Tuesday, December 30, 2008

a land of plenty

I’ve heard a number of sad statements regarding books at this seasonal time of year.  People saying they have never given or received a book as a present, and that books number among the most unwanted presents.

To redress that balance I bagged a bumper haul from under my tree this year.  Family and friends may tire of wrapping flat rectangles but they know what will make me happy.  

A little something for the many corners of my reading personality, plenty of pages to dip into through the year ahead.

  • Drawing Matters - Jane Stobart
  • The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain - Betty Edwards
  • ABC 3d - Marion Bataille
  • 4000 Animal, Bird and Fish Motifs : A Sourcebook - Graham McCallum
  • Bird by Bird : Some Instructions on Writing and Life - Anne Lamott
  • 52 Projects : Random Acts of Everyday Creativity - Jeffrey Yamaguchi
  • The Haiku Anthology - CVD Heuvel
  • Crow Country - Mark Cocker
  • A Prickly Affair : My Life with Hedgehogs - Hugh Warwick
  • Tossed : 200 Fast, Fresh and Fabulous Salads
  • Vegetable Heaven : Sensational Seasonal Vegetarian Cooking - Mason & Abramson
  • The Virago Book of Love Letters
  • Angela Carter's Book of Fairy Tales 
  • The Penguin Book of Classical Myths - Jenny March

This morning I also received a copy of The Art of Being Dead by Stephen Clayton.  I have no idea where it came from or who sent it.  I don’t recall asking for it, or ordering it, but I’m very pleased to give it a home as I’ve read a lot about it and want to read it.  What a pleasant surprise!  They say money doesn’t grow on trees, but this morning it almost felt like books did!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

hunting and gathering

When it works fiction can do many things - it can entertain, enlighten, educate or challenge.  I know I’ve read a good book when I walk away with at least a couple of these in my basket.  When a book dispenses a hefty dose of imagination it can also change the way you see something, so that you will never see that thing in quite the same way again.  Two recent reads did that for me The Night Country (Stewart O’Nan) and Firmin (Sam Savage).  After reading these books ghosts and rats are forever altered.  O’Nan doesn’t rely on the usual ghost reactions - instead he elicits our empathy for his ghosts, and shows us the fine lines between the living and the dead.  And in Savage’s creation of Firmin, the little book-loving existential angst-ridden rat, I feel I’ve found a true friend. 

Sometimes I get stuck in a run of poor books, ones that don’t hit the mark, that I trudge through beginning to end.  And then I hit a rich vein where every one seems to sparkle and shine.  And hot on the heels of those two came Astrid and Veronika (Linda Olsson) - the kind of book that tears me in two.  I want to linger over every page, savour every word.  I want to take time between chapters to contemplate what I’ve just read before I return for another dose.  But at the same time I can’t tear myself away, I feel bereft when I lay the book down.  Not because of a page-turning plot, but just because I feel at home within the pages, and a little more lonely when away from them.  This is the kind of book I want to write.  A simple story about two women and their unlikely friendship.  But within that the whole of their lives.  Two stories, more stories, meeting in one.   There is perfect attention to detail throughout, colour, texture, light and sound.  Little images connect to create a memory space for the two characters to dance in.

And finally for something a little different.  Usually I’m content with any old paperback copy of the book I want to read, but very occasionally I hold out for a particular version.  And The Book of Imaginary Beings (Jorge Luis Borges) was one such case.  I saw that there was a hardback version with quirky illustrations (by Peter Sis) and I knew that was the way I wanted to come to this book.  It’s my first experience with Borges and won’t be my last, although I acknowledge its not a full dose of him, being a kind of encyclopaedia.  Within these pages I’ve met many wondrous new acquaintances along with more familiar faces.  Two of my favourites have been The Ink Monkey ‘whenever people write, it sits with folded  hands and crossed legs, waiting till the writing is finished, when it drinks up the remainder of the ink’ and Swedenborg’s Angels where ‘Things’ appearances change to correspond to states of emotion; each Angel’s clothing shines in proportion to its intelligence’.  Both of who would be handy to know in day to day life!   

