Saturday, 29 January 2011

My Gripe with Greene

"You have to read Graham Greene," he said, "he's the greatest writer that ever lived!"
(Really, I was thinking, is he really the greatest writer that ever lived? There are a couple of others in the running.) So I said: "Really?"
"Yes," came the reply, with a stern nod, "better than Shakespeare."

Well, that's quite a hard sell. What could I do but procrastinate for a few months and then grudgingly get the sneeze-ridden copy of Brighton Rock from the library? Various people - including this particular 'he'- had been hounding me about Graham Greene for ages. And then I found out Rowan Joffé was remaking a film version that I wanted to see, and if there's one thing I have to do it's read the damn book before the film.

Besides, I have been enjoying an imaginary love affair with Brighton for a while now. It was about time I got to know it properly. Just lately it keeps coming up - there are people living there, running away from or moving towards it that I know. In my naive human pattern-finding nature, it rather feels like something is drawing me to move there, or maybe visit it again.

In my other posts I have managed to find the exact copy I read as the picture, but it turns out that Bath Spa University is so retro that the 1970's hardback cover they have is not around anymore. This rather fetching Penguin cover (which has been made into mugs, thermos flasks and even deckchairs by the ever-enterprising publishers) will, unfortunately, have to do. Still, I can't deny there isn't something wonderful about old Penguin paperbacks - indeed I have a framed collage of classic front covers in my flat. (That was a single girl's evening well spent...)

So let's move on: what exactly did I make of the greatest writer that ever lived? Well, it was moody. Really rather moody - I loved the atmosphere, the noir elements, the claustrophobic feel of a seaside town. Pinkie - the young leader of a violent gang (do you get non-violent gangs?) - is a brooding, malicious boy you can't help but feel you're rooting for. It's a bit like the spectator bloodthirst at a boxing match; you're egging him on, with almost no regard for the gravity and violence of his actions. So swept up was I with his irresistible egotism that I found myself callously deducing who had to die next. The drastic measures of covering up a messy murder are so well portrayed, you become a murderer yourself.

Before you all run to your 'delete friend' buttons, I can assure you that I'm not a violent person. It's one reason I thought I wouldn't like this book - so the premise is a group of lads rattling around and knifing each other? No thanks. But it has so much more to it - least of all Pinkie's bizzare repulsion to affection and sex. At first, I didn't believe it. His character is meant to be a boy of seventeen, who clearly has enough testosterone to kill someone in cold blood, but he feels complete abhorrence when it comes to physical intimacy. Is he a psychopath, with no feeling? I have never met a seventeen-year-old (male or female) who would rather never have sex. I guess that is what makes him so interesting - that and the layers of twisted reason behind his repulsion.

Eventually, though, I believed in his character passionately. And I'm not saying that everyone is an instinctual, one-dimension processor: complexity is human nature. But there was something amiss in Graham Greene's novel, I thought - and that was the accuracy of women.

There are two main female characters in Brighton Rock: Ida, whose loose behaviour and sexual morals leave a lot to be desired, and Rose, whose Roman-Catholic upbringing have left her somewhat vanilla in nature. I didn't like either of them - not that you have to - and I didn't like the way they were written. Ida is a big-hearted and bosomed mother figure, who is also a terrible busybody. The image that is conjured of her is too easy I thought - a bubbly, rotund woman with a large sexual appetite. Rose is, of course, a great contradiction: frigid, plain, grey and bleak. I think what I objected to most was that Rose just lets Pinkie walk all over her. I was angry at her passivity, her stupidity.Were there really women like that in the 1930s? I expect so, but to my modern pride it seemed, if not unrealistic, then just frustrating.

Greene's men are spot-on - intiguing, complex characters who draw you in for all reasons. But as the whole book is so masculine anyway, I felt he could have spent more time on the nuances of female behaviour. God knows we've got enough of them.

I'd like other women to read Brighton Rock and let me know if I'm alone here. Looking back, I realised that the majority of recommendations were from men after all, and I know Greene is a very laddish author to read. Perhaps my sensitivity is getting the better of me, and I should just enjoy a good old-fashioned crime novel with fisticuffs.

