Wednesday, 15 December 2010

are French people ever excited?

When I'm teaching French, sometimes a child will ask me for a word or a phrase that they haven't learned yet and my automatic response is 'just use the words you know'.  On occasion, this is because I can't think of the word, or have never learned it (my daughter had to teach me the French for mobile phone!) but often I do know and yet for some reason my automatic reaction is to be unwilling to tell them. Why? I tell them new words all the time, why should I be stopping myself from telling them one more. I did wonder if it was pure laziness on my part: if I start by answering this question, will I then be bombarded with vocabulary requests that I can't answer?

I don't think it is that. I think it has to do with learning how to use language, something that  becomes evident when you try to speak a foreign language (and perhaps in those brain conditions where one begins to lose words). In our native language, we don't use words we don't know. We pick up new words by reading them or hearing them, not by going up to someone and saying 'what's the word for an orangey brown animal with a long neck that lives on the plains of Africa?' The word and the concept that goes with it arrive together. Even using a thesaurus, the word you choose ought to be a word you already know, or how can you be sure the context is right?

So the difficulty with a foreign language is that there are concepts in your brain for which you have no words. The children's answer to this is 'provide me with the words', but in the real world, part of speaking a foreign language is gaining the ability to work around lack of vocabulary, learning how to make yourself understood using those words you do have. I remember in France once I took a phone call from a boiler supplier. He really needed to be talking to the builder working next door and as I attempted to rustle up the words to tell him so, I could hear the little-used synapses in my brain firing up. I managed to produce 'chef de construction' (building boss?) which did the trick, but certainly wasn't what a French person would have said!

Then there's the question of words and phrases that exist in one language but not in another. Take the word 'excited'. Children in my class are always wanting to tell me they are excited about things. French children too must get excited, but perhaps they just don't talk about it, because there is no obvious word or phrase that captures the essence of anticipation and enthusiasm. It's hard enough to explain to the concept of gender to British children, this idea of words not necessarily being translateable is an even bigger one to swallow.

I suppose what I'm getting at is that part of what they need to learn is to switch off their English-speaking brain and start using their French. I know this is very hard when you only know a very little, but I suspect that it's the best way to turn a bunch of random words and phrases into a vocabulary.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

The soothingness of words

The other day I came into the kitchen at breakfast-time to find Livia, aged 7, reading the comment page in the newspaper. Though I know she's a good reader I did find this a bit surprising as she's only just graduated from  Rainbow Fairies (boo! hiss!). Just to see if she was really reading it, I said something too her. Her finger went out to mark her place on the page as she raised her head to speak to me. Yes, she was definitely reading the words. Did she have any idea what she was reading? By the time she got up from the table I was involved in something else and so I didn't ask. Only later when I ran my eyes over the same page, left open on the table, while I ate my lunch did I stop to wonder what she had got from reading something that almost certainly meant very little to her.

In a book I am reading at the moment (The City of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers), someone says 'Reading is an intelligent way of not having to think.' I agree with this, but only partly. Ideally, a person reads and thinks at the same time; he is engaged with the reading matter. However to be truly engaged involves pushing all one's other thoughts to the background of the mind. That's what makes reading is such a useful way of passing travelling time and why it's such a good thing to do before sleeping (except for those occasions when the book is so gripping you can't stop thinking about it after you turn the light out). I can't see why anyone who can read would ever need to meditate. It's easy to empty your mind if you can fill it with someone else's words.

As for Livia's breakfast-time reading matter, I think this is the other side of the same idea. A reading person with an empty mind (as it often is at breakfast time) may find that their eyes simply latch onto words that they see. I don't suppose for one moment that Livia picked up the newspaper and selected the comment page to read. It was just there and eyes rested on it and then she did what she always does with words, she followed them across the page. I do it all the time: words leap out at me, notices, labels, road signs, poems on the Underground (what a great idea). I can still quote the message printed on the sanitary bags on the back of the school loo doors. On holiday in Crete this summer, I found the Greek alphabet desperately frustrating because it took such an effort to remember which shape had which sound and so to decipher the words. Of course I didn't need to do this. It was quite clear what all the words meant, as everything was written in English too, and German and something Scandinavian. But the words were there and were calling out to be read, and the fact that they weren't giving me their message felt like they were bombarding me with their crypticness.

