Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

"I'll turn over a new leaf…

...just as soon as I get to the bottom of the page," as Oscar Wilde is rumoured to have quipped. I always vow I'm going to get out more, but I didn't make it to a single event at either "New York Is Book Country" or the New Yorker Festival last weekend, although after reading this excellent version of the latter, I feel like I was there.

And I'm sort of glad that, even though it was just around the corner, I didn't go to Chuck Palahniuk's allegedly gruesome reading at the Columbia University Bookstore (follow the link and scroll down to get the guts, as it were). I get enough projectile vomiting with Busytot on the premises. (How much is enough, you ask? You'd be surprised how quickly it gets old; once every three months or so is about enough for me).

Also in the neighbourhood in the next couple of months: Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Walker. It's a literary buffet out there and I keep forgetting to go up again with my plate. The thing is, there's always someone else to look forward to, and everyone comes through again anyway, although with only three more months in the city I'm vowing henceforth to stuff myself full.

Literary readings are a funny business: there are the standing-room-only celebrity gigs, and then the strangely underattended ones. I was one of barely a dozen people listening to Helen Simpson read at the lovely Housing Works Used Book Cafe last summer. She wore a stealthy Jean Paul Gaultier sundress that didn't look like a Gaultier sundress, and was acerbic, kind, and stunningly beautiful. Just like her fiction.

The last author I saw live (not counting Debra and Chad last month) was Alexander McCall Smith at the mega bookshop down in the 80s (that's eighties as in streets, not decade). Before an appreciative audience made up almost entirely of older ladies also in their 80s, he read excerpts from The Kalahari Typing School for Men and The Full Cupboard of Life, the latest instalments in his series of Botswana novels. I like them for their eulogistic tone. Warm with an undercurrent of mournfulness; nostalgia avant-la-lettre. Like James Herriot's books, or the Little World of Don Camillo, they pay tribute to a way of life that is evaporating even as it is captured on the page. You chortle and sympathise and read bits out loud to whoever else is in the room, and then realize you're reading the literary equivalent of an obituary.

McCall Smith -- a strikingly prolific writer -- is not from Botswana, but has spent a great deal of time there. He struck me as a genuine fellow, eccentric in a helplessly self-aware sort of way, who believes in his characters as firmly as his fans do. To warm applause, he graciously answered such incisive questions such as "Who taught Mma Ramotswe to drive her little white van?" ("I don't know") and "What do Mr J.L.B. Matekoni's initials stand for?" ("I didn't know when I first wrote them, but I do now and I'm not going to tell you because Mr Matekoni wouldn't like me to"). His assembled audience nodded sagely and took notes, proving that geekery knows no age limit.

Someone I'll never get to see in person now: Edward Said. A literary lion, good man, and indefatigable and uncompromising defender of Palestinian land rights is dead. I went to see him speak earlier this year, at the festschrift for the 25th anniversary of Orientalism; alas, the session was full to overflowing, and people were being turned away at the door. I'd have liked to put a voice (and an outfit -- the good professor was legendarily dapper) to the name on the books on my shelf. Still, I was gratified to have made it to a panel earlier in the day, at which current president of the MLA (and undersung genius) Mary Louise Pratt proved to be every bit as lucid, generous, and original in person as she is in her writing.

What am I reading these days? After seeing (and mostly liking) the film version of Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle, I'm re-reading my way through some of her other novels. Mostly written in America, like the works of Smith's fellow exile P.G. Wodehouse they're uniformly anglophilic and serenely backward-looking, casting a benevolent glow over the foibles of a very small class of dotty characters-with-a-capital-C.

Except for the excellent A Hundred and One Dalmatians and its sequel, The Starlight Barking, none are quite as distinctive as I Capture the Castle, which is one of those magical little books that everyone believes to be their own secret discovery. Still, I lapped up The New Moon and the Old, a feisty little potboiler about four siblings forced to make their way in the world after debonair old dad has to make a hurried exit when a business deal goes bad.

There's the requisite grand old house in a state of disrepair, and the siblings are a fine bunch: the would-be actress of barely fourteen who runs away to go on the stage, the haplessly untalented older sister who wants nothing more than to be a king's mistress, and the sensitive writer brother who drops plenty of oblique clues to his own preferences but -- in deference to the times -- is never so bold as to mention them out loud ("I've made rather a study of London back streets" is as close as he comes to flinging open the closet door). Then there's the put-upon older brother who, like poor old Julian in the Famous Five, has to be responsible for everyone else. Here he is, about to fall into the clutches of his father's mistress (a sultry and conniving minx named Violet, who claims to be twenty-seven):

She raised her arms and clasped her hands behind her head – and stopped looking like a little girl. The movement tightened her already tight dress, and the way she now sank back against the cushions constituted an invitation hard to ignore. He ought to have known that this would happen...

He rose and came towards her, wondering how one took hold of woman who had bunched herself into a lump and was protected on three sides by cushions. As if understanding his problem, she instantly shot her feet from under her, reclined full length, and gave him a smile of comprehensive welcome. This offered more than he had bargained for -- anyway, at present. So he said "Sit up like a good girl and I'll kiss you."

She laughed delightedly and somehow managed to lie down even flatter. He turned towards the door, uncertain whether to bolt it or merely bolt.

Lovely stuff, complete nonsense of course, but splendidly diverting after a diet of several grim, morbid, and just plain bad books I've been reviewing for the Listener. The exception: Siri Hustvedt's What I Loved, which I loved (and which is also on Chad's reading list this week). Funnily enough, Hustvedt doesn't really do humour, which would usually be enough to knock a book off my bedside table. But she is such an intelligent writer -– particularly about art -- that I didn't really mind. I was inspired to check out her debut novel, The Blindfold, which was a quick and disturbing read, a tad pretentious but nicely written. Much to my delight it is chock-full of references to my neighbourhood (she was a graduate student at Columbia), including Butler Library with its grand reading rooms and gloomy stacks.

Actually, I'm a sucker for books in which people meet and fall in love in a university library. I once read an excellent Mills and Boon that managed to imbue the Auckland University campus – pre-new student union building – with all the erotic shimmer of the Quartier Latin. I think it was by Susan Napier; I wish I could remember the title, something perhaps about love among the ivy? I seem to remember the protagonists grappling wordlessly with each other up against an obliging plane tree on Princes St. There was also, improbably, a loft-style apartment somewhere in the picture. My kind of academia: nobody got a lot of research done, but they seemed happy enough.