphabetised guide to English usage. The tone is that of a peevish, finger-wagging schoolmaster, insisting on correctness. But what is correctness? Heffer has an answer to that: conformity with “the dictionary” (he often uses this term, as though there were only one dictionary). But don’t dictionaries update their definitions? Yes, but they shouldn’t, argues Heffer: “Once the meaning of a word was settled with the publication of the dictionary [in this instance he means the OED], it had no great need to change .... If a group of people insisted on using the word in an incorrect way ... then they and their usage were wrong.” Never mind that Samuel Johnson conceded the impossibility of “fixing the language” in the preface to his dictionary of 1755. He just gave up too easily.

I don’t disagree with all of Heffer’s prescriptions. I am with him in condemning the use of “refute” to mean “deny”; and like him I get annoyed when people mix up “flaunt” and “flout”. But other strictures sound as if they are contrived to be as pointless and reactionary as possible. For example, Heffer rules out the use of “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, despite its obvious usefulness (and pedigree; we find it in Jane Austen and in Thackerary). His reason? “Being a pedant, I regard these uses of they, their and them as unacceptable.” Oh, right. Very persuasive.

Heffer also prefers his infinitives unsplit because, he believes, splitting them is “inelegant”. Yet an ostentatiously avoided split infinitive sounds awkward and unnatural; far better, in many cases, to just split the damned thing.

I was surprised to read in the biographical note that Heffer was born in 1960. Surely that should be 1860?

WHAT YOU WANT BY CONSTANTINE PHIPPS, QUERCUS £8.99

I must admit I groaned when I opened this and was confronted by lines of verse: “When I was about halfway through life/ (Always a cheery moment) I lost my wife/ To another man ....” A 309-page novel in rhyming pentameters? That’s sure to try one’s patience. Well, I was wrong, and ready to admit it by page 2. After his unhappy separation, having taken his son on a failed Disneyland trip, alone and drunk on whisky, Patrick is visited in a dream by Sigmund Freud, who takes him through a series of animatronic scenes, some from his own life, some where he meets historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Cleopatra, and Pythagoras.

The goal is nothing less than to find out how to live. But I make it sound more formulaic than it is. It’s a real novel, with real characters, and it’s engrossing, moving and wise. The poetry is not a flashy add-on, but integral to the novel’s success. It never degenerates into rocking-horse rhythms, but is supple, conversational, and a delight to read. Unreservedly recommended.

ALL DAY AND  A NIGHT BY ALAFAIR BURKE, FABER & FABER £7.99

A psychotherapist is murdered in her office. The method used is the same as that employed by a notorious serial killer, Anthony Amaro. The problem is, Amaro is already behind bars. And the DA’s office receives an anonymous tip-off that Amaro is innocent. NYPD detectives Ellie Hatcher and J J Rogan are ordered to reopen the Amaro case, which is 18 years old, and look for new suspects.

And it soon transpires that there are plenty of surprises waiting to be unearthed. Part police procedural, part legal thriller, this is an efficiently plotted piece of work, full of twists and turns, but the prose is boilerplate and the characterisation pretty basic. Not my cup of tea; but fans of John Grisham or Jodi Picoult should enjoy it.

ADVENTURES IN STATIONERY BY JAMES WARD, PROFILE BOOKS £8.99

Who invented the paperclip? Well, that’s not as straightforward a question as it sounds, because there were a number of different designs which were patented at different times. Ward explores the issue with exemplary thoroughness. He also recounts the rivalry between Keswick and Nuremberg in the 18th century to become “the global centre of pencil manufacture”; conducts an investigation into the production of the giveaway pens in bookmakers; and explains why the commercial sale of adhesive tape was aided by the Great Depression.

If all this sounds a bit boring, that’s because it is. But there’s also something calming and reassuring about this book – rather like the recent experiments with “slow TV”.

THE STORIED LIFE OF A.J.FIKRY BY GABRIELLE ZEVIN, ABACUS £7.99

A J Fikry is a grumpy, unsociable widower who owns a bookshop. He’s not rich, but owns a rare first edition of Poe’s Tamerlane, worth half a million dollars. One night, this precious book is stolen; almost immediately afterwards a two-year-old girl is anonymously left in his care, and he decides to bring her up, thus discovering what is truly valuable in life .... Remind you of anything?

Yup, it’s Silas Marner in modern dress. It’s a story about finding love, and about the importance of community, and about how lovely it is to love not just people but books too (each chapter is prefaced by Fikry’s comments on some relevant novel or story, addressed to his now grown-up daughter). A sweet tale; perhaps a bit sickly for some tastes.

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