Archive for the ‘reading’ Category

Learning to read Virginia Woolf

October 26, 2014
Penguin Modern Classics, 1964, reprinted 1968

Penguin Modern Classics, 1964, reprinted 1968

In my copy of The Waves I find that I have written the  date: 11/6/69, and my name as it was once, in the handwriting I used then – halfway between a schoolgirl’s and the self-conscious italic I was just adopting.

2014-10-26 21.11.21

I have no memory of buying it or reading it, but it has been read.  There are timid pencil marks in the margins.


What I do remember is that I didn’t like Woolf.  That was my third year at University and I had just turned twenty.  I had also not long decided – passionately and abruptly – that I couldn’t bear another moment within the Japanese department, and so the authorities had kindly cobbled together a degree I stood some vague chance of completing.  It involved English Literature instead of Japanese Language, and a rushed purchase of the pile of books we were to read.  Yeats and Eliot, Bleak House I think, something by D H Lawrence.  Some plays.

I knew I hated Virginia Woolf.  Maybe I had read Mrs Dalloway in the first year, but what could a naive and desperate teenager possibly make of Clarissa Dalloway or her world?  Let alone the filigree qualities of Woolf’s slow and delicate exposition.  I thought her wordy and woolly, meandering, and poetic in a vague way that irritated me profoundly.  That judgment lasted me quite well all through the seventies and into much of the eighties.

No – the love of my reading life was Lawrence: passionate and direct, he knew what he believed and was utterly uninhibited about how he expressed those beliefs.

D H Lawrence

D H Lawrence

He wasn’t just my hero, he was a prose style icon for all that little coterie of closeted gay friends who were clearly going to get starry firsts and go on to glitter in academia.  Lawrence: the master of rhetoric and of the image that argued, clarified and told all.  He seemed to me then a writer who didn’t tiptoe around or mince his words.  He was the broad sun of wide judgments, in comparison with Woolf’s misty, uncommitted particularity.  He could blunder and burn; his prose had sharp edges – but it felt clear and exciting.

This, at least, was the substance of my conversation with Debbie one spring day in the  mid-eighties in Leamington, in the staffroom of The Trinity School: a progressive comprehensive secondary school (a rare beast then and always) with a genuinely dedicated, egalitarian, and overwhelmingly kind staff.  She was astonished that I could possibly prefer that old rogue woman-hater to the stylish, subtle Virginia Woolf, and I had to listen to her.  Lawrence was a misogynist and his writing was rushed and sloppy.  She had thought better of me: I felt her silent disappointment.

I have known several wonderful Debbies and Deborahs in my life, but the name itself  has always baffled me.  Debbie seemed a vulgar sort of name, as in Debbie Reynolds.


My mother raised us to eschew vulgarity in all its forms, with a passion generated by proximity and the fear of falling.  On the other hand ‘Deborah’ as a name felt strained: scrambling for a dignity that swirled its skirts just out of the mud.  Again, and even within our own pretentiousness, we were raised to mock and fear pretension or social climbing.  There we were: barefoot Australian kids, stumbling over the bindi-eyes, while all the time we were forming these nuanced social prejudices.  They take a lot longer to shake off than they take to form.

I admired Debbie the dedicated teacher so much.  Debbie (never Deborah) whose surname I have long forgotten, was fresh out of University, pretty, very clever, and effortlessly upper-crust both intellectually and socially. She wore an unobtrusive gold bracelet: a present from her mother on her eighteenth birthday.  Mired in my mid-thirties and trailing so many mistakes – how I longed to be Debbie!

We each agreed to read one of the other’s favourite novels, bearing in mind the praises we had heard.  I fought to find what she liked in Woolf.  In this way, Debbie (and Woolf) showed me how to slow down, to leave Lawrence’s pell-mell rush of ideas and read poetic prose with a relaxed attention.  To read almost languidly and yield to its particular sensuousness, its sweet precision.  When I went on to read To the Lighthouse, it flew to the depth of my heart and my mind, and stays there to this day.  Debbie politely conceded that Lawrence’s writing is not without virtues.

