Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Three books

'The First Century After Beatrice' by Amin Maalouf was one from my TBR Pile Challenge. I bought it on the spur of the moment quite a long time ago after reading a glowing review, but I was not as absorbed by it as I had anticipated. It charts the story of a man and his daughter against the background of the emergence of a 'substance' that promotes the conception of boys and its impact on the planet, so there is a lot of politics and social commentary. I found its dividing of the world into the affluent developed 'North' and poverty stricken underdeveloped 'South' a little dated, as if they are homogenous blocks with no differentiation of societies, economies, cultures and environments. This was such a big stumbling block for me that I found myself criticising everything about the way that he described the crisis and its consequences and aftermath. I'm kind of sorry because I think the idea had potential but he ended up trying to do too much with the story. I enjoyed it more for the relationships between the members of the family and how it played out over time. The character of the 'wife' Clarence interested me the most but her journalism took her away from the story so much I did not get to see enough of her and she played second place in his life to Beatrice.

One brief quote, nothing to do with style, just one that I thought made the point well:
" You sometimes imagine that with so many newspapers, radios, TV channels, you're going to hear an infinite number of different opinions. Then you discover that it's just the opposite: the power of these means of communication only amplifies the dominant opinions of the time, to the point when it becomes impossible to hear any other bell ringing." (p.104)


'The Secret of Lost Things' by Sheridan Hay was another that I read about and bought, but much more recently. In this book a young girl called Rosemary, upon the untimely death of her mother, finds herself thrust into the surreal world of an obscure New York second hand bookshop called the Arcade. It is populated by the most incredible cast of misfits and oddballs, united I felt by the fact that they are all rather self-absorbed. Alone in the world she befriends Lillian, the concierge at the crappy hotel she lives in, and the glamorous Pearl, the transsexual who works the cash register. She becomes obsessed with the elusive (and unobtainable) Oscar and forms a bond with him as they begin researching the possibility of a lost Herman Melville manuscript. Meanwhile the weird shop manager Walter Geist has developed an obsession with Rosemary, and seeks to involve her in his plans to obtain the manuscript. It is as if the whole book takes place in some kind of alternate universe or time warp; everyone is obsessed with books, either reading, or collecting, or, in the case of Arthur, looking at the pictures (mainly of naked men). I am not sure that as a group they are very good role models for literary involvement as it has become a rather unhealthy habit all round. But I still wanted Rosemary's life; it is romantic and bohemian, and nothing at all like working in a real bookshop I'm sure. 

Lots of quotes, because I loved this book, and it is all about the characters, with the Arcade a character in its own right:
"As well, a number of the Arcade's employees had rather dramatic aspirations. They were variously failed writers, poets, musicians, singers, and were marked with the clerkish frustration of the unacknowledged, the unpublished. The Arcade's thousands of volumes mocked, in particular, literary aspirations. The out-of-print status of most of the stock was further proof of the futile dream of publication. As a monument to literature, the Arcade had an air of the tombstone about it." (p.37)

This second one reminded me of the Susan Hill quote about literary DNA, I like quotes about reading:
"The books housed on one's first adult bookshelf are the geological bed of who we wish to become. And when I think of my few acquisitions, I have to admit how fiercely the autodidact struggles for her education, and how incomplete the education remains. How illusory is any accumulation of knowledge!" (p.106)

" 'Well, a bookstore, but also a reliquary for the bones of strange creatures. Mermaids' tails, unicorn heads ... that sort of thing. You're looking at natural history in this place.'
He swivelled his big head around.
'The books act to filter out the normal. The real. And we've changed shape in the isolation, like specimens from the Galapagos. We're isolates ... islands in an island, like the island you came from ...'
'Stop Arthur, you are peculiar,' I told him, impatient with not following his point, with his rambling.
'Exactly so. You've concluded my argument for me. I've no choice but to be peculiar.' " (p.117)

Lovely contrast between two of the characters:
"Metcalf was probably close in age to Geist, but preserved to a kind of specimen-like perfection. The cashmere turtleneck clung to his trim form, which was dressed completely in black: it would have been easy to confuse his shadow with his actual self.
...
A more striking contrast in figures could not be imagined, unless it was Geist's and mine. Metcalf appeared a man at once attenuated and condensed; Walter Geist, simply the spectre of one." (p.158)

Last one, again a nice contrast, but here in places not people:
"It was clean and orderly. The architecture - concrete, glass and steel - was aloof and spacious. The interior lights were bright; every aspect the antithesis of the Arcade. I knew books to be objects that loved to cluster and form disordered piles, but here books seemed robbed of their zany capacity to fall about, to conspire. In the library, books behaved themselves." (p.183)

A wonderful book, not much action but plenty of literary intrigue and references. I have shied away from the idea that a whole story can be peopled by outrageous characters, but why not?


