I have 14 books on my ‘to read’ pile – oops!

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And that’s just the living room pile! I have a few more beside my bed, and, ahem, a shelf or two full in bookcases here and there. If I sat down and worked out how long it would take me to get through them all I’d probably find I don’t need to buy another book for…some time! It’s a fairly harmless vice, compared to some, but I can’t help thinking that there’s something wrong with me – am I an eternal optimist (thinking I CAN read all these books) or do I have my head stuck in the sand (believing I WILL read all these books)? Is it wasteful? Of money and the earth’s resources? Or am I right to reward the many hard-working writers who have put so much time and effort into their books, by purchasing copies, even if I might never read them?

Who knows, but the piles do rather haunt me and get bigger in my mind, in true Dorian Gray fashion.

2017-03-01-13-21-23-hdrSo, the task for March on my 2017 reading challenge is to grip up this issue and tackle one of the books on my ‘to read’ pile that has been sitting there the longest. It’s Just Kids by Patti Smith. I came to Patti relatively late in life; I was a bit young to be into her in the ’70s when she was prominent. I’m not a big music fan and am relatively ignorant but I picked up her career-defining album Horses in one of those ‘2 for a tenner’ type sales in HMV, or somewhere similar, a few years ago, and it quickly became one of the soundtracks of my 30s, and my children loved it too! We all loved ‘Gloria’ particularly and that song would definitely be one of my Desert Island Discs, both because I love the power and energy of the song and because it brings back happy memories of us all singing in the car – “Gloria, G-L-O-R-I-A, Gloria!”

2017-03-01-11-40-14Patti Smith is a fascinating woman who has led a fascinating life. I have been meaning to read this book for years (it was published in 2010), so when I came across it in the Strand Bookshop whilst on my trip to, where else, New York last summer, it had to be bought! (It’s a very New York book.)

I’m looking forward to starting it, especially as I have now at long last finished Do Not Say We Have Nothing, with which I rather struggled, as I wrote about here a couple of weeks ago (I’ll post my review of that book soon). Reading Just Kids will I hope transport me back to last summer as I await the proper arrival of spring; I see a few snowdrops sprouting in my garden, but I also saw snow yesterday so we’re not there yet.

So, if you fancy joining me on the challenge this month, and picking a book from your ‘to read’ pile, do let me know what you’ll be tackling and why. (I think I’ll also give up book-buying for Lent!)

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A month of poetry

How often do you read a poem? The answer for me is rarely these days. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to include some poetry in my reading challenge for the year, to make myself sit down and do it. Why February? Well, firstly, it was Valentine’s Day last week, a time when one is more inclined, perhaps, to encounter a verse or two (or maybe even write one!) Secondly, and much more prosaically, it was half term, so I knew I wouldn’t get as much reading done as usual.

Well, I didn’t write my husband any poems (he was away, for goodness’ sake!), but I did read a few. The challenge was to choose a poem for each week and to read it every day for that week. In other words, four poems. The first one I chose was The Wild Swans at Coole by WB Yeats, a favourite of mine, having first got to know his work when studying for my English degree. It’s also a short poem, so an easy way into the challenge. First published a century ago (pure coincidence that I chose it), a year after the Easter Rising in Dublin, which affected Yeats deeply, the First World War was still going strong, and it was the year that he first married (at the age of 51), never having persuaded the real love of his life, Maud Gonne, to accept him.

“Their hearts have not grown old;

Passion or conquest, wander where they will,

Attend upon them still.”

It is a poem about ageing, about loss and grief and about the passage of time and Yeats’ search for true lasting beauty in a world where all about him was deteriorating and decaying. I had a different response to the poem, reading it now, aged forty-something, than I did in my early twenties, for obvious reasons.