We were both wrong, of course, in our dislikes.  But I didn’t need to tell you that, did I?

The Ten Book Challenge

September 11, 2014

Is it a bit like the ice-water challenge?  Well – in a way; but also in a way, not.


For the “ten books” you don’t throw them around, you just list them.  But unlike the ice-water, it can’t just be any old ice water – I mean books.  You have to list ten books that have ‘been with you through life’.  And that’s a really interesting category.  It so quickly morphs into ‘ten books that have changed me’.  And then nominate ten friends to do the same.  Here’s the form in which I saw this challenge:

10 books that have followed me around, not great works of literature, don’t think too long or hard just write them down and tag me and 10 friends.

My first thought was: do I have ten friends?  Or, more precisely, ten friends who both read lots of books and use facebook?  These tend to be mutually-exclusive categories, at least amongst my friends and relations.  (Hi, Mum!!)  Then I tried to think of the names of some books.  (Not many came to mind.)  Immediately, too, I see ways in which the challenge is open to interpretation.  Through life’? How literally do we interpret that?  Can a book I first read five years ago seriously be included?  Even if I’ve read it a lot ??  Is a Dictionary a book?  What about a book you used to read often, but more recently you have really only thought about quite often?  As a teacher I know a range of often-recommended books – books I suggest that people might like to read.

Now I realise that I am already overthinking  the whole thing.

Luckily, the friend who put this on her facebook page included her own ‘list of ten’:

1. Eliot’s Middlemarch – I reread it annually for many years
2. A-Z of London – on my 3rd copy, wish I’d saved the others as it had marks and notes about meetings and places I’d been
3. Winnie the Pooh – it’s humour and simple wisdom has amused and enriched communication between me and my brothers and me and my sons
4. Jenkins Convergence – we used the word first in the journal title, so it has definitely followed us
5. History of English Language – began a love affair really
6. Score and libretto of Tristan and Isolde – another love affair, and the enjoyment of reading and listening
7. Shakespeare’s King Lear – which I studied the same time as my mother, yea, across the parental divide
8. Anything Eric Gill did for Golden Cockerell Press – the aesthetic of simplicity is something to aspire to
9. Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy – I’d never met one who used words like scalpels with such a clear mind
10. Wildlife photographer of the year book – got a few now – art and natural world

I love the way she has annotated her list.

She didn’t tag me – but perversely, I set off to write mine down anyway.  I am forced to conclude that I have been reading far too many different books.  Spreading my attention too thinly to play this game well.

1.  Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker – loved Hoban’s playful use of English ever since I first read it.

2.  my 2-volume Oxford English Dictionary – still the go-to source for etymologies; first book I bought with my first teaching cheque.  I love to see it on the shelf.

3.  Maurice Sendak, Higglety,Pigglety, Pop; or: There Must be More to Life  – wonderful illustrations and a little book that tells so much about life and performance.

4. Gwen Bailey, The Perfect Puppy – yes, folks, it’s a how-to book about dogs.  Unashamedly listed here because it’s soooo useful and wise and humane.

5.  Tove Jansson, Finn Family Moomintroll – inclusive, tolerant, exemplary.  And witty.  I’ve known this book since I was a teenager, and my mother was enjoying it, even though it looks like a kids’ book.

6. The Margaret Fulton Cookbook – has really accompanied me through life – given to me when I was about twenty; gnawed by my dog about seven years ago; now held together with string.  In regular use now for 45 years and still a key point of reference.

7. Doris Lessing The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 – another book about being human and being humane.

8.  But I want Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child as well – so wise.

9.  There are some books that linger in your mind: the opening of a particular version of ‘The Gingerbread Man floats through my mind surprisingly often. The trees around their small house were tall and green and full of birds.

