Don’t Go Down To The Woods

So I’ve hit a little pothole here in the superhighway of reading. I suppose it began back when I was reading The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. Some novels are just better interleaved with different books or else the sameness of tone can get a bit too much. Well, I found Rand to be like that and diluted her with Cynthia Ozick’s Heir to the Glimmering World (published as The Bear Boy in the UK). Now the Ozick was reasonably enjoyable; excellent quality of writing as one might expect from a Pulitzer prize winner, but highly episodic in structure, something I’ve noticed before as being far more prevalent in American novels than British ones. And the story focuses on a Jewish family of startling unloveliness, all spikes and prickles and subterfuge with a helping of despotism and madness on the side. It was just about holding me intellectually but once I’d reached a point of no return with the Rand, I decided to plow forward with The Fountainhead exclusively, because otherwise one gets the sense with a 700-page novel that one might never finish it. So I put the Ozick down and have been notably reluctant to pick it up again.

After Rand I needed a mental palate cleanser and so read a crime fiction novel by Andrew Taylor, Naked to the Hangman. Now this was fantastic. Taylor is a relatively prolific writer and so has a number of series to his name. This novel was something like the eighth in his Lydmouth series, good old-fashioned police procedural stuff, set in the 1950s in a small town near the Welsh border. The stories focus on Detective Inspector Richard Thornhill, married, ambitious, good at his job, and to some extent on Jill Francis, a newspaper journalist with whom he conducts an affair over the course of the novels (it’s over by this one). The affair is an ongoing subplot that is woven around the different cases that provide the focus for each individual novel and I only mention it because it is so well done. The atmosphere of the 1950s is brilliantly conveyed and I love his writing style, so clean and crisp and economic. This novel saw Jill and Edith Thornhill forming an uneasy alliance to help Richard, who seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. They don’t know it, but some old trouble he got caught up in as a rookie officer in Palestine has returned to haunt him and his life is in danger. At the same time tensions are running high in the town over the annual youth dance and the steadily rising floodwaters. It was a great read and one of those undemanding, thoroughly enjoyable novels.

After that I still had a taste for crime and so I began In The Woods by Tara French. I’d heard so much about this novel and everything positive, but after the neat, concise style of Andrew Taylor the writing seemed a bit overheated at first. Not that I mean this in a particularly critical way; it was just an abrupt change of style. So I put it to one side briefly to read Molly Fox’s Birthday, which as you know I loved. After the Deirdre Madden, the writing felt fine in the French book and I quickly got into the story. Now those of you who regularly visit this blog know I have a bit of a problem with terrible things happening to children. And because it’s dramatic and designed to keep readers turning the pages, the plotline of terrible things happening to children is utterly pervasive in crime fiction these days. You have to go fifty years back in the past to a time when children weren’t the intolerably precious commodity they are now to find a story where they’re irrelevant. For those people who haven’t already read the French novel, the narrator is Rob Ryan, a detective in the Dublin police force, who was involved in an unresolved crime during his childhood. At the age of twelve he and his two best friends went into the local woods and the two best friends disappeared, never to be found again. Rob – or Adam as he was in those days – was recovered much later on, apparently unharmed but covered in blood and suffering from amnesia. Now another crime has been committed in the same place, the murder of a twelve-year-old girl whose body has been found on an ancient sacrifical stone altar, which disquietingly shows faint traces of blood that may come from the old crime. Rob has never recovered his memory, but as the detectives hunt down the killer, and Rob continues to hide his former identity, so the sense of both external and internal menace intensifies.

This is a very good book, as many other bloggers have testified. So piercing is the sense of intolerable threat that I found myself having nightmares about it last night. Now how embarrassing is that? To be my age and still to be prone to nightmares after scary books! And of course now I don’t know what to do. I want to keep reading, as it’s usually best to go through the fire and out the other side, and I’d like to know what happens. But at the same time, I have a strong inclination to set it aside again for a couple of days because frankly I’m shattered and reading is supposed to be fun. The obvious thing to do would be to retrieve the Ozick and keep going with that, but I can’t say that it appeals right now. It’s also a spiky, uncomfortable sort of book, and what I would like is something soothing and, if possible, funny. Has anybody got any good ideas? I’d prefer something short, fiction rather than non-fiction, and I don’t really want something frivolous, like P. G. Wodehouse, more something charming and kind. Any thoughts?

