Monday, 17 October 2011

American interlude

I've just read a book that I bought twenty-four years ago and had yet to read. I'm scraping the bottom of the barrel in my only new authors campaign, so rummaged through the boxes in the attic in search of something as yet unread that I could take on holiday with me. Why though do I have books that have sat so long unread? Why did I buy them in the first place if I did not have the urge to read them? I know that years ago, when I had few books, and probably more children's books than adult ones (though maybe that's still the case?) I bought books by the handful whenever I found them for good prices. In the days of the Net Book Agreement, this generally meant secondhand or from a remaindered bookshop, though I also picked up a fair few with my 33% discount in my student bookshop job. I was also, am also, addicted to souvenir book-buying, that is, buying things that are relevant to my travels, a book by a Canadian author when in Canada, Asterix in French when in France. The book I've just read, The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon comes somewhere in between the avid cheap book collecting and the souvenir hunting. Let me tell you.

When I finished my degree in 1987, I went to Boston to work in the bookshop at the University of Massachusetts (UMASS). The bookshop set-up was unlike anything I'd ever come across. In a huge shop that resembled a supermarket more than a bookshop, textbooks and set books new and secondhand (used) were set out in vast piles in supermarket-type aisles, each pile labelled with the course it was meant for, with a label reading 'Biology 101', 'Poli Sci 201' and so on. There'd be crisp new copies but also piles of used ones, many times used, for the courses with lower numbers, the basic courses, because I think with most US university courses one is expected to take a number of different subjects just like at school to start with and then only specialise later. Students would then just head for the right piles of books and purchase the entire reading list. I suppose this is a perfectly sensible way of going about this, something to be emulated by Dillons and Foyles in London, but I found the whole thing staggeringly foreign. Along with the bunch of other UK staff, a couple of Germans and a handful of locals I was assigned to unpacking boxes, stacking and restacking shelves, and manning the tills. There was a peak of activity at the beginning of the term, then things eased off and the foreigners began began to leave. Except me. I'd managed to make myself invaluable to the undermanager and although my working visa had run out, I discovered that as long as one was in the process of appealing, one could carry on working. I wasn't planning to stay forever, but had nothing special to get back for. So I stayed another three months until Christmas, when a polite letter from US Immigation told me that I was not necessary to the country so would I please go away.

In the meantime I continued to work at the UMASS Bookstore, no longer stacking shelves so much, but generally on the phone to someone with an impenetrable accent proccessing returns. But I had plenty of time to look at the books still set out on the shelves (not everyone bought them all in the first weeks). Most fascinating I found the literature courses, full of authors I'd never heard of, or heard of but not actually come across, and grouped into courses in ways I didn't understand. I was intrigued by these connections and these books, so most weeks I'd buy one or two. I can't recall these connections any more, so I'm frustrated by not remembering what group of books The Crying of Lot 49 fitted into, particularly since it was so difficult and unsatisfying a read. It makes me think of Kurt Vonnegut, the fantastic looped into the mundane, following a path than makes less and less realistic sense, but with Vonnegut I follow wherever he leads and know where I am and where I've come from, whereas with this I was all at sea almost from the start. Oh well, so it goes. It's a pretty souvenir of an interesting time anyway. And rather extraordinary to pick up a book so yellowed at the edges and yet so stiffly new.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Moby Dick Kindled

My sister-in-law never leaves home without a book, not ever. Family legend has it that she even had one stowed about her person when canoeing down the Zambezi, and found time for a few minutes reading respite when climbing Uluru. After all, you never know when the opportunity to read may occur. So I suppose after an interval of two years since I last saw her, I should not have been surprised to see her pulling a Kindle from her handbag instead of a dog-eared paperback. Nothing is more portable, and she had been travelling for the best part of a month before I saw her. What better way to carry a bibliophile's supply of reading matter rather than having to rely on whatever turns up along the way? Odd then, how I felt she'd sold out somehow.

I've only recently experimented with the Kindle myself. I thought I should attempt to embrace it, because obviously it's got plenty going for it: portability, price of books, less physical waste in terms of books you don't want to keep once you've read them once. So, I read Moby Dick, which had been on my 'to do' list for years. Perhaps it wasn't the best choice. It's fascinating and strange and rather wonderful, but also hard work, necessitating a bit of page-counting (see earlier blog for this phenomenon). Perhaps a thrill-a-minute page-turner (ha!) would have been a more satisfying first experience, allowing me to forget the medium.

One thing that had puzzled me was how you know how far on in the book you'd got without reference to the chunk of pages to the left of the page you are on versus the chunk of pages to the right. Here, the percentage read bar at the bottom of the Kindle page proved an equally good, or perhaps even better, visual indicator.