10.  That’s it – in the number ten slot there are just far too many.  Do we go for sentiment, wisdom or humour?  For Blyton, Drabble or Pratchett?  Which one of all those le Carrés?  All those informative and clever Franzens and Rushdies?
Nope: hilarity wins.  At number 10: Edmund Crispin, The Moving Toyshop.  It can cheer unfailingly: just the thought of that book makes me smile, and reminds me of all the other books that have stood by me over the years.


Next you have to think up the names of ten friends.  (You know who you are.  I am thinking your names, but I’m not going to write you down here.)


There’s the last way in which this differs from the ice-water challenge, of course.  It’s not painful at all.  In fact, thinking about your long-beloved books is downright pleasurable.

“Blood on Paper” at the V&A – 2008

July 8, 2013

– – – and so eventually I came to the V&A and walked through the exhibition ‘Blood on Paper: the Art of the Book’ .  How odd and appropriate that I had just felt so impelled to buy a notebook  (pretentious Moleskine – but my very first) and a pen.  The exhibition had much to say about the need to inscribe; to make art; to write as part of life.  It showed life, art and writing-as-printing all intersecting and feeding one another.  And so I write in my notebook straight away, here outside:

The exhibition made me feel really happy . – I felt understood, and full of understanding at the same time.  It shows that one can make (I can make) my life (my life’s artefacts?) into an art work.  There is an issue about how to display them, though.  I can display myself, but I can’t print myself off in copies. I liked the Rauschenberg:


Robert Rauschenberg (b. 1925) ‘Traces Suspectes en Surface’ By Alain Robbe-Grillet 1972 – 1978 Published by Universal Limited Art Editions, Long Island, New York National Art Library, V&A, pressmark: 81 Drawer 13 © DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2008 Lithographs

and the Francis-Ting:

The 1c Life


and, of course (but in a different way) the Bacon.  These are works that put words into a really assertively visual medium . . . and then both are intensified.  The chap doing a philosophical (or pseudo-philosophical?) analysis of colour was good too.

Daniel Buren

Daniel Buren (b. 1938)
‘Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal’ by Aimé Césaire
Published by Editions du Solstice, Paris
Courtesy Jean-Claude Meyer, Les Editions du Solstice
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2008

Silkscreen prints; letterpress


Outside, in the open air – children and fountains – I can’t help overhearing the quiet conversation at the next table: a father and daughter.  I wish it would go away.  The tottering children are so stylishly dressed – perhaps that’s another kind of life-as-art.  Soon I will go and look at the jewellery section.

Sorting and packing my own books yesterday has made me very conscious of beauties and possibilities – of how lovely these printed texts are.  At Northampton the art students’ showed a collection of  ‘Altered Books’ – books that had been cut, pasted, re-jigged.

from 2009 - but it gives you the idea

from 2009 – but it gives you the idea

The way in which they are altered adds to the story they tell – or maybe just changes it.

altered book - Northampton U. 2007

altered book – Northampton U. 2007

Northampton U. - 2007

Northampton U. – 2007

They made me think of the ‘prepared piano’ – relating to conventional narrative as such a piano relates to conventional music.

John Cage - Prepared Piano

John Cage – Prepared Piano

It also reminded me of the photos I had to take of my flood-damaged books, so that the insurance company would believe me. At first I was literal about it, but then I started to see their beauty, too.


a Loeb volume of Plutarch’s ‘Lives’ – expensive once – but the colours of the staining here strike me as subtle – delicate as a bruise


a little, cheap paperback – that strange green shows its age

a library copy that has been damaged in several ways

a library copy that has been damaged in several ways, not just by the flood


I wondered whether those art works at the V&A could strictly be counted as books – many were one-off works.  Certainly the ‘altered books’ were not replicable.  My son used to play a game called ‘Altered Beast’ – which makes me think again of deformity and mutation.  Why and how are we consciously mutating our books?  What is it in our culture that makes us thrill to these transformations?