'Everything I Found on the Beach' by Cynan Jones. One of the events I volunteered at for the Manchester Literature Festival this year was an evening with Evie Wyld and Cynan Jones. I have reviewed both of Evie's books (here and here ) and requested this from the library on the strength of the reading. He read a long passage from his novel The Dig, which is about a badger baiter. It was graphic and profoundly disturbing and I have no desire to read the book, but the intensity of the writing made quite an impact. This book has some harsh moments in it, it is very dark, but I could not look away. It follows two men, Grzegorz, a polish immigrant working in a slaughter house and struggling to make a new life for himself and his family, and Holden, a young fisherman, dealing with the death of a friend and the responsibilities it has laid upon him. It is a short book, only 200 or so pages, and the tale all takes place within a very short space of time, and we follow in detail the thoughts, decisions and actions of the two as they react to an unexpected opportunity. Then we are introduced to a third man, part of the criminal underclass, and watch as he coldly plans the consequences of their choices. The story was very much outside my usual reading matter but it was completely absorbing. The writing takes you right inside the heads of all three men, understanding their intentions and motivations, even when the choices they make are alien. I anticipated the outcome somewhat but it did not take away from my involvement because by that time I was so emotionally engaged with Holden. The atmosphere of the book is quite bleak and even hopeless. The men are quite powerless to control their own lives, and you sense their intense frustration; they can feel themselves drowning and the events are a last ditch fight for their lives before they go under. 

Two quotes, taken almost at random because so much of the book would be worth quoting. They contrast the two men; Grzegorz with his sense of dislocation, trying to make a new life but missing the old, and Holden with his strong sense of belonging where he is:

"The boy stared. Grzegorz thought his son must have some faint memory of the big farm table, the low ceiling. Of the warm milky smell of the soft old woman that was being blurred in his mind amongst the matrons of this house, was turning into nothing more than a suspicion that he once know someone special. Poland would be a strange thing to him, a distant awareness that would perhaps fade and become nothing more than a historical fact as he grew. With all the Polish around him, nothing had really changed. But there was no place of focus for the boy now, and, looking at him, Grzegorz felt the boy would always carry this sense of having been removed from something and that he would never understand it." (p.18)

"A few fields over he could hear the bleats of the newly turned out lambs, calling for their mothers in the night, and the maternal patience in the answering mearghhs. The bad rain had kept off and it had been a good year for the lambs so far as the wet on their backs could bring them down very quickly. Somewhere, the plaintive call of a fox.
He knew this place well now. The field he was in was not farmed hard and it was scattered with stands of blackthorn and gorse, and sprawling piles of brambles. Everything had a bonsai quality to it, a denseness brought on by the constant, stunting grazing, the tough salt wind." (p.71)

A small book, but very densely written, even when 'nothing' is happening there is a lot going on; you certainly get your money's worth.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Listening not reading (much)



I went last night, as a volunteer that is (not that we had much to do), to hear Kate Tempest at the Contact Theatre as one of the last event of the Manchester Literature Festival. I was probably the only person in the audience who had not heard of her. She was this lovely mixture of worldly and naive, looking at first glance so young but with a voice that has quite a gritty quality that usually comes with years of hard living. She recited from memory for over 20 minutes her version of the story of Tiresias, it was utterly spellbinding. This is just a little taster of her style to tempt you, there is lots more on Youtube, and if you ever get the chance, do go and see her.

