The recommendation of books is the artery of the book world. The most obvious source is the critic or reviewer. However there are problems here. The reviewer can be a disaffected writer, possibly a biographer selling 5000 books for one year’s hard toil and jealous of a popular writer that can turn out a best seller in a month. He/she may be anxious not to upset the all-powerful literary editor. Amazon does a good job of sending the reader comparative books. Book Clubs are popular but not everyone wants to have their reading dictated to for fear of having to read and complete a book you find unbearable.
However, two of my favourites are the cultivated bookseller and the radio programme The Good Read. At Daunts I got to know such a cultivated man. I became interested in Vienna and he recommended Night Falls on the City, a superb novel set around the Anschluss by Sarah Garnham, and House of Wittgenstein by Alexander Waugh which chiefly featured the one armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein. Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes is also very revealing of the city though is also set in Japan.
I started to listen to A Good Read when its presenter was the admirable Sue McGregor. The great advantage of this programme, where 3 readers advocate their favourite read, is that it is not limited to contemporary works. Harriet Gilbert has now replaced Sue MacGregor. Although she is a widely read bibliophile, as likely to promote a Agatha Christie as the memoirs of Clive James, the contributors are not always on her level and are frequently celebrities or other BBC reporters. For me it’s a sine qua non that the contributor should love books.
A couple of weeks ago the actor and director Morrisey advocated Appoinment in Samarrra a novel written in 1936 by John O’Hara. I have never heard of this novel or novelist but it seemed a forerunner to John Updike, lifting the cover off a middle American town to reveal its sexual tensions, it’s excessive drinking culture, its racism and infidelities.
The central character Julian English, who has a Cadillac dealership, is an alcoholic. Over 3 days starting on Christmas Eve his world disintegrates as he begins by throwing a high ball into the face of a rich businessman at the exclusive country club. There is a colourful array of characters from a small time gangster called Al Grecco to the most powerful local business figure Ed Charney. None of them are particularly sympathetic, except possibly Juilan’s wife Caroline, nor is the depiction of their town Gibbsville with its clubs that exclude Jews and pretty overt contempt for blacks. It’s not a particularly inspiring read but it carries a punch. John Updike, a regular attendee of his Episcopalian church, was a graphic writer on sex and this novel predates him with frank sexual scenes and discussion. A final one where a drunk English paws over a young cub reporter is particularly memorable. I never would have read this novel it if was not promoted on A Good Read and am therefore grateful to the programme.