A blog for everything bookish

Friday, 30 May 2014

Reflections on writing: the value of keeping a journal

I’ve kept journals on and off during most of my life. Usually journals have appeared at times when I’m stressed or unhappy, and I’ve used them to help me make sense of what I’m feeling and put things into context. I’ve kept a writer’s journal before too, using it to jot down my thoughts about stories or poems I wanted to write, or writing snippets of prose or observations. I’ve never been particularly obsessive about it, but there’s usually a notebook to hand and now and then I’ll write something in it and that’s been about it.

When I read Dorothea Brande’s book ‘Becoming a Writer’ one of the exercises she poses is this, designed to help you access your ‘unconscious’:

“The best way to do this is to rise half an hour, or a full hour, earlier than you customarily rise. Just as soon as you can – and without talking, without reading the morning’s papers, without picking up the book you laid aside the night before – begin to write.”

Sounds easy right? I thought I’d give it a go and over the course of several days began to realise how impractical this was for me. Firstly, I don’t ‘rise’ alone. My husband ‘rises’ with me, so getting up 30 minutes or an hour earlier than usual completely wrecks the morning routine. Secondly, I don’t ‘rise’ alone so the whole ‘without talking’ business is virtually impossible without seeming sulky or ignorant. Plus I like talking to my husband in the morning. Then there’s the terrible habit I’ve developed of checking my e-mail before I get out of bed in the morning. Yes, I know, it’s a terrible, rotten habit, but I’ve found it helps me wake up more quickly. So the whole not talking, not reading business just doesn’t work for me.

So I adapted the exercise (okay, yes, I cheated) and instead I decided to write in my journal during my train journey to work in the week, and first thing after getting up on a weekend. I’ve found this habit much easier to develop and, surprisingly, I’ve found it highly beneficial. It has taught me a lot about me. For example, one of the first things I noticed was how hard it was to actually write anything in the morning, when little had happened. I realised that often I write in response to something. That writing is often a reaction. Consequently for the first few mornings I had very little to say. The more frequently I wrote, however, the easier it became and now I find my pen flowing freely as my thoughts unwind and my ideas slip from my mind onto the page. Now I am generating thoughts rather than reacting to external stimulus. I have become sentient (at last).

Another discovery was that writing helps me to sort and organise my thoughts. I already kind of knew this, but writing regularly has cemented that understanding. If something is troubling me, or if I can’t work out how I think or feel about something, writing it down brings sense to it. Perhaps it is the effort of attempting to cage my thoughts in the structure of language that helps me draw them into a more ordered form.

Writing regularly also aids the flow of ideas. I have found myself uncovering a number of ideas through the random, unformed ramblings of my morning thoughts. As a result I have more ideas than time to write them (or skill, for that matter). In the course of my reading of Virginia Woolf’s diaries, I have noticed a similar trend coming through her own thoughts. It is almost as though allowing the mind to wander, to follow its own path, helps you to uncover the bright spots swamped beneath the daily mundanities.

More importantly, writing in my journal has enabled me to write, generally, more freely. Making an effort to write every day makes it easier to write every day, weird as that sounds. Practice makes perfect. And it’s had other beneficial effects too: I find it easier to concentrate in the morning, easier to focus on my work. I have got into the habit of making myself little ‘pledges’ each day, simple things like: I will write today, I will go for a walk, I will meditate. Nothing too ambitious. Writing it in my book, pledging it to myself, makes it much more likely that I will deliver on my pledge.

When I’ve been sad before, or stressed, when I’ve been using a journal to help me find my way through a thorny patch of life, I’ve always found it useful. When I’ve felt miserable, I’ve found that writing the good things that have happened in my day a great way of turning my thoughts around to a more positive view. That writing in a journal every day helps to train the mind towards writing shouldn’t be that surprising, yet it is. And the only way to understand how much it could help is to do it. Go on, try it. It might surprise you too. Just remember to do it every day. 

Reading Ambitions

Facing a week off work, the first thing I invariably do is give some considerable consideration to the books I will read whilst I am off. I am never quite sure why I do this, as my reading capacity when I am not working is always less than when I am. Something to do with spending an hour and forty-five minutes on the train every day, with little else to do than stare out of the window. Yet this activity gives me great pleasure. It is a great joy to sort through my books, considering and selecting, taking books from the shelves and putting them back again before settling on my final choices. Generally there are three: a couple of fiction books, maybe, and a non-fiction, perhaps some poetry. Rarely do I work my way through everything I take to read.

(It occurs to me that this is a pleasure that e-readers take away from the average bibliophile. Where is the joy in selecting if you have your whole library with you anyway at all times? Another nail in the coffin.)

Faced with a week off work I start thinking about my reading ambitions. I think it is right to call it ambition because my goals are lofty and I often aim higher than the extent of my reach. I want to read the entire works of Virginia Woolf, for example, I want to read until I know what it is to be Virginia Woolf, until her works are quotable and recallable to me. I want to read the entire works of George Eliot in the same way, and whilst I’m at it Jane Austen and the Brontës. I want to read the full catalogue of writers like A. M. Homes and Ruth Ozeki, Marilynne Robinson and Donna Tartt. I want to absorb myself in the works of Jeanette Winterson, every passion-filled full stop of them, and compare and contrast them to the scope and breadth of Elena Ferranti’s work. I want to read a book written by a woman from every place in the world, from places as far afield as Haiti and Mexico, Laos and Azerbaijan. I want to dig into female non-fiction, covering subjects from history to biology, from philosophy to people trafficking. I want to learn about far-flung islands and read about riding a bicycle from Ireland to India, being a farmer or opening a book shop on a narrowboat.