As a consequence I did not really get going on the Read-a-thon until this morning, and actually we have been planning a trip to the Manchester Art Gallery to see an exhibition about the First World War, so the reading has been quite limited compared to last time. Also there has been no cake this time:-( The Monkey is in London so I have not had company to stay up all night with.
I am really enjoying 'The Secret of Lost Things'  by Sheridan Hay and also 'Notwithstanding' by Louis de Bernieres (that I picked up at random in the library when my reserved books had not arrived, despite being 'in transit' for three days.) I hope everyone else out there has been having a good weekend of slouching on the sofa surrounded by books. 

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Writing a Résumé for National Poetry Day

An e-mail arriving from Faber & Faber informed me that today is National Poetry Day and so I went off on a hunt for a poem to post. There is a lot of poetry out there, so it could take a while. Browsing Horoscopes for the Dead by Bill Collins I found a poem that began with a quote from Wislawa Szymborska and I remembered that I had a book of her poetry from long ago. 
So here, from 'View with a Grain of Sand', is the one I chose. Enjoy.




Writing a Résumé

What needs to be done?
Fill out the application
and enclose the résumé.

Regardless of the length of life,
a résumé is best kept short.

Concise, well-chosen facts are de rigueur.
Landscapes are replaced with addresses,
shaky memories give way to unshakeable dates.

Of all your loves, mention only the marriage;
of all your children, only those who were born.

Who knows you matters more than whom you know.
Trips only if taken abroad.
Memberships in what but without why.
Honours, but not how they were earned.

Write as if you'd never talked to yourself
and always kept yourself at arm's length.

Pass over in silence your dogs, cats, birds,
dusty keepsakes, friends, and dreams.

Price, not worth,
and title, not what's inside.
His shoe size, not where he's off to,
that one you pass off as yourself.
In addition, a photograph with one ear showing.
What matters is its shape, not what it hears.
What is there to hear, anyway?
The clatter of paper shredders.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Boys and Bears and Boats

'A Boy and a Bear in a Boat' by Dave Shelton
I ordered this from the library after reading about it somewhere online and thinking it might be a good birthday gift for the Babe (who is rising five so I think due a change of nickname). I have read it with my breakfast for the last week and loved it. 

It is quite simply a story about a boy and a bear in a boat. It starts off rather dull and slow and you wonder where it might be heading, but as the situation becomes more surreal you get caught up in the story. The front cover, in case you're wondering, is meant to have that cup stain: the blue cover is supposed to be the 'map' of the sea (utterly without landmarks) that the bear consults and he makes the ring with his cup of tea. The journey they are taking is unfortunately extended by unforeseen tidal anomalies and they end up battling a sea monster, encountering a ghost ship and having to build a raft. I think the story it unusual for a children's book because it has an inconclusive ending, but it does tread the well worn theme of friendship and learning to value people. It is also about facing up to challenges and taking responsibility; all through the story the boy is a little bit a victim of circumstance and turns to the bear for knowledge and reassurance, but then at the end the bear succumbs to despair and the boy has to take charge and save the day. The practicalities of living out at sea in a rowing boat are sorely neglected, but I guess that's just me be being an adult reader, a child would not be concerned with such tedious details. It is nearly 300 pages, though they are small and many of them are taken up with illustrations, so it does require some sustained attention, and maybe not for children who are easily scared; although the boy is in quite a vulnerable situation the threats are all very short lived and punctuated by stops for tea:



"And he smiled and stared into space, wearing an expression of deep contentment that he retained for the next quarter of an hour as he consumed, one small (and loudly appreciated) sip at a time, the rest of the contents of the cup. When he was done, he used the last drop of water from the kettle to rinse out his cup, emptied out the teapot into the sea, put everything neatly away and took up his oars again, beaming with happiness." (p.55)

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Slapstick

You begin to sense a bit of a theme in Kurt Vonnegut books, or rather a selection of themes, that are mixed and matched. In 'Slapstick' we return to the idea of the human population being wiped out, leaving a few random characters eking out an existence in the remains of a broken culture. He claims in the prologue that it is a sort-of autobiography, if so you really are left wondering about what went on in this man's head. 

Wilbur Daffodil-II Swain is the former President, a huge ugly man who now lives in the ruined Empire State Building with his granddaughter and her lover. He recounts for us his strange secluded upbringing with his twin Eliza and their ultimate separation. At the behest of a child psychologist she is sent off to an institution for the feeble minded and he is nurtured by his parents and then goes off to Harvard. Stuff happens and then the world falls apart.