This Moleskine is like a little machine of a book.  It has working parts: an ‘expandable inner pocket’ – what joy!  – a ribbon marker, and the elastic band to hold it closed.  So, insofar as a book’s need (and its duty, and its gift to us) is to open and close, this one does that very thing, that very essence of bookness, only in extra ways.   Like the Ahlbergs’ Jolly Postman it goes beyond expectations, and like the child reader, I delight in it.

Such generosity!



“The Man Who Wasn’t There”

July 1, 2013

I leap to my laptop, only pausing to forge my way through unwanted email, to tell you about a terrific movie I saw last night. Here’s my story. 

When James Gandolfini died last week, the obits were full of praise for his acting skills. 


prize-winning Gandolfini

prize-winning Gandolfini

Like most people, I thought his performance in “The Sopranos” was wonderfully subtle: scary, moving and tender, a commonplace man baffled by emotion and caught up in large events. 

Gandolfini as mafia boss Tony Soprano

Gandolfini as mafia boss Tony Soprano

I had seen him in “Killing Them Softly” investing the small role of Mickey, a failed hit-man, with the universal pathos of a Willy Loman. 

as Mickey the hit-man

as Mickey the hit-man, helplessly incompetent

It turns out he had done much more than I knew of.  The papers listed so many other performances, I was scribbling down must-see lists, and came across the Coen brothers’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There”.  What a great combination!  The Coens have done such very clever and insightful work.  On the Lovefilm website, the noir poster looked Hitchcockian, with its use of fragmented faces and mirror-like effects.


Mind you, knowing the Coens, I was braced for horrors.  Remember the wood chipper in “Fargo”?  the sudden murder in “Burn After Reading” just when you thought it was a safe comedy?  the finger-chopping scene in “True Grit”?  That sort of pedigree keeps my watching a little tense.  Perhaps that’s a good thing.

 The film was wonderful – visually and auditorily profound.  Like a novel by Jonathan Franzen, it told a story and in doing so described and explained a cultural condition.  Through detail and persistence, using the hopelessness of the small-town barber’s life ‘of quiet desperation’, both the story and the characters are raised to metaphoric status, imaging the human condition.  Ed Crane, the barber, is played by Billy Bob Thornton, and Gandolfini plays a supporting key role as the quiet businessman whose worst crime is a little gentle adultery with the barber’s wife. 

Thornton behind the wheel, Gandolfini in the background with the barber's wife.

Thornton behind the wheel, Gandolfini in the background with the barber’s wife (Frances McDormand) in the French version of the advertising poster.

Like Tony Soprano, the barber’s tragedy is that he scarcely knows what a human being might aspire to be, or how.  He only knows that what he has is somehow inadequate, and that any change, any future, will be preferable to his present, clattering, trivial non-existence. 


Ed Crane 'doesn't talk much'

Ed Crane ‘doesn’t talk much’


The movie begins unexpectedly in black and white, which gave me pause.  I had to check the connections – but clearly it was meant to be black and white, from the quality of the filming (another delight).  The shades of grey have texture and deliberation.  It was absolutely Billy Bob Thornton’s film – he was in almost every shot, and voice-over narrating his story every inch of the way.  The rich, detached tones of Thornton’s voice/Crane’s voice, the inner voice of a man who hardly speaks in his real life, are strangely compelling.  In the closing scene, you find yourself agreeing with his painfully-achieved philosophy. 

Ed Crane: I don’t know where I’m being taken. I don’t know what I’ll find, beyond the earth and sky. But I’m not afraid to go. Maybe the things I don’t understand will be clearer there, like when a fog blows away. Maybe Doris will be there. And maybe there I can tell her all those things they don’t have words for here.

What a star!