I want to read the entire works of J.M Coetzee and Don DeLillo, delve into the weird and highly focused world of Nicholson Baker. I want to explore the works of Kazuo Ishiguro and Zadie Smith. I want to read Dickens (but never got around to it) and Hardy and Balzac and Zola. I want to know, not just read but KNOW, the works of Yasunari Kawabata in all their beauty and sadness, their delicacy. I want to absorb the world’s mythologies until they become a part of me, the Greek myths, the Eddas and Sagas, Shanameh, the Mahabharata. Then there are new books. I get excited about the news that David Mitchell is releasing a new book this year (The Bone Clocks) and Marilynne Robinson (Lila). I see reviews of books like The Miniaturist and Elizabeth is Missing and feel, somehow, that I have to read them. Add them to my list.

There aren’t enough days in the week or hours in a day. Sometimes it is almost paralysing, this desire to consume, to absorb stories. I finish a book and move on to the next one, sometimes reading two or three at the same time (not literally but, rather, concurrently). I get frustrated at how slowly I read, how little time I have to absorb the ever-growing stockpile of stories. I get angry at how superficial my reading is, how little I can really take in. Deep appreciation of literature requires deep reading, but with so many books and, more importantly, so many I want to read how can it ever be possible to devote the time required to a real deep reading? And which books? Would I be better absorbing the literature of Tove Jansson than Donna Tartt? What about Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? How is it possible to decide which books, which writers, which stories are worthy of that level of devotion?

So I keep reading, and I dream of a day when I have a library consisting of exactly six books, their covers worn, their contents fading, but which have become my lifelong companions. The books I cannot do without. I dream of it, but I don’t see it happening. Instead I will be the woman crushed under the excessive weight of her library, the hundreds of books unread that can never be read that fall like a stone on her head taking every word with them, and it all will have been for nothing.         

Saturday, 24 May 2014

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich is a writer of Native American descent, specifically Chippewa being a branch of the Anishinaabe tribe, and her novel The Round House centres its focus on this tribe. It is a complex, richly detailed novel which deserves multiple readings in order to fully appreciate the many nuances Erdrich deals with in the course of the story.

The story is told from the perspective of Joe, a thirteen year old boy living on the reservation with his father, a tribal judge, and his mother a tribal enrolment specialist. At the beginning of the novel Joe is innocent, a boy prising tree shoots out of his garden. Then his mother is violently raped and Joe’s secure world is spun into disarray. Through this relatively simple, if distubing premise, Erdrich weaves a complex tale of a boy coming of age along with the realities of tribal existence and the difficulties in living as a different culture within the American state system. Almost right at the beginning, when Joe is waiting in the hospital to find out what has happened to his mother, the presence and impact of racial prejudice appears:

“I sat down in a chair of orange moulded plastic. A skinny pregnant woman had walked past the open car doos, eyeing my mother, taking it all in before she registered herself. She slumped down next to a quiet old woman, across from me, and picked up an old People magazine.
Don’t you Indians have your own hospital over there? Aren’t you building a new one?
The emergency room’s under construction, I told her.
Still, she said.
Still what? I made my voice grating and sarcastic. I was never like so many Indian boys, who’d look down quiet in their anger and say nothing. My mother had taught me different.”

Bearing in mind that this is directed towards a boy just turned thirteen who is waiting to find out what terrible thing has happened to his mother, this kind of casual racism really packs an emotional punch. I’d like to think it wasn’t believable, but it is.

Not only was Joe’s mother raped, she was also taken to The Round House, a building with great meaning in the tribe’s culture and history, where she was covered with gasoline and her attacker tried to set her on fire. Joe, understandably, struggles with this terrible knowledge and through the introduction of The Round House we also learn something more of Chippewa culture and history:

“During the old days when Indians could not practice their religion – well, actually not such old days: pre-1978 – the round house had been used for ceremonies. People pretended it was a social dance hall or brought their Bibles for gatherings. In those days the headlights of the priest’s car coming down the long road glared in the southern window. By the time the priest or the BIA superintendent arrived, the water drums and eagle feathers and the medicine bags and the birchbank scrolls and sacred pipes were in a couple of motorboats halfway across the lake.”

But Joe’s aged grandfather, Mooshum, reveals through his dream talking the origin of the round house and how it is important in Chippewa history:

“Your people were brought together by us buffalo once. You knew how to hunt and use us. Your clans gave you laws. You had many rules by which you operated. Rules that respected us and forced you to work together. Now we are gone, but as you have once sheltered in my body, so now you understand. The round house will be my body, the poles my ribs, the fire my heart...”

In this way, the violation of Joe’s mother in the round house reflects the violation of Chippewa culture as they try to exist within the rules laid down for them by the US state. In the course of his trying to understand, to seek justice, for what has happened to his mother, Joe also begins to learn more about his aged father. At first he finds the work his father does sadly disappointing, finding his father judging on cases about stolen washers and the allocation of tribal land. Joe finds himself losing respect for his father, as the gulf between what he imagined and the reality of what his father does grows. This is worsened by the difficulty in solving the crime against his mother, and the complexity of bringing a trial even if the attacker was known depending on whether the acts took place on tribal land or on state land or private land, or whether the attacker was Indian or white. Added to this is Joe’s frustration at his mother’s continued silence and unwillingness to fit back into the mould of the secure, loving mother he remembered.