Like all Vonnegut stories it is packed with surreal invention: the gravity varies from day to day, so sometimes people are pinned to the floor unable to move; the Chinese invent a way to make themselves smaller until they are microscopic and (apparently) are the virus that kills everyone; the Church of Jesus Christ the Kidnapped, where members must go around searching for him in the most unlikely of places; and as President Wilbur allocates everyone new middle names in an attempt to alleviate social isolation and to provide them with a new family:

"Yes, after the government provided the directories, Free Enterprise producted family newspapers. Mine was The Daffy-nition. Sophie's, which continued to arrive at the White House long after she had left me, was The Goober Gossip. Vera told me the other day that the Chipmunk paper used to be The Woodpile.
Relatives asked for work or investment capital, or offered things for sale in the classified ads. The new columns told of triumphs by various relatives, and warned against others who were child molesters or swindlers and so on. There were lists of relatives who could be visited in various hospitals and jails.
There were editorials calling for family health insurance programmes and sports teams and so on. There was one interesting essay, I remember, either in The Daffy-nition or The Goober Gossip, which said that families with high moral standards were the best maintainers of law and order, and that police departments could be expected to fade away.
'If you know of a relative who is engaging in criminal acts,' it concluded, 'don't call the police. Call ten more relatives.'
And so on." (p.125)

Reviews describe his writing as funny, but I don't laugh. It leaves me bemused by the way he ridicules everything about society. What I find interesting is that in creating these weird scenarios and having people enact strange new rituals he is mocking our everyday activities that we take so seriously and think so important. Nothing that we do in life is either normal or logical, it is just the way we have come to do things. I am always left with the message that he considered life to be ridiculous, and why pretend otherwise. It is only by accepting this idea that life begins to make a strange sort of sense.

Monday, 22 September 2014

existence is catastrophe


'The Goldfinch' by Donna Tartt has been the subject of a great deal of attention, including this article in Vanity Fair  on whether it is really the great novel that everyone is claiming. I have admitted before to being a bit of a literature snob, to not reading much 'popular' fiction and to not really being in the 'any kind of reading is good reading' camp: life is too short to read bad books in my opinion. This was a very good book. There is something different about a good short book, and a good long book; when a book is, say, less than 200 pages, it has to manage the story and the characters differently from one, like this, that is well in excess of 800. Not, however, that it felt (unlike the last four Harry Potter books) like it needed a bit of radical editing, the sometimes meandering and often boring detail all added to your sense of following someone real, because life often is meandering and boring. I felt that it was a good book because by the end I cared about everyone in it, I cared about what happened to all of them, and boy did I care about the painting. It was lovely to discover that it is a real painting and not something of the author's invention.

The Goldfinch
(Possible spoilers but it's a bit unavoidable I'm afraid) The story is told first-hand by Theo and relates the years of his life following the death of his mother in a terrorist bomb attack on a museum. As a bewildered young boy he is taken in for a few months by a friend's family but then his estranged father and his girlfriend turn up and he is shipped off to Vegas. Here he is left pretty much to fend for himself and he survives due mainly to the friendship of Boris, with whom he consumes vast amounts of alcohol and recreational drugs and they appear to live almost entirely on snack food. A subsequent tragedy necessitates a hasty return to New York, where he finds a foster home with Hobie, a furniture dealer and restorer. In the years that follow old friends reappear in his life bringing with them a variety of unforseen consequences.

But what about the painting, I hear you cry. Well, Theo steals the painting in the aftermath of the bomb, to save it for his mother, he convinces himself. But once it is in his possession it becomes a tangible link to her, something she loved, and the longer he has it the more he finds himself unable to let go of it. Though most the book does not revolve around what happens to the painting it remains this vital part of the story, a reminder for Theo of what has gone before but also something strangely permanent in the often unpredictable world. 