21 thoughts on “Don’t Go Down To The Woods

  1. Ah palate cleansing books. Sometimes they end up being more memorable than the books that required the cleansing. I don’t think you having nightmares is so terrible at all. I have them if I watch graphic horror movies or movies with explicit and realistic violence in them. As for soothing and funny books, I can’t remember whether you have read Alan Bennet’s Uncommon Reader. If you have not then maybe that’s one to try. Bookish, funny and sweet and entirely unrealistic but pleasant nonetheless.

  2. “highly episodic in structure, something I’ve noticed before as being far more prevalent in American novels than British ones”
    we have shorter attention spans…

  3. Not especially short, but I think you’d really like Eva Rice’s ‘The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets’ – it’s set in your beloved ’50s, young love – funny, charming, awkward, with a soupçon of bleak uncertainty, but it’s neither ominous nor frivolous. Actually, I’m confident enough with this one that I’ve just ordered it for you 😎
    The NUMBER of books that I don’t tell you about, because children get pianos dropped on them (or similar)…still embarrassed about insisting you read ‘What I Loved’.

  4. How about, Father Of The Bride by Edward Streeter originally published in 1949? Oh, I know, I know, you’ve probably already seen the movies (I’ve only seen the one with Spencer Tracy), but the book is so fresh and light and funny – and not long. I do, however, agree wholeheartedly with Stefanie about The Uncommon Reader. I loved that little gem. (I can’t read stories or watch films about children being hurt either.)

  5. I enjoyed Chandra Prasad’s On Borrowed Wings recently, which is serious in tone, but not too much so, and it’s also charming. Or if it were me, I might pick up a Barbara Pym or perhaps Penelope Lively. I’m not particularly good at this, though — I think Danielle would be your best recommender, probably! I hope you find just the right thing.

  6. Ah, yes, I should have thought a bout that when I waxed so lyrical about the French. There are all sorts of reasons why just pushing on through probably won’t work. But, I don’t want to say anything more about that for fear of spoiling the book for you if you do decided to finish it. As an antidote I would go back and re-read some amusing essays. How long is it since you read the Fadiman? I always find her a good antidote to a reading hiatus.

  7. Stefanie – so true, so true. It is often the in-fill that turns out into something special. And you make me feel better about my nightmares. When I read it in your comment I just think of you as sensitive, so I will apply that thought to myself! The Alan Bennett is an inspired idea. I will go and hunt it out.

    Lilian – I’ve only read The View from Castle Rock by Munroe. If you have any particular book in mind, I’d be most grateful to know. I thought she was a delightful stylist, by the way.

    Emily – lol! In fact I think you may have longer ones. I need plot sometimes to pull me through, whereas American novels often rely on strong characterisation, which is about settling down and enjoying the moment rather than needing to know what happens next. I’m sure that’s admirable!

    Fugitive – you are SUCH a dear heart (this is Grad’s term really but I like it so much I’m going to swipe it). Big hugs to you, sweetie, for being such a dear and helpful friend. I shall love the Rice, I know. And never feel bad about the Hustvedt. She is a stunning writer, and I was going to read it anyway.

    Grad – do you know, I haven’t even seen Father of the Bride! I should do something about that, but book before movie, like i before e. That’s a wonderful idea, as is the Alan Bennett. And thank you for the sympathy – so comforting to think I am not alone.

    Dorothy – those are excellent suggestions. When I read Danielle’s review of the Prassad, I thought I really must get hold of a copy. And Pym is an inspired choice. There are several of her novels that I read long enough ago to have forgotten completely. I think you are very good at this!

    Ann – does it only get worse, then? I’m really torn at the moment and don’t know what to do. Because it IS a good book. But Fadiman is another excellent suggestion – those essays were just a joy and well worth a reread.

    Kristina – Barbara Pym is a wonderful idea. I don’t find her too melancholy at all and Excellent Women is one of my favourites. I reread that one not too long ago, but no matter, there are plenty of other Pym on the shelf!

  8. I prescribe James Herriot! His country vet in Yorkshire stories are a perfect antidote for nightmares. I always sleep with one of his books on my nightstand, in case I have a really horrible nightmare and can’t get back to sleep, and so far this has never failed me.