Monday, October 13, 2008

batten down the hatches

When I published this post I noticed I'd started it with the same complaints as I'd written in my last post regarding the poor selection of Booker titles this year etc etc.  So I'll cut the repetition and admit that I rather lost interest in the process.  I’d read all but two of the shortlist and couldn’t face trying to slog my way through the two giants that I hadn’t - although if either wins I might read it once it makes paperback.  My favourite read was the John Berger which didn’t make the shortlist, and from the short list I’m backing Linda Grant, but I’ve got a funny feeling that the judges will chose The White Tiger as their winner.

I finished Sea of Poppies and did enjoy it, but have learnt that I don’t really
 do epics, and its clearly that.  It obviously felt like the first part of a trilogy as the resolutions that were reached by the end weren’t large enough considering the build up.  I was also a little let down that it took till two thirds of the way through before all involved parties with gathered on The Ibis, and we only hit the sea at the very end.    

‘The wind had fallen off, so there was not a fleck of white visible on the surface, and with the afternoon sun glaring down, the water was as dark and still as the cloak of shadows that covers the opening of an abyss.’

It took me a while to get to grips with who was who, although when I was with any character I felt fully immersed in their story.  It felt like mingling at a giant party, where you soon get to know whose company you enjoy the most.  I most liked my time spent with Deeti and Paulette.  

Although there was lots of strange and inaccessible dialect words, slang and shipboard terminology that we couldn’t hope to understand I didn’t feel lost as many characters seemed equally baffled and there is a comforting lack of a glossary - so we are clearly encouraged to take it as it comes.

‘…beneath the surface of this farrago of sound, meaning flowed as freely as the currents beneath the crowded press of boats.’

Sea of Poppies also contained my favourite animal encounter of my Booker reading - the scene with the stoned monkeys hanging around outside the opium factory.

So, I’ve left the Booker behind for another year.  My papery boat is currently sailing me into mountainous territory courtesy of Robert Macfarlane - Mountains of the Mind.  I’m also planning a few spooky reads in a nod to the annual R.I.P. challenge.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

short measures

The announcement of the Booker shortlist is expected later today.  I have read 7 and ¾ books from the longlist.  And have shared my thoughts on 7 of those here.  I’m 100 pages from finishing Sea of Poppies and am hoping that we actually head out to sea before the end!

It seems I’m not the only person to feel a little disappointed by this years selection.  Or perhaps the past few years have just spoilt us.  Some of these books felt quite a drag to get through whereas in the past I’ve enjoyed being introduced to some sparkling new literature.  Perhaps this year offered a poor choice of new releases, perhaps the Booker judging panel have unusual tastes?

Only 4 of those I read deserve a place on my shortlist, those being - 

From A to X - John Berger
The Lost Dog - Michelle de Kretser
The Clothes on Their Backs - Linda Grant 
The Secret Scripture - Sebastian Barry

I’ll wait to see which titles make the official shortlist before I decide whether to read any more this year…

Monday, September 08, 2008

From A to X - John Berger

  • We are allowed access to the letters sent from A’ida to Xavier during his time in prison.  We are eavesdroppers in their story - trying to build a picture of their lives despite the non-chronological order of the letters and the lack of responses from Xavier.  We cannot know everything, we are asked to read between the lines.  We must bring our own contribution to this story.  Berger demonstrates the principle of show not tell at its very best.  
  • Everyday events are interspersed with feelings and thoughts.  This is true communication - the art of letter writing, of love.   It is writing to share life experiences, however mundane.  Love is so tangible in these letters - perhaps proving that absence does make the heart grow fonder, perhaps such passionate expressions of love could only be shared through a letter rather than face to face.  
  • The troubles in their country are inherent and referred to but never dominate and aren’t explained or justified or attacked - and they gain power for that.  A’ida shields Xavier from the harsher truths, sometimes only offering him news that will comfort him.  She writes the harder things for herself, but they remain unsent.  
  • There are many striking moments that will stay with me for a long time - images and events that A’ida describes, like flying with Xavier, the isolation, the height and defying gravity.  Berger captures the sensuality of this woman so well.  One of my favourite letters was the one where she is eating blackcurrants and spotting small snails.
  • Collected quotes - ‘He walked several hundred metres down the road to one of the ancient ruins, where a window-frame was still a window-frame, even if there was no glass, and a chair was still a chair with two legs missing.  There he found in an outhouse what he was looking for - a broom.’ and ‘I take a small bite for both of us.  The baked wheat flour and almond dust, sweet and a little greasy, lines the top of the palette, it sticks to the curved roof of the mouth, whilst below, on the floor, on our tongue lie tiny fragments of roasted nut to shift between the teeth and bite into.’
  • My favourite Booker read so far - 8 out of 10 snails