I did like the ending, though. I thought it was absolutely perfect - that balance of suggestion and knowledge in the reader's mind that let's you play out the final scene all on your own. Can't fault Greene one iota for that.

After this, I moved on to another musty library book, which I must quickly mention before the clock strikes midnight and my blog title is null and void. My father is a huge Aldous Huxley fan, so I attempted to read Time Must Have a Stop. I wouldn't say this is trendy to read - unlike the Graham Greene, which seems almost to be used as a pick-up line these days by English Lit freshers - but Huxley is an author that can't be ignored. I embarked on this novel with a daft sense of science fiction about it (I think it was the title reminding me of Time's Arrow and Timequake) and was only slightly disappointed when I realised it was nothing of the sort.

I love Huxley's wry sense of humour, and painful wringing of reality. The torments of the main character Sebastian are exactly the awkward, selfish worries of (another) seventeen-year-old. This young man is a poet, you see, and all the bashful (but arrogant) sensitivities that come along with it. How he squirms in social situations, and how he constantly stumbles around making faux pas, are a wonderful testament to the type of person I know rather well. That is to say, there were plenty of things about his slightly dislikeable character that I recognised in myself.

But, oh the pace of it dragged like hell! Some plot points you could see coming for miles like a belisha beacon, and getting there was a very slow boat ride indeed. There are also several chapters written from the point of view of someone who has died, and it all gets a bit abstract for me. To give you a taste, here is a sentence:

"The blueness brightened up towards a purer incandescence, the music modulated from significance through heightened significance into the ultimate perfection of silence."

There are whole chapters written like this. When the first happened, I stuck it out, assuming it was the only chapter written like that. But when another popped up a few pages later, I have to admit I did an awful thing and ignored it completely, having perservered for an hour on the other chapter and understanding nothing. The rest of the book had some great moments of irony - almost making it worth it, but not quite.

But I do want you to read Aldous Huxley. And the book I want you to read instead is After the Fireworks - a novella I read a few months ago and completely adored. It's a much better example of his prowess as a writer, and you'll whizz through it in a matter of days. I would love to tell you more, but it is getting late, and I wouldn't want my recommendation to sound crude, especially given the subject matter. But look I've created a link straight through to Amazon, where you can read the brief blurb and decide for yourself. And it is, of course, available from all good bookshops, too. I'd love some company on the long, slow Sunday shift tomorrow.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Two Serious Ladies

Last year at university, I was told I have an unhealthy obsession with dead writers. Specifically, I have to stop reading women who topped themselves. I managed to break this trend only slightly when I came across Jane Bowles, who did not commit suicide, but did suffer from alcoholism which resulted in her early death aged 56. She had a fascinating personal life, too, which I'll come to later. During her lifetime, she published very little - just one novel and some plays, the most famous being In the Summer House. Her single novel, therefore, has a lot of speaking up to do.

For those of you who are interested, the book I am reading in my photo is in fact Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles. I am on a ferry that is leaving the delightfully dull town of New London (we figured it was the American equivilant of Weymouth) and it is, in fact, one of the closest encounters with water I have had for a long time. The ferry was on its way to Long Island, New York, where I stayed with some of the most hospitable people I have ever met. I ate monkey-bread for the first time, fell in love (with monkey-bread) and somebody somewhere took a picture of me swimming in the ocean for the first time in about fifteen years. I have this look of unadulterated terror on my face, but I did it - thanks to the pushy nature of some seriously affluent Americans, a very large iced latte and a belief that 'no' was not an answer.

I think Jane Bowles had a great thing going with her marriage: they were both writers, they were best friends, they had no children, they travelled the world. What's the catch? They were both gay. I genuinely think this is a great idea - you get the companionship without the childbirth. I have to admit, I have no idea what their motivations actually were, but I know that they were relatively happy. Anyway, it put an interesting slant on her backstory before I started to read the book.