I’ve always wanted to get to know Emily Dickinson (1830-86) better; she is a celebrated American poet, who lived as a virtual recluse in Massachusetts. She remains something of an enigma, not least because of the deep passions expressed in her poetry, so at odds with what is known about her life. A book was published in 2015 by Nuala O’Connor called Miss Emily, written from the point of view of an Irish maid who was taken on by the Dickinson household. I am keen to read this now, having dipped into the poetry.

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I picked up this lovely little volume in my local Oxfam bookshop (what wonderful work this charity does, not only in its programmes abroad, but in providing many towns with such a fantastic literary resource). From it I chose poem no. 249 (Dickinson did not give titles to her poems so they are known by numbers or first lines) “Wild Nights – Wild Nights!” Very appropriate for the week in which Valentine’s Day fell and fascinating when you think of the kind of life she led – a middle class spinster living in 19th century rural America.

 

 

“Wild Nights – Wild Nights!

Were I with thee

Wild Nights should be

Our luxury!”

For my final two choices I thought I’d better get a bit  more modern, so I chose Jackie Kay from my other Oxfam purchase The Penguin Book of Poetry and Britain and Ireland since 1945. It’s quite an old anthology, published in 1998, so only one of Jackie’s poems is in there Brendon Gallacher. For my brother Maxie, but what a super poem it is. It’s about the narrator’s imaginary friend, a fantasy of a life much more exciting than her own. I had an imaginary friend as a child (Leda), through whom I had access to a much more colourful world, so can idenitfy with the theme! I also love listening to Jackie Kay, and here is a YouTube video of her reading this poem

 

The final poem for my challenge, which I shall continue reading next week, is Warming Her Pearls by the current British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. It is written from the point of view of a lady’s maid, one of whose tasks is to wear her mistress’s pearls before she goes out, in order that they are not cold on her skin. It has obvious themes about class but also has a deep erotic resonance – another one for Valentine’s Day perhaps!

I’ve enjoyed this month’s challenge much more than I expected and I have actually read more poems as a result than the four that I set myself. Poetry really is a pleasure and requires a lot less time commitment than a novel. It’s also incredibly relaxing!  I would urge you to give it a try if it’s not your usual thing.

Do you have a favourite poem or poet?

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The Oscars – literary references

You will no doubt have picked up that it’s the Oscars this weekend; they start somewhere in the middle of the night (UK time) on Sunday 26th. I’m not a huge film buff so I’ve never stayed up for them, but I’ve become interested in recent years as an increasing number of the top movies, it seems to me, have been based on works of literature. The ones that spring to mind are Life of Pi (2013), 12 Years A Slave (2014), No Country for Old Men (2007) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Last year was particularly rich in literary reference with The Danish Girl, Carol, The Revenant and Room all big winners based on books. (I was so struck by this that I read three of the books and posted about it not long after I started this blog. You can read my post here)

hidden-figures-imgThis year, literary references are a little thinner on the ground, but I want to tell you about a couple that have caught my eye. My children were on their half term holiday last week and I took my youngest daughter (aged 10) to see Hidden Figures. It is based on a true story, but the film was inspired by a book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. You will  no doubt have seen the trailers, but, to summarise, it tells the story of three exceptionally talented mathematical minds whose contribution to the US space programme in the 1960s went largely unacknowledged…because they were African-American women working at a time when racial segregation was still in place. It is a remarkable story, very moving and very well told.

I am proud to say that my young daughter was incredulous at the level of discrimination that prevailed – why didn’t these very clever women get the credit for the work they did? Without them, John Glenn may not have made it into space, let alone come back in one piece! I’d be interested to read the book, if only because the film is at times a little sentimental (though this takes nothing away from the achievement of the central characters) and I’d like to  understand which facts have been sugar-coated for pictorial effect and which are true. And which bits they left out! I would highly recommend the film though, so take your daughters. And your sons!

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The other film I’m desperate to see this year is Lion, which has been nominated for six Oscars, and is based on the book A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley. This book is also a true story and is a personal account by the author of how he became separated from his dirt-poor family in India at the age of five. He found himself on the streets in Calcutta and then ended up in Tasmania. At the age of 30 he set out to try and find his family and the book (and the film) is the story of that journey.