Turning the pages was a little frustrating. It seems logical to me to have a back button on the left of the page and a forward button of the right, but in fact both sides of the Kindle have both, so that I frequently pressed the wrong one and went back instead of forwards. On the other hand, the loading of each new page as you turned them was quicker and less intrusive than I'd feared, feeling much like the wordless moment you get in the turning of a physical page.

I was reading a free version of Moby Dick, and it is the only Kindle book I've ever read, so I don't know if others are more sophisticated in terms of layout. With this one, an asterisk next to a word denoted a footnote, and then the footnote appeared in the next paragraph, which started with an asterisk but was otherwise identical to the rest of the text. As this was not necessarily the bottom of the page, subsequent paragraphs reverted to main text, with no kind of separation between note and text, which I found rather confusing. The glossary too, was rather inadequate, containing few of the words I wanted to look up.

As to the physical object itself, I found it less easy to hold than I'd expected to. Of course, it is less cumbersome than a thick book, but I didn't find a way to hold it than was as easy as resting your thumb inside a paperback with the rest of your hand around the back. It was too flat to be really comfortable to hold, and I had to be careful not to press the forward and back buttons by mistake.

All these are niggles I suppose, things that would disappear with practice. I will try it again. I do see the point. If Camilla can fall for the Kindle, I expect I could get used to it. But you know, don't you, I don't even have to say it: it's not the same as a real book.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Reading Challenge 2


It’s my birthday this week and I’ve decided that new year challenges should not be restricted to January 1st. So, as of Friday,  I’m only going to read books by authors I’ve never read before. I’m not absolutely certain that I’ll be able to keep it up for a whole year, so I’ll aim for Christmas, which will be six months, and then see it goes. Perhaps declaring this intention in public is not particularly wise, but as very few people read this blog, it’s not really all that public.

Why this particular challenge? Well, looking back over these blogs I’ve been writing, I’ve become aware that I seem to be entirely sold on reading the old and familiar, firmly attached to certain authors and happy to be comfortable. In fact, considering that I would definitely put reading as my number 1 thing to do, I’ve become pretty unadventurous in my reading habits. When my friend Roz lent me a large pile of books most of which were written by people I’d never heard of, I was daunted rather than thrilled.

So I may start with Roz’s pile. I haven’t looked all that hard at them (although they’ve been in The Pile for nearly six months now) but I have the impression that they are largely Scandinavian. I’m wracking my brains to think of Scandinavian books I’ve read in the past and I can only come up with Pippi and the Moomins, oh, and there was that book I had to review, I’m struggling for the title, Alberta and Jacob I think, by Cora Sandel? It has to be said that the oddness of all these examples is not entirely promising, though I did enjoy them all, more or less. But I suppose one cannot judge an entire literature on a handful of examples.

Anyway, I may start with Moby Dick because quite a few people seem to be surprised that I have yet to read it and they all champion it hugely. I find this a bit off-putting too. It’s so thick! It’s about someone obsessed with a whale! I suspect that the people who love it were forced to read it for school or university or something and it only seems great compared to the other turgid stuff they had to wade through. But. Expanding my reading horizons means taking recommendations, lots of them. It means picking up things by authors I know so well from reputation that I find it hard to credit that I have never read any of their books (Mrs Gaskell: how have I never read Mrs Gaskell?).

And I’m not just planning to read literary greats. I’m looking for some new sources of rubbish too, and I intend to work my way through 1001 Children’s Books, filling in the gaps in my knowledge.

Perhaps I should start in the attic, picking out stuff I’ve gathered but never got round to reading. There was a time when I just picked up any secondhand book I’d heard of if it was in good condition, thinking I’d be bound to want to read it some time. I suppose I was library-building without realising. But perhaps the attic would be a dangerous place to start: I might be tempted by all the lovely books I already know.

You know, I think I’ll start with Moby Dick. That should take me a good long time, and I can probably get a nice secondhand copy on the Internet. And if you have any bright ideas, do send them to me.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

A haven from the slings and arrows of outrageous adolescence


A couple of years ago, three maybe, I went back to my old school. It was a very unsettling experience at the time: I was on edge for weeks before and practically quivering with nerves the whole time I was there. I hadn’t been there for almost 30 years, you see, except in my most vivid dreams, anxiety dreams when I’d be climbing up and down one of the staircases carrying things from my dorm to my trunk. It was the most extraordinary thing to be actually standing in those corridors that I had been dreaming of far longer than I actually existed in. And you know the strangest thing? Since my visit I haven’t dreamed of school again, not once.