Sunday, September 07, 2008

and now for a short break

I’ve not read a lot of short story collections - but over recent years I’ve dipped into Hanif Kureishi, Anne Enright, Bernard Schlink, Ian McEwan, and Franz Kafka among others. Only two short story books have had any lasting impression on me - The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (Yann Martel) and The Bloody Chamber (Angela Carter). At best I find I am no sooner getting involved in a short story before it has ended. I often find little connection between the stories in a collection and they appear randomly bundled together, with quite a few appearing as padding. At worst a story can read as little more than a writing exercise that should never have gone any further than the authors notebook.

My aim with Short Story Summer was to immerse myself more fully in the form and to try to break down my barriers to enjoyment. And I feel I have succeeded. And I think the shift has come due to my redefining what I hope to get from the stories. The best analogy is the album versus the compilation. I am a fan of both, but there is a time and a place for each. If I want a complete piece, which hopefully speaks as a whole and shows progression throughout I will opt for an album by an artist. If I want variety, and am willing to accept that some tracks will be great, others less so I would choose a compilation. And this is how the short stories have worked for me. Reading them alongside novels means that if I want a sustained reading session, picking up familiar characters and plot and places I will reach for the novel. If I want a quick fix of something new I will read a couple of stories. I’ve also learned to look for my own themes to tie the collections together, and once I’ve found these the stories have felt more satisfying.

I’m not done with my journey into the land of the short story - I’m halfway through Dave Eggers at the moment, but for now, these are the ones I’ve read -

Margaret Atwood - Moral Disorder

I broke myself in gently by reading a collection by an author I like. Atwood has also chosen to unite her stories by having them revolve around one central character - meeting her at different times and places in her life. Many stories focus on relationships with friends, lovers, parents, siblings, children and animals. I particularly enjoyed ones about houses lived in and the movements between them, her as a teenage literature lover, and reading the morning news. Atwood offers vignettes of a life - some are familiar to me as a reader some not so, but the way she portrays them allows me a level of access and recognition to each.

‘She was particularly apprehensive about doors, and about who might come through them.’

Andre Dubus - Dancing After Hours

This was the most striking of the three collections I read. Dubus writes with precise, tight prose. Sentences are sparing with each word carefully placed. The stories focus closely on people and particularly their feelings. Bodies thriving and failing featured often. He seemed especially strong when writing from the female viewpoint. Three of the stories feature the same character - as if Dubus can’t quite bear to let her go. The stories are fragile, heartbreaking, uplifting and poetic. Some of the stories feel as though they are written backwards - you know what the big conclusion is going to be from the start, but the pleasure is in seeing how you get there.

‘…feared scattered her grief: it lay beside her, hovered behind her. Shards of it stayed in her body; she could touch the places they pierced in her brain and heart.’

Gina Ochsner - People I Wanted to Be

There is unreality amid the everyday in these stories - the magical sits alongside the mundane. It’s almost supernatural but never in an intentionally scary way - Ochsner’s ghosts are household ghosts. Stories focus on the missing and the lost - and some people are lost even when they are firmly present. There is a sadness and a resigned tone to many of the stories. The eastern European settings and characters in some stories seems to reinforce this. Again there are repetitions in the collection as a whole - mostly in tone, but I couldn’t help but smile as for the fourth time I read about a fish being filled with oil - once in a bath, once on a bus.

