The Woman who Went to Bed for a Year, By Sue Townsend
On the second page of Sue Townsend's novel, the reader is surprised to come across the following sentence: "She then went upstairs, into her bedroom and, without removing her clothes or her shoes, got into bed and stayed there for a year."
Both the content and the style of that sentence announce the kind of novel we are to expect: humorous, quirky, perverse, protesting.
The woman in question, Eva Beaver, does indeed stay in bed for a whole year (except to walk along a sheet to go to the bathroom), radically changing her relationships with her astronomer husband (who is useless in the sack but is nevertheless having an affair with a fellow astronomer, with whom he sleeps in the shed), her son and her daughter (a pair of brainiac twins studying astrophysics at university), and a host of other crazy characters, including the members of the great British public who set up camp outside her house, convinced that she is some sort of seer. Eva's new friend and love interest, Alexander, the black white-van driver, guards the door and brings her meals in bed.
It all sounds promising, but somehow it does not come off. The flat, deadpan tone stops being amusing after a while, and the quirkiness feels contrived. Townsend deliberately makes her characters say silly things so she can laugh at them for being so silly. Well, all humorous writers do that, but it's not supposed to be so obvious.
I don't like criticising Sue Townsend, who is the creator of Adrian Mole and some very funny plays, but she leaves me no choice.
The Brain is Wider than the Sky, By Bryan Appleyard
In this book – the title of which comes from an Emily Dickinson poem – Bryan Appleyard aims to prove that the brain, or, as he would put it, the mind, is far too wide for the reductive explanations of neuroscience, computer science or evolutionary biology. There is a fascinating argument to be had about whether science can ultimately explain everything, or, indeed, whether we could ever know in advance whether it can or not; but Appleyard doesn't engage with it. Instead we get an amiable tour around the latest scientific developments, and the insistent claim that the truth must be complex, not simple. Well yes, probably, but the book raises philosophical questions it does not explore. It is journalism, rather than an intellectual argument, but it is thought-provoking journalism, nevertheless.
Letter to My Daughter, By Maya Angelou
The subject matter of this collection of 28 short essays and mini-memoirs, addressed to the daughter Maya Angelou never had, ranges enormously. Topics include feasting on red rice and chicken, making friends with strangers, being beaten up by a homicidally jealous lover, black American poetry, and the author's own take on Christianity. Angelou is not afraid to recount her personal embarrassments and errors, such as the time she mistakenly walked all over the tablecloth at a dinner in Senegal, or when she accused a waitress of refusing to serve her for racist reasons, when in fact the restaurant had unfortunately run out of grits. To be frank, the style can be pedestrian at times but the content is candid, sensitive and empathetic, and displays an enormous zest for life.
In Other Worlds, By Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood has been an aficionado of science fiction all her reading and writing life as well as a practitioner of it in such novels as The Handmaid's Tale – or at least, she is a practitioner of "speculative fiction", which she defines as stories about things that could happen but haven't happened yet. Obviously the distinction isn't hard and fast, and Atwood explores it in this engaging collection of literary essays, focusing on classic texts which one might not automatically think of as canonical contributions to the sci-fi genre: Orwell's 1984, Wells's The Island of Dr Moreau, Rider Haggard's She, Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go and Swift's Gulliver's Travels. The book also includes a selection of "tributes" to sci-fi forms from Atwood's own work, dealing with cryogenics, alien visitation, time capsules and the peach women of the planet Aa'A.
White Truffles in Winter, By N M Kelby
Alma Books £12.99
On the eve of the Great War, the great French chef Auguste Escoffier, an old man by now, is asked by his betrayed wife for
a recipe to immortalise her. So N M Kelby's novel is told in a series of flashbacks, each attached to a recipe which memorialises the peaks and troughs of his life: the Siege of Paris, the meals he cooked for royalty, his affair with Sarah Bernhardt. Irritatingly, Kelby has a tendency to state the obvious – the Titanic's voyage is described as "momentous yet ultimately unfortunate" – and though this is a vivid and detailed reconstruction of a bygone era, on the whole it's a pretty hammy performance. I do like the recipes, though.
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