However, as you know, this blog is not about school or dreams, but about books, and the point of this preamble is to lead you into one of my favourite places in the world. It’s a place in the school and I recall it with the same intense clarity that all the different places come back to me, but I have never, ever dreamed about it. Do you think perhaps this is because it was a totally calm and stress-free environment for me? You know where it was already, don’t you? The school library, specifically the non-fiction library, because the fiction library was more like a common room.

I’m not sure that I ever ventured into the library before 5th year, and even then I only ever remember Saturday mornings, which was when my year did their prep there. I never took a book out of the library as far as I remember. But it was such a perfect library, and even surrounded by all those judgmental, back-biting, adolescent girls, it felt like a haven. Although we were unsupervised, we were quiet. Partly I suppose that was the library-ness of it, but I think also the way the room was designed, with bays of books surrounding tables of I think around eight. I imagine whatever chat was going on was given a conspiratorial edge by the apparent privacy of those bays, leading to whispering and note-passing rather than the shrieking and carrying on more usual to a group of unsupervised fifteen-year-old girls.

From this distance, I see the library in patches of clarity and vagueness, like looking at an old photo and trying to remember what is just out of the frame. In general terms I can tell you that it’s a large, square room with narrow floor to ceiling windows spaced evenly around all four walls. This is possible because the entrance is from central staircase surrounded by a low wall into which all however many volumes of the OED are shelved. The staircase leads down to the lower floor where there is nothing but the entrance door, a large classroom, and presumably a toilet and some storerooms. The building is set into a slope, so that the entrance is at ground level but the classroom partly underground, while upstairs one wall of the library leads directly onto the rose garden (but you got that this was a posh school already, didn’t you?). I think there may have been doors leading out on this side, but I can’t picture them.

What I can picture is the bay where I sat, I suppose every week as it is so vivid. The large table is oak and not scribbled on and carved like the desks in our classrooms. The chairs too are oak with leather seats, brown I think and far more comfortable than any other chair in the school. This furniture has been specially designed for the library and bears the school’s crest, an oak tree. One of the windows is centred between the shelves of the bay, as in every bay, and through it I see down the curve of the drive a patch of sweeping old evergreens of some kind. The light these windows give is perfect, bright enough but never so much as to be dazzling or too hot. I’m in the languages section. The library is still quite new though older than my time at the school, so to me it seems like a forever place. The lower and upper sections of the shelves are still empty, waiting for the collection to grown into its new home. Behind me, as I sit, are the French and German novels, some of them clearly classics of the type I’m only just beginning to read in English and which I flick through sometimes, just for the feel of the books rather than to actually read them. But here too are a bunch of more enticing Livre de Poche volumes. I begin to pick them up when I’ve finished my prep, at first idly, and then, when I discover I can actually read a bit, I pick the same one, the thinnest one, week after week, but furtively, not willing to admit I’m reading it, certainly not admitting to anyone else, because that would be showing off, wouldn’t it? But I am reading it, and although and I have only the vaguest idea of the plot, I get the sense of it enough to realise that it’s a bit racy for a school library and wonder if anyone else has ever read it. The book was Le Diable au Corps by Raymond Radiguet which I later bought just to see what it was really all about, and sure enough, it’s about a boy having an affair with an older woman.


When I went back to school for that visit, the one place I couldn’t go was the library. It was closed because it was being extended. I suppose they need computers in there now, and these take up space, and I suppose it’s possible that those half-empty shelves are full and now they need more. But I hope they’ve managed to retain some of the bays, with the solid beautiful tables and chairs and most of all I hope they haven’t lost the atmosphere: peace, privacy and a window onto the world beyond the pettiness of school. Perhaps it’s a good thing I didn’t see the library in its new incarnation: I can keep it in my head.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Reading Challenge 1

A couple of years ago I made a new year's resolution to spend the entire year without buying any new books. I can't remember exactly what inspired this: possibly I was feeling poor, possibly I was disillusioned with what the bookshops had to offer. I have to admit that during the year I bought a handful for my bookclub, but I did try to get secondhand ones, and of course I read the new books I bought for the girls, but I don't really think that was cheating, was it?

So instead of being tempted by Waterstone's 3-for-2s or Amazon's startlingly low prices (sure to keep authors in penury), I plundered the attic, rereading favourites and giving rejects a second chance, I picked up things I'd missed the first time round in the library, and I trawled through my mother-in-law's packed shelves.

