I bought three books at the Appledore Book Festival in September/October 2014. I've finished reading two of them, and I'm still ploughing through the third.
Frankly, I'm not much of a reader nowadays. At least, not of fiction. I do read an awful lot of stuff on the Internet, and I do it daily, but it's factual - information I want to know about, articles that deal with the many topics that interest me, and not works of the imagination. And I stress that it is mostly done on the Internet: it's unusual for me to buy an actual book. Books can be special, wonderful things: sometimes prized possessions, or sentimental relics of an earlier era in my life, in the way I love to turn the pages of my 1958 Rupert Bear annual. But books can get damaged by time and temperature, their covers fading in daylight, their bindings falling apart unless they are bound in traditional fashion and not merely glued together. Electronic publications do not suffer from that. And electronic publications are regularly updated and cross-referenced, and can never get lost, nor lent and not returned. Coffee cannot spill over them, and generally age cannot wither them nor custom stale their infinite variety.
That said, I do not possess a single e-book. For my rare forays into fiction, I buy old-fashioned paper books, new or second-hand. I find it enhances the reading experience. It's part of the ritual of fiction-reading. In a strange way, having a tangible object in my hands asserts the status of the book as the fruit of someone's very hard work. Owning a copy of the book pays respect to the author. I won't say there is any major difference in 'knowing' an author on paper, and 'knowing' him or her by viewing a screen. But the contents of a screen can be flicked through, or dismissed - or even deleted - very easily. Really too easily - which diminishes the book in my opinion. Whereas a paper book, particularly if well-bound and not a budget edition, is something one would never treat so casually. It literally has a presence denied to the electronic version. And disrespecting it - and therefore the words of its author - seems awfully like Nazi book-burning.
All this said, the contents of any paper book that I buy and start to read do have to be substantial, well-presented, and in some way relevant to my life and outlook - otherwise it's unrewarding to go on with.
And of course, the book needs to be true to be worth reading. True? I mean variously 'written from experience' or 'written from the heart' or 'written from a deeply-felt conviction or revelation' and not written insincerely, nor to comply with a party line, nor churned out according to a commercial formula and a commercial imperative. Most books are written to make money, or in some hope of that. That's fine, if the book clearly deserves to be popular. But I still want the author's authentic effort, his or her personal position and passion, their very own flashes of originality. I don't want to be fobbed off with an easily-written clone of an earlier classic in the same genre.
So I look for a good story written in a recognisable personal style. But it still has to engage me and satisfy me.
Having seen and heard the authors speak about their latest books, and their wider experiences, at the 2014 Appledore Book Festival, I queued up and bought signed copies. Here they are:
Lord David Owen: The Hidden Perspective.
Richard Madeley: The Way You Look Tonight.
Irma Kurtz: My Life In Agony.
Lord Owen was depicted on the Festival posters thus:
And this was an honest publicity photograph. This one-time cabinet minister had aged; he was white-haired, and indeed appeared to be walking with some care. I thought he came across as an elder statesman with practical war zone experience and the academic rigour of the serious historian, who knew what he was talking about, and was therefore worth heeding. The subject of his book was the early build-up of secret military agreements and understandings between top men in the British and French armies that gradually committed Britain to fight if the looming (but still avoidable) conflict with Germany broke out. It also covered the furore that convulsed the British Parliament when these secret commitments had to come out.
I like history, and the theme seemed well worth the price of a book. But this is the very book, out of the three, that I have not yet been able to finish. I am sorry to say that Lord Owen's writing style is hard-going, at least to me. I will persevere, because I think the unfolding story will be worth the effort, and besides I want to understand more about the diplomatic and military attitudes of the time. But I'm not greatly enjoying the experience. It's a slog. (Lord Owen should however take heart by recognising that I do not have his brainpower and sharp intellect)
Richard Madeley's book, essentially a psycho thriller, took me a few weeks to finish, partly because it set up situations where I was reluctant to read on, in case the heroine - or anyone she cared for - came to a sudden and grisly end. I don't care for gore and callousness and unforeseen shocks. It was one of those books where you really can't tell how things will turn out - which I suppose is quite a strong recommendation to read it! So I had to screw my courage up, picking it up again and again, and edge forward with the plot, small steps at a time.