There is a lot of ground covered in this book. Joe explores the idea of evil, the concept of different religions and the reality and difficulty of being a child caught between cultures. If I had one beef with this book it would be in its portrayal of rape, which leads itself into a wider question I’ve been considering around the depiction of rape in literature in general. In The Round House that Joe’s mother had been raped was not in question. It was a violent assault perpetrated by a ‘stranger’ (stranger in the sense that it was an outsider, not a person close to the victim, rather than an unknown entity) which feeds into the general trope that rape involves violence and a stranger, when in fact the majority of rapes are committed by people close to and known by the victim. There were no nuances, either, around the violence of the attack, and this frustrates me because it perpetuates the image of a particular form of rape, being the less prevalent form, in which the roles of the parties are clear cut. That being said, Erdrich turns this around quite masterfully in the character of Sonja, a woman who lives with Joe’s uncle Whitey. Sonja is a beautiful woman, a former ‘dancer’ (read: stripper) with beautiful breasts that Joe lusts after. Sonja treats Joe like a son at a time when his mother is struggling. She cares for him, she helps him hide some money he finds in the lake, money which is connected to the crime against his mother. She also takes some of the money, secretly, for herself. Whilst staying with Whitey and Sonja, Joe discovers the violence at the root of their relationship and he struggles with his desire to protect her, which in itself is a desire for possession, and his disgust some of her behaviour, taking some of the money he found for example, which he sees as a ‘betrayal’.

But it is when Sonja delivers a ‘dance’ for aged Mooshum that Joe discovers the rot at the core of his relationship with Sonja. Knowing what she was about to do, he refuses to leave. He even threatens to expose her involvement in hiding the money, in order to secure his place at the dance. Only afterwards does he realise what he has done, how he had used threats to secure his sexual gratification, and how this demonstrated, only too clearly, that the line separating him from the man that attacked his mother was paper-thin:

“Yeah no. You’re crying aren’t you? Cry all you want Joe. Lots of men cry after they do something nasty to a woman. I don’t have a daughter anymore. I thought of you like my son. But you just turned into another piece a shit guy. Another gimme-gimme asshole, Joe. That’s all you are.”

Similarly in his relationship with his mother, he tries to force her to fit back in to the comfortable, secure woman he’d come to take for granted. Similarly, his mother calls him out after Joe tries to force her, through emotional blackmail, to tell him who her attacker was:

“Now you listen to me Joe. You will not badger me or harass me. You will leave me to think the way I want to think, here. I have to heal any way I can. You will stop asking questions and you will not give me any worry. You will not go after him. You will not terrify me Joe. I’ve had enough fear for my whole life. You will not add to my fear. You will not add to my sorrows. You will not be part of this.”

In this way Erdrich shows how the desire to control, especially the desire to control women and require them to conform to a male view of who they are, can appear in many forms. The rapist is one of them, but as Joe shows not the only one.

Of course his mother’s warning doesn’t stop Joe from going on to try to exact his revenge, and pay a terrible consequence.

There’s an awful lot to this book, too much to cover here. It has depth and complexity, wrapped up in an otherwise relatively simple story. The character of Joe is conflicted and weak, struggling his way through a terrible event that didn’t happen to him but that he somehow had to try to take control of. At the same time, he is a boy learning to face an adult reality. It is a coming of age story, a story of friendship and grief. It reveals a human face to the Chippewa reality, for those of us whose only experience of ‘Indians’ are those dreadful Western movies in which they’re depicted as savage and violent and deserving of being wiped forcibly from their own land. It is only one, moderately sized book, but it goes a long way towards wiping that vision from history. Which can only be a good thing, and is one of the ways in which literature can be a force for understanding and humanising. Something Erdrich achieves masterfully here.

The Round House receives a respectful 9 out of 10 Biis. 

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Confessions of a compulsive book hoarder: reformation?

You may have noticed that I haven’t blogged much recently about my ever-present battle with my compulsion to buy and hoard books. You might be forgiven for thinking that this means I’ve cracked the habit, that I am a reformed character, angelic in my self-restraint, that I can now walk past bookshops without diverting my eye, without going inside, without smelling the books, without buying.

Well, we all know that isn’t going to be the true story.

I did well for a while, it is true. I managed to go for several weeks without buying any books. Instead I assuaged my addiction by reserving books in the library or adding them to my Amazon wishlist (that I was never going to buy them from anyway because, you know, tax avoidance). I told myself that I didn’t need to buy books, and I really started to get on top of it. I placed Proust in a prominent position on my shelves knowing there was no way on earth I was going to get around to reading the rest of In Search of Lost Time having been mentally exhausted by the first book alone. I reconciled myself to working through my many, many back copies and re-reading old favourites and I really talked myself into the whole less is more mantra.

Then a series of events conspired to take me down. First there was my birthday, then Christmas (they are close together). Then I discovered an independent book shop in my home town.

I had some money and I could do whatever I wanted with it. Of course I wanted to buy books.  It started quite innocently. I decided I would buy The Story of the Stone, a five volume Chinese classic, with my birthday money (I haven’t read it yet, surprise!). I did just that, breaking my Proust vow in the process and spending ever-so-slightly more than my birthday fund allowed. Still, it assuaged my desire to buy and for a while that was all I purchased.

Then I went kind of crazy.

I can’t tell you what triggered it off, but I can tell you how it started: one book at a time. Just one book, that’s not breaking my deal is it? And one book turned into another book which turned into a flood of books. Suddenly I had an urgent need for nature/travel books (this I blame on my local bookshop, which had an offer on Gossip From the Forest by Sara Maitland, author of the excellent A Book of Silence which was irresistible, and...guess what? I haven’t read that yet either) and books by writers from around the world which my library, great as it is, couldn’t entirely cater for. Then there was the sudden need for a full catalogue of books by the great female writers (Woolf, Eliot – I already have the full set of Brontes and Austen) and then there was the surprise discovery of a signed first edition of Boy, Snow, Bird that I just had to, had to, own. Then, before you know it, I’m back to trotting to the bookshop and coming back laden, and browsing on Amazon (then buying elsewhere) as though it’s something I’m free to do exactly any time I like.