The book is a weird contradiction. Lengthy passages detailing the dissolute and chaotic life of neglected teenage boys manage to make you think very hard about the nature of adolescence and how they make sense of life. The endless drug taking would have depressed me except it seemed to depress him more. His determination not to create any expectations for either himself or others about his life paints a vivid picture of a person adrift in his own life; he doesn't know how to ask for help because he has no notion of what is missing. He is so isolated that he cannot trust even Hobie with knowledge of the painting. He shares with Pippa that fate of being haunted by the bombing, something that, in his favourite moments, bonds them together, but they are both too lost to be able to help each other. I wished she had been more significant to the story, but she becomes another shadow figure who cannot help him. Summed up in this lovely quote:

"Worse: my love for Pippa was muddied-up below the waterline with my mother, with my mother's death, with losing my mother and not being able to get her back. All that blind, infantile hunger to save and be saved, to repeat the past and make it different, had somehow attached itself, ravenously, to her. There was an instability in it, a sickness. I was seeing things that weren't there. I was only one step away from some trailer park loner stalking a girl he'd spotted at the mall. For the truth of it was: Pippa and I saw each other maybe twice a year; we e-mailed and texted, though with no great regularity; when she was in town we loaned each other books and went to the movies; we were friends; nothing more. My hopes for a relationship with her were wholly unreal, whereas my ongoing misery, and frustration, were an all-too-horrible reality. Was groundless, hopeless, unrequited obsession any way to waste the rest of my life?" (p.570)

Despite being 864 pages it seems to race along, though I did read a large chunk of it very fast yesterday because it was overdue at the library. I'm not sure I appreciated everything about it. Quotes I found and like, capturing certain aspects of the story and what it is trying to say. This one when he is sitting with Welty in the wreckage of the museum; it's as if part of him has realised instantaneously how his life has changed, while the rest of his mind pretends he has to go and meet his mother:

"But his hand in mine was limp. I sat there and looked at him, not knowing what to do. It was time to go, well past time - my mother had made that perfectly clear - and yet I could see no path out of the space where I was and in fact in some ways it was hard to imagine being anywhere else in the world - that there was another world, outside that one. It was like I'd never had another life at all." (p.45)

This one just amused me, and there were not many laughs in the book:

"Christ, I thought, turning from the mirror to sneeze. I hadn't been around a mirror in a while and I barely recognised myself: bruised jaw, spattering of chin acne, face blotched and swollen from my cold - eyes swollen too, lidded and sleepy, giving me a sort of dumb, shifty, homeschooled look. I looked like some cult-raised kid just rescued by local law enforcement, brought blinking from some basement stocked with firearms and powdered milk." (p.421)

I tried very hard not to be irritated by the affluent people (books about rich people are so irritating and literary fiction abounds with them), and the claim that his mother was having 'financial problems' but she still manages to leave him all this money and he goes to school with people who are incredibly wealthy. However I liked this. At one point he is horrified to find his old building has been gutted for renovation, the need to have things stay the same becomes very important. Here he is reassured by the permanence of the doorman at the Barbour's building and this is his imagining:

"Even in some smoky post-catastrophe Manhattan you could imagine him swaying genially at the door in the rags of his uniform, the Barbours up in the apartment burning old National Geographic for warmth, living off gin and tinned crabmeat." (P.527)

These two, touching on the same idea really, the last one comes from the final pages. What is life really all about, and why do we bother with it? 

"Most people seemed satisfied with the thin decorative gaze and the artful stage lighting that, sometimes, made the bedrock atrocity of the human predicament look somewhat more mysterious and less abhorrent. People gambled and gloved and planted gardens and traded stocks and had sex and bought new cars and practiced yoga and worked and prayed and redecorated their homes and got worked up over the news and fussed over their children and gossiped about their neighbours and poured over restaurant reviews and founded charitable organisations and supported political candidates and attended the U.S. Open and dined and travelled and distracted themselves with all kinds of gadgets and devices, flooding themselves incessantly with information and texts and communication and entertainment from every direction to try and make themselves forget it: where we were, what we were. But in strong light there was no good spin you could put on it. It was rotten top to bottom." (p.535)

"Is Kitsey right? If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight towards the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop you ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm, reasonable hours and regular medical check-ups, stable relationships and steady career advancement, the New York Times and brunch on Sunday, all with the promise of being somehow a better person? Or - like Boris - is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?" (p.853)

