Following the clues given in book titles

August 5th, 2011 § 2 comments

Some titles tell you about all you need to know about a book. Does Major Snodgrass Does the Boogie-Woogie or District Nurse leave much doubt about the kind of books they are? Just about any book with blood in the title is a crime story.

There’s a whole class of books with titles built on the formula of funny surname (Snodgrass, Winterbottom, Pettigrew, etc.) followed by a simple statement, as in the example above. I usually avoid them. Not that I’m always right to do so.

I saw the movie Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and loved it so much I must have seen it at least four times now. I’d watch it again. Maybe the book isn’t as good as the movie, not having the benefit of the frothy Amy Adams and formidable Frances McDormand’s talents, or the jaw-dropping set design of the movie. But the narrative, which presumably does come from the book, is tightly constructed and the characters lovable. So perhaps I should’ve read Winifred Watson’s book.

Then there are the novels, mostly of more recent vintage, where the title suggests non-fiction. Dictionary of the Khazars. Trout Fishing in America. Portuguese Declensions of the Verb To Love. (Or something similar, memory fails me.) These titles tend to go with more literary aspirations. For me, their allure depends on the level of my cynicism at the time.

There is a long tradition of novels bearing the names of their principal characters, from way back in the days of Don Quixote to Martin Eden, The Great Gatsby, Lolita and The Brothers Karamazov. Serious books they tend to be. While these particular books are among my all-time favourites, that’s probably despite the bland titles and not because of them.

Many of my favourite books have titles that only seem meaningful once you’ve read the book. The titles function as little more than labels. It’s the approach I’ve taken with my crime books, but sometimes I wonder if these are not missed opportunities.

How wonderful if a title reaches out and grabs your attention. Think of: New Hope for the Dead (Charles Willeford). Your Lover Just Called (John Updike). Mona Lisa Overdrive (William Gibson). Pandora in the Congo (Albert Sanchez Pinol). For the Time Being (Dirk Bogarde).

Only last week, a title made me read a book I knew nothing about by someone I’d never heard of: The Western Limit of the World by David Masiel. As it turned out, the title was a good clue. I found the novel a welcome change of pace, a sea adventure story of impressive intensity and fair moral resonance. Check it out if you’re tired of the same-old, same-old.

Pinol’s Pandora in the Congo was another surprise I read largely because of its title, helped by the fact that the version I found had a linen cover which gave the whole thing an attractive, antiquated feel. Harking back to Victorian romances and Tarzan, it’s a singular book. I enjoyed it so much that I sought out Pinol’s earlier Cold Skin, which was gripping too, though somewhat gloomy. As far as I can tell, these are his only books to have been translated into English. Pandora in the Congo is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read, an audacious narrative. And I wouldn’t have known about it if the title didn’t grab me.





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