I'm making his book out to be an emotional roller-coaster. It isn't really. But it is clever and well-written, Richard Madeley weaving contemporary personalities and events (President Kennedy and his family; the Cuban Missile Crisis) into the plot so as to place the heroine into unwitting danger. In some ways it reminded me strongly - at least in its menacing atmosphere and its theme of a cunning villain stalking his victim - of the 1962 Gregory Peck film Cape Fear. But the plot is quite different. It wasn't Richard Madeley's first book, but he is still not yet a widely-known thriller writer. He deserves to be. I'd certainly recommend this book for a great holiday read. Here he is in his publicity photo - Mr Dishy:
Yes...he sort of looks like that. Here are my photos of him at the Festival, fresh from a holiday in the South of France:
And now Irma Kurtz. I was very admiring of her when she spoke at the Festival. She came across as an older woman of great character and great worldly wisdom, establishing a warm rapport with the largely-female audience. I felt I wanted to confide in her, but I didn't get the chance, although we did 'meet' over the signing-table shortly afterwards. Here she is:
Her book is an autobiography focussed mostly on the influences that drew her into giving sensible and realistic advice to people who asked her for it, from teenhood onwards. She is an American who for most of her life has been an ex-pat. She became famous for authoring the agony pages of Cosmopolitan magazine. I can't personally recall any advice she gave there, nor elsewhere, but the book recounts examples; and, to be sure, her advice would have been worth hearing and acting upon. And still would be. She acknowledges the changing perspectives (the Hidden Perspectives?) imposed by encroaching older age, but, so far as I can see, her mind and speech habits have remained fresh and youthful, completely capable of understanding the concerns of modern girls, and the occasional modern man.
As an autobiography, the book is however terrible. It hops around, seems disconnected, and is really a collection of episodes that left their mark, or defined a moment when she understood something key about human nature. She was always a proper sensual woman, wanting all the usual things, but at the same time a questioning, reflective and clear-thinking individual, who wanted to see the heart of any matter. So even when young she was able to distinguish between what was essential and relevant, and what was not; what was common sense and wisdom, and what was but pie in the sky and mere wishful thinking. She was romantic but ultimately failed to find lasting romance for herself, even though she must have guided thousands towards true love, or at least a lasting bond constructed on firm ground. I suppose that if you are too aware, and see too clearly, your perceptions prevent you putting up with bad or unrewarding situations, and you cannot fudge it.
She had a baby at one point, from a man she thought at the time was her soulmate. Little is said about this child, and once I'd finished her book I wondered why. She hadn't seemed to be lacking in motherly instincts. Maybe, though, this was one area that she had not explored to her full satisfaction, one area where she hadn't yet got the full answer: her own particular agony.
If there is one incident she described which stood out in my mind as I read her book, it was her 'fortune-telling' experience in later life, done as a sideshow for an annual charity event. It's described on pages 222 to 228 of the book, at least in my hardback edition. She wasn't really involved in telling fortunes. The role was one she could credibly tackle without more than a rudimentary knowledge of palmistry - her ordinary perceptions of what was bothering the person who came into her tent were enough to get by. It was a charity event, remember, not a serious exercise of semi-occult skills. Madame Irma, who will read your palm and foretell your future.
Well, waiting for her in her tent, seated and ready to begin, was a young man. This was unusual, as it was mostly girls and women who would ask to know their fortune. He wanted to hear about his past self and what might have been. Then what the future held in store for him.
She 'saw' in his hand that he'd had a devastating experience not long before. This clairvoyant but astute analysis visibly shook the young man. She also sensed - or 'saw' - that he would soon turn his life around and become successful. The young man wondered at that, could hardly believe it, but nevertheless a shadow lifted off him. Then his father entered the tent, to collect him. With a wheelchair. His son had had lost both legs in a recent accident, a young man dreadfully crippled at the very start of his adult life. He'd had no hope. But now, thanks to Irma Kurtz's speaking what she thought true, he was ready to move on from it. She wondered how she could have known what to say, the words that would inspire him to strive and win out. How indeed.