‘In Archangel he’d gotten into a face-slapping contest with a priest. When a clear victor could not be decided, the priest has stabbed Niels in the hand with a holy bird feather carved out of ice.’

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Girl in a Blue Dress - Gaynor Arnold

  • They say don’t judge a book by it’s cover - but I think its important to like something you are going to hold in your hands for a few days. And I don’t like this, the blue is too blue, that silver ‘nomination declaration’ looks tacky and was clearly added at the last minute and the paper quality is quite poor, it almost feels a bit vanity press. I know that Tindal Street is a small independent publisher but I don’t recall that What Was Lost from last year looked this bad.
  • I thought the parts about the public grief and mourning and mass funeral of Alfred Gibson were quite interesting as they seemed very current with the ways the public has claimed a share of private grief and the nature of celebrity.
  • There was a dated feel to the prose. I wonder if this is inevitable or intentional? either way I didn’t really like it. If I wanted to read a Dickensian novel I would read Dickens. Which brings me to another gripe about this - I think that fictionalised accounts of real people can be great novels - but I would prefer it to be one thing or the other - call him Dickens if he is meant to be Dickens, not something else but acknowledging at the end that its mostly Dickens. It just seems slightly lacking in balls to go all the way.
  • I liked the focus on the woman behind the great man. The pull of the family versus the spouse versus the public. The sacrifices that are made in the name of art. And questions about how good liberated thinking really is. How possible is it to commit to one when you are loved by many?
  • Another novel that seems to be an individuals account of their life, through time, writing wrongs and seeking understanding and forgiveness.
  • Collected quote - ‘I have to confess to a certain mute rebellion as I poured half the tea away in the potted ferns, and gave the biscuits to the dog or, when the dog refused, threw them on the fire, where they burned with a resentful glow.’
  • Just an ok read - rather longwinded, with lots of quite repetitive dialogue and nothing very striking. It read a quite a thorough piece of research, with a little speculation thrown in, but fell rather flat in the telling, which was rather disappointing seeing as it was about a key literary figure. 5 out of 10 cups of tea

The Secret Scripture - Sebastian Barry

  • I call this chewy prose. I need to read it slowly, to savour it, at times to read parts aloud to hear the words dissolve in the air to get their full impact. To me it’s no surprise that this is published by Faber & Faber, I associate them with the more poetic end of prose.
  • Roseanne has a nostalgic voice that I could listen to for hours. She is hypnotic and lulls me into a pleasing dreamlike state.
  • Collected quotes - ‘There was a curious skein of whiteness on her features, like a sprinkle of halfhearted snow on a roadside. Perhaps it was a powder she used. The sunlight that they day outside virtually dumped into the room had betrayed it.’ and ‘…it all gathered together like a sea, the sea of Bet, and rose up from the depths of our history, the seabed of all we were, in a great wave, and crashed down on the greying shore of myself, engulfed me, and would that it had washed me away for good.’
  • I like the duet that the two narratives create. Dr. Grene isn’t all knowing despite his power and position and Roseanne fills in the gaps for us. Although at times their voices sound rather too alike considering their difference in age and circumstance, this seems rather unlikely. There is a confessional tone, it feels like they are speaking directly to the reader. This seems quite common in Irish literature.
  • There is a gothic tone to this novel. Rat catchers, grave diggers, orphanages, asylums, ghostly phonecalls and windswept beaches. It is the second book in a row to feature a hanging.
  • The relationship between psychiatrist and patient seems a popular one - and if it’s done well it’s one I enjoy. A good example for me was 98 Reasons for Being (Clare Dudman) while one that didn’t work was The Other Side of You (Salley Vickers).
  • This would have been higher up in my 2008 Booker favourites were it not for the ending - which came so suddenly and felt so contrived as to leave me with nothing but an ‘oh’ of disappointment! 7 out of 10 falling feathers