 

 

 

I’m starting to build-up a long ‘to watch’ list, alongside my ‘to read’ list, but at least the ‘to watch’ list is merely a page of notes at the back of my diary and doesn’t haunt me every time I walk into a room in my house and am confronted by a very real large pile of books! (Yes, there is one in every room!) Roll on the March reading challenge, which is to tackle a book from the ‘to read’ pile.

Have you seen any films recently that you would recommend?

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the Lowry

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I was lucky to get a ticket for this performance at The Lowry in Salford last week. The play  has been a huge success for the National Theatre company in London and is currently on tour. You will  no doubt have heard of the book by Mark Haddon, which was published in 2003, and was a Costa Book of the Year and winner of the Guardian’s children’s fiction prize. Ostensibly written for a YA readership, it’s nonetheless a powerful read for adults.

The central character, Christopher Boone, has Asperger’s Syndrome, which means he operates at a very logical, ordered and predictable level. He struggles to make sense of emotion, finds social relationships very challenging and interprets his world in a very literal way. At the start of the story Christopher lives with his father and we are told that his mother has died of a heart attack. The dog of the title belongs to Christopher’s neighbour, Mrs Shears, and when the dog is found dead one morning, stabbed with a garden fork, he sets out to uncover the identity of the dog’s killer. His research does not generate the hoped-for answers but instead raises more questions for both Christopher and the audience. It also causes tension between Christopher and his father, who plainly wants him to cease his investigation. Christopher is completely incapable of interpreting the possible causes of his father’s stress and backing off from the task of finding the dog’s killer, but we as the audience, begin to see that there is more to this incident than meets the eye, and that people (Christopher’s father, the neighbours) are hiding something.

Eventually, Christopher searches his father’s bedroom and finds a stack of letters addressed to him from his mother, who is not in fact dead, but alive and living in London. Feeling that he can no longer trust his father he decides his only option is to go and find her and to live with her in London. What both the book and the stage play do so brilliantly is to convey the sense that logic and intelligence alone are not sufficient to navigate your way in the world. Christopher is a brilliant mathematician (he is doing his Mathematics ‘A’ level at his specialist school at 16) but getting from Swindon to London on a train, and then using the Underground to travel to north-west London, is a near-impossible task. For someone with Christopher’s condition, the noise, the crowds, the proximity of people to one another, are overwhelming. The stage direction is brilliant at conveying the sensory overload and also the extent to which the day to day humdrum interactions that most of us take for granted are utterly baffling to someone whose brain works at an entirely logical level; figurative language is hard for him to comprehend, and some of the most basic instructions and conventions cause him enormous confusion and therefore distress.

I had forgotten elements of the plot when I went to see the play, which was nice because it kept a bit of the dramatic tension for me. It would still have been highly enjoyable even if I had recalled the ending, however. The staging is superb, demonstrating cleverly how Christopher can only function in an ordered, boundaried environment where there is certainty and dependability. The dialogue and acting were also tremendous, with elements of humour, and there is great empathy for Christopher. His condition is dealt with not just sensitively, but triumphantly – it is the ‘normal’ adults around him whose shortcomings are exposed.

I went alone, but really wished I’d taken my 16 year-old son (who has read the book) and/or my 12 year-old daughter, both of whom would have enjoyed it. I think younger teenagers will be able to identify more readily than adults with the confusion of modern life, the challenges inherent in just getting from A to B when you have no experience of it, and the incomprehensibility of the codes that adults use to communicate with one another when they are afraid to use more direct language. The recommended age is 11+.

The run at the Lowry was short, just a week, but the production remains at the Gielgud Theatre in London and is on a UK tour until the end of September. Catch it if you can, it’s fantastic.

What to do when a book feels like a hard slog?