Don’t think this means that I’ve abandoned our wonderful libraries. No, I use the library too. In fact just recently I got notice that a book I’d reserved had arrived at the library (because the Lancashire Libraries reservation service is amazing) and between reserving it and it arriving I had already bought the book. Go me.  No, I’m using the library just as liberally but buying books as well. I’m out of control people. Rein me in.

This weekend I did a little inventory. I was pleased to see, at the very least, that my ‘to read’ pile has shrunk. When I first took my inventory I had 284 books in my back-catalogue to read. The new number is 249, which is a slight improvement (though that doesn’t include the 4 library books I have on loan right now). That being said, part of the reduction has resulted from a semi-cull of my library in which I took aside any book that I thought I was unlikely to read, even if I haven’t read it yet, and placed it in my ‘to get rid of’ pile. So really I have about 50 other books hanging around which I’m no longer counting as part of my library even though they are still in the house. Sometimes I marvel at my capacity for self-deception.

This isn’t really a confession. I’m not sure I have it in me to reform. It is, at best, a moment of honesty. I love books, I love owning books. I love how they look on my shelves and the sense of security that comes from knowing that there is always something good to read in my house. It is like having a well stocked pantry, a source of joy and repletion (though it might make you fat, in the end).

This is the confession of a book-buyer-aholic. There is no hope for me. 

Sunday, 18 May 2014

To The River by Olivia Laing

‘I am haunted by waters.’ Olivia Laing begins in her travelogue-come-historical musing To The River. ‘It may be that I’m too dry in myself, too English, or it may be simply that I’m susceptible to beauty, but I do not feel truly at ease on this earth unless there’s a river nearby.’. It is a sentiment many, I’m sure, can identify with and one expanded with grace in Laing’s wonderful book.

To The River follows Laing’s own journey along the River Ouse, a river made famous by the death of Virginia Woolf and, in much earlier days, the Battle of Lewes fought between King Henry III and Simon de Montfort. Following both the physical tracks of the Ouse and the tracks of Laing’s own musings, the book focuses heavily on the life and writings of Woolf and has seeded in me an unexpected interest which has turned me towards a reading of her diaries. As Laing shows, Woolf was a fascinating woman who leaves more to be remembered than pockets weighed down with stones and a few difficult but brilliant novels.

Laing’s story begins at the source, her own motivation for the journey. A bad break up and the loss of her job turn her mind towards a restorative journey, and as she identifies at the beginning the path to her ease is alongside a river. So she decides to walk the Ouse Way, a journey that will take a week or so. Along the way Laing reflects on many different things, all connected in some way with the river itself or rivers in general. She tells the story of Mary Anning and Gideon Mantell, early palaeontologists who discovered the first iguanodon and ichthyosaurus skeletons though neither, initially, received the recognition these discoveries deserved. She reflects on the sad story of Kenneth Graeme, writer of Wind in the Willows who too bore a fondness towards rivers. There are legends like those of Cherry of Zennor, and the Greek hero Odysseus, both of whom travelled into underworlds through the mediating waters of a river. In this way Laing reveals both the past and present of the river, and both mans’ impact upon it and its impact upon man. The river rushes towards its end, to its inevitable absorption by the sea, and yet remains the same, continuing to refill and renew itself.

There is more, much more, and too much to detail here. What is wonderful about this book by Laing is how much is covered, how her mind wanders and associates and draws in so many stories and ideas that in some way link to the river. Besides the outward looking, searching nature of Laing’s mind, she also has a wonderful way with words and the sheer poetry of her writing means it is both mesmerising and simultaneously hard to take in. It is important to note, you understand, that I say this not as a criticism but as sincere praise: in this way the book meanders like a river, reflecting what is outside and revealing, in its clear waters, what is within. And it is beautiful and mesmerising. Like here:

‘The track to Piddinghoe led past Deans Farm before breaking uphill across the dry chalk bed of a winterbourne. I climbed past tussocky banks of wild thyme stitched with yellow crossword and the pale flowers of heath bedstraw. Selfheal and birdsfoot trefoil, which as children we called bacon and eggs, were also growing to profusion, and between them the bees moved in their drunken drifts.’

It is a book with a very meditative quality to it, which yet reveals the intelligence behind it. I finished reading this with a heavy respect for Laing and her curious, explorative mind, the journey it took me on and how much I learned along the way. It made me realise, for example, how commonplace it is to think in fluidic terms. On reading the book I found myself wishing to immerse myself in the writings of Virginia Woolf, but perhaps realising that in truth I would only ever skim the surface. Similarly Laing’s book is awash with watery metaphors, revealing the way in which we rely upon the waters to wash our cares away and flood us with light and clear hope.

To The River is a wonderful book and one which I would like to read again and again, and know that I could do so easily. I feel lightened after reading it, unburdened from the ordinary troubles of my everyday life and instead I find myself wondering about that great old forest the Andredesleage, the curious properties of pollen and the way in which man has shaped the very landscape which we feel most wild permanently scarring our past and present. It is everything great non-fiction writing should be.

To The River receives a relaxing, and well deserved, 9 out of 10 Biis. 