A Case of Exploding Mangoes - Mohammed Hanif

  • The humour (which seems to be one of its selling points) didn’t really appeal to me - at times I felt like I was watching an episode of ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mom’ with my parents - they are laughing, I know it’s funny, but I can’t quite bring myself to laugh.
  • Mostly the humour revolves around - hierarchy, procedure, religion and sex and toilets. Ineffectual men and dominant women (The First Lady was my favourite character!). Petty inner rivalries. At times I am reminded of Catch 22. I wonder what we are meant to gain from reading this book - is satire meant to carry a serious message or just to entertain?
  • A lot of the book revolves around knocking people down to size - important people make to look stupid and vice versa.
  • I liked the sections told from the perspective of Shigri more than those of Zia. Perhaps because he is the downtrodden one, and we gain more personal access to his feelings. I also likes the way the dual narratives steadily came together to a conclusive meeting point.
  • Hanif has a good eye to detail, which makes for some decent pieces of prose, I’d like to see what he does with a more straight novel, as this didn’t really appeal to me.
  • ‘The scribbling on the walls is in three language and the writers have used a variety of materials. I can read two of the languages, the third I have to guess. I can make out the etchings done with nails. The dried rust is probably blood, and I don’t wan to think what else they might have used.’
  • 5 out of 10 canny crows

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Clothes on their Backs - Linda Grant

  • A novel with a strong focus on seeking to know and understand personal identity - which comes through both the clothes people choose to wear and their ties to their family and background. Vivien grows up by learning her place within her family and within its secrets.
  • The clothes theme ran throughout - a gentle but persistent theme can work very well, and tie the novel together as whole. In this it reminded me of the previous Booker nomination Sixty Lights (Gail Jones). Clothes are like fashionable archaeology, uncovering layers to discover what lies beneath - the clothes tell you as much, if not more, when they are vacated as when worn.
  • I enjoyed the parts about Benson Court as I have lived in a block of flats its fair share of eccentrics and lives overseen.
  • Collected quotes - ‘Without her, he filled himself up with the gas of his own thoughts and floated off into another dimension.’ & ‘A woman passed in an electric blue sequined gown and matching shoes whose sequins had been stuck on the white silk with glue and they fell away from her as she walked, leaving a trail like blue dandruff.’
  • Characters were individual, well drawn and warm. The story within a story worked well, we learn of the life of Sandor through his dictation to Vivien. I liked the 70’s London setting. At times the prose felt a little clunky, but when Grant was on form it flowed well.
  • My favourite Booker ’08 read so far - 7 out of 10 hangers

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Lost Dog - Michelle de Kretser

  • The eponymous dog is lost early on, and perhaps I would run away from Tom too given the chance? The writing reminded me of Edward St. Aubyn and John Banville in that I liked the writing but not necessarily the characters
  • Tom being an art loving writer allowed for some striking prose as we see his world through his eye. [‘The air over the paddocks was a substance between liquid and paper. It held, on the horizon, the trace of a mountain: a watercolour blotted while wet into almost blankness.’] Although as the novel drew on I found the writing overly rich and at times cloying.
  • We visit India again, this time from a distance, framed through childhood memory. We also briefly witness the event of 9/11 - interesting how many contemporary novels now mention that day.
  • Nelly hoards strange items in her gallery and sometimes this book reminded me of her collections. A beguiling jumble that delights but keeps its overall purpose vague.
  • The art scene scenes irritated me. Perhaps artists are interesting on their own but put them together and they easily annoy. (Art based book I liked = Port Mungo (Patrick McGrath), art based book I didn’t = Life Class (Pat Barker)) But I liked the man and dog stuff, and the man and mother stuff, and would have preferred to focus more on these.
  • Tom is defined largely through his relations with others, his mother, Nelly, his friends, acquaintances, colleagues but perhaps most importantly by his friendship with the dog - ‘Love without limits was reserved for his own species. To display great affection for an animal invariably provoked censure. Tom felt ashamed to admit to it. It was judged excessive: overflowing a limit that was couched as a philosophical distinction, as the line that divided the rational, human creature from all others. Animals, deemed incapable of reason, did not deserve the same degree of love.’ 7 out of 10 orange knots

Thursday, August 07, 2008

The White Tiger - Aravind Adiga

As previously threatened I am abandoning the traditional review - these are the notes I made as I read, they create a vague impression of how I responded to the novel.