Sadly, I think I was more fascinated by her backstory than by the novel itself. Just before I left, this book had been reviewed well which was why I bought it. I can't find the one I originally read, but here is a brief, favourable review from The Guardian. It will tell you more of the direct plot than I can - I lent the book to a friend, and the plot didn't quite impress itself on my mind enough for me to remember it all. I remember it being an interesting travel book, though - especially for the parts of America I was visiting at the time, as New York is where the book begins. Mrs. Copperfield is a somewhat sheltered wife before her eyes are opened to the excitement (and repulsion) of underground culture. She falls in love with a prostitute and, along with her friend Christina Goering, goes through a complete transformation of character.

The humour in this book is incredibly dry and sparse - it did make me laugh, but in the way people who don't really understand Shakespeare laugh when they think they ought to. I was smiling at her cleverness, nodding knowingly at her message for women in society, but I can't genuinely say I enjoyed the novel. I despise myself for this: I really wanted to love it. Usually, I idolise 'one-book-in-a-lifetime' writers, or writers as quirky and avant garde as she is meant to be. But the pace was too slow, and many parts seemed, for me, a bit dated. I persevered, I finished it, but I don't go all gooey-eyed whenever someone mentions it.

I am not saying you shouldn't read it. In fact, this is probably one of those books my mother warned me about - I wasn't in the right frame of mind to enjoy it. People always say that when you hate a book they love, rather than admit that their darling classic might actually be a bore. But I might read this again in a few years and get more out of it, and if I do, I shall let you know.

Now then. Back to that gooey-eyedness. I'd like to talk about another serious lady, namely the only poet to ever come close to displacing Sylvia Plath as my favourite. And, as soon as I lay my hands on the book in question, I will leap into an enthusiastic introduction to her work, and why everyone should read it before she slips out of print. (Unfortunately, I'm experiencing some technical difficulties: you see, my flat is basically a messier, bookier version of Primark, so trying to find a particular book is like trying to find matching underwear in the January sales...)

And there it was, hiding in between some overdue library books. The Selected Poems of Anne Sexton probably affected my writing more than any other book I read last year. I found this battered up copy in Santa Cruz (same trip, different side) and it has been lurking around my reading pile ever since. I keep going back to it, reading it again, picking out single poems, bothering everyone I know with it. Anne Sexton is one of the most underrated and under-read poets of her time; when I realised she was nearly out of print in England I almost called the publishers in outrage. 

Her 'Love Poems' collection (which I have not read, due to my personal allergy to the term) is still available, but the complete and selected works seem to have, mysteriously, fallen by the wayside. I can't find the version I have anywhere, so I have a certain regret for the bottom-of-bag syndrome it has suffered so far. My advice would be to order it from the .com version of a well-known online retailer that I shan't endorse here, or to come into Topping's and see whether the American imports have arrived yet. We do have a copy of 'Transformations' in stock, but you can't have it - I'm buying it tomorrow.

Why do I hold her poetry in such high regard? For starters, Anne Sexton let me fall in love with rhyme again. She has the courage to use rhyme in nearly all her poems, but never in a childish or contrived way - in a beautiful, subtle and inescapable way. Her poems are the natural conclusions to themselves; you are always following her path, thinking her thoughts, and arriving at the same destination. I wouldn't advise her poems for anyone completely new to poetry, or anyone squeamish about the phrase 'confessional'. It does revolve around the themes of self-reflection, depression and female identity - extremely similar to Plath, in many ways, but at the same time distinct and seperate.

Nor would I advise it for anyone afraid of longer poems. Her themed sequences are among her best, but I know many modern readers can't give their attention to much over a page. But if your appetite is saited rather than repelled by a meaty, long-sequenced poem, then I couldn't recommend Sexton more. There is depth, there is truth - there is everything I need poetry to give me. We are constantly writing essays about how a writer has influenced us, and I always find it very hard to put into words. I think it is Sexton's honesty, along with her brave commitment to free verse, that most affected me as a writer. All I know is, when I read her poetry, my poetry listened.

I've picked a smaller poem to share with you, from her earlier collection All My Pretty Ones. I am always intrigued by ekphrasis - the process of responding to art through poetry - and here she narrates one of the most famous paintings by my beloved Van Gogh (below). I saw this painting on my trip, too, which makes it all the more special.

The Starry Night by Anne Sexton

The town does not exist
except where one black-haired tree slips
up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.
The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die.

