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Sunday, April 13, 2003

Rumours of a Hurricane
One of my many peculiar but harmless mental blocks is an inability to follow reading recommendations. I get close—I buy the book that everyone raves about, I take the copy they offer to lend me—but when it comes time to cracking the spines (something I would never intentionally do, of course), I just can’t. Once a certain critical mass of positive reviews has been reached, an author becomes dead to me. This means there are certain major—well, let’s at least say popular—authors that I’ve never read: Barbara Kingsolver is one, though I possess at least three of her books. (Actually, I have read her poetry, which Seal Press published when I worked there, but after we spent a few days with her around the pub date and I was impressed by what a warm human being she is—a veritable Meryl Streep of the literary world—I promised myself I’d finally read that copy of The Bean Trees that I’d hawked from home to home, but … it’s still unopened.) I suppose it’s something to do with expectations and coming at books fresh—oh, I don’t know why it is, but anyway it is.

A subset of this phenomenon is my failure to read books that I either schlep over from visits to Britain or order from Completely illogical this—why, after I spend literally hours making purchasing decisions in English bookstores or penny-pinchingly adding and subtracting items from my online shopping cart, can I not read the bloody things? No idea, but it always seems to happen.

This weekend, my iron will sapped by painful sinuses, I snapped and picked up a book I’d ordered from England a month or so ago: Rumours of a Hurricane, by Tim Lott. I first became aware of it in a tantalizing Swish Cottage entry back in early March, and it sounded like just my sort of thing.

One of the things that happens when you emigrate is that your mental picture of your homeland is frozen at the point when you left. Sure, you might visit and keep up, read the papers and even listen to the radio, but once you’re not living in a place, your experience of it is different. (Gurinder Chadha expressed this beautifully in Bhaji on the Beach, which makes me think it’s a universal experience.) The Thatcher era is where my mental movie camera stopped recording British scenes, so the book’s events seem very fresh to me. I could relate, as we used to say in the ‘70s. (Actually, I was out of the country for all but five or six years of the 1979-1991 period the book covers, but I hadn’t definitively decided to leave, so I was halfway there in my head at least for some of the time.)

I’m not sure that it’s great literature, but it’s a cracking read, even though you can see it all coming—not only because Lott shows his hand, but also because there’s a certain historical inevitability to it all. (Charlie’s a hot-metal compositor at the Times? Paging the Siege of Wapping.)

By a fluky coincidence, I bought a big pile of old Grantas when we were in Port Townsend last week. (Our apartment already has more books than it can hold—I sincerely fear for the floorboards—but they were less $1.50 each if you bought 10 or more, so who could resist.) One of the issues was organized around the theme of “valedictory realism,” essentially the act of saying goodbye to a lost way of life by documenting it faithfully. One of the pieces in that issue was an imagined journal by Anthony Blunt, the keeper of the queen’s pictures who was revealed to be a Soviet spy and stripped of all his honors. (It was written by John Banville, and it’s hard to see why he bothered to change the names when the real people—Blunt, Graham Greene, Tony Benn, etc.—were so easily identifiable, and when the layout crew so helpfully removed any doubt by putting a series of photographs of Blunt on the story’s title page.) It was fascinating to see how much the two sets of lives—the society spy and the working-class protagonists of Rumours of a Hurricane—had in common. Is every one us torn up by the same self-doubts and unending calculations and calibrations of risk?

(More good reading about situations that seemed so hopeful in the early 1980s: Doris Lessing’s New York Review of Books essay about Robert Mugabe and Zimbabwe. Bloody good stuff.)