Such a cast of characters: the wild and reckless Boris; wonderful intuitive, reliable Hobie; Mrs Barbour, reserved and in control of everything, but then so crushed and vulnerable when Theo comes back; the enigmatic Pippa; Kitsey and Platt each coping with their family trauma in their own ways; the unpleasant and insidious Lucius Reeve. And then, having had bouts of relative stability punctuated by sudden trauma, and then pottered along harmlessly for several hundred pages, it turns into something of a tense thriller that had me racing through the pages saying aloud 'but where's the bloody painting!' All in all a wonderful book.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

a small, hesitant thing

About this time two years ago I commented what a strange coincidence it was that I read two books in succession that mentioned the Nags Head in Edale. And now I have just read the second book in a month narrated by a librarian. I applied for a job before the summer in the library at Salford University, I think I would have suited me down to the ground and was very disappointed not to get an interview, such things come up so rarely.

"The Giant's House' by Elizabeth McCracken was bought on the strength of the lovely 'Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination' that I read last month. It lived up to the glowing review, quiet and unassuming and exquisite. It tells the tale of Peggy, a young woman growing old in a small town library, who falls in love with a tall young boy. James Sweatt grows, both older and taller, under her watchful gaze. She sees in him a kindred spirit and takes pleasure in seeking out books for him but remains for many years on the periphery of his life. Gradually a friendship grows up with his aunt and uncle, and her life becomes more and more entangled with his. It is a slightly one sided love story because we get to know Peggy so much better than James. Others see him as a curiosity, the locals as well as the tourists, it is as if she is the only person who truly sees past his giant size to the person underneath. There is not much to say about the story, the book is really just about the two of them. They are bonded I felt partly by their quiet acquiescence to their situations in life; James does not yearn to be a normal kid, and she does not aspire the escape her 'librarian' life. While she fights to make a life for him that fits his size he changes hers in much more subtle ways. 

She doesn't like people much, she confesses that straight off, what she has passion for is knowledge:

"People think librarians are unromantic, unimaginative. This is not true. We are people whose dreams run in peculiar ways. Ask a mountain climber what he feels when he sees a mountain; a lion tamer what goes through his mind when he meets a new lion; a doctor confronted with a beautiful malfunctioning body. The idea of a library full of books, the books full of knowledge, fills me with fear and love and courage and endless wonder. I knew I would be a librarian in college as a student assistant at a reference desk, watching those lovely people at work. 'I don't think there's such a book ...' a patron would begin, and then the librarian would hand it to them, that very book." (p.8)

Then this unusually tall boy arrives with a group from school and asks for a book about magic, and things will never be the same again.

"He became a regular after that first school visit, took four books out at a time, returned them, took another four. I let him renew the magic book again and again, even though the rules said one renewal only. Librarians lose reason when it comes to regulars, the good people, the readers. Especially when they were like James: it wasn't that he was lonely or bored; he wasn't dragged into the library by a parent. He didn't have the strange desperate look that some librarygoers develop, even children, the one that says: this is the only place I'm welcome anymore." (p.8-9)

I loved her attitude to her charges, the books, this is a wonderful analogy:

"Books are a bad family - there are those you love, and those you are indifferent to; idiots and mad cousins who you would banish except others enjoy their company; wrongheaded but fascinating eccentrics and dreamy geniuses; orphaned grandchildren; and endless brothers-in-law simply taking up space who you wish you could send straight to hell. Except you can't, for the most part. You must house them and make them comfortable and worry about them when they go on trips and there is never enough room." (p.21)

Then the strain of all his growing begins to tell on James' health and Peggy decides it is a waste to wait for him to fall in love with her, that she will just love for the two of them:

"I loved him because he was young and dying and needed me. I loved not only his height, but his careful way with any hobby, his earnestness, his strange sense of humour that always surprised me. I loved him because I wanted to save him, and because I could not. I loved him because I wanted to be enough for him, and I was not.
I loved him because I discovered that day, after years of practice, I had a talent for it." (p.78-9)

Although the story is bitter sweet it is perfect because in all good love stories someone walks in and changes a small, hesitant life into something else. It is strange because the fact of his giant-ness is both vital and irrelevant to the tale. It is what makes the telling of it so curious. Sorry, that is a bit cryptic, you'll just have to read it. 


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