 Rush now and view this movie – it sneaks up on you! I may have to watch it again before I send the DVD back .  Meanwhile I’m off to track down more Billy Bob Thornton movies.


Writers with confusingly similar names: J G Farrell

March 23, 2013

Disambiguation: one Farrell and two O’Farrells.  This post is about J G Farrell (also not to be confused with J G Ballard).

J G Farrell
His key novels, Troubles and The Siege of Krishnapur are widely admired – and rightly so.    I first met Farrell through the latter – a wonderful story played out in the context of Imperial Britain in India.  You could compare it with A Passage to India in the depth of observation and the political engagement; or with Midnight’s Children for its sweep and sensitivity.  Like both of these it has  fine, readable prose.

This must be the hard-back cover.  My paperback shows the left-hand two thgirds of this image, with little sense of the buildings so tellingly outlined in the background here.

This must be the hard-back cover. My paperback shows the left-hand two thgirds of this image, with little sense of the buildings tellingly outlined in the background here.

It won the Booker in 1973: a novel to keep on your bookshelf for life – except when you lend it to a friend, or take it down to enjoy all over again.  There’s a passage from the ‘Siege’ below.

What a pity those old Penguins go so yellow, standing there, quietly loyal, over the years.  On inspection, I find that Krishnapur is also a book to give, and to steal.  My copy has an inscription:

I wonder who i gave it to?

I wonder who i gave it to?

I am so glad I stole it back.

Troubles is also terrific – set in Ireland during the – well, the Troubles.  It feels surreal, but in this situation that is a metapahor for reality, as Farrell displays the surreal qualities of being at war – of being involved in  a civil war.

This cover is modern - part of Penguin's set of retro styles.

This cover is modern – part of Penguin’s set of retro styles.

(That reminds me of the surreal, formal scenes in Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays – part 3 in particular – they, too,  find technical ways to render the bizarre nature of  a war which at its heart is waged against oneself.  I’m thinking in particular of the scene where a father kills his son, and a son has killed his father – all anonymous characters, within a play otherwise heavily loaded with meticulously named aristocracy.)

Somehow I couldn’t come to terms in the same way with the third volume in this colonial trilogy, The Singapore Grip – maybe I was being prudish about the sexual metaphor involved.  Now that I am seeing Farrell’s metaphors structurally, maybe I need to re-read it.


I open The Siege of Krishnapur at random – page 202 – the beginning of chapter 15 – and discover a characteristically nuanced paragraph.

Your sister, as a rule, can be relied on to remember when your birthday is; but when on the Monday evening Miriam and several other ladies and gentlemen gathered on the Residency verandah to sing hymns before retiring to bed Fleury could see no sign of awareness on his sister’s face that an unusual event was soon to occur.  She sang away unconcernedly, with great feeling: ‘O God our help in ages past . . .’  She had a beautiful voice and normally Fleury loved to hear her singing; but this evening he suspected she was putting it on for the Collector’s benefit.  The Collector, although not singing himself (for he had no voice), was leaning against the louvred wooden shutters in semi-darkness, listening.  Many members of the garrison were becoming a little perturbed about the Collector.  His face had taken on a more haggard look and he was sometimes heard to be muttering to himself . . . once or twice he had even been heard laughing to himself as he walked about; it was an uncomfortable laugh, and if he saw you looking at him he would stop immediately; his face would become stern and expressionless once more inside its cat-like ruff of whiskers.  There was no reason to make too much of this however . . . a man has to be allowed a few personal idiosyncracies, after all, and the Collector had done a splendid job so far.  All the same, the Collector was in complete command of the garrison and everything that happened in the enclave happened at his behest.  The siege, in a manner of speaking, was his idea.  It would be unfortunate, to put it mildly, if now or at some later stage he should collapse when so much depended on him.  So no wonder that people watched him rather uneasily.  Mind you, he was probably still as sound as a bell.  And it could hardly ne a bad thing that he had come to listen to the singing of hymns.   It was a pity that his face could not be seen more clearly in the shadows.