  • Pleasing matt finish sleeve and bright white pages.
  • Reads almost like a monologue, anecdotal, confessional. Adiga, and through him, Balram are great storytellers. They keep the narrative lively and flowing.
  • I like the way the chapters are the consecutive nights on which Balram sends his email - this creates a strong sense of time passing.
  • Animals important throughout. Is this a theme for this years Booker nominees as I notice they appear in some of the other books? is there any animal lover on the judging panel?
  • Do my first Booker reads always have a penis fixation? Last year it was the Irish length courtesy of Anne Enright this year Balram’s ever mentioned beak!
  • Reminders of The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Animal’s People and Shantaram.
  • Collected quotes -
    ‘things that drop into your mind, like lizards from the ceiling, in the half-hour before falling asleep’
    ‘stamping on the goat turds which had spread like a constellation of black stars on the ground.’
  • This is scratch and sniff India. That familiar chewing of paan and spitting of red juices but making a new kind of mess this time. Not the best Indian novel I’ve read (which would probably be something by Raj Kamal Jha) but far from the worst. Six out of ten silver whistles!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

the wheat from the chaff

The Booker judges caught us by surprise this year by announcing the longlist just after 2 p.m. I quickly made myself a coffee and then scooted through the list, cross checking prices at my favoured online booksellers and placing orders for the ones I fancy reading. Initial impressions are that I haven’t managed to bag any bargains like I did last year - prices quite uniform across my sellers. Bookrabbit has come out well on price on three of my chosen titles, and if their delivery speed is up to their usual standard I should be reading the first of these titles before the end of the week.

First to get those I haven’t ordered out of the way -

Gaynor Arnold - Girl in a Blue Dress

John Berger - From A to X

both of which are not yet released. I like the sound of the Berger, but the Arnold sounds a little reminiscent of the dreaded Winnie and Wolf.

Joseph O’Neill - Netherland

Salman Rushdie - The Enchantress of Florence

I’ve read reviews of both of these in the LRB. I’ve never read any Rushdie and perhaps I’m wrong to dismiss him without trying, but this doesn’t sound the best place for me to start. And I read the Netherland review only yesterday, and finished by saying aloud ‘that sounds like just the sort of book that used to be on the Booker list’. I simply don’t think I’m programmed to enjoy a cricket novel!

Steve Toltz - A Fraction of the Whole

Philip Hensher - The Northern Clemency

Both of these look quite good (and John Self’s review of the first didn’t totally put me off) but they are so hefty I don’t know if I can bring myself to make that kind of commitment.

Tom Rob Smith - Child 44

And I might / probably / perhaps get this one later on. But it just looks a bit too much like a cheap thriller to me. Hopefully someone will review it and change my mind.

So, having dismissed over half the list already, the ones I have ordered and am looking forward to receiving are -

Aravind Adiga - The White Tiger

Sebastian Barry -The Secret Scripture

Michelle de Kretser - The Lost Dog

Amitav Ghosh - Sea of Poppies

Linda Grant - The Clothes on Their Backs

Mohammed Hanif - A Case of Exploding Mangoes

back on the branch

My desk calendar for 2008 comes from the marvellous Audubon Society. Each day a wonderful and often weird bird appears. Today, most appropriately is a kingfisher. But not just any kingfisher, gone is the familiar green of our U.K. friend. Especially apt as I plan to slightly redefine the purpose of The Kingfisher Scrapbook.

I’ve come to realise that whilst I love reading, and love reading about books, I don’t particularly enjoying writing about them. Or more specifically I don’t enjoy trying to write objective reviews. I don’t like re-capping the plot, or trying to give a fair overview of what a novel is trying to do. I am an analogy addict and I prefer to wrap up my opinions in a variety of unlikely metaphors. I like to say why I like or dislike a book with little regard as to whether that information is helpful or accurate or interesting to anyone else.