It moves. They are all alive.
Even the moon bulges in its orange irons
to push children, like a god, from its eye.
The old unseen serpent swallows up the stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die:

into that rushing beast of the night,
sucked up by that great dragon, to split
from my life with no flag,
no belly,
no cry.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

A Deep-Sea Diver is not a Diving Bell

I have been trying to read a few French authors recently in order to make conversation with my new housemate Mariane. I idolise Mariane in the same way you might idolise a strict but wonderful teacher at school, or a powerful, beautiful husky dog in a muzzle. She does have a tendancy for bluntness, which I both fear and love, and is formidably intelligent. I chose her because she was the only prospective housemate who went straight to my bookshelves when she viewed the flat, immediately pulled out Emile Zola and started discussing him. Also, unlike everyone else my age, she does not use 'like' as every other word, and the irritatingly indifferent phrase 'whatever' has not once passed her lips.

She can cook pretty well, too. We have a developed a slightly competitive air in the kitchen, especially if we both cook at the same time, which I don't mind because I am secretly in love with her. Being a bit in love with my housemate seems to be a trend with me; not in a creepy, stalker way (not completely) but in a way that lets me enjoy a healthy, unspoken frisson every time we chop vegetables together.

So, I've read a few French classics, not many, and I wanted to read something a little more modern. I chose The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, partly for its length and partly because people kept buying it at the bookshop. I suppose it isn't surprising at all how much customers affect your reading, but my bank balance when I got the job was certainly surprised. I worked out the other day that - combined with secondhand and online purchases - I spend around a quarter of my earnings on books. It would no doubt be a lot more if I hadn't developed a nose for a good bargain (, a company usually specialising in wank, were selling ten books by Gabriel Garcia Marquez for £9.99, for example).

So started the conversation with Mariane about this book. I was trying to decribe it to her, assuming it was famous in France, but she had no idea what a 'Diving Bell' was (and, I had to admit, neither did I). It didn't help that I was pronouncing the author's name wrong with my clumsy British tongue. Eventually, we came to the understanding that it was Le Scaphandre et le Papillon in French, which directly translates as The Deep-Sea Diver and the Butterfly. Bauby's metaphor, for the trapped mentality of Locked-In Syndrome and the thoughts that take flight in his mind, is much more effective, I think, in the original term. It also changes the meaning: from him as the deep sea diver, to his body as a diving bell. I am certain I am being over-picky about this, but there seems something sacrilegious about changing the title of his memoirs just for a different country's market. But then, publishers do this all the time.

The most unusual thing about this book, and the thing I'd like to avoid mentioning but can't, is that it was written with only the movements of Bauby's left eye to decifer the alphabet. Following a massive stroke, his brain stem was severed and he became paralysed, with only this method of communication left. What I found interesting was that before the development in resuscitation techniques, patients suffering such a severe stroke would simply die. After telling us this in the first pages, there is a distinct echo throughout the book of frustration and bewilderment at his survival. Without a doubt, the doctors made the right and only choice - without which this book wouldn't have been written - but Bauby's longing to live, touch and move again is painful to listen to, and painful to imagine.

It is a book that demands sympathy, but, thankfully, has not been written with gratuitous self-pity. The only reason I ever wavered in this respect was the inklings of his previous life - rather than being a nobody who wrote a remarkable book, he was in fact the very successful chief editor of Elle magazine. Does it make it more sad because he was successful? He also had the chance to write it because he had been commissioned to write another book at the time of the accident. Does that take the spark away? I think my scepticism comes from my connotations of Elle - it reminds me of certain people at school, huddled around the latest fashions while I huddled around Roald Dahl. What is the word for how I am reacting? I have a few, unfavourable ideas.

I can forgive Bauby's popularity in light of his writing. I tried to judge it without the context, which is of course impossible in this case, but there is no escaping the sparse beauty of the prose. There are some wonderfully elegant moments, and the briefness of each chapter creates a poetic feel. If I really like a phrase, sometimes I turn the top corner of the page over; these are some sentences I loved so much I damaged the spine and the page:
"Once I was a master of recyling leftovers. Now I cultivate the art of simmering memories."