We appear to be experiencing this scene through the eyes and the slightly childish consciousness of Fleury: trivially bothered about his birthday.  His pouting Bertie Wooster-ish tone melds seamlessly into darker observations of the Collector.  Still in Fleury’s Boy’s Own diction (‘splendid’; ‘his idea’) the reader can see so much more deeply than Fleury can.  And thus the paragraph shows its complexity; shows how the Collector is viewed but also that the situation (and his own responsibility) are both much graver than others realise.  Events are already well out of his control, yet he will have to take responsibility for them.  The tragedy will unfold – he can see that it will – even while the families are living their gossipy English lives.

It’s this subtle step-by-step movement that makes Farrell’s writing powerful: building, building through the gentlest of insights towards the appalling truths that few (or perhaps only one) of the characters can comprehend.


As you can see, I was carried away by Farrell and didn’t get to any of the others.  I will – but it will take a little time.  I might have to do some reading first.

Children and memory

March 14, 2013

By coincidence lately I am reading about loss and about memory.  First, John O’Farrell’s entertaining homily about a failed marriage – The Man Who Forgot His Wife – and now a review of Wave: A Memoir of Life After the Tsunami by Sonali Deraniyagala.  The review talks about loss and the healing power of writing, and of remembering through writing.  Two reactions: I wonder if I want to read the book?  And: I could use that.  We hear about “finding a space to feel suffering as well as joy, and realising one was an aspect of the other.”  It could be a deconstructive move, but apparently this is Buddhist thought.


It sounds like a wonderful, sane method.  I grieved so long for Josie, but always through a kind of rationalising pain: anger and arguments for the lost present and the lost future, never through remembering what we really had in the short years when I was her mother.  How should I achieve this alternative method?  In chronological order, or in the order of the memories?  Some of those memories are hackneyed, familiar, over-rehearsed.  I wonder whether I will discover more as I work it through?  Typing here isn’t the way, I think.  Handwriting is what is needed.


And then Deraniyagala’s reviewer (Tim Adams) sees again the difficult wisdom that we all know as an intellectual truth, but find so hard to know in our souls: “all childhoods are about transience, every day, and all parenting is about mourning little bits of that passing.”  Thus it truly is.  It doesn’t matter now what might have taken place in Josie’s childhood (or in any of them, I suppose) because now they are adults, and those little children aren’t gone, exactly, but they hover, loved, in memory.  Unless we work differently with memory, we see them schematically, like ghosts, through photos and through re-told stories and we access our knowledge of them erratically.  I look forward to trying the writing method.

Questions – truth or dare?

December 27, 2012

I am keen on telling the truth to children – for lots of reasons, but the two main ones are: because I want to set a good example; and because I want them to find me reliable.

My grandchildren asked me two truly difficult questions this morning.

Their Dad had gone to work early, and they were staying on with me till their Mum came to collect them after breakfast.  Anyway, they came and sat on the bed while I drank my cup of tea.  We chatted of this and that in a friendly way.

They asked ‘Why do you love dogs so much?’  That was where I stumbled – maybe there are too many reasons, and I felt under pressure to answer quickly and truthfully, but also to get the really best answers out first, as I know they will stop listening after one or two reasons, and move on to the next ‘why?’  So I said that I grew up with dogs (scepticism here – they have dogs, but don’t interact with them very much), that dogs always tell the truth (even though sometimes they steal stuff) and so you always know where you are with them.  (That led to a pause.)  I think I might have slipped in some banalities about dogs as loyal, and as company.  Then they said ‘But it’s boring having to walk them’ and I answered that I liked to get out into the fresh air.  After they had gone, I was still wondering whether I had really given the truthful answers.  More and more responses came to me – how good it is to have something to look after; how snuggly they are (even when ‘a wet dog is the lovingest’); how they look me in the eye and I feel that we know each other across the gulf of species; how it might be about power and obedience when I enjoy training them; how proud I am of them when they are praised by strangers.  How they might be child substitutes – I don’t think so.  Maybe children are dog-substitutes – has anyone suggested that?  How they teach us to live in the moment; to bear adversity and old age; to be joyful for small cause as well as for large.

