Paperback reviews: A Little History of Literature, The Dogs of Littlefield, Great Victorian Inventions, This One is Mine, Cara Massimina


Lesley McDowell
Friday 15 August 2014 19:38

A Little History of Literature, by John Sutherland (Vale £9.99)

I suspect that an expert like John Sutherland could have written this highly entertaining and informative history without recourse to any research at all, having it pretty much at his fingertips; and it reads extremely well, as though he is simply having a chat with us about literature and why it matters. His abiding theme is always humanity: that books teach us how to be, how to live, what it means to be human, and that humanity informs his readings, from Beowulf to Fifty Shades of Grey.

As he acknowledges in his final chapter, which briefly considers the ebook revolution, literature is constantly in a state of flux, fluid and adaptable (one of the reasons such liberties can be taken with Shakespeare’s plays without “damaging” the work), reflecting our worlds and our attitudes. So far, so obvious, perhaps, but Sutherland also stresses the striving essential to literature, whether it’s a hero striving towards a particular goal, or the author, striving to create a particular world.

Set out partly according to particular authors, partly according to themes, Sutherland’s history paints a picture of literature that is also gently subversive: it’s OK, he suggests, to find fault with Milton and Paradise Lost; it’s perfectly acceptable to enjoy “potboilers” (although I’m not convinced that “publishers let the sales of ‘low’ literature pay for the ‘high’” quite so much any more). His is not a challenging or revolutionary history: you will find no Marxist dissection of Heathcliff as a working-class anti-hero here, for instance, and in that sense, it is ever the establishment view, for all its awareness of women’s issues and race and colonialism. But Sutherland’s history does contain enough of those quiet subversions that make literature appealing and fun, whilst not scaring the horses.

The Dogs of Littlefield, by Suzanne Berne (Penguin £8.99)

This is a little masterpiece of suburban mores, where humour and melancholy combine perfectly to give us a nuanced view of everyday lives suddenly confronted with the inexplicable. Littlefield is an ideal and idealised US town where dogs are being poisoned, seemingly as a result of a battle about the rights to walk them in the local park. But what is the real reason? What this suburban mystery is really about is something else, of course: the unravelling of marriages, about the quiet dissatisfactions, the mid-life crises and the affairs that all tend to affect folk who are otherwise fortunate with regular jobs, incomes and beautiful homes. But Berne pitches her satire just right, making us care deeply about housewife Margaret’s inability to challenge her husband, for instance, or even egotistical novelist George’s insensitivity, as their community becomes a different place in the wake of the dog poisonings. Berne takes her characters seriously, even as she pokes fun at them, and we take them seriously in our turn.

Great Victorian Inventions, by Caroline Rochford (Amberley £9.99)

This rather charming and often revelatory history of inventions that we take for granted, and inventions we have never heard of, says a great deal about the Victorian age itself. The obsession with empire, for instance, is reflected as much in the immense bridge-building that takes place as it is in “sunshades for soldiers in the desert”, a contraption developed in 1885 to help protect British soldiers in Sudan from sunstroke. The changing roles of women in the home is reflected in occasionally ludicrous labour-saving devices, but in the public sphere we also have inventive female schoolteachers and some women in the technical world, such as Mrs Nelson Decker, improving the quality of colour photographs.

This One is Mine, by Maria Semple (Phoenix £8.99)

Maria Semple came to prominence in the UK with her novel, Where D’You Go Bernadette. This publication is actually her debut, and gives the main roles to two women, Hollywood-based Violet Parry, unhappily married to wealthy band manager David, and David’s sister, the thoroughly mercenary Sally, who is desperate to get married. Sally wants somebody who will be a Somebody, and decides that sports journalist-turned-TV-commentator, Jeremy, is that man. She pursues her course ruthlessly and lovelessly, as Violet also becomes involved with another man. Neither woman is particularly sympathetic, but the narrative moves speedily enough and is as sharp as a tack.

Cara Massimina, by Tim Parks (Vintage £8.99)

Fourteen years ago, Parks published the first of his novels about the serial killer Morris Duckworth, an Englishman abroad in Italy whose psychological DNA owes more than a little to Patricia Highsmith, with his repressed rage against those better off than he is, his delusions of grandeur, and his dubious relationship with his dead mother. Duckworth is after money, so he courts the teenaged daughter of a wealthy Italian family. They reject him, but Massimina still wants to be with him so they elope. Unfortunately, Duckworth’s personality soon gets the better of him and he cannot resist playing the police, writing anonymous ransom notes, and murdering a couple of folk who get in the way. Entertaining black humour.

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