Later this afternoon I shall be thoroughly abusing my F5 key as I wait for the Booker Longlist to be announced. I will then peruse the list and grab any titles I like the look of. [I’m trying not to fall into another Winnie and Wolf trap this year, and order something I don’t like the look of, only to quit it 50 pages in and feel bad about it!] Over the coming weeks I will share my reactions to those books here, but possibly in a slightly different form than recent years.

Most Booker Prize titles are hardbacks. I find hardbacks by nature hard. They are heavy to take out of the house and have sharp and awkward corners, risky for reading in bed. As such I like to read a more friendly paperback alongside the Booker books to fill those book-needy moments where a hardback won’t fit. This summer I’ve decided to challenge a long held distrust - the short story. I’ve never been too sure of the form, and have read very few short story collections that I’ve really liked. I think I am a person that needs to be thoroughly immersed in a story, and no sooner have they begun than they have ended. But I have gathered a selection of collections and am keen to see whether I can break through my barrier. So let Short Story Summer commence with one of the following -

Sunday, May 11, 2008

the good the bad and the postscript

I don’t have many memories of bedtime storytelling from my childhood. It’s not that my parents were neglectful, I just wasn’t particularly interested in books until my mid teens. I do remember my father reading tales of The Secret Seven to me when I was in hospital with a broken leg. But no abundance of early fairytale flavoured memories.

But when I read Jeanette Winterson I feel like I’m remembering that feeling. That primitive need to be absorbed and entertained by a crazy tale. And Lighthousekeeping is a great one. Like a vine in an enchanted forest it loops and tangles. Sometimes it catches my ankle and trips me up. Sometimes it cradles me in its coils and lets me dream.

‘It was an uncomfortable place; the wind screeched at the windows, a hammock was half the price of a bed, and a bed was twice the price of a good night’s sleep. The food was mountain mutton that tasted like fencing, or hen tough as a carpet, that came flying in, all a-squawk behind the cook, who smartly broke its neck.’

And the fact that it’s sea based is icing on the cupcake. I think that sea based novels are creeping up to sit on the pedestal previously reserved for cold-based novels.

‘…I am splintered by great waves. I am coloured glass from a church window long since shattered. I find pieces of myself everywhere, and I cut myself handling them.’

Other books fall short of the pedestal. The Other Side of You was one of those books that I finish yet remain unsure whether I enjoyed it or not. What I do know is that Salley Vickers (who I can’t resist calling Salty Knickers!) always surprises me. For some reason I expect her to write novels that are one step up from chick-lit, but actually she writes intelligent and dense stories. And that the relationship between a psychiatrist and patient makes for an interesting novel - although I have read better versions of the story, with Clare Dudman’s 98 Reasons for Being and Patrick McGrath’s Asylum springing to mind. And that while I like novels that refer to characters love of particular artists, I didn’t feel particularly interested by all the talk of Caravaggio. Perhaps you have to like the artist referred to if you are to enjoy the novel? But that my main problem was the narrator. His tone irritated me throughout and I struggled to maintain sympathy with him. This reminded me of how I feel when I read John Banville.

Both novels had one of those P.S. sections at the back where they put an author interview, lists of recommended books, and essays about aspects of the novel. In Winterson’s I was charmed to read,

‘I wanted to pile stories on top of stories, like bedcovers for a cold night.’

While I found myself quite irritated with Ms Vickers own written voice, so perhaps my tone problem shouldn’t be blamed on her character alone? Its nothing personal, she probably wouldn’t like me either!.

Monday, March 24, 2008

winter is for women

The Kingfisher has been quiet of late. It’s not that I’ve not been reading, just that what I’ve read hasn’t encouraged me to say much about it. Until last week, and Wintering - an engaging, researched and accomplished book in which Kate Moses tells the story of the last few months of Sylvia Plath. I thought the book was excellent but was left with questions jumping off the page and demanding further thought, if not answers.

Striking throughout the novel is the tone of the writing , which to me has a strong Plath influence running through it - perhaps inevitable when trying to share her inner thoughts with the reader? But it made me think about whether writers think in the same way as which they write. I’m not sure that I do. I also wondered if the novel wasn’t a convenient outlet for Moses Plathesque ramblings. I wavered between thoroughly enjoying the book, and feeling a little disservice to the dead at fictionalizing / fantasizing what Sylvia might have thought and felt.