You already know how I feel about rereading, so clearly that part was hardly challenging (though whether I could only reread for an entire year is another question). As to the rest, that expression 'the cream always rises to the top' springs to mind. I don't think  I'm all that given to such expressions, but funnily enough, I was just using this one this morning to Robert, as Chris Evans interviewed Neil Diamond who had emerged from the graveyeard that is 70s easy listening to prove himself a stayer. The point is that as time passes, the books no-one ever reads disappear off the shelves, both in the library and at home, to make way for new books. The stayers are the ones people still read, and they tend to read them because they're good. Look at the output of many modern popular authors: a book a year, every year, more in some cases, for year after year. They have to; it's how they make their living. But no matter how good they are, they're not all equally good. Now take the equivalent 100 years ago: E Nesbit. She was prolific, writing for both children and adults, but fewer than ten of her books spring immediately to mind (and none of them is for adults). Somewhere along the line, the less popular have gone from the publishers' lists, from library shelves, from collective memory. You may still find them tucked away in secondhand shops, but if you buy them imagining you have an undiscovered treasure, you're likely to be disappointed (as I know).

So, having sung the praises of my experiment, perhaps it doesn't seem like such a challenge. Maybe not, but I can't tell you how thrilled I was to get a good pile of glossy new books for my birthday and for Christmas!

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Rubbish is good!

There are times when only rubbish will do: illness, plane journeys, holidays, just after you've read something weighty. And I like rubbish. It can be deeply satisfying in a way that something you really have to work at is not. Like the difference between eating a plate of delicious food containing all the major food groups or eating a large bar of fruit and nut.You can sit back and let the words flow over you, disregarding clunky dialogue, inconsistencies, unlikeliness and the fact that you're sure the book you read last time you were in this situation had exactly the same story.

For me, quality rubbish, generally means something chunky with a bit of romance in it, possibly a bit of rags-to-riches or misery-to-happiness or just growing up, and most definitely a happy ending. To be honest, I could just re-read The Thornbirds and Lace  every time the need came on.They're all much of a muchness, aren't they? Occasionally something a little different will take my fancy, some fantasy, crime or horror. Last year, I devoured eight Charlaine Harris True Blood books one after another because I'd bought a job lot from the Book People for an unbelievable price. But the sweet-eating analogy springs to mind again: the last one or two didn't seem such a treat, just a bit too much of a good thing.

Sometimes Terry Pratchett seems to fill this rubbish need, but I won't quite allow myself to lump him with the rest of the category. He is clever and witty, but so very insubstantial, and I generally can't remember the beginning of one of his books by the time I'm halfway through it. I suppose I'm willing to separate him from the rest of the indistinguishable heap because his children's books, though very much in the same vein, are staggeringly good.


Sometimes I have to remind myself of my affection for trash when I try to steer children away from Roald Dahl and Jacqueline Wilson and towards Philips Reeve and Pullman. No, I'm not saying that RD and JW are trash, but that children tend to read them from habit because they know they will like what they'll get, rather than challenging themselves to discover something new. It's the same instinct that has me reaching for something fat with a picture of a pair of shoes on the cover or a watercolour of a French farmhouse or a straw hat abandoned on a picnic blanket.

So here's to all those authors who find a winning formula and then write the same book again and again. May they keep providing us with fruit and nut forever!

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

short stories - essentially unsatisfying or little gems of a writer's craft?


I’ve been thinking about short stories. What set me off was that Elspeth has been practicing her creative writing because she has exams. They have a paper with 20 topics on it and an hour and a quarter to do it. That really means you only get about 50 minutes of actual writing, by the time you’ve read through the paper to choose a topic, made some kind of plan and allowed yourself time to read it through at the end. The paper has what used to be called ‘discursive’ topics back in the day, which E’s teacher has told them to avoid as they’re difficult to do well, ‘personal writing’ which they’ve practised quite a bit, and strikes me as easiest anyway, and narrative writing, i.e. ‘write a story about/set in/on the theme of/inspired by…’ Anyway, Elspeth is an avid writer and I think she may think the personal writing is too easy; she’s determined that narrative writing is the choice for her. So she’s decided to practise regularly, with me providing topics for her, and that I have to do it too. We gave ourselves an hour to write, but only one topic, so no choosing had to be done. And it was so hard! Firstly, because to be on a level playing field we decided that I too had to write by hand (which was a challenge for E to read!) to slow me down, and also so that I would be forced to write forwards, instead of constantly adding and editing, as I normally would; but secondly because I am (as you will no doubt have realised) a witterer, and to write a narrative with some sort of progression in 50 minutes is very nearly impossible for me.