Monday, 22 November 2010

The Book Aunt

One of the best bits of Christmas for me is the bit where I get to buy books for children. At the moment there are six on my Christmas list, but I could do with dozens. As soon as anyone I knew had babies, I jumped at the opportunity to fill their shelves with books. Up until then, I'd only been able to buy children's books for myself, and, even though I'm in that line of work, buying children's books still felt rather like something I had to make excuses for. So I determined that the instant I had children to buy for, I'd become the Book Aunt, the one who searches for the very newest thing you've never even heard of, or a fabulous old book  everyone's forgotten about, the book exactly suited to each child.

I've had moments of doubt, it has to be said, particularly as the boys I've bought for have grown older and during the times when some of them have been reluctant readers. I don't often get strong enough feedback to show if I'm hitting the mark or not. I do check though, when I see these kids: 'do you like to read?' 'what are you reading?', and one has dropped by the wayside now because he claims he never reads (what on earth will I get him this year?). Occasionally, thrillingly, I get a response which is truly overwhelming. Once, as I sat at the table with my brother-in-law and his family, the boys brought piles of books to the table and showed me all the books they loved: books I'd bought them, books they'd bought inspired by things I'd bought them and books they thought I should know about. One nephew, aged 13, travelling alone by train across half of France said he hardly noticed the journey because he was engrossed in Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines trilogy, which I'd bought him for his birthday.

So this year I have six children to buy for. First, there are my three girls. For them, I have to restrain myself a little. I could buy each of them a whole pile of books, but we already have more books than they could possibly read in a childhood, so I restrict myself to one each.

Elspeth is 13. She's on the verge of reading adult books, but I think she still finds them rather taxing. I Capture the Castle  went down at great speed, but she ground to a halt with Jane Eyre (at the bit when Jane goes to live with her cousins and works in a school; I'm not surprised). The great joy with Els is that I know whatever I buy for her I'm probably going to read and enjoy too. The teen market seems to be dominated by fantasy and what they call 'dark romance' at the moment, but much as I'd like to indulge I have to tread carefully with fantasy for Els. She didn't really go for either Philip Reeve or Philip Pullman, and I don't think she'd like Terry Pratchett either. Having said that, she loved the Twilight books, she's a big Buffy fan, and she enjoyed the R J Anderson fairy books. So I think perhaps I'm looking for something  with a supernatural element in it, but set fairly solidly in the real world.

Daughter number 2, Marianne, aged 10, likes animal books and non-fiction. The latter is not difficult, as this is my field, but animal stories are a trickier proposition as this is not an area I find particularly appealing. However, there are hundreds of animal books out there, and fortunately this year a friend has recommended one that was read to her daughter's class and they all raved about, a book I'd never heard of. I do always love to pick up a new author. Of course, I can't reveal what this book is at the moment, because you never know who'll be reading these words, but if anyone's interested, I'll let you have the complete list after Christmas.

So on to daughter number 3, Livia, aged 7. Here the problem is that we already have so many books bought for the others and gathered over time that finding something new can be a challenge. A couple of years ago she was still at the picture book stage and that was easy as there are always so many fabulous new picture books. For her, I will probably look in 1001 Children's Books, or I might just browse through some lists on Amazon. Liv's at the stage where she will read absolutely anything; it almost seems that the act of reading itself gives her as much pleasure as the story does. She doesn't seem to have any particular book preferences at all.

Two nephews to cater for next, 13 and 11. They get two books each. I tend to go for the new unless something old has struck me as a must-read for them. First, I'll refer to Books For Keeps, the now online children's book magazine. This is really invaluable in keeping up with what's out there. Going to a general bookshop will only give you what is already popular, books and authors children have already come across. A specific children's bookshop would be more useful, but those are few and far between (though I dream of opening my own...). BFK is not always right up to the minute, but is guaranteed to come up with something that will be new to kids and worth reading.

Dan, the younger boy, used not to be very keen on reading, so I went through a period of buying shorter books, non-fiction and funny books to try to draw him in. In case you're wondering, I've been keeping a notebook for years, writing down what I've bought everyone, so it's easy for me to look back and see. Now though, Dan's been won over. I'm not saying reading is his favourite thing to do in the world, but he knows how to engage with a book and enjoys it while he's doing it. For him, I will get the book I'm buying for Marianne and also something else with the help of BFK. I'm thinking adventure, probably, but avoiding the Charlie Higson sort or the superhero stuff and going for a more classic type of adventure.

For Kieran, who is nearly 14, it's the same problem as with Els. He's a sufficiently mature reader to tackle adult books, but will they appeal? I'm thinking horror might do the job here, or maybe extending a theme I know has been successful with him in the past. With Kieran, I'm beginning to wonder if I'm going to have to stop soon, start sending him other presents, ordinary presents, as I now have to with my other nephew.