Mind Altering Books

I’ve noticed recently that I’ve developed a fascination with factual books, books about silence and looking, books about nature or travel, personal diaries. This is unusual, for me, as I’ve always been more driven by fiction, stories, with a strong narrative form that I can focus on and be gripped by. My sudden desire to read these other types of books has surprised me (in a good way, I should point out), and as I reflected upon it I realised that these books share something. They all share a meditative quality, there is something lulling and soothing about both the writing and the subject matter. I’m attracted to these books because I find them restful.

Having opened up that thought it occurred to me that there have been many books, over the course of my reading history, with which I associate a particular feeling or which have affected me in such a way as to have been mind altering. Those books have not been frequent (I can probably easily name them all) but they have had such a profound effect upon me that they will always remain important to me.

The capacity of books to have an impact on a person’s frame of mind is something which has been acknowledge, no doubt, before I stumbled on the idea. It is something that The Novel Cure published by the wonderful Canongate Books seeks to demonstrate, and in UK people suffering from depression, anxiety or other mental illnesses can receive books on prescription to help them in their healing process. That books are powerful, mind altering agents is something amazing, but also something to consider with caution. When you open a book, you invite the author to enter your mind in a way that you wouldn’t ordinarily permit. Cervantes’s classic, Don Quixote, rests on this very premise. Reading the wrong sort of fiction, or too much, can lead to madness.   

Reading is personal, it is something that we share and yet cannot really share. My experience of books is not the same as yours; it is shaped by my personal history, my triumphs and desires, my unique sufferances. Yet it is still possible, I think, to identify books which others might just find similarly affecting. If you have experienced any, please don’t hesitate to mention them in the comments. For the moment, here are some mind altering books from the mind of Bii’s Books.


Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo – I could have picked any book by DeLillo here, but for some reason, perhaps because it was the first I’d really paid any attention to, this one had the greatest effect on me. It isn’t the subject matter or the story, but the rhythmic quality to DeLillo’s prose which makes his work meditative. Though I never finished it, I read the opening to Underworld four times before I could move on, I got so caught up in the rhythmic beauty of it. From Cosmopolis:

‘There was no answer to the question. He tried sedatives and hypnotics but they made him dependent, sending him inwards in tight spirals. Every act her performed was self-haunting and synthetic. The palest thought carried an anxious shadow. What did he do? He did not consult an analyst in a tall leather chair. Freud is finished. Einstein’s next. He was reading the Special Theory tonight, in English and German, but put the book aside, finally, and lay completely still, trying to summon the will to speak the single word that would turn off the lights. Nothing existed around him. There was only the noise in his head, the mind in time.’

To the River by Olivia Laing – this is a lovely, meandering novel following one woman’s walk along the River Ouse in which she shows not only her own life but the life of the river, its history and the people who have been touched by it. There’s a heavy focus on Virginia Woolf, who drowned herself in the Ouse, but in the course of her journey she also opens up the stories of the early palaeontologists, Kenneth Graeme, rivers from legend or history, ancient stories of underworlds and hidden places, ancient battlefields. Aside from the meandering quality of the book the heavy use of listing adds a meditative quality to the writing, like here:

‘The idea, cooked up by ecologists and historians at the University of Sussex, was to re-establish these wildflower meadows, reducing the risk of flooding downstream and returning to the river those fugitive grasses I’d seen near Sheffield Park: bent and black knapweed, cock-foot, crested dog’s-tail, fescue and Yorkshire fog.’

There is something wonderful, of course, in those Old English names for wildflowers, but it is the rhythmic quality of the list that makes it doubly wonderful. It reminds me, somewhat, of the similarly rhythmic quality to the place-names used in the shipping forecast, which probably those outside UK aren’t too familiar with, or even those in UK that are young, but which Carol Ann Duffy captures wonderfully in the ending of her poem Prayer:

Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child's name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer -
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

(for those less familiar, the shipping areas are called: Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight, Humber, Thames, Dover, Wight, Portland, Plymouth, Biscay, Trafalgar, FitzRoy (this used to be called Finisterre), Sole, Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea, Shannon, Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey, Fair Isle, Faroes, South East Iceland)

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arminbecause sunshine and wisteria and a castle in the warm bosom of Italy and four women looking for flowers and happiness and finding it in each other.

This Book Will Save Your Life by AM Homes -  it’s full of impossible coincidences and crazy Californian behaviour, but this book in which Richard goes from an unfeeling, lonely man to someone beginning to live his life will leave you with a smile on your face. And there are doughnuts on the cover. Doughnuts. There, I bet you’re smiling already.

Catch 22 by Joseph Hellerit took me two attempts before I could finish Catch 22, because the first time its general craziness was twisting my mind so much I had to put it down for my own sanity. At its heart it is a book about the insanity of war and the heartless tyranny of bureaucracy, all told with a mind-bending, endlessly circular logic. A brilliant book, but not one to approach during periods of mental instability.

Hunger by Knut Hamsun – the unnamed character in Hunger runs around constantly on the edge of being kicked out of his apartment or starving. He never has any money, and is on a constant search for money which he earns by writing. The main character is evidently unhinged and yet, as you read on, you begin to realise that perhaps that’s the way he likes it, that there are options open to him that he chooses not to take because the insanity brought on by his starving condition drives him. It is a mentally exhausting read, but excellently written.

The Third Policeman by Flann O’Briendeath and bicycles. Because this:

‘I am certain it would not,’ the Sergeant replied immediately, ‘because if birds could lay eggs that would put me out of their wits, you would have no crops at all, nothing but scarecrows crowded in every field like a public meeting and thousands of them in their top hats standing together in knots on the hillsides. It would be a mad world completely, the people would be putting their bicycles upside down on the roads and pedalling them to make enough mechanical movement to frighten the birds out of the whole parish.’ He passed a hand in consternation across his brow. ‘It would be a very unnatural pancake,’ he added.’


Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – there is such honest, religious love in this book, which is a love letter by a man, a dying priest, to his young son. He does not think he will live to see his son grow up. Instead he shares his love, his religion, so beautifully that even if you are not a believer, you want to be. Like here: 

‘It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance – for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light. That is what I said in the Pentecost sermon. I have reflected on that sermon, and there is some truth in it. But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?’

Similarly Home, which follows a different character in the same fictional town, and the wonderful Housekeeping share this spiritual feeling. I doubt Marilynne Robinson capable of writing a bad word, ever.

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran – because:

‘[on children]You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backwards nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and he bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness,
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.’

Delta of Venus by Anais Nin – there are no tales of passion like Nin’s. Short, tempestuous stories, erotic and passionate. If you want to immerse yourself for five minutes in a kind of ecstatic bubble then Nin is the place to go. Deliciously erotic and written with passion. From Marianne:

‘In the middle of her work, Marianne had been taken with the desire to write down her own experiences. This is what she wrote:

“There are things one reads that make you aware that you have lived nothing, felt nothing, experienced nothing up to that time. I see now that most of what happened to me was clinical, anatomical. Here were the sexes touching, mingling, but without any sparks, wildness, sensation. How can I attain this? How can I begin to feel – to feel? I want to fall in love in such a way that the mere sight of a man, even a block away from me, will shake and pierce me, will weaken me, and make me tremble and soften and melt between the legs.”’


The Powerbook by Jeanette Winterson – a passion-filled story of a forbidden, hidden love. I have to believe that Jeanette Winterson has known passion because she writes it so authentically. It is a beautiful, astonishing book full of the joy and fear and anger and struggle and preciousness of love. Because:

‘I want to be able to call you. I want to be able to knock on your door. I want to be able to keep your key and to give you mine. I want to be seen with you in public. I want there to be no gossip. I want to make supper with you. I want to go shopping with you. I want to know that nothing can come between us except each other.’

The Wall by Marlen Haushofer ­– this story of a woman trapped in an Alpine resort behind an invisible wall could easily have descended into madness, and yet whilst there are hints of understandable paranoia and fear, and there is the mindless toil of survival and yet despite all of this there is also peace and freedom. As she says:

‘No, it is better that I’m alone. And it wouldn’t be good for me to be with a weaker partner either; I’d reduce him to a shadow and kill him with care. That’s the way I am, and the forest hasn’t changed matters. Maybe only animals can put up with me. If Hugo and Luise had stayed behind in the forest there would certainly have been endless friction as time passed. I can’t see anything that could have made our coexistence a happy one.

There is no point thinking about it. Luise, Hugo and the huntsman no longer exist, and basically I don’t want them back. I’m no longer the person I was two years ago.’

A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland – in this factual book we share Sara Maitland’s retreat into a more silent life. Far from being lonely, alone and terrified as many imagine they would be, instead she finds the experience restorative and self-fulfilling. She shares stories of others – explorers, religious hermits – and how their experiences of silence are both similar and inspiring. If ever you feared silence and loneliness, this book can help you to see it in a more positive light.

There are many more emotions, I know, and many more stories that reflect and intensify them. Perhaps if I remember I will post some more, some different emotions, later. In the meantime, if you have any you’d like to share please feel free to comment below.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

This is another one of those books which is so pleasant that it’s almost too easy to ignore the silent tragedy hidden in its words. Claire of the Sea Light is a relatively short book by Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat (who must have the most marvellous name ever) which centres around Claire’s seventh birthday, the day her father finally gives her away and the day she runs away.

Claire Limyè Lamnè Faustin is a ‘revenan’, a child whose birth coincided with her mother’s death. For a time she lived in the mountains with her mother’s family, but eventually her father, Nozias, a fisherman, brings her back to Ville Rose. Since then he had been trying to give her away, to give her to someone who could give her a better life and so he could pursue his own. Fishing is dangerous, only on the morning of Claire’s seventh birthday a seasoned fisherman, Caleb, was swallowed by a giant wave. Nozias worries about what will happen to Claire if the same thing happens to him.

The story flows from the point where Madam Gaëlle, the fabric shop owner, agrees, finally, to take Claire. Claire goes into her father’s shack to collect her few things and disappears. From that point weaves a story like a complex tapestry, as each person touched by Claire’s disappearance has their story revealed. What follows is a stream of tragic stories: Gaëlle who lost her husband and daughter; Bernard a talented young man who works at a radio station who loses his life on account of the gangs; Maxime, son of the school master who is banished to Miami and returns many years later to find himself confronted with a son, Louise the talk show host who is humiliated and abandoned by the school master and of course the story of Claire and her mother and father and how her name came to be.

In many ways Claire of the Sea Light reminded me of A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I read last year, but somehow this book is less obvious and flashy, and in many ways less nihilistic. The stories unravel gently, like a meandering stream, and they are soulful and heart-warming, they show a people who hold love, or in some cases the lack of it, at the centre of their being. It is a lovely book to read, and yet at the same time it is terribly sad; it is easy to forget amongst the every-day trials and tribulations that these are a people living in desperate poverty. This is most revealed in the story of Claire and Nozias in which it is apparent that the only reason he wants to give Claire away is to keep her safe, being fearful of what will happen to her if something happened to him. It was no lack of love that drove him to this activity. And yet Claire herself, wise little Claire, is the one who sees most clearly how pointless this is, how what the only thing her father cannot give to her is her mother:

“She wondered whether her mother would have been able to do what her father was doing, if she would have had the courage to give her away like this, to someone else. She knew of both fathers and mothers, fishing families, who had given their children, both girls and boys away. They had taken their children to distant relatives in the capital to work as restavèks, child maids or houseboys. Others had taken their children to the white people at Sainte Thérèse and the white people had put the children in orphanages. Some of those children were taken to the capital and other places and were never seen or heard from again. They became other people’s children in other lands that they’d never even known existed.”

