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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Fiona Sturges, PD Smith and Guardian readers

What we’re reading: writers and readers on the books they enjoyed in December

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B Hughes; Erotic Vagrancy by Roger Lewis; A Goat’s Song by Dermot Healy.
In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B Hughes; Erotic Vagrancy by Roger Lewis; A Goat’s Song by Dermot Healy. Photograph: Penguin; riverrun; Faber

Fiona Sturges, writer and critic

I’ve always loved stories of Hollywood stars behaving atrociously, so Erotic Vagrancy, Roger Lewis’s twin biography of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, could have been written with me in mind. Champagne on tap, diamonds the size of chess pieces, yachts for people, yachts for dogs, a pet chipmunk named Nibbles: this irresistibly gossipy doorstopper has atrociousness in spades. The “erotic vagrancy” of the title refers to the statement issued by the pope about Taylor and Burton’s ostentatious antics in Rome during the filming of Cleopatra – “Where are we all going to end up? In an erotic vagrancy without end or safe port?” carped the pontiff. It’s worth noting that both stars were married at the time, though not to each other (Burton would go on to become Taylor’s fifth and sixth husband). Lewis relays all this in a tone of appalled glee, his underlying thesis being that Taylor, an ex-MGM child star, remained a child for life: petulant, attention-seeking, semi-feral and, when the occasion required it, dazzlingly charming.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in a scene from the 1963 film Cleopatra.
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in a scene from the 1963 film Cleopatra. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

America Over the Water by Shirley Collins, voice of the 1960s folk revival, documents the singer’s journey around the American rural south in 1959 collecting music alongside the US ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax (their field recordings are now stored in the Library of Congress). On their travels, they visited the Mississippi State Penitentiary, heard the Alabama Sacred Heart Singers, and recorded “Mississippi” Fred McDowell, the blues singer who would go on to inspire the Rolling Stones and tour the world. Collins’ recollections are vivid, full of wonder at the landscape and the food (she had grown up with rationing), while depicting a pre-civil rights America riven by inequality and racism. Sidenote: when Lomax wrote a memoir of their trip, he didn’t bother to mention Collins. This book, republished last year after 15 years out of print, sets the record straight.

Shortly before Christmas I listened, possibly for the 50th time, to Santaland Diaries, David Sedaris’s essay about his stint as a Christmas elf at Santa’s grotto at Macy’s, where he witnessed “fistfights and vomiting and magnificent tantrums”. It’s great on paper but, thanks to Sedaris’s terrific comic timing, it’s an absolute treat in audio.

* * *

Rael, Guardian reader

I would recommend A Goat’s Song by Dermot Healy, on the 30th anniversary of its publication. Healy was an Irish poet, novelist, playwright and sometime fisherman. Anyone who keeps a close ear to the conversations of literary chat will probably know that A Goat’s Song has a special place in the hearts and minds of many readers and writers, including E. Annie Proulx and Anne Enright who have spoken of the profound effect the novel had upon them.

A Goat’s Song is many things. Set both in the Republic and Northern Ireland it is the story of a passionate and sometimes destructive love affair fuelled by alcohol, of psychic breakdown and of the shaping of lives by politics and violence. It was the recipient of a number of awards and is one of the great postwar European novels. In life, Healy famously loved the stimulation of conversation, human company and had an indefatigable curiosity about people. His ear for dialogue and human speech is just beautiful and only one of the joys of a book which is, however, ultimately tragic. This book is very much a novel and not poetry but it does not surprise me that Healy was also an acclaimed poet, such was the joy he took in language and his skill as a writer.

* * *

PD Smith, author and reviewer

Penguin has recently revived its classic green crime series, first published 75 years ago. So far, they’ve issued 20 titles, including spy fiction – an enticing mix of famous and lesser-known works. One of them is In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B Hughes. Born in Kansas City in 1904, Hughes wrote 11 of her 14 novels in the 1940s. In a Lonely Place is set in Los Angeles, a city gripped by fear as its police force attempt to catch a serial killer who has so far strangled six women in as many months.

It was published in 1947 – an infamous year for Los Angeles. On 15 January in the Leimert Park district of the city, the bisected body of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short was found dumped beside a sidewalk. The murderer was never found and the case later inspired a novel by one of the city’s greatest crime writers: James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia.

Hughes’s novel is very different from Ellroy’s but equally gripping. Her protagonist is Dix Steele, who was an air force pilot in the war. He arrived in Los Angeles from the east just seven months ago, and is now trying to write a detective novel. When he looks up an old friend, Brub Nicolai, he finds that he is a detective working on the case of the strangler and Steele is offered the chance to observe a murder investigation at first-hand.

Written using free indirect speech, which takes the reader inside the mind of the main character, this is a chilling and wonderfully atmospheric novel that was turned into a film noir, starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. The opening chapter, in which the reader is introduced to Steele as he walks through the city’s foggy suburbs at night, is unforgettable. It’s beautifully paced, with Hughes gradually ratcheting up the suspense until the dramatic end. A deeply disturbing and surprisingly modern crime novel from the age of noir, and it’s great to see this republished.

PD Smith is the author of four non-fiction books, including Doomsday Men (Allen Lane) and City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age (Bloomsbury).

* * *

Jill, Guardian reader

I have been reading Still Life by Sarah Winman. It is set in London and Florence between 1944 and 1978 and the characters it follows include Ulysses Temper, a reluctant hero, and Evelyn Skinner, an art historian who knew EM Forster. Although the book makes lots of literary and artistic references it is the characters’ stories that are the key to this tale. It is sprinkled with magic and warmth. The characters have stayed with me, and I truly felt warmth towards them, and wish they were my friends.

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