But as you lose them at the top end, in come more at the bottom. This year I'm back to picture books again as we have a new godson. I think it'll be one of my old favourites for Mac, aged 1, with the promise of many more to come.

Monday, 15 November 2010

book love

The first book I ever loved was The Oxford Book of Latin Verse. I'm not sure how old I was. Perhaps I loved it before I could even read. Certainly I couldn't read Latin. I loved it because it was beautiful. It was small enough to hold easily (even when I had smaller hands), with plain dark blue hard covers, with the title in gold on the spine. Did it have something on the front? Perhaps the OUP colophon? I think it might have. It was thick, perhaps two inches deep, and inside, there were hundreds of thin, thin pages made of that sort of paper I associate with bibles, paper which makes a satisfying crackle as you turn the pages. The text was very small, densely packed lines of verse. I would arrange ranks of dolls and teddies, then face them, and 'read' them fairy tales from this book, sometimes with the pages turned towards them as primary school teachers do, even though there were no pictures for my pupils to look at.

I can't imagine why anyone would want to read an electronic book. I've read the reviews; I've had a look at them in shops. I understand that you can hold thousands of books at once in the palm of your hand, annotate them, send passages to friends, find words and phrases at the click of a button. But they're not books, are they? I love the smell of a book, new clean pages or fusty old paper. And the weight of it in your hand: the perfect hand-sized paperback; the tome so heavy you have to lean it on the pillow and read lying on your front; but not for me those extra-big airport paperbacks, they don't stay open like a hardback and they're too heavy for a paperback. I own some books that I know I'm never going to read. I keep them because they're beautiful.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

The best present of all

To buy good book presents you have to hit upon a thing that the recipient will not yet own, probably will not even know about, possibly which they would never think to buy for themselves, but nevertheless which will be exactly right for them. Years ago, long before we were married, and maybe when we weren’t even going out, Robert brought me a children’s book back from a trip to the US: an almost wordless picture book called Good Dog Carl about a dog who is left to mind a baby but instead allows the baby to eat everything in the fridge, then baths it in the fish tank, before popping it back in bed just before the mother comes home. I don’t know why he bought this book, he’s never bought me another children’s book, but it was a perfect present for me, and I would never have bought it for myself. But the best book present I ever received wasn’t actually a book at all. For my eighteenth birthday, my brother Jon gave me a £50 book token. That seems pretty generous now, but this was 1983, when just a tenner would buy you five paperbacks, rather than one and a bit. I spent it all in one go, an orgy of book-buying, like a lottery winner’s shopping binge. It’s probably the most fun I have ever had buying books. Cookery books usually work for me too. I think most of my most used ones have been bought for me by other people. I love to read, I love to cook, and yet I can't think of an occasion when I've ever actually bought myself a cookery book. It's not a section of a bookshop I browse much, unless I'm looking for a present for someone.
Oh, and by the way, if you should be thinking about giving me a present, and now you’ve read this, you wonder if maybe I’m much to exacting about what I want, so it’s much too hard to give me books as presents, let me reassure you. You know the presents I like best of all, the ones I save for the end, are the flat rectangular ones.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Claire's Room Libry (sic)

I don't write my name in my books any more. I wonder why. When I was little I was fiercely protective of my books and all of them were labelled in felt-tip  'Claire's Room Libry' (oh yes, apostrophe in right place but bit poor on the spelling). There aren't many of these left yet because at when I was about eight I took all the books I considered beneath me to a second hand bookshop. They only took the good ones (of course) so I was left with some very tatty Beatrix Potters and a large copy of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas'. The latter I hadn't actually taken to the shop, I have to admit, and every Christmas Eve I read it to my children and then put it carefully away.

After the 'Claire's Room Libry' period, I simply wrote my name for a long time, apart from a brief period when I got a stamp for Christmas. It wasn't specifically a name stamp, but one that you had to fit letters into a holder, but it was so fiddly that I quickly gave up with my whole name and wrote 'C J Watts'. Then followed an experimental period when my name appeared in every possible format: 'Claire Julia Watts', 'Claire J. Watts', 'Miss Claire Julia Watts', often followed by my address, and once of twice by my school address as well. How lost did I think my books were going to get.

It gets interesting when I started to add the date. I love to pick up a book and be able to work out when I first read it. For a while, inspired by my friend Simon, I even put where I bought it, but this didn't last long, I think because sometimes  that delay between buying a book and reading it makes a nonsense of recording the purchase.

For a while I also wrote my name in the secondhand books I bought, but not for long. It's as if secondhand books don't really belong to me; they're just passing through. I love it when secondhand books have inscriptions written by other people and these feel like an essential part of the book.