  9. When you said charming I immediately thought of The Lost art of Keeping Secrets, which I know you’ve already read. And I think you already have Ferris Beach on your list and I ditto Dorothy’s suggestion of On Borrowed Wings by Chandra Prasad. The problem is you are so well read it’s hard to think of a good suggestion! Have you ever read Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis–frivolous and highly entertaining (I’ve never seen the musical). Maybe Lucia, Lucia by Adriana Trigiani set in 50s NYC? A favorite comfort read that has a dash of mystery is Martha Grimes’s The Hotel Paradise. Or maybe Our Hearts Were Young and Gay by Cornelia Skinner, which is an amusing travel narrative of two young women traveling abroad in the 1920s. It looks like you’ve gotten some great ideas, so hopefully there will be something to give you happier dreams! 🙂

  10. Litlove, you’ve read The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, haven’t you? Shame, as otherwise perfect. It’s faintly alarming how few titles on these bookshelves of mine strike me as kind….hmmm… By the way, I had the worst nightmare of my life on Friday night, absolutely traumatic, too terrible for words, must be going around… Oh, and my MS is very episodic, it’s one of its identified structural failings; perhaps I really do belong in the US.

  11. Oh damn, you’ve read the Eva Rice? And of course, you were too well-mannered to tell me, you darling polite woman. I’m so sorry, I can barely remember what I’ve read at the moment (yes, I’ve just borrowed a book from the library that I already own. In hardback. I’m barely a shopping list away from entering a fugue state.)
    Maybe give the extra copy away in return for the best suggestion here? To whomsoever provides best comfort and alleviation from Litlove night-terrors…a prize! Although not one selected by penguins. Sorry.

  12. Books give me nightmares occasionally too, especially when crimes against children are involved. I suppose that speaks rather well for the ability of the writer to be convincing. But I do know what you mean about needing an antidote to all that.

    I really enjoy Alexander McCall Smith’s series about Isabel Dalhousie, a Scottish woman who edits a philosophy journal, has a delightful young lover, and solves all manner of thorny philosophical mysteries. The first one is called The Sunday Philosophy Club. Very nice characters, quite short, well written, and interesting premises.

  13. Jenny – I have never read James Herriot, although I have heard others sing his praises. I never considered him, but I’ll give anything a go! Thank you for the suggestion!

    Danielle – I knew you would be full of marvellous suggestions and loads there that I haven’t read, thank you, thank you. I’ve already ordered a copy of On Borrowed Wings, which I found, a like-new hardback, offered for 1p plus postage and packing. It was meant to be! 🙂

    Doctordi – I haven’t read the Literary Guernsey Potato Peel thingy and that’s another wonderful idea. Books can be hugely disturbing, and it is comforting to know that I’m not alone in the nightmares. Although I would wish you safe from them too, if I could. Episodic is clearly extremely popular at the moment, so if that’s your novels worst fault, it must be pretty astounding. 🙂

    Fugitive – I no longer have a copy of it myself, and will be delighted to read it again. Or I could swap it for something else. You were a darling to think of me, and what comes from you is always special to me.

    Becca – I’m so impressed by the quality of everyone’s suggestions. I hadn’t thought of those books at all, although I know of them. Thank you so much! I will definitely give one a try. And I appreciate the solidarity on the nightmare front, too. It is always, alas, testimony to the excellence of the writer, and I’m so greedy with books I have to expect to get bilious once in a while! 🙂

    Doctordi – duly noted, my friend! I will not touch it with a barge pole.

  14. Laughing – I always want to call it the Potato Pie Thingy myself! Epistolary form, very jaunty tenor. Erm, worst fault? Probably not, but definitely an identified one. I think the only thing that’s astounding about it is how many drafts it requires, but thank you, dear, that is truly too kind. Barge pole is good.

  15. Well, I can’t say anything about your nightmare (and I now have the Tana French book in my position, thanks to The Hobgoblin when we met up in Maine), because I’ve been reading John Connolly’s The Killing Kind and had a horrible nightmare about that last night. Sorry, but my mind must still be in vacation-mode. I am drawing a blank on a good recommendation for you.

  16. Pingback: Best Books of 2009 « Tales from the Reading Room

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