‘It is the black husk of another life that blows through her: the cold planetary blank of the crawl space, lightless beneath her mother’s cellar; the flaking of dead stars into her eye as she bashes her head against the edge of the concrete foundation.’

At times I felt as if I was reading a work of parallel fiction (by which a novel refers wholly or in part to another character or work of fiction - e.g. Wicked (Maguire) and March (Brooks) - both of which I liked). This is probably due to the mythology that has grown around Plath, at times turning her into a character more than a real individual. It was both comforting and disappointing to know from the start how the book would ultimately end - that Sylvia would never finish all those jars of carefully hoarded honey.

‘The ruin of winter. Sylvia feels the scrape of those words inside her, efficient and deadly. It’s not the abundance in her life that makes her uneasy; it’s the idea of loss that exists alongside, like some terrible hibernating animal nested within her walls.’

I am fascinated by novels that refer to other literary characters or authors, but I am torn between thinking it’s skilful to add new dimensions to a familiar story or perhaps a little lazy. When does this kind of novel cross the boundary into the realms of hero worship and fall into the pit of fan fiction? I think Kate Moses falls on the right side of most of these fine lines, but I wonder if a less skilled novel attempting to do the same could be an utter mess.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

a handful of murmurs

The other day I mentioned how hard it is to resist the lure of the newest books on my to-be-read shelf. There are exceptions to this rule. Those books that I let gather a welcome coating of dust, because I don’t want to read them too soon, to savour the pleasure of looking forward to them.

The Haiku Year is such a book. A personal pledge between seven friends that made it into the public sphere. I waited about 5 years after its publication before I bought a copy, and as long again before I read it. But I began it early this year, and it’s proved to be well worth the wait.

Every new year I make a repeated resolution to read more poetry. Deep down I feel sure it will open my eyes wider to the world around me and in turn enrich my own writing. The introduction of this book makes a similar call to arms. It also gently disclaims -

‘We never intended for these to be published, they were just little gifts to one another across space.’

Haiku is about saying a lot in a few words. As such I don’t want to overburden the little green book with a wordy review. Suffice instead to share a few of my personal highlights. And a little picture - there are many like this throughout the book - those little scraps, tickets, packets that we pass over mostly without noticing.

While I can’t necessarily relate to the circumstances of some of these haiku as many are strongly of their moment and place which is far from mine, I can relate to the desire to hold onto those moments as they pass, and to share them with select friends.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

the time machine

I claim to prefer contemporary novels. But perhaps I got more than I bargained for with Graffiti My Soul. In a settled but largely soulless Surrey town it tells the story of Veerapen and his friends, who resemble the kids from Black Swan Green grown up and a few years before they turn into the cast of Trainspotting.

‘Like fruit pickers, we’re seasonal. Summer is no good for our fun. We work better in the darkness of winter. One kid’s terrifying gloom is another kid’s safety net.’

Niven Govinden uses chapters of varying length and subtle shifts in time to build a picture of teenage life. We see Veerapen with his dad before his parents separation, supporting his mum through the lonely days that follow, we see him with various girlfriends, various male friends, with teachers and his running coach. The pieces fall both before and after the pivotal moment of the death of Moon Suzuki, the main object of his affection.

Govinden skilfully portrays both the inner and outer selves that Veerapen battles daily to unify. His struggle to settle into a singular version of himself was one of the most engaging and memorable elements of the novel. He makes a believable teenager - obsessed with girls, boys, sport, music and clothes - family bonds in the process of stretching but not quite breaking.

‘Flower-print normality papered over giant worry cracks; nothing fooling no one.’

This is a sharply British novel, acutely of the moment, liberally peppered with references to popular culture - myspace, i-pods, txting, happy slapping, pro-ana and even a passing reference to ‘insania’! And perhaps here lies its inherent weakness. Will these references mean anything to a reader who comes to this novel in 10 or 15 years time, or will the majority of the text be as incomprehensible as most small town graffiti?