Now though, I don't even write my name. I wonder if this is because I've been here in the same house for so long that I don't feel that there's any likelihood of my books going astray? Or is it through some precious notion that, like the secondhand books, books are just passing through. Actually I think it may be less sentimental than this. Nowadays lack of space forces me to be quicker to judge whether a book is worth its space on my shelves. Perhaps I don't claim ownership before I've read a book because I suspect I may be taking it straight to the charity shop when I've finished it. Or it could be that the books in my house feel more shared now. Often as soon as I have finished a book Robert will read it, and sometimes I buy books for him that I actually want to read myself. It's the same with the children's books. Time was I would just buy children's books for myself because I wanted to read them. Now I give them to the girls and read them later.

I do still mark the books in a way. I tend to leave things in them. Postcards are a favourite, letters, sometimes bus tickets, receipts or flyers. Really anything that happens to be lying around that I've used as a bookmark when I was reading. It's a bit of a thrill when I pick up a book to read again and find something like this. I came across a letter I'd written to a friend when I was in the san at school, aged about ten. Why did I have the letter when it was written to someone else? Who knows?

Perhaps though, I should start writing in books again. I could always write after I'd read a book, ifI decided a book was a keeper. Or go back to doing it as I buy the books. After all, if I like to read other people' names in my secondhand books, perhaps other people like to read mine.

Monday, 1 November 2010

page counting

I'm having to force myself to read Crime and Punishment, setting myself 20 pages a day, which conveniently is about two chapters. Even this is a struggle. I think it must be the pace of the story. I've read 135 pages and really all that has happened is that Raskolnikov has committed the double murder, fallen ill and recovered. It plods and I plod with it, and what ought to be gripping is tedious. I can't imagine my sympathies are supposed to lie with Raskolnikov; he's really very irritating and unlikeable, quite apart from having committed murder on a whim. I know I've read books before with protagonists I didn't like much and enjoyed them, but really with Raskonikov I couldn't care less. Also, having watched the TV serialisation, as I read, I have the feeling that I've read it all before. This can be a good thing with a book you love (see last blog!), but here it's rather as if all the possibly novelty has been leached out of the book. So I plod, contantly flicking over to see how near I am to my daily target. Only 360 pages to go!

Why am I bothering? It's for my book group at the end of the month, so I feel I must read it. There have been a few duds chosen over the couple of years I've been going, but, you know, I think I prefer the meetings when we discuss something I really disliked. You know there's going to be lots of debate about the book, at the very least me versus the person who chose the book, who presumably likes it. And so far, every time I've come away feeling more positive about the book, or willing to give the author another chance. Much duller when everyone agrees that a book is wonderful and you run out of things to say after 45 minutes.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Finishing the pudding with the serving spoon

So of course I had to pick up The Pursuit of Love as soon as I'd finished Love in a Cold Climate. What joy! I have a Reprint Society copy: thick, rough paper on which the ink hasn't really taken well enough, so many of the letters, when you look carefully, have white patches, empty of ink. The cover is plain, that kind of brownish grey they called 'taupe' for a while (though I always thought moles were black). It was printed way-back-when, 1947, when even cheap reprints had properly sewn pages, and strongly bound covers. Books built to last. I have heaps of these Reprint Society books, they used to be sold for peanuts in the secondhand bookshops, charity shops and markets I used to buy from (that was back when I had bookshelves that needed filling). I do love a hardback. It's so satisfying the way the pages stay open on the table in front of you without you having to hold it, and the way you can place it open, face down without breaking the spine.

I don't know how many times I've read The Pursuit of Love. Since the first time I read it, maybe 30 years ago, it's been one of those books that I pick up in between other books, when I can't quite decide what I want to read next, or if I'm ill or tired or fed up. It's a book to be read in great wolfing chunks, like finishing the pudding with the serving spoon, because there really (no, really!) isn't enough left to share around at another meal. In fact, what's really extraordinary about The Pursuit of Love is how it manages to encompass so much in something so very short. So much happens in these 200-odd pages. Take the bit about Jassy running away to Hollywood. The whole episode takes just four and a half pages but seems perfectly complete. Even Linda's great love affair, which feels like the focus of the whole book, does not even begin until two thirds of the way through.