Of course, that answer took moments to say, and even fewer moments for the rest to flash through my mind.  The conversation was moving onwards briskly.  The next question was  fairly easy: ‘Why do you have pillows on the other side of the bed?’  (A. For when Grandad comes to stay.)  And: ‘Why does he sleep on that side of the bed?’  (A.  He likes the right-hand side).  OK – I know there are lots of answers to that second one – the feminist answer; the noble, or ‘sword hand’, answer; the ‘Adam’s Rib’ answer.  But I felt fine with the mild evasion as offered – it, too, was true, even though superficial.  It triggered a ritual sequence: one of these kiddies is right-handed, the other left-handed, and they often tell me this.   Bored, I suggested writing with the wrong hand, and reached for a notebook and pen beside the bed.  (‘Is that your diary?’ – ‘No, just a notebook I write things in.’)  We had fun with that, but time was knocking on and their mother was due at ten.  I jumped up, followed by the dogs (who generally come with me to the shower), to hear a real stumper: ‘Why do you love books so much?’

The best response might be something like ‘How much time have you got?’  But what, dear reader, would you have said?  Take a moment now before you read on – bear in mind that you have at most one minute in which to think and speak before their thoughts will have flown off elsewhere.  After all, they don’t know when they have hit on a big question.

So I said: ‘You’re right.  I love books.  I think nearly everything useful that I know has come from books.  And [oddly faithful to my theme of the day] books tell me true things.’  Now – I know that I needed to modify that last one – but there is something in it, too.  Think of Bruno Bettelheim and The Uses of Enchantment if you believe fiction to be untruthful.  I didn’t mention their rôle as comforter, companion, escape-route, inspirer.  What would you have said?

Next, I said briskly, ‘I’m off to the shower’.

‘Why do you like showers?’  (Easy one – no thought needed.)

‘I like to start the day feeling fresh’

‘I don’t have showers.’ (He runs interference a lot – another no-brainer.)

‘You’re fine – you had a bath last night.  See you in five.’


Later, tap tap, their mother came for them.  The nine-year-old said (among other things, of course): ‘And I got a DVD of The Witches.’

‘You got what?’ her mother said

‘The Witches’

‘The what?’

‘The Witches, Roald Dahl, you know.’

‘Oh – yeah – .’

I’m not convinced that the name was familiar to her, but maybe she was just thinking of other things.

Haruki Murakami “1Q84”

December 18, 2012


1Q84 is by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami who also wrote Norwegian Wood and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle – both of which are profound and interesting and unusual.  But 1Q84 just feels disappointing – flatly written and with far too many characters.  To steal Luke Kennard’s comment: “when Murakami’s characters aren’t being themselves, they have a habit of  sounding like Dan Brown extras.”  ( )  I have unfairly quoted the sole negative remark in a long review: Kennard actually loves the book, and his review makes me sound dyspeptic.  So it goes.

I wondered whether the style was a function of the translation, and did some online searching.  It turns out that the two volumes were translated by different people (one for volumes 1 and 2, the other for volume 3), but that they had been fairly stringently regulated to ensure a parity of style. Furthermore, there are hints that the whole thing was produced with massive time constraints – rushing for a publication deadline.  Perhaps this is why they do indeed feel very similar (but not identical) and I still wonder whether the editorial interventions somehow strait-jacketed the translators, and planed their style down to a kind of blankness.