And, when describing how his communication of choosing one letter at a time can be misconstrued:
"Yet I understood the poetry of such mind games one day when, attempting to ask for my glasses (lunettes), I was asked what I wanted to do with the moon (lune)."

If you are looking for a similar book in style, structure and originality, I have to urge you (and everyone you know) to read Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman. I found this book in America and devoured it one rainy afternoon in a Boston hostel bunk-bed. My travelling companion (the one who now lives in Sweden) had left the holiday a week early, so I was left to my own devices. For three weeks we had travelled from city to city in glorious sunshine, and now I was alone, it rained eternally. I got a lot of reading done, though, and made a big dent in the twenty-something books I bought from City Lights in San Francisco the week before. When I came back to England, I recommended Alan Lightman so heartily I sold three in a week, including the copy I had lovingly written a book review on.

Such is the feeling when that happens that the book review was probably the best review I had ever written, and I will never match that wit, insight and depth again. So I didn't write another, and I stopped recommending it because we had sold out, but I have to revive the suggestion because it is one of the best books I read last year. How to describe it? Well, Lightman attempts to explain Einstein's perception of possible universes by making each one into a short story, or chapter. They are written as dreams that the scientist records into his diary before arriving at his grand theory of relativity. It therefore shows a thought-process, a creative way of explaining scientific theory, a poetry of science.

Don't switch off at the mention of science! This is a truly beautiful book, and deserves your attention. The stories each revolve around a similar setting but with one fundamental change that highlights the alternative universe: it might be a circular universe, where people are forced to relive their mistakes and virtues, or a universe in which the centre of time stands still and parents and lovers float in an unmoving reality. I cannot express the scope of the book, only that each section seems to be a completely original take on his subject. There is no sense of repetition (unless it is the effect Lightman desires), and no sense of weaker chapters. After all, with Einstein as your muse - I believe Lightman used his diary as source material - there is surely no limit to the strength of your ideas.

If the way I have described it is complicated, then I am being misleading. Although I have a thirst for simple scientific knowledge, I won't pretend that I understand Einstein's theory at all. You don't need to. The book stands alone as creative fiction, and is so interesting in itself that someone with no knowledge of science could enjoy the characters and snap-shot stories alone. It is also irresistibly poetic, almost prose-poetic, in places. I whizzed through it in a matter of hours (too fast - savour it longer), and it left me feeling light-headed and thoughtful. Gave me some pretty wild dreams, too. It is a book that evokes a certain mystical feel that lingers with you afterward, just like waking from a vivid dream.

It is an American book, unavailable in the mainstream UK, but I have ordered some more copies for Topping's should anyone be interested. Who knows, I might even write another (shorter) review and plonk it on the paperback table.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Inspiring Ishiguro

The title of this post comes from those horrid ice-breaker games that teachers always seem to play at the beginning of a new class - pick an adjective that describes you and alliterates with your name. I am always screwed when this comes up, as I have a firm belief that there is literally NO adjective in the world that accurately describes me, which also alliterates with my name. Risque Rachel? Ravishing? Rancid? Ridiculous? Perhaps. Any better suggestions would be greatly appreciated. I usually plump for the unadventurous - but accurate - description of 'Red Rachel', which probably gives everyone in the class the inaccurate impression that I don't know adjectives over one syllable, and that I don't have any personality traits other than my hair.

(The best one I've ever heard, by the way, was a chap who introduced himself to his first Psychology class as 'Misanthropic Michael'. I mean, you've got to have balls to do that.)

So I've decided to deal my first author the same treatment, and found there to be quite a fitting word for Kazuo Ishiguro. The book I've read recently is Never Let Me Go, although I must touch briefly on his latest collection of short stories Nocturnes.

This was a book that I accidentally gave away to a man I had nothing in common with. I don't often go on 'dates' - I am pretty bad at the whole social interaction thing at the best of times, let alone with complete strangers who want to take your clothes off. But on this occassion, a tall, dark, handsome man had walked into the bookshop, brave as butter, and asked me out there and then. My boss was right next to me, so I thought it might be rude to say no. Besides, he was very good-looking.