Last Autumn I set myself a challenge to read the full Man Booker Shortlist 2016 (six books). I didn’t manage all of them before the winner, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, was announced. I planned to complete and review the final one on my list (Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien) this week, but I’m afraid I haven’t finished it; it is taking me an inordinate amount of time to get through!

swan-319379_640Now, dear reader, this blog is rather like the proverbial swan – whilst it may look smooth and effortless to you on the surface, the planning (reading, idea generation, social media, writing, etc) that goes on behind the scenes is like a military operation! Well, not exactly, but, you know, I do plan my reading, aim to bring you a book a week and try to blog twice a week. And this book has totally blown my schedule! You know what it’s like when you’ve got a busy day planned either at home or at work…and you hear the words “Mum, I’ve just been sick!” and you know your day is irretrievably banjaxed. Well, that’s how I feel.

2017-02-08-11-48-44Do Not Say We Have Nothing, broadly speaking, is about China after the revolution, what it was like living under the dictatorship of Mao Tse Tung and about the hardships endured by the population, particularly by artists and intellectuals, in an era when culture was heavily proscribed. I have had a lifelong fascination with China, have read very widely about this enormously diverse and culturally rich nation, so I should be loving it. But I’m not! And I’m barely halfway through! I took a break from it this week and read Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe (which I’ll be reviewing soon), and that book is at the very opposite end of the literary spectrum – light, fun, quick to read. Many people probably would have given up by now. After all, a book, particularly a long one, is a huge investment is it not? I rarely give up on a book – I gave up on White Teeth by Zadie Smith a few years ago after a couple of false starts, but I have always planned to go back to it. My rationale for continuing with Do Not Say We Have Nothing is as follows:

  1. I’ve already sunk several hours into it
  2. I keep thinking that it’ll get more enjoyable
  3. It seems a worthy book, so I feel I ought to finish it
  4. I set myself the challenge to complete the shortlist and I can’t let one book make me fail.

Reasons 2 and 4 are the most compelling. So, I will carry on to the bitter end and hope that a turn of the plot will make it all worthwhile. I’ll keep you posted!

Do you give up on a book if you’re not enjoying it?

If you’ve already read this book, I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether you think it’ll be worth it in the end. Is it just me?

February’s reading challenge – four poems

The aim of my 2017 reading challenge was not to binge on books or to find quirky ways of seeking out different kinds of books, it was very much about challenging reading habits and embracing reading for the sake of it. Finding more joy in reading, not just lengthening the list of books read. Naturally, I had myself in mind! Books have been at the centre of my life for as long as I can remember, but I am not a big poetry reader. So, February’s challenge (to select four poems and read each one every day for a week) has required a good deal of thought for me. I did a degree in English Literature and so, book hoarder that I am, I have a few poetry anthologies lying around. WB Yeats is my favourite poet, but I am ashamed to say that my poetry knowledge is not that wide.

It requires a different set of reading skills for sure! Firstly, I’m quite a quick reader, and evidence shows that most of us can quite easily comprehend a piece of text without reading every word or even every letter of the words we do read (it’s how proofreaders make a living!). I’m sure you’ve seen or done one of those Facebook tests which tells you you’re super-intelligent if you can understand a quoted piece of jumbled and misspelled text? Secondly, like mindfulness colouring, or yoga, it forces you to slow right down. Poems have special unique rhythms and they can’t be speed read. Well, they can, but it misses the point.

If you know your Beowulf or your Chaucer, even your Shakespeare, you’ll know that prose fiction is a fairly recent phenomenon; poetry was by far the more popular form until around the late 18th/early 19th century. Furthermore, when ‘story-telling’ was a verbal or performance art form, and passed on by the telling, not by print, it was much more poetic in terms of the language used and the sound and rhythm of the sentences. And aren’t many of the first books we read our children, rhyming ones? Poetry undoubtedly taps into something very human and very instinctual. When you think about all of that, it’s extraordinary that most adults rarely indulge in poetry (perhaps pop music has replaced it?) So, for February, poetry it is!