The plot involves an alternative reality into which the characters slip when they get involved with a secretive religious organisation that abuses young girls.  The suggestion develops that the religious organisation has a genuine link with some kind of ‘other’ power – maybe from a spirit world, maybe aliens.  At the point I reached it wasn’t clear which.  There’s a love story in there, too, and some murders, and some steamy sex scenes.  Some parts of it make me think of ‘Dragon Tattoo’ sequence – the casual sex and violence; the self-justified stance; the obscured misogyny of its pseudo-eroticism.  It’s about 1200 pages long, and I got through something over 900 of them – so I gave the book a fair run for its money, I think.  (I’m giving up on it because it has failed to make me care two hoots about the worlds, the aliens, or the characters.  And it’s making me feel even more depressed than usual.)

Didn’t expect to get quite so irate when I started out to write this.  Maybe I am turning into a curmudgeon.  I shall go away and read Robert Coover instead – or maybe Russell Hoban, who is balm for the soul.

“The Dogs Who Came to Stay”

December 8, 2012
A friend sent me a book to read and comment on.  Here is what I emailed back to him.
Dear Joe
You asked for my thoughts on the book by George Pitcher.  I whizzed through it in a day – it’s that kind of book.  I think I had feelings and reactions rather than thoughts, because I took a bit of a dislike to the author.  He seems unaware of the rest of the world, but also quite unwilling to  open up about the interesting bits within himself.  Perhaps he has a wide circle of friends who all urged him to write it, but at the end of the day the memoir just isn’t his medium.  (Joyce Carol Oates for goodness sake!  And Anthony Storr comments on the endpapers.  What’s that about?)  And indeed he does seem to be a bit of namedropper (though trying hard not to be).  It’s a very old book by a very old person – who else would call a longstanding gay relationship “two bachelors”?  I can understand his wish for concealment, but I don’t like the feeling it gave me.
Writing style: educated amateur/ banal.  The topic calls for much more poetic diction and for some richness.  As we say in the trade ‘show don’t tell’.
content: he mentions life and death, and the fact that dogs can teach us a lot about these things.  But somehow choosing not to get stuck in to that idea – not to philosophise it, I guess – diminishes it.  The story of the dogs would have something, if the writing was stronger, but as it is we have fairly low-grade natter.
Books about practical topics have the opportunity to inform – but he doesn’t get into that.  I have found the same problem with books about canal boating: neither poetic enough, nor informative enough.  Either focus would be great, but a skimpy bit of both doesn’t cut it. Maybe reading the sensitive and complex Kathleen Jamie has spoiled me for less skilled matter.  (Do you know her stuff? – the prose, I mean, more than the poetry.  Blackwells shelves her work, Findings, under “Travel Writing”, which is misleading, almost perverse).
I do know of a work that does these things really well – but it’s a film – called ‘My Dog Tulip’ – very clever cartoon/animation, based on material by J R Ackerley, who really can write.  The film trailer is a bit American – the film is better and more creative than the trailer – but this gives you an idea. .  Ackerley too describes himself as a ‘bachelor’ – but I don’t mind that from 1956, especially when his insights can be so neatly and beautifully put forward.  The American voiceover pre-judges and falsely contextualises – try to ignore that, and get hold of the film!
(Actually I didn’t send him this picture – I added it for the blog.)
Your word was disappointed – I’m thinking frustrated.  It’s on its interrupted way to Oxfam now.
(I hope you get it that I thoroughly enjoyed tearing it to shreds! Thank you for the opportunity!)
All good wishes  for Xmas!

the saddest novel

November 29, 2010

The saddest, most heartbreaking novel in the world is William Maxwell’s So Long, see you tomorrow.  Carefully and beautifully written, it soaks into your soul with its gradual, total tragedy.  It should come with a health warning: don’t read it late at night, or if you are feeling low already.

Superlatives such as ‘saddest’ are logically tricky beasts, and I’m sure you are trying to think of sadder books (sorry to have dumped that on you) but yes, I too have read Black Beauty, and most of E. Annie Proulx, and my claim stands.

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