So I did it. I went on a date with a real, live man, and tried to do all the normal things people do. I asked him about his family and job. He had a pretty interesting family, as it happens (but the way he spoke about his crazy, creative sister made me want to date her), and his job, although not what I would like to do, was pretty impressive. I say that, but I've completely forgotten what it was it now. Anyway, I also asked about literature, music and the arts, as you do. This was where we had the problem.

The first clue was when he hadn't heard of Modigliani, Toulouse-Lautrec or Mondrian. He thought they were writers, which I can forgive. But when I asked him what his favourite album was he came out with 'Sailing to Philadelphia' by Mark Knopfler. "You know, as in Dire Straits," he said. Dire straits indeed, I thought. Then I asked him what books he liked to read, and that's when he said, "In my opinion, not enough books have pictures."

That's when I knew. Conincidentally, that's also about the same time I started drinking my wine a little faster.

Anyway, I had just finished Nocturnes, it was still in my bag, and I hate to see a grown man with absolutely no knowledge of contemporary literature. So I gave it to him, carefully describing the pictures that Ishiguro paints with words, and how a collection of short stories is surprisingly easy to read. It was a beautiful collection, I thought: slow-paced, meditative but full of emotional reverberation. I love it when a writer weaves a theme into their collections, and music and nightfall are themes so well matched to the descriptive style of Ishiguro's writing it felt like the most natural choice in the world. It wasn't ground-breaking, I said, and certainly not his best work, but it's worth reading as an introduction to his style.

I'd lost him, by this point, and it was he who was drinking his wine a little faster.

But the book was taken, obviously understood as a non-returnable deposit on our relationship, a bit like when  an estate agent charges you for miscellaneous admin fees. And so I never saw him again, and that was the last time I saw my own copy of Ishiguro.

I'd learnt my lesson. This time I borrowed Never Let Me Go from the library, so I couldn't accidentally give it away. I gulped it down in two days - a sign of the exceptional writing, and also how convincing his alternative future is. Quite simply, I got lost in it. Everything, from the setting to the characters, is so utterly possible that you are left struggling with the dilemmas in the novel as if they were your own.

I will try not to be vague, but I want to establish that I read this novel without knowing anything about it, and without even reading the blurb, and so I pieced together the full horror of the ending along with the main character, Kathy. I think you should read it this way, too. I didn't want to know what the true purpose of her life was - and neither did she - and the subtle revelation of truth is just enough to give you an unsteady glimpse into the future. I liked this blind way of reading - others might not. I know many people who prefer to have an obvious subtext, but I thrive on ambiguity. There are several digressions, too, (much like my own writing), which I have no problem with, but others might find a little frustrating. If it helps, I can assure you that each thread is picked up, even when you think it's lost.

If there's one thing you absolutely cannot fault, it's the strength of the voice. It's written with confidence and consistency, with those little nuances of Ishiguro's writing that make it unique. The poetic description, for example, but also the observation of human behaviour. Kathy observes people in a very close way, always trying to second-guess their motives and emotions. As a writer, I find that fascinating. I kept stopping to reflect on what I had learnt, particularly with the group dynamics of children. The picked-on boy who flies into a violent rage ends up dating his tormentor - that fundamental childhood truth that bullies secretely desire their victims.

This close observation continues into Kathy's adult life, and you realise what an intelligent, astute person she is. Far too intelligent and astute for what will eventually become of her.

I want you to read this book. It is uncomfortable, but rewarding. I don't trust myself to say anymore without giving the game away, but I will say this: I urge you to read it before you watch the film. I was excited to hear about the adaptation at first - it is written almost like a screenplay already, in places - until I learnt that the spade-faced Keira Knightley would be featured. Slightly more relieved was I to hear that she would play Ruth, the overbearing and often cruel friend that completes a love triangle between Kathy and Tommy. When I realised this, I softened a little. To play Kathy would require a delicate execution, and an ability to express a range of human emotion. But Ruth is cold, popular and powerful. On reflection, I think she might be a rather good choice for the role.

I will, of course, give the film a fair trial once I see it. I am always touchy about film adaptations, because I relish the opportunity to paint my own character from a novel. That, of course, is the beauty of books. The world exists as completely seperate and original place in every person's mind; a novel is a chance for your imagination to mingle with that of the writer. Anyway, I'm getting sentimental and tired. My very first Book Before Midnight has over-run slightly, although it stands to reason: today has been full of running late.

If you have read the book, please share your thoughts with me; if you have any questions that have remained unanswered by my admittedly rather abstract first review, I encourage you to ask them. 'Inspired' is a word that pops up in several mainstream reviews of Ishiguro's work - I thought it might be fitting to change it to 'inspring', for me, because he undoubtably made me want to write again, and sparked me to recommend this book to many people (none of whom I have dated). It now sits pride of place on the paperback fiction table at work, and will in fact be covered by a future Reading Group later this year, if anyone is interested.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

The Reason Why

The reason for this blog comes from several places: the first was the prospect of spending New Year alone.

The best way to deal with loneliness, I've found, is to give yourself a colourful, time-consuming project. It's a much more effective (and productive) technique than pouring yourself a fifth glass of wine, eating your own weight in chocolate brownies and howling along to Jools Holland in your nightie (which may or may not be my plans for New Year...)

I am a connoisseur of little projects. My first project this year was bread: I obsessively spent each night baking white rolls, brown loaves, honey and spelt bread, sourdough - more bread, in fact, than you could shake a baguette at. I happened to be suffering from insomnia at the time. Now, I'm suffering from nothing more than a lack of my favourite people, who have all dispersed themselves across the country and, in some cases, the world.

The second reason for this blog is that I read too much. A student! Who reads!

It's true. Ever since I was faithfully raised by a devout librarian, I find books to be more important to me than anything else, with the exception, perhaps, of food and human interaction - although even they get forgotten when I'm on the last chapters of a newly discovered gem. Mostly, I read novels and poetry, but I am one of those people that will read anything if it's lying around within a mile. Non-fiction, newspapers, criticism, cereal boxes, shampoo bottles, shoe sizes.

And I get so excited by what I read (less so about the shampoo bottles), that sometimes I can't get the words out to describe why. This is something I've had to overcome since working as a bookseller - I remember being asked by a customer to explain what I liked about Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. My face lit up, my hands started gesticulating, and I rambled on about aliens, the Dresden bombing, and 'What it means to be human!' In the end, however, the rather bewildered customer did not buy the book (so it goes). I find that writing what I think often makes it a whole lot clearer than when I speak, as well as controlling that annoying hand flapping motion that I have. Hopefully, the excitement still comes across, and rubs off on the next person.

The third, final and most important reason why this blog exists is this: I hate book reviews.

Which is why I'm not going to write any. Not proper ones, anyway. I took journalism as part of my degree last year, and while I have nothing but respect and admiration for the lecturer who took my class, it didn't half suck the life out of book reviews for me. We were told (and rightfully so) that most reviews should be impersonal, concise and well constructed. The last sentence should be a brief opinion summarised in a sentence.

Well. My book reviews are going to be mostly opinion, for starters. Opinion is what I want to share with you - I've got opinion coming out of my ears. They are going to be poorly constructed and go off on tangents (the book reviews, that is, not my ears), have anecdotes, and probably cross-reference lots of obscure things that nobody has time to google. And they will be unflinchingly personal, telling you every reason why I read it, and what it did to me, and whether or not I was in the bath.

There can be so much more to a book review than the damn book - what about the country in which it's read? The time of day, the cafe? Who gave it to you, and how does that affect how you read it? And the book as an object - was it love at first sight? Or did you hide it behind a dust jacket of something more literary? Did it stay on your shelf for years until you finally discovered that your favourite book had been waiting for you all along?

These are the kind of things I'm interested in, and these are the kind of things I want to write about: the story behind each book I've read.


The first reason for this blog has disappeared: one of my favourite people has come back from Sweden, and I rather think a New Year full of cheese, wine and foreign swear words is just what I need. So, my blog won't be an all-night book fest to welcome 2011 as I intended it to be, but more of an ongoing project to occupy that ever-widening gap between what I should be doing, and sleep.