Six Months in a Leaky Book

Mentioning Quicksilver reminded me that I haven’t mentioned anything else in the way of books this year, in contrast to last year and all the years before it. I don’t fancy repeating my tour de force of December, but here are a few quick snatches of what’s been through the bookpile since Christmas, apart from page after page of Jack and Eliza.

Nick Hornby’s 31 Songs was, as expected, a quick read and pretty lightweight: more a case of reading it to hear his voice than gaining new and lasting insights, although it seemed thoughtful enough at the time. Let’s see how many of the 31 songs I can remember after six months: “Brick” by Ben Folds Five; something by Badly Drawn Boy; something by Bruce Springsteen; something... else.

Francis Wheen’s How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World was an entertaining defence of rationality and secular humanism, getting stuck into Reaganomics, creationists, postmodernists, Blair, Chomsky, Clinton, dotcom mania, hysterical Diana grief, and other worthy targets, some of which would include me. A refreshing change from most of the polemic I’ve read lately, if only for his range of subjects.

How to be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson has a better chance of lasting than either of them, if only it can break out of the Humour section. A book dedicated to the practical and spiritual benefits of a life of leisure is bound to have its amusing side, and Hodgkinson’s does, but some of his 24 chapters (one for each hour of the day) go well beyond that; the one on Rioting even casts fresh non-Marxist light on the Industrial Revolution. If you have a deep, unfulfilled desire for your own shed, den, or shed/den hybrid, drag yourself out of bed and pick up a copy.

Francis Spufford’s Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin was every bit as good as The Child That Books Built—the kind of behind-the-scenes tales of science and technology Ed Regis and Stephen Levy write, but from a UK perspective. Spufford tells the stories of six technologies, from satellites and Concorde to mobile phones and the human genome project, charting the changes in British research and development along the way; the result is unexpectedly engrossing, especially when you learn how close we came to the human genome being locked away in private hands.

Another scientific tale, Richard Preston’s The Demon in the Freezer, frightened the bejeezus out of me. But then he’s good at that, as The Hot Zone had already shown, and smallpox is even scarier than Ebola. It sounds so harmless, so... well, small. But not to someone whose skin has just fallen off. Non-fiction horror is always so effective.

I hadn’t read any Ursula K. Le Guin in years until I read The Telling, another novel set in the same universe as her early seventies science fiction classics. It was almost as good as those, too, which makes it better than most. The hideous cover of the UK edition shows just how far the genre has fallen in publishers’ eyes since the glory days of Chris Foss.

Jonathan Coe’s novels are all worth reading. In The Dwarves of Death, the driving force behind a struggling indie band escapes from a murder scene and tries to figure out whodunnit; worth it just for the title, really. Best novel of late, though, was Michael Frayn’s Spies, a nostalgic tale of childish obsessions and suburban secrets in wartime Britain.

I’ve also read a few graphic novels this year; collections of old 2000 A.D. stories, more bandes dessinée, and Jeff Smith’s Bone, a “Pogo in Middle Earth” yarn with all the heft of Quicksilver but taking only days rather than months to read. An impressive volume, especially considering how long it took to draw.

But the funniest books I’ve read this year—weepingly, can’t-keep-readingly funny—are, without a doubt, Ted L. Nancy’s Letters from a Nut, More Letters from a Nut, and Extra Nutty! Even More Letters from a Nut. Henry Root did the same thing twenty years ago, but Ted’s hoax letters to unsuspecting hotels, restaurants, town councils, customer service departments, and monarchs of small Pacific islands are even stranger and funnier than the retired wet fish merchant’s. They’re all pretty cheap on, so buy the job lot—especially if you need a break from the Baroque.

30 June 2005 · Books