For this first week, I’ve selected a Yeats poem to ease myself back into a poetry reading habit. Something familiar, which will also transport me back to my youth and dusty lecture halls! I’ve chosen a short poem, ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ I’m reading this every day for the next week, so I’ll let you know how I get on. Perhaps you’d like to join me?

I’m off to the library tomorrow to do a bit more research and decide on poem number two!

Do you have any poetry recommendations? I’m particularly interested in something contemporary.

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A little non-fiction for a change?

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Literary non-fiction is a genre that most of us rarely, if ever, dip into. There are thousands of non-fiction titles published every year in the UK and the bookshops are full of them, but look at the top-selling list in any given week and you will see that most of the top ten are cookbooks and autobiographies. 2017-02-01-11-42-32I’m not knocking either of these genres, I’m simply saying that literary non-fiction is a very tough genre to sell in. I read recently that the average non-fiction title in the US sells 250 copies a year (one for roughly every million people), or 2,000 copies over its lifetime. It makes you wonder why on earth you would write one! Many seem to be written by academics, journalists or people who have already established themselves in a chosen field and know they are writing for a particular niche. One striking thing about the genre, though, is that authors have a real passion for the topic, and the authenticity of the work is palpable.

 

The Baillie Gifford Prize (formerly the Samuel Johnson Prize) is one of the top prizes in the world for non-fiction. I decided to make space in my reading life for more non-fiction this year and selected two from the 2016 shortlist: Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson and East West Street by Philippe Sands, who was the winner of the prestigious prize (review to follow soon).

The issue of race, it seems to me, has always been, and continues to be, a profoundly difficult one for the United States, which I find peculiar given the country’s origins and the fact that it is overwhelmingly a nation of immigrants. Last year’s Man Booker Prize winner, The Sellout by Paul Beatty, was a partly satirical fictional exploration of the issue, envisioning a community where segregation is reintroduced. I reviewed the book on this blog last year (read here) and described it as a complicated book, more extended essay than novel. Negroland is equally complex (as befits the topic perhaps) but is from a largely autobiographical perspective. The author gives an account of growing up in Chicago and then her early adulthood at university and beyond.

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Jefferson was born in 1947 and grew up at a time when segregation was still in place in parts of the United States. In the states where segregation had been abolished, discrimination still existed at every turn. Jefferson had the good fortune to be the daughter of educated parents who were relatively wealthy and enjoyed a reasonable social status; her father was a doctor and her mother a refined ‘society’ wife (insofar as black women could be ‘in’ society). Her parents strived to ensure their two daughters felt they could achieve just as much as any of their white peers and that if they worked hard they were just as entitled to the rewards of that success. They sent them to private schools and taught them about social protocols and manners, to make sure they could fit in.

For the two Jefferson girls, equality existed only at a superficial level, and it is clear that Margo grew up confused and ultimately troubled by the contradiction between the opportunities to which she was told she was entitled and her lived experience. She also explores the contradiction between the treatment and opportunities afforded to certain persons of colour (wealthier, educated types like her parents) and the majority, poorer (blacker?) people who remained at the bottom of the social heap and bore the contempt and the prejudice not only from whites but also, to some degree, higher class persons of colour. Thus, Margo found herself in the place she calls ‘Negroland’, not fully part of either the White or the Black community.

The author interweaves her autobiographical story with an exploration of parts of Black history and her own family history. The result is both a work of scholarship but also a highly personal account of life as a young black girl and woman coming of age in 1960s north-east America.

I enjoyed the book, particularly the personal story, though I found some of the historical material, particularly at the beginning, quite heavy-going. We read it in my book club and others enjoyed it less, wanting more of a narrative and less of the stream-of-consciousness. It’s definitely worth a look, particularly if you are interested in the topic or, like me, bemused by what is going on in the US on the race issue at this time.

If you have read Negroland: A Memoir I’d love to hear your views? Do you read much in the way of non-fiction?

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