Through Claire’s, and others’, eyes Dandicat gently shows us many things: the terrible reality of poverty, how gang culture appears, the brutality of the police, the tragedy of losing a child, the impact of migration and how it affects the people who leave and return, rape culture and sexual violence towards poor women, the tenuousness of life in Haiti where people have to give up their children as an act of love and protection. There’s a lot of depth to this seemingly simple story, beautifully told, and it will stay with me for a long time to come. I'm fairly confident that this will be the first of many books by Edwidge Dandicat that I'll be reading. 

Claire of the Sea Light receives a magical 9 out of 10 Biis.      

Touch by Adania Shibli

Touch is a compact, poetic and surprising book by West Bank writer Adania Shibli. Not so much a novel as a series of short vignettes, most of which are little more than a page long, unveiling the life of a little girl (unnamed) in a Palestinian family. It is at once beautiful and disturbing, with the realities of Palestinian life left almost untouched and unsaid but still heavily present in the background.

The book is split into five sections, each focusing on a different theme: colours, silence, movement, language, the wall. By far my favourite, perhaps because of its seeming innocence, is the first: colours. Though the theme is simple, each short piece focusing on some aspect of colour, Shibli covers a lot of ground: love, death, religion, family. These subjects are covered delicately, like here in a short piece about love or, as the girl calls it, evol:

When something shiny appeared in the distance, it was the neighbour’s eyes. In the fields, his eyes were green.
The little girl lay down on the green grass and the neighbour got closer until he was on top of her. From behind, the blue sky enveloped him, and his eyes enveloped their own blueness.
He got so close that his features blurred, but their noses kept them from getting any closer. The two bodies were tangled together as one.
The neighbour was lying on the hard soil. In winter, the hard soil was muddy and flowed under their bodies. His eyes were brown...”

Though seemingly simple this piece reveals much about both love and how in the aspect of love we can take on a different perspective, how we can change in the eyes of those beholding us depending on context. The fluidity of love and the fluidity of identity are evidenced by the way the neighbour’s eyes change depending upon his context. This is typical of this book, which can give such a lot whilst seemingly saying little.

There is a lot of space in this book, a lot unsaid. It is a book which warrants multiple readings, not one which gives you everything in the first go. It is beautifully written, poetic, at times frustratingly obtuse and yet easy and compelling to read. If you enjoy books which lay everything out for you, which have a straight-line narrative which is easy to follow, then this is probably not a book for you. It is less a story and more a series of observations which, in themselves, reveal the story which lies beneath everything. A book for poetry lovers, which I am (fortunately).

In some respects Touch left me a little frustrated, I wanted more than the few pages and sparsely revealed narrative gave me. At the same time it was beautiful, absorbing, it made me think. I know that in a single reading I have barely scratched the surface of what it can give me. That in each little story there is a world of meaning, most of which passed through me. It is clever, but in a way which is inclusive: we are all like the little girl, seeing small snatches of life and making a narrative from it.

I am still unsure about this book. It is beautiful, poetic and strangely pure, but its complexity means that I’ve absorbed, and perhaps understood, only a fraction of it. But I know I will return to it, more than once, and on each reading it will continue to give and give me more. Isn’t that what great literature is all about?

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

I came across this book in an article in which writers gave recommendations about how to develop writing skills. This particular book was recommended by Hillary Mantel, and her advice was: read the book and follow it to the letter. Quite an intriguing recommendation.

This book was published in 1934, and you’d think that after this length of time the advice might seem a little antiquated or stale in parts. Surprisingly, this is not the case though the references to typewriters might be replaced with laptops in the current age and of course there is nothing in there about avoiding the distractions of the internet. However, these are minor points and the advice given by Brande remains remarkably fresh.

If you’re looking for a book which gives advice about styles or writing exercises, then this book isn’t for you. However, what Brande focuses on is the psychology of being a writer and how to train your mind to adopt writerly instincts. In this respect, this book is quite different to all the others which I’ve read which focus on inspiration and beating writers block or various different writing techniques. Brande, however, posits the idea that you can write about pretty much anything but what you need to do is to grow a modicum of confidence in your unique vision of the world and train yourself to write regularly and to unleash that part of your brain in which your creative vision is seated. She poses the idea that we are all dual-minded, and that the key to writing successfully is to allow your unconscious mind to flow with its ideas and vision and then use your conscious mind to edit this into a cohesive piece.

Peppered along the way are lots of very practical pieces of advice. Write every day, train yourself to avoid procrastination and self-editing (until you’re in the editing stage), keep a journal, go for walks and undertake activities which occupy the body but allow your mind to wander, read wisely and attentively.