And the thing is, I don’t even like short stories. My heart sinks when someone gives me a book of short stories to read. When I come across one sometimes in a newspaper or magazine, even when it is written by an author I love, I just turn the page. I know that many great short stories have been written, and I understand that many fellow obsessive readers will be unable to understand how I can spurn these little gems of the writer’s craft, but I just don’t see the appeal. I suspect it is at least partly to do with what one is used to from reading. A novel has a gradual progression, characters develop though their behaviour and interactions, building from page to page, plot and setting unfold, the narrative has time to expand and usually time to reach some kind of satisfying conclusion. But, for me, short stories are essentially unsatisfying as they must needs portmanteau these elements into a shorter framework. For me, this usually leads to one of two results: either I have become interested in the characters and feel cheated when the story ends and I still feel there are things to find out; or the story wraps itself up in some sort of tricksy ending, a twist that seems too clever, and leaves me irritated (and yes, top of the list is Maupassant’s La Parure a story I loathe for its manipulativeness but cannot help admiring).

I will admit to a couple of exceptions. I love Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber which I first read after seeing the movie The Company of Wolves (yes, loved that too). These though might as well be fairy tales and they work the same way, little snippets of narrative with the weight of half-remembered folk symbolism behind them which gives their insubstantialness a peculiar and marvellous depth. I must have read Ian McEwan’s In Between the Sheets and First Love, Last Rites at about the same time. These two collections I have read and reread and for some reason they just really do it for me. I saw a one-man show based on The Cupboard Man at Edinburgh one year and it struck me then that McEwan had managed to capture the essence of this character and his story here, that it worked as a short story (and a short play) because there was nothing else to be said. I loved these stories so much that for years I bought each new Ian McEwan novel, but never found any of them struck me as deeply until I read Enduring Love (which is so short as to be almost a novella). The extraordinary and unsettling, so prevalent in all his books, struck me once again as perfectly realised in this little book. At the moment, Solar is lying in the pile next to my bed. Will it do it for me again?

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Do you reread?


Do you reread? I do, but not often; certainly not as often as I did when I was a child. Then, certain favourites would be sure to call to me again and again. I read both Alices on a regular basis (I preferred Looking Glass then, I think because it was more structured, but now I prefer Wonderland, perfect evocation of the wild variety in dreams). I read all the Enid Blyton boarding school books many times over. I read the entire Lord of the Rings about once a year from the time I first read it at 13 until the time before last, in some university holidays, and then again a few years ago, when the films came out and I wanted to see if I could find in it what I had found then (and I did, which was such a relief). I reread Elizabeth Goodge, Barbara Willard, KM Peyton, E Nesbit; if a book was really worth reading once, it was certainly worth another go.

I suppose then, the comfort of familiarity, and the knowledge that the book would be good before I started to read were factors making me want to reread. Also, of course, the fact that all these books were there on my shelves, I didn’t have to go to the effort of discovering something new. It didn’t seem to bother me that I already knew what was going to happen. In fact, the anticipation seemed to add to the pleasure.

It’s different now. I reread far less and when my children ask me ‘what’s your favourite book?’ or even ‘who’s your favourite author?’ I couldn’t possibly answer them, although I certainly could have at any moment of my childhood. Of course, I can’t answer them; I’ve read too many books to make a decision like this, and who knows, the next one I pick up may be my favourite. But also, I no longer get that pure joy, that certainty that feeling that what I am reading is absolutely perfect in every way. I suppose my critical faculties get in the way, so that as well as letting the story into my brain, I am aware of the structure, the vocabulary, the places where the author could have done one thing but chose to do another. That’s not to say that I never reread, and generally I will only keep books that I think I am likely to want to pick up again some day (about 70% of those I buy or am given).

So having said all this, I had a truly perfect rereading experience lately. I was stuck for something to read, and though most of my fiction is STILL in the attic, I do have a couple of shelves of books by my bed that have somehow escaped being boxed up and put away. I picked up The Time-Traveler’s Wife, a book I loved when it first came out. I was slightly dubious about it this time, as a couple of people had told me since that they thought it was trite, so I did wonder if it would stand rereading. Sometimes books are enjoyable the first time but you can’t see it at all when you reread (Captain Correlli’s Mandolin, for example). At first I just opened it randomly and read a few different parts. I was trying to remember how the chronology worked. But in no time, it hooked me, and I started again from the beginning, and then devoured it in a few sittings. It didn’t matter that I knew what was going to happen. Actually the book makes it quite clear from early on that it’s not going to end well. I found myself enjoying it as much as the first time I read it, and maybe even more, because the anticipation added spice to the narrative. The best part was that Robert was out the evening I finished it, so I read the last 50 pages or so, all alone, with tears running down my face. Bliss!