I'm intrigued also by the narrator. I'm struggling to think what her name is, and when I look it up I discover that it isn't even said until the fifth page. What a clever trick! Somehow, this narrator manages to be part of the proccedings and yet vanish into the background. Mostly, she is telling the story straight, just giving her own impressions, or other people's as they have been told to her, but then when we get to the episode of Linda's great love, the focus narrows to Linda's own impressions, which Fanny, the narrator, explains that she knows because Linda has told this to her in great detail when they were together at Alconleigh. Explained like this, it seems so artificial, but it doesn't at all when reading. Somehow though, using just the same technique in Love in a Cold Climate doesn't seem to work at all to me.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Book mountain

There are five books beside my bed again. And, no, none of them are just waiting for me to get started.  I'm reading all of them. Sort of. It happens from time to time, and generally ends with me sweeping four of the five off onto a shelf somewhere to come back to later. But I haven't yet got to that stage. No matter what experience had taught me, I still feel that I will get through each of them before I put them away.

At the bottom of the pile is No et moi by Delphine de Vigan. Actually this was on the floor under the stool that serves me as a bedside table, because I've been reading it on and off since I bought it in France at Easter. Though it's about teenagers, the French is pretty straightforward, but it requires just a bit more concentration than I can stretch to most nights, so I've lost the plot about a third of the way through. I keep coming back to it, thinking 'oh, this is good, I can read this' then not bothering for a week or so and losing it again. Serves me right for trying to read it in French! I'd have read it in a couple of hours in English.

Next from the bottom is A Tree grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. It's an orange Penguin, dated 1951, and has that lovely, musty old paper smell. The pages are orange-brown at the edges, as if nicotine-stained, and paler, creamy orange in the centre. They feel brittle, as if they would just snap if you dared to bend down a corner (and you'd better not with one of my books!). I'm not sure why I'm reading this, to tell the truth. I only have about two shelves of adult fiction at the moment. The rest have gradually made their way into the attic as the shelf space has been taken over by other books, the kids' books, reference books, I don't really know what altogether, and we've lost shelves with all the building work we did last year and haven't yet replaced them. All the is left to me are two shelves, mostly full of things I've read recently, plus a few strays that somehow misses the big pack up. This isn't the first time I've read A Tree grows in Brooklyn, and it turns out to be just long enough ago that it has a comfortable familiarity, but the plot has become vague. This probably wouldn't have hung around in my next to the bed pile, but we were going away and I was a little afraid for it in my luggage, with its slightly torn cover and scuffed corners. So I left it and took instead Crime and Punishment (Dostoevsky). Which I have to say I'm not getting on with very well. I've read all of two chapters in the ten days since I started it, and each time I was doing that thing of flicking forward to check how soon the chapter was going to end. I have to read it for my book group, and I can see that when I pull my finger out and get on with it, I'll start to enjoy it, but I don't need to read it till the end of November, and I can see that it will probably sit there until a week of so before the meeting, and then I'll be forced to consume it in great meaty chunks. The only reason I started reading it early was that I didn't have the next book on the list, Love in a Cold Climate (Mitford), and the reason I didn't have that was that when I ordered all the books on the list I was certain that I already had this in the attic. It is such a trouble to me, all my books being in the attic. I am so very fond of them and I long and long to be able to have them all about me, alphabetised, of course, so that I can immediately see what is there and what is not. Anyway, having sat perched on a rafter among the horrible sleepy flies which wake up when the light goes on, yet again taking scores of books out of boxes and putting them back in again, I found I had to buy a new copy. So at the moment, this is the book I'm picking up to read. And yet again, I think my bookclub has committed the folly of being led astray by the catchy title of a TV series (they did the same thing with An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P D James, which was beautifully written but sorely lacking in intrigue or thrills). Years ago, they serialised this and the book that came before it, The Pursuit of Love under the title Love in a Cold Climate, and I can see why, it's very much catchier and less ordinary. However, this of course leads everyone to think that all that great stuff about growing up in the freezing of country house with nutty father who liked to hunt children etc is in the book called Love in a Cold Climate. But it's not! It's all in The Pursuit of Love. And TPOL is a so much better book. I am enjoying LIACC for sure, Nancy Mitford is always good for a bit of insider fun-poking at the nobs, but I wish I was having to read The Pursuit of Love. Ooh! Perhaps I will treat myself to reading it again when I've finished this one.

I said there were five books, didn't I? The last is The Children's Writers' and Artists' Yearbook 2011. This ought to be on my desk really, but I've just bought it, and at the moment I'm reading through the articles rather than using it as a tool. It fills in those moments when I can't even be bothered with Nancy Mitford. Catalogues are good for that too. I usually have catalogues somewher near my bed, gardens, house, clothes, doesn't really matter. I suppose it's just as much fantasy as reading fiction.