It’s an interesting approach to developing writing skills, which I found quite refreshing. Brande’s focus is on nurturing your innate abilities, which is not to say that everyone can be a writer and certainly not a genius writer, but as she points out at the beginning: 

Open book after book devoted to the writer’s problems: in nine out of ten cases you will find, well towards the front of the volume, some very gloomy paragraphs warning you that you may be no writer at all, that you probably lack taste, judgement, imagination, and every trace of the special abilities necessary to turn yourself from an aspirant into an artist, or even into a passable craftsman. You are likely to hear that your desire to write is perhaps only an infantile exhibitionism, or to be concerned that because your friends think you a great writer (as if they ever did!) the world cannot be expected to share that fond opinion. And so on, most tiresomely. The reasons for this pessimism about your writers are dark to me. Books written for painters do not imply that the chances are that the reader can never be anything but a conceited dauber, nor do the textbooks on engineering start out by warning the student that because he has been able to make a grasshopper out of two rubber bands and a matchstick, he is not to think that he is likely ever to be an honour to his chosen profession.”

I have encountered, regularly, this idea that becoming a writer is so difficult that most people will not master it, and perhaps that advice is true. But what Brande seeks to achieve is the making of that judgement after you have apprenticed yourself to the vocation of writing for a period of time, not before you’ve started on the journey. I found her advice very practical and helpful and I’m slowly putting it into practice. It is a book that would benefit from slow or multiple readings, something which might help to build confidence in the difficult periods or provide a guidebook to getting back on track.

As a book about how to be a writer, this is one of the best I’ve encountered. A worthy read for anyone about to embark on their writing journey. 

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I’ve come to Chimamanda quite late in the day, having had my interest piqued by a glowing recommendation from a respected friend and the shortlisting of Americanah for the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction. Then I watched Chimamanda’s TED talk about ‘the danger of a single story’ and at that point if I didn’t have a healthy quota of girl-love for the woman, well, what kind of woman would I be?

Half of a Yellow Sun won the Orange Prize for Fiction, the predecessor of the Bailey’s prize, and I can see why. Telling the story of the Nigerian-Biafran war from the perspective of a range of characters, this is a sweeping, epic story which has all the hallmarks of a future classic. The primary focus is on Olanna, a beautiful woman from a wealthy family who chooses to swop her decadent lifestyle for an idealistic life with her academic, ‘revolutionary’ lover Odenigbo. Odenigbo’s houseboy, Ugwu, is also a key character, having come from his small village to work for Odenigbo and he provides an interesting perspective on Olanna and Odenigbo’s life, bridging the gap between their somewhat protected academic lifestyle and the realities of village life in Nigeria. Olanna’s twin, Kainene (my favourite character) provides a different perspective. Not blessed with Olanna’s beauty, Kainene carves her own path, taking the role as ‘son’ to the boy her parents never had and taking the industrialist reigns. Then there is Richard Churchill, a writer from Britain who falls in love with Kainene and the Igbo people and culture. Richard, who apparently was based in part on the very real Frederick Forsythe, provides an interesting contrast and a different perspective both to the events that unfold and the ever-present legacy of colonialism on Nigeria.

Where the strength in Half of a Yellow Sun lies is in its characterisation. All of the key characters, with perhaps the exception of Richard who is more sketchily drawn, come across as deeply authentic and it is easy to be drawn into their lives. Olanna, despite her ideals, remains a snob and perhaps represents that kind of idealism which lacks authenticity. Yet she is strong, she suffers and it is hard not to love her. Kainene, on the other hand, is truly strong, she is unforgiving and independent and determined to carve her own path. In a way Kainene is the pragmatist, the one who will do whatever it takes to succeed. Odenigbo is a revolutionary on paper, he has grand ideas and a keen vision, but yet when it comes to the crunch he lacks the courage of his convictions. Ugwu is the underestimated one. Through Ugwu we learn the value of love, and the keenness of observations that come from an unexpected source.

It is a tragic book, the story of the Nigerian-Biafran war in which one million Biafran people died is a terrible one. Though the eyes of the characters we both see and feel these atrocities. Olanna is caught up in the massacre at Kano which was the catalyst for independence for the Igbo people. Here Olanna flees from the massacre:

Olanna sat on the floor of the train with her knees drawn up to her chest and the warm, sweaty pressure of bodies around her. Outside the train, people were strapped to the coaches and some stood on the steps holding on to the railings. She had heard muted shouts when a man fell off. The train was a mass of loosely held metal, the rise unsteady as if the rails were crossed by speed bumps, and each time it jolted, Olanna was thrown against the woman next to her, against something on the woman’s lap, a big bowl, a calabash. The woman’s wrapper was dotted with splotchy stains that looked like blood, but Olanna was not sure.[...]
[...] A liquid – urine – was spreading on the floor of the train. Olanna felt it coldly soaking into her dress. The woman with the calabash nudged her, then motioned to some other people close by. ‘Bianu, come,’ she said. ‘Come and take a look.’
She opened the calabash.
‘Take a look,’ she said again.
Olanna looked into the bowl. She saw the little girl’s head with the ashy-grey skin and the plaited hair and rolled-back eyes and open mouth. She stared at it for a while before she looked away. Somebody screamed.
The woman closed the calabash. ‘Do you know,’ she said, ‘it took me so long to plait this hair? She had such thick hair.’

There is such a lot in Half of a Yellow Sun that there is no way for me to do it justice here. It is a sweeping and complex book, it is tragic and heart-warming, it is funny and frustrating. It is an epic view of a terrible war that was, perhaps, the inevitable result of colonialist policies and the desire for oil and whose events we will no doubt see repeating themselves over the course of the forthcoming years. What Chimamanda shows us is not just the events, the dry history of it, but the lives of the people burned by it. This is the source of its power.

Read it. It is the only advice I can give. You won’t be disappointed.

Half of a Yellow Sun receives a heart-